Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fear and Loathing (of the Internet) at The New York Times

I'm four days late commenting on "Promotional Intelligence," Rachel Donadio's recent essay in the May 21 issue of the New York Times Book Review. But that's okay: the article itself describes a world that existed more than ten years ago.

Donadio writes about the obstacles facing literary fiction, and her thesis is simple:
In a market dominated by the big chain stores, if a novel doesn't sell a healthy number of copies in the first two weeks after its publication, its chances of gaining longer-term momentum are slim.
This is hardly news; in fact, it describes pretty accurately the state of affairs since the early 1990s. (Nor is the validity of this statement limited to literary fiction.) Indeed, the plaintive case for the woes of literary fiction has been trotted out by the purveyors of high-brow culture with predictable frequency every few months for the past 75 years. (Note to Donadio: see Faulkner, William.)

But Donadio discusses only Barnes & Noble, and she interviews a few editors at behemoth publishing houses who, of course, are preoccupied not with "successes" (as defined by those of us at presses with fewer than a thousand employees) but with "best-sellers."

In the Wonderful World of Bookselling described by Donadio, however, the Internet does not yet exist.

Why does it seem that many journalists seem afraid to discuss the Internet? (Or, when they do, the discussion is tinged with opprobrium)? This avoidance strategy is not only true of the folks writing for the Times Books section, but also among political and news journalists. One gets the sense not only that they don't understand what's going on in the virtual world around them but also that they feel threatened by it--and they probably should, considering what the Internet is doing to the circulation figures of newspapers.

My dog acts the same way. When it's time for his bath, he "hides" under the bed with his butt sticking out. If he can't see me, the threat I pose just doesn't exist.

But I digress.

In recent years, webzines, blogs, and online bookselling have influenced bookbuying habits far more than the tiny front table at your local superstore. She lists the top-three selling books in literary fiction; the #1 title, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, surely benefited from extraordinary Internet buzz--which is how I and many others learned of it. (And the entire discussion hinges on how you define literary fiction; Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, for example, is strangely missing from Donadio's article.)

Furthermore, my not-entirely-uneducated impression is that, because of the Internet, even literary awards seem to have a larger impact than a decade ago (and this topic itself would make an interesting article). The dynamic for award winners has changed, since gratification is no longer deferred by your next trip to the mall. When a book wins an award, dozens of blogs and Internet news sources carry the news, people rush to Amazon and Powells, the book flies to the top of the charts, and then even the superstores move it to their section for best-sellers. This was certainly true for the #3 title she mentioned--Edward P. Jones The Known World--which became a bestseller only after it won the Pulitzer Prize. Similarly, Williams Vollmann's Europe Central and Geraldine Brooks's March enjoyed new and unexpected resurgences after they won their respective awards.

What Donadio's anecdotal and incomplete essay seems to indicate is simply that the period in which any new title or author has a shot at becoming a best-seller (which, to repeat, is different from becoming a success) has shortened considerably.

Support for this trend can by found in a survey discussed by Clive Thompson on his blog (mentioned at Critical Mass). The study analyzes the nation's top-selling books (not just literary fiction) and finds that "more and more books are becoming bestsellers -- but for shorter and shorter periods." Here's the data:
[B]ack in the 1960s, the average bestselling novel remained on the New York Times' fiction list for 21.7 weeks -- and only about three novels a year made it to that exalted status. But in the 2000s so far, the average bestselling novel stays on the Times' list for a mere 3.3 weeks -- but over 18 books each year do this.
The "culprit" (Thompson's word), of course, is the Internet. One of the commenters on Thompson's blog agrees that, more often, the lists are influenced by the"rabid audience who all rush out and buy the book the first week," and he provides this perfect example:
[This] is exactly what happened with Neil Gaiman's novel, Anansi Boys last fall. It debuted at number one on the NYT bestseller list on October 9th, on the strength of all the readers who pre-ordered it. It was #8 the following week, presumably because of the people who bought it after its release, in bookstores or online. And then it disappeared. (Well, not really -- I'm sure that it has been selling steadily since, just not at bestseller list levels).
I agree with Thompson and his readers: it's the Internet--and not the hardly-new prominence of superstores--that is causing radical changes is bookbuying habits.

Yet I don't agree that this is a threat to literary fiction; in fact, I think it's an opportunity. I'm not sure we should mourn the passing of the day when stacks of Valley of the Dolls and Hawaii crowded out every other title in your local Waldenbooks.

The trend is clearly towards greater variety--and that can only mean more chances for each book's success. As I pointed out in a previous post, a debut fiction title gets as much "space" on Amazon as most of the future crop of best-sellers, and a couple of medium-sized blogs can generate more buzz for a new (or old) book than a dozen bookstore employees ever could. Plus, a book's shelf-life is no longer limited to the time it spends on the front table of the store.

I look forward to reading about this new business dynamic in The New York Times Online sometime around the year 2015.
Related post:
America's War of Independents