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Monday, January 02, 2006

Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile


Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile

Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale

"They can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.

Only Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, expressed an interest, and that was for Middleton’s novel.

She was unimpressed by Naipaul’s book. She wrote: 'We . . . thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.'"

In a derivative article, we find more of the same.

"Nicholas Clee, former editor of the Bookseller, said that publishers were no longer keen to take risks on untried authors because they faced fiercer competition as the supermarkets forced down prices. He said: 'Publishers tend to go for newcomers who have something sensational to offer, or established names. They’re putting big promotional efforts behind just a few titles.'

This has led to a growth in celebrity novels. For example Katie Price, the model known as Jordan, secured a deal to write two novels with Random House earlier this year.

Today’s authors have to be marketable. Taylor said: 'Being 29, blonde, good-looking and vaguely famous should be enough to get you a book published nowadays.' Although there are still middle-aged novelists who buck the trend, our rejected version of Holiday was purportedly written by a 53-year-old man."

I love this response. “Mark Lucas, of the Lucas Alexander Whitley agency, said: ‘We would love to claim that absolutely everything that came in got extensively cross-examined. But successful agencies have rather full client lists . . . when you guys do things like this, it’s time for us all to celebrate. It shows there isn’t an absolute scale of values and nor should there be.’”

I was quite suprised by the reaction of Michael Allen, aka Grumpy Old Bookman, who called the article and the experiment, "remarkably silly."

"Modern publishing companies are, first and foremost, machines for generating a profit for their shareholders."

Wow, what hot news. Stop the presses! But how will they generate their profit? That's the issue.

"Full stop. They have nothing to with 'good books' as defined by some ivory-towered highbrow with more spare time than sense. Hence it is not remotely surprising, or improper, to find that publishers are 'obsessed with celebrity authors and 'bright marketable young things' at the expense of serious writers.' Serious writers, in this context, I understand to mean that readily recognisable group of writers who take themselves far too seriously, who produce books which very few people want to read, much less buy, and who believe, wrongly, that the world owes them a living.

Publishers are not charities; they are under no obligation to publish books which appeal to a relatively small clique of literary-fiction fans."

So are publishers "gatekeepers" who find the best writing as they are so often telling us in interviews when they want to be taken as patrons of art, or merely avaricious whores who are racing to the bottom?

More the latter, it seems these days. What is a good book? My forgotten hero of embattled writers, Jack Woodford, wrote that, to an agent, a good book is one that he can sell for a maximum amount of money with a minimal amount of effort.

Back to GOB's comments. It is one thing to recognize the conditions in which publishers operate-they extrapolate from what has succeeded-and another to endorse them as if this is the only possible business model.

If the market is flooded with ghost written celebrity-based books it's publishers who started the trend. Are reader's clamoring for these books, or do they settle for what they're given?

In her brilliant essay from 1980 about why movies are so bad, Pauline Kael wrote:

“Financially, the industry is healthy, so among the people at the top there seems to be little recognition of what miserable shape movies are in. They think the grosses are proof that people are happy with what they're getting, just as TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.”

Her analysis applies quite well to publishing, which is not surprising, as publishing is a subset of the entertainment industry.

5 Comments:

Blogger Fran said...

If I'm not mistaken, isn't GOB a publisher--doesn't he have a publishing company? If he does, maybe he's protecting his own interests, a la Miss Snark et al....

W.r.t. that small clique of literary fiction fans comment from him, I'd really like to know how many "commercial" flavor-of-the-month books have outsold Shakepeare's most famous works. I know many of those Shakespeare sales may have been to schools, but I think some people read his works outside of classrooms--I've seen people do so. Of course his works have been around for many years, so a pure total-numbers-might-likely-be-greater-over-a-longer-period-of-time thing may be at least partly responsible; Shakespeare's works have likely had access to a larger audience pool than many contemporary works. Still, even considering the total numbers thing, that his works continue to sell after all this time says something, at least in my opinion.

I think the theater has probably been around since the beginning of entertainment and will probably be around till the end of entertainment. The theater endures. And maybe that's partly because the theater is generally considered a very literate medium--and playwrights command and often get respect. Their works aren't normally crapped on like the works of many other writers. My in-laws, who don't often read books, regularly go to plays.

I agree with your and Kael's comments and have said the same on my blog--not sure if you ever saw those posts. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I've always believed that if you repeatedly talk to others as if they're equals, if you give them something worthwhile to think about, many of those others will likely eventually start thinking in worthwhile ways; likewise, if you repeatedly talk down to others as if they're idiots, many of those others will probably eventually become idiots.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Stacy said...

Are reader's clamoring for these books, or do they settle for what they're given?

Walk into any large bookstore, and look at the shelves. There are a VAST array of books out there beause there are so many different tastes to satisfy. Your 'good' book might be a nightmare to another person, and the fact that they read (or watch) something that is not to your taste does not mean that they are settling. It might just mean they're not you.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Stacy:

" There are a VAST array of books out there beause there are so many different tastes to satisfy. Your 'good' book might be a nightmare to another person, and the fact that they read (or watch) something that is not to your taste does not mean that they are settling."

How do you know that they aren't settling for it? With just a handful of huge, corporate publishers putting out the vast majority of books, it is obvious that tase is made from the top down. Publishers publish junky books and some of them succeed, thereby validating the publishers' hunch that junky books sell. So they publish more junky books. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Agents and editors think they know what sells. Of course, if this was true, every book would be a success, which we know isn't true. Which means that agents and editors are guessing and not doing so with great accuracy.

Yeah, there are people with their taste in their ass who watch reality TV shows and buy the literary equivalent. So, by your logic, that should be the entirety of what's on TV and on the shelves of bookstores.

Somewhere in the comments on a past post on the Nicole Richie novel, Miss Snark confirmed what I knew-publishers make 80% of their profits on books in the backlist, and celebrity junk nonbooks have the lifespan of a cicada.

Good books tend to last and have long shelf lives. They make more money in the long run for publishers than junk. So why don't publishers abandon junk and pursue quality?

That's the point of the article.

Publishers never learn from their own balance sheets. They keep pursuing nonreaders by putting out books tied to today's celebrity of the moment instead of pursuing the habitual reader.

So some people buy junk books. Some people will buy anything. Remember the Pet Rock?

What doe it prove? That people have an insatiable desire for trivial crap that just happens to be satisified by crappy books? Or that some people will occasionally respond to a heavily hyped piece of crap and buy it because for a while it seems inescabale and maybe they're curious to have a look at it?

6:40 PM  
Blogger Stacy said...

"With just a handful of huge, corporate publishers putting out the vast majority of books, it is obvious that tase is made from the top down."

Not everybody in the big wide world is waiting for somebody to tell them what thoughts they should think and what they should like. There are quite a few people who are capable of making up their own minds.

And who made you the arbiter of taste? Was there an election? Because I didn't get a chance to vote.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Stacy:

"And who made you the arbiter of taste?"

I am the arbiter of my own taste. Nobody else's.

The point I'm trying to maker is that the publishers are the arbiters of everybody's taste.

If they choose not to publish a book, then nobody gets a chance to decide for themselves whether they want it or not.

5:45 PM  

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