The Mystery of Big Books

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(Crossposted from Arcade.)

“Must literary studies confine itself to the margins of the publishing field?” asks Andrew Goldstone in the first of what promises to be an important series of blog posts on John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

Noting that Thompsons’s amazing account of the publishing field omits readers and writers from its model–and does so by design–Andrew seems to conclude that the answer is “yes,” finding himself “oddly but emphatically at sea about how to appropriate his work for literary scholarship." Indeed, the “world of writers,” Thompson repeatedly argues, is very different from the world of publishers: “for them [writers] it is another world, located somewhere else and largely mysterious in the way it works, an object of wonder, dismay or simply incomphrenension depending on the writer’s experiences of it” (383). And yet the exogenous position of writers and readers to the publishing field need not deter the literary critic. The reason is simple: the objects of literary study aren’t necessarily writers and readers, but books. The death of the author, which literary criticism treats as a theoretical position, is in the publishing field something more like an operational principle. Editors fall in love with books, not writers. And about books, Thompson has a lot to teach us, giving literary critics new ways of talking about the relationship between the inside and the outside of books.

For the most mysterious and central aspect of the publishing field is the fetish of “big books.”

So what are big books, exactly? Simple, you might think: big books are bestsellers. Intuitively plausible though that may seem, in fact it is wrong. Big books are not bestsellers for the simple reason that, for most big books…, at the time when they are being sent out by agents and bought by publishers and are being treated by both as big books, they have not yet been published and no one knows whether they will actually become bestsellers. ‘We don’t know, we just don’t know.’ So big books cannot be bestsellers. At most they are hoped-for bestsellers, which is not at all the same thing. The difference between a big book and a bestseller is the difference between aspiration and reality. (194)

Given the temporal gap between hopes and reality, what convinces actors in the publishing field that they have a big book on their hands? The answer is perhaps just as mysterious as the big book itself: the answer is “buzz,” which Thompson defines as “a performative utterance, a type of speech act,” where “the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.” Buzz is “a web of collective belief," what happens when hype pulls out its checkbook (194).

Here, the rubber of the literary field meets the road of the publishing field. In consecrating a manuscript with the title of a “big book,” members of the publishing field read together, interpret together, joining a money-minded version of what Stanley Fish once long ago called an interpretive community. Sociologically minded literary scholars might attempt to model how the publishing field chooses big books (or any books for that matter). After all, not all manuscripts get published; not every book becomes "big." At every stage of the publishing chain, agents, editors, publishers, bookbuyers, and ultimately consumers make choices. Some potential-books get knocked out of circulation and others move further down the chain. Some forthcoming books become big, drawing in the publisher’s marketing resources and attention. Others fall by the wayside. By design, the institutions of publishing are designed to manage the problem of scarcity–scarcity of resources and attention. What are the filters, norms, expectations, and constraints that distingiush the unpublishable from the publishable? What practices, rituals, beliefs, and values put some books on the fast track, while holding others back, especially among large consolidated corporate publishers?

It’s possible that what gets chosen by the publishing field is essentially random–there is some fascinating research that suggests that buzz might be allocated without rhyme or rhythm–but it seems that we shouldn’t begin from the assumption that building buzz depends on the random initial allocation of attention and resources. There are a number of important filters already discussed in Thompson’s book that can help us think about the relationship between the outside and the inside of a big book. I’ll name just a few here (some already mentioned in Andrew’s initial post):

  • Voice: “‘To me it’s always about voice basically,’ said a senior editor who acquires both fiction and non-fiction for one of the imprints of a large publishing corporation… ‘Even if it’s fairly analytical or something, it still has to be an author who you feel like you’re kind of in good hands with, and they have this, whatever, special spark of genius that you want to be stuck with for 300 pages” (195). This ineffable quality of the writing itself, so often described in terms of "voice," was analyzed at considerable length in Mark McGurl’s The Program Era. Writers in MFA programs are asked to find their voices, and the publishing field is there to commodify those voices once discovered. Is “voice” the same in both fields? Formally speaking, what sort of sentences have "voice"? Which don’t?
  • Comps: Comps are simply comparable books, books that can plausibly be said to resemble the manuscript under consideration, both in terms of content and in terms of possible future sales record. To be publishable, it helps to be legible to actors in the publishing field in terms of what has already been published. This act of imagination and scenario-building drives the creation of hype and buzz. But as Thompson points out, there is a logic of plausibility that must ground comps. You want to comp a manuscript not to a major bestseller but a more modest but promising success. The question for literary sociology is: what are the horizons of the imaginable? What are known frames of reference in the world of publishing? How do top-ten lists, prizes, syllabi, and other factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the publishing field, shape this horizon?
  • Track: this is the author’s history of sales, as recorded on services like Neilson BookScan. Here, the filter is the marketplace itself, as represented though sales data, which then gets interpreted among members of the field. If an author is on a declining or stagnant tragectory in the market her capacity to sell manuscripts will diminish. Editors and publishers will have a harder time convincing bookbuyers to stock what they publish. Here, one could imagine more work being done on studying the relationship–and balance–between market performance and other factors in determining which books publishers select. As Thompson points out, unpublished authors often have an advantage over published authors, because their lack of a track record allows buzz to float free of inconvenient data.
  • Platform: This is “the position from which an author speaks–a combination of their credentials, visibility and promotibility, especially through the media. It is those traits and accomplishments of the author that establish a pre-existing audience for their work, and that a publisher can leverage in teh attempt to find a market for their book” (87). Platform is especially important for nonfiction, and can explain why a book like Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like could earn a six-figure advance on the basis of nothing more than a popular blog. When investing the concept of a platform, we might try to figure out how different platforms accrue cultural capital, how the dynamics of different platforms shape the broader media environment, and so on. Given the proliferation of platforms online, there is a lot of work to do looking at how platforms affect books, and–as authors increasingly realize the potential to build audiences through other means–books affect platforms. 

These are just some filtering and sorting mechanisms visible in Thompsons’s account. Other filters–cultural, political, material–also certainly must play a role in shaping the literary and publishing fields. My interest, like Andrew’s, is in finding the points of contact between literary sociology and the sort of work that more traditionally occurs in literature departments, however we might want to define that work. Fortunately, as this post argues, I would answer Andrew’s question with a resounding “No.”

Literary critics need not confine themselves to the margins of the publishing field; instead, they should sharpen their harpoons and hunt the publishing field’s great unstudied white whale: the big book.