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?