Monday, June 30, 2008

We Interrupt This Program

It's rare that I ever do two blog posts on the same day, but today deserves a dual post, a program interruption if you will.

In yesterday's Washington Post Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp wrote a thought-provoking and brilliant piece on the state of publishing and the problems caused by what he says are publishers, agents, editors and yes even authors and readers (my own words) seduced by gossip, celebrity, fame and maybe fortune rather then simply looking for really great books that may or may not sell.

Karp is praying that publishers will at some point be forced to do what he is doing with Twelve and that is "invest in works of quality."

I was so thrilled with this essay that I think I'll let it speak for itself and of course I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.



Lehcarjt said...

Fabulous article. I've heard about his publishing company from several different sources and it sounds like a fabulous direction for printing to go in my opinion.

However one line did make me do some pondering. Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it's hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year.

When I look at genre romance, I see a lot of women who don't just read for entertainment, they devour books for emotional connections. I've always rather thought (and considered this true of myself even though I don't read more than one romance a month) that romance readers are seeking books that fill a space inside of themselves. I'd argue that within the next generations of women there will be an equal number of people who need/want the same thing.

The experience of Movies and TV and Internet and the rest does not provide the same inner response for me. I have a hard time seeing genre romance, even category, disappearing. It fills a need.

Chris Redding said...

Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it's hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.

I'm commenting on the same thing as lehcarjt.
I think genre fiction, no matter what kind, is an escape. And people will always need an escape. Look at how long Harlequin category romances have been around. They are not formulaic, but you know when you open it there are certain things that will be there. And that's exactly why you open it.
I'm not a big category reader, but once in awhile, if I'm going through a rough time I can escape into one of those and not have to feel what's really going on in my life. I think it will be more so with subsequent generations.
Since our "enemies" are no longer clear cut. Since both parents must work to put food on the table and since we no longer have our aunts and uncles down the road the world is an even scarier place.
Escaping to genre fiction will always be an option we need.

Anonymous said...

Saw this on Jennifer Jackson's Et in arcadio... blog and started a post about it myself, although haven't had time to finish it yet.

Like you, I was generally thrilled by the feature. A large chunk of ambivalence as a writer, of course, because (to the extent that the future works out as he proposes) this will raise the bar to "real" publication even higher than it already is. On the one hand, agents and editors/publishers would have many many fewer (and presumably higher-quality) titles to devote their attention to. Otoh, well, if agents think all the MSS being shoved under the bathroom stall are stacked high NOW, just wait till approximately the same number of aspiring writers must compete for drastically fewer slots! At writers' conferences y'all will have to go about with armed bodyguards. :)

Elissa M said...

I guess I don't care what happens in the publishing world, or at least I don't care to speculate. "Que sera, sera" as the saying goes. Perhaps one day people will no longer read genre fiction, but not in my lifetime.

I won't stop writing even if publication becomes impossible. I won't stop reading because someone else thinks people no longer read books. But I certainly welcome the idea of publishers emphasizing books that are well crafted and intended to last.

Melinda Leigh said...

Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off...

Geez. I hope not. That's me, and I have no intention of kicking off any time soon.

Anonymous said...

I detect a whiff of elitism in Karp's carping.

Mark Terry said...

Okay, apparently I'm on the same train here. I thought the article was good overall until the point where he started making predictions. First, this:

"The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers."

Well, yes, except for the major publishers keep dropping writers who don't expand fast enough and keep raising the bar for sales figures, so those indies and self-publishers are increasingly publishing so-called mid-list authors who were dropped by the big publishers. This does not, however, translate into being easier to get published and it sure as hell doesn't mean it's easier to build a readership, no matter what the genre. It means the public's getting flooded with books from a thousand different sources, splintering the publishing industry like a rock through a stained-glass window.

"Publishers will lose their great competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively."

One word, baby: Amazon. Publishers already lost this advantage. Easily a third to a half of all my book buying is online. That's a trend that's going to grow. Yes, I love bookstores, but the nearest bookstore to me is 10 miles away and gas is currently $4.25 a gallon.

He nailed the trends on reference publishing and practical nonfiction to the Internet. I'm not sure that nonfiction like nonfiction books of a general interest, like say, "Truman" by McCullough, or "Homo Politicus" by Dana Milbanks or anything like that will transfer to websites.

"Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off."

I doubt it, although I'm afraid there's a kernel of truth to that. Attend a book signing or book fair, my friends. Who's reading genre fiction, whether it's romances or mysteries? Women in their forties or older. SF still skews young, but romances and mysteries skew older and it's not obvious to me that the next generation is going this route. But I'm not sure that means genre readers will die out. It may mean that readers of popular fiction may die out. Let's hope not, but I'm not holding my breath.

The real question is, if the publishing industry can't sustain large sales, if there's no new Stephen King, John Grisham or Janet Evanovich coming along to sell several million "genre" novels, but instead the industry's going to be fragmented and sell dozens of copies by thousand of authors (the iUniverse Business Model, I suppose), how will big publishing even continue to exist? And why would readers, who can browse Amazon et al and buy something by someone they've never heard of online or via the author's website, even bother with a chain store? Particularly if they can watch a Netflix movie on demand just with the push of a button.

Lorra said...

Fascinating, gutsy and, I'm guessing, right on.

Somehow it never occurred to me that the majority of books being published were as representative of the dumbing-down of America as television, specifically, the proliferation of incredibly moronic reality shows.

I hope Karp's right: that the internet changes the business of publishing. And thanks to the article, Jessica, I now have a great list of new books to read.

Eva Gale said...

Whoa. I think the earth moved.

And then I read lehcarjt's post and I got pissy.

I would offer an alternate perception-- instead of romance readers gobbling books to Fill A Void, that they gobble books about love as a Reaffirmation of an emotion that gets degraded all too often.

Anyhoo-Karp is sure causing a rukus, that's for sure. I've had the discussion of quality over quantity more times over the last few weeks than I have in the last four years.

It looks like his model is working for him-and I probably at some time will read the books they've published so far. You can't argue much with success, yanno? But I also have to ask about the genre readers. Would he only have one romance published a year/month? Would they be only paranormal? Historical? Erotica? Inspy? Would we be only offered one subgenre a year or more? Who would be the lucky authors? And how long would it be before the readers stormed the Bastille? said...

I was ready to blow the guy off before I read the article by saying, "Maybe so, but it's still subjective, isn't it? Who gets to define 'quality?'" Then I read it. I hope he's right. I hope better books are in our future, sooner rather than later. My favorite part was this:

There's no guarantee that a book will be better if an author spends more time writing it, but years of research and reflection often provide a perspective that offers readers a kind of wisdom and authority they can't get anywhere else. Many of my favorite contemporary books were years in the making: "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen, "The Emperor's Children" by Claire Messud, "Titan" by Ron Chernow, "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright, "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Good to Great" by Jim Collins and one I had the privilege of editing, "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand.

I don't want to seem like a real byotch here, but that's what I've been saying for years. I worked on my novel for 5+ years, then gave up trying to write beautiful, thoughtful prose. Agents won't consider it, and the general public, dumbed down by reality TV, won't read it. The current goal is just to keep the Flesch-Kincaid Index under 5.0

We've tossed out all the lovely metaphors that represented theme in favor of keeping word count below 100K, when really good books are much longer. It's true that more time spent writing a book is no guarantee that the story or manuscript will be great, but I think it raises the odds that it will be, and raises the bar that I aspire to.

Evangeline Holland said...

Agents won't consider it, and the general public, dumbed down by reality TV, won't read it. The current goal is just to keep the Flesch-Kincaid Index under 5.0

We've tossed out all the lovely metaphors that represented theme in favor of keeping word count below 100K, when really good books are much longer.

I must concur. Longer books do not equal better. Have you forgotten that many of the titles we consider to be "classics" fall below that 100K mark? Or for that matter, todays "classics" were yesterdays pulp fiction? As for no one caring about "beautiful, thoughtful prose," I guess Jodi Picoult or Sue Monk Kidd or Michael Chabon, and other popular literary authors are aberrations.

