Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Metaphysics of the American Literary Industry

A couple of years ago, I was asked by a small college to give a talk on the state of the book business. The word “state”, however, connotes a static condition and the book business is anything but static. The CEO of Barnes & Noble wrote a few years ago that the state of the book business is change, so what I’d prefer to discuss is ideologies of change, art, and prestige in the book business, and the literary publishing business in particular, in other words, the metaphysics of the American literary industry. A couple of caveats: I am going to speculate and nothing I say can be proven, which, of course, sets me squarely in the middle of the history of discussions of metaphysics.

A literary work is the expression, in words, of a balance between perfect chaos and perfect order, on the shifting ground of idea and meaning. This equilibrium lies at the heart of the metaphysics of the American literary industry. The work of art is rendered by a single individual, and the manner of the rendering is often called the author’s “voice”. Each of these renderings is unique and elicits a unique response from its reader because, and this may sound odd, “it wants to”. By creating a unique response in each reader, the literary work creates a multiplicity of responses, which, in turn, creates an unstable environment in which one consumes that work. In short, each reader reads a different book. And if each reader reads a different book, then the product itself can be called “unstable”. I don’t want to flog the decades-old debate initiated by Roland Barthes’s 1968 article “The Death of the Author”. Instead, my central question is: does the instability of a literary text and the audience’s response to the text create instability in the literary business as a whole?

In 2005, according to the records of Ingram Book Distribution, the foremost book wholesaler in the United States, and R.W. Bowker, the foremost book statistician in the United States, 195,000 titles were published in this country, a tripling of the number since the late 1960s, and retail sales totaled between $17 billion and $25 billion, not too shabby for a so-called mature industry, which investors have said is a no-growth business. The instability of an industry that produces so many individual products with so few grouped brands is understandable. It would take 195,000 individualized marketing plans to exploit each product and even if it had the capacity to do so the industry itself has been criticized for having little marketing capability. Accurate reporting systems, which would help in developing effective marketing strategies, are hindered by a lack of central data-gathering mechanisms or lack of technical ability of independent-minded booksellers to collect and report statistics, or the reluctance of some independent-minded retailers to share data with others. Even recent developments such as Neilsen BookScan can only claim reporting within a margin of error of a whopping 20 to 30% because they don’t have access to all booksellers. Three years ago, the Association of American Publishers released a report on smaller publishers that extrapolated percentages from a 5% survey response. So data cannot realistically be used to make an accurate analysis the state of the book business overall. Compare this to the film industry, which can tell you on Monday morning what its weekend grosses were.

But does constant change emerge from sheer numbers or is its source deeper in the production and consumption of the literary work itself? Translating literature from its aesthetic shiftiness to a regularized industrial structure may be possible, but literature in a generally free publishing environment resists real industrial regularization. Such an environment may exist in some sections of the business, such as thoughtful improvement of distribution systems and back office operations, but both the product development side of writing and editing and the product positioning of marketing resist analysis and a subsequent re-integration into the path a book takes from conception to reading—specifically because of the very unstable nature of both creation and consumption of the art form itself. This is why it is so difficult to predict a book’s sales.

The situation is, of course, shared to some degree by the music and film industries, and in other ways by the visual art industry, and one can make a case that any business environment will be affected by its consumer use of the product, as the British business guru Charles Leadbeater has suggested. What sets literary books, music and other arts apart from other consumer products is that they appeal solely to the intellect and the emotions. They are used to fill human needs other than the practical, and by not being utilitarian, are inherently unstable as consumables. I would think we all share most basic responses to a car, but we don’t always share responses to a literary work.

