Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On Publishing And Being Damned

I don’t generally run posts responding to comments made on previous posts, but Peter Rozovsky (in typical universe-ruling mode, right) of the venerable institution Detectives Beyond Borders raised a few issues in his comment on the post below that deserve a proper airing. To wit:
“I’m no author, but it looks to me as if the consolidation of book dealing in fewer and fewer hands is a failure of capitalism. If fewer and fewer outlets are selling books, and those outlets are under constant cost pressure, good authors will get shoved aside, and crappy animal books will top bestseller lists.
  “I do think that bloggers can step into the void, notwithstanding criticism from jealous and understandably fearful members of the mainstream media [...] I’ve discovered far more authors through blogs than through the “mainstream” media. This may be why I roll my eyes every few months when some newspaper runs a column about the boom in international crime fiction and announces with breathless excitement authors whom I and other conscientious bloggers have known about for months if not years.
  “Still, as timorous, doddering and slow off the mark as they can be, there is still a place for mainstream media, the old darlings …”
  Firstly, the consolidation of retail outlets as a failure of capitalism (an ideas man, is our Peter). In this I think he’s 100% correct, because markets thrive on competition. Once competition gets stifled, the customer gets offered a seriously limited variety, and unless you’re selling crack cocaine, the customer is going to get bored very quickly.
  You can argue that all the retail outlets are in competition with one another, of course, but the salient fact is that all the major retail outlets are selling the same books and authors, with the only difference often being the size of the discount on offer.
  For example, the two major outlets in Dublin are Waterstone’s and Hodges and Figgis. Not only do they face one another across Dawson Street, and sell pretty much the same stock, they’re owned by the same parent company. In terms of crime fiction, both offer a decent selection, albeit very similar, and heavily skewed towards new and recent releases, and the kind of novels where the author’s name is bigger than the title.
  Further up Dawson Street, towards Stephen’s Green, is a tiny independent outlet called Murder Ink. It’s a specialist outlet, of course, and offers an intoxicating range of titles, from the most recent releases to hard-to-get imports to old classics. Its dedication to the cause of crime fiction, Irish and international, can be gauged by the fact that the owner, Michael Gallagher (right, holding some wastrel’s novel), is on first-name terms with the likes of John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Brian McGilloway, et al, not to mention many international authors. While I was in there during the week, Peter Robinson dropped in, just to say hello.
  Given its overheads (Dawson Street is prime Dublin real estate) and its size (no muscle to speak of, by comparison with its competitors, in terms of discounts for bulk buying, etc.), Murder Ink should have gone out of business a long time ago. Happily, it hasn’t. As a specialist outlet, it’s niche enough to secure a loyal customer base.
  But in the long run, even specialising isn’t going to save the retail outlets, regardless of their size. As Peter points out, bloggers tend to be way ahead of the curve of the mainstream media when it comes to discovering new talent and broadcasting about it. The mainstream media might be sniffy about the quality of the reviews, etc., but there’s no denying that the web is the conduit for the all-important word-of-mouth that pushes writers to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
  For example, I operate a Google alerts system for Irish crime writers. The general trend is for a writer to publish a book and for their profile to ‘spike’ for a month or two, and then return to a more regular level of activity. The exception to that rule has been Tana French. Ever since IN THE WOODS was published, I’ve been receiving two, three and four Google alerts per day about Tana French, most of them referring to reviews from blogs, websites and on-line versions of mainstream media. That level of activity, of course, has only increased since the publication of THE LIKENESS. Yesterday, for example, I received alerts for Tana French-related material for YouTube, Albany Public Library, the Irish Independent, and the San Jose Mercury News. Today her alerts were for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Boston Globe, Jen’s Book Thoughts blog, The Squid List blog, and The Landlocked Pirate blog.
  Now, you – and the sniffier mainstream journalists – might want to quibble with the quality of the reviews on some of those outlets. That’s your entitlement, and you’re also fully entitled to quibble with the quality of review available in the traditional media. But you can’t deny that Tana French’s word-of-mouth penetration is phenomenal. And here’s where the web beats traditional media hands-down: today’s newsprint reviews will be tomorrow’s kitty-box liner, but those on-line reviews will be functioning for years to come. The ‘long tail’, as they call it, is certainly wagging for Tana French.
  What has that to do with the future demise of retail outlets? Well, Amazon is the classic example, but there are others catching up. How many times have you gone into a bookstore and asked for a particular title, only to hear that they don’t have it in stock, but will order it for you? You could’ve just stayed home and ordered it yourself, from any of the web-based retailers. And, with Amazon developing its print-on-demand technology, and the Kindle technology to allow you to download straight to your books version of the iPod, you’ll never have to set foot in a retail outlet again.
  But that’s hardly going to be the end of it. If you can have web-based retail outlets, why not web-based publishers? Why not simply write a book, have it published by an on-line outlet, and have them download it straight to your readers’ hand-held device?
  Of course, the real danger there is that a behemoth like Amazon corners the books market entirely, becoming a vast one-stop-shop of (electronic) printer-cum-publisher-cum-retailer, which brings us back to Peter Rozovsky’s original point about the consolidation of retailers and lack of choice.
  A disaster for readers and writers? That all depends on the readers and writers, and whether they have the ingenuity to use the web pro-actively. What’s to stop writers banding together to form their own on-line co-operative publishing houses, for example? Or to think outside the box and publish directly to the web, forsaking the traditional advance-and-royalties model for – say – banner ads, tips and click-through revenue generators? Or – and this one is so damn crazy it might just work – write for the love of writing, and deliver it directly to an audience that reads for the love of reading?
  No, I’m not insane, and no, I’m not on drugs. Yes, I’m incorrigibly na├»ve. But I started out writing for the fun of it, for the sheer joy of putting one word after another and watching them weave meaning out of chaos. And if it’s fun you crave in your life, particularly through books, then the web, with all its potential for anarchy, revolution and rewriting the script, is the place to be.
  The modern publishing industry, courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg (right), has been around for roughly 500 years. The internet, especially in its interactive incarnation, is barely a decade old.
  Strap yourselves in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Peter Rozovsky said...

