January 22, 2006

The books we'll never see

Robert Sessions, publishing director at Penguin Books is quoted as saying:

“This view that publishers won't take any risks, maybe what is meant is publishers are making better decisions, perhaps fewer bad books are being published. Perhaps fewer books are being published that people don't want to read…” (The Age, 21 January 2006)


“Just recently Britain's Sunday Times tried a little experiment. The paper sent out copies of the opening chapter of V. S. Naipaul's 1971 Booker (now Man Booker) prize-winning novel In a Free State to 20 agents and publishers, changing only the names of the author and main characters. All 20 rejected it.

So the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature is apparently not a demonstrably good enough writer to gain recognition from our movers and shakers in the publishing world. Talent, therefore, would not appear to be quite so obvious in the writing game.” (The Age, 17 January 2006)

So much for Sessions’ claim of “better decisions” being made by publishers, unless what he really means, and it is implicit in his statement, that publishers are getting better, aided by the sales & marketing teams no doubt, at making decisions about what crap will sell better than the other crap in the buffet of scripts in front of them.

The journalist in the second piece promptly moves on to the requirement for luck – pure chance – citing the Harry Potter books, as if they are in some manner comparable to a Noble prize winning author (no offence to J.K.Rowling and her squillions of fans).

The journalist also insists, in the modern way of things, or rather the post-modern way:

"Write something, however, and there are as many opinions as there are readers. Subjectivity rules. And it is a capricious master.”

Good writing and good literature, and importantly, the publishing of such, are reduced to dumb luck and personal taste, as if there is no benchmark, no objective standard in the world of writing and literature.

There is a galaxy of difference between personal taste and preferences for particular genres, and being able to recognize a difference in the standard of writing and content on offer. I would like to believe that someone who is a voracious reader of pulp fiction crime novels, for example, would be entirely capable of recognizing the value and enjoyment of well written and more literary works, even if it’s not their preferred choice for recreational reading.

It would have been nice if one or two of the 20 publishers and agents, whoever they were, had at least wanted to have a chat with the author of the Naipaul extract – not offered an immediate deal – just a coffee, a meet and greet, or a request to see a few more pages of the work, anything at all to signify that there are a few people in publishing who might be capable of unearthing a future Nobel Prize winning author, and want to publish and nurture that talent. That there were no takers is profoundly disappointing and troubling.

In a piece in The Australian, one of the rejections of Naipaul’s work is quoted (no link available; Blocked Writers, Sean Condon, The Forum, The Australian Review supplement, 21-22 January 2006):

“In order to take on a new author, several of us here would need to be extremely enthusiastic about both the content and the writing style. I’m sorry to say we don’t feel that strongly about your work.”

Among other brief comments, Sir Vidia Naipaul said, in response to this little experiment:

“With all the other forms of entertainment today, there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”

Quite so. Even publishers and agents don’t understand or recognize a good paragraph, yet these "experts" are the only gatekeepers of all that will ever be available in the book shops for our edification and reading pleasure, and for our children and our grandchildren. The future is bleak.


  1. People who decide what is 'high-class' literature and what isn't should always be suspect. Yesterday, I saw the new movie version of The Producers; and in many ways, I think, it showed the essential attributes of high-class literature: wit, simple but brilliantly satirical ideas; effective characterisation; and jokes which always advance the plot. Now this, I thought, is bloody brilliant.

    And then I went and read a review which dismissed the film for perceived 'homophobia' (it had gay 'stereotypes' in it) and because it had a couple of Nazis in it. Hmmmm ...

  2. The Producers is something of a classic in its genre though, don't you think?

    Trying to imagine it sans the gay stereotypes and sans the Nazis'. Hmm.

  3. A classic comedy, perhaps? The plot's certainly a bit slight in some details, but then, you could probably say the same thing about Aristophanes. I think it will probably stand the test of time.

    Trying to take the stereotypes out of American comedy would be like trying to take the H20 out of water. Some comedies are stereotype-driven, and The Producers is one of them

  4. It is very troubling that they lack both the integrity and skill to discern talent from marketable commodity. What do you do when you can't trust the gate-keepers?

