Friday, April 28, 2006

Comment: The Same Old Wild and the Long Tail

I have to admit I wasn't much interested in the OPAL MEHTA scandal. Kaavya Viswanathan's book (HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE, published by Little, Brown) , whether it contained plagiarized passages from Megan McCafferty's SLOPPY FIRSTS (published by Crown) or not, looked like just another chicklit book anyway, and I don't tend to have high expectations of originality from the books with the cute curvy dresses on the covers. I'm glad people buy them because it pays our bills, but I don't much care about them one way or another.

Then Little, Brown issued its statement yesterday that it was recalling the books, and McNally Robinson NYC got a call from CBS, who wanted to film a talking heads segment about the story in our store. I called Sarah, my boss, who thought it was a great idea to have them come, and we talked a little about the issue.

The one thing that interests me about the case is that both McCafferty and Viswanathan share the copyright on their books with a packaging company called Alloy. From what I understand, this is a company something like the ones that produced all those Nancy Drew mysteries by "Carolyn Keene" (who kept publishing books long after her death, as a team of writers took over the brand name), and something like the producers who put together "boy bands" or "girl bands". They also run the clothing line Delia's (which I have to admit I adored in my wannabe gothish high school days). What they seem to be selling is a product created from market research, not a work of art.

So the point of a packaging company is to work from a formula; to create the same hit over and over again. Viswanathan seems merely to have done it too well, or not subtly enough. I'm not saying it's not her fault that she wasn't able to use her own words to reproduce the formula (teenage girl struggles with boys, cliques, aspirations, shopping, family, comes out on top) – but it does seem she was asked to reproduce a formula.

To me this points up the flaw in a publishing industry that's focused so narrowly on the next big blockbuster that they fall very easily into repetitiveness and redundancy. Rather than seeking a diverse range of voices (Viswanathan's ethnicity notwithstanding), they look for a copy of the last thing that worked – witness the DA VINCI CODE knockoffs like THE RULE OF FOUR, THE LAST TEMPLAR, etc. I know books are certainly not the only medium to do so (movie sequels, anyone?), but it's such a boring way to make culture, not to mention art.

And ultimately, the industry isn't served well either financially or artistically by this strategy. Readers only want so much of a good thing, and no formula will work forever. By flooding the market with copycats publishers are missing out on the marketability of true creativity. And they run the risk of the copy being just too close to the original (or the previous copycat) for comfort.

The counterpoint to this strategy is what has been called "the Long Tail" – the 80 or 90 percent of books that aren't bestsellers, but that sell in small quantities for years and years. We booksellers often talk about such a book having "long legs" – there are all kinds of funny biological metaphors for longevity. At a seminar called Making Information Pay held Thursday morning in New York City and sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group and moderated by Ted Hill, president of THA Consulting (full disclosure: I just cut and pasted half of this sentence from Shelf Awareness), the discussion concerned the amazing degree to which the Internet has expanded the opportunities for selling the small book. Said Hill (full disclosure: he's also my landlord!), "Our industry is entering a new phase in which publishers need increasingly to devote resources beyond the bestsellers. We will grow by finding large numbers of small opportunities."

Of course, independent publishers and independent bookstores have understood this economy of the small scale for a long time. Our businesses are built on the slow spread of word of mouth, the obscure favorite pressed into the hands of a customer, the backlist that sells and sells. Bookstores won't complain when they sell a hundred copies of a bestseller, but they're not going to depend on it to put food on the table. In a non-corporate world, we think slow pace, long term, and it seems that the Internet age has finally caught up with us.

The OPAL MEHTA scandal will blow over. Bookstores will return their unsold copies for credit (which is probably what they would have done anyway, a detail which most media reports don't seem to note). But if we're lucky, this will lead to an examination of a publishing culture so dependent on the Next Big (Same Old) Thing. The Long Tail is the future of books, and the independents are already there.

(The CBS segment, featuring Publishers Weekly Editor Sarah Nelson, who was very gracious and insightful as usual, and a couple of intelligent McNally Robinson customers, aired this morning on the CBS Early Show. However, since I was at the store until 11 with the film crew, I was not awake to see it.)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on plagiarism, sameness, diversity, the Long Tail, and new trends in publishing. What do you think?