If subset Y exists within X, not all members of X must belong to subset Y.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Harper’s Magazine has an article by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s behind a subscription firewall, so I haven’t read it, but this excerpt posted by Mr. Sullivan is interesting:

Over the years, books kept in print may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for their publisher and author. A few steady earners, even though the annual earnings are in what is now dismissively called “the midlist,” can keep publishers in business for years, and even allow them to take a risk or two on new authors. If I were a publisher, I’d rather own J.R.R. Tolkien than J. K. Rowling.

But capitalists count weeks, not years. To get big quick money, the publisher must risk a multimillion-dollar advance on a hot author who’s supposed to provide this week’s bestseller. These millions—often a dead loss—come out of funds that used to go to pay normal advances to reliable midlist authors and the royalties on older books that kept selling. Many midlist authors have been dropped, many reliably selling books remaindered, in order to feed Moloch. Is that any way to run a business?

Consider yesterday’s screed by Robert Samuelson and compare it to this essay. All capitalists count weeks, not years. The indictment is against capitalists, not specific capitalists with a shorter-term view. If I go into my local bookstore, will I find books by midlist authors? Will I find Tolkein and lower-selling authors? Or will I just find J.K. Rowling?

The questions are absurd. Even small bookstores carry more than just the bestsellers. Of course they focus on the bestsellers; “bestsellers” suggests profit, so most bookstores would be stupid to ignore them. But not all customers want that. Thus, they also sell midlist (and obscure) titles. For bookstores to have books by midlist (and obscure) authors to sell, publishers (i.e. capitalists) must publish those titles.

The author’s opinion that going for the hot author is a bad way to run a publishing house is subjective. The only “right” way is the one determined by the capitalist that enables her to stay in business by meeting demand. All other ranting against capitalists as a group is sophistry.

One thought on “If subset Y exists within X, not all members of X must belong to subset Y.”

  1. One very important aspect of being a “good capitalist” is recognizing when your existing business model is doomed.
    Apple has reinvented itself not once (iPod) but twice (iPhone). So too with IBM, which sells almost no computer hardware anymore. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has stated repeatedly that his company’s core business model is simply unsustainable and will have to evolve.
    Compare those to such “stay the course” companies as Xerox, Kodak, Polaroid, GM — and my favorite, “TimesSelect.”
    So what excuses do small bookstores, having been aware of Amazon and BN.com for over a decade, have?

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