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Numbers of books soar while quality of content plummet

RECENTLY a professor from Fudan University lashed out at Yu Hua's newly released novel "The Seventh Day" as "a crudely crafted product the market."

A dentist-turned-novelist, Yu is a celebrity author widely seen as a representative of avant-garde style for his frank and unorthodox portrayal of the lives of lower classes.

According to professor Gao Yuanbao from Fudan, Yu's latest production is a failure. One critic called it "Yu Hua's worst novel, which would have no chance of being published if it was not authored by Yu."

But given the author's celebrity status, the work will have a good chance of being a commercial success, and that's the top priority for any publisher today.

Prior to the novel's debut, the publisher had launched a promotion blitz by making dexterous use of micromedia, creating considerable buzz and mystique about a tragic story that was said to have moved an art connoisseur to tears after the first few pages.

Corrupted and softened by fame and wealth, Yu cannot but sink into mediocrity, and become estranged from the tragic aspects of life that once moved him.

Too often the eagerness to succeed and win fame and money easily blight the early promise of artistic excellence, meaning we are witnessing few, if any, writers capable of sustaining quality literary output.

We still talk proudly of poets like Du Fu (712 AD-770) and Li Bai (701 AD-762), but that was before the invention of literary agents, copyright, royalties, remuneration, writers' associations, and professional writers.

Efficiency v quality

In his "Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century," author John B. Thompson describes how modern technology has changed traditional publishing, what cultural and economic forces drive the industry, and how publishers market books.

Modern publishing is evocative of very different associations.

For one thing, with such inventions as computer typesetting, publishing has never been so easy and accessible. But efficiency does not lead to emphasis on content. Instead, increasing attention is shifted to marketing, distribution and consolidation.

According to Thompson, in 2010, the US publishing industry issued approximately 316,000 new books.

I was reminded of an anecdote about Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a Chinese scholar admired for his erudition. Once he was led by a proud librarian on a tour of the US Library of Congress, and asked of his impressions.

"I am surprised," the scholar mused, "that there are so many books I need not read."

When Du Fu wrote of his having read "ten thousands volumes," he could not have foreseen that today over 300,000 new titles could be published in a single country in one year.

When culture becomes an oyster in the hands of mercenaries, its quality is judged in terms of its profit-enabling power.

Chinese used to hold characters in great sanctity. So when characters were first invented, "it rained millets, and the ghosts cried at night." For a long time it was strictly forbidden to soil any paper bearing characters. In my boyhood, I still viewed the printed word with awe.

Today even my son's school term assessment is contained in standard, printed slips, very neat, and read very much like the horoscopes in a newspaper.

Easy publishing has definitely not effected a corresponding improvement in the quality of content. The most important Chinese books - probably Western too - were invariably created before the invention of the printing press, or paper.

The classical Confucian canon were first recorded on the bamboo slips and silk, and the difficulty of the writing medium required scribes to be so economical that today scholars are still trying to get at the meanings encrypted in the sacred texts.

Publishing as a mere business in China is a fairly new development.

Bao Tianxiao (1876-1973), a renowned writer, journalist and editor, wrote in his memoir of Kuai Guangdian, an official scholar and patron of culture, who spent a fortune setting up a publishing house specializing in publishing Western masterpieces translated into elegant Chinese by scholars like Yan Fu (1854-1921). They included Darwin's "On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection." Kuai explicitly instructed managers that "We do not publish for the sake of profit, but for the sake of disseminating ideas."

"Obviously he did not know that publishing has been totally commercialized. Did he still see publishing as the preserve of men of letters who want to have their own poetry anthology printed and sent to friends, as in the past?" Bao wondered.

As Thompson observes, book publishing relies on "economic, human, social, intellectual and symbolic capital."

"Symbolic capital" refers to "the accumulated prestige and status associated with the publishing house."

Culture v business

When publishing is about marketing and sales, rather than dissemination of ideas, it is easier to make decisions.

Thompson revealed that in the 1970s, a hardcover book that sold 500,000 copies was a success, but, 30 years later, best-selling hardcovers sold eight to 10 million copies. Thus the ascent of hardcover books transformed the industry.

Paperback publishers sought to acquire hardcover publishing houses to secure supply sources and to avoid the escalating prices of buying paperback rights from hardcover publishers. Hence the consolidation.

According to the book, as early as in the 1990s, the largest US publishing houses were Random House (owned by Bertelsmann), Penguin (Pearson), HarperCollins (Newscorp) and Simon & Schuster (CBS).

This Monday, Random House and Penguin completed their merger, forming the world's largest consumer book publisher, with estimated annual revenue of nearly US$4 billion. That consolidation would, by all accounts, enable capital to configure culture more strictly to satisfy market dictates.

The industry consolidation will force out many publishers and managers, many of whom will become agents.

According to Thompson, the number of agents in the US, Canada and the UK grew from around 800 in 2004 to more than 1,000 in 2008 as a result of consolidations.

The role of agents is evolving too.

Today agents handle tasks that publishing house editors once performed, identifying promising authors or new works, and then assembling the best possible publishing packages.

"The publishing corporations are not uninterested in new talent, but they are impatient with talent that has not proved its mettle in the marketplace," the book claims. Generally publishers give a book about six weeks to show significant sales.

But it's wrong to assume that publishers are only interested in publishing bestsellers.

Publishers try to issue a broad collection of titles and authors, for this widens the appeal of their catalogues and serves as a form of risk management while they compete for the attention of the large retail booksellers.

Anyway, publishers know that "bestsellers can emerge from quarters where you least expect them."

Today what counts is not content, but sales, which comes from public awareness, visibility, buzz, attention.

As the book observes, "Good publishers ... are market-makers in a world where it is attention, not content, that is scarce."


 

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