Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fallacy Of Millions; Or, How Ledgers Have Become The Publishing Industry’s Preferred Reading

Laura Miller wrote a piece on e-publishing for during the week, during the course of which she railed against those aspiring authors who are already celebrating the impending demise of the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ - agents, editors, publishers - of the publishing industry.
  The ‘gatekeepers’, she argues, perform an invaluable service to readers by filtering an occasional diamond from the vast numbers of manuscripts that constitute the ever growing slush pile. In abandoning the traditional publishing model and going straight to (electronic) print, she says, authors are simply exposing readers to the slush pile. The net effect of ‘civilian’ readers being so exposed, she says in a rather apocalyptic finale, is one of “crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it … How long before you decide to just give up?”
  As it happens, I broadly agree with Laura Miller on e-publishing. Any business conducted without some form of quality control won’t be in business for very long.
I did take exception, however, to one word in Miller’s piece, and it’s contained in the following excerpt:
“Digital self-publishing is creating a powerful new niche in books that’s threatening the traditional industry,” a recent Wall Street Journal report proclaimed. “Self-published books suddenly are able to thrive by circumventing the establishment.” To “circumvent” means, of course, to find a way around, and what’s waiting behind all those naysaying editors and agents, the self-publishing authors tell themselves, are millions of potential readers, who’ll simply love our books! The reign of the detested gatekeepers has ended! - Laura Miller
  That word, as you’ll probably have guessed given the title of this post, is ‘millions’.
  Before I started this blog, back in 2007, I knew no more than a handful of writers. At this point, I probably know hundreds. Some of them have had one book published, others are bestsellers.
  I also have friends who are aspiring writers. In fact, I met two of them on separate occasions during the last week, and while we talked about other stuff, as you do, just to be polite, the general thrust of the conversations centred on books and writing.
  The theme was largely one of frustration: not being able to find time to write (pesky children); not being able to find an agent; not being able to get our books published. The usual war stories. And then there’s the other frustrations: the idea that won’t behave itself and sit quietly on the page; the virtues, or otherwise, of excessive plotting; the words that come, okay, but like Yeats’ peace, dropping slow; the conflict between establishing a compelling pace while still maintaining quality on a word-by-word basis. And all the other issues of craft that tend to pop up when you’re spitballing over a cup of coffee.
  Here’s the thing, though: in all the years I’ve been listening to writers, publishing or aspiring, small, big or mid-list, I’ve never once heard the phrase, “I’d love to sell a million copies.” Neither, for that matter, have I ever heard a reader say, “I want to read a book written by a writer who’s sold a million copies.”
  Maybe I’m hanging out in the wrong coffee shops, but the writers I know talk about interesting ideas, about different ways of telling a story, about phrasing and style, about the use of language.
  Readers - and I’ll always be more of a reader than a writer - tend to talk about good books, interesting characters, moral dilemmas, beautiful writing.
  The industry, meanwhile, is at another table, very probably in another coffee shop, talking about bottom lines and sales figures and marketing and promotion and million-selling behemoths.
  I’m not naïve. I understand publishing’s economies of scale. And I do appreciate that we’re living through a global recession. But it seems to me that there’s an ever-widening disconnect between the publishing industry and the people - writers and readers - it depends upon.
  Good books are still being published, certainly, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the quality control ‘gatekeepers’ are these days more interested in maximising profits from the likes of Dan Brown, James Patterson and Stieg Larsson than they are in investing in novels and authors that are unlikely to sell a million copies per book.
  Yes, I understand that such writers finance a publisher’s speculative investment on an unknown writer. But the inexorable logic of the current model is that more and more funds must be pumped into the brands and franchises to keep the ledgers balanced, with the result that investment in aspiring, new and mid-list writers is drying up. If you don’t believe me, ask Charlie Williams.
  Rob Kitchin, himself an aspiring author, blogs about yours truly over at The View From the Blue House. In effect, he’s bemoaning the fact that CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, the sequel to THE BIG O, is only available via e-publishing. Which is nice, but Rob isn’t really writing about me. He’s writing about authors who are, as he says,
“ … marginalised by an industry that is increasingly seeking to de-risk their investment by judging authors and their works against a narrow set of criteria, rather than nurturing and supporting them. There are plenty of authors and bands who have worked away producing acclaimed work for years, perhaps not making mega-bucks but nonetheless not losing anyone money, before going stratospheric. If a condition of a writing career is immediate success then there is every danger of producing an entire generation of one book authors, killed off and demoralised before they’ve had chance to blossom into mature, successful writers with an established reader base. It’ll also work to reproduce a certain kind of formulaic writing and stifle creativity and risk-taking – think of Hollywood film making at the minute.”
  Laura Miller is correct to suggest that a lack of regulation, or quality control, is likely to bedevil the coming boom in e-publishing. By the same token, the evidence of bookstores - and certainly the bigger chains - suggests that when the publishing industry uses the phrase ‘quality control’, it’s control rather than quality that’s uppermost in their minds.
  If the industry is truly concerned about readers giving up on reading, then its big problem is not e-publishing. It’s the wall-to-wall bullshit lining bookstore shelves from New York to Sydney.
  Lashing out at scapegoats might temporarily deflect attention away from the fallacy at its core, but if the industry truly believes that stamping its feet on the little people represents progressive thinking, then we’re all - readers, writers and ‘gatekeepers’ alike - in bigger trouble than anyone imagined.