Monday, January 05, 2009

The Book Bail-Out

There was a short satirical piece by Julian Gough in the New York Times on Saturday, supposedly from Hank Paulson and concerning the bail-out of the literary industry. (I missed it in the actual paper, and noticed it when Sarah Weinman linked to it.)

Gough's piece feints in the direction of drawing blood -- such as when he writes

The role of the ratings agencies cannot be overlooked in creating this crisis. The Pulitzer, Booker and National Book Foundation committees continued to award top ratings to these novels, even as unread copies piled up all over America.

These unreadable novels are clogging up our literary system, and undermining the strength of our otherwise sound literary institutions.
If he actually followed up on that, and made a strong, cutting parallel between literary awards (given to books that only a few people actually enjoy reading) and complicated financial instruments (which only a very few people understand), he could have gone somewhere. Sadly, he doesn't; the end of the essay dribbles out.

The whole point of a piece like that is to throw out some outlandish solutions as if they were obvious, and Gough completely drops the ball there -- he doesn't actually give any details of his supposed book bail-out. It's as if he had the idea, but didn't bother to expand it beyond "Ha Ha! Wouldn't it be funny if there were a federal bail-out for publishing?!"


Anonymous said...

Yes, but they aren't unread novels. Quite often the nominees for Pulitzer, Booker and NBA are bestsellers, or lower-rung bestsellers or, at the least, getting lots of reviews and media coverage, etc. It's seldom that a U.S. book is nominated for a major award that I haven't heard of before in Entertainment Weekly or seen on the lists, and half the nominees in other countries as well. And then the winner of the awards for the last ten years or so almost always becomes a bestseller, if it wasn't one already. (In the U.S., this may be entirely from reading clubs picking it up, but it happens regularly, even if Oprah doesn't say a word.)And such awards promise continual annual sales at universities until possibly the end of time.

So this idea that the prizes are giving out awards to obscure books that no one reads seems to me to be highly out-dated, a left-over notion from the 1970's. The problem isn't that trade publishers buy weird novels only of interest to intelligensia. It's that they put out reams of books with no handy marketing tool like a big prize at all, and the booksellers take them and send reams of them back as returns.

What we need is a bailout to publishers so that they can refuse to do returns anymore and withstand the booksellers throwing a tantrum about it, and then bailout the bookstores that go under because of the change until they can figure out how to do the orders more effectively. Or something. But awards have been one of the most effective promotional tools we've got in the last decade.

Andrew Wheeler said...

KatG: I think you missed the point.

Yes, a lot of copies of award-winning books are sold. But how many of them are read?

For a slightly different example, how many completely unread copies of A Brief History of Time are out there?

Award-winners are famously the books that people buy but don't read -- or give up on after fifty pages.

And the returns system is a bit more nuanced and useful than you're allowing for -- the existence of books that sell in bestseller quantities is dependent on returns, and publishers don't want to give up on that sales velocity. What publishers want is not to have to shoulder all of the risk -- but neither do booksellers.

Julian Gough said...

Hiya Hornswoggler,

May I call you Andrew?

I think we just want different things from our satires. The piece you wish I'd written (the one throwing in lots of outlandish suggestions) would have been a great piece, and if you write it do please tell me, I'd love to read it. But I wasn't aiming to do that.

I think this piece is being misread (very understandable so) by people in publishing, as a satire on publishing. (I think Sarah Weinman had similar response.) It's not, it's a satire on the Paulson bailouts. (The NYT has inadvertently encouraged this misreading by crossposting it to the Books page).

In fact, pretty much every line in my piece is taken directly from an actual Paulson statement, and then tweaked by one or two words. One of the joys of his statements is that they spend their entire length carefully describing the problem, and then dribble out having completely failed to tell you how the bailout money is supposed to solve the problem.

For me, the point of the satire was twofold (I know you like numbered lists):

1.) To satirise the expansion of the Treasury bailouts into areas of American life far, far removed from the Treasury's area of responsibility and expertise. (Insurance? Automobiles?) Publishing just happens to map onto the language of the originals very easily.

2.) Sheer pleasure in playing with language. It's fun to translate an official statement into its opposite by changing as few words as possible.

Anyway, it's a pleasure to be read by you. Recently, I, too, have wrestled with the science fiction short story, and how to make the beast work. I'll be dipping into your archives for tips. Best of luck with the blog, and have a great 2009,

-Julian Gough

Anonymous said...

A lot more of the novels get read, or at least attempted, than the bestselling business books all the corporate people have to buy to look properly corporate. Contrast that to twenty years ago, when there were hardly any reading clubs and when the NBA was announced, no one much noticed. These awards have become major marketing tools, used the way the film folk do, sorta, and a chance to get at least some media coverage for fiction. Whether one thinks this deserved or not, to have publishing continually preach that people don't buy literary fiction, when quite clearly they do, gets more and more ridiculous. The poor ignored literature routine makes fiction publishing -- and trade publishing with it -- appear dated, unhip, and uninviting. It's a lousy marketing strategy, whereas the awards have been used for highly successful marketing campaigns.

As for returns, yes, I know it's a very complicated system. But it would be nice, in a completely unmanagable fantasy, if it could be junked with all its problems, but publishers and booksellers wouldn't be slammed by doing so.

Neither of these things had much to do with the satirical piece, I admit, but it's what popped to mind. Sorry, Julian. Congrats on your article, though.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Julian: You know, it can be really annoying when I make a sarcastic, underhanded attack on someone and he's all gracious and thoughtful about it.

I'm sorry I misunderstood the point of your satire, although I should also say that I did it deliberately and with malice. Looking again, I think you were more subtle than I expected -- I was anticipating something more thuddingly Swiftian, when you were being precise and cutting.

Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with all of your writing.

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