There may or may not be an economic crisis in this country — a year later, and already we’re being told that we’re recovering from the recession many journalists told us would rival the Great Depression (a quick survey of the literature of the ’30s shows how much better off even the worst off among us are now). What is certain is that there has been a tectonic shift in a few core industries, notably the auto sector, mass media — and now, cataclysmically, book publishing. The effect of the digital revolution on the book trade has been every bit as shocking as diminished consumption and a new environmental awareness have been on the car business. The difference is that book publishers, historically aware of their precariousness, are — as Google Canada spokesperson Tamara Micner would have them do — “skating not to where the puck is but to where it’s going to be.” Unlike their brethren in Windsor, Oakville, and Oshawa (the colour of a collar means nothing now), they are not stubbornly insisting on their right to make a product that fewer and fewer people are likely to buy — in the case of publishers, books printed on paper.
By and large, book publishing has always relied largely on a blockbuster model in which, at least in theory, a small number of winners pave the way for the extensive, middling rest — books that may have all sorts of superior qualities and be proof of their authors’ dazzling futures, but that do not, for the moment, pay. All the decisions that especially large publishers make, from the size of advances to authors to the size of print runs, are founded on the dogged belief that a book will be propelled to the top of the bestseller lists — a tenuous possibility at the best of times.
In most cases, and certainly when an unanticipated bestseller does so, it is by virtue of a host of circumstances that has little to do with rational prediction and almost everything to do with chance. To a degree, public predilections can be explained — if the novels on the racks of pharmacies and airport stores look eerily similar, it is because they are. All writers, like the proverbial aboriginal oral storyteller, essentially adapt the same stock stories for new audiences to hear. “Books are like toilet paper,” the fabled Toronto salesman of remaindered books, Bob Dingman, is reputed to have said. “You run out, you go buy some more.” Certainly publishers believe this, whatever their pronouncements to the contrary. They know that each year their lists must have the same sorts of books on them: the thriller, the multi-generational saga, the immigrant novel, the political memoir, and so on. They know the same fodder is what usually sells.
To some extent, then, though only to a point, the public can be manipulated. Those who are struck by an occasional tendency to want to buy a book — in summer, for themselves, or at Christmastime for someone else — are most likely to return to the comfort of an author they already know, whether James Patterson or Margaret Atwood. And in the weeks before Christmas, when approximately 40 percent of books are sold, publishers who can afford to — notably, the Canadian arms of the international houses such as HarperCollins, Penguin, and the Bertelsmann Group (including Random House, Doubleday, and Knopf Canada) — furnish the bookstores with an oversupply of such books, hoping to bully their titles into prominence and bestsellerdom. Hence all those ungainly pallets you will encounter again this December crowding the aisles of big box stores.
This highly effective act of public persuasion is not an option for small, independent publishers, whose expendable resources are blood, sweat, and tears. For them, grit is the only sensible way forward. But grit is not a growth model, and so even the independent publisher — no matter how small, no matter how previously wide of the mark — still fantasizes about the Big One, about a Giller or a GG win or an endorsement by Oprah. And why not? It happened to Eckhart Tolle, and before that to Rohinton Mistry and Ann-Marie MacDonald. Even the unlikely Hal Niedzviecki, an enthusiast of web culture whose track record has been otherwise unremarkable, found himself on Oprah’s summer reading list this year.
Or, if not Oprah, then word of mouth. Every once in a while, uninstigated buzz — what people recommend to each other unprompted — can sling into the retail stratosphere an unheralded book like Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants; Joseph Boyden’s second and not-quite-as-good-as-the-first novel, Through Black Spruce; or Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the third novel by a hard-working, immensely talented but previously only mid-list author.
Today, however, the Big One is not just the stuff of dreams, but a matter of necessity. Now the Big One has to happen. Whereas the conventional wisdom used to assert that 20 percent of books paid for the remaining 80, the combined effect of the Internet, digital mechanisms of delivery, and big box stores has been to raise the stakes so that 10 percent of book sales now pay for the remaining 90. Says Susan Renouf, associate publisher at McClelland & Stewart and a veteran of the Canadian book trade, “When a book doesn’t take really quickly, it is not allowed to stay in stores long enough for word of mouth to build. A book needs that first big weekend or an award, or else the book is stuck.”
There are exceptions, of course, which is why the more writer-friendly publisher’s adage says, “Books have a long life.” Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees had been in the marketplace for almost six years before Oprah noticed it. Lawrence Hill had been working the literary festival circuit for months, like any other author fighting despair — more empty seats, more copies unsold — before The Book of Negroes went ballistic. And Rawi Hage was putting the finishing touches to Cockroach, the second novel of a critically acclaimed but fairly impecunious career, when he won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most lucrative in the English-speaking world for a single work of fiction.
Word of mouth has always existed, but the web has dramatically augmented its effect. Now everything has changed; everything is up in the air — or, to be more exact, the web’s ether. To date, publishers have had a relatively easy ride. During the past seventy-five years, the music business has had to adjust from seventy-eights to thirty-three-and-a-third rpm “long-playing” records, then forty-fives, reel-to-reel tapes, eight-tracks, cassette recorders, CDs, and now MP3s; the film industry has moved from main street cinemas to video stores, pay TV, DVDs, and now Blu-Ray and web downloads. Meanwhile, the book trade has made the unremarkable transition from hard to soft covers.
But the book industry’s digital future, one that was comfortably far off even as the music industry was being decimated, is now ineluctably and forcefully here. No longer the stuff of speculation. Today, Canadian publishers are having to question, at the most fundamental level, what it is that they do — what books are, how they market and sell them, and whether making physical books is any longer the business they are in.
The Long Tail was the proposition, formulated by the American author Chris Anderson, that the Internet would facilitate the purchase of previously unsold items by exploiting the nearly infinite “shelf space” of the virtual store. Publishers adored this scenario because it promised new life for backlisted books that big box stores, pharmacies, and airport stores were, in the face of ever more daunting inventory, more and more reluctant to offer. The Long Tail was especially appealing to small publishers without the means to overproduce books, or to buy “co-op” advertising; all those “Buzz” or “New & Hot” tables that occupy space that is, in fact, bought and paid for.
he Long Tail was supposed to have created a new retail context in which the full, eclectic range of consumer tastes would be realized and, for producers — in Susan Renouf’s words — “being small, independent and nimble would be an advantage again.” Except that didn’t happen — at least, not in the way the web gurus anticipated.
What the Internet has not done in the way Anderson predicted is to attract masses of customers turning to their computers wanting to track down an early edition of Giller Prize winner Austin Clarke’s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, buried deep in the company’s backlist, or Cormorant’s debut collection of stories by Joseph Boyden, Born with a Tooth. Or at least not in numbers sufficiently large to matter. Rather than connecting the public to the glorious cornucopia of the Long Tail, the effect of the web has been to serve fewer blockbusters better.