Photo by Andrew Chapman/Flexolite.
Vintage metal type, c. 1950.
The dominance of book sales data inevitably contributes to the disintegration of literary culture
A literary agent and a publisher meet for coffee. The publisher tells the agent that she’s refusing a manuscript he submitted to her. “It’s a big, sprawling novel—we can’t publish it . . .” The agent looks doubtful. He names some big, sprawling novels that her company has published. The publisher mumbles a single word: “. . . BookNet . . .” The agent sits up. “My client’s BookNet figures aren’t good enough?” He thanks her and leaves.
This scene, with variations, is commonplace in Canadian publishing. The strangest fact about BookNet Canada, whose sales data program incarnates how corporate imperatives are squeezing the creative juice out of our fiction, is that it was set up as an altruistic, non-profit solution to the eternal Canadian problem of inefficient book distribution. The website booknetcanada.ca proclaims that “we spend our days finding ways to make it easier to buy books, sell books, keep books in print, reach new audiences and ride the ever-cresting wave of new technology.”
This knight in shining armour has turned into the dragon it set out to slay. For BookNet also provides those who can afford them with detailed sales figures. Just as our hyper-communicative world instantly transforms counterculture revolts into commercial products that are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, so publishing data, even if provided for the purpose of fortifying our literary culture, inevitably contributes to its disintegration. The figures that publishers and bookstore chains, among others, acquire by subscribing to BookNet’s online services are clapped onto authors’ careers like leg irons. Once a writer has published a few books, the reception of her work becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By recording how many copies the author’s earlier books sold, BookNet provides the figures that establish the upper limits for the print run of any future book she may write. Should this figure fall below the standard print run of the publisher to whom her work is submitted, the manuscript, no matter how dazzling it may be, normally will not be published.
BookNet’s crass attitude to literature is epitomized by PubFight, an online game on the BookNet website. Based on business-school exercises where students “buy” stock market portfolios and are rated on the performance of the actual stock market, PubFight allows players to pretend to be publishers by “acquiring” real titles, then rates them on how many copies those titles sell in the fall season. Through this game, BookNet trains publishing students to see books as commercial items devoid of cultural value.
Above all, though, BookNet figures prevent authors from growing: your previous sales become your ceiling. It used to be common practice for writers to “move up” from smaller to bigger presses. Today, BookNet wisdom will decree that the author who has a track record of more than one or two books with literary presses, where sales are generally measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, will sell only a predetermined number of copies. Chapters-Indigo, which controls more than 70 percent of book sales in Canada, will order only the copies required for a writer at this level of anticipated sales. The result is to render improbable publication of the author by a large press with a longer print run. Each book the author publishes closes down opportunities by confirming, or even reducing, the upper limit of his potential sales. Not surprisingly, agents, too, are now using BookNet figures to decide which manuscripts to represent. As one agent said to me, “Everybody wants to get a first novel. There’s no sales history!”
The dominance of BookNet guarantees that many of the best books of our literature will be buried—either not published, or brought out in circumstances where they will not find readers. No doubt a few writers attain the pinnacle of their achievement with their first novels. But the usual trajectory of a literary career is to begin in untutored intensity and gain skill and style with experience; the best books usually come in the middle of a writer’s career, where residual youthful passion is chanelled by craftsmanship. As Martin Amis wrote of novelists: “They come good at thirty, they peak at fifty (the ‘canon’ is very predominantly the work of men and women in early middle age).” These are precisely the writers that our larger publishers are spurning on the counsel of their BookNet sales data.
To envisage our future, we must imagine our recent literary past cleansed of writers whose careers would have been struck down by the iron fist of BookNet. At fifty-seven, Robertson Davies was the author of three novels with unimpressive sales. In spite of his reputation as a journalist, Macmillan of Canada, if relying on BookNet sales data, would not have taken a chance on Fifth Business (1970), the work that launched Davies’s multimillion-selling international career. Timothy Findley was forty-seven and the author of two poorly received novels in 1977, when Clarke, Irwin published The Wars. Would this happen today? Carol Shields was over fifty and had published seven books with a variety of large and small presses before Stoddart brought out Swann: A Mystery (1987 ), which gave her an indisputable hit; in the world according to BookNet, Stoddart’s patience might already have run out. Similarly, a career such as that of Matt Cohen, who, in spite of never achieving more than middling sales, published more than fifteen books of fiction with McClelland & Stewart, Doubleday and Knopf Canada (in addition to other books with smaller presses), would be impossible in the BookNet era. Some of our best-known writers of these generations—Atwood, Richler, Laurence—were picked up by the large presses at an early stage of their writing lives. Their large-press successors today write under a pressure, which they did not confront, to produce bestsellers in order to remain in the big leagues.
The result is an increasingly commercialized literature. Two hyper-literate friends of mine are fond of playing a vicious parlour game called “Name a Canadian writer over forty who’s writing better than he or she was twenty years ago.” Their claim is that, at least among writers published by commercial presses, there aren’t any. In the land of the BookNet dictatorship, the instant a literary press writer accedes to the commercial high ground, the compromises begin. The novel on a deeply personal subject is shuffled aside in favour of the blockbuster that reflects yesterday’s headlines and promises to sell film rights. The demands of a literary agent anxious to provide the editors she works with on a daily basis with a BookNet-viable “product” flatten the author’s quirky inner vision; the prose that once bristled with originality becomes drably mechanistic or cloyingly lyrical and sentimental.
