Golden Age?

A few days back, NPR did an interesting interview with Little Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, best known for being the editor of authors like David Foster Wallace and James Patterson, who is just about to take over the helm of the Hachette Book group, one of Publishing’s “big six” conglomerates.  His declaration that we are now in “the golden age of publishing” might strike you as Panglossian delusion, or—if you are me—maybe, just possibly, a little bit true.

I suppose, as Zhou en Lai said about the impact of the French Revolution, it’s too early to say.  Pietsch is a persuasive spokesman for what the new indie publishing movement might regard as the ancient regime.   It’s true that he’s not all that likely to rail about the benefits of creative destruction—but he made some good points.

“What has changed in a really exciting way is the ways you can get people’s attention. It used to be one book review at a time, a daily review, maybe you get into Time magazine. Now there’s, with the Internet, this giant echo chamber. Anything good that happens, any genuine excitement that a book elicits can be amplified and repeated and streamed and forwarded and linked in a way that excitement spreads more quickly and universally than ever before. And what I’m seeing is that really wonderful books — the books that people get genuinely excited about because they change their lives, they give them new ideas — those books can travel faster, go further, sell more copies sooner than ever before. It’s just energized the whole business in a thrilling way.”

I do agree with Pietsch. But it’s also true that the internet is so vast, fractured and compartmentalized, that lighting this wildfire word of mouth—getting something to go viral—is harder than a status update and a clever tweet.  Once upon a time, back in the (possibly mythical) days of the “monoculture,” when most Americans had some shared sense of big books, popular musicians, and hit TV, Time magazine had a huge subscription base—a review there, or a spot on a leading morning show could launch a book into best-sellerdom.  This is still true to a certain extent, but I have heard plenty of publicity directors note (and sometimes mourn) the demise of the old certitudes.  It seems to me that publishers see the potential of our new paradigm, where newspaper book reviews are few but book bloggers proliferate and readers can rave about their favorite authors to a potentially unlimited audience, but are still figuring out just how to leverage it. Publicity and marketing plans includes online marketing and social media, but publishing houses are a long way from mastering these new tools.

As you all doubtless have heard, cultivating an on-line presence is regarded as much the author’s duty as the ability to write.  This can feel a bit burdensome, but it’s also true that authors have greater influence over the fates of their books then once they did.  Most authors were never in a position to call up a Today Show producer and pitch their stories, but they can, with diligence and work and a pinch of luck, try to connect their book with its readers.

What do you think?

Golden Age?  France in 1788?

5 Responses to Golden Age?

  1. Emily Carter says:

    Have to agree with Zhou en Lai — too soon to tell.

    But I do believe that by mastering social media, even as it changes, publishing houses, agents and authors will serve themselves, and will serve stories with universal truths, timeless human foibles and with the virtues, strengths, weaknesses, of language in all its elegant or tawdry possibilities.

    The grand human desire to “story telling” will not go away regardless of the cave wall or electronic nano-beam.

    Yes – this is some kind of Golden Age – an age of abundance for story tellers. How will money be made? Of Course by selling. That is the only way money has ever been made [discounting thievery]. But how to sell? Isn’t that the real question?

    I don’t know. But since retirement, I have studied digital journalism, social media and now social media marketing. My optimistic thought is that there must be a ‘pony’ under all those tweets, posts, and videos.

    Here’s a rundown of the hardware that has changed during my 50 years of writing:

    1962 – office standard typewriter
    1972 – portable electric typewriter
    1982 – dedicated word processor and printer [floppy disks]
    1992 – laptop, IBM with DOS based operating system
    2002 – Dell desktop, windows operating system
    2003 – SONY desktop and a SONY notebook with a camera and a wireless chip
    2009 – HP desktop, windows 7
    2012 – NOOK+ tablet

    The hardware changed, but isn’t it the distribution and selling channels that have altered the publishing landscape?

    People still write books and people still read books. Now books can be distributed electronically. Books can be purchased electronically. Is this something like the way ‘canned food’ was to ‘farmer’s markets’ before the civil war? When I was a child, eggs, milk, morning papers, bread and ice were delivered to my grandmother’s house [the iceman drove a horse drawn wagon].

    As for what publishers will do in the short term or long term? Maybe find an electronically method of delivery?

    “It used to be one book review at a time.” And it still is. But there are more reviews in the marketplace. And more eyes than TIME ever had. Maybe the differences is in the ‘targeting?’

    The marketplace is not the “appointment TV” of the past where an advertiser could place an ad knowing the size of an audience and the predictably of that audience [2 million viewers sit down at 8 p.m. every Wednesday to watch “The ____ Show.” And, also knowing the selling power of the commercial.

    One thing the 2012 presidential election demonstrated is that TV commercials, direct snail-mail, speeches, money, and the rest do not have the power they had in the past. Obama’s campaign organized via social media, [the message], to volunteers whose behavior was predictable [they had already agreed to pay attention to the message], and the volunteers took action [the transaction or ‘sell’ or ‘purchase’].

    The internet is an echo chamber but maybe the unknown factor is where the customer is in relationship to the echo?

    But, its also true that an entertaining offering might find a worldwide audience – eg., Gangnam Style

    OK – enough of this….I send it into the echo chamber –

  2. EDWARD says:

    Among the many people who cannot answer this question are the many people at the esteemed GALLUP POLL. During the recent presidential election, Gallup backed what turned out to be the wrong horse. Since the masses depend on Gallup to accurately predict the pulse of the nation, Gallup has tucked its tail between its legs and gone back to the drawing board in a big way. We know that Lady Gaga is famous because people buy gazillions of her records. Who will be the next Lady Gaga? The truth is we don’t know and not even the likes of Gallup can point us in the right direction.
    The good news is, the common people are finding their voice. Their voice cannot be purchased or bullied or corrupted or cowed into submission. Even if me, Jane and TIME get washed to the shoreline in the process – the voice of the masses is a good thing. It is getting louder and clearer every day. Have you heard, half a century after his death, Woody Guthrie has a novel out?

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