05 March 2005

Sell the Sizzle

Oh my. Today's Guardian includes two articles that bemoan the publishing industry's parlous financial state and inability to reach all customers as it would wish. First up is Caroline Michel's subtle rose-glassed view of publishing as it "enters" the electronic age. Leaving aside such non sequiturs as "But the mid-19th century was also a particularly good time to be a publisher"—what one would call a successful "publisher" in the mid-19th century is what we would call a "periodical publisher" today; book publishers failed at a rate exceeding that of the 1990s and early in this century—we find one startling bit of honesty, with some startling implications:

The music industry claims that they barely break even on the delivery of digital music, but this probably only means that they don't yet make as much as they would like.

I won't snipe at the article any more, except to note that Ms. Michel makes the same mistake in her analysis as that she decries: She reasons from analogy with conditions and businesses that are at best tangentially related to book publishing. Nonetheless, she does make two cogent observations, in different parts of her speech, that should have been put together:

Agents are now ubiquitous, and to a large extent they have replaced the editor as an author's guide and mentor. This is due, perhaps, to the state of modern publishing, where editors move, for whatever reason, from publisher to publisher, and large companies move people like pieces on a chessboard. I am lucky to have worked over the years with inspirational editors such as Liz Calder, Tom Maschler, Christopher MacLehose and Sonny Mehta, all of whom embody the passion, faith and belief in continuity that provide the vital and stable publishing support so important for writers. These are the people, like the editors I work with at HarperPress, who build the front lists and back lists that are the lifeblood of a writer's career and that of the publishing house.

*  *  *

But marketers can only tell you what people liked last time round. They cannot, and never will, write a brief for the next bestseller. It was almost exactly 10 years ago that Fourth Estate had a runaway success with Longitude, and the market was suddenly awash with quirky narrative history books, none of which could replicