Literary Love & Publishing Woes

Thursday, 26 January 2012


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).


If Jane said...

Yes yes a cultural variation/element on manufacturing consent...interestingly enough I had a discussion with a friend just the other day about this but more relating to film. (but that's another discussion!).

Kinda off topic but nonetheless relevant and I think it applies:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”
— From the book Propaganda (1928), by Edward Bernays

Thank you! Food for thought!!! xxn

Cultured Animal said...

I always love to hear a bit of positive enthusiasm in a world where "the death of the book" and "the end of good quality journalism" are the recurrent catch-cries of the day. Just as politics swings incurably from left to right, if people are deprived of something vital for long enough they will create their own alternatives. Now, more than ever before, the power do so is in our hands.

Stephanie said...

Amen! You see more and more publishers that are unwilling to even look at unsolicited work. It's a shame to think of all the wonderful work that isn't being published because the Kardashians wanted to publish 6 books about nonsense.

Rambling Tart said...

I love this so much, Hila. Books, real books, GOOD books have saved me over and over, giving me hope and courage and strength and wisdom. I rarely go into a real bookstore these days, preferring to glean the oh-so-rich shelves of thrift stores. :-) I got a whole stack of marvy ones for a whopping $2.20 this week. I wish I could give more to the authors, but alas, most of them are dead. Long live wonderful writers!!

rooth said...

Reading for me (as I'm sure for many others) is very special. Back when I was young and on summer holiday, my father would expect a book report from me after he came home from work everyday. We would walk to the library and have to lug back our checkouts in a wagon because there were too many. To hear constantly that books are "dying" is enough for me to set off on a tirade for hours. I agree that it is the reader's responsiblity to DEMAND more - ask for what they want. Sometimes I do want a little smut, that's true. But there are so many other things that I want. It's up to me, I suppose, to look and ask for it!

Petra said...

I so agree with you. all these celebrity biographies, written at the age of 5 1/2 are ridiculous...

but I think it's not just that someone is deciding for us what to read, I wish it was. I think it goes deeper. the need to follow every detail of celebrity lifes, to know how much money they spend on shoes, holidays and houses when you don't quite know how to pay your own rent is a sign for our society being higly dysfunctional.

we live in a world where material possessions are valued the most, not skills or talent. and where does that leave you when you can't get the bare minimum of material things to be socially accpeted?

it seems the more stupid and talent-less a celebrity, the better their books sell. and people read them hoping that they can be like this, too.

apparently in the UK, a survey of what young teenage girl's most desired profession would be revealed that they want to be celebrities. not even actors or singers anymore, just celebrities...

oh, I better stop. I'm still on coffee number one for today, and I better not write myself into a fit ;)

Hotly Spiced said...

It's confusing to me why there is so much interest in the Kardashians. I have no interest in buying a magazine with any of them on the cover, let alone paying money for a book. I agree with you, tragically, publishers at the moment are only interested in publishing works by known authors or famous/celebrity types. It does make it very difficult for talented unknowns.

RetreatingAndAdvancing said...

I totally agree with you!

It seems to be shocking news to people when they read in newspapers that books doesn't play such an essential role anymore as they used. Everyone is blaming social media and change, but I'm not so sure about that.
I don't know about other countries, but it's so difficult to find a publisher in german speaking europe if you're a (young) writer without having published yet. What seems to be of interest are just these celebrity memoirs and 'confessions' that you mentioned.

Oh how I love the written word!

Monica said...

"part of the enormous popularity of blogs"
"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"


although there are plenty of celebrity gossip websites and fashion blogs, they are only one part of an eclectic mix of voices.
through personal blogs we get to read truly realy lives rather than hacked up 'reality' show portrayals, as well as learn about new things, really new things, especially things we may not ordinarily have considered.

in the library last week, my husband was scanning the bios and came across one by some boy star and remarked how now there are memoirs from people who are barely old enough to have lived anything.

i've no idea who/what snooki is, and it seems i'm blessed for that. lol

Tracey said...