I hate to be a bitch, but maybe your work was rejected because there was not a sellable and relatable story beneath all that prose. Because that is all that matters in the end--the story and its ability to connect with readers.

Liana Brooks said...

1) I love sci-fi. The genre isn't going anywhere. You want proof? My 5-yr olds goal in life is to be Darth Vadar, and she already likes reading anything with dragons.

2) The books Mr. Karp listed aren't ones I'm remotely interested in. I realize that they do appeal to a wide range of people but they don't appeal to me. Not because they are to long or complicated but because they are boring. I don't like live horse racing, why would I spend money to read about a horse?

3) Yes, there is a lot of junk on the shelves. There's junk in the grocery store, on TV, at the movies, and everywhere else you turn. It's nice of Mr. Karp to think he can take the moral high ground here but as an adult I think I should be allowed to pick my own reading material. That means I can read the quasi-political junk if I choose (I won't but I should be allowed to say I won't). I can read the religious dissertations and the tales of recovering addicts who Oprah loves if I want. I should be able to pick up trashy sci-fi novels without some editor getting huffy. Mr. Karp is neither President nor Pope. He isn't a political or religious leader and I dislike his attempts to make his business plan a moral argument.

4) They publish 12 books a year. 12 Twelve! One book a month. I read, on average, a book a day. Twelve books is not enough.

5) Mr. Karp may do what he pleases. All the agent blogs I've seen love him. That's fine. He manages 12 not Tor and for that I am forever grateful.

JDuncan said...

This sure is popping up all over the place lately, as is anything to do with how/why the publishing industry is changing or needs to change today. At the worst is sure makes for interesting discussion. The article certainly is, and one can't really complain about the desire to publish quality works that have enduring quality. There are a fair number of folks who look for that kind of reading on a regular basis. However, I think there are far more who look for that 'quick fix' as it were. There's a reason people go see the same type of summer blockbuster at the movies every summer or the same type of sentimental love stories that come out around the holidays. Are they enduring. Ha! Not even close, but they sure entertain, and if done well, touch on emotions important to us all. Genre fiction won't die off. Maybe a lot of it is disposable, but really, how often do you pick up a book looking for something that is going to speak to the human condition? I look for something that is going to entertain, to keep me turning pages, to give me characters to root for or jeer wholeheartedly. The really good writers will still get some of that 'literay' merit in their story. There is no reason genre fiction can't touch on deeper issues, however it doesn't make the book schlock if it doesn't.

I do think genre writers of the future are going to have a tougher time, mostly because of the wider venues available for publishing. Karp said something about how the successful novel writers will have to be 'novel' with what they write. In a sense, I'd guess he's right. Writers are going to have to learn to tap into the broader media of the internet and all it has to offer in order to really stand out. I think things are really coming into a state of flux due to technology, and like all new technologies, it will take a while for things to sort themselves out. It will likely be painful for a great many writers, and the ones who are able to adapt well to a quickly changing environment are likely the ones who will achieve the success they are hoping for.


Michele Dunaway said...

I went to a book signing with my daughter for Stephenie Meyer. The place was jam packed and the average age was under 20.

I teach high school English. I disagree that reality TV has dumbed everyone down. TV itself is guilty of hitting the trends: how many American Idol, Dancing, CSI shows are there? When one works, producers rush to fill the void with more of the same. Publishers did the same with chicklit and vampires. Even many movies are all remakes or sequels, or they are popular books immediately adapted for either TV or big screen. So you watch what's out there, which is pretty much all the same.

As for the millennials, many love to read. However, there are much better things to do and other ways to spend their time. As an English teacher, I can't expect them to read a classic novel just because I say so. In general, millennials want to be entertained. They want quick revelations, just like the get from the net. For instance, they don't necessarily find Mark Twain funny because a lot of his jokes don't translate into this century or to their lives. Same with Shakespeare. It's not that they're stupid. The language they used has changed and they are simply not interested in sorting it out as they don't have the time. This is a generation that likes Tyra and Ellen better than Oprah.

