The Garret Tree
Saturday, December 03, 2005
  The business of non-fiction books

This Saturday's Globe and Mail has declared that literary fiction is in trouble (The great fiction crash of 2005, story accessible for about two weeks from this posting).

Michael Posner says:
Call it whatever you want -- the fact is that international demand for English-language literary fiction has gone seriously south....retailers are complaining that sales for new fiction are soft, that orders for reprints and back-listed books are down, and that publishing houses from Berlin to Boston are becoming choosier about what novels they buy, when they are willing to buy them, and what they are willing to pay.
Of course to a writer, that story isn't exactly news, the same story could have been written in any year going back at least to the mid-70s.

The problem as Toronto agent Bev Slopen told the Globe and Mail:
the whole culture of publishing has changed. In the past, great publishers, from Canada's Jack McClelland to Britain's Andrew Deutsch, "believed they published authors, not books. They used to stick with an author through several books whether all the books made money or not." Now, whether a book made money or won prizes is less relevant. "If the next book doesn't suit their taste, their budget projections or their marketing issues," it won't get published.

Yes, this morning Globe readers were told, if they didn't already know, that the beancounters, MBAs and consultants are ruining the book business just as they are ruining television and newspapers.

What seems to have prompted the article is that as a small part of the larger picture, the Canadian fiction renaissance which captured the world's attention over the past five years or so seems to be fading.

The answer, publishers seem to saying, is non-fiction. At which point every one in this country and beyond who has written a serious non-fiction book will roll their eyes.

First the idea that non-fiction will save publishing is as old as the idea that literary fiction is an uncertain part of the business.

The late Barbara Tuchman, a great literary popular historian wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Week, on March 6, 1966 about an encounter while skiing in Aspen.

I shared a double-chair lift with an advertising man from Chicago. He told me he was in charge of all copy for his firm in all media: TV radio and the printed word. On the strength of this he assured me and I quote that "Writing is coming back. Books are coming back." I cannot tell you how pleased I was and I know you would be too."

Unless a fiction author is writing a historical epic or let's call it "insider" account, fiction requires little investment other than time.

Literary non-fiction, the kind the publishers seem to say they want in the post 9/11 world, however, requires a great deal of investment, in research, perhaps travel, interviews, archival searches, Freedom or Access to Information requests, fact checking, and then the writing and the rewriting. All the costs, both financial and in personal time are borne by the author.

The problem is that advances for what is called the "mid-list" book have not kept pace with inflation over the past 25 years. Many non-fiction works these days are often, in the case of journalists or academics with a popular bent, spinoffs of stories where the costs are absorbed either by the journalist's employer or by academic grants. The original literary non-fiction book is often a "passion project."

Publishers will shell out megabucks for what they think will be blockbusters, often ghost written celebrity biographies, a rake of political diatribes and occasionally something with some meaning in it.

Then once the book is written, edited and published, comes the problem of promotion. The promotion a book receives is, 99 per cent of the time, not based on its worth as a book, or even its potential market. It is based on the advance, the original investment in the book, an investment the corporate beancounters want returned plus a profit. It matters little to the beancounters, MBAs and consultants that investing in promoting a better mid-list book might bring a bigger profit in the long run, it's not in their business plan.

As I have said before on this blog, when a book fails, it is always the fault of the author, never the publisher, even if the publisher didn't promote the book or promote it properly to the right market or the buyer for the book store chain put in the wrong category.

What the publishers who think non-fiction will save their bottom line forget is that these days authors are just as hard-assed business people as they are. Add up the costs of working on a book, compare to the likely advance and you will find that more projects these days don't even reach the proposal stage. Or if they reach the proposal stage the agent will tell the author it isn't worth it.

So why are there so many books out there that nobody is buying? It's the same reason that nobody is watching the 500 channel universe. There's nothing on television because every one of the 500 CEOs on those 500 channels are hiring the same consultants.

There are all those books nobody is buying because these days publishers don't sell books to the public. They sell books to the buyers for the book chains. And those buyers' jobs are dependent on how well their area does in a quarter. So they are not going take risks, and they are going to follow the formulae created in the book chain back office.

Posner concludes his piece by saying:
When you think about the opportunities people have for how they spend free time . . . sometimes at the end of the day it's just easier to pick up a Get Shorty DVD for $9.99.

Well it's the same with authors, at the end of the day (as it is now) it's easier to knock off a few paragraphs on a blog and go out on the town or grab that DVD and relax for 90-odd mindless minutes.

The article by Barbara Tuchman was reprinted in her collection, Practicing History Ballantine 1982

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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