Just wonderful Hila. I do not understand this publishing fascination with 'celebrity' ... I'm so out of the loop I don't even know who half of them are. It is a shame that such works are produced, published, and promoted at the cost of so many wonderful books which more rightly deserve attention and readership.

I do hope that the revitalisation of the publishing industry comes quickly ... after all, the greatest of books can become the most wonderful of friends. And that is a relationship that must be recognised and respected.

Long live quality books!!

B said...

Fantastic. I have nothing to add to the discussion except a loud and impassioned "Hear, hear!" Indie is the way to go.

Kelly said...

Adding another lusty "AMEN." I'm also irked that the one large, surviving bookstore chain here in the U.S. is moving books aside to put in an extensive toy/puzzle section in the middle of their stores.

Sally said...

Hm...I have indeed seen an influx of celebrity "memoirs" being published, but I personally haven't noticed a diminishing of quality literature being put forth. In 2011 alone, so many amazing books came out that I didn't have time to read them all. Also, I do think that many companies - though not necessarily the most corporate ones, I grant you - do still care, and do still take the time and effort to bring us great new books despite an oversaturated market.

For example, I worked at a wonderful independent press that only published excellent literary fiction - and we interns were slogging through, yes, unsolicited queries and manuscripts from hopeful unknowns, looking for the next beautiful voice. I also have a literary agent friend who creates books from unique blogs. People working in publishing are, after all, often the biggest book-lovers in the world, and want to preserve originality and passion for the written word as much as we do!

I do feel for those amazing writers who have trouble catching fire, though - I know many, and how frustrating it is. (Sadly I'm sure most celebrities have expensive agents selling them everywhere, which surely helps. :-/) But you're right, self-publishing (and getting noticed via blogs!) is really catching on, so we mustn't give up hope! :)

(Another interesting aspect: how books are competing with e-books physically by becoming tangible, beautiful investments - see this article:

fifth floor apartment said...

first of all, i love your love post. your quote choices were awesome.

second of all, as a writer/writing student this post is kind of bitterly fantastic for me. so much to think about. thanks for sharing your thoughts!

xo alison

Camila Faria said...

I couldn't agree more. And your "love" post was perfect, all those beautiful quotes made my day!

Camila Faria

Jane Flanagan said...

I agree so much with this post. I feel people are force-fed certain kinds of content, certain kinds of journalismand begin to consume it because it's all that's available. It's like a restricted diet. They make do.

I work in media and I also find a big lack of respect for the audience. In shoving this kind of content down people's throats, businesses grow to scorn their own customers. And, even worse, I find there's often sexism at play here. It's often male-dominated companies shoving content they consider "fluff" at female consumers.

I was reading tweets from Alt Summit and the "how to get a book deal" messages were all about being prepared to prove your audience and justify who will buy your book and why. It seems less about writing and more about building a business case.

But, like you, I'm simultaneously optimistic. With the costs of printing / publishing decreasing and the appetite for beautiful volumes growing, I think a strong business AND artistic argument can be made for supporting quality literature in new ways.

a blog about the little things said...

This is why I often found myself at a used bookstore, getting lost in the aisles of misplaced words; it's better hunting than in a shiny book-pusher shop. I used to work in one of those shiny shops, and whilst I loved being surrounded by books, I also learned to loathe the business of books. Because, sadly, it is about the bottom line - not so much about the quality of thought, of the written word, of story-telling.
As for magazines, I am just so grateful for the independent scene! I don't mind spending more for for a magazine that has real *content*, has new ideas, has no 'be more beautiful by putting *this* on your face' ads, and is substantial (in every sense of the word).
I've never taken a moment to stop and look at the Snookis of the publishing world. I'd like to think others pass those soulless words by too, but they end up on best-selling lists for a reason, no? It truly is a vicious circle; it's hard to remember where it begins.

Katie said...