The thing about the millennials is that they are used to any person who can type being able to express him or herself on a blog, whether that person is coherent or not. Millennials have to sort out what is real and what is BS very quickly. They have different filters and process information differently from those of us who learned by opening a book.

In turn, their definition of quality is different. With books they want to be entertained or learn something without having to peel back all the layers or wordsmithing. My students complain of constant pressure to do work, school, hobbies, sports, and friends.

One literary book my students all love is Night. But think about the book. It's real. It's gripping. It's short. The words are easy to understand. In our high school the ninth grade has been replacing To Kill a Mockingbird with Mississippi Solo. The kids liked it better.

What we are seeing is the first real wired generation starting to come into its own. The old stalwarts are falling (just as the record industry--today's kids download, not buy CDs). I think that's Karp's true lament.

His definition of quality isn't the younger set's definition. What they want to read is different from what he wants to publish.

And trust me, kids don't care one iota how long it took an author to write something. They just care that it didn't waste their time.

Santa said...

That was a great article.

However, I do have to disagree with his point about genre fiction readers dying off. Has he seen the YA market? It covers quite an array of genres. I would have to say that these are those read YA are the budding genre readers of tomorrow.

I do have to agree with his assessment of the publishing industry. I think it is driven by trends and what they perceive to be what the reader wants. It's like they behave the same way brokers do in the futures market. They may not always be on the mark but they hope that their perspective holds true in actual sales.

And as an aspiring genre writer and rabid reader, I don't see it quietly going into that good night.

Kate Douglas said...

Michele: You nailed it!
"And trust me, kids don't care one iota how long it took an author to write something. They just care that it didn't waste their time."

I write genre fiction. I'm proud of my stories, the ones I write in weeks, not years. I carefully consider every word I use, I revise and rewrite until I'm satisfied with the flow of the text and then I send the story off to my publisher where it becomes another book among many in the same genre by many other talented authors. We each have our place in this industry, and I'm happy with mine, thank you! I've also discovered, after returning from a three week trip meeting readers around the country, that I have some of the coolest readers in the world--they're not looking for deep, insightful literature when they pick up my books, though. They're looking for an evening's entertainment, an emotional connection to characters they care about, and a chance to slip into a fantasy world apart from everyday cares and problems. I think the market for books that satisfy those needs will be around for a long time to come.

Anonymous said...

Karp's article boils down to one simple fact:

He's pissed that it wasn't him who sold The Gargoyle.

So rant rant rant about how crappy the industry is. Boo=hoo. I found the article quite boring, and far from "brilliant." Pedestrian, I'd say.

Anonymous said...

This column is self-serving pap, greased up with an ugly little dollop of leftwing political screed.

Kitty said...

When our son was in 2nd grade, I asked his teacher what he should be reading. Anything at all, she said, even cereal boxes, if he wants. Her point was to not discourage him from reading. So we didn't.

Karp sounds like a biblio-bigot.

... said...

Gee, La Belle, sorry to have offended you so much that you felt the need to attack me personally. I wasn't complaining that my writing was rejected (show me a published author, honey, just one, who hasn't been rejected). I was lamenting the state of this business, and its causes and effects, in general.

As for my opinion of Jodi Picoult, Sue Monk Kidd, and Michael Chabon's writing style, no; I don't find it to be particularly beautiful or thoughtful. Wholly adequate, perfectly competent, even good, yes. Popular, absolutely. And for the record, I think The Corrections is highly overrated. But that's my opinion. I'll defend your right to have your own opinion. When I disagree with you, I won't resort to misdirection by insulting your writing.

Anonymous said...

First...I feel awkward pointing this out, but for the person who said, "I must concur" with so and so's comment and then listed all the reasons s/he disagreed with the comment, the word "concur" means that you agree.

