Today I’m doing two posts in one, and the poems are offset so you can read them and ignore the rest if you want.
I’m inter-cutting some haiku with some ideas that came about when a neighbor asked me if I thought the publishing industry was going to survive. It was odd because the questions was “if” and not “how,” the implication being that the media has pretty much prepared the obituary for paper publishing in the wake of e-readers like the Kindle.
Basically, the publishing industry needs to get back to its roots. It needs to stop trying to act like a a subdivision of a large corporate entity (even if it is one) and it needs to stop second guessing trends like a teen without style chasing the popular kids around school. It needs to dump the business models and the marketing tools. My interest is primarily in children’s books, but some of this could be more universal.
this old hat, stolen
from a scarecrow… how fiercely
the cold rain pelts it!
1. Standardize the size of picture books. Mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks, the majority of hardcovers… these books are all the same trim size in each category for a reason: they are more economical to mass produce and ship when they are the same size. If you’ve ever seen the receiving area of a bookstore you can spot a box of mass markets from a distance because the box is a particular size. Inside that box and number of titles are fitted without a single inch of wasted space.
Then you look at other boxes, also of a particular size, but you know they contained “mixed titles” which means non-standard sized books fits as best as a shipping monkey could fit them, with lots of bubble wrap, shrink wrap, packing peanuts, or wadded up paper to keep them from jostling around. This is how picture books arrive. They waste space and resources because they aren’t standardized and cannot be shipped in mixed quantities in a standardized box. Because of this, they cost more to ship in the long run (and they already have a very low profit margin), they are environmentally unfriendly, and honestly, isn’t it a little like having the paintings determine the size of the museum? Which brings us to our second fit.
thinking comfortable thoughts
with a friend in silence
in the cool evening
2. Make picture books smaller. Yes, there are some wonderful picture books out there, some oriented to portrait and others to landscape, some so large they exceed the peripheral vision of the child reader. But where a large book becomes an item to covet — and who hasn’t seen a small child clutching a large book they way they would a favorite stuffed animal — the fact remains that a favorite book, a good book, is coveted no less no matter its size. Kids like treasures as well (as do some adults if they’re honest) and the Sendak Nutshell Library is proof that size doesn’t matter. It’s the same amount of paper and cover materials in Make Way For Ducklings that would make twelve copies of Chicken Soup With Rice.
I’m not suggesting picture books go microscopic, only that in addition to finding a universal size that the size be economically feasible. I already hear the heated debates on what size, but I would suggest 9 by 12 to start. It’s close to the (often reduced) trim size of paperback editions of hardcover picture books, it’s a decent size for illustrations, and I seriously doubt kids are going to rebel unless they have already been programed to like super-sized everything in their lives, including books.
small bird forgive me
i’ll hear the end of your song
in some other world
3. The world isn’t all children’s picture books, so for my next suggestion I would say Let a thousand smaller presses bloom. I’m thinking specifically of Grove Press here as the little engine that could. If the monolithic houses have lost their way, then I would hope that all these shuttered imprints and newly laid off editors would do as many are suggesting these days and start up a publishing house of their own. With closer control over content and an eye toward quality, I would think there was much to be gained by smaller houses with loyal followers. And that loyalty could extend to the authors as well. Writers, I have heard, love their close interaction with editors and houses that care and don’t feel cold and corporate. This mutual admiration and shared interest spreads to the readers as well. Even as a teen I managed to learn that a Grove Press book was worth taking a chance on; I could never have said the same thing for a larger house like Harper & Row (as it was once known). A savvy ex-employee of a large house would set up shop and align themselves with a couple of creative writing schools, the way Grove seemed to do with the Black Mountain poets and the Beats back in the 50′s.
And I don’t mean Let a thousand imprints bloom, but hogtie them to the corporate chain of command the way you have been for the past 15 years or so. Spin off the smaller imprints and let them sail on their own. Don’t the economists insist that a market flourishes when the consumer has more choices?
even stones in streams
of mountain water compose
songs to wild cherries
4. Stop publishing hardcover releases for middle grade and YA books, or at least do a simultaneous paperback release. Kids tear through books, and parents balk at buying hardcovers for something that will probably only be read once. Kids with their own money – say, a gift certificate from a bookstore – will almost always buy two paperbacks over a single hardcover if given the opportunity. Yes, as a gift, a hardcover is nice. It’s a treat, even. But as an author, if you asked me Would I rather have two copies of my book sold in paperback over one hardcover? my answer would be Yes. I’m not going to pretend I know the economics of the situation, the concern to me is that more books in circulation means more readers. Period. If a book is cheaper people are more willing to take a chance on it. Aside from publishing phenomena like Harry Potter, there isn’t an imperative for hardcover books for children beyond library durability and greed.
In his book Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life author David P. Friedman laid out the problem of over-inflated costs at the concession stand in movie theatres. He very clearly laid out how, if theatre operators lowered their costs to one-third their current amounts, they would more than double their current profits. The idea being that if you walked into a theatre today and saw them selling giant buckets of corn and soda for $1 instead of $5 more people would be inclined to buy and it would more than make up for the difference in prices. People would stop smuggling in food, it would become part of the draw that would bring people back to theatres. I actually had a brief opportunity to do this with a special series of midnight movies in a college town. We had special one-size-only menu items that cost substantially less than the regular sizes on offer, and per-person sales were nearly triple. But the theatre company didn’t accept the results as anything beyond an interesting “experiment” because, in truth, they were afraid of setting a trend and failing.
Hello! The economy is in the tank! now is the time to take a few chances and discover what those of us on the retail side hear every day: people want to pay less, but they’re willing to spend more if they think they’re getting a deal. Pretend it’s the war and rationing is going on, do as they did then. Forget hardcover new releases and sell more books.
when the tight string snapped
the kite fell, fluttering, then
it lost its spirit
5. Stop doing book tours in book stores. Huh? What? That makes no sense, you say? How bout this: musicians play in clubs and not record stores. They go to venues where their audience is comfortable and put on a show and get people excited to want to go out and buy their music. With books moving to multiple streams of sales like books, with digital downloads and hard copies available simultaneously, the author tour needs to change into something other than a gathering of the faithful in the temples of distraction.
There’s this theory that a person going to a reading will buy the author’s book, perhaps their previous books as well, and maybe just impulse-buy some other things while they’re there. In reality, people come to author readings with their books already purchased (sometimes from competitors of the hosting store), get their book signed, and leave. That could happen anywhere. A cafe. A co-operative diner. A department store window. A live Internet vodcast. A nightclub on a slow night in between sets of a band that shares the same audience. The point is that a change of venue frees up the author from the cog of sales and allows them to focus what they are doing as storytellers.
And author’s should be ashamed to put a price on their public appearances. Admission $3, or free if you arrive with a paid-for copy of the book. Authors want to tell their stories, not give them away, and yet that is what they do with every appearance they make that doesn’t generate sales. Even a bar band that plays a no-cover-charge club gets paid from bar sales – do authors get anything for their appearance in a bookstore by drawing in customers? No, I didn’t think so.
Publishers and the publicists who handle their authors should continue to set authors up on tour, but the stores need to be taken out of the equation. How many readers don’t go because they secretly feel ashamed the don’t have or cannot afford to purchase the book in an author’s presence? How many don’t go because the store environment isn’t a comfortable venue – folding chairs and bad lighting and usually not far from where you can hear other customers or employees talking, or sales at the nearby register distracting you from the experience?
I’ll let it go at this for now. Just some thoughts I had about the industry after someone got me thinking about the survival of publishing as we know it. One final unrelated haiku before we go. And I thank you for your kind indulgences.
the best i have
to offer you
is the small size
of the mosquitoes
Poetry Friday is gathered over at Mommy’s Favorite Children’s Books this week.
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