Neither Bournemouth Runner at the Art of Fiction nor Roger Morris are as pleased with the McCrum article as I was (see previous post), and both take him as attacking the first-time novelists who receive big advances.
I don't think that's what McCrum was doing. He wasn't as clear he should have been (he didn't exactly explain the processes at work), but I think he was attacking rather the way that big advances operate in the present literary climate, and the bad effect they can have on some novelists who receive them, a problem discussed in the latest issue of the lit mag Mslexia.
First let me say that I know from bitter experience how bad it can be to get a small advance. The publisher has invested so little in you that they have nothing to lose in not bothering to market and publicise your novel properly, so in the small advance there can be an inbuilt failure. This was the point pressed home by the late agent Giles Gordon, and why he was the pioneer of Big Advances. (If McCrum seemed to be denying the potential evils of the small advance, it was perhaps out of an elitist naivity: he was once fiction editor at Faber which at the time, unlike my own publisher, respected and nurtured the careers of their literary authors even if they didn't pay them big advances at the start. )
However, it no longer works that a big advance is proof of a publisher's commitment to an author, and it's the big advance that can now bring inbuilt failure, just as it has for Gautam Malkani, the author of Londonstani, whom McCrum cites. All advances have to be earned back via sales, and if they don't do so - since nowadays the only thing publishers are interested in is money - you are by definition a Failure. This is what I think McCrum is referring to when he says that publishing today can't brook failure - it was a comment on PUBLISHERS' PERCEPTION of books, which is always determined by the immediate return on any advance. It doesn't take much calculating to work out that the bigger the advance, the closer you're sailing to the wind in this respect: whatever great reviews you get, however many thousands you sell, if you don't sell a zillion, the publisher will look on you askance next novel round, cos last time they LOST MONEY ON YOU. (Don't forget it's the financiers who rule the publishing houses nowadays, not the editors.) And they have ways of knowing, too: nowadays they can press a button and up comes your incriminating point-of-sale record: Look, only fifty-thousand copies sold, when we paid the bastard half a million!!!! (Hand across the throat).
The worst aspect of this scenario is that in order to try to make sure they recoup a big advance publishers are tempted into over-hyping books and tempting fate. The reviewers had it in for Londonstani: instead of praising it as a 'promising debut' as McCrum thinks they should have done, their main interest was the fact that the hype and the ridiculous advance were misplaced, the bad reviews affected sales and as McCrum points out, Londonstani is now being airbrushed from the bookshops and literary records (except that we guys are banging on about it!)
In other words, an author's welfare and literary development are the last thing publishing houses are concerned with nowadays. Big advances are all about making money for the publishing houses, and authors' careers can be and are sacrificed on this altar. I think this is what McCrum is saying. He's also saying something even more important in the longer and less author-centric term: that publishers are not interested in literature, in the actual writing, and that we've consequently ended up in a culture of trashy books, but even here by implication he's championing overlooked writers of decent stuff.
For the reasons above, as I have pointed out before, publishers are always nowadays on the lookout for the Next New Thing, ie first-time authors: virginal first-timers don't have any incriminating sales record cos they don't have any at all, and still therefore have the theoretical potential to be bestsellers. It's why I'm always saying that every new literary sensation nowadays is, through no fault of his or her own, a has-been in the making.