Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How to Sell Literature

Susan Hill doesn't believe in public funding for literature, full stop. If no-one wants to buy the books a small publisher produces (and she gives some figures to support the notion that they often don't), then they shouldn't be funded, she says, not in a world where old and ill people are failing to get help because of lack of public funds.

But the question is, Why are the sales figures for some books published by small publishers so small? Is it, as Susan seems to be implying, that the books are basically unsaleable? And since the publishers at the heart of this discussion (about the recent Arts Council cuts) are 'literary' and 'highbrow', what's being said here? That 'highbrow literary' fiction is unsaleable? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I maintain that with the right marketing strategy you can sell anything. Is it rather, then, that the publishers of these non-selling books are failing in their marketing strategy, either through their own fault or through commercial forces entirely outside their control - the refusal of bookshops to stock their books, for instance? (And if it's this last, then wouldn't it be a case for more funding, not less?)

Or is it that, as Mark Ravenhill takes as his premise in his Guardian column this week, good art, which is 'complex, troubling, difficult', is unsaleable in a society with 'the more direct pleasures of video gaming and reality TV' on tap?

Ravenhill's solution, which as an ex-schoolteacher I find utterly seductive (and amusingly utopian), is to put the money into education. Educate people to want the good art, he says, and then it will sell.


Steerforth said...

Susan Hill is wrong. If we adopted her argument, there would be no Radio Three or National Theatre. Most of publishing is dominated by market forces and that's fair enough, but what about those classics and contemporary masterpieces that aren't economically viable to publish?

Thank God for Dedalus. They introduced me to some wonderful authors - Sylvie Germain, for example.

I don't want to live in a country whose artistic life is directed by Daily Mail readers.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

George Steiner echoed the concerns in a talk last night at the Royal Society of Literature.

Among other things he quoted this horrifying statistic: 80% of American teenagers now approach their first love relationships using templates 'learned' from television and films. Only 20% find their own unique way to express their feelings to their first loves.

This culture is having an effect on literature too. He felt that our literature was in trouble for many reasons, and this was one.

mythusmage said...

The classics don't appeal because of how people are introduced to them. It's usually in a class room presided over by somebody with a hard case crush on the classics, who proceeds to strip the books she purports to love of any appeal they might otherwise hold for the prospective reader. In Eric Flint and Virginia deMarco's 1634: The Bavarian Affair one character expresses outrage at the liberties being taken with Shakespeare's plays in 1634 English playhouses.

My point is, we have taken entertainment from earlier times and turned them into holy writ. We have turned Oliver Twist into a parable, and don Quixote into a gospel. Let's face it, Gilgamesh was the Conan of his day, and we've made him into Galahad with a sidekick.

The publishers aren't helping themselves any. Check out the science fiction/fantasy or mystery sections sometime. Covers that catch the eye, covers that promise. Covers that intrigue, entice, draw. What do you get in the literature section? Covers with all the appeal of an off-key dial tone.

That book has a good story inside, let the world know about it. It's about a regency era woman dealing with difficulties on an English moor (Jane Eyre) Then you put a resolute broad in Regency garb looking out over a desolate moor with her hair flying windblown about her on the dang cover.

Yes, it's about selling. It's about selling because you're competing with other entertainments for people's time. You want your book to sell you have to convince people you're worth their time, and do it quick. You can't, or won't, work your ass off to get and keep their attention, you're in the wrong line of work.

And bitch me no bitch about art. You're not doing art, you're a storyteller. You're a craftsman. You can achieve the level of art, all well and good, but your goal is to produce a well-crafted piece, and get it out successfully into the world. H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories were deliberately overwritten; he admitted to it. But because he also knew how to tell a story, and tell it well, people still seek them out to read.

You want people to admire you, don't expect them to read you. You want people to read you, don't expect most of them to admire you, though some well amazingly enough. Don't write with the aim of being important, write with the aim of being read. Achieve that aim and important is far more likely to follow.

mythusmage said...


I remember when Lovecraft was uttermost trash, now he's being taught as literature (poor bastard). Ever think that maybe Daily Mail readers know what they're doing?