Winner Take All in Books

Two depressing things for any fiction writers out there.

The wonderful Miss Snark (literary agent) More more more! describes how:

publishers demand that writers sell increasing quantities of subsequent
books they publish. Book one can sell five thousand copies, book two
six thousand but by book five you’ve got to sell forty thousand. If you
don’t, the publisher doesn’t renew the contract. It’s very similar to
get promoted or get out in the military. If you don’t make a certain
rank by a certain age, they ask you to retire.

The reason is increasing returns (in the form of fixed costs) in the book publishing industry:

The reason publishers want zillion copy sellers from one writer instead
of ten writers each selling one-tenth of a zillion is because of unit

Unit cost is the cost of each book sold. Add up all the
cost for printing, editorial time, design time, and a percentage of the
fixed cost like heats light and water and voila and voila: what it
costs to make a book happen. That cost is almost same if you sell 3000
books or 30000 books.

The end result of increasing returns is a winner-take-all market. It is the search for the next blockbuster rather than the building of a set of steady sales. It is wealthies woman in Britain if you write Harry Potter and zilch otherwise. And it is not healthy for book readers.

The point is confirmed by a piece in the December edition of Quill & Quire, in which agent Denise Bukowski argues that "There has been a sea change in the fiction marketplace" in which life is getting tougher for most mid-level and even good-selling authors.

Fact: Foreign rights to American novelist Edward P. Jones’s bestseller The Known World, which last year won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, were not sold until after it had won those awards.

Fact: U.K. star Andrea Levy;s Small Island, which not only won the Orange Prize but also was recently declard "The Best of the Best" of the first 10 years of the prize, was turned down all over New York. Picador finally picked it up for a pittance as a paperback original, after it won the prize.

The reason is partly the big chain structure of today’s book industry.

And in the U.K. one bookselling chain rules the market, and one man does all the buying for it: he has refused publishers’ sales reps access to his stores. Consquentuly, many boks are available in the U.K. over the Inernet.

I presume she is referring to Waterstone’s. Is there a chance that online book sales will counter this trend to fewer bigger books? Let’s hope so.

We’ll Have to Do Something About the Rich

An excellent piece by Jonathan Friedland in tomorrow’s Guardian (hey, it’s before midnight where I am) about the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK. (Link: Guardian Unlimited | Columnists | It may be beyond passe – but we’ll have to do something about the rich.)

The phenomenon of growing inequality is present in Canada too. Increasing wealth and income at the top, flat or declining wealth and income at the bottom (in absolute as well as relative terms) and as a result changes like this:

When Margaret Thatcher
came to power in 1979, just under 6% of national income went to the top
1%. That figure stood at 9% a decade later, but under Tony Blair it has
risen to at least 13%: a tiny group taking nearly an eighth of our
collective wealth.

The hook is a paragraph about London bankers ordering the most expensive cocktail they could concoct — which came to £333 a glass. "The bankers ordered two rounds for
their table of eight. Their final bill for the night: £15,000." Does this matter? Friedland asks. Yes, he answers himself, even though it is unfashionable to say so…

… the story about the
£333 cocktails emerged in the same week as Shelter reported that
children were being forced to sleep in kitchens, dining rooms and
hallways because of cramped housing affecting 500,000 families in
England alone. Of these, three in four said that the lack of space was
damaging their children’s education or development; many spoke of
depression and anxiety. And the scale of the problem has remained
unchanged since 1997

He finishes up by predicting that "this issue’s coming back. Just watch". I agree — left to itself the inequality spiral continues, and at some point it is going to lead to big social unrest. Sooner or later, we’ll have to do something about the rich.

Identity Crisis

Philip Pullman’s essay as part of The Guardian’s piece on the possibility of laws to curb the promotion of religious hatred is, like much of what he writes, thought provoking and original. (Norm Geras discusses it as well.)

Part of Pullman’s essay is emphasizing the distinction between what we are (identity) and what we do. He starts this way:

1. What we are is not in our control, but what we do is.

On the other hand, and simultaneously, what we do depends on what we
are (on what we have to do it with), and what we are can be modified by
what we do.

3. What we do is morally significant. What we are is not.

The distinction is important, and he goes on to argue that

But to criticise the
religion of someone who makes that religion the primary marker of their
identity will be, specifically, to criticise them. It will be
criticising what they are, not what they do. And if it comes to the
courts, will the law be capable of distinguishing between a rational
analysis of theology and an incitement to brutal violence? Home Office
Minister Hazel Blears doesn’t think it will: she has said that she
can’t predict how the courts will act. Better safe than sorry, is the

inevitable consequence for literature – as many others have pointed out
– will be that publishing decisions will increasingly be made not by
editors, as they used to be; nor by accountants, as they now are; but
by lawyers. And my learned friends will be throwing the pall of their
caution over the theatre as well, to the impoverishment of all of us.

