A Tail of Two Books - The Publishing Industry on Fire?

A Tail of Two Books

10/13/15 was a Tuesday, which is the most popular day of the week for new books to be released. This Tuesday was no different except for the fact that the “it” book of the year was being released. No, I’m not talking about my novel; rather a book called City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg hit shelves. It was an important day. Why?

Firstly, the publishing industry was - and is - betting on City on Fire to prove that big book releases aren’t a thing of the past just yet. The publisher, Knopf, paid 2 million dollars for the title and has spent nearly as much on marketing. More so, it’s not just a book; it’s a 900+ page meandering encyclopedia of plot and character and New York history that has received mixed reviews so far. It’s the type of book publishers advise authors to stay the hell away from. A Washington Post review exemplified this by pondering, “Should I read this novel — or three others?”

This comes at a time when big publishers are at odds with Amazon, who has changed the paradigm and empowered the reading community to choose what is popular by enabling anyone with determination and an Internet connection to publish a book. While most don’t get a ton of attention there are major successes (the biggest being 50 Shades of Grey). I have some experience here, so it’s a bit hard to be objective. Streets of Gold - my book - released on the same Tuesday as City on Fire and let's just say nobody was jumping into 2 million dollar bidding war; however, I did go through the publishing decision myself and chose to start small. Here's why: Think about other industries … YouTube has made countless stars that would have never been given a chance by movie studios; Kickstarter helped crowdfund some of the coolest new inventions that were passed over by investors; Even classic art is getting a fresh canvas by people like The Most Famous Artist who leverage social media. Amazon does the same for authors. Good content will get discovered eventually by the millions of people looking. On the flip side, one editor who deems something to be great, no longer guarantees it's success, but does guarantee pressure.

Thus, the reason an entire industry is paying such close attention to City on Fire. If it is not received well, the power will shift further to Amazon. The fear is that books like mine will, in aggregate, nibble at crumbs on the plate of Knopf’s lunch, and if they do why would publishers spend so much money on titles? And, if publishers don’t pay up in advances and marketing, why should authors work with them? 

All of this went into my decision to publish small, which more authors are doing, and it doesn't mean the smaller titles suck. I’m an experienced and previously published writer, I worked with a professional editor who came from Harper Collins, and Streets of Gold is actually selling. While most people will probably never hear about it, in the first week of release it’s reached the top .3% of books on Amazon and is getting great reviews. While the sales are FAR behind Hallberg’s City on Fire (hundreds for the week compared to thousands per day), it's steadily climbing the charts and nibbling on those crumbs. 

Other than feeding my delusions of grandeur, the experience has lead me to mull over comparisons between Streets of Gold and City on Fire, not because of the polar opposite approaches to publishing, but rather the similarities in content. Both focus on issues of class, income disparity, the human condition, and urban crime. Through glitter and grime they portray a snapshot of issues faced by our nation, told through the multiple perspectives of flawed characters. They are both scriptures of two major US cities - two that could sit on opposite coasts. 

In this case the content on the pages mirror the urban backdrop. Hallberg's prose is long, artful and intelligent like you might expect from classic writers bred in New York coffee shops, while Streets of Gold is shorter (a third of the length) and reads extremely fast (so the reviews say) like a film, which not only pays homage to LA’s film industry, but also stands as a beacon of our times, where people want information and entertainment that is fast and visceral. This was a conscious decision, and it’s also very much aligned with the characters in the book as they distribute shocking cell phone video online via social media. The corporate grenades launched to have it removed are no match for the ones and zeros that now serve as our societies conscience. Similarly, Hallberg's image of a fire work exploding in the night serves as a map to the book as one even sets off a blaze of story lines. 

This comparison isn't a competition, nor is it to say one title is better than another or that Hallberg and Knopf are wrong in going big. What I’ve read in City on Fire so far is good (although it will probably take a few weeks get through) and if somebody had offered me that publishing deal I would have said yes, fainted, awoken, confirmed it wasn’t a dream, and then run around in circles screaming at the top of my lungs. 

Truly, I hope City on Fire is a success. There’s a certain nostalgia to the publishing industry that is sexy and hard to let go of. It’s like comparing Grace Kelly of Hollywood’s Golden Era to Justin Bieber being discovered on YouTube. Realistically, I hope there’s a place for both epochs. Who’s to say big publishers can’t sustain interest through blockbusters, while smaller publishers like myself ride along on the coattails? The industry is concerned that the failure of City on Fire would bring down big publishing, but I'd argue the attention it's drawn is already success enough. It shows people still care about a good story. In this Tail of Two Books, only time will tell if that story is contained within in Hallberg's pages or if it centers around the changing industry.

Related links: 

City on Fire Page

The Most Famous Artist

How 50 Shades of Grey Was Self Published

Washington Post Review