Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Walking Into Walls

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So, this is the last Wednesday any time soon when I’m going to be quite this messed up–my Tuesday late nights came to an end yesterday.  So now I’m sitting in the computer lab listening to students to everything except their work, and I’m too tired to think about Benjamin Barber, or Bruce Thornton, either, and he’s next on the list.

But I have been thinking about writers.  And that sort of goes back to Barber anyway, because at one point he complains about the “homogenization of taste.”  Then, a few sentences later, he notes that there’s a great deal of diversity in music available, it’s just that the vast majority of people end up in pop, and all the other varieties have only a few (more or less) devotees.

But I think it’s the inevitable result of difficulty.

Here’s the thing–people who don’t read well but do read tend to read stuff that’s easy, both in terms of form and content.  They never read stuff that’s difficult, because they can’t understand it.

But people who read well do sometimes read things that are easy.  Why not?  Some of it is interesting, and some of it is relaxing.  Then they read the more difficult stuff.

But that means the easy stuff has two sets of readers–the people who read only this, and at least some of the people who read the next level up, and the next, and the next.

And at each level of difficulty, you have the same situation–readers at that level, plus at least some readers from each of the more difficult levels.

I suppose that the way to get lots of readers and turn yourself into that Public Personality I was talking about would be to write at the absolute base level of whatever it is you’re doing–except that not every writer can do that even if he wants to, and not every subject actually works on that level. 

So we’re left with the fact that the people who read Dan Brown include both people who couldn’t understand Umberto Eco if they went after one of his books with a guide, and people who love Eco but want to relax a little and be mindless this Thursday.

Also, to clarify the personality thing, from yesterday–I wasn’t talking about things like author photos or bios on books.  I was talking about the fact that somebody like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Bill O’Reilly sells books because he is a public personality.

Whether the people who buy the books read them is another question.  I’m fairly sure that at least some of the people who buy Dawkins either don’t read the books or don’t understand them. 

But the fact is that a publci personality, even a rankly idiotic one, sells more books that an author without a public face.

If that makes sense.

In the end, though, I’ll come down to the thing I usual do:  the problem with bookselling is that the media corporations who have taken it over want it to behave like movies or pop music albums, and therefore expect things (17% returns, for instance) that have never been true of publishing and can’t be true even under ideal conditions, which the present circumstances are not.

The mistake was in not understanding that publishing is not just “entertainment” in the same sense television shows are–it doesn’t appeal to the same people, or appeal to anybody for the same reasons, and the extent to which the audience can be enlarged is limited by the fact that reading requires acquired skill, decent concentration, and cannot be down while multitasking.

It’s not that New York publishers don’t know what readers want–movie studios don’t know what movie audiences want, either; that’s why we’re drowningin sequels.

The problem is that New York publishers don’t understand that a book that sells, say, 10,000 copies in hardcover hasn’t failed, but succeeded.

And I’m being very distracted and wandery today.

Off to tackle the hordes.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Walking Into Walls'

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  1. OK. I may have been mislead by Jane mentioning her own photograph. More to the point, I mislead myself. I will now go off topic, I think.
    Because the first thought through my head was “Oh! I was thinking about real authors.”
    So then I had to think through why not everyone with an entry in BOOKS IN PRINT rated in my mind as a “real” author.
    In general terms, I think I’m right about that. Someone published George Patton’s diaries, but that doesn’t make George Patton an author, and printing up some 18th Century divine’s sermons doesn’t make him one either. Should some presidential candidate’s staff’s collection of “talking points” qualify him?

    And certain activities seemed to conflict with being an author. Call it the “dancing bear” exclusion, on the basis that a bear might be taught to dance, but that did not make the bear a dancer. He differs from Gene Kelly not just in level of activity, but in nature. My first thought was to exclude all politicians, and I would extend “politician” our far enough to catch Carville and Coulter. It’s not that I don’t have books by such people. It’s that I don’t think of the people with a picture on the dust jacket as authors.

    Then I realized the right word. To my way of thinking, you can’t be an author and a polemicist. To be one disqualifies someone from being a “real” author in my mind as much as being a bear disqalifies one from being a dancer.

    And the nearest I can come to explaining myself is that an author–even a bad author, of which there are a great many–knows how something works. A polemicist has an idea about how something SHOULD work. He may be right. At least one of them is bound to be. But I don’t think of such people as “real” authors.

    But then I don’t think of those flyers the Lyndon LaRouche people hand out as “real” magazines, either.


    28 Apr 10 at 6:19 pm

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