This story purported to draw attention to 'concerns that the [publishing] industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.'
What two Sunday Times staffers did was carry out an experiment which has been done at least three times before, and four times if you count Doris Lessing's experiment with one of her own novels (see the footnote to this post for details). They typed out the opening chapters of two novels which had both, in the 1970s, won the Booker prize; they changed the titles, changed the names of the key characters, and then submitted the two typed manuscripts to 20 of the UK's big-name publishers and agents -- making 40 submissions in all.
The two novels chosen for this experiment were In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and Holiday by Stanley Middleton.
There were 21 responses to these submissions. And (as you may have guessed), only one agent was remotely interested in seeing the rest of the book she received. All the other publishers and agents either didn't reply or said no thanks, with varying degrees of politeness.
The results of this experiment are presented as if they lend support to the view that agents and publishers are clueless morons who wouldn't recognise a good book (however defined) if you hit them over the head with it.
Well, we could go on all day about this. But let me say that my sympathies are entirely with the agents and publishers whose time was wasted in this futile exercise. Secondly, I want to make it clear that the experiment does tell us some useful and interesting things about publishing, but not the things that the Sunday Times reporters seem to think it does.
In the course of the ST article, various earnest souls are quoted saying extremely silly things. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, for instance, says: 'It is surprising that the people who read it (Naipaul’s book) didn’t recognise it.'
No it's not. It's not remotely surprising that a Booker prizewinner from the 1970s wasn't recognised in 2006. Quite a lot of sensible publishers and agents wouldn't recognise last year's Booker winner, even without the names of characters changed. Why should they? If your specialism is science fiction or crime or romance, then the book which happens (largely through the workings of randomness/chance/Lady Luck) to win the Booker prize is a matter of complete indifference.
And then there's Stanley Middleton, author of one of the books used in this alleged test of competence. 'People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays,' he says. From which we discern that dear old Stanley (86 now) takes the view that there is some sort of universally agreed scale that we can use to measure how 'good' a novel is. And, as we already know if we've been paying attention, there isn't.
No. What this experiment shows is what Naipaul, at least, has the good sense to understand, and to say, namely that the world has moved on.
God knows, it is very odd for me to find myself speaking up on behalf of modern publishers, but it seems to me that, when it comes to selecting material, particularly fiction, they are doing exactly what a good publisher should.
Modern publishing companies are, first and foremost, machines for generating a profit for their shareholders. Full stop. They have nothing to with 'good books' as defined by some ivory-towered highbrow with more spare time than sense. Hence it is not remotely surprising, or improper, to find that publishers are 'obsessed with celebrity authors and "bright marketable young things" at the expense of serious writers.' Serious writers, in this context, I understand to mean that readily recognisable group of writers who take themselves far too seriously, who produce books which very few people want to read, much less buy, and who believe, wrongly, that the world owes them a living.
And so on. The story continues on an inside page, with more of the same.
This story did not take long to reach the blogosphere. Here's what the Literary Saloon concluded:
This is sure to be the talk of the literary weblog world (and quite a bit of the print media) in the coming week; we look forward to the fall-out. Of course, the real question is whether the publishers and agents will take any steps to address their failures. Sure, editors can always explain that 'it wasn't right' for their lists, but we'd think some serious reprimands were in order.I find this conclusion absurd. I do not agree that there have been any 'failures', much less that reprimands are required. Quite the reverse. My view is that, for once in their lives, agents and publishers got things dead right, given the present set of circumstances in which they operate.
Publishers are not charities; they are under no obligation to publish books which appeal to a relatively small clique of literary-fiction fans. And the Sunday Times piece does not, in my view, demonstrate any shortcomings among leading literary agents and publishers.
What the ST does do is lend support to my comment in an earlier post that newspapers no longer present us with either up-to-the minute news or cutting-edge information. All too often, today's newspapers simply recycle press releases and provide beginner's guides to subjects which are already more than fully covered on the internet. At this rate, those who forecast the death of the so-called mainstream media may have a point.
Almost inadvertently, the ST article also lends support to the belief which I have been discussing with one or two correspondents recently, namely that it seems to be much harder to get an agent to take you on in the UK than it is in the US. Carole Blake, for instance, says that she gets up to 50 novels a day, but takes on only six new clients a year.
Here, if you're interested, are details of previous alleged tests of publishers' competence.
In 1979, Chuck Ross typed out Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award, and sent it under a pseudonym to 14 publishers. Of these, 2 lost the typescript ('We're sure it's here somewhere, Chuck'); 1 returned it unread; 8 sent it back with the standard rejection slip; and 3 'recognised its quality' but still didn’t want to publish it.
A similar scheme was carried out in 1996 by one Kevin Banks, of Colchester, who was actually a journalist on the Sunday Mirror. He sent a chapter of a novel to 10 publishers and asked if they were interested in seeing the rest with a view to publishing it. None were.
'Kevin Banks' then revealed that the chapter in question was a 'lightly amended' version of Chapter 1 of Popcorn, which was a current bestseller by the comedian Ben Elton.
Yet another similar exercise was undertaken in France, in the summer of 2000. A famous French television presenter had written a novel which was published by a leading firm called Plon; the book was a great 'success', in that the author was interviewed widely, made lots of personal appearances, and the public was persuaded to buy a large number of copies.
The magazine Voici decided, however, that this novel was less than interesting, and that it would never have been published at all had it come from an unknown author. Voici typed out the first chapter of the book and offered it, under a pseudonym, to every leading publisher in France. None of them accepted it, and none recognised it as the season’s hit – including Plon, which had published the book in the first place.
In 1984 Doris Lessing asked her agent to submit one of her novels to her two main publishers without telling them who had really written it. Both firms turned the book down.
All of these 'tests' prove absolutely nothing, except the obvious point that a book of quality x by an unknown is not the same commercial proposition as a book of quality x which carries the name of an established author or a celebrity.