a collection of interesting and not-so-interesting things. including information on current & upcoming projects.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Angry Again

i was trying to sleep, but woke up because i was too angry to dream. here is what was making me so angry. this "i give up" attitude in the publishing industry is infuriating. not only the book publishing industry but also the movie and music industry are riding similar bandwagons to hell. the despair over the decline of the book. "nobody's buying books!" this is NOT TRUE. books sales are up, however slightly. it is single title sales which are down. what does this mean? not that you need to abandon fiction, per se, but that you need to reassess the market and operate under a different business paradigm -- with less emphasis on single titles and a greater emphasis on author "brand" names and publisher "brands" as well as imprint subscriptions, sales of related ephemera, etc. it is time not only to reconceive the structure of the publishing industry, but to reconceive what constitutes a "book" -- to determine the limitations and the possibilities of the book industry in this new millenium.

it all reminds me of the music industry. here is an industry who began focusing on a Top 40 format -- singles-oriented radio -- and then was surprised when people began downloading singles and stopped buying albums. that invested in quick-boom, disposable artists who would peak early and drop off, instead of investing in career artists who would produce lower initial sales but whose fan base would support them steadily if not increasingly over time. that aggressively markets a small number of artists, and then is surprised when people grow sick of these artists. that caters to casual listeners, people who buy less than 10 albums a year for a period of about 10 years, instead of people who care about music and typically buy 15-30 albums a year for the majority of thier lives. then napster comes along, and they are surprised by a lack of brand loyalty. and when overall album sales go up, but single title sales go down, they bemoan the failing industry (in which consumers purchase and listen to more music than they did previously).

message to the large book publishers: people are still buying plenty of books. they are just not buying YOUR books. in other industries, researchers determine why market trends have shifted, and then adapt business practices so that the industry can continue to grow and thrive. in the entertainment industry, businesses blindly stumble forward, increasing the desperation with which they flail, sinking larger amounts of money into failing practices in the hopes that money will magically solve everything. and then complain of rising costs.

the only entertainment industry that has really come out on top of this all (aside from the porn industry, which has profited for similar reasons) is the gaming industry, which is realizing incredible profits. this is largely because the gaming industry has succeeded in one particular area where other entertainment industries are failing. they have considered the impact of new technologies in terms of their impact on the FORM of their product as opposed to simply considering it in terms of its potential as a new delivery method. when the internet rolled around, how did the publishing world react to its presence? by offering "e-books" -- scanned books! -- instead of investing in experimental hypertext work which reconceptualized the book itself to make fiction newly accessible to a changing audience. an absolutely luddite, ridiculous approach to the astounding potential of digital technology. only now am i seeing value-added packaging when books enter softcover printings (I'm seeing this on HarperCollins books, where they've appended interviews and major reviews, etc, to the back of books which ran previously in hardcover). and why do so few authors have web sites? or book-specific blogs, which cost NOTHING?

(the movie industry is even worse. message to the movie industry: STOP SPENDING OVER $100 MILLION DOLLARS ON MOVIES FOR PEOPLE WHO WATCH THREE MOVIES PER YEAR. "nobody's watching movies!" they're watching movies AT HOME. they are DOWNLOADING MOVIES. they are STILL WATCHING MOVIES -- JUST NOT PAYING YOU. the solution? "let's try to stop piracy!" NO. YOU IDIOTS. the obvious solution is to reconceptualize the theatrical experience, so there is a reason to attend the theater instead of downloading a movie and watching it on your plasma screen. instead they throw money at the problem. "let's spend $200 million on the next one!! increase the marketing budget!!" hmmm.... not a bad idea.... or, you could STOP MAKING TERRIBLE MOVIES. and STOP CHARGING $10 FOR POPCORN. and INCORPORATE LIVE ELEMENTS TO MAKE THE MOVIE-GOING EXPERIENCE LESS HOMOGENOUS, DIFFERENTIATING IT FROM THE HOME-THEATRE EXPERIENCE... etc.)

the whole thing will come crashing down, like the music industry is crashing down, and (like the music industry) the winners in the whole debacle will be the small presses that manage to (collectively) step in to fill the vaccuum. and maybe a few intelligent publishers will clean up their acts. but don't bet on it.

why doesn't anybody ever market to me and people like me? i read 50 books per year. i watch 30-40 movies per year. i probably listen to 100 different albums every year. but why bother marketing to me? instead, they market to people who buy 5 albums a year (maybe), watch less than 10 films, and probably read less than 2 or 3 books. ridiculous.


Blogger Ariel Gordon said...

Wee-ha! I agree with much of what you've said here...

Congrats too on your recent/upcoming chapbooks.


8:16 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hah, I read that article, too, and became similarly annoyed/depressed....


2:38 PM

Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

thanks for the congrats on the chapbooks, ariel. i think there's a lot WRONG with what i've said, but i also think that these concerns are not being effectively addressed or refuted (in some cases... other areas i probably just am not clear on what i'm talking about)

5:55 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a complicated topic. Culture is too important to be left in the "care" of big corporations or, for that matter, of generally unthinking hierarchies of bureaucrats and politicians. Literature is artisanal, and its production these days clearly calls for niche-marketing and an enterprising use of means of communication such as the Net. Big companies cannot ratchet down to this level, even though (for example)the PLRC numbers give us every reason to believe that the audience for poetry is growing year by year. The problem for commercial publishers is that it's not a mass audience and won't be in any foreseeable future. Meanwhile, subsidized publishers are hard to talk to; their brokering is with governments rather than with writers and readers. Your own efforts to advance a line of publishing are precisely what is needed now and will hopefully be reinforced by other initiatives.


7:06 PM

Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

it all becomes very difficult for a writer. how to survive? it seems that the industry-at-large is in need of a complete paradigm shift. the current efforts are not working, and anyone will tell you that. but instead of banking all hope on mass market non-fiction, as things are going, fundamental changes need to be made.

to put it simply, large companies need to become smaller companies if they are to survive, and need to understand that they cannot continue to make the profits they have been making in the past (at least in the long term). this doesn't mean they can't turn a profit -- even a large one -- by branching out into multiple areas (and by putting a greater emphasis on non-fiction). it means that they can't just take these same business tactics, which are not working, and apply them to new products, but that they have to reconceptualize how to produce and deliver evolved forms of their current products.

8:10 PM

Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

i think, also, that writers need to understand that they can no longer consider themselves geniuses who sit in dark rooms and product works of genius, but cultural producers who produce cultural product and have to start playing a more active role in its delivery and marketing ... without becoming crass commercialists, writers need to be better educated about the cultural market and better prepared to enter into that market as a brand entity. at the same time, writers need to be actively involved in advancing the art form ... reinventing the wheel instead of trying to pull carts mired in the mud.

it may sound counter-intuitive, but i firmly believe that the avant-garde offers great commercial potential in the long-term. this is due to its emphasis on reinvigorating form and incorporating technological apparatus at the levels of conceptualization and production instead of just at the market level. the challenge is to marry what is WORKING in the conventional novel/poem with the myriad possibilities offered by the avant-garde (or whatever label you want to use... "innovative" came up today as a good alternative) .... while not devolving into empty exercises in form that alienate and antagonize intelligent members of your intended audience... though i do not believe in the existence of an "educated public" as it is generally described, and will argue instead for the need to cater to smaller, educated sectors in the general populace (who are, nevertheless, not the "university crowd" in all the connotations of the word "crowd", although portions of this audience may certainly constitute one or more of these many sectors)

8:20 PM


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