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'.

15 comments:

Ms Baroque said...

Great post. We've all heard the stories of the books that got rejected 16 times before they were picked up - they include classics. Didn't John Kennedy O'Toole kill himself because (partly, okay) of feeling like a failure because he couldn't get A Confederacy of Dunces published? Of course it DID get published in the end, but seems like a far stretch somehow...

A friend of mine, who writes, has a sister-in-law who got a novel published, & unsurprisingly the sister-in-law - who up till recently was also an "unpublished novelist" - is now lording it over, patreonising my friend and acting like of course she alone is the "real" writer. Danger lurks! As soon as you start thinking you're "better" you've had it.

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's the hilarious thing which infects this debate: the lack of logic which assumes that just because you've not yet had the badge of approval (ie publication) you don't deserve it. Unfortunately in such a culture unpublished writers can come to believe it of themselves, however objectively talented they are.

nmj said...

I second Ms B, this is a great post. As you know I went through the 'tricky to market' wringer, even thought they loved the writing, they rejected the book. (No one needed my particular spaghetti spoon!) I do believe luck as well as talent is involved. Right place, right time and all that...though exceptional talent will, I think, get through the murkiness in the end.

That's so pants said...

I agree with Ms Baroque - when anyone mentions John Kennedy Toole I just break up because I love 'A Confederacy of Dunces' so much and JKT did kill himself in 1969 because he couldn't get published and it's only through the efforts of his mother, Thelma who championed the work to academic Walker Percy, that it was finally published in 1980 and promptly won the Pulitzer Prize. There just has to be a better way.

Each week I read The Guardian book reviews and there are always more reviews of fiction by men than women yet fiction books by women consistently outnumber books by men in the bestseller lists. Why don't publishers want books by women when these are the books the public want?

You have to ask yourself what is the job of a publisher or an agent or an editor, if not to act as a broker between writer and public which would seem to require an understanding of what both want - and to be an expert in that movable feast. Writers, like any artists, want to stretch the boundaries of what is possible with language and readers are hungry for the product of that.

Maybe the agents and publishers haven't quite developed the expertise needed to match the hungry artists with the equally hungry public.

Shameless said...

This house was nicely pulled down, brick by brick, FB. Well done. Well said.

Ms Baroque said...

See, nmj, I'm not sure it will. John Donne was neglected for 300 years. We read him now but if you came vback 100 years ago, he'd have been languishing. The world doesn't owe anything to art, and it often doesn;t even recognise it. But if we're talking about a jolly readable book, no - you need to find the s ympathetic agent or press and you need to do it during the book's shelf life.

Then again, think of this. Suppose Confederacy of Dunces had stayed in the drawer? suppose Thelma had been unable to face the whole thing? Maybe Toole's great-nieces and nephews, or maybe the guy who was throwing all the stuff into the skip, would have spotted it. Would they have taken it, read it, and gone to publishers with it? And by then, would it have been dated? Would tyhey have said, "this is a charming period piece but this style of thing is a bit last century"?

marly said...

The thing about Donne as an example is that he was privately circulated in a rather elite circle in his lifetime, so at least there were copies out there. Perhaps that will be what the blogosphere does for some of these books that end up "unpublished"--that they will be circulated in other ways, thanks to technology.

An example of the "bit last century" result: I know someone who wrote a very well-made book indeed, about a sister who cared for her brother dying of AIDS. She had a desire to approach perfection, as a gift to her brother, and that took time. Eventually she found an agent, and everybody agreed that it was a very good book. But it seemed that AIDS had "gone by" some time ago, and so nobody was, in the end, interested in publishing the manuscript.

Perhaps she ought to do something "alternative" with that manuscript, instead of leaving it under the bed with the dust bunnies...

Marie said...

Hello! Strugglingauthor here. Just a quick correction. Dan Franklin was not in fact shown my novel by the Cape rep, he was shown it by me. The Cape rep did however tell me (or rather, my boss) that Dan was a good bloke who would probably read it if I sent it to him because he's one of the few remaining editors who do read unsolicited m/s's. A fact which I am now happy to tell people unconnected with bookselling for nothing. It's not always who you know, but it might be what you know.

