Last Friday, publish-on-demand (POD, or traditionally, “self-publishing”) service Lulu.com released a study claiming that the life expectancy of the bestselling novel has plummeted.
Notes the study:
In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did.
Basically, they’re counting the number of weeks a novel stays at number one, so I’m not sure that it necessarily gives us the data we need about the true life expectancy of a novel, which I would define as how long it stays in the zeitgeist. The longest The Da Vinci Code stayed at number one was 13 weeks, for example, which isn’t a good indicator of its cultural dominance (it’s been back to #1 on 15 other occasions, for shorter runs).
Still, we’re not seeing any streaks like Allen Drury’s political thriller Advise and Consent, which stayed at #1 for 57 weeks. It would be hard to argue with Lulu.com CEO Bob Young when he says:
“The market today is more chaotic,” says Young. “The churn rate is far higher.”
With more and more distractions competing for our attention – in the 1960s, for example, people didn’t start their workdays at YouTube – it’s no wonder our attention spans have become shorter. This also seems on the money to me:
The future of publishing, he continues, belongs to “niche-busters” – books targeting a niche rather than mass market.
Certainly in other fields of publishing and entertainment, the trend is toward “narrowcasting” – getting more stuff to smaller audiences. Using TV as an example, in the 1970s, three big networks broadcasted some pretty bland fare to huge swaths of America. Thirty years later we have hundreds of channels that deliver a wide variety of bland fare. Presumably, it’s easier to find your kind of thing on TV now. (I’m still waiting for the Noir Channel, but home-shopping enthusiasts have it made.)
Of course, Young’s take on their stats is that “the publishing industry is unravelling” and that self-published books will fill the gap. I’m not so sure about that. Having examined a lot of the self-published books that come through our doors, I think the reading public still demands the kind of quality they can get from a professionally written and edited book. Not to say there aren’t always some exceptions; I’m sure there are a few self-published books that are cliche-busters.
But who knows what will happen? The DIY approach has made for some fascinating changes in the music industry, as technology allows more and more musicians to eschew major-label serfdom to record and distribute their own music. And blogs speak to a self-publishing revolution of another sort. Maybe the POD-people will become a stronger force in book publishing as well. I’d imagine it will come less from individual authors using POD and more from small would-be publishers using the flexibility of POD to create tiny niche publishing houses – some of which we’re already seeing.
I hope that big bestsellers don’t go the way of the dodo, though. Even though I’m sick of talking about The Da Vinci Code, I think we all still need to have the same book in common sometimes.