05 September 2006

The Long Tail of (some) Lit; $; A Shift in Lit Culture; What's This Blog For?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. – A Tale of Two Cities

And we do live in at least two cities, don’t we? I’d like to pick up a thread that runs through a number of the posts regarding literature, the market, and how one shapes the other, and the viability for a diverse/vigorous literature in a climate dominated by bottom-line publishing. (Put elsewhere as ‘What’s this blog for?’) But mainly in terms of larger sea change in culture that we seem to be living through. Joe cites John Updike’s complaining about Amazon cutting into his royalties (ease of buying used books translates into smaller print runs of new books & lower royalties for authors) and believes this phenomena signals hard times for all writers: if it’s getting harder and harder for a mainstream author to earn a living from writing, authors who write conceptually-driven fiction or poetry don’t have a chance? By extension, literature itself is in for a rough ride.

But I’d also like to bring up the flip side of this: A colleague of mine who teaches experimental/ avant-garde poetry takes it for granted that this is a golden age for said work precisely because of the availability Updike bemoans. That is, according to her, there’s never been a better time for (let’s call it) avant-garde poetry because sites like Amazon, or UbuWeb, or PENNsound make accessible work that used to only be available in bars, in the (now extinct) indie bookstore, underground. Anyone who wants to read conceptual/ avant-garde writing can get it now, and get it easily, while authors on this two-way street have accessibility to audiences that they couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago.

As Joe says, writing like this has never made money (though, yeah, it would be great if a poet didn’t have to work for Hallmark to make a living wage from his or her writing). Nor will it ever, I believe, so in a sense Updike’s sense of loss does signal an ever further financial marginalization for writing that by nature takes place in the shadow of mass culture.

A couple of statistics from Trevor Dodge’s web site seem to map out the terrain the experimental writer is up against: “78% of the titles published [in 2000] come from the small/self-publishers” (think poetry titles here) while “80% of the book sales were controlled by five conglomerates: Bertlesman, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Time Warner, Disney and Viacom/CBS.” (Think Updike’s books here.) As Chris Anderson points out in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (more on this in a sec.), the standard model for most mass media (e.g. CDs) is that 20% of a business’s products, e.g. songs, account for 80% of its sales. For novels, I believe, the numbers are even more skewed with a single author or two, or even a handful of titles, accounting for most of the profit from fiction by a publisher in a given year. If you put these numbers together, what emerges is a bell curve with very steep slopes: a profile similar to the silhouette you’d get if you stacked the Eiffel tower on top of the Seattle Space Needle. The shape of this graph explains why the 5 conglomerates mentioned (basically all of commercial publishing) put such an emphasis on best sellers: each title published is a lottery ticket purchased against the hope that at least one of them will have the kind of blockbuster sales needed to float the whole operation. The rest are off the map, i.e, of no consequence to the company (and, if we believe commercial review vehicles like The New York Times Book Review, of no consequence to literature. Why don’t they feature a list of ‘Best Books’ instead of a list of ‘Best Sellers’?). So, why publish a book of poetry or experimental (or even literary) fiction whose sales are sure to not rival those of Jackie Collins?

At least this used to be the standard line. But in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Anderson makes the case that the Internet is changing this. (He has an essay in last month’s Wired, “The Rise and Fall of the Hit,” but it’s whittled down to that superficial Wired perspective so fourth-graders can understand it—an example of what a writer has to do to play to the bulge in the bell curve, I guess. A more interesting synopsis is at NPR. He argues that companies like Amazon, or YouTube, are shifting the distribution channels of culture and therefore are facilitating a change in culture itself. One of his examples is E-Cast, a jukebox system that instead of stocking CDs contains a harddrive and a modem that links to a whole on-line library of songs. Instead of the 80/20 formula cited above, 98% of the songs in the on-line catalog contribute to E-Cast’s sales—i.e., instead of a few blockbuster hits, E-Cast gets its income from lots of songs that are played (comparatively) few times. This is the long tail referred to in his title: a marginal song or book that never has the spike in sales of a hit or blockbuster, but sells at a lower level for a much longer time. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons probably fits the definition, especially if it was written today. I imagine Amazon has a number of books in its catalog that follow this same model: never a best seller, never a household name, but sells steadily in small numbers maybe for years instead of the 90 day window a book on the shelf at B&N has to prove itself by selling 1/3 of its order. (Wasn’t the rule of thumb for poetry, which depended on word of mouth instead of ad campaigns for sales, something like 6 years to break-even/sell its first print run?).

So, okay, what does this do for Joe’s concern (& Updike’s, for that matter)? Probably not much, for the authors/composers in these cases are still getting squat in the way of royalties. The people making the money are those who pool these books and songs with long tails into a catalog, e.g., Amazon, e.g., E-Cast. Even more so, how about YouTube, where the videos shown are provided free by makers, sometimes at huge expense to the maker? This seems to be the model for a lot of culture (esp. web culture): give away the music, the video, the journalism, i.e. the content, and try to make money by selling ads.

I’m not sure what this means for lit or authors. On one hand it seems to confirm that authors have two choices: either try to work within the constraints of the commercial market, and there are lots of examples where authors have done interesting, complex work within the constraints of commercial culture (Paul Auster comes to mind). But what about novels like Berry’s FRANK to use our ongoing example, and dozens of other books (Levine’s Francis Johnson, Ourednik’s Europeana; Schneiderman’s Multifesto; Amato’s Under Virga, Fleisher’s Accidental Species, Olsen's Nietzsche's Kisses, Bernstein's Girly Man, Block’s A Gesture Through Time come to mind mainly because those are a few I’ve recently read) that would never see the light of day under the constraints of commercial publishing/blockbuster thinking? Give away the content, like the contributors to YouTube, and be content with whatever forms of non-monetary payment that might fall out of the tree: prestige, like the guitar guy who lives at home with his mom but who has 8+ million views of the home video he made of himself wailing away on his axe in his bedroom? This seems to be the model poets and experimental writers have been operating under: publish a cool, or at least respected if un-massmarketable book, i.e., give away the content, and hope it wins you a prize, or lands you a teaching gig (or maybe settle for one), or just opt out completely and get a non-lit day job (the mode for most British poets), live off your trust fund or marry well--whatever will allow you to continue to write more conceptual fiction.

Those who opt for the work within the system option need read no further. Just do it! (If we had any sense we’d all be code-switching. And blessed are the authors, like Auster, who have it both ways not out of any calculation, but just because they are lucky enough to find their work in the zone where the two spheres overlap; surely none of these categories are mutually exclusive).

For the others, the question ‘What is this blog for?’ comes in. Rather than promoting individual songs, its seems like some effort could go into getting behind the jukebox: finding a way to pool resources to direct readers to the distribution system. FC2 seems to be one press that tries to function as a literary version of E-Cast. This seems to be a model that could be expanded in some fashion. I think Anderson goes too far in his claim that the age of the blockbuster is over. It may be true that TV audiences have been fragmented by cable, the Internet, etc. (Side Note 1: no one ever mentions reading as one of the contributing factors. Side Note 2, again from Dodge’s list: 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.) But the “diminished” blockbusters that still exist in this age of the fragmented market are still huge enough to fuel multimillion-dollar industries, obviously, and thus the market constraints that gave us Jewel’s book of poetry, A Night without Amor [sic] (HarperCollins), will still be the elephant in the house of culture. Still, there does seem to be a sea change underway in culture that is changing both the landscape and the nature of music, film, and literature. What counts as literature is being refashioned, as it always has been, by changes in production and distribution. Maybe postmodernism is only just beginning.
Yours, Steve