Debi said...

Yet another thought-provoking post - balanced and fair.

I suppose the bottom line is to write because you have to. Because you have no choice. Because if you didn't you'd whither and die.

Make it as good as it possibly can be.

But if you don't end up with a deal (let alone a best seller) know that your creation is ultimately only a small part of the equation.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi, Marie. Thanks for that and sorry to misrepresent. I'll pull your comment up for everyone to see.

Charles Lambert said...

Very interesting post. I sent my first novel cold to publishers around 15 years ago. (It never even occurred to me to find an agent in those days.) The first sent it back in a matter of days (four!), the second kept it for 18 months before admitting that the paperback division wasn't interested. The editor who wanted it, Neil Belton, suggested I get in touch with an agent. I did. I was taken on, presumably on Belton's recommendation. By this time, I'd written another novel and she tried to sell that one, without success. We parted company. Novels three and four were circulated to agents, once more without success (nibbles but no bites), and it wasn't until two friends of mine who knew agents effectively introduced me that things changed. Both of them offered to represent me! I made a choice, the wrong one as things turned out (for reasons I won't go into here), and another novel did the rounds without being bought. Humbly, I went to the agent I'd previously turned down, and she agreed to take me on. Eighteen months and what must have been thirty or forty rejections (for its quietness) later, she sold novel No. 5 to Picador. It's coming out in spring 2008.

The lessons? I'm not sure. The first is that I was picked out of a slush pile all those years ago and came damned close to being bought. So it can, or could, happen. The second is that the wrong agent is less than useless and the right one worth her weight in gold. The third is that no book will get published until it falls into the hands of the right editor. In my case, she'd turned the book down a year earlier and then, because she found herself thinking about it at odd moments, asked to see it again before making an offer. If the book had reached her without mediation, maybe she would still have bought it. But do books reach senior editors without mediation? I doubt it.

Interestingly, the whole commercial issue has only come to the forefront now, as we decide on the title and cover. My title - a quote from Shakespeare - was considered too quiet, apparently the biggest sin in mainstream publishing, and we've finally found an alternative with more zing that pleases us all sufficiently and has won the approval of the sales people. My suggestions for cover art were dismissed as over-artistic, and we'll probably end up with a photograph because Waterstone's prefers them. These, of course, are peripheral issues to the book itself.

Perhaps the most important lesson, to me at least, is that I kept writing.

Maria Aragon said...

I've been struggling with the publishing industry for 23 years and finally gave up last summer and started publishing my own work via another site where the author keeps complete control of their projects. Now, I happened to visit amazon.com tonight and saw Marie Phillips new novel Gods Behaving Badly being promoted. I've been researching it tonight online and have come away utterly discouraged with the publishing industry. As late as last summer, I was trying with publishers in the US and the UK to get someone to consider my comic novel, set in Essex for the most part, which also figures several Greek gods interacting with several mortals. At the same time, my book, which was recently reviewed in Pentacle magazine, was knocking on publishers' doors, so was Miss Phillips' book. I finally decided to do what I could without the corporate publishing world, but to now witness Phillips' loudly trumpeted breakthrough working similar territory...well, I guess it's a matter of luck and connections. You can be a perfectly good writer and still be utterly obscure.

Elizabeth Baines said...

You have my utter sympathy, Maria. That's always the worst thing: when someone else pips you to the post with a similar idea. And you're right that it's both a matter of luck and connections. Which is why I'd advise anyone to increase their luck by working on their connections!

Maria Aragon said...

Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. Since last year actually, I've been utilizing the internet for both my paintings and my writing to try to develop a following, and it is working. I got one of my paintings printed in the same issue of Pentacle that had the review of my novel, something they don't normally do, but the editor expressed some interest when I told her about my general creative obsessions with mythological figures. I sent her a copy and she was kind enough to review it. A first on both counts, which is nice for a change.
Thanks again though for your comments.
Sincerely,
Maria

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's great, Maria, that the internet is working for you!