I don't consume celebrity culture much at all, but I've known a number of people who do. Oftentimes, it seems that the people who read Snooki and the like experience a sort of self-affirmation ("at least I'm not like him/her") while simultaneously dreaming of such a luxurious life, thinking they deserve it more than Snooki/the Kardashians/etc. I'm not justifying it in any way because I still find it ridiculous, but it does seem that there's something emotional/psychological occurring.

Lin said...

Yes, please. And who knows what folks are now downloading on their e-readers. Let's all get lost in some literary wonder... I'm with you!

Hila said...

If Jane/Nancy: fantastic quote. "We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of". I couldn't agree more.

Cultural Animal: there's much moaning about these issues, which is valid. But we need to do something beyond the moaning - how about creating? The problem is so many publishing houses and newspapers are insisting on reverting to an archaic model of publication that simply doesn't fit in the modern world. And they seek to mollify 'the public' with celebrity gossip. I'm so bored with it all.

Stephanie: yep, it's insane. I sometimes despair at being a writer.

Rambling Tart: secondhand bookshops are my haven. So many large retail bookstores just make me feel alienated.

Rooth: I think we all want 'smut' every once in a while, and there's nothing wrong with that :) I guess my problem is with the lack of innovation, daring or even slight willingness by publishers to take chances with new writers instead of cashing in on celebrity crap.

Petra: I do agree with you, we do share a large responsibility for the amount of crap that is been sold. I think readers assume they are powerless to shape publishing habits. The power lies in our hands as consumers though, so if we're sick of the crap, we need to start using this power.

Hotly Spiced: I'm so baffled by the interest in the Kardashians as well. I honestly am, I don't get it. I tried to watch one episode and was bored out of my mind.

RetreatingAndAdvancing: it's pretty much the same around the world. To get anything published as an 'unknown', you have to prove that your book will have an audience and a 'market'. The first concern is money, not the writing itself. Call me idealistic, but this is just warped and wrong.

Monica: you are most certainly blessed in that, you're not missing much :)

Tracey: yes, when I think of all the wasted money and time that goes into producing/promoting these utterly banal 'books', it makes me want to weep. The argument is that these celebrity books are supposed to 'pay' for 'quality' books. But honestly, I just don't see that happening - more often, I see celebrity books 'paying' for more celebrity books. It's a vicious and boring cycle.

B: well, indie will be the only way to go if this is what big publishing houses stick to.

Hila said...

Kelly: ugh, I know what you mean. Walking into such stores makes me feel so depressed.

Sally: To be honest, I both agree and disagree. I agree that people who work in this industry are really dedicated and passionate about books. You'd probably have to be to work in it. But I do personally see a decline in good quality literature (especially by new authors) as a consumer and a reader. True, there are many good books around, but they are usually by famous or well-known, established authors. It seem ridiculous that only the famous get a shot. So you either have to a be celebrity or a famous author to get published. I'm basing these opinions on the many experiences of writer friends and colleagues. I have one colleague who is a well-known author and she basically told me that her 'fame' is the draw-card for publishers to publish more of her work. It's seems a bit prescriptive to me and it also hinders true innovation in the arts.

Alison: I hope not too bitter, I hope I ended on a note of optimism :)

Camila: glad you liked them!

Jane: oh don't get me started on the sexism. If you want to pitch a book to publisher, you must prove how you, as a woman, can be 'accessible' to a 'female' audience. It's all so condescending, and I bet no male author gets asked these questions. And you've put it perfectly: it is like a restricted diet. I think audiences can feel when they are not respected, and they respond with their own creativity when their needs are not met. This is why I'm optimistic - we have fantastic blogs and fantastic independent publishers.

a blog about little things: I'm generally getting tired of everything, not just publishing, being reduced to the bottom line and 'marketing'. It's ruling our lives like a little dictator.

Katie: I agree, there is something deeper going on in some of the way we consume celebrity culture. But it means investing in unrealistic dreams and the idea that fame and money can bring you a sense of fulfilment, which they rarely do.

Lin: I'd like to think they're downloading some good books!