This is not just a Canadian problem. In one of his final interviews, John Updike speculated that his literary career might not have flourished had he not begun to write at a time when a wealthy man such as Alfred A. Knopf could afford to publish novels, short stories and poems on the basis of their literary merit, without undue worry about financial constraints. The Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago published his first novel in his twenties; his second didn’t appear until he was in his fifties. He had published twelve books, only two of them modest successes, before Baltasar and Blimunda (1982 ), his first novel to receive international attention, appeared when he was sixty. The anti-authoritarian atmosphere of Portuguese publishing in the post-dictatorship 1970 s kept Saramago’s career alive. Today, when the Leya conglomerate, which has bought up three of the largest Lisbon publishers, including Saramago’s Caminho, occupies nearly one-quarter of the display space at the annual Lisbon Book Fair, a sixtyish author with a string of failures behind him would not find a home for his new novel.
This global lurch toward razor-edge profit margins makes Canadian publishers nervous. The houses that published the breakout books of Davies, Shields and Findley—Macmillan of Canada, Stoddart and Clarke, Irwin—all went out of business between 1984 and 2002 . The large Canadian presses that survive are mainly branchplants; they are responsible to a foreign head office that can read profit statements but does not place a high value on the development of Canadian literature. This environment bears some of the blame for the actions of editors who once relied on literary taste, but whose decision-making capacities have now been enslaved by BookNet sales data. To a significant degree, the crisis in Canadian publishing is an identity crisis among the big publishers. Having been the standard-bearers of Canadian identity in the 1960s and 1970s, and the vehicle for taking literary bestsellers to the global market in the 1990s, they now lack a sense of purpose. Hemmed in by financial pressures, the large publishers retain a pose of high-culture, hardcover artistic authority; yet they no longer have enduring relationships with literary authors, as Alfred Knopf did with Updike, or Jack McClelland did with Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood; nor are they as successful as they were in the 1990 s at selling foreign rights. The big publishers’ lists are top-heavy with first novels, historical romances and soft-hearted, soft-headed book club wannabe fare; the writers who Martin Amis would identify as hitting their literary peak either dumb down their aesthetic to produce this tripe, or retreat to smaller houses.
Yet the smaller presses’ greater flexibility offers no refuge from the BookNet dictatorship. BookNet-generated figures suffocate the display space for literary press titles in the Chapters-Indigo stores, with the result that many literary press authors whose books were selling 800 to 1,200 copies ten years ago are now selling 400 to 500 copies, or fewer. And yet, in contrast to the indie musician, who can build a career without dealing with a record company, selling CDs at gigs or through websites, writers still need publishers. Literature, more than music, may require a nurturing process. Neither the indie approach nor online publishing seems likely to provide an all-purpose solution to the current impasse: the endless infancy of ebooks could be a stage, but it may be a signal that electronic publishing will not match the dominance and ubiquitousness of print publishing in its heyday.
Young writers can still prosper—at first. Their status as BookNet virgins makes them attractive to agents and large publishers; failing that, their comfort with new technologies may give them an advantage in setting up the online identity of blogs, tweets and Facebook postings that now accompany both large and small press publications. The destruction wreaked by BookNet sales data, in tandem with Chapters-Indigo, is in the long term: in publishers’ inability to sustain a literary career through its ups and downs, its routinization and its flashes of brilliance, which sometimes pass unnoticed in the moment when they occur. In the end, few authors are remembered for more than one or two books; but without a publishing environment capable of supporting the full arc of a career, those vital works, which often appear around the middle of an author’s creative life, will fall on barren ground.
What is to be done? No Pandora can be returned to her box. The only way to defeat BookNet—and make no mistake, without a significant reduction in the influence of the commericial culture BookNet represents, Canadian literary culture will be mortally wounded—is through a vigorously articulated consensus to discredit the utilitarian approach to publishing. Writers who have been keeping quiet in the hope of salvaging their careers must speak out. Editors will have to persuade their employers to place a higher premium on their literary judgement; any hack can read a line of data. A world in which BookNet sales data are treated as an annoyance or an irrelevance, rather than with reverence, will foster the development, over time, of prominent literary figures who will be able to follow their artistic trajectories with relative freedom. The presence of such figures will stimulate greater interest in literature, possibly even resulting in higher sales. Contrary to current dogma, instant commercial success is not the literary norm. In a more common pattern, often more engaging, the early years are marked by experimentation, false starts, books that are intriguing in retrospect but not popular when they appear; the works of the middle years gain in richness from this youthful aesthetic meandering. The possibility of this kind of writer, which is to say the majority of writers of substantial literary achievement, has been quashed by the authority of BookNet sales data. Unless we build a strong anti-BookNet consensus, in the future we will not be hearing from writers with the career patterns of Davies, Findley, Shields or Cohen. Our future Updikes or Saramagos, should we have any, will be silenced. A system that sidelines writers such as these, and suppresses countless first-rate books in favour of wooden imitations of last year’s bestsellers, is designed to persuade intelligent readers that Canadian books are not very interesting after all.