When it comes to the vast numbers of titles published in the United States, the number of professional constituencies who work in the literary industry mirrors the multiplication of titles published. From the most obvious—writers, publishers and readers—the list quickly grows to over 20. Each group within the business has varied interests and needs, and this does not even include self-publishers who act as their own editors, publishers, marketers, distributors and reviewers or who use professional services for these activities. Each professional group exerts control on the process that runs the gamut from idea to consumption, becomes proprietary of the product, and links his or her economic benefit and prestige to that product. With the insertion of so many layers of workers who read the text and then re-interpret it for their own needs, the industry becomes varied and balkanized, standing anxious and unstable on a swaying podium of multiple needs, goals and meanings. The literary industry has not only been able to survive, but continues to poke its head above the water level when for a hundred years its critics have predicted, like Madame Sosostris, it will die by water. In fact, one could argue that the American literary business was much more chaotic in the nineteenth century before strict copyright protection and organized distribution.

This situation represents a type of “modern condition” in the literary business, affected by constantly changing copyright law, evolving ideas of freedom to publish in the United States, growth in the number of individual entertainment and artistic media that appeal to the public, and the development of new technologies. If you look at other countries, for example, with different laws from those that govern the United States and most of Western Europe, Vietnam, for example, where the state controls the apparatus of publication and distribution, the literary business is more stable, but few people in the western world would advocate such a system. If one looks at nineteenth-century America, in many ways the literary business was even less stable before the United States signed onto the international copyright law in 1891. Militating against stability is the persistence of the individual voice in literary creation (though many people believe this is fading and is being replaced by the execution of blueprints of art) and the desire by many, many people for self-actualization through the publishing of one’s thoughts, ideas and memories, which has created a vast proliferation of texts that by its very nature increases instability throughout the process, from the germ of an idea to the reader’s assimilation of the text.

How one harnesses and controls an environment in which 195,000 products are generated each year is the question publishers have been asking for about a generation, perhaps two, since the late 1950s when publishers began to consolidate and then were bought by media conglomerates, which now control about 75% of the book market in the United States. Compare this to, let’s say, the auto industry, and imagine if the Big Three car makers, or if you add the foreign automakers into the mix, about 10 automakers, and tell them that they will have to market 195,000 models without the benefit of significant consumer advertising and the fact that now, with the advent of the internet, almost anyone with an idea or the will to create can market competing products. This is what faces the literary business. Then add to the mix the proprietary nature of intellectual property, emotional attachment to unprofitable books on the part of the twenty-odd constituencies that make up the literary business, and tension between commerce and art, and you have a basic snapshot of the marketplace of literature today.

These twenty-odd constituencies make up the multi-voiced and heteroglossic nature of the literary business and add to the industry’s general instability. They run the gamut from the writers, who create the initial product, to readers, the final consumers of literary work. In between are agents, editors, copy editors, small, medium, large, specialty, academic and other publishers and their marketing and sales teams and accountants, book designers, publicists, wholesalers and distributors, book printers, librarians, all types of booksellers including independent, chain, college, street, second-hand, and otherwise, book festivals, intellectual property attorneys, literary organizations, book reviewers, bloggers, industry pundits, gossip columnists, radio interviewers, advertising sales-people, book group organizers, teachers, college professors, and literary critics, and I may be forgetting a few. In the literary business, opinions proliferate. Can you imagine, for example, the marketing team for General Motors deciding that one of GM’s products won’t sell, so they give it a marketing budget of zero dollars, which happens all the time to literary books? Or telling the designers and production people that they’ll have to do their own marketing of the new Cadillac since they have decided that the new Chevy has more potential in the marketplace?

Among these varied groups, voices vary as well, and they oscillate between competing ideologies of art and commerce. Stridency toward either of these depends on a person’s relative commitment to one pole or the other. During the past twenty five years, in particular, loyalties to art versus business have become increasingly pronounced, perhaps as a result of growing corporate control of the book business, though there has always been an element of antagonism between the two. Beginning in the 1960s, publishing companies began to consolidate. Random House acquired Doubleday, Alfred A. Knopf, and Pantheon, family established and run companies. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, an increasing conglomeratization took place as “media companies” began to acquire publishers. Paramount and Gulf & Western purchased Simon & Schuster, Pearson acquired Penguin, Bertelsmann acquired Random House. Profit margin took on a more intrinsic decision-making role. Corporatization made regularization a significant goal. Although such formidable publishers as Andre Schiffrin, who was forced out of highly literary Pantheon Books during this period, could claim in his memoir Business of Books that the older style of acquiring, editing and marketing books actually results in superior financial returns—this may be true: it is difficult to prove since the environment for reading is so different now in the age of the mass media. Schiffrin’s book is as much manifesto as memoir, a secular Leviticus of rage against a system that Schiffrin believes has discarded its former dedication to art and individual thought in favor of commerce. During the same period, bookselling became dominated by large chains and, later, on-line booksellers, to the detriment of smaller, independent stores who claim a more “human” and community orientation than the chains. Depending on one’s point of view, all this was either bad or good, which often represents a restrictive moral judgment.

