Cognitive Dissonance in Literature as Business

I'm no great booster of market capitalism, so don't get me wrong here, this article is not going to be a defense of Milton Friedman Free Market Monetarism™. I'm a fan of social democracy and the intervention of governments in financially supporting all sorts of public goods from health care for all at one end of the importance spectrum, all the way down to experimental arts and letters at the other. Nevertheless for people who live and work in North America, market capitalism is what we've got. What that means for producers of cultural artifacts—poems, short stories, paintings, movies, novels, commemorative mugs, chocolate candies modeled after the vaginas of performance artists, etc.—is that if said producer is producing a product and then selling it, those sales of said product are going to be determined by the old fashioned market rules of Supply and Demand.

Recently, Wet Asphalt's Eric Rosenfield attended a panel discussion at which Joanna Yas, the editor of Open City, complained that no one reads her lit magazine and that it has to be subsidized by profits from the Open City Books. In responding to Rosenfield's question: "Have you considered making a slimmer, cheaper version of the magazine?" Yas said: "I'm not necessarily interested in giving the reader exactly what they want."

This is curious. Open City Inc, the company that publishes Open City and the affiliated book series, is registered as a non-profit corporation, true, but they are also printing one of the more well-regarded literary concerns and, registered 501(c)3 or not, in the marketplace getting a product sold entails coping with certain realities.

I should state that I'm no real economist, and everything I know about market forces I learned from reading The Worldly Philosophers and my high school civics class. Still, I often feel I have a better grasp of how this stuff works than a lot of the people out there actually selling literature. Before I get to my major argument, here's a quickie refresher of Econ 072:

The marketplace is composed of people who, depending on circumstances, are either Buyers or Suppliers. In all cases, a Supplier has a Product. This Product is offered for sale; it is what They are Selling. The Product can be something that you hold in your hand, something you use up and spit out, something you make into something else and sell to other Buyers in turn, or it might just be some service, feeling, or idea that the Supplier thinks somebody else might want to give them something in exchange for. Then there are Buyers, people who may or may not want to buy the Product. Buyers who want the Product then pay for it with Money or Trade. How much the Buyers in aggregate want the Product is called Demand. How much of the Product is available in the marketplace to purchase is called Supply. When Demand exceeds Supply, prices go up, when Supply exceeds Demand prices go down. This is all common sense going on at least 300 years since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. What the producers of literary magazines like Joanna Yas seem to have forgotten is that when your product isn't selling to expectations, it's because there is not enough Demand in the market place for the product. There are lots of reasons why this can happen but here are the 2 most applicable to the case of literature:

1.) There is a better quality product available for a similar or lower price. This is that vaunted golden apple of competition that the neocon free marketeers are so big on and is a surprisingly undernoted factor in the sale of Literary Journals.

2.) Supply exceeds Demand but prices have not been adjusted accordingly. The Product in this case is priced higher than the market will bear and so no one will buy it. Demand might be low because there is a surplus supply, or because the Quality of the product is low, or both.

These two factors interact with eachother in the real world of literary journals and prevent people from reading them. In order to understand how these factors apply pretend for a second that this is not an article about Literary Journals and is instead about that classic noun of Econ 101 thought experiments, the widget.

Say that you are in the market to buy some widgets for your own personal use. You like widgets, but your budget for buying widgets is limited. So one sunny afternoon you get on your bio-diesel powered tricycle and zoom down to the local Widgeteria to spend some of your hard-earned widget-budget. When you get to the Widgeteria, there are aisles and aisles filled with all manner of different widgets, some that are familiar and others of a type you've never used before. These all have bright, colorful packaging that attest to you the fact that the people who are producing these widgets have really taken put in some time and expense to produce their widgets. Moreover, all of these widgets have the labels of well-established widget distribution companies and world renowned widget builders plastered all over them in what Douglas Adams called big, friendly letters. Sounds like a widget-a-holic's dream, right?

