Thursday, November 11, 2010

All the news that fits your mindset.*

The other day I tweeted about something said to me by an acquiring editor at a fairly large publishing house, to wit:

Books editor just told me, "We can't afford to publish books that people should read. We publish what we know they already like." How sad
That tweet elicited a couple of tart responses on Twitter and in my business inbox. (It has also come up in conversation a few times since.) One response was, "So publishers should publish books that people don't like? Would that make you happy?" The latter question, I can only assume, was a snide, elliptical reference to my current Skeptic cover story on happiness and how difficult it can be to find, especially for those who actively seek it.

But I have an answer. What would make me happy is if publishers now and then felt an obligation to publish (and then promote the hell out of) books about things that people perhaps don't like yet. Or things that people don't yet know enough about to like. Or books containing material that an informed, well-rounded person should know, but doesn't think he cares about. Or maybe even, yes, information that people really, really don't want to hear, and would prefer to avoid at all costs, but need to be confronted with simply because it's true or at least highly plausible. And if any actual publishers are reading this, I'm sure they're laughing their collective ass off right about now, because such a notion could not possibly be more foreign and antithetical to the mentality that drives those fabled top-secret meetings where publishers decide whether to go with a given book and how much to offer for it.

With rare exceptions, none of the types of books following the string of "or's" in the preceding paragraph is getting published nowadays. Publishers, at least the larger ones, are afraid t
o take the risk. And the more front money they're expected to pay, the more risk-averse they are. When serious cash is at stake, they will bet only on sure things; "sure thing" tends to mean "something that's already a huge mainstream trend or currency of thought with an audience to match." (Fiction writers: This explains why your next story really ought to have a vampire in it, and should mention Lindsay Lohan at least a dozen times regardless of the relevance of same to plot continuity.) While this approach might seem to make sense from the myopic perspective of Big Bidness, it creates a major catch-22 for the serious-minded author tackling provocative, cutting-edge topics, because some of the books that are the most technically demanding to research and write (thus meaning they take the most time and deserve the largest advance, from the writer's vantage point) are also the riskiest and most low-percentage from the publisher's vantage point.

But the larger point is, 'twas not always thus. Once upon a time, publishers t
ook a lot more risks. Once upon a time there was a place for a book that people should read, without any guarantees about whether they would read it.

(As a personal side note, after I wrote the book that led to this blog, an agent got in touch with me and said that whatever I'd gotten for SHAM, he was sure he could get me twice as much, and probably an even higher multiple, to do the obvious, far more "salable" sequel: a book about the kinds of self-help programs that do work. "That," he said, "is what people really want to hear. Not all this negativity." So in effect, he wanted me to follow up SHAM with a self-help book of my own.)

It's not just books, either. Magazine publishing, too, used to be very diff
erent from what it is today. An editor took the liberty of scouring the wide wide world of thought and information, then decided, as a kind of benign intellectual despot, what to present to readers based on a gut-level instinct that "they need to know this." No question, when I launched my career in the fall of 1981* magazines showcased a lot more leading-edge, niche and/or against-the-grain material than they do today. At the opinion-leading magazines of yore in particular—not just Harper's, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, but also Life, Look, Time, Esquire, the original Vanity Fair and dozens of otherseditors acted in a manner that was true to the term "opinion-leader." They challenged readers, demanded them to stretch, to look at life in unfamiliar, even uncomfortable ways: ways that made readers question their own core assumptions. In short, they asked people to think. There was far less editorial hand-wringing over notions like, "Jesus Christ, if we publish this a lot of our readers are going to throw the damn magazine across the room, then cancel their subscription..." By and large, if the editors thought it was worthy of being known, they ran it. That's because there was a tacit compact between editors and readers wherein the reader agreed not to throw the damn magazine across the room, but rather to keep an open mind and take the material in the spirit in which it was offered.

Readers once read to learn, not just to be entertained or patronized.