I thank you for the big up and the handsome accompanying photograph. I borrowed the "failure of capitalism" phrase from a comment I read about a related phenomenon. That comment said that a publishing model that shifted the burden for promotion from publishers to authors constituted evidence of a failure of capitalism. That certainly seems related to the problems of distribution that I raised in my comment here.

But yes, I'm certainly open to discussing ways of taking power from the mainstream media and book distribution networks.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

Let me add a word about bloggers being ahead of the mainstream media when it comes to discovering new talent. This need not mean that the mainstream media are sniffy, obtuse and stupid. It's my experience that it more often means they are too slow and too small to respond with sufficient speed and space to interesting developments in crime fiction. I presume the same is true in other fields.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

John McFetridge said...

Oh, so much to talk about.

First of all, the failure of capitalism - while quite real - is more the product of a failure of regulation of capitalism. Any system, like any game, is really only as good as the referees. Without proper regulation (or, say, with rampant deregulation) the only possible roads for capitalism to go down are bankruptcy or monopoly.

This is pretty much what all my books are about because organized crime is really just completely deregulated capitalism. Well, deregulated capitalism with guns.

The long tail. There's a lot of potential there, but so far it's looking very, very long. The digital world seems to really favour the blockbuster. The Tana French example is a good one. So far, she's really the only one getting those kids of alerts. If the alerts were spread out a little more evenly over a few dozen writers, that would look more like a long tail.

This article I got from Barbara Fister's blog is pretty good.

A little while ago someone asked the question, how come we love indie music and we love indie movies but we have no interest in indie books?

Well, do we? Most indie movies these days seem like audition pieces for Hollywood and do many new musicians have a choice to be anything other than indie?

We're really in the early stages of this whole interweb thing, so anything can happen, but there are a lot of good people doing good work in the publishing business and we may find that a lot of their work is even necessary.

For us writers, writing for the pure love of it is the only way to go.

Once we've finished writing something, though, there are other people doing what they love to do, too, that should probably be brought into the mix.

