Corn Be Heavy Soon

1. I love it when people disagree with me about something and explain why, and even if offense is sometimes intended, I make it a point never to take it. Daniel Pritchard is sick of me “beating the expensive drum” via my endless complaints about book pricing, and this is what he says:

At Conversations in the Book Trade, blogger Levi Asher is interviewed; he does less than well, I’d say. He claims that ‘There is no decline in reading,’ that electronic content ‘will soon dominate the publishing field’ and argues ‘You can see a movie or download a record album for about ten bucks. That’s the correct price point. New books come out with price tags between $24 and $30 and then they wonder why the whole industry is suffering. Somebody’s out of touch with the consumer here . . .’ He’s been banging this expensive drum for a while. Put the first assertion and the last together, and try to make some sense of it in the context of every reputable study being done that shows a decline in reading in America; Levi is either fooling himself or trying to will the world into the image of his choosing. Aside from that, the average price of a CD in 2008 was $12.95 so Britney Spears’ album was that price; the equivalent of Ms. Spears would be, say, a Grisham novel, and The Innocent Man (2007) has a list price of $7.99 in softcover. Newer and less popular albums cost more, as it is with books. Hardcovers are pricey, and for a smaller market, but books are not generally too expensive. And as long as used books are $3.00 or so, and the library is free, digital readers are still a ways off.

Not so quick there, Daniel. First, a Britney Spears CD costs $12.95 when it’s new. A John Grisham novel costs between $24 and $30 when it’s new and getting media attention, and then drops in price a full year later, after reviewers and award committees have forgotten the book exists. This self-defeating “buzz-kill” effect doesn’t exist in music publishing or any other industry — in fact, some music publishers wisely release CDs at reduced prices to increase their chances of building audience momentum. Movie tickets cost slightly more when a movie is brand new, but the difference is small relative to the total price. Sorry, Dan, but you’re wrong on this one.

Also, there is no contradiction between my first point that reading remains widely popular and my second point that the mainstream/corporate publishing industry is suffering. “Reading” and “publishing industry product” are not the same thing. The literary publishing industry in the USA is clearly unable to find the right format and price point to appeal to consumers, and consumers are increasingly bypassing the mainstream/corporate publishing industry’s preferred formats for this reason. Does that mean we’re not reading? Hell no, hell no, hell no!

According to Ron Hogan at GalleyCat, quoting a recent press release from the Association of American Publishers:

Adult hardcover sales were down 10.3 percent in December and down 13 percent for the year, but adult paperbacks saw a 12.5 percent increase in sales for the month and a 3.6 percent increase for the year. Adult mass market sales, though, are reported as down 3.0 percent for the year, and we can’t help but wonder if that has anything to do with the 68.4 percent increase in electronic book sales in 2008 and certain genre reading tastes.

See what I’m saying, Daniel? Sorry, but I’m claiming myself as the victor in this argument. And there’s plenty of good stuff happening on the affordable paperback books front — see my recent post about Jason Epstein and the Espresso Book Machine.

2. A superb recent Words Without Borders panel discussion featuring Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago on Don Quixote reminded me how much I’d enjoyed Edith Grossman’s translation (it’s not like I’ve read any other translation, but you know what I mean) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In the Time of Cholera. The film version of this great novel recently turned up on a cable channel and I sat through it. Awful, horrible, seriously not good.

3. A few favorite literary New York City personalities have been releasing good new stuff lately. The spooky and moody East Village presence known as Edgar Oliver, whose written and theatrical works I’ve enjoyed in the past, got a great review from Ben Brantley of the New York Times for his East 10th Street: Self-Portrait With Empty House. Poet Simon Pettet has a new book out, Hearth. And, here’s the YouTube debut of New Jersey poet Eliot Katz reading his poem “Death and War”.

4. Some cool new Poe graphics via Books Are People Too (yes they are).

5. Poet W. S. Merwin on Design Observer: Unchopping a Tree

6. I was admonished via email to pay more attention to independent bookstores and link to I’m not as obsessed with indie bookstores vs. chain bookstores as some other book-lovers are for two reasons: I’m allergic to cats, and Barnes and Noble/Borders restrooms can sometimes really come in handy. Still, I’m down with the cause.

7. This just sucks: the Times Square Virgin Records mega-store (which also had good restrooms, and a basement bookstore!) is closing down. Shea Stadium, now this.

8. Katharine Weber at Readerville: Dear J. D. Salinger.

9. Nigeness contemplates The Wine-Dark Sea.

10. John Updike, cartoonist fanboy.

11. Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut.

12. Daniel Scott Buck’s The Kissing Bug gets some 3:AM praise.

13. Barnes and Noble review gets visual with Ward Sutton.

14. Dan Green’s literary blog The Reading Experience has launched the blog equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, TRE Prime.

15. I’m looking forward to Summertime, apparently the next J. M. Coetzee novel. When Coetzee writes about summertime, you can just bet the living will not be easy.

16. The Shirley Jackson Awards committee is holding a lottery. Though they picked the wrong month — remember: “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”.

