Monday, January 02, 2006

The Sunday Times 'tests' publishers and agents

Yesterday's Sunday Times carried a story, right at the top of the front page, which was so remarkably silly that one hardly knows where to begin in discussing it.

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.


seth roberts said...

Okay, what would be a better test?

archer said...

Haters of the pianoforte (there are many) once supposedly blindfolded some music critic and had a single note played twice on a Steinway grand, first by some artist of renown and then by a local auto parts man who used an umbrella to depress the key. The critic, so the story goes, couldn't tell the difference. This is supposed to prove the piano isn't really a musical instrument. All it proves is that people are really weird, a point nobody ever doubted in the first place.

lady t said...

I'm just a Yank who recently discovered this blog but I wholeheartedly agree with this test being silly. Just because a book won a top prize doesn't make that book one
of the best. Ask any die-hard film fan about who deserved to win Best Film at the Oscars last(or any other year)and see how agreeable the conversation comes.

Art is in the eye of the beholder and many times,it is persistence that wins the day. If someone is truly determined to be published and their work has any merit,their time will come.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear GOB:

I'm rather surprised at your reaction. You once wrote an essay about slushy rats or some such which I took the time to read. This article seems congruent with said essay. Now you seem to be disagreeing with yourself.

Some clarification on your part would be interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

I know that V.S. Naipaul can hold his own anywhere, but has anybody tried to read another book by a distant cousin (very distant) The English Patient? Unreadable, movie or no.
I have a friend who boasts he read Finnegan's Wake all the way through.
Watching paint dry.
I know I'll probably be slain with the jawbone of an ass for this comment.
And soon.

Anonymous said...

The English Patient is unreadable?
What would you suggest Light over Newmarket?

PS Merle Haggard is dead.

Anonymous said...

Sand storm.
Thank you very much for noticing old Ivan.
I was about to write the standard
entreaty, "I am an obscure writer out of Armpit, Ontario who is going absolutely nowhere with his four crappy novels and wishes someone would attack him viciously in print just to get a little reader interest up."
Well, a little action under the auspices of the excellent Grumpy Old Bookman doesn't hurt at all.
Then there is the fact that philistines everywhere should be severely slapped. You can register a gotcha.
So many famous Steven Clarksons in the world. I guess you join the lineup.
Light Over Newmarket also unreadable?
Funny, since I ran off a chapter in a local magazine, got an Ontario
Arts Council grant for it, along with an Ontario Weekly Newspapers award. My original book, The Black Icon is probably a zippier read, though it is only available in libraries now.
I am only now having a look at your site. Slick, and you are obviously a professional. I will have to read your thriller as soon as I can get my hands on it.
Thanks for the zen slap. I probably needed it.

Anonymous said...

First it is Steve Clackson, not steven clarkson, second I asked if you would suggest "Light over Newmarket" as an alternative read.
I believe it was you who tried to get "a little action under the auspices of the excellent Grumpy Old Bookman" when you posted
"but has anybody tried to read another book by a distant cousin (very distant) The English Patient? Unreadable, movie or no."

well it worked

Libertarian Girl said...

I find it interesting to note that these chapters were submitted to publishers despite the fact that publishers don't accept unsolicited materials anymore--so should we be surprised that none expressed interest? Were Calvert & Iredale? More likely, they proceeded as they did to ensure that their data would support their startlingly original thesis. I imagine that the sentence that appears in one of their first paragraphs--"The-industry-has-become-incapable-of-spotting-genuine- literary-talent"--is also the name of a file on one of their computers, the first notes for this exercise in "investigative" journalism. Nothing like seeing the potent results of journalistic objectivity in action!

Your post reflects my views so completely as to render any further commentary on my part superfluous. But I had an idea for those intrepid journalists' NEXT project:

How about typing out the first chapters for piece-of-shit romance novels, and/or from manuscripts that a staff of ten uniformly agree are horrible, unpublishable, and show not even a whiff of writerly talent. Then submit those same "samples" to MFA writing programs throughout the USA--be sure to mention that financial aid won't be a concern--and see how many fail to gain admittance to some allegedly-serious writing program.

Publishers suck relative to the good ol' days? Maybe so. On the other hand--given the quantity of mediocre talent being cranked through Universities' #1 money-laundering scheme--one might have a hard time defending the notion that there's any corrolation between the size of the pool of people calling themselves writers these days and the overall quality of the manuscripts being produced.