Today the ethos has changed from "we're going to give you what we think yo
u ought to know" to "we're going to find out what you want to read and just give you tons of that, again and again, month after month." That's why the so-called "general-interest" magazine is going the way of the Pontiac, and fedoras at ball games; basically there are no more general-interest readers. Very early on in life, most people align themselves with a certain world-view or a select set of interests, and that's that. Game, set, match.

The saddest part is that this same mentality even infects the news. Especially at the local levels, news stations will cover
or notcertain types of stories based on a carefully researched assessment of what viewers do or don't want to see. Think about that: market-driven news coverage. It's a scary proposition, at least to this old fart.

By the way, apropos of all this is a hilarious cartoon that I can't use here for copyright reasons, but it perfectly captures the absurdity of the latter-day conspiracy between booksellers and book buyers.

* For those who not know, this is a corruption of the famous New York Times slogan, "All the news that's fit to print." And today, more than a hundred years after the line's inception, people still debate its meaning.
** The resulting first story, as by now you've been told ad nauseam, appeared in the January 1982 Harper's.


Tyro said...

I've seen this attitude in a lot of disturbing places.

In a drug store, I saw a display devoted to some alt med "cures", all branded with the store's logo and backed with a doctor in a white lab coat endorsing them. They had magnets, accupressure bracelets and homeopathy. I went to the pharmacist on duty and said how concerning it was that they not only sold expensive placebos but went out of their way to endorse them and tie their brand with this snake oil. The response? "People want this so we sell it to them. Is it really up to us to decide what people should buy?" If you're purporting to be a medical expert then YES, that's exactly what you should be doing!

Recently there was a kerfuffle when a respected museum offered lectures on ghost hunting and alien investigation with essentially no critical thinking. They defended it by saying that this group was paying and maybe people would enter the museum and be seduced into learning something. The problem is that they are learning something - that ghosts are real and aliens are abducting people. I've also got to wonder if their form of bait & switch would work at all, even if it were ethical.

This reminds me of cultural relativism, acting like truth and reality are subjective. I stubbornly cling to the belief that the real world offers even more wonder and amazement than any wishful thinking with the added perk that you can get real, demonstrable benefits. Maybe that's why I loved "SHAM" so much.

But equally the straight talking does make it harder to connect. I keep debating buying SHAM as a gift for some of my relatives but when I tried that with Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World", it was met with defenses and dismissal so who knows, maybe it's fruitless (or at least very difficult and time consuming).

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Those are excellent, context-broadening points, and just to add quickly, it isn't merely in the homeopathy aisle of drugstores that this phenomenon takes place. As cutting-edge outcomes data continue to pour in, it becomes clearer and clearer that a shocking percentage of orthodox medicine's staples--both drugs and surgeries--are little better than placebo at alleviating the conditions for which they were developed.

But consumers want and expect them--and doctors need something to do--so these placebo treatments separately constitute multi-billion-dollar niches within allopathic medicine.

Steve Salerno said...

As a p.s., let me add that one of the most shocking moments during my book's research phase occurred when world-class bioethicist Art Caplan confessed, with the tonal equivalent of a shrug, that his resident facility, the esteemed University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was incorporating CAM and other New Age treatments into its menu not because anyone thought they were medically effective, but simply because they're out to "capture customers."

He portrayed the prevailing sentiment among his colleagues as, "We could do this plus the regular stuff we do and bill 'em for all of it!"

I was stunned that he would say such a thing for publication.

Jim said...

Hey Steve, I greatly respect the fact that you didn't sell out and produce a sequel to SHAM covering 'self help stuff that works'. Thanks for sticking to your integrity.

On similar note, are you working on any other books? I seem to remember you once mentioning you were working on a book about vanity, or something like that. Or perhaps I misremember that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Steve, that you say that publishing has become market led, accountancy led rather than idea led.
Just been looking through John Pilger's new website with all his stuff on, prime example of not giving people what they want and it's all the better for it.

Steve Salerno said...

