To the best of my knowledge, the sky has been falling since the sky was created. We have been in the Decline of Western Civilization since before the Roman Empire fell. And I know the following to be true: radio will kill books, movies will kill radio, television will kill movies, the Internet will kill television, and the Youth Are Out of Control.
Also, home taping will kill music. Mark my words.
That’s a direct-ish quote from the music industry in the early 1980s (before we had such miracles as CDs or DVDs or Kindles). Music, as most of us know, still exists. Which is nice because if it didn’t, what would I be listening to right now? Silence, instead of Ornette Coleman. Sure, I could hum, but that would be like making music, and home taping came oh-so-close to taking away even that simple pleasure.
But music survived! Just as radio survived. Movies survived. Television survived. Nothing has threatened the Internet yet, except Congress and the cable industry.
Oh, and books have survived. I know this because, for reasons known only to Fed Ex, a good dozen of them have been delivered these past two days. Each book came in a separate envelope with separate postage. At least my name was spelled right on the label. This gives me hope.
The publishing business is teetering on the edge of modernity. It could fall either way, oblivion or future. You would think, what with all that science fiction and speculative fiction and whatnot, that the industry — or some key players therein — would have predicted the future already and made the necessary market corrections. I guess this means either the wrong people are sitting in planning meetings or some really good editors have moved on to other jobs, like agenting. Agenting is what some editors do when they want to throw off corporate shackles but don’t want to leave books and authors entirely.
Now I’m not listening to Higsons, but hearing about listening to the Higsons. Music still lives. Yet I know people who engaged in home taping. Some taped music off the radio. Music survived.
New York Magazine published a very lengthy article about the future of publishing, cleverly titles “The End”. I think it’s supposed to be ironic or funny or, heaven help us!, prophetic. Basically, the article was a doom and gloom rehash of “how we got into this mess”, focusing on the publishing industry. Though, honestly, you could change a few of the names and anecdotes and say the same about the music business or motion picture business. Also, the dot-com era.
There has been some scoffing and many attempts to “disprove” the Long Tail Theory, even though all those attempts to prove that our entertainment industries really do show that, yeah, they’re hit-driven businesses who make a lot of money on catalog product (or, yes, the Long Tail of their business). That’s really not important here, except the part where publishing and music and motion pictures (including television, though those economics really are different) rely upon mega-hits — however defined in that particular industry — to propel the bottom line into the black with lots of numbers to the left of the decimal point.
The problem is, of course, is that hits are hard to identify, until they happen. Sure, you have your standbys (in the publishing industry, of course, those standbys are considered “commercial” and are not often treated with the respect they deserve), and you can count on them to make a tidy profit. When you do your projections, you factor in, for example, the James Patterson money machine as a normal course revenue stream; that means a mega-hit, a surprise!, is required to put that extra sparkle on earnings. Gotta impress the boss, you know.
This is because publishing, like most entertainment industries, is beholden to corporate parents who are beholden to “stockholders” who demand ever-higher returns for their money. I understand that. I like my money to grow, too. However, unlike gasoline, which is a sad requirement of modern life with few options for consumers, books are a matter of taste, and it’s really, really hard to find something that appeals to the requisite number of people to create a mega-hit.
Still, that’s how the economics of the book business works. Quarterly numbers, annual figures, rise and fall on the basis of a single title, making the decisions of editors absurdly important. You can’t take risks; risks aren’t profitable. Unless they are, in which case, take a risk. You could be a hero. Celebrated at the holiday party. Promoted!
Fail, and you (but not you, personally) get ridiculed at the end of a New York Magazine article.
Look at these titles, remember their stories. If you’ve been around awhile, you recall the hype. Authors signed, books printed, fingers crossed. Heck, in some cases, the publishers engaged in active marketing to readers (though, I wonder, how far this marketing push extended beyond the choir). I’m a cynic and I believe many in the publishing industry share my jaded perspective, not always a bad thing, but I’m not sure that the people making the “next big thing” decisions don’t necessarily understand what captures the attention of the reading public (in a big way).
Though I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the notion of an “average American”, never having met one myself, I think there is often a fundamental disconnect between what publishers think people want to read and what people actually want to read. Hence the disconnect between advances paid to first-time authors for books that fail to connect with readers. So many mistakes, so little time.
Publishing, like the motion picture industry, like the music business, needs to change. Though, I would suggest that the publishing industry not use the music industry as a model. Talk about failures of the future. Every step of the way, the music industry has failed to grasp the fundamentals, including the primary rule: give the people what they want.
Home taping didn’t kill the music industry. The music industry is, as we speak, standing, fingers wrapped around its own throat, choking life from itself, fighting off first aid even as hemorrhaging is slowed. “No,” they gasp, “don’t give us iTunes, it’s not what we want. We’ll–” struggle for breath, reach for a band-aid, find a stiletto, “–just use this instead.”
The sky remains safely above our heads, some days a little more cloudy than others, but fixed in place. Or as I like to think of it, only the [motion picture, music, publishing] industry can kill itself. The rest of us? We’re going to keep on keepin’ on, watching, listening, and reading.
We’ll be fine.