I'm not sure how to feel about Karp's article. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, a publishing company that has one editor working on one book a month is an interesting idea, and I'll be interested in seeing how it turns out. But like some other people here, I take issue with his comments about genre fiction. I get so tired of defending genre fiction to literary snobs who think that all genre fiction is crap. Maybe I'm not getting something; maybe he's not saying what I think he's saying. But genre ficiton isn't going away anytime soon. A lot of people--intelligent people--read genre fiction.

Bernita said...

Why do I keep thinking that one publishing solution would be to hire more editors?

Robena Grant said...

Coming late to the party, but, I think Karp is spot on. This was a well-thought out article and it tapped into many of the concerns for both writer and publisher.

I'm all for quality over quantity. While I'm a fairly fast reader and devour a book every day or two, there is one thing I hate about our current trend and that is getting books out before their time. If the author had given it one more pass, if the copy-editor had had a little more time, if the sales people had actually read it, if the ...

Anonymous said...

I love how often people throw around the adjectives "challenging" and "competitive" to describe the current market trends in publishing. The truth is that whenever you care more about the quick buck than quality, whenever the goal is "the next" blockbuster author, there will be less and less room for authors who write for the right reasons.

There is a growing disconnect in the publishing industry between chasing the next blockbuster and the realities of crafting a truly great book. The fact is that it's easy to churn out pulp once a year. It's a lot harder to write a novel of substance which will stand the test of time. The latter is my domain, and more and more I am seeing that I just don't necessarily fit into the current scene. Not because I'm not good enough, but because there's no place for me in the current system.

As I've said before, this reminds me of the music biz of 10 years ago. It used to be, in the 70s and 80s, that record companies would nurture an artist's career, knowing that it can take 2-3 records to build an audience. Now? Hah! I can count on two hands the amount of bands who got signed out of my music scene who got dropped after only one record.

People are so quick to disparage indies and DIY, but what avenues remain for anyone interested in creating and distributing work of substance? said...

Rah rah, Robert!

Anonymous said...

Robert says:

"The fact is that it's easy to churn out pulp once a year."

But it's not so easy to sell it!

Thhe number of writers publishing a novel a year--of any kind--for at least five years running, would fill at best a...a small room? A big room? Maybe a football stadium at most. About the same number of Americans who have been to space, I'd say.

Which leads me to belive it's not an easay goal. I think this is because the goal is 2-fold; One, you've got to do the writing, but it doesn't end there--yo're not done yet, oh no! Then you've got to actually publish what you've written--every single year without fail--no matter the economic climate, corporate status, current trends, any of that.

I think you're vastly underestimating the difficultties of "churning out pulp" every year.

But there's only 1 way to find out. Challenge yourself. Take a break from slaving over your literary masterpiece and give yourself 1 year to publish a pulp novel. Try it--I dare you. Think you can publish it? And then another one after that that comes out within 1 year? And then at least 3 more times in a row?!

Go for it. Test yourself.

Anonymous said...

Robert Walker, I just took a look at the first chapter of your unpublished (and never to be published) work of substance, and I've got some unfortunate news: 'tis utterly mediocre. Cliche-ridden, dime-a-dozen, unengaging.

Now pardon me while I go off and read the latest pulp from Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, Robert Crais, and other unworthy hacks who churn out a book a year ...

Eva Gale said...

Man, you guys go for the throat. Nothing like a little insult to start the day. Gives me the warm fuzzies, I tells ya. Writers are suh a generous kind bunch. So in touch with human emotion.


Bernita, "Why do I keep thinking that one publishing solution would be to hire more editors?"

Shhhhh-that's too easy. said...

Alrighty then. That insult made me think I had to see that chapter for myself, but something is wrong with my Adobe so I can't read pdf's.

Anonymous @ 8:55, you kindhearted wench, you, would you judge the quality of a painting by a postage stamp size sample of it? Or a cd by the first few notes of one song? I think sometimes we need to step back and see a thing as a whole, not as a petri dish under a microscope.

And thank you, Eva Gale, for speaking up. Why do some people feel the need to belittle others whose opinions don't match theirs? Does it make them feel bigger to tear someone else down?