Market Failures in Fiction?

After seeing the heat generated by this post, I was reminded of a discussion I had almost two years ago with Arnab.

Read PG Wodehouse’s autobiography, or his letters, and you’ll notice the importance magazines played in his early career. His novels would often be serialized as magazine stories stretching over several issues before they were released as books.

Is this unique to PG Wodehouse? No, Agatha Christie too got one of her first breaks selling twenty Poirot short stories to a magazine- I forget which one right now. And on the subject of fictional detectives- each and every Sherlock Holmes story or novel originally appeared in The Strand.

What’s my point?

This: the Strands and Ladies’ Home Companions of the past used to serve the same purpose with fiction that Instapundit and Desipundit do today with blogs. They filter the best fiction and deliver it to the readers. If the readers like it, that shows up in letters to the editor and requests for more stories by the same author. Based on his or her magazine career, the author can then start pitching books to publishers.

This has its disadvantages. It’s an indirect way of judging quality. People will buy magazines based on the overall bundle, not just the story they would be running in one particular issue. People might not write back to the editor and report whether they liked a particular story or not. But this imperfect feedback and quality monitoring system is still better than what we have today.

Twentieth century writers had to ‘pay their dues’ and consistently deliver good stories before they would be accepted by the general public and publishers. This placed novelists in the same situations as doctors and lawyers- you had to struggle for years, but if you were good, you hit the big time.

But what is the filtering and quality monitoring process today? There are specialty fiction magazines for sf and other genres overseas, but nothing with a decent circulation in India. Femina with one story a month is hardly a suitable filter.

Instead of filtering being done by readers, it is now done by editors. This means that a great number of Indian novelists will each come out with an average-to-excellent first novel- but very few will match that quality with their subsequent books- as Ravikiran pointed out here.

But when Ravikiran says that society is to blame for tolerating bad novelists, I have to ask: what choice does society have? The mechanism by which it can distinguish consistently good content creators from one hit wonders doesn’t exist.

But that leads to another question: why doesn’t it exist. And this is something I have no idea about.

It could be consumer behaviour- consumers genuinely aren’t interested in going through a huge number of average stories and picking out authors who have the potential to shine in the future. It could be because of business models- maybe nobody has yet come up with a profitable way simultaneously pay authors for stories, generate circulation, get readers to provide feedback, and build advertising revenue. Or the number of writers is too small- which again comes back to the business model- if there is enough money to pay people for their stories, would you see more and better stories?

Ideas for a business model / system of incentives that solves this problem are welcome. If you think I’ve got the whole idea wrong, and that I’m talking crap, you’re also welcome to tell me why.

0 Responses to Market Failures in Fiction?

  1. Gaurav says:

    I think you are talking crap because of the following reasons –

    – You have spent your life in an AC house, studying in AC classrooms, making in AC loos, travelling in AC buses, on AC roads. As a kid you climbed on AC trees and went trekking on AC hills.
    – You have not made any post about Dalits on your blog
    – You believe in Libertarian ideas and actually embrace free markets
    – You have not worked in the villages
    – You actually understand logical fallacies and also understand it is important to avoid them for a meaningful discussion.

    This proves you are talking crap. IF you disagree, please provide me with scientific data to prove otherwise.

  2. Gaurav says:

    Such a filtering process exists in the marathi literary world. And I think hindi too.

    Many, if not most first books of marathi authors first appear in a newspaper or a magazine in serialised form. There is a funda called “diwali issues” which is also a very good platform for good writers to impress the market.

  3. Arnab says:

    Will the real Gaurav Sabnis please stand up?

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