The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The mantra
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JoAnne McNeil:

Publishers need to act like… record labels.

Say it again.

If there were a Tony Wilson of publishing, you bet I would buy every book printed, (disposable income permitting.)

Think about how true that feels. And think about how few institutions or mechanisms there are that create a sense of trust or of identity in book publishing – especially in the wide-open, nobody-knows anything world of mainstream fiction and nonfiction.

October 11, 2009 / Uncategorized

12 comments

Matt Penniman says…

Do publishers need to act more like record labels, or do authors need to act more like rock stars? I think we’ve seen a number of successful authors lately — Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi spring to mind — who do a fair amount of that trust and identity creation work on their own, through their blogs, and reap the rewards accordingly. I probably would never have read “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, let alone “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town” if it weren’t for Boing Boing. And there’s also another book project I keep hearing about that does something similar — only with even more effort to draw readers into the creation process. Granted, this is happening at the sci-fi genre fringe… but couldn’t it transfer pretty effectively to the mainstream? It seems to be working for Bruce Schneier.

Matt Penniman says…

Looking at this again, I see that you’re talking about something different… not just rock star authors, but trusted arbiters that can introduce us to the new authors that may write fantastically well, but lack the gift for self-promotion.

What about something like the opening act convention that’s emerged in the music world, being transferred to publishing? It’s pretty common to see an excerpt from another book by the same author at the end of a paperback; what if publishers used that space (or even space at the beginning of the book) to promote a new author with a similar style / topic?

I love this idea!

Matt Penniman says…

Incidentally, sci-fi author Charlie Stross disagrees (briefly, in an aside):

“Also note that book publishers do a hell of a lot more work to help authors’ sales than, for example, music studios do to help musicians. I could do the work, but energy spent on editorial/typesetting/production/marketing/sales is energy not spent on writing, which is what I’m good at and what I enjoy doing.”

Tim Carmody says…

Maybe the refined version of this is: publishers’ catalogues and branding should be more like music labels’ catalogues and branding.

In other words, the sign of a publisher isn’t or oughtn’t to be just a vague seal of approval – it ought to be curatorial, it ought to tell us something more about what the book is like by placing it in kinship with other books.

There are successful models of this, some of which McNeil identifies. There are even more historical ones. And record labels, especially mega-majors, are sometimes as vapid as book publishing.

But it’s an example where the heuristics of one field feel so right and the other feel so wrong. You have to specify what works and how.

But this is why it is a mantra, not a program.

I don’t know about the authors as rockstars thing. For a writer, social ineptitude is like a naturally occuring Tommy John elbow

Tim Carmody says…

I think the authors-as-rockstars idea, which is a good one, suggests that individual authors can help create these mechanisms of trust and identity. I’d add further that they’re transferable! So just as Kurt Cobain can help turn a generation of fans onto the Pixies, Meat Puppets, Vaselines, and Daniel Johnston, a thumbs-up from Doctorow (or whomever) can substitute for a publisher’s stamp.

Since I’m a nerd for Ezra Pound, I’m especially partial to the author as genius/patron/advocate model. One thing Pound frequently did was to convince fans with some capital to become publishers – probably most successfully in the case of James Laughlin and New Directions. ND still has a strong curatorial identity in its catalog.

One thing I wonder – who could be publishing’s Jay-Z (or The Beatles and Apple Records, etc.)? Who could be an artist/mogul who could work both ends, and not only for the benefit of their own art?

Seth Godin says as much in this talk over here: he argues that magazines have always made more money than publishing houses, word for word, because they’ve got themselves an audience first, and then they look for writers to put words in front of that said audience. When I think of this model of publishing, McSweeney’s immediately springs to mind. And … well that’s just about it, I suppose. O’Reilly too, but they command less loyalty amongst their readership.

I am a little baffled by this whole conversation, because for me there was/is a very clear entity fulfilling all these duties: the (independent) bookstore. The Cody’s that was, and curently Moe’s, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Diesel and especially little ole Rakestraw in little ole Danville are all run by voracious readers with good taste and a sense of what their readers like. Rakestraw, in Danville, is particularly exemplary. Well, there, right there on its homepage is a blurb praising it from Michael Chabon, one of our literary rockstars. (And I bought a signed copy of one of Chabon’s books long after the appearance, precisely because the owner thought I might want to.) But the store’s Michael Barnard is an indefatiguable promoter of books, reading, and a reading culture, and both his email/web presence and his cashier-side conversation serve as enthusiastic, trust-worthy literary curation for a whole town. In that warm and cozy space, you don’t *need* to be a rockstar in order for any personal charisma or talent to be amplified into high enough volume to yield book sales.

And of course Stoss is exactly right: science fiction and fantasy publishers do all kinds of things to get their books out their, and plenty of cultural organization (cons, readings, fan zines, websites) create an atmosphere of trusted discovery.

Totally. But – at the same time – a publisher can create different effects than a brick-and-mortar bookstore (and vice versa) b/c its customer base is not bound by place.

I’ve tried to keep up with several of the great bookstores I’ve known as I’ve moved away, and it’s really, really tough. Bookstores are places, and they can connect and identify a place — music labels, since the days of mail-order, can create an imagined community where spatial proximity doesn’t matter as much.

Still, however, it’s no accident that there’s overlap between the two — indie music stores doubling as indie labels (like Rough Trade) or indie bookstores as indie publishers (like City Lights).

Hmm. I think I don’t understand what you’re after then. Tony Wilson was a regionalist, and his recording company catalog only has 3 hands down global rockstar bands. When I click on the original post, the idea of just buying everything any publisher or record producers puts out without any thought of my own preferences is a little repulsive. That seems like brand slavishness. Are there brands in publishing I trust? Absolutely–that doesn’t mean I buy everything they put out, modulo disposable income. But I’ve got enough stuff by Chroncle Books, McSweeny’s, Grove, or (weirdly) Harper Perennial to feel like their logos are small positive weight in favor of my decision to buy. In my genre of choice, Tor, Baen and Bantam Spectra have been pretty admirable in their choices. The University presses (nicely displayed here in Berkeley by yet another beloved book store, University Press Books, nicely twinned with A Musical Offering) are pretty reliable—Oxford, Princeton, and UC in particular. And there’s always the excitement of the Yellow Sale. . .

I do think it would be great if Editors were more visible. If their names were actually on books, if authors thanked them more publicly, and if every so often they granted interviews explaining their choices for the season. That would be pretty great.

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