Now also down at the Widgetateria there is a small, cramped rack of widgets towards the front near the cash register mixed in with various other widget-like items. These widgets aren't as colorful, in fact they're downright drab, and while you recognize a few of the names on the packages for the most part you don't. Same thing with the names of the distributors. If you look closely enough, and you do sometimes, you might notice that these are actually sample packs containing multiple widgets. These are smaller than the widgets that you usually use, but there are a few of these smaller widgets that pique your interest. However, when you pick up one of these widget samplers, you realize that each sampler pack is just as much money, and sometimes even more money, than the brighter, more reliably high-quality widgets on sale in the rest of the store. So here's the question: do you, Mister or Ms. Widget-Fan take a chance on the drab smaller widget that you might be able to use, or are you going to spend your limited widget-buying dollar on one of the other, cheaper, more reliably high-quality widgets you feel confident you'll be able to use?

The parallels in the preceding example between widgets and literature should be obvious to anyone who's ever been in a bookstore. So what can producers of literary journals do? On the face of it the answer is simple: produce a higher quality product and sell it for a price that's more sympatico with the demand. There are a myriad of ways that this can be accomplished—fewer pages, flashier covers, lower cover prices, cheaper paper—what's surprising is that none of them are being tried. Even more surprising is that when someone suggests making such changes, the answer they get is "We're not in the business of producing widgets that widget buyers want to use."

Caveat Emptor.

Comments

Re: Cognitive Dissonance in Literature as Business

Hi, guys, I was the moderator for this panel at the Round Table Writers Conference. Remember Eric posing the question and Joanna's very strange answer.

I also remember pointing out that, of every company on the panel, Tim Hall's fiction imprint Undie Press and my own Cantarabooks were the only ones operating for profit. This was met with some denial by the other panelists--yes, n+1, Open City, Rattapallax, and Fence were registered 501(c)3's, but that didn't mean they weren't still looking to make a buck too. This attitude confuses me, and I wish someone would clarify.

This is my understanding: that if you're a non-profit, you get your money from donators, like wealthier individuals or grant committees, whose tastes and preferences you must agree with and satisfy. If you get your money from the market, and your market is readers, you must satisfy the tastes and preferences of those readers. This isn't necessarily pandering. It's always possible to engage readers with topics or styles that are less popular--but these topics or styles must be presented in acccesible, readable form. For which, your greatest asset is strong editors.

And if you think it's hard to be strong when facing the harsh realities of the marketplace, think how much harder it is when facing an artistic committee.

I'm thinking this is why money is such a taboo topic among publishers of literary journals. The source of the money must be invisible, otherwise it's perceived as getting in the way of the process of pure art. But money is never invisible, and to remain deliberately unaware of its source is to compromise yourself spiritually and artistically.

There's a simple corrective. A small, plainly-produced literary journal, priced cheaply and distibuted even on a limited basis, can still make a big difference. The trick is finding readers and keeping in constant contact with their needs, as well as their desires.

Yup, treating them like customers. Nothing wrong with that.

--Cantara

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PUBLISHED IN NEW YORK: "Beating Our Tiny Fists
on the Big Hairy Chest of the Corporate Literary World"
www.publishedinnewyork.com

Thanks for the response.

Thanks for the response. Part of what we're trying to do with Wet Asphalt is to make readers more aware of what's out there when it's good. To me it seems like a no brainer that a literary magazine's audience are its customers and that no matter where the bulk of a magazine's funding comes from, it's still necessary to produce a product that people once. An audience is nothing if it is not an aggregate market that share certain interests, if you want to have an audience, you have to appeal to that aggregate market. There ARE people who are interested in challenging, literate fiction and good writing. These are the people who should be the aggregate market for literary magazines, and yet i often feel like I'm more targetted as a writer than I am as a reader. No wonder then that readers who aren't also writers show so little interest in literary journals.