Editorial by Kevin Smokler
“Move along!” That’s what my meaner self tells me to say when I meet publishers, event producers and literary magazine editors whose mission/passion is “bold new fiction.” Move along. I’ve no room for you in this life and probably not the next one.
I feel terrible about this. I write about and discuss books for fun, and run a small business for authors and readers for a living. I also haven’t gone a day without reading in nearly 20 years and give only one gift to newborn babies: a hardcover copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
I can’t imagine existence without books and literature. It’s just that I’m not particularly interested in the kind you are offering — you know, the “fresh new voice” I’ve never heard of previously, but that you’re still asking me to dedicate a few weeknights of my chronically scarce reading time to tackling their “bold, new” short story collection.
I’m very sorry, but no. I am a slow reader, marginal homeowner (wife, cat, 1,500 books) and a person with outside interests. I don’t have the space — physical, emotional, or gluteal — for books whose primary enticement is “trust me.” I don’t trust the book because I don’t trust who is offering it. And before the offeree — be they a publisher, journal, or literary reading organizer — starts asking for my weeknights, shouldn’t we at least get to know each other a little?
The 21st century in publishing has the same problem that most of us do in adolescence: it’s hard to date. Typically, there are three ways in which readers and book relate: The Fling, which usually begins and ends in airports (like George Clooney in Up in the Air); The Marriage, in which a books gets brought home to stay and introduced to friends and family; or The Serious, but Doomed Relationship, which requires a lot of weeknights together before deciding that it really isn’t working.
But what ever happened to the first date? That low-risk and necessarily brief encounter where, if the chemistry isn’t right it’s easy to walk away and no one has their feelings hurt or feels as if they’ve wasted a few hours better spent watching television.
No, libraries don’t provide an answer: they still require you to bring your date home (for two weeks!) and back. Nor is the over-romanticized “browsing at the bookstore,” as a) those browsable establishments are disappearing, and b) if we had that kind of free time, we’d also be wearing bobby socks and taping pictures of Frankie Valli to our locker doors.
For many, the coin-of-the-realm is the 1,000 word sample chapter (of anywhere between 5-10 printed pages) that publishers now seed book reviewer’s clouds with in the hopes of making rain. But that too is, at best, an awkward facsimile. A sample chapter requires printing, stapling, then reading, then recycling.
Compared to the MP3, the movie trailer, or Flickr photograph, that sounds like going to the Prom before you’ve gone out for coffee.
What we need is the equivalent of an “MP3 format” for fiction: a modest snack-sized dabble of new books and stories, capable of the same ubiquity that the MP3 has brought to recorded sound. Say what you will about how hard the 21st century has been for the music business, it remains an unparalleled golden age for music fans where exploration, discovery and kaleidoscopic fandom has never been easier nor more culturally encouraged. That record labels have not found a way to stay in business despite this bounty is both their own fault and a mistake book publishers should not repeat.
What are the MP3’s natural advantages? I see three that our industry could copy in creating a “book dabble.”
1. Format-neutrality: An MP3 is still an MP3 on your iPod, laptop, mobile phone or key chain. This universal formatting enables the music fan to consume music on the platform and in the location of their choice. The more convenient that consumption is, the more one consumes — and the more variety one consumes.
I’m aware there’s a mess of rights and format issues in publishing right now with authors, publishers and device manufacturers all dead set on protecting the future (or past) that serves them best. My advice? Quit arguing, sit down together and figure out what works best for readers. I promise you there is no future is making life easy for you and hard(er) for your customers.
2. Size Matters: Music, film and visual arts have the natural advantage at a sample size of 1-3 minutes. Books may seem less “chunkable,” but that’s only because we haven’t tried hard enough yet. Do we offer one page samples via an iPhone app? Tease a new journal issue with an emailed short story? Preview a season’s worth of titles via single chapters as podcast episodes? Many publishers and ancillary startups already do this. I’m sure there are reasons why others don’t —and none of them are good. They overlook that a buy-in on a new book by an unknown author is a large risk of time and money to the reader. If publishers don’t lower that barrier of entry, expect a lot of avid readers to run face first into it then go home.
3. Trust: There is now an entire industry of online services, radio shows, MP3 blogs and music festivals, designed to expose like-minded music fans to new artists. We in publishing don’t have this, at least not as formally. Most readers trust book recommendations from friends long before those from publishers, editors, critics or even booksellers. Thankfully, the technology now exists to make those relationships both visible and workable. It would require significant investment from many competing interests, but imagine what a Netflix or iTunes of fiction could do for the reading experience, where books are put in play with other cultural interests — film, music, television — and you can quickly discover that a love of Mad Men might be a strong predictor for a love of Walker Percy.
The bottom line is this: almost no one a reader does not know personally has earned the trust to say “please sacrifice several hours on this unknown author you may or may not care for.” That’s akin to opening a first date with “You are the woman of my dreams” and expecting the reader across the table to feel comfortable.
This mishandling of “new” in publishing is a serious problem. And there’s no single panacea: the answer isn’t a new device like the upcoming Apple iSlate or some as yet-undreamed of startup enterprise. It’s going to require a serious rethink of the sales pitch for books.
The hard reality of our time and our business is that there are a lot of books, and they compete with a lot of other attractions (and distractions) for your customer’s time and money. Plus, your best customers — avid readers — are actually less hungry for “shiny new books” than you think and already have more than enough books to fill their reading lives, most likely, until death. Given how many great books most people already own, “new” and “fresh” by themselves are not alluring, and “new” without “why” is mere ballast.
In 1959, a young Chicago agency named Doyle, Dane, and Bernach revolutionized advertising with a campaign for the Volkswagon car company. The ads were a distant picture of a new Volkswagon Beetle set against a stark white background, underscored by a caption which read “Think Small.”
In the era when muscle cars reigned, where adjectives like “New” “Fresh” and “Exciting” were the lingua franca of advertising, DDB chose to opt for understatement rather than bluster, for modesty and wit rather than bombast and bludgeon. The “Think Small” campaign suggested that the Volkswagon was for people who knew better. It appealed both to both those in the counterculture and the consumer culture. In 2005, Advertising Age voted the “Think Small” campaign the most successful advertising campaign of all time.
Can we “Think Small” in publishing? We have no choice. The time-starved but eager reader is our most valuable consumer.
Before we ask them to sit down for the formal ten-course tasting menu can we entice them with one perfect amuse bouche?
Before we ask them to bed, shouldn’t we at least kiss?
Kevin Smokler is the CEO of BookTour.com
DISCUSS: Is Giving Too Much Away A Good Idea?