Sunday, July 30, 2006

Riding the Tail

In May I made some petulantly critical remarks about a column on the book biz by Rachel Donadio of The New York Times. In today's Book Review section, however, Donadio offers a far more perceptive and, I think, accurate portrait of the current state of publishing.

In her earlier column, she posited that "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," and she blamed this trend on superstores. I'd criticized her column for its datedness and, specifically, for ignoring the influence of the Internet, and, now, she seems to offer a revised view, noting that online sales can and do fuel sales of books long after they are published.
"The mass market is turning into a mass of niches," Chris Anderson writes in "The Long Tail," his best-selling new book on the economics of entertainment. A handful of blockbusters may dominate at the multiplex and the megastore, he argues, but there's untapped potential in the vast number of books, movies and recordings that sell relatively few copies--the so-called "long tail" of the sales curve--potential that can now be tapped through online retailers.
Donadio points out the large corporate publishers have been so far been uninterested, with the exception of a few famous titles, mostly because the potential of selling 1,000 to 2,000 extra copies per title a year isn't worth it for them. But one person's trash is another person's gold: for small publishers, university presses, and nonprofit organizations, such sales can make all the difference in the world:
Some small presses build their business entirely on the long tail, bringing back into print esoteric titles that are in the public domain or had been abandoned by other publishers as unprofitable. "We're like scavenger birds on the back of hippopotamuses," said Edwin Frank, the editorial director of New York Review Books Classics, which was founded in 1999 and is affiliated with The New York Review of Books. Top sellers among the imprint's 200 titles include Richard Hughes's dreamlike novel "A High Wind in Jamaica" and historical novels by J. G. Farrell that revolve around Britain's colonial rule. "We're happy with any book that sells over 5,000 copies" during its sales life, Frank said.
The enviable success of New York Review Books Classics is mirrored by the experiences of the nonprofit publisher for which I work, and other firms should take note. Our backlist sales are skyrocketing for one reason only: thanks to the Internet, people looking for one of our titles can easily find a copy and buy it on the spot, something that was impossible only ten years ago. (If you were looking for a particular novel by, say, William Dean Howells, your chances of finding one even in a superstore were minuscule.)

The number of good titles and potential gems that are out of print is, of course, growing. In recent years, I've tried to purchase a number of books--both popular fiction and literary award-winners--that were surprisingly unavailable yet could turbocharge the bottom line for many small niche publishers:
The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
Dora, Doralina, Rachel de Queiroz
Nickel Mountain, John Gardner (and many of his other novels)
The Ghostly Lover, Elizabeth Hardwick
Whisper My Name, Ernest Hebert
The Other, Thomas Tryon (and all his other novels)
Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal
Sunflower, Rebecca West
There are plenty more where those came from: books ripe for second lives or perfect for new series (e.g., Classics of Horror). And such a list doesn't even take into consideration many worthy titles that escaped readers' attentions the first time around.

One book whose unavailability has always surprised me is A Cry of Angels, by Jeff Fields--a favorite from my adolescent years and a book that has acquired an intensely loyal following. (I still have my tattered, treasured 1975 paperback.) It's been out of print for twenty years, and I'm happy to note that the University of Georgia Press has grabbed a hold of "the long tail" and is bringing this novel back to life next month.