Monday, July 17, 2006

Publication: When being good is not good enough

Today Grumpy Old Bookman links to an article in The Australian that reports on yet another experiment [yawn] "proving" [fidget] that publishing is a crapshoot; that even a Great Book [eye-roll] won't necessarily snag a publisher's interest. Headlined "Nobel winner's work rejected," the story begins:

It is one of the most lauded novels in Australian literature, but when Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm was submitted to 10 Australian publishers, not one of them would have published it.

And in many cases the rejection letters received by The Weekend Australian for the book by the Nobel prize-winning author were insulting.

In one case the reply referred to British novelist and critic David Lodge's "how to" book on writing fiction.

Under the Patrick White anagram Wraith Picket, chapter three of the novel was submitted, with the title altered to The Eye of the Cyclone and with only the names of the characters changed.

At this point we are meant to nod sagely and agree that, yes, publishing has always been a matter of luck rather than talent and effort. If you know the right people, you might just have a chance; otherwise, publication isn't much different from winning the lottery.

What these stories persist in overlooking is the fact that publishers are not book critics. Their function is not to evaluate art, but to consider business propositions. Somehow publishers must divine whether the public is likely to line up to buy the novel in question. Whether or not the book is brilliant or groundbreaking is often beside the point.

Authors whose work has been rejected often point gleefully to these experiments to prove they're unlucky rather than unworthy of publication. But could we rein in those big egos for a minute? Maybe your work is good and maybe it isn't. A publisher's rejection can, but will not necessarily answer that question. Sometimes brilliant work simply isn't saleable--and sometimes inferior work is.

Poorly-written books are published every day because publishers saw something in those submissions that they believed would appeal to readers. Every writer would do well to bear that in mind. Being published does not necessarily mean you're a great writer. And being rejected does not necessarily mean you're a poor one.

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6 comments:

Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Thanks for this Brenda. It's a great reminder for days when we're tempted to dwell in doubts and insecurities and when we fear that our writing's inferior. It's also a lesson for us to keep our feet on the ground when we achieve publication.

Chris said...

Let's see: Wraith Picket, yeah that's not a cheesy pseudonym; was chapter three the one where the original author paused to fill in backstory? (don't know, just asking); did the story maybe seem a little familiar (perhaps the suggested how-to book included a chapter on plagiarism) and/or were the new character names also from Baby Names for Wiccans? Lots of reasons to pass on the submission...

Thanks for the post, Brenda.

Kristin said...

Also, we don't know how this author originally got published and won his prize, do we? Could be he had a long, long career in writing, made contacts within the industry, and someone knew he had a track record for literary work and was willing to take a chance on him, hoping he might get recognized.

Most publishing companies do NOT make money off of literary-type books. The commercial stuff is their bread-and-butter. The literary books keep them on the pages of the NYT Book Review and all that.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"What these stories persist in overlooking is the fact that publishers are not book critics. Their function is not to evaluate art, but to consider business propositions. Somehow publishers must divine whether the public is likely to line up to buy the novel in question. Whether or not the book is brilliant or groundbreaking is often beside the point."

That happens to be a pretty damning indictment of what's wrong with publishing. Publishers don't evaluate the artistic merit of a book and brilliance of execution is besides the point. That's why so much crap gets published, because most agents and editots simply extrapolate from past success.

"Most publishing companies do NOT make money off of literary-type books."

It's equally true that most books of ANY type aren't successfull.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I'm not surprised that professional writers resist the imp,ications of this article. Everyone who's successfull or striving must believe that his effort and ability are solely resonsible for his success. To admit otherwise makes a mockery of our almost instinctual belief that merit+diligence always=success.

Brenda Coulter said...

That happens to be a pretty damning indictment of what's wrong with publishing. Publishers don't evaluate the artistic merit of a book and brilliance of execution is beside the point.

It appears I'm somewhat less cynical than you, Peter. I was careful to say that brilliant writing is often beside the point. ;-)

Chris, I did wonder why the third chapter was submitted. What unknown author would send the third chapter by itself? I also wondered about the ridiculous pseudonym. Maybe I am as cynical as Peter, because I'm thinking the outcome of this experiment was a foregone conclusion.

Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment.