The way things were… and may be again?
I was reading an article about how Louis L’Amour got his start in writing Westerns, written by his son Beau. It’s titled “Louis L’Amour and the Legend of the West“. A number of points stayed with me, but one in particular got me thinking about current trends in the book market. Beau writes:
Before World War II, there were fewer than five hundred real bookstores in the whole of the United States, and most of those were centralized in a dozen northeastern cities. The rest of the country was serviced by “book of the month” clubs and libraries. Before the advent of the paperback, at least half of all titles produced by American publishers sold fewer than 2,500 copies. The book industry was staid and predictable, organized around a group of venerable old companies. Its product came from a relatively elite group of writers and sold to a relatively elite group of readers.
On the other hand, the magazine business was a good deal more lively and inventive. While bookstores may have been in limited supply, the country had thousands of newspaper and magazine stands, cigar stores, drugstores, and railway and bus stations. Though the two businesses, books and magazines, eyed one another with a mixture of envy and contempt, it was destined that they should meet.
It was not an immediate love affair. Hardback publishers looked down on the cheap books, and believed that the American masses weren’t readers. They allowed paperback publishers to reprint their titles but assumed the arrangement would be at worst an experiment on someone else’s dime and at best no more than a passing fad. However, the experiment turned into a breakaway success and led to an explosion of paperback publishing houses in the mid- to late 1940s. The number of copies sold shot into the millions. Mass-market distribution changed the entire concept of success in the publishing industry.
Isn’t that also a pretty fair description of the impact of e-books and self-publishing on the book market in the USA (not to mention elsewhere)? Print book publishers found themselves in the same position as the hardback publishers of the late 1930’s. They looked down on the self-publishing world, and only reluctantly allowed some of their conventionally/traditionally published books to be issued in e-book editions, presuming that the latter would be “at worst an experiment on someone else’s dime and at best no more than a passing fad”. Boy, have they been proved wrong!
That reminded me of another article, this one by Florent Crivello, looking at the subject of efficiency. It’s very interesting from a business point of view, but I think it also has lessons for us as writers. It’s titled “The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up“. Here’s an excerpt.
Indeed, [the] love of order is above all else about appearances. Streets arranged in grids, people waiting in clean lines, cars running at the same speed… But everything that looks good doesn’t necessarily work well. In fact, those two traits are opposed more often than not: efficiency tends to look messy, and good looks tend to be inefficient.
This is because complex systems — like laws, cities, or corporate processes — are the products of a thousand factors, each pulling in a different direction. And even if each factor is tidy taken separately, things quickly get messy when they all merge together.
The chaotic look of structural orderliness shouldn’t be so surprising. Intellectually, we do understand that appearances are misleading — things don’t have to look as they are, nor be as they look. But intuitively, we all remain hopeless slaves of appearances, no matter how often we were misled by them.
This natural messiness of efficiency is demonstrated by recent advances in industrial design. When a God-level AI takes over in a science fiction book, it often remakes the world in its image: full of straight lines, smooth acceleration rates, and lots of chrome (AIs love that stuff). But as we start using algorithms to design things, we get results that look a lot more chaotic than that, confirming that our intuitive preference for “straight line” designs has nothing to do with performance — it just comes from our limited ability to reason about more complex solutions. Ironically, it’s us humans who think like robots.
Again, isn’t that precisely what old-school publishers tried to do to the book market when e-books and independent publishing came along? They looked at the resulting chaos, with everyone piling into the market hoping to make a quick buck, and decided to organize it according to their traditional way of doing business. That led to price-fixing and collusion between the Big Five publishers and Apple, and the resulting anti-trust court case that will go down in legal history as a classic of its kind. In so many words, the traditional publishers were caught red-handed conspiring to shut out the rest of us. Fortunately, their scheme didn’t work.
Now the e-book market is shaking out again, as the number of titles explodes to almost unimaginable proportions. Amazon no longer provides a figure, but I guesstimate its Kindle Store now has well over ten million titles on offer, both for sale and free. It becomes harder and harder for an author to gain visibility and develop a following amid a sea of other books and writers competing for the same audience. Those of us who’ve been in the market for a while find our market share (and our sales) declining as a result, but newcomers have it much worse than we do. They battle to gain any traction at all, and many talk despairingly about simply giving up.
In the midst of such angst and all those pressures, it’s worth remembering that we’re experiencing nothing new. The book market has always had its shake-ups, always had those trying to impose order upon it from their omnipotent heights, while demanding that the rest of us plebs fall into line and obey their pontifications. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work now. The book market (like many others) can’t be dictated to. It’ll make up its own mind what’s going to happen, and the wise writer will adjust their ways (and their output) accordingly. Trying to do things the same old way, or stop the market from changing, just won’t cut it any more. Change has become an almost constant process, and we have to learn to change with the market – or else.
Welcome to chaos! It’s a fun wave to ride.