One part of the math

30 03 2011
Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

I dig Laura Miller so much. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in the book world.

Today she writes about the “particularly symmetrical bit of revolving door ballet” between the amazing self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who has signed on with St. Martin’s and Barry Eisler, who is leaving St. Martin’s to self-publish his own. Hocking sees the big houses as an opportunity to get a little help with the proofreading, editing, marketing and distribution of her works, thus giving her more time to write. Eisler sees the self-publishing route as a way to deal less with the hassles of big publishing and bring his novels more quickly to market, thus giving him more time to write. There’s plenty of Kool-Aid to drink on either side, by the way, but this little conundrum pops up and hits you in the jaw.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller raises the point that always resonates most with me:

With all due respect to Hocking and Eisler (and I’ve got plenty for both), I’d rather have “To Kill a Mockingbird” than any of their novels. Even though they are much better at interacting with their fans and orchestrating their careers than Harper Lee is, Lee (in my opinion, at least) is the better writer. Today’s conventional wisdom, in both traditional and indie publishing, decrees that someone like Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won’t find an audience unless she’s willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.

What this means for readers is troubling. Even if the next generation’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets published, the author’s inability to promote it effectively may prevent it from reaching the millions of readers who would otherwise embrace it. And while Harper Lee never published a second book, I want the writers whose work I admire to have as much time as possible to write as many books as they wish. As Hocking so astutely points out, the hours spent in self-promotion are hours spent not writing.

Miller is no doubt correct that this is a problem. One need look only at Jonathan Franzen’s non-trailer book trailer that was kind of about Freedom but mostly about how he hates book trailers to see shades of the disinclination and “profound discomfort” that some novelists have had towards the promotion and marketing business. I think that the artistically inspired and talent novelist’s reluctance to self-promote, which they’re obligated to do whether they self-publish or publish through a Big 6 house, is only part of that problem, however. The larger culprit : nobody will buy the good stuff. Good stuff isn’t commerically viable and the book market is a business. The market, on the whole, is not very good at picking quality. It’s very good at picking what provides the most entertainment value. These are not one in the same. Even when we have a Franzen moment (and no, I still haven’t read Freedom, but I swear I’ll get to it), I imagine that a part of the enthusiasm has less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with a nostalgia towards good writing.

This is where the division between a book market driven just by self-publishing (and its eventual king, Amazon) and one in which large houses still exist present very few good answers. Ideally, both remain viable on the long-term, but publishing houses at least put some of these works on the rolls and get them out in paper to sit on a library self until they’re discovered. I’m pretty concerned that the self-publishing, fast-to-market crowd will drown them entirely, but won’t even know it, presenting this curious, circular logic:

  1. The good stuff will rise to the top!
  2. So-and-so is a selling the most, so her stuff must be really good.
  3. How do you know it’s good? Because it’s selling the most.

The problem? So-and-so is going to be writing stories about vampires falling in love with werewolves for YA audiences and nothing more than endless variations on that theme. Just sayin’, if you want to sell books, that’s what does it. The idea that just writing better will result in these artistic works coming to the top, however, is a pipe-dream. The market just don’t play that way.




2 responses

2 04 2011

I think I have to question your definition of “Good Stuff.”

I did actually read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, but I found it dreadfully dull. For me, the good stuff is things like The Hobbit, Black Beauty, and all the delightfully thrilling pulp sf novels by people like Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein.

My point, though, isn’t that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t good. My point is that “good” is subjective. People who love To Kill a Mockingbird are likely to look for similar stuff, and to recommend it when they find it. People who love Twilight are likely to look for similar stuff, and to recommend it when they find it.

The beauty of the Internet, though, is that no matter how small or large the population is who enjoy a specific type of good stuff, they’ll be able to find each other, trade recommendations and new finds, and promote the books they love. Authors tend to write the sort of books they love, so they’ve got a head start in finding their audiences – in the same communities where they find their fellow readers.

It’s not monolithic – there’s room for critical successes, as well as popular hits, as well as cult classics. I’m sure the market will develop in ways I can’t foresee, but I really don’t expect anyone’s “good stuff” to be drowned out by anyone else’s.

2 04 2011

I think even the idea of using the term “good stuff” is already, at least to some degree, an admission that tastes are subjective and I’m open to that, of course.

But see, there the focus is on “enjoyment,” i.e., entertainment value, as the only value that matters. I disagree with that on the whole because I think “good” writing carries a slightly larger burden than to just entertain. A lot of Heinlein, btw, does both entertain and provide some lasting thought and commentary and does provoke its audience to go deeper.

I’m not questioning the validity of writing that is meant just to entertain nor am I trying to provoke some kind of low-brow versus high-brow debate. You already know by my own reading that I enjoy similar things that are read for pleasure alone. I think most people do, that’s why the literary market is so small.

My argument is that the literary market is also an important one – to all writing, not just to itself – despite the fact that it’s not the most commercially viable one.

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