Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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Serious Nonfiction in the Digital Age

This is a subject that’s been on my mind a lot these past few weeks, driven largely by the absolutely deserved attention cycle given to Robert Caro’s LBJ biography and volume 4, THE PASSAGE OF POWER. It’s not just that Caro is a throwback, someone whose career was the product of a time when publishing took risks, didn’t really care about P&L statements, and were only starting to be chained to the yoke of multi-conglomerate expectations, but that it’s impossible to imagine a next-generation version of him carrying on with multi-volume biography. Today’s WSJ piece on the very subject, while highlighting the romantic nature of publishers who fund these endeavors, also shows that the majority of people in the midst of multi-volume biographies are, well, over the age of 50. Distinctly Boomer.

It comes down to this: biography, history, and serious nonfiction take years to research, write, and publish. When books sell to publishers, they do so on proposal, with the expectation that it will take those aforementioned years, if not more, to complete. There are ways to do so with little money, but that generally means the writer needs to be supported by an institution — university, think tank, you name it — or be independently wealthy. Big deal, right? Most writers working in any category are in the same boat. Serious nonfiction is not really a money category, though, but a prestige one. And “prestige” translates even less well to ebook sales. Mosey on over to, say, the Kindle bestseller lists, and how much serious nonfiction do you see there? Caro right now, sure, but that’s because he’s a known entity, a name brand if you will. And he’s working off contracts that are years old and equity that dates back more than 40 years, in a manner of speaking. And last fall, Walter Isaacson and his Steve Jobs bio, but then, Jobs was newly dead. Otherwise, not so much as compared to commercial fiction, romance, mystery, self-help, politics/current affairs, etc.

The mechanisms of “success” for serious nonfiction are not really about sales, though of course they are nice. Instead it’s about grants. Prizes. Speaking engagements. Being called upon as an expert in the field. Being able to straddle academic and general interest circles. Independent booksellers aren’t going to champion serious nonfiction the way they do novels and to a lesser extent, memoir. (Don’t believe me? Tally the Indie Next lists from the past year, as I have. A whopping 82.2 percent of bookseller choices were novels. Serious nonfiction barely rates. Why is that? Another piece for another time and venue, most likely.) Barnes & Noble does, and I guess Amazon says they do, but even their championing is more about prestige than sales.

So when digital evangelists prognosticate about the future of publishing, as they love to do, and about what “needs” to go away, serious nonfiction is now one of the first things I think about. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and want to read more of it and notice twentysomethings have little perceived patience for weighty tomes. Maybe it’s because I’d rather have pragmatic conversations about what categories are best suited to digital — genre fiction obviously, certain commercial strains of literary fiction, basically any book that needs to have a completed manuscript done before it’s shopped around, or can be finished very quickly post-proposal — and which ones won’t be. Maybe it’s because the very institutions that support serious nonfiction are themselves in more financial trouble than they used to be.

So much as Caro should be revered, in thinking about who the future Caros will be, we have to consider that certain “outdated” mechanisms of big publishing may have had a larger point that digital publishing models cannot ever hope to replicate. I hope I’ll be proven wrong. I suspect I won’t be.

ETA: Nonfiction writer and historian Maureen Ogle tackled the same subject last week, as it turns out: “The self-publishers, in my opinion, have a distorted view of ‘books’ and of ‘publishing.’ In their minds, every writer is cranking out novels that don’t require much time to research and write, and the lag time between creation and payoff is short. So I ask them: What happens when the agents, editors, and publishing houses go away? Who will write non-fiction then?”

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    This got me thinking about all the ‘Why Caro is the last of his breed' stories, which this essay barely touches on, if...
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