Pullman is on the money. There is, however, a missing piece here, or at least one that is not explicitly brought to the fore. In their brilliant description of Economics and Identity (which I describe in Chapter 11 of The Book), George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton bring ideas of identity into game theory and economics. Their model emphasizes how "identity" comes with a set of "prescriptions", which indicate the behaviour that is appropriate for someone of a given identity, or the ideal behaviour associated with a given identity.

Depending on the circumstance, someone may identify themselves in different ways — by gender, by profession, by religion. The prescriptions associated with these identities depend on the circumstace, but they are rules that are internalized, and there is a cost in the form of anxiety when the rules are violated.

So in addition to what you are and what you do, there is also the matter of what "people like you" do — the rules associated with your identity. And it is in this area that much of the debate over religion comes.  To criticize a religion is to criticize its prescriptions — whether this means that Catholics should not divorce or Sikhs should cover their head, or one of a myriad of others. The struggle within many religions over "what it means to be Muslim/Christian/whatever" is a struggle over alternative sets of prescriptions.  It is insufficient to say this is "what you do" because once the prescriptions are internalized there is a real cost to not following the rules. The prescriptions are what connects "what you are" to "what you do".

So Pullman has it almost right, but not quite. It is, as he says, "all very complicated" and it is essential, as he says, that debate over "what it means to be" of one religion or another (or one nationality or another, and so on) continue without censorship, but it would be simplistic to suggest that criticisms of "what people do" can be made separately from criticisms of "what people are."

Rebel Sell Snarky-Tees

I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about Andrew Potter’s Rebel Sell blog. The site, and the book, are insightful and yet frustrating. Potter and co-author Joseph Heath acknowledge, like too many on the left don’t like to acknowledge, that the collective action problem is a real one, and make a lot from it in their book. They also emphasize the uncomfortable truth that "cultural rebellion, of the type epitomized by Adbusters magazine, is not a threat to the system — it is the system".

Their argument is useful because it makes it clear that rebel chic is not the same as real change. The point, I thought when I read the book, is that if we want a just society then we need to focus on actions that lead to real change rather than engaging in individualistic pseudo-protest.

But then they go and do something like Snarky-tees. At this point it starts to look as if they (or at least he — the blog is Andrew Potter’s but not Joseph Heath’s) are more interested in ironically mocking the culturally rebellious (and making a buck in the process) than in promoting real change. It looks like despite their protestations to the contrary (see page 342 of the paperback edition), when it comes to it, they don’t have a problem with driving the modern consumer economy, they just want to drive it a little further.

A new eugenics?

Interesting letter by the always-worth-reading Margaret Somerville in the Globe and Mail this morning, following an article by the rarely-worth-reading Mararet Wente on abortion and disability. She says:

Re Margaret Wente’s Disabled Kids Are The Abortion Debate No One Wants
To Have (Nov. 17): Whatever our view of the ethics at the individual
level of parents-to-be screening their embryos and fetuses for genetic
and developmental abnormalities and discarding those that are
genetically or developmentally "defective," these decisions at a
societal level will have the effect of wiping out certain groups of
people, such as those with Down syndrome or achondroplasia (dwarfism),
or who are profoundly deaf or manic-depressive.

And as genetic knowledge expands, other groups are likely to be reduced. Female embryos and fetuses are already being eliminated, and some fear a similar fate if the genes for homosexuality are identified. The cumulative effect of individual decision-making is wiping out certain groups, a situation that would never be tolerated as public policy.

Are we creating a "new eugenics" — deliberately eliminating genetically undesirable people from society? Those favouring screening finesse this question by arguing that an individual’s choice regarding the nature of their child is not a eugenic decision and comes with their "absolute right to reproductive autonomy". They say eugenics is practised only when a choice is made in relation to a group or class or by someone who’s not the future parent. But is that sophistry?

And where the government supports screening programs to avoid, as a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet euphemistically puts it, "live-born children with preventable physical or metnal handicaps," is this really the adoption of public policy of eugenics?

I wouldn’t pretend to know how to balance this particular tension between individual reproductive rights and the collective consequences of individual choice, but I can’t imagine there is a clean solution to this messy problem. Somerville has written on this stuff a lot (see The Ethical Canary, for example) and Thomas Schelling (Choice and Consequence) has some insights into this, as into so much else.

Healthcare Delivery

The healthcare debate south of the border is ferocious, of course. It is good to see one of my favourite blogs, Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal
keep on delivering the goods on the issue, even if this time BDL is
just passing on the latest Paul Krugman New York Times column on the

DeLong’s was the first weblog I tracked regularly, and it
is still one of the best. I have no clue how he keeps posting several
times a day on average for (pause to see how long it has been going)
well, a few years at least on everything from his main theme
(economics, wot wiv him being an economics lecturer and all) to
America’s Stupidest Dog to many other things. Anyone reading here
should probably go there instead.