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Defining Your Terms

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One of the things I learned from Ayn Rand–yes, yes; you can learn things from Ayn  Rand–and later had pounded into me in a number of college courses is that the first step in making any argument is to define your terms.

I bring this up because I’m just now finishing Johnson’s Intellectuals, and I’ve come to a point where  he ges explicit about how he is defining the term that makes up his title.

For Johnson, an intellectual is somebody who

1) works with words and ideas  AND

2) thinks ideas are more important than (actual, living) people AND

3) has millenarian/utopian ambitions to “fix” the world once and for all.

For me, only the first requirement is part of the definition of “intellectual.”  The next two are side issues relevant only to particular intellectuals.

But for Johnson, someone who satisfies the first part above but not the second or third is a ‘man (or woman, I presume) of letters,” and not an intellectual at all.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to scream–sort of like Rand’s own redefinition of “selfishness” so that a mother who sacrifices herself for her beloved child is “selfish” while a person who buys a lot of expensive clothes so that other people will think well of him is “unselfish”–but in this case it made possible the inclusion of a chapter on a man who was not a writer, but who interests me more than most writers do.

That man is Victor Gollancz, and the only reason I know who he is is that Bill and I moved to London for the first time in 1984, at the ery tail end of the famous Gollancz editions of British mystery novels. It was hard to ignore yard after yard of bookstore shelf space taken up by cheap hardbacks with violently yellow covers.

Gollancz was a publisher, and the man who turned both Dorothy  L. Sayers and  Daphne  du Maurier into best sellers.  There’s a good case to be made that without him, there would have been no golden age of the British mystery.  Before  Gollancz figured out how to package and sell detective novels to a truly mass audience, they were largely the guilty pleasures of the same educated classes who liked to sneer at them in print. 

Gollancz was also an example of that single operator–a publishing version of Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer–who could make his own independent decisions about what was worth putting out there and take his own risks.

And the result of that was a lot of really good mystery fiction, including a lot of really innovative mystery fiction, and that in an era when “thinking outside the box”–I hate that phrase, am I the only one who hates that phrase?–wasn’t exactly prized.

Gollancz is included in Johnson’s book because of his other activities as a publisher–his role in popularizing the ideas of the British Communist Party, for instance–but let me look for a minute here at something more basic.

It’s certainly true that these guys, in publishing and movies, brought us better and more interesting books and movies than today’s corporate behemoths can usually manage.  That’s because the Harvard  Business  School was wrong,  It’s not true that any manager can manage any business.  Businesses are  better run when they’re run by people who understand them.

At the same time, almost all these guys, in movies or in publishing, were autocratic nutcases, who abused both their ordinary employees and their talent lists and thought the first item in any cost-cutting plan should be their writers.   For every Max Perkins who saw his writers through drinking bouts, posted their bail and paid their rent, there are two  Victor Gollanczes, who didn’t like paying advances or royalties at all, tried to get writers to accept handshake deals the terms of which he “remembered” differently later, and tried to refuse to work with agents (who wouldn’t put up with that crap).

I’m not really going anywhere with this–although it seems to me that my general impression that large successes tend to be so heavily driven that they end up behaving as jerks does apply–but the more I look at book publishing, the more it seems to me that it’s ended up trying to operate on a set of asumptions that is not true.

The first of those assumptions is that there’s anything at all like a “mass audience” for books.  Every once in a while a book or a writer comes along to make it seem like their might be–J.K. Rowling, for instance, or The  Da Vinci Code–but even there, a look at the numbers makes it clear that these writers sell to a minority, just a slightly different minority than other writers. 

A writer like Rowling or Stephen King will ship 850,000 copies hardcover and sell most of them and be considered a publishing industry hero.  A movie that old only 850,000 tickets the first week would hit the second-run theaters the next.  

And yet the imperatives of the market are clear, for writers as well as for publishers.   If nobody can sell enough books to eat, or make a modest but respectable profit, then this particular human activity is functionally dead.   It may be kept alive in the way contemporary poetry is–tiny little runs of “chapbooks” that sell only to the cognescenti who attend readings at self-consciously “in the know” independent stores–but that’s almost deader than dead.

Your run of the mill  “popular”  hardcover novel in this country now sells between 2,000 and 6,000 copies.  If you sell 11,000, you become something of a hot ticket.   Those numbers are not only abysmal, they’re scary.

And I’m not talking about “literary” fiction.  Those are pretty much the numbers for mystery novels of all sorts.  And the paperback numbers, mass market or trade, aren’t much better.

And mysteries are high on the totem pole among literary genres.  They do much better than most science fiction and fantasy.  And Westerns are just gone.

It’s true enough that the publishing industry has absolutely no clue about what constitutes an effective sales pitch for their products, but I still think something else has to be going on here.

It’s nice to fantasize about small presses bringing back real books, but small presses have even more abysmal sales numbers than the big houses do, and the bottom line is this:  if writers can no longer make a living writing, we’ll get less of it. 

And a lot of what we get will be the work of people born with money, who don’t have to care.  Which is not good news.

Victor Gollancz turned detective n ovels into best sellers by putting them all out in those uniform yellow covers, keeping the prices WAY down, and going in for sensationalist publicity of a type we tend to associate with the publicists of alcoholic starlets.

I suppose that’s probably not the answer these days, but I keep hoping there’s something.

Written by janeh

April 20th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Defining Your Terms'

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  1. I’ve always suspected that most heated arguments would be stifled at birth if the participants agreed on the meaning of their terms first. That wouldn’t apply, I suspect, to those who can’t agree on the meaning of the terms – justice, marriage, decency/obscenity, free, moral…..

    I think that there are so many competing methods of entertainment that books, already a minority interest, are bound to struggle to survive, and may not make it in any way except as a hobby for the minority. I suspect a similar shift is happening in education, with more and more ‘learning’ taking place using pre-digested summaries posted online by the teachers.


    20 Apr 09 at 10:30 am

  2. There’s an announcement out that the next Dan Brown book is going into an initial printing of 5 million. Too bad my name isn’t Dan Brown.

    6,000-11,000? Really? Seems like there must be more libraries alone than that. In my local library, the New Book section is three side-by-side stacks, each with seven or eight shelves. One is non-fiction, about 3/4 full. One is general fiction, about 2/3 full, and the third is mystery, SF, and Westerns. There are generally 5 or 6 new Westerns, a half-shelf of SF, and the rest is mysteries. Often though, we find mystery authors in the general fiction, so there are more genre books than it seems.

    And once a library starts buying an author, they generally keep at it. Series, y’know. Just looked it up. The ALA says there are 16,000 public libraries in the US. School, military and other types of libraries bring it to over 120,000. !!

    So those sales should be larger, if you can break into the library market. Sometimes libraries buy several copies of new books, even if they sell them later after demand slacks off.

    But how one develops a market for a book is just a mystery. How appropriate. For example, can anyone determine just WHY Harry Potter became so insanely popular? Yeah, it’s a good read, but no better than many others which languish on the shelves.


    20 Apr 09 at 1:34 pm

  3. The definition of intellectual as people who work with words and ideas seems to ignore science and engineering. I would call Newton and Einstein and Fermi intellectuals but they worked with math rather than words.

    Perhaps it could be defined as People who work with ideas?



    20 Apr 09 at 3:47 pm

  4. Lymaree, a lot of those libraries are in tiny rural towns with minuscule budgets. I work in the Chicago metro area, and I’d be willing to bet that most libraries in the area have at least one copy of JH’s new book, and probably most or all of the series. She gets excellent reviews, which is one of the chief reasons libraries order books. However, when you get outside the metro area, the libraries are often part-time affairs–an old house or single room library, open 30 hours a week, staffed by non-professional part-timers or volunteers, and with a book budget to match. They’d love to buy more, but they just don’t have the money. School libraries often have it even worse. So generally, they concentrate on buying what the patrons or teachers ask for.

    Now if a writer could get the patrons to *ask* to read his or her book…Maybe Jane’s suggestion, “keeping the prices WAY down, and going in for sensationalist publicity of a type we tend to associate with the publicists of alcoholic starlets” would have some effect there. Sometimes everyone else in the world seems to be blowing their own trumpet, loudly; why not authors or publishers?

    Lee B

    20 Apr 09 at 5:49 pm

  5. As long as someone makes their definition explicit and adheres to it, I’ve got no quarrel–but it should be early in the book.
    And you’re right about management skills. Thinking someone can run a publishing house or a film studio because he has an MBA would be as silly as hiring an Ivy League English major when you needed someone who had studied broadcasting–or wasn’t I supposed to say that?

    But on to the serious matter of book sales. As far as I’m concerned, the publisher who finds a way to hugely multipy book sales is a public benefactor, and should be able to keep the profits–which is more than Gollancz and the Left Book Club would say. But let’s keep a little perspective here. When Gollancz, the LBC and detective fiction generally were riding high–and rightly: it was the era of Sayers, Stout, Christie Carr, Heyer and Tey, after all–horror writers were literally starving. HP Lovecraft, whom Stephen King calls the pre-eminent horror writer of the 20th Century died of a stomach cancer probably brought on by a poverty diet. He was being paid rates as low as a tenth of a cent a word. Robert E. Howard, one of the top ten fantasy writers of the century by anyone’s count, committed suicide with more than a year’s income owed for stories already published. I’m not sure there were ANY full-time SF writers until after the war. And the poor television script writers and video game designers–oh, that’s right: there were no such jobs.

    Because welcome to part two: we live in a world of many many choices. The days of everyone reading detective stories, let alone the same detective stories, has gone the way of the “40 share” television show. With 50 or a hundred channels, no one’s ever going to get two fifths of the public to watch the same one again. I would suggest that strategies be devised with this in mind, because even if computer games and television went away, the “Title” volume of BOOKS IN PRINT isn’t going to slim down. LOCUS counted almost 3,000 SF and fantasy titles printed in English last year, NOT counting POD, and almost 1700 of them were new. Review them all? I’m not sure they even listed them all.

    BUT in the late 1970’s there were maybe 200 professional freelance writers in America. Does anyone have a current figure? I bet it’s several times that. At the top reaches, writing pays very well, but it’s always been a minority taste, in that relatively few readers read any given title. GONE WITH THE WIND was a huge best seller of a book, but it was never in competition for the number of people who have watched the movie. I presume that’s also true of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But let’s also keep in mind that it cost in the hundreds of millions to bring LOTR to a theater near you, but writing the book was part time work for a single man, and bringing out the book cost in the hundreds–not thousands–of pounds. (I believe the Houghton Mifflin reader’s comment was “We’ll lose 50 pounds on this book, but it’s a book worth losing 50 pounds on.”)

    And books keep paying off. I notice SWEET SAVAGE DEATH is now 25 years old and still in print. Given current life expectancies and copyright laws, it will still be putting money in the family till in 2125. (Don’t laugh: had current copyright law been in effect in 1900, Sherlock Holmes would just now be coming into the public domain.)

    My advice: if you don’t have a public taught to read and given a chance to enjoy reading, it’s an uphill battle. But in any event, the long-term winner is the story which centers on people, and does not go away with some cause or other, and an editor who believes in story above all else, and will not settle for the second-best story the writer can produce. Better that than a trick spine or five different covers, which seems to be the current solution.

    When you’re done with Gollancz, read up on John W. Campbell Jr. Campbell could be arbitrary, capricious and downright hard to live with. But he paid near top dollar, his word was gold, and dozens of writers, some still alive, have described him finding the germ of a story in a muddled manuscript and nursing it through a dozen rewrites until it was exactly what it should have been all along.

    Because being successful doesn’t mean you have to be a louse.


    20 Apr 09 at 6:01 pm

  6. Oops! Should have said “an MBA from Harvard.” Sorry.


    20 Apr 09 at 6:02 pm

  7. This is a tangent:


    I’m not sure what I think of it. The article doesn’t seem to be very well-argued, and wanders between a discussion of reading in general and the work of an author I confess I had never heard of – Jodi Picoult.

    I was more interested in the two arguments – reading is inherently good, and reading bad stuff will eventually lead to reading good stuff (implying that pleasure and the confirmation of one’s own views of the world are left behind and reading eventually becomes work) vs each book standing on it’s own merits (which seems conflated with the idea that if we weren’t told that reading is ‘good for us’, we’d do more of it.

    I picked up the view that any reading is better than none from my family and the librarian in my childhood hometown, and I still generally adhere to that view. I had never really thought of eventually graduating to a level where I’d work at reading, although of course it’s obvious to the youngest reader that some books are harder than others, but I don’t think that makes them unpleasant. Well, not *necessarily* unpleasant; we all have books we’ve given a fair trial to and hated. I don’t know why on earth anyone would equate reading with pleasure would be ‘radical’, as the author says.

    Maybe I’m putting too much into the article. I feel like I’m missing the point.


    21 Apr 09 at 8:12 am

  8. The headline of the article Cheryl quotes is “Why is it a sin to read for fun?” Obvious hyperbole, but reading for fun has always gotten me that “you’re kinda weird, aren’t you?” look from others. It’s particularly evident when people find out how MUCH I read. I tell them on good weeks I do a book in a day or two (for long ones) and have been known, on vacation, to polish off two entire books in one day. They back off a step or two and sometimes declare, with a perverse kind of pride, that they haven’t read two books since they graduated from school/university.

    Reminds me of the technical dinosaurs who make sure everyone knows they never touch a computer and have their secretaries print out all their emails for them.

    I think it proceeds from the traditional “if you read books, you might encounter (different) ideas, and if you encounter ideas, you might end up an intellectual, and we all know they aren’t regular folks, they’re all stuck up and think they’re better than us” meme. God forbid anyone should be better than Us.

    I’m encouraged by the stats quoted in the article that reading for pleasure is up among the 18-24 demographic. I guess these kids need something more to Twitter about than “hey whatzup?” Whatever works.


    21 Apr 09 at 11:08 am

  9. I wouldn’t put it down to the fear of becoming an intellectual and stuck up. I think the reason is very sad – many people simply can’t comprehend that anyone would read for pleasure.

    Not being able to understand other people’s pleasures is extremely common – I’ve got a long list of things that I don’t understand how anyone could get pleasure out of, starting with playing card games (except patience) or bingo and ending with playing or, even worse, watching team sports.

    I guess some people just have the same lack of comprehension about the pleasures of reading. I think it’s sad. Look at what they’re missing!

    I, OTOH, am missing absolutely nothing by never playing cards or bingo or team sports!


    21 Apr 09 at 1:16 pm

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