Thursday, February 08, 2007

Big and Little Publishers and the Myths of Publishability

During the autumn there was a skirmish in the litblogs about whether or not it's hard to get published. Susan Hill upset struggling-writer bloggers by stating that if a writer is good, he or she will get published, and that all that publishers are looking out for is good books. Susan also argues for people to be realistic about the fact that publishing is a business, and that publishers need to be able to sell their books, so presumably her definition of good books includes saleability. Anyways, for her it seemed to follow - although I'm not sure she ever actually stated this - that if writers were failing to get published, it must mean that they weren't producing good books. In any case, she called for blogging writers to stop whingeing and claiming that publishers don't look at their slush piles and that you need contacts just to get read.

Susan's 'talent will out' argument is an old and familiar one, and has been trotted out by Robert McCrum in the past, but by last spring even Robert McCrum appeared to be taking a different view, and it seems to me that these issues need unpacking.

Today, the Guardian reports that the winner of the Costa awards, Stef Penney's first novel The Tenderness of Wolves, was turned down by 'many publishers' before it was taken by the new independent publisher Quercus, and that Brian Thompson's shortlisted memoir, also from a small independent publisher, was rejected by ten others. I keep coming across such examples: the brilliant writer Tamar Yellin (whom I am proud to say we published in metropolitan) is now winning American prizes with her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher which a British literary agent failed to sell and which was eventually published by the American Toby Press. You could say that talent did out in the end with these authors, but it is easy to imagine authors losing heart and giving up earlier than this, and that without the existence of those small publishers even these novels might not have seen the light of day.

It is the small publishers who prove Susan Hill's argument that 'all you need do is send your manuscript off to an editor' - as the Bitch can testify with her own recent success with the independent publisher Salt. But it really is not the same with mainstream publishers. To begin with, big publishers seldom look at unagented work. To counter this notion Susan Hill quoted the phenomenal success of Marie Phillips, who had indeed dubbed herself Struggling Author, and whose forthcoming debut novel Gods Behaving Badly was picked up overnight by Cape director Dan Franklin without the mediation of a literary agent. Later, however, Marie, who worked in a bookshop, revealed on her blog that Franklin was shown the novel by the Cape rep. People who pointed this out were seen as crying sour grapes, but as far as the Bitch is concerned - well, a Cape rep once also offered to show her novel 'round the office' (though that was before she'd even written it, and by the time she had he was no longer repping at the bookshop she frequented - shucks!) and although of course it's not to say that anyone in 'the office' would have necessarily picked it up, if they had, the Bitch would most certainly have felt that she'd had a leg-up.

And it's not that easy to get an agent even to look at your submission (the Bitch, though previously published, has standard rejection cards), and when you do get an agent to take you on, well, as the Bitch can vouch again, it's all about marketing and hype and not the book - this is not my fantasy, those are the words of an agent - and the agent tries to set up an auction, and if he fails, if there isn't a scramble for the book within four days, well, in the current state of affairs, where a book has to be 'hot', where there has to be a big buzz going round about it, he's just not going to sell it, and he has to give up on it, however great he thinks it is as literature, and however well he thought it would sell.

Susan Hill says publishing is a subjective business, and as an ex-publisher of a literary magazine the Bitch can agree that on the independent publishing level it is. But now, with the big publishers, editors' decisions can't just be subjective: as Miss Snark has indicated, however great an editor thinks a book is as literature, however much he or she loved it personally, she can't publish it if she doesn't think it will sell enough to recoup the advance for which an agent is angling.

But who knows what sells? As I've pointed out before, current marketing philosophy has its huge blind spots. To knock on the head the notion that otherwise good books turned down by mainstream publishers must inevitably lack the saleability factor, here's the Guardian quoting Simon Robertson, Waterstone's fiction buyer, and Foyles' Kate Gunning respectively on the Tenderness of Wolves: 'Will be a monster paperback'; 'Broad commercial appeal'.
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