12 September 2004


It's time for the various annual fall lament/preview issues from major book reviews. Again. The Guardian cries both that "most leading publishers are trying to stem the tide of unsolicited material" and

Another sure sign that Christmas is approaching is the desperate seasonal search in the trade for the goose that will lay the golden egg. Just as Benjamin Schott's wonderful Miscellany launched a thousand imitations (not one of which troubled the checkout clerks for more than a nanosecond), so Lynne Truss's sensational "zero tolerance" essay on punctuation is going to inspire a horrifying outbreak of sequel-itis. In days gone by, sequel fever was only a mild affliction and usually involved commissioning some tame novelist to finish off Jane Austen's Sanditon or hammer out a follow-up to Gone With the Wind. But now the pressure is on for a quicker hit. If last year's success fou was Eats, Shoots and Leaves, this year's oven-ready turkeys will be the E,S&L imitations. One of the saddest truths about the book world is that though publishers must know that originality is inimitable, this never stops them from indulging in the sincerest form of flattery: imitation. Call it what you like — sequel, spin-off, byproduct, follow-up — but that second bite at the cherry will always be a bitter, fruitless one.

Robert McCrum, "Imitation Is the Feeblest Form of Publishing" (12 Aug 04) (typography corrected; fake paragraphing removed for clarity). If anything, McCrum understates the problems with contemporary publishing and its slavish imitation of last season's least-expected success.

The NYT and Post have their "fall preview listings," revealing (and, contrary to their protestations, revelling in) an estimated 60,000 new books on their way here before year's end. Just looking at some of the titles and sources makes one very glad that the trees can't pull a Macbeth and lead an inexorable assault on the castle Avenue of the Americas. Or, if one is more cynical, instead one might hope for such an assault.

What these disparate views reveal, if nothing else, is the publishing industry's collective myopia. (I'll leave dishonesty and stupidity for another time.) One might think that the "tide of unsolicited material" is coming from the writing community at large, particularly that "horrifying outbreak of sequel-itis." A little thought and examination of the realities of publishing, though, demonstrates otherwise. Trade publishing works on a twelve-to-eighteen month cycle from acceptance of manuscript to appearance on the shelves. That is, it does when there is any attention whatsoever paid to editing, to cover and interior design, to proofreading, to legal clearance, to a marketing plan tailored to the characteristics of the book in question, to layout, to actually printing the damned thing, to shipment and fulfillment… in short, to anything that will serve to improve product quality and long-term value.

So, then, how are these imitators showing up a bare twelve months (or less) later? Much of the time, this requires cutting short many of the necessary steps in the process. Admittedly, some of those tasks can in fact be done in parallel; but many cannot. Recall, too, that this leaves that much less time for actually writing the bloody book. Where are these imitators coming from, then? On the one hand, a substantial proportion of them—perhaps 30%, although that will certainly vary from imprint to imprint—are works that were already in the pipeline, either with established publishing dates or provided by agents frantically called by editors asking "have you got another Lynne Truss ready to go?" Occasionally, this might even include something in the slush pile that was read by an intern or editorial assistant and not summarily rejected for being printed on lavender-scented paper in fifteen-point single-spaced Zapf Chancery (don't laugh too loud—I got one of those while on the dark side of the editorial desk… at a nonfiction-only publisher). On the other hand, many of them, and perhaps most, are mechanical churn-outs from the "usual suspects." Frequently delivered for a flat fee on a work-for-hire basis, these are almost always ill-thought-out slavish imitators written to formula, sometimes even to a detailed outline provided by the publisher.

Note, though, that in both instances, the publisher has essentially outsourced its acquisition function to last year's sales phenomenon. This shouldn't be all that surprising, though, considering what else is centered in New York: the American garment industry (with a satellite office in Bentonville, Arkansas). That leads to such awful thoughts as Donna Karan (to pick one obvious name, and far from the worst possible choice) establishing a line of designer bookcovers, suitable for any business occasion. It would be just like what the POD-based vanity presses (e.g., Au+h0rh0u53, iUniv3r53, and x1i6ri5) offer, but coated in a veneer of dubious respectability. On second thought, how would one tell the difference from what we've got? In any event, it assumes the replicability of a previous sales "phenomenon"—and one would think that even beancounters would understand that this is disfavored under the Intellectual Property Clause. And common sense.

I guess not.