Audience Adversity

 As a book publisher I can understand and appreciate the exponential growth of online publishing and writer’s websites. I appreciate the variety of self-publishing cyber options available to writers. I think these web entities and technologies serve the unpublished writing community well, as they are useful in producing the work of anyone who ever thought about writing, wanted to be a writer, lost a bet and had to write, or generally felt compelled to take the alphabet for a test drive. These practice arenas with their dedicated participants, one would think, would help those serious enough about writing to hone their literary skills and find an appreciative audience.  Who knows, maybe some of these writers are making a lot of money selling ideas about writing, publishing, and maybe even selling their own work as ebooks online.

What isn’t clear to me is: who is their audience? There are all kinds of people who frequent online publishing sites and participate in self-publishing activities, but when they finally emerge from that peer labyrinth with a manuscript of some sort, have they learned anything insightful about how to get someone to pay for their writing? I hope so; otherwise, all they have accomplished is to add to the galactic cluster of work produced that is doomed never to be read by more than a supportive clutch of sympathetic friends. Beyond that, just who is going to be reading all the writing output that is currently being generated?

With a literary program of 14 to 16 new titles each year, at Thistledown we know there are thousands of writers whom we might have published had we read their work.  We never feel bad about this because we know that almost 20 thousand new titles are published in Canada each year, and that the USA and Great Britain flood our Canadian booksellers with another 400 thousand or so more choices. IF you like books and reading, it is likely that as I write this there is someone working on a book just for you, and a publisher printing fifty just like it that you will never see. One of those books may be the best book you have ever read. Whether or not you get to read it, though, will depend upon many things, and the most important of these will be whether or not it ever emerges from its almost certain obscurity for you to find it.

 I fully believe that old bromide: there are too many books and not enough time to read them.  But I wonder if there is a dark side to this reality as well. The sales figures say that there is still a voracious reading audience, but recently it seems this audience is essentially the literary equivalent of the hordes that wander almost zombie-like through Wal-Mart and McDonalds consuming on demand. The marketplace seems rife with the formula that if well-marketed works by familiar names are placed on best-seller lists and their retail price is slashed for discount that audiences will buy them . Occasionally the money chain introduces a new voice usually via a big book award and then the process is refreshed. The audience is maintained on a steady diet of how they are groomed. On the other side of the playing field, the independent publishers’ and small scale players’ publishing programs roll on often producing great reading that is doomed to obscurity.

 But then maybe this is all as it should be. Given that about 22% of Canadian adults completely struggle with the fundamentals of book reading and approximately another 50% are not fully equipped to “deal with complex language challenges” maybe there is something dreadfully wrong with book readers.  Maybe 28% of the population is the entire pool that all publishers draw upon and by attrition “target as an audience”. Just where we are with a competent reading audience seems to be unclear.(

 While book publishers continue to grapple with the energy of digital change, and have their business models chained to archaic practices like the industry returns philosophy that is a severe drag on a their economic stability and their authors’ livelihoods, more and more books get published. Most books published have a short and fragile shelf life, and for many publishers a large percentage of books sold to stores are coming back as returns and many will meet their fate being destroyed, it is no surprise that the book industry produces copious amounts of book waste — waste of both the physical product and waste of the creative energies that it took to create that product. That epublishing appears as a logical alternative to some of this seems fitting.  But in the remaining years before the ebook age fully comes upon us and saves a lot of paper, the publishing world must still deal with the massive number of physical books that are published and cast into the void, and still cope with the huge loss of excellent writing that is sacrificed to this economic process.

For years the book industry has been suggesting that there are too many books being published. Maybe the Canadian literacy statistics bear that out. Maybe there are not enough effective readers to meet the output of book publishers. Maybe the vast majority of the books that are published each year never find an audience. If so, it is a compounded act of inefficiency and waste — one that has not been held in check by the major players.  Maybe it’s time for the global power players to ask the questions and demand some changes.  Who should cut back their production? When should they start doing this? Of course, it is unlikely than any publisher making money is going to say “whoa!”, though a rational person might argue that such a consideration will be inevitable.

Though 2010 industry figures have not yet been compiled, most of us have heard the stories about Borders being in trouble and many of us in Canada have witnessed valuable literary presses folding. Looking back to 2009 figures show that seven of the top ten UK publishers were demonstrating negative sales growth ( ) Maybe it should be Harper Collins or Penguin that cut back production schedules. I don’t know what the combined output of their literary works would be, but it is quite likely massive. What would happen if they cut back just their fiction output by 10%? And, maybe Thistledown should flirt with extinction and cut its program by 10% as well. That would be almost one and a half books for us! But what about the new wave of non-traditional cyber publishers? How do you ever get them to cut their massive output?

According to the trusted North American source of bibliographic data, R R Bowker, of the total amount of 1,052,803 titles produced in 2009, 764,448 came from what are described as ”non-traditional channels — a mix of micro-publishers, self-publishers, and publishers of books in the public domain”. Who is reading all this output? It seems amazing enough that its numbers are even being entered into a database? How can any of this have a recognized value for book readers? And does this effectively demonstrate the glut of reading materials that saturate the market?

 I think there is a pressing need to re-think cyber space publishing and give book readers some necessary breathing room.  Maybe it’s time for some effective waste management strategies to be put into place when it comes to title output on the net as well as the programs of the traditional print publishers.

With technologies changing, and books mostly in the control of global players who are driven by profitability, it seems a fait accompli that from a business perspective (rather than a cultural or artistic one) publishing books is going to continue. Whether anyone in the industry is really interested in growing reading audiences seems doubtful.  When one adds to the current numbers of books being published the oppressive amount of public domain available to everyone, and the new Net writing, it begins to doom the publishing opportunities of many writers who have the talent, skill and the calling to write.

Perhaps in an age where social media such as Facebook and Twitter et al encourage the continuous sharing of the minutiae of personal lives in small disconnected stories and events, the capacity for sustained, fully engaged readers is further jeopardized.  I think we are desperate to evolve into another age where reading returns to being a private act much like thinking and praying, an age where the writer with skill, intellect, creativity and originality can be discovered by an audience who reads so voraciously that reader and writer become fated to encounter one another with the greatest of ease.
Whittle Nods is written by Al Forrie, publisher at Thistledown Press, for the sole purpose of adding an idea forum to Thistledown’s website. The ideas , opinions and views expressed are his alone, though  where influenced by others are indicated in links and or credits. Any use of photos,  quotes,  statistics or other websites are intended to enrich the writing as much as to provide an accurate  links to other sites that readers might find useful.  Any and all additional material  that appears in Whittle Nods identified in such links are the intellectual property right of the linked sight and though efforts have been made to check the authority of the linked site and accuracy of its information, they are subject to reader scrutiny.