Faster, higher, stronger … Well, okay, faster

September 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

On the day before Michael Jackson died, Quebec-based publisher Pierre Turgeon sent a book called Michael Jackson: Return from Exile to the printer. The next day, upon hearing news of the King of Pop’s untimely demise, Turgeon called the printer and had them stop the presses so that the book’s author, Ian Halperin, could hastily pen some new material. The revised book, now titled Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson, has been a bestseller since its release, mere weeks after Jackson’s death. Although it doesn’t entirely qualify as an “instant book,” Halperin’s title clearly cashes in on the notoriety of a breaking news story.

Tina Brown would no doubt approve. According to an article in today’s New York Times, Brown, the erstwhile editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and the now-defunct Talk magazine, has plans to parlay her latest venture, the Internet site The Daily Beast, into a publishing imprint. Along with Perseus Books, Brown anticipates her new imprint, Beast Books, “will focus on publishing timely titles by Daily Beast writers – first as e-books, and then as paperbacks on a much shorter schedule than traditional books,” says the Times.

On a typical publishing schedule, a writer may take a year or more to deliver a manuscript, after which the publisher takes another nine months to a year to put the finished books in stores. At Beast Books, writers would be expected to spend one to three months writing a book, and the publisher would take another month to produce an e-book edition.

This compacted timeline would help keep the books current, according to Brown, who is quoted in the Times as saying, “There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.”

Brown speaks like a seasoned magazine editor, which, of course, is precisely what she is. Books, however, have traditionally taken the longer view, and the time it takes to put them together allows for the kind of measured, sober thought that is impossible with such a frantic turnaround. Moreover, the books that Brown is proposing, largely because of the timeframe involved, will come in at around 150 pages apiece: not exactly a length suitable for providing much in the way of nuance or breadth. Instead of classics like A Bright Shining Lie or Barbarians at the Gate, Beast Books promises the non-fiction equivalent of the 3-Day Novel Contest winners.

At the heart of Brown’s scheme is a fundamental misunderstanding about why people read books. People read books because they want to immerse themselves in a subject or a story, because they crave the kind of deep understanding that is impossible to glean from a newspaper or magazine article. Absent this craving, people would simply read newspapers and magazines. The very practice of reading a book-length text demands concentration, patience, and a certain time commitment. For instant news on the fly, there are blogs and websites such as The Daily Beast. The two are not now, and never will be, equivalent.

Books, by their very nature, demand slowness and deliberation, which is one of the reasons they have fallen out of favour with such a large portion of the 21st century populace. They are the antithesis of the sound-bite, the hyperlink, or the instant gratification that proliferates in such forms as Twitter, iPhones, and text messaging. But their pleasures are commensurate with the time and attention devoted to them by both writer and reader. The American playwright Ben Hecht once commented that trying to understand the world by reading a newspaper is like trying to tell time by looking at the second hand on a clock. Hecht understood what Brown doesn’t: true wisdom comes only in the fullness of time. The whole premise behind the aptly named Beast Books ignores this fundamental truth.

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