  5. Excellent post. The situation is a disheartening one for the aspiring writers out there.

  6. Anonymous7:30 PM

    A hit today. Farce tomorrow? An award winner in 2001. A re-ject today.


  7. One of the pieces that I wasn’t able to link to was written by an author – five books published, no less, and internationally – you would think someone with such credentials would be in a very good position for having their next book published, yes? Not so. Despite rave assessments, not a single offer, and six months after one promising possibility said they would get back to him he still hasn’t heard from the publisher and has given up emailing & leaving messages.

    What hope for new authors? Almost none, oh, unless they’re a reformed alcoholic, drug addict, prostitute, transvestite, former criminal with a gut wrenching tale of abuse and reaching rock bottom, before moving onto a heart warming tale of unbelievable redemption. Groan. Or unless they’re prepared to pretend all of the above and can write a rollicking good story. Yes, then they’ll be published, because agents and publishers are, apparently, suckers for “true stories” and aren’t too bothered about fact checking. A women from anywhere “in the middle east”, combined with a great imagination for dreaming up horrendously brutal families, and fleeing to the west so that she lives to tell the story, can also get published, even if they did grow up in mid-west America, and have never been much further than the local 7-11.

    Cube – disheartening for aspiring writers? Oh yes, but it might be even more disheartening for readers, not just us, but future generations too, whose idea of classic literature will be The Da Vinci Code. (Oh gawd, it’s TOO awful. She flings herself onto her bed and sobs loudly into her pillow.)

  8. So true, Caz. I'm a voracious reader myself. Let's hope there will be enough of us dinosaurs to point the way for the youngsters.

  9. Well, for better or worse I published a book (not my own) for a small print run. It was an interesting exercise. Not too expensive but the biggest difficulty is not getting into print, but getting it into a book store.

    For me, I think the solution of self publishing either hard copy or electronic is the way to go and to list with Amazon. If you make sales, the big publishers will pick you up. At that point, you may not need them. It will reach a new and I think better equilibrium where more elitist literature will find its market.

  10. Captain - now that's an interesting tip, especially the Amazon idea, as I know that I would not have thought it possible, but that's my ignorance. I guess others are aware that this can be done.

    Even being with a publisher doesn't necessarily get you into bookshops, and definitely not near the front door, or with a lurvely display.

    I'm rather fond of the self-publishing idea, despite its apparent self-indulgence. What do they call it: vanity publishing, which is deliberately dismissive and derogatory. I think the best outcomes would still be produced with a good objective & kind editorial hand, so that would be another cost of the process.

    It's nice and cosy to think that we have a number of smaller publishers popping-up, to try to plug the miriad of holes created by the mega-publishing houses, but contrary to that warm & fuzzy idea, I gather they're no more responsive than the big houses, and their lists are tiny, by definition.

    The figures I read, for Australia, was around 60 something fiction books published last year, with only half that number scheduled for publication this year.

    With numbers like that, self-publishing on the Internet or self-published hardcopies sold through Amazon, suddenly looks encouraging, even promising.

    So, everyone - digits to keyboard; be creative, do something dazzling! You just never know.

  11. Self-publishing is becoming easier and cheaper; it's a good idea. A lot of book publishers, I guess, are falling into the same trap that the newspaper publishers have fallen for - selling books to 'demographics', not individuals - although it's individuals that exist, not demographics.

    That's one of my many gripes about The Age.

    David Tiley did a post on this a while back - http://dox.media2.org/barista - I think it's in his December 2005 archive.

  12. Yes Tim, the marketing gurus, bless their little cotton socks, are slicing us all into such thin market segments that soon they'll be trying to position and sell their finely designed products and services to nothing but thin air.

    They actually get paid for it too.

  13. All else aside, it's a sorry case of Pot, meet Kettle in the Sunday Times deciding to play a trick like this on publishers. The MSM, and especially that perpetrated by Rupert 'Page 3' Murdoch, have been especially complicit in dragging down the desire of decent reading.

    -- Nick