The website/self-published/print-on-demand future would be a bad thing for the Michael Gallaghers of the world and I think we'd really miss them. Peter is right, I've discovered a lot of great new writers online, but I still find a lot of new writers at Toronto's version of Murder Ink called The Sleuth of Baker Street.

Great photo of The Big O in front of the store. murder ink looks like a great place.

Brent said...

For what it's worth, to add the "delivery" discussion ... Dec, I heard about THE BIG O on an RTE podcast, perhaps OFF THE SHELF, can't recall. Knew I'd have trouble locating it on a major store shelf (I was in Spain at the time, but U.S. would have been difficult as well), so I went directly to your publisher's website and it all worked beautifully. Felt like an indie experience. And long live the used bookstore, of course.

Brent said...

by the way, does anyone here read Brazil's Rubem Fonseca? Highly recommended !!!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I've read Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts and High Art. I don't know if the expression "transcends its genre" exists in Brazilian Portuguese, but I am told Fonseca, although he is a former cop and writes books about violent people and deeds, is not regarded as a crime writer in Brazil.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

bookwitch said...

You should climb onto that soapbox more often, Declan.

Declan Burke said...

"A little while ago someone asked the question, how come we love indie music and we love indie movies but we have no interest in indie books?"

Hmmm, now that right there is a conundrumlington ...

Haven't come across Fonseca yet, Brent ... will keep my eyes peeled. Oh, and thanks for following up on that podcast ... nice to see the webernet (© Adrian McKinty) doing what it's supposed to do.

Peter - it's not necessarily about taking power away from anyone or anything, simply a matter of individuals exercising their own right to flex their creative muscle. It's highly unlikely the idea of publishing novels free to the web will ever take off, I'm not that naive ... but it's nice to know the option is there if you want to do it. Cheers, Dec

Peter Rozovsky said...

I earn my living in the mainstream media, and I know what a frustrating, initiative-crushing place a newspaper can be, perhaps through no fault of its own. For essayists/critics/reviewers, the issue can decidedly be about freeing one's self from limits and, therefore, about taking power away from someone else.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Uriah Robinson said...

Just to add to Peter's comment about bloggers being ahead of the mainstream.
I now see that the Stieg Larsson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is getting the very big up for its paperback version. Of course bloggers have been on to this for ages even if they have not had the strength to lift the hard back version from their shelves.
Sainsbury as part of their campaign to close down all independent bookstores for miles around have a beautiful display of the Larsson paperbacks in their Exeter Alphington branch. It is pristine as no one has touched them and I doubt they will sell very many copies. Trying to sell a foreign sounding author in a grocery store on a trading estate in a deprived part of the city is rather like trying to sell Rushdie in the Tehran M&S!

bookwitch said...

Uriah - isn't there a tattoo on the cover of the paperback? That should help. (I haven't seen it.) And they sell masses of them at the Swedish supermarket checkouts...

Uriah Robinson said...

Bookwitch yes there is indeed a tattoo on the cover, but in Alphington a woman with a tattoo is not exotic.

When the Mekon came to stay I did not show him that part of Exeter as I judged it too frightening for a Philadelphia resident.

bookwitch said...

Exactly, Uriah. Won't the tattoo make them feel right at home? One of them, so to speak.

Uriah Robinson said...

You are probably right bookwitch and if the original title had been used that would have helped as well. ;0)

I will summon up the strength to lift up my hardback copy of the Larsson and read it next after I have finished Leif Davidsen's The Serbian Dane.

krimileser said...


(this is not as off-topic as it might sound),

"In the Woods" is now available in Germany and hit already the "Bestenliste" (third place).

Now, there are two (maximum five) newspaper reviewers of greater national relevance in Germany, one of whom now stated that French (are rather her agent) is wagging the long tail - meaning: A nice face, no infos about the date of birth, and a worldwide auction of rights and you bring the new media down to the knees.

Well, I would assume that this is rather more than less nonsense, but still, it demonstrates that the representatives of the classical media are full of distrust concerning the new media.

[BTW: He (the reviewer) is also unhappy, that the new Irish crime fiction is almost apolitical and don't reflect the events that shook Irland for years]