Anonymous said...

"People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays" says Stanley. As opposed to the good old days when Proust was rejected and had to self-publish; when Moby-Dick was a financial and critical failure; when Confederacy of Dunces was rejected and not published until after the author committed suicide; when Joyce spent several years trying to find a publisher for Ulysses and Dubliners. Literary history is full of classics that were rejected dozens of times before seeing the light of day. In any case, when did publishers accrue the moral responsibility to publish "good books". If your book is so great what's wrong with self-publishing it? If it was good enough for Virginia Woolf why isn't it good enough for you?

EJ said...

I would agree that this 'test' proves little or nothing. I believe it's the escalating cost of doing business that is the culprit.

As was pointed out in the post, the publishing industry is there to publish books and make a profit by doing so. To that end, they attempt to determine what the reading market wants, not always an easy thing. The problem, I think, is that the reading market knows about as much of what they want as the marketing departments of most publishers and rarely are the two of them on the same page. In short, it's a crap shoot. Toss in the risk factor of the cost to the publisher of producing a book, coupled with the cost to the consumer of buying it, and you add one loaded die to the mix.

Example in point. You have 25 USD to spend. Up on the shelf are two books, one by Mediocre-But-Big-Name, the other by Brilliant-But-Unknown. You've read MBBN in the past. Okay, so you forgot everything about it 10 seconds after closing the book. You do remember that it entertained you while reading it. Maybe you've heard of BBU but you've never read him/her. Would you like the book? Would it entertain? You have no idea and, at 25 USD, you ain't in the mood to risk. It becomes a circle that even death can't stop (i.e. Robert Ludlum): readers buy MBBN, publisher makes a profit, publishes more MBBN, readers buy more MBBN, BBU falls off the mid-list because he/she can't hit the sales figures set by the marketing department of the publisher, a new BBU comes along and the whole circle starts again.

I think if there is anything to fear in this scenario, it's the seeming death of the mid-list.


Bernita said...

Max, you are very bad.
But why restrict it to romance novels?
Wouldn't any genre do?

Anonymous said...

Mad Max Perkins,
You are so inside.
Herman Wouk quality versus Jonathan Franzen. Tough choice.
And then Jonathan Livingston Seagulls flying in between.
Never leave a tern unstoned, I say.

Dee Jour said...

What really is good literary fiction these days?
I've just read The Possibility of an Island and, seriously, in addition to the previous novels by the same author, I don't think I'll remember the way they end a year from now. I can forgive this I suppose, but what I do remember, from (by the same author) from Platform, which I didn't mind (and prefer above all), concerns a largely innaccurate description of fellatio or an 'alleged' technique that is pure fallacy. This I remember and I remember it (even though it presents a 'superficial example') because I feel that the intellect gets in the way of many things where some authors are concerned.

Today's literary fiction story elements can be summed up as follows: 'I'm so depressed I want to die'. The characters are so pathetic, it's a wonder they bloody laugh. Which is why I don't blame the millions who've bought the DaVinci Code. Everyday humans have so many things to be depressed about, the last thing they need is yet another dreary novel concerning a characters ego.

I've gone back to reading distant classics, they're more colourful than the dreary descriptions of things we see in our everyday lives, they're worded in first person (most of the time), like a diary so they may as well be upgraded to 'voyeur fiction'. This isn't so bad, but when an authors catalogue of novels are in 'first person' it makes one wonder whether one is reading, what could possibly be, the literary equivalent of psychoanalysis.

As for what's 'considered' good work these days, according to all the 'tips' that are given by self help guides, publishers themselves and others, if these rules were adhered to (even editors don't follow the rules they flaunt) works that are considered classics today, would be rejected if they were submitted today.

Seriously, if Belle de Jour can be considered and published, then I guess rules do not apply. If I had to pick I'd opt for Coelho's 11 Minutes.

Anonymous said...

May I add another angle from someone who is both in PR and published my a major publishing house?

I suspect the hand of a clever PR person in this. Some sites (including Penguin and the BBC) report that Mr Lassmann is director of the Jane Austen centre/festival Others that it is a David Baldock). Can it be entirely coincidental that this story 'breaks' just as tickets are booking for that very festival which takes place in September 2007?

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