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HARD TIMES: CULTURE AT A CROSSROADS

Publishers, enough with vapid hype

October 26, 2008|DAVID L. ULIN | BOOK EDITOR

Two weeks ago, right as the collapse on Wall Street was beginning to look as if it might not have a bottom, the New York Observer published a piece on (yet again) the crisis in book publishing.

"A frost is coming to publishing," wrote the paper's publishing correspondent Leon Neyfakh. "And while the much ballyhooed death of the industry this is not, the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted. At hand is the twilight of an era most did not expect to miss, but will."

Neyfakh's piece went on to suggest that, with money getting tight, publishers might start to consider only books or writers they see as sure things, and that for lesser-known talent -- the so-called mid-list authors -- "the advances are going to be lower and it will be that much harder to sell them."

Maybe so, although this is hardly a new argument; I've been listening to it for 20 years.

What's more likely, I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform "synergies." At least, I hope that's what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing -- in culture in general -- over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.

There's little doubt that the economy will affect this further, or that, even without the advent of recession, publishing is a business in crisis mode. But I see hard times as having a potential upside -- if we focus on the work itself.

Since the late 1990s, when computers began to enable publishers to track book sales to the copy, the industry has been numbers-dominated, less about the aesthetics of the language than of the spreadsheet. This is problematic, say, if you're a first novelist who gets a good-sized advance and a decent publicity push but only goes on to sell 1,000 copies of your book.

Sure, the money's nice and it's fun to go on a book tour, but what happens when you deliver the next manuscript? According to one agent I know, you almost have to hide your numbers, moving from publishing house to publishing house to stay ahead of the curve.

As a result, both publishers and writers have long since given themselves over to a blockbuster mentality, even in regard to books that wouldn't normally fit that mold. In recent years, this has meant an increased focus on "author platforms" (whatever they are), as well as a frantic embrace of all things new -- blogs, author websites, social networking -- as if this, rather than its contents, is what sets a book apart.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favor of new technology, new delivery systems, new venues where the conversation about literature might take place. But the unrelenting insistence on newness has led down any number of blind alleys, perhaps most distressingly the ridiculous (and ongoing) print-versus-Web non-controversy, which has been promulgated almost exclusively by the least insightful people on both sides.

Clearly, literary culture, like everything else in contemporary society, is at a moment of extreme transition; that's what makes this both a scary and exciting time. But it's exactly why we need to avoid hype rather than embrace it, to look critically not at author platforms but at authors, not at the mechanisms of culture but at the substance of the culture instead.

This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.

A month or so ago, I was on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair when the conversation turned to just how difficult, in the face of what are now nearly constant distractions, it can be to settle down and read. I keep thinking about that as a metaphor, a signpost for all that's wrong with how we interact with literature.

We talk too much and listen not enough; we respond to personalities as much as we respond to prose.

Maybe that's the way it's always been, but with hard times upon us, it doesn't seem too much to ask that this signal the start of a more stripped down, less self-absorbed period, in which we set aside the sound and fury and focus on the writing rather than the noise.

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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