Chuck said...

This is interesting. I've done a lot of internships in and around publishing recently and there are definitely things I agree with. People don't take enough risks and there isn't enough literary fiction. BUT I do feel a bit more sympathetic because they are having a tough time. Budgets are being cuts and people's jobs are in danger - that is not an environment that encourages risk. And celebrity books do make money. People do want to read that crap and I think the massive number of gossip websites and blogs is proof that this is not just something we're being spoonfed. And poetry, for example, doesn't sell and these aren't public services. If we bought more poetry publishers would print more poetry. I think the internet will be a brilliant thing for poetry and short stories. I don't know if that is the publishing industries responsibility though. I think maybe it is ours? Us - independent writers, poets, internet users. We need to work out ways to monetise and disperse our work online. I think that could be awesome. Also, crowd sourcing. Also, many thoughts but I'm late. Bugger, got all excited. x

Tana said...

Wonderful post,Hila! i`ve enjoyed reading both, this one and your guest post. Have a good weekend!

Stef said...

This was a really thought-provoking post. I'm currently doing a Master's in Publishing, and I believe that puts me in the very lucky position of getting a detailed insight into a changing industry without being thrown right onto the battlefield.

I think that in a world where physical shelf space is getting more and more limited it's sad, but it only makes sense that the bookshops are full of celebrity books and the tried and tested genres. Hundreds of thousands of English language books are being published every year. I refuse to believe that all of them are horrible, but bookshops will put on their shelves what will sell, and publishers have to produce what sells. I'm sure that a large number of books published every year may be brilliant, but who will take the risk to give an unknown author's debut novel as much marketing effort as the new Stephen King book?

I'm not even sure it's laziness on the publisher's side. If you want your overheads covered, produce a certain number of books a year AND possibly make a profit you will have to take every book Snooki "writes" because that's what sells.
And even if readers start signalling the industry more and more that they want something different (which I hope they do), I have no idea how anything should change.

But I too am looking forward to the change and the innovations about to come. It's an interesting time.

Hila said...

Chuck: I really do understand what you're saying, but I also can't help feeling that there's a large amount of spoon-feeding that goes hand-in-hand with people's consumption. While there will always be a market for gossip/celebrity, I think it has been taken to the extreme, and I think the publishing industry is focusing on this demand far too much to its own detriment. For every person who prefers a celebrity book, there's also another who would like something else. That 'semething else' seems to be diminishing, from my perspective.

Tana: thank you!

Stef: oh definitely, it's not all just laziness on the publisher's side - consumers and readers have to be more active, and less passive. But I do feel that the lack of risk-taking is a large part of the problem - not just that, just a general assumption the audiences will consume crap. Maybe some people do, but there are a whole bunch of us that don't and are looking for something else. That being said, I really do think there needs to be more active voicing of what we want as readers. I am sympathetic to publishers who are just trying to keep afloat financially - the thing is I think this trend will only hurt them in the long run, there's bound to be a backlash to the perpetuation of celebrity books. Good luck with your Masters!

twinkilingeyes said...

thank you Hila for speaking up about this subject...and i agree with what you say...publishing houses should respect their readers more...and their tastes...and they need to know that NOT everyone is as shallow and meaningless as their celebrities writers...not everyone who writes 2 sentences is considered an "author"!...and not just because they are having their 15 min of fame entitles them to be called "writers"
thank you for letting then mow that WE ARE HERE!

Cultured Animal said...

As always, progress is the double-edged sword: how wonderful it is that we can create things ourselves with new technology and the Internet; yet how terrifying also for publishing industries (including, perhaps even more crucially, the music industry) to be faced with a complete disintegration of the business models they have run on for decades ... centuries ... But we will find a way! The people will always want art, as much as we will want entertainment.

Hila said...

twinklingeyes: yes, basically, I'm asking for more respect as a reader and consumer.

Cultural Animal: It's terrifying for them, but I also think it's an opportunity to innovate. I hope they take up the challenge!