Such judgments are made on a highly individual basis. At a recent public literary program one prominent author, in response to a question about what she would change about the book business, said she would prefer less corporatization. The novelist Jonathan Lethem offered free film rights to his new novel, citing part of the reason as his opposition to “the commodification of literature”. Statements of this sort reveal the writer’s acceptance or rejection of art and commerce and a personal and idiosyncratic balance developed between the two. Independent booksellers, some small press owners and staffers, directors of literary organizations, and others often share this outlook. When faced down by the structures of big business, they retreat into almost messianic diction. In order to achieve their own goals, they often have to participate in situations they might not like, but they frequently do so reluctantly and often seek ways to avoid its control. Reluctant capitalists, as Laura J. Miller dubbed booksellers and their employees.

Other considerations intervene in the choices members of the literary industry make about where they will stand along the spectrum of art and commerce, including varying concepts of what constitutes dynamism, ideologies of intellectual freedom and choice, which are often based on idiosyncratic views of democracy and capitalism, a need for personal and professional autonomy, and the nature and value of prestige. Americans often mix an altruistic purity into the process of how they decide what is personally valuable to them as people interested in the literary business. For example, despite many criticisms of American book awards, they have, for the most part, rejected the financial benefits that come from corporate sponsorship, which have been embraced by English book awards, and avoided the direct corruption of French awards.

Few publishing companies, large or small, will make literary decisions based solely on financial considerations—though this may change as profit pressures mount—but realistic assumptions do indeed take on very different roles at different companies and even within imprints at larger companies. Some, such as the former Time Warner Book Group (now called Hachette Book Group USA since its purchase by the French media empire Hachette) and HarperCollins (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) are known as commercially driven firms, but even they have less profitable divisions that focus on more literary works, such as Little Brown at Hachette and Ecco Press, which HarperCollins rescued from financial disaster just a few years ago. Some small presses portray themselves as mission-driven, and their prestige comes from their placement in opposition to the larger presses and as a corrective to a perceived narrowness in mainstream publishing. Akashic Books’s tag-line is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world”. Dalkey Archive Press has its own mission statement: “Since 1984, Dalkey Archive Press has made available to readers the finest works of world literature from the past 100 years. The intention of the Press is to serve as a permanent home for these works, so that they will continue to be read by present and future generations.”

By placing themselves in opposition, these presses, and many others like them, create an alternative prestige based in their adherence to a credo of the primacy of art that, as the French social critic Pierre Bourdieu has shown, adds non-financial economic value to their work and lifts their place in the literary industry. Even among larger publishers, acknowledgement of artistic achievement is reflected in the announcements of significant book awards being placed prominently on most publishers’ web sites, since awards create value in the literary industry, and, as a result, in the society in general, as James English has discussed in his book The Economy of Prestige. Individual publishing voices within the larger industry, known as imprints, and the ongoing establishment of independent small presses represent a constantly renewing resource, which is a great tradition in American letters. Note the names of small, mission-driven presses and imprints that begin fresh and independent and then become parts of larger presses. They have always provided larger presses with alternative voices. Ticknor & Fields, Viking Press, Hill & Wang, Carroll & Graf, all independent presses whose distinctive voices have been absorbed into larger presses, though often still retaining their individuality. Despite being a part of giant Random House, Alfred A. Knopf is as known for its literary publications as Grove Atlantic, an independent. Laboring in the fields of the literary lord are such literary-minded editors as Paul Slovak of Viking Penguin, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic, and Sonny Mehta of Alfred Knopf. Add to this the dedicated alternative press editors and publishers such as Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, Richard Nash of Soft Skull, Nicolas Kanellos of Arte Público, John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive, and many, many more. In addition, distribution mechanisms for small and independent presses that act as an alternative to the major presses and distributors have emerged in the past 30 years, including Bookslinger, which became Consortium, Publishers Group West, which is now owned by Perseus Books, and Small Press Distribution. While these developments bring important alternative voices to the public, they may also add to the instability of an industry that seems to grow daily in order to feed the need for artistic outlets. Charles de Gaulle purportedly asked the question, “How can you govern a country that produces 246 different kinds of cheese?” Perhaps we should ask how can you expect to organize an industry that produces 195,000 books a year? The other question one should ask is: is it important to the health of the industry that it be regularized or is the instability of the industry actually an asset?

