Thursday, August 25, 2005

Is there a book in you?

It is quite wrong to portray publishing as an impenetrable cartel - if anything it's too open to unknown writers

That provocative statement is the subheader of an article in this morning's The Guardian:

Curiously unsatisfied with the idea that being a successful novelist requires the ability to write books that a consistently large number of people are prepared to buy, jaded scribblers search instead for an explanation that will permit them to retreat with their pride and delusions intact. As W Somerset Maugham put it: "I have never met an author who admitted that people did not buy his book because it was dull."

Oh, ouch.

The truth is a disproportionate number of publishers are wide-eyed idealists with a frightening propensity for chucking good money after bad. As much as agents and editors may feign a cool professional insouciance, most dream of stumbling across The Next Big Thing and securing their place in industry history. While veteran authors languish in the mid-list doldrums, jammy first-timers rake in vast advances on the promise of long and lucrative careers, which frequently fail to materialise. Publishers act with one eye on posterity, leaving their accountants with ulcers the size of kumquats, and the UK book market saturated with newcomers brawling over a limited readership.

Excuse me. Could I just point out that those veteran authors languishing in the midlists were once jammy first-timers, themselves? Sorry. Please continue.

Despite this, there will always be luminaries such as GP Taylor who are happy to curry favour with the disaffected and untalented. Enthusiastically promoting a competition with the aim of finding "the next JK Rowling", Taylor made the bizarre claim that "for the first time ever, a publisher is going to offer someone totally unknown the chance to be published". I daresay there are numerous examples of an author brokering his or her first deal over champagne at a garden party, but the simple fact is that unknown authors are being taken on every day, and frankly, publishers and established authors suffer because of it. The British publishing industry is crying out for a high-profile hothead to disabuse thousands of needy, bumbling timewasters of the notion that nascent masterpieces stir within their loins.

I'm not sure I understand that part about the "needy, bumbling timewasters." What about the author who has worked for ten years, selling nothing, and who "suddenly" becomes a critically acclaimed NYT bestseller? At what point was she transformed from needy, bumbling timewaster to Serious Novelist? Was it the day she signed her first contract, or the day her book hit the List?

By the way, I've said before that while anyone can get published, it's a certainty that not everyone will. I'm not going to use the word "luck" because I'm a strong believer in the soverignity of God, but it takes something more than raw talent and hard work to get published. If a writer approaches the wrong publishers at the wrong times, she's not going to sell.

If anything, the British publishing industry is too open to new writers at the expense of skilled stalwarts. Cheap as chips enterprises such as the Macmillan New Writing imprint saturate the market and harm the prestige of publication. Picking authors before they're ripe represents a bad deal for all concerned. Instead of promoting an attitude of "everyone has won and all shall have prizes", the industry needs to remind people that brilliant writing is very, very hard, that there are many dragons to be fought on the way to publication, and that perishing in the battle is no shame.

This free-market cheerleader disagrees. I'm thrilled that it's possible for the needy, bumbling timewasters (like me!) to get published. I don't believe there are too many books in the stores, and I'm glad literary snobs like the one who wrote this article aren't limiting my choices and preventing me from enjoying fun books that probably wouldn't meet his rigid quality-control standards.

It's a fact that the public's reading tastes have changed dramatically in recent years, and publishers are still scrambling to catch up. But the kind of quality control advocated in this article shouldn't be a concern of the publishing industry; those judgments should be made in the bookstore. Let the reading public decide which books are good and which aren't worth killing trees for. Sooner or later, the publishers will catch on. They're pretty smart that way.

And if they're not, surely an occasional dope-slap from their accountants will steer them in the right direction.


lindaruth said...

I agree with you, Brenda, really I do. But I could hardly get irritated with the guy because his writing is just so "vedy vedy British." It was too much fun to read. :)
I especially loved this phrase:
"nascent masterpieces stir within their loins."

Maybe the guy has a future in romance writing, huh?

Linda (who would love for a publisher to take a chance on this bumbling timewaster with a nascent masterpiece stirring within. )

Brenda Coulter said...

Right there with you, Linda. It was a delicious piece of writing.

TS said...

You know I'm thinking J.K. and T.S. we could be pals. I may not be living out of my car trying to support my child as a single parent, but I am willing to make-up a backstory!

as T.S. Beckett

Brenda Coulter said...

Ooh, Marvin, you are so going to get it from the HP fanatics!

Chris said...

mmmmm ... ulcerous kumquats. <drool>

--Chris (dFm)

RebMel said...

Well, you all know my p.o.v. on letting the readers make up their own mind, and before the trees get killed. Maybe the publishers will wisen up, or maybe a small-time publisher will come out of no where and pass them up.

In Christ,

Anonymous said...

"Ooh, Marvin, you are so going to get it from the HP fanatics!"

Ooh, Marvin hasn't gotten anything from the HP fanatics!!!!!! Dang!

Brenda Coulter said...

Well, let's post a link to your blog, then. That might help.