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.
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