Literary Love & Publishing Woes


I did a guest post for Jen from Honey Kennedy while she's away frolicking in New York (I'm not jealous at all, nope, not me). She asked her guest bloggers to compile posts on the theme of 'love', and of course, my mind immediately drifted to literary love. I picked out some of my favourite love quotes from poetry and novels, have a read of my picks here.

These beautiful words have a poignancy to them that is not simply related to their subject-matter, but also to the fact that in today's publishing climate, they would probably not get published. The trend now is to assume that such works are not 'marketable'. What are we offered instead? A book by Snooki or the Kardashians, or other pointless and inflated celebrities.

I don't think it's coincidence that my guest post for Jen materialised on her blog in the same week in which I stumbled upon Sarah Lacy's great article on the state of modern publishing, 'Confessions of a Publisher'. Lacy highlights some key points which I'd like to annotate with my own thoughts.

When you see Snooki’s book on the New York Times Best Seller List, you know publishing is in trouble. You can blame readers and say publishing is just giving the public what they want. But that’s only half the problem. The rest is a lazy publishing industry that does far too little of the work that got them here: Discovering new authors and giving them a shot. Instead, they go for the lazy lay-up: Overpaying on celebrity memoirs and pop culture phenomenons with a built in audience.

I walked into a bookstore the other day. The front of the shop was dominated with celebrity books. At the very back, squeezed into two small shelves, were some books under the heading of 'Classics'. You can guess from the layout of the shop what books the store was pushing to the public at the front, and what books it was relegating to the 'unmarketable' corner at the back. I almost didn't find the 'Classics' shelf at all, I really had to look for it. This is a metaphor for how the whole publishing industry treats books and authors these days.

You could say in the publishing industry's defence: 'well, publishing companies are a business, they have to make money. So they're simply giving the public what it wants'. The thing is, I'm not convinced that books about Snooki and the Kardashians are what we, the public, really want. It's been decided for us, it's been assumed. It's been relentlessly pushed and marketed toward us. It's sort of like what women's and gossip magazines do: they are saturated with celebrity gossip and the argument is that gossip is what sells. But if gossip is all that is provided, how do magazine editors actually know what we want? Do we really have much of a choice? It's like a self-perpetuating myth: 'this is what we're selling, because this is what you want. But what you want is what we decide you want, so this is what we'll sell'.

If publishing houses and magazine editors actually opened their eyes to peer beyond the glaring dominance of 'marketing', they would realise that part of the enormous popularity of blogs and self-published, independent books and magazines lies in the fact that people are generally tired of being sold the same old crap, and are forging their own voices. They are telling these companies, in large numbers, what they really want. Isn't it about time editors and publishers started listening?

While the familiar complaint of a diminishing publishing industry in the face of digital culture is valid, it also doesn't take into account that people are migrating to the digital world because the printed world of magazines and books is no longer providing the innovative sense of creativity they used to. You can't blame people for seeking out other avenues when the old ones are treating them like brainless fools.

Lacy suggests a call to arms for the publishing industry to better itself:

My hope is disgruntled publishing executives like the one above will quit their comfortable jobs at dysfunctional prehistoric companies and start innovating on the model. I don’t believe the public only wants books written by over-tanned drunks who go clubbing anymore than blog readers only want slideshows and posts on Apple. Someone will build the next great publishing imprint out of these ashes. And as a reader and an author, I can’t wait.

I agree with her. Someone does need to resurrect publishing houses from the ashes of celebrity culture and easily exploited genres and remind them that they used to be a source for beautiful words to be shared with the world, for new talent to be discovered. But I think the responsibility for this also lies with us, the readers and the buyers. We need to start demanding more, and demanding loudly.

I'd love to suggest you go re-read some of the quotes I've transcribed in my guest post. And then think about a world where such authors and such words don't stand a chance of getting published. Books and poetry for me aren't just printed matter on a page with a monetary value, they are priceless. They have literally pulled me out of despair and grief, they have comforted me and been my companions, they have lightened my mood after a bad day at work, and they have given me insight into our state as human beings. These endeavours should not be lost in the haze of marketing and celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is so very contaminating and I wonder when it will all stop. How much further can we exploit this dead horse? Enough should be enough, and we need to start saying this, loud and clear.

So my call to arms to anyone reading this post is to start talking about the value of the written word and the immense pleasure of drowning in a good book or discovering a new author. If it matters to you, start discussing it on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Be heard, don't be told what you're supposed to like. And maybe if enough of us do this, someone will start to listen. Creativity and art would be nothing without innovation, and I can't think of a better time to start demanding such innovation.

Image credit: still from the French short film Faiblesses (2009).