You and I have at least one thing in common: We can name exactly zero of Justin Bieber’s hits.
And yet, practically everyone on the planet, from nine to ninety, knows at least one Beatles song, even though the group disbanded more than four decades ago.
The reasons for this phenomenon have as much to do with economics as music. And the reasons why you had Beatlemania but you don’t have Bieber fever also sheds light on why the book publishing world is busily following the music industry over a cliff.
First, music. How did the Beatles get to be the Beatles? By honing their craft through endless rehearsals, developing their songwriting abilities, and performing before countless audiences at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Star Club in Hamburg, and elsewhere. When they burst upon the scene, they had been making music as a group for thousands of hours. It’s not so much a matter of “paying dues.” It’s a process of working to reach an extraordinary level of quality.
Justin Bieber, by contrast, was discovered at age 14. A talent manager found his videos on YouTube. On his rocket rise to fame, his songs were written for him. The band was waiting. He was the missing element: a handsome teen waiting for stardom to be thrust upon him. That’s the difference between Beatlemania and Bieber fever. The former was an epidemic; the latter, a virus developed in a test tube.
Pretty much all musical groups once came up the way the Beatles did: By honing their craft and growing an audience. Today, most musical “stars” achieve success the way Bieber has. He didn’t find an audience. The audience was led to him.
This is one of the major reasons why the music industry is in such bad shape: the lack of acts that grew creatively from the struggle to reach the top and therefore learned how to create music and connect with audiences not just of their peers but of all ages.
So what’s the parallel to the book industry?
Once upon a time, publishing houses were owned by the individuals whose name was on the door. Charles Scribner. Henry Holt. Simon, and Schuster. They were individuals and they were individualists. If they’d wanted to make real money, they would’ve gone to law school. Instead, they published books they believed in. And if they thought an author had talent, they would hang with that author for book after book as the author grew creatively, got better and better, and developed an audience that ultimately led to bestseller status.
In the second phase of modern publishing, those houses merged with larger houses. Holt became Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Scribner became part of Random House. Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell merged into a single firm, not-so-creatively entitled Bantam/Doubleday/Dell. Publishers were still interested in growing an audience, but grew somewhat more cautious and bottom-line oriented. The emphasis shifted from growing authors to full-grown ones-instead of displaying patience for mid-list authors on their way to the top, the focus shifted to authors who were already national bestsellers. After all, bestselling authors were easier to market than their mid-list cousins. All you had to do was let the world know that the new Tom Clancy, or John Grisham, or Stephen King was in the stores, and then get out of the way.
Then came the current phase of book publishing, in which a handful of multi-nationals bought up all of the major, respected New York brands. Bertelsmann, a German, family-owned conglomerate, bought Bantam/Doubleday/Dell. Pearson, an English firm, bought Penguin, Viking, Putnam, Ivy Books, and a host of other firms. Hashet, a French outfit, bought Random House, which by then owned Crown, Ivy Books, and a bunch of other imprints. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, an Australian affair, bought HarperCollins, which used to be, back in the day, Harper and Row.
These multi-nationals instituted a new approach to publishing under which every book was responsible for paying for itself. No longer was there any effort, or even any window dressing, about growing first-time authors into mid-list authors and mid-list writers to bestseller status. In other words, if your first book didn’t sell, game over. You would never get a second chance. And it’s not just your own publisher that essentially abandoned you. Any publisher, or any agent, for that matter, could look up a book’s sales on bookscan.com. If the numbers were poor, as is typically the case for a first novel, even a good first novel, once again, game over. Thank you for playing. Next contestant, please.
The music industry didn’t die with Napster and file sharing. The real death came when the focus shifted from finding acts that had been working for years, as did the Beatles, and instead to growing their own-the Justin Biebers, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, to name a few.
A generation ago, when a new Grisham novel came out, it looked as though everyone in America stopped what they were doing to read the book. You’d see copies absolutely everywhere. Today, that’s no longer the case. Not just with Grisham but for practically any author. There’s literally no fiction author of note coming up the ranks, for the reasons discussed here.
So now you know why you don’t have Bieber fever, or its book publishing equivalent. And why you aren’t likely to catch it anytime soon.