Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hell in a Handcart

Now let's get this straight:

Last week Danuta Kean got publishers to fess up to the way commercial pressures are cutting off authors' careers (and therefore, it follows, literature).

On Sunday Kate Kellaway got an agent to admit that an author's looks definitely come into the equation.

Some time in the last few days we heard that Wordsworth Editions has found it necessary to photoshop Jane Austen's portrait to make her prettier, and that since poor Virginia Woolf 'wasn't much of a looker' and George Eliot was 'frumpy' they're considering giving them a makeover as well. (Ms Baroque has an excellent post on the matter.)

And now the Bookseller announces 'a Dragon's Den-style show on ITV London which will seek out new author talent for publication under the Random House Group's Arrow imprint' involving top agent Ali Gunn and Simon Cowell's brother Anthony. (Thanks to Jessica at The Book Bar.) (Debut novelist Struggling Author has a great take on this.)


Any one still up for claiming that publishers can still afford to care much about good literature?

But hey, publishers, here's a good wheeze: if photoshop can work for Jane, why not for the rest of us? (Oh, OK, I know, those TV appearances....)


Ms Baroque said...

Elizabeth, I've got a post in my head I've been wanting to write for a week but it's too hard, somehow, at the moment - when I'm so weak... I think the corollary to all this has got to be the demise of the high street bookselling giants. I was working in bookselling at the time they started bestriding the land, and everybody predicted dire things. Then the end of the New Book Agreement. Everybody predicted dire things but the industry went, oh no! See! It's making skinflints who never bought books before buy books! It's a bookselling renaissance!

Well, what it's done is to take Peter Mayer's dictum about selling books being just like selling carrots and grow it (like a carrot in a polytunnel?) into a monster. The profit margins are gone. Books have got to sell - new bookstores have got to be profitable in their first quarter of trading. Buying is centralised so there is little of the old "local author, local shop" ethos. We, the punters (okay, not you and me, but our non-writer friends) just buy what's put in front of us, we like those little "staff recommends" cards - we're not thinking, "hey, what's missing?" (Eureka!)

Waterstones' policies have driven a lot of this. I read somewhere recently (but couldn't find it again, so not sure where) that W's has 2 out of every 3 high street book sales. That pretty much means that anyone reading anything off the beaten track (read: not bestseller or "classic") is not getting it at their local bookshop. I buy a lot in my (remaining) local secondhand shop and otherwise rely utterly on Abe and Amazon. Sadly.

This isn't sustainable. Someday soon the bookselling disaster and the publishing disaster will have to come together to be seen as one great big disaster.

Independent presses are on the up. Susan Hill is right, & given the whole publishing scene I'm not sure why more isn't being made of this - it is an opportunity for independent booksellers to rise again and hit back at Waterstones. (Speaking of small presses, one of the best small presses I know, which has achived great things already, is run in his off hours by one guy who works - guess where - in a Waterstones!)

When all the dust settles it'll still be a shame about Dillons, though.

That's so pants said...

I'm a dead ringer for Daniel Craig if anyone's interested.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Noosa, which bit?!!!!

crimeficreader said...

An agent has never asked me, but they are clearly telepathic, as I'm always so disappointed when seeing an author in the flesh and finding out that their cover pic is at least 10 years old and touched up. Ho hum.

But seriously, I agree with quite a lot of what ms b says, expressed so eloquently, I might add.

Many think it's the demise of the NBA that started all this off. When it comes to the high streets and especially the supermarkets many of the novels on offer are variations on a proven successful theme, yet another re-hash, if you like.

Not all punters who are also non-writers pursue this stuff. I know quite a few of them, myself included. They seek originality and good story-telling; good writing and real escapism when reading. And as it's crime fiction and thrillers that are my forte and also my cohorts', we're also looking for something that keeps us guessing to the end. (An unoriginal re-hash doesn't work here; it simply frustrates and leads the reader to consider putting the novel on eBay to get something back after the perceived waste of money...)

It's all rather sad and getting sadder. But within all that there some gems, with publishers taking some risks and knowing what quality is. In the crime fiction genre, I've already read three wonderful debuts this year. And in no case has the publisher gone down the route of "just look at how gorgeous this author is, you really want to buy this novel don't you?"

This also has me wondering about sexism to be honest. All of those three novels have male authors and the publishers are really on the cause when it comes to the quality of the novels. But what of the female debut author? There's one debuting later this year with a documentary being prepared about the editing process for the novel. And she's quite a stunner. Had she been post-menopausal with frizzy grey hair, a weight problem and obviously receding gums, would the documentary have been on the cards then? I don't think so.

When it comes to "word of mouth" making a book happen, it's not the author's looks that drive it, but the quality of the book. This was a dead cert for Seb Faulks's Birdsong taking off back in the 90s and more recently, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident... I believe.

It's not a total disaster yet and there are some gems out there; but it's very much in the decline. To use ms b's carrot analogy, we can eat them all the time, but we'd turn orange if we did and get sick of them. It is an opportunity for indies to rise again, if they concentrate on variety and less known authors and titles. Eventually it might catch on to the extent that readers may be prepared to spend up to £10 on a paperback, because they'll know it's a fair price and because they'll know they'll get an invigorating and original read.

Who knows? I only hope so.

Steerforth said...

A shame about Ottakar's too - it was a wonderful company to work for that regarded individuality as an asset, not a threat.

As far as Photoshop is concerned, I have tried it to great effect on myself, adding a little more hair and losing a little around the middle. It beats dieting.

David Isaak said...

For many years, America was the leader in industrial innovation, before we were overtaken by the Japanese. We were once the leaders in progressive political reforms, before we were overtaken by, well, just about everybody in the developed world.

But I always believed that our preeminence in stupid ideas for television shows would stand unchallenged. Alas, here too we have been surpassed. And here we thought you folks were our allies.

Authors pitching their books to agents on TV? We surrender.

Charles Lambert said...

Have you seen Tom Raworth's wonderful pastiche-comment on the Austen make-over. It's here: It's wonderful.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's brilliant!

Debi said...

I like the way you've pulled all these developments together in one place. Speaks volumes. (Which won't be published of course.)

Elizabeth Baines said...