How this affects creativity and writing is difficult to gauge. From all accounts, larger presses are publishing fewer “literary” titles. However, as small presses grow in both number and size, they may offer additional outlets for publication. Digital publication has been established, but its future in the book business is anybody’s guess. Fifteen years ago hypertext was all the rage, and yet it has retreated to almost nothing. A useable e-book is within our grasp and several digitizing projects are well along in their process, meaning that within the coming five to ten years readers will be able to read any book ever published at any time, anywhere in the world. How this affects literacy and literariness is also difficult to assess. It will, however, affect the metaphysics of the industry and raise new questions for copyright, literary production, distribution, marketing and even the way we read. As John Perry Barlow, the former lyricist for The Grateful Dead, once said, “Information wants to be free.” Whether that type of freedom needs organization or it will organize itself by the reader’s usage is a question to be left for the future. The link between creativity, which is personal and idiosyncratic, and the structure of the literary business, which relies on the idiosyncratic reading and involvement of its constituents, seems evident. Various ideologies either create instability or are created by instability, ‘though I have no idea which comes first. Literature magnifies individuality and, one hopes, will continue to do so, if we’re lucky.


Sarah Weinman said...

An excellent piece. One quibble: I wouldn't really call Little, Brown a "less profitable imprint focusing on literary works" as long as they continue to publish James Patterson. Though I'd argue that their ability to publish ongoing commercial successes like Patterson, Michael Connelly and Stephenie Meyer enable them to sustain their less profitable ventures into literary fiction.

Brent Cunningham said...

Enjoyed this very much, thanks Harold. One useful distinction we tend to make where I work, at Small Press Distribution, is between the truly "small" literary presses, usually doing runs of 500 to 1,000 with probably no paid staff, and the "independent" literary presses that tend to be distributed by a Consortium or PGW (both under Perseus now). The later tend to have initial runs of 1,000-5,000 of their literary books, and can usually support at least one full time person, sometimes a lot more. SPD tends to distribute the small presses more than the independent ones, and is quite a bit smaller overall than the other two.

Taken as a group, in some ways the emergence of PGW, Consortium, and SPD as alternative distribution channels are quite real. But it's good to also realize there were other distribution entities throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s who simply went out of business. While PGW and Constorium probably have a wider reach than anyone in small/independent literary publishing dreamed possible in 1970, SPD's story is one of both emerging/growing but also stepping into vacuums left by various collapses, including Bookpeople which has been a big loss. Jerome Gold's two-volume book "Obscure in the Shade of Giants," which is a collection of interviews of largely literary publishing people, tells this story well. In that book Allan Kornblum notes that in 1978 there were at least a half dozen small press distributors of various sorts, such as the New York Small Press Association, and David Wilk's Truck, which became Bookslinger. Later there was Inland and LPC, both founded by Wilk, and a host of others, quite gone now.

Harold Augenbraum said...

Sarah and Brent,

Thanks for the comments and suggestions.


Steve Leveen said...

Marvelous survey of where we are and how we got here. Thanks Harold.

MINA said...