Friday, May 14, 2010

Sequels, Knock-offs, Look-alikes: sorting authentic from wannabe

One of the keenest pleasures for reps and booksellers alike is seeing a worthy book with modest expectations get traction and work. Even better when it’s not just a shooting star but develops staying power.

Case in point: a couple years ago, The MIT Press published a little book by Matthew Frederick called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. It quickly generated the much coveted “in-house buzz,” and the reps quickly got a positive reaction from booksellers. Those who trusted their instincts and displayed the book got the same reaction from their customers, over 100,000 of whom had purchased a copy by last month.

The book had what all of us say we’re always looking for, i.e. there was nothing else really like it. Essentially a series of inspirational drawings matched with smart, witty maxims about making a successful life in the creative arts, the package was irresistible- small landscape format, paper over board, and a great price. It appealed to people well beyond the field.

Of course the paradox is that as soon as a publisher has a bona fide success story, the hunt is on to duplicate it. And how, by definition, can the sequel be anything but a pale, inauthentic imitation of the original?

It’s a quandary. MIT Press prides itself on originality and editors are passionate about the integrity of their books. Though there were moments when I thought to myself “this is such a great idea, why don’t we do “101 Things I Learned in X, Y, and Z” school,” it was hard to imagine that these could truly replicate the charm and sense of discovery surrounding the original.

Now, thanks to one of the corporate publishing giants, we’ll have a good case study in whether this particular great idea can be successfully cookie-cuttered.

The four copy cat books in their series- “101 Things I Learned in Culinary, Business, Film and Fashion School,” are impressive knock-offs. At first glance, they mimic every design element of the original. And in theory anyway, the concept might be transferable to the other subjects.

But when I perused the collection at a bookstore the other day, the bookseller was anxious point out the deficiencies. The covers are vastly inferior to the original, the binding is shoddy, the whole approach seemed more top-down than bottom-up.

This is a store that took delight in having sold dozens of copies of the original by keeping it on the front counter, and it was always on the booksellers’ hand-selling radar. The store, along with publisher, rep, author and customer, got to share in the feeling of having found something unique.

This bookseller greeted the arrival of the knock-offs with a sigh. “This just diminishes the original,” he thought. He didn’t say it this way, but I imagine his deflated feeling as something akin to the way I used to feel when some piece of political iconography or social critique turns up in a jeans ad or an army recruitment campaign. Can’t we have anything authentic anymore without it being co-opted and transformed into a cheap commodity, or twisted to sell someone else’s idea?

We’ll see how the sales go. Perhaps I’ll be wrong and the public will eat up the concept and the 101’s will proliferate like the Idiot Guides that once colonized bookstores like a bad virus. But meanwhile, my bookseller friend is responding to the challenge by upping his order on 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School and making sure it’s on display upfront.

To end this rant on a happier note, let me suggest a more elegant way to solve the “how can we duplicate this success” dilemma.

One of the most successful books published by Yale University Press in the past decade was Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Like the Frederick book, it was adopted with love by booksellers and readers everywhere and has become a backlist staple. And like the Frederick, a big part of the appeal was the unique voice and gorgeous design.

But instead of rushing to the obvious and pumping out carbon copies of the book- little histories of X, Y and Z narrated in charming grandfatherly voices- Yale waited until the right book came along to make the comparison. This book should have some of the qualities of the Gombrich and should appeal to readers in the same way, but must be absolutely original. Would it exist had there been no Ernst Gombrich? The answer must be yes. (Would Fashion, Business, Culinary and Film exist without Architecture? Doubtful.)

This book, just published, is David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language. The design, tone and concept have much in common with A Little History of the World. And there’s a hope, of course, that it will have some of the same readership. But this is an attempt to make lightning strike again by offering up another authentic, original book- not a set of mix and match imposters.

Again, I may be proved wrong, but I think this wonderful book will succeed both on its own merits and on its tip of the design hat to Little History. It’s the best, most organic, most interesting kind of sequel publishing.

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