Monday, January 09, 2006

More on the Sunday Times fiasco

Last Sunday the UK Sunday Times set out to prove that publishers are no longer able to identify literary talent. The ST's feeble experiment was described here last Monday.

During the week the ST article attracted a certain amount of comment in the blogosphere. If you want to get a taste of it, go to Technorati, type "sunday times" and "booker prize" into the search box (both terms in inverted commas) and you will be given a list of most of the bloggers' comments.

In general, nobody had anything good to say about the ST, which is scarcely surprising. Miss Snark (4 January, Why the Sunday Times is nitwit of the new year) was far ruder than I was. And m'learned friend C.E. Petit Esq., at Scrivener's Error, took the trouble to make it absolutely clear why, in terms of research design, the ST attempt to test its hypothesis was so pathetically incompetent.

All of that being so, it was with some interest that I waited to see what the paper itself would publish by way of letters. In the event, only two letters on this issue appeared in yesterday's edition. One said that if publishers had started rejecting the kind of book which wins the Booker, then at least they are doing something right.

The other letter came from Sylvie Nickels, the smart girl. She explained that she too had been rejected by major publishers and had gone the self-publishing route instead. So she used the ST's fatuous article to earn herself a couple of free column inches by way of advertising. Lots of people will have googled her, or gone to amazon, to have a look at her book.

The only other thing to add is that one of the commenters on last week's GOB piece seemed to think that, in writing it, I was contradicting what I said about a year ago in my extended essay entitled On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. Explain yourself, sir, was the general tenor of his comment.

Well, actually I don't think there's much to explain. But let me say that, if I had had a change of mind/change of heart in the last twelve months, I certainly wouldn't feel defensive about it. On the contrary: I would be rather pleased with myself. It is one of our less useful human characteristics that we hang on to our long-held opinions even when mounting evidence shows them to be well out of date; so changing one's mind -- in the light of new evidence -- is something of a virtue in my book.

As it happens, however, I haven't changed my mind in any dramatic way. The difference between the emphasis in Rats and that of my Sunday Times piece arises (it seems to me) because we are looking at the same facts from different angles.

For what they're worth, my views can be summarised as follows:

1. I take it as an established fact that even expert judges, i.e. experienced agents and publishers, cannot read a year's supply of slush-pile submissions and identify, with infallible accuracy, which of them will achieve commercial or literary success. This has been proved, and admitted, so often that it is really beyond dispute.

2. It is also commonly reported that slush-pile submissions are in any case seldom read by expert judges. Normally they are read by young people who are by definition inexperienced. Furthermore, these same young people are often also handicapped, in the sense that they have recently spent three or four years having their heads filled with piffle by professors of English literature.

3. Modern publishing is concerned first and foremost with making a profit. And the problem with 'literary quality', as generally defined, is that it is not profitable. As Miss Snark says, 'respectable sales over the course of YEARS is the height of achievement [for a literary novel]. Most of them sink like rocks.'

4. For reasons which escape my understanding, most of the leading newspapers concentrate their reviews on literary fiction; this gives a misleading impression to ambitious young writers.

5. Courses which purport to teach 'creative writing' also tend to concentrate on 'literary quality'. This is a circumstance which seems to me to be unhelpful to everyone -- except, of course, to those who make a comfortable living from teaching such courses.

6. The bestseller lists provide a valuable guide to what is selling fast at any given moment. But they do not tell us what is selling steadily. There are plenty of capable and successful writers around who are never reviewed in the national press, never make the bestseller lists, but produce work, year after year, which is widely enjoyed. To find these people you need to go burrowing in obscure corners, such as the Times Warner stocklist. PLR data -- i.e. records of loans from UK public libraries, are also useful; as are sites such as Fantastic Fiction.

In writing Rats, I was mainly looking at things from the writer's point of view, and offering some suggestions to slush-pile readers along the way. In my comment on the Sunday Times article, I was, for once, looking at things from the publisher's point of view.

Having said that, I will also say that, during the last twelve months, I have become somewhat more sympathetic to the general plight of those who work in publishing than I have been in the past. It is a commonplace that publishing is changing, but I suspect that just how fast it is changing is still being underestimated by those who work in the industry.

Of course there will always be printed books -- at any rate during the lifetime of anyone likely to be reading this. And I think we shall increasingly see an emphasis on the book as object -- as a beautiful piece of design -- in addition to the continuing and inevitable emphasis on content. However, I expect that, within ten years, and probably a whole lot sooner, we shall have a hand-held electronic device which is easier to read than the average mass-market paperback, some of which are exceedingly cheap and nasty.

When that happens, some areas of publishing are, I think, going to find themselves in much the same position as manufacturers of buggy whips were one hundred years ago. That's not a comfortable position to be in; and they're all such nice people, too.


Carla said...

I read 'Rats' some months ago with great interest. What I took from it, which is not inconsistent with the Sunday Times stunt or most of the associated commentary, is that good writing, attention in the literary media and commercial publication are all different measures of the value of a piece of writing. Good writing means someone gained enjoyment and/or knowledge from reading it; media attention means an editor/reviewer believed (rightly or wrongly) their readers would be interested in their comments on it; commercial publication means someone decided (rightly or wrongly) they could make a profit from publishing it. There may be a considerable degree of overlap between these statements, but they are not synonymous.

Your point 4 struck a chord with something I thought when reading Susan Hill's piece on her slush pile (you mentioned it on 4 October 2005). If "the media" give the impression that commercial=rubbish (and by logical, if incorrect, extension that uncommercial=worthy), it is perhaps not surprising that she received so much 'fiction-as-therapy'.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Modern publishing is concerned first and foremost with making a profit. And the problem with 'literary quality', as generally defined, is that it is not profitable. As Miss Snark says, 'respectable sales over the course of YEARS is the height of achievement [for a literary novel]. Most of them sink like rocks.'"

Look at Miss Snark's bias. In fact MOST books published "sink like rocks."

I have recently seen this figure quoted a couple of times: the average book published (United States) sells 11,800 copies.

That being the case, why not publish something that stands on its own merits rather than another crappy Da Vinci Code clone?

Miss Snark and her colleagues operate under the conceit that they know what sells, when the results demonstrate otherwise. If they did indeed know what sells, every book would be a best seller.