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.


John McFetridge said...

If the main purpose of "gatekeepers" is to filter the tens of thousands of manuscripts down to the few I might be intrested in there could be some sophisticated software replacing them soon enough.

As for the risk, I read this recently:

The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief. Artistic vocations are about embracing more and more of the world with your will; professions are insular affairs that are all about the profession.

So, yeah, professions are usually very risk-averse.

The article is here.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great post,

Laura Miller's article has generated some interesting comments over at from people on both sides of the fence.

The books I read are almost always based on word of mouth or through the "you might like this" features on various websites.

Maybe I'm strange, but a bestseller label on a novel, is usually a signal to me to avoid that novel.

I think the e-book & print retailer websites offer enough features that let the reader decide what they want to read. I was not really hip on the e-book revolution, but I got to play around with an iPad last week, and I have to say they are pretty cool, but really expensive.

The future will be interesting that's for sure

Anonymous said...

My complaint is the opposite of Rob Kitchin. I own a Kindle and for many reasons I prefer the e-book over the print version. I own "Crime Always Pays". I want to read "Big O". But I will not buy it in print and a little while later have it come out in e-book format. I want to buy all your books. I am ready to spend money to enrich you, your agent, your publisher, and everyone in the book industry that profits from your work. Why not put all books on e-book format? The cost is small. Virtual all the cost of making a book has been covered, but even if it isn't, why doesn't your publisher want my money?

The book industry seems to worry about everything but what the reader wants. We want more books we can afford at a fair price.


Declan Burke said...

That's an interesting piece, John, although the guy's take on fiction is pretty narrow ... Maybe the literary fiction he's been reading is moribund, but there is exciting stuff out there.

I like the idea of the 'sophisticated software' replacing the 'gatekeepers', though. With a tweak or two, said software might even replace the writers ...

Sean - I'm with you, I tend to avoid over-hyped books. Don't know why; probably some juvenile issue with authority I have ...

Michael - An interesting take, sir. And the 'publishing costs vs the price to readers' is one that's going to become integral to the industry over the next few years, I think, especially when the price of the e-readers start to tumble.

I still prefer books, though.

Cheers, Dec

John McFetridge said...

Recently I used the "Genius mix" feature on my iPod and I was a little scared at how much I liked the results. So now I'm wondering how long before the thing just starts writing its own music.

Still, I wouldn't mind a "genuis mix" for putting together flash fiction collections from everything available online.

Alan Griffiths said...

Good post Dec.

Thanks to the comments on Rob's bog I have just discovered that I can download Kindle to my PC for free - yippee!

I have just done so and purchased my first title - Crime Always Pays! I'm looking forward to it although, being a little old fashioned, I would prefer a traditional hard copy but I'll give it a go.

Can't wait to see what capers you have in store for such a bunch of crazy characters - I enjoyed TBO immensely.

Kind regards.

Declan Burke said...

Much obliged for the kind word, Alan. And don't be shy about letting me know how the book treats you.

Cheers, Dec

Anonymous said...

You quote Raymond Chandler at the top of your blog. Most authors know that Chanlder ended up at Knopf, his work subsequently enshrined in the Library of America. I wonder how many aspiring authors consider how Chandler got his start: writing "pabulum" for the public in lowly pulp magazines. I also wonder if their earnest coffee shop conversations ever included discussions of how Chandler's legendary PI was born.

Chandler first started writing Philip Marlowe as a character named Mallory, which was copyrighted not to Chandler but to the pulp magazine where his stories were published. I wonder how many aspiring “literary” crime writers are aware that there were hundreds of pulp magazines published during Chandler’s day. At the height of their popularity, about 500 mags full of pulp fiction were being published monthly.

What’s my point? Developing ones chops as a writer is not a precious endeavor. Writers need to write; and writing for an audience is an important step in understanding how story impacts (thrills, enlightens, or bores) readers.

I welcome any and all chances for an author to write and publish for an audience. Lousy writers will stay lousy if they remain lazy. Dilettantes will remain in the equivalent of their safe nursery. Great writers will do what Chandler did –- use every opportunity to develop and grow. Yes, whether from today’s series “pabulum” or an e-book slush pile, anything can happen if a writer is willing to work hard enough.

By the way, I'd love to hear Raymond Chandler respond to the aspiring author who sniffs that he "tends to avoid" books with "bestseller" on their covers. Jesus.

The very best of luck to you (and all aspiring writers) on their journeys.

Declan Burke said...

Anon - I doubt if Chandler wrote a single of line of 'pablum' in his entire career, regardless of where his work was subsequently published. The fact that he cannibalised so many of his short stories for his novels, successfully or otherwise, suggests as much.

Writers need to write, of course, but I don't think you can compare the 'e-book slush-piles' and the pulp magazines. For one, Chandler was certain that his stories would be read. For two, he was paid for them. Writers need to eat, too.

"Developing ones chops as a writer is not a precious endeavor. Writers need to write; and writing for an audience is an important step in understanding how story impacts (thrills, enlightens, or bores) readers."

Writing only for an audience is a recipe for disaster. The brain is a lazy organ, striving always to conserve energy, and because striking new synapses, and forging new understandings, burns energy, the brain is constantly trying to divert the imagination away from the new. This is why humans crave routine, the familiar.

This is why developing the craft of writing is a precious business, because each and every writer should be unique. If every writer only writes for an audience, aka the market, then the world ends up with identikit novels.

I like to be entertained and diverted by the books I read, but I need them to be more than entertaining diversions. The novel, in my humble opinion, is the most potent means we have of understanding what it is to be alive and human. What a reader wants and what a reader needs are not always the same thing.

As for the aspiring writer 'sniffing' at bestsellers. I tend to avoid them too, mainly because a bestselling novelist doesn't need me - I much prefer to read a book by someone who needs to be read.

I'd imagine that Chandler, who was himself rather sniffy about certain bestsellers, would tend to agree with our aspiring novelist. Popularity doesn't necessarily equate with quality; if you're ever in doubt of that, check the nearest Top Ten music charts.

Chandler was a bestselling writer because he was a good writer. He didn't become a good writer because he was a bestseller.

Publishers have their own agenda, which largely revolves around profit. If an aspiring writer sees past that, and wants to achieve more with his or her writing than providing a publisher with a healthy end-of-year bonus, then that's something to be celebrated rather than sneered at, I think.

Cheers, Dec

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