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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.

12 Comments
  1. Good points. Especially ;D the one about mess. One more reason to not straighten up my office.

    The next change, already in progress, is probably audio books.

    December 13, 2019
    • Straighten up? No. Dust and de-fur monthly? Yes.

      Audio books yes. There are several markets that seem hungry for titles, including the long-haul drivers. Books on CD appear in a lot of truck stops.

      December 13, 2019
      • Roger Ritter #

        When I was commuting 1.5 hours each way to work, audiobooks were what I listened to on the drive. They’re still my preferred entertainment when I’m in the car.

        December 13, 2019
  2. “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.”

    Even that paradigm may soon fall. Quantum computing combined with new computer algorithms (dealing with multiple destination/stop delivery routes of all things) is starting to lead to revolutionary improvements in efficiency even in highly complex, chaotic systems.

    ” 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.”

    All true; but the cost of gaining entry into the “published author” world has probably never been lower. Being able to earn a living at it on the other hand, does seem to require a statistically larger factor of luck.

    December 13, 2019
    • This – a good time to write and get published, independently – but uphill all the way in making a living from it!

      December 13, 2019
  3. Carrington Dixon #

    Before World War II, there were fewer than five hundred real bookstores in the whole of the United States, […]. The rest of the country was serviced by “book of the month” clubs and libraries.

    One of my uncles said he used to order Burroughs and Mulford from the Sears catalog! It seems that the book you got was not always the book you ordered, but there were few alternatives in those days.

    December 13, 2019
    • Book clubs… Tor has a monthly giveaway. There’s bookbub and such. Then there’s the Baen bundles. All interesting ways of marketing, but I keep wondering how much impact they really make with readers. I know I’ve also seen people trying video trailers put up on YouTube, which is a stretch of genre (a video for a book?). Fun to speculate, hard to figure out what really works. Oh, toss goodreaders and Sarah’s booklists in there, too…

      December 13, 2019
      • Ben Yalow #

        The most useful thing is hanging around with other readers whose tastes you know, and who know your taste. If one of them says, “You’ll probably like this book.”, then I’ll buy it, because the odds are very good that I’ll like it.

        Second best is people who don’t know my tastes, but whose taste I know, and, if it’s a useful taste for me, then I can use their recommendations (note that there are some people whose tastes are orthogonal to mine — their recommendations are irrelevant),

        And, since I’ve gotten a few thousand books from Amazon, it knows a bit about my taste, and so the recommendation engine is getting almost reasonable guesses about what books I might like.

        And, since I’m pretty ruthless about putting a book down and not resuming if it bores me, then I don’t waste too much time reading books I don’t enjoy reading. I expect that’s different for people who feel obliged to finish a book they start, even if they decide they don’t like it.

        December 14, 2019
        • Mary #

          Orthogonal is important. If they are opposite, or even slightly off — there once was a reviewer who could get me to pounce by calling a book too sweet.

          December 14, 2019
  4. “But everything that looks good doesn’t necessarily work well.”

    A GM executive told of an automatic transmission that they had licensed for manufacture by a German firm. But the ones made by the German company didn’t work reliably, even though they had all the proper prints and design/manufacturing documentation to make them properly.

    Turned out that there was an internal passage that was only roughly machined, per the American spec…the Germans didn’t like that and thought it should be machine nice and smoothly, even though no one would ever see it. And it turned out that smoothing that passage messed up the hydraulic flow within it in some unpredicted way.

    December 13, 2019
    • Mary #

      tut, tut, tut. Sloppy

      December 14, 2019
    • Psychokitteh #

      Efficiency was the enemy of effective.

      Smooth surface made the fluid flow easily. Under operating conditions, transmission fluid heats up and gets thinner (less viscous), so it takes less pressure to move it. Operates at lower pressure; hurrah for efficiency. An automatic transmission uses pressure to shift gears, so under load this ‘improvement’ makes the unit work harder or not well – probably near or below the operating threshold. Oops – not as effective, it doesn’t work right.

      December 18, 2019

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