Jim: Don't admire me so much. When that episode (with the agent) took place, I'd just gotten a fantabulous review in the Wall Street Journal and done a nationwide FOX TV hook-up, and "SHAM" was about to crack the fabled Amazon top-100. I (and my agent, and my publisher, and my publisher's publicist) thought we had the makings of a dark horse bestseller on our hands. Didn't work out that way.

I'm not saying that I would've taken the deal to write a self-help book in any case--there are some things we just can't explain to ourselves, no matter the money involved. But there's no question that I had a rather cavalier mindset of my own at the time, which made it far easier to blow off propositions like the one from that agent.

And come to think of it, I'll tell you an even funnier/weirder story. My very first book was about new trends in selling and salesmanship, and it hit the stands in 1984, of all years. Anyway, after it hit the stands, I got a call from the William Effin Morris Agency, which was SUPER-big in the literary scene in those days, and a hotshot upstart agent said he could get me $50,000, no questions asked (remember: This is 1984 money) to write a book that helped translate those new sales techniques for a mainstream audience--which is, of course, precisely what people like Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins had just begun doing. I turned it down because (a) it didn't really interest me that much, and (b) I'd just signed to do a second book about a sensational Texas murder case, which eventually became a TV movie. But you know, I often look back on that moment, that fork in the road, and I think... What if I'd "sold out" back then and written the book on high-powered persuasion?

There but for the grace of God?

Another blogger might be exposing me and my ill-gotten millions today. ;)

Elizabeth said...

Steve, this is not directly related, but very much apropos manipulative marketing* (and much, much more) and certainly relevant to SHAM -- the 10-part (yes, but worth it) series, The Century of the Self.

It's a must see (IMHO).

*As if there was any other kind.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Eliz.

Elizabeth said...

You're welcome. Do watch it when you have time -- it's fascinating.

BTW, it has 4, not 10 parts. Apparently, I cannot count (to 10...) nor market much (big surprise).

Voltaire said...

For me what's frustrating about this post is that it concurs with what I have long believed: that our culture is massively risk averse and it is reflected in the book industry and in the news industry.

The reason I find it frustrating is I keep looking for information that tells me what is really going on, not what I want to hear. That's one reason I bought Steve's book: I wanted to hear a contrary voice on all those self help books that line the shelves of bookstores.

It's also why I gave up on the news media long ago, because I realized they were only interested in improving their profits, not informing me. Instead of the nutwork news I turned to reading nonfiction.

You do realize that this kind of mass stupidity provides opportunities of many kinds. Overlooking the truth provides an opportunity for those few who really are seeking it. Maybe it's time for a new publisher named "Reality Press"?

Steve Salerno said...

Volty: Tell me about it. I haven't made a big deal about this, but I am now in the marketing phase for a proposal that is meeting a great deal of resistance--an unforeseen and shocking amount, if I'm going to be honest. The proposal provides completely substantiated, "guerrilla-type" information on a topic of vital interest to American consumers...I dare say, nothing could be more vital. It is--or would be--a groundbreaking book. A game-changer. And I don't say that lightly.

But you know what? I actually had someone from the industry tell me the other day, "It doesn't matter if what you're saying is true. I see that you've done your homework, and it's an impressive package [i.e. the proposal]. The problem is, Do people want to hear this? Will they spend $25 to read something that shatters their illusions?" Making matters worse, this individual illustrated by pointing to my book, "SHAM":

"This new book strikes as the same kind of book you wrote in 2005. It's a 'debunking' book. You're taking down an industry, an icon, a source of hope. People don't want that--and they won't even listen unless you're at a certain level of authorship where you have a huge, established platform [which I don't have]. That's why 'SHAM' didn't become a best-seller."

So, bottom line: The truth may set you free. But it won't necessarily pay the rent.

Voltaire said...

I can't believe it that this publisher isn't chomping at the bit to publish a book that blows the lid off of something. In fact I'm already interested in the book; anything that's accurate and shows that the emperor has no clothes is interesting to me.

What's wrong with this publisher you were talking to? Isn't he eager to scoop the news first before everyone else? Doesn't he salivate at that obvious opportunity?

Maybe there really is room in the world for Reality Press.