17. Via Q-Tip The Abstract, of all people, this Mars Volta performance on David Letterman is something special.

11 Responses

  1. Levi,

    Thanks for responding

    Thanks for responding — drop a comment at my blog next time, even if just to direct my attention. And just so I’m clear, I read LitKicks a lot and meant & mean no offense.

    As anyone who’s read my blog often knows, I’m not a supporter of the publishing industry as it stands; they publish too much, and too much is not good at all, and their marketing strategy has treated books as interchangeable commodities for the last 20 years or so.

    That being said, I still think that the issue of price point is a red herring. If someone is worried about the cost of a book, they have alternatives: going to the library (I live at the BPL) or waiting for softcover editions, or even getting a discount through book groups. The book’s available to them, though, even if not in the immediately-gratifying sense to which Americans are accustomed. And it’s happening: library use is booming, and if funding follows suit then net sales for publishers shouldn’t suffer.

    Competitive rates of sales conversion isn’t the fundamental issue in the industry, although it is a symptom of the times. It’s no secret the customers of all type have shifted to cheaper versions of goods, and publishers will likely print fewer hc and make the sc transition more quickly in due course, or maybe do dual runs (I’m a pretty big fan of the dual hc/sc run).

    Notice, though, how many small houses are doing fine — far better than they should considering the rest of the economy and lightyears better than the enormous conglomerates whose epic failures, I think, distort the industry figures. Lowering price points isn’t viable as a long-term business solution because most of the cost of a book goes towards bookstore margins, overhead, human labor, and royalties; the whole economy needs to adjust to change these costs.

    Alternatively I’d argue that, in order to buy a book, a person has to feel they want a book enough to spend their money on it. It’s a commitment issue. I’m not happy to read any old novel when I want the new Pynchon. If a person wants it, they will spend their money to buy and own this book forever. The industry, as a whole, produces too much, and book culture in America has become too diffuse. Readers have no trust in the “gatekeepers”.

    Allan Kornblum said, at Conversational Reading, “publishing isn’t going to return 20% or even 15% on the dollar — it never has in the past, and I don’t think it will in the future. I think all these changes that are making things difficult for the major houses provide an opening for smaller publishers.” This is my “drum”: do a little bit less, a little bit better, rebuild trust with readers who’ve lost it, be content with slow growth.

    Thanks again!

  2. Yall big city slackers see
    Yall big city slackers see everything in terms of dollars and cents. If it aint on NYT best-seller list, don’t mean nuthin to yah. You don’t bother with it. Got nuthin to do with – is it art or not. Just, is it New Yawk talked about, or not. But we sub-specie of underground lit lovers gots our own world. For example – lit radio – featuring the likes of Tony O’Neill, Dan Fante, Puma Perl, Suzy Devere, and other “y’never heard of ‘em” writers and poets. Maybe the real world extends beyond that little island.

  3. I kind of agree with you on
    I kind of agree with you on this one Levi. If I want to read I’ll read, anything, newspapers, grafitti road signs, hieroglyphs etc, whether or not I understand or comprehend what it is that is before my eyes.

    Excuse me if I digress, I’ve read hieroglyphs on an abandoned temple in south east India, not because I’m a sanskrit scholar, which I’m not, but because it was there and I was there a same time. Made me missed a train, had to wait two days for another one,- that’s reading once you start you gotta finish. Reading’s like breathing we have to do it or we perish, its that simple. It is also free if we have the imagination for it.

    In the beginning was the word…not much has changed since then, irrespective of cost.
    Reading’s reading,and writing’s writing, the book world is far off place of which the Daniel Pritchard’s knows very little, they are the Neville Chamberlain’s of this parish.

    As John Keats implied,writing is about a kind of truth. If we write eventually someone or something will turn up Daniel or Micawber fashion to make it seem true.

    “Let me tell you something pilgrim”

    Is that a den of nails, or a lie of Dan’s you got there? That’s literature these days, upper case, lower case, small case, big case, head case elbow case, who cares case, everyone reads in Rubiks cubes, we are all into hieroglyphics now.’ Some of us even read in icons, we are all doing that as well, at this very moment, writing it too; in the same fashion.

    The stair well and the lift shaft,are a modern novel to some people, illustrated as well. The Daniel’s of this world don’t get out enough to read whats happening.

    Even the good Daniel will reply like this to tell us its not happening,irrespective of the cost.
    What was that McLuhan said? Please send Daniel an email and tell him not to read it because it doesn’t exist. Some of us could fall in love with an email like that.

    That last poor Dan was the last poor Yorick in town, some one informed us we knew him in an a
    Horatio of one two ten with a standard variable mean of 2.4 on his rictus scales, he could’ve been a contender is the night for something or other.

    What a luminous opportunity he could’ve been.
    That’s literature now folks, get used to it.
    Makes sense to some of us, four minutes before incineration.. give us a kiss apocalypse Now!
    Daniel will write the review, golly gosh, does one feel fotunate, now that ones day has been incinerated and made ashes of.
    That guy Daniel must be some kind of genius, no kidding.

  4. Daniel, thanks for your
    Daniel, thanks for your response (and, I would have posted about this on your blog as well, but I figured the magic of referrer reports would lead you to my response soon enough).

    You may be right that my prescription for fixing the literary fiction industry is a “red herring”. I have heard from enough industry insiders — agents tend to be the most emphatic about this — who tell me that they will not give up hardcover-first publishing in a million years because it’s the format that gives them the best chance of making a killing on a successful book. I am aware that I’m an outsider — that is, I don’t work in the publishing business, except as a professional smart-ass here on the blog — and that publishing insiders (like you, Daniel) know the field in a way I never can.

    Still, I know that I would spend a lot more money on literary fiction myself if the books I was interested in were published in a price/format that didn’t turn me off. For instance, Alfred A. Knopf collected exactly $0.00 from me for John Updike’s “Terrorist”, because I had lost interest in the book by the time it came out in paperback. Don’t they want my $15.00, $18.00, whatever? Maybe in some warped-logic world, the economics of premium-priced hardcover-first publishing makes sense to publishers. But it will never make sense to consumers, and that’s who I’m trying to speak for.

    Thanks again for all the feedback, Daniel, and I hope you’ll critique me again as needed in the future.

  5. I have an over-developed
    I have an over-developed critique muscle: blame my grandmother, the Barry Bonds of this particular sport.

    I absolutely agree that the long interm between hc and sc is antiquated (although, you weren’t missing out with Terrorist; noble idea, but a bit out of JU’s scope). FSG did SO well by Bolaño’s 2666 and I hope more publishers follow suit. Royalties structures need to be rethought as well, and HarperStudio is going that road. I personally think authors would do better with a Union or Guild than with individual agents.

  6. In this never-ending debate,
    In this never-ending debate, I think you need to clarify your objectives.

    1. If your goal is to stay abreast of all the new releases…that’s a personal thing. You could ask the publishers/authors to send you review copies. But they’d want you to write a review. And that might be the perfect fit, as the role of critic is essential in so far as telling readers what they absolutely need to read.

    2. If your goal is to shore up the finances of the the big publishers…I don’t think literary fiction is at the core of their business. I wish it was. I think if they were better businessmen, they could get everybody to read literary fiction, and make a fortune selling art. And that’s something you and I, and all Litkickers could get in on.

    3. If your goal is to get many many more people interested in reading literary fiction…then possibly you might want to attune your strategy to that end. I.e., promote the reading of literary fiction from a need basis, rather than a cost basis. Become Oprah of the lit blog.

    In any case, the hardcover/softcover issue seems peripheral to the end goal. You might consider – why does a person go to Barnes & Noble. Are they looking for the newest releases, or just looking. I’m sure B&N has researched this, and I’m sure they’re wrong in their conclusions because their findings are likely reactive (what people buy) instead of pro-active (telling people what they ought to be buying).

  7. Some good points,
    Some good points, Mikael.

    You’re right that I can personally get all the free review copies I want, but yes, this comes at an implicit cost. And really, to tell the truth, my only personal goal here is to write engaging articles about publishing for my blog. People who read my rants against hardcover-first publishing sometimes think I’m angry and obsessed. Well, yeah, I am angry and obsessed about, hmm, the wars in the Middle East, the credit-default swap debacle, the environment, etc.

    But the reason I write so often about what I consider to be the incredibly dysfunctionality of mainstream literary fiction publishing is just that I think there’s a lot to meat to gnaw on here. It’s such an obvious, weird, hilarious mistake that book publishers keep making. Everything we have learned about marketing and audience aggregation in the last 15 years is about the importance of “buzz”, of letting a property gather momentum, letting audiences do your marketing for you. Yet book publishers stick with a high-priced format that is guaranteed to kill buzz and keep audiences elite and small for the first year of a new book’s life. I just think it’s funny, and I enjoy making fun of publishers about this, and I really have no stake in the matter other than that. I also love a big argument where I know I’m right, and they don’t get much better than this.

  8. I don’t believe you. I been
    I don’t believe you. I been following Litkicks fer nigh on ten year, and it’s been my experience that you want to make a difference; to make as big a positive impact as you can. And I think you do that, as much or more so, than most anyone in the lit business. Which is probably why I’m always trying to provoke a reaction – not to annoy, but (in my own way) to salute what you do.

  9. “People read just as much as
    “People read just as much as they ever did, it’s just that what they’re reading today is the literary equivalent of McDonald’s hamburgers.”—Norman Mailer, on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, 1997

  10. I don’t read the NYT, New
    I don’t read the NYT, New Yorker or any of that fancy east coast shit to know that salesmen sale and writers write. I live a few blocks from Powell’s books here in Portland. Book Reviewers are sorry ass excuses for writers, and I don’t read those either. I’ll bring a pillow to sit on and spend hours in Powell’s, why would I exchange that time with some suit telling me what is good and what isn’t? I don’t know if I buy the idea of digital readers becoming wide used just yet, it sure is an interesting idea (and why not, social media, e-media is “IN”), but if you think books are not too expensive these days I don’t know what trash can you’ve been hiding in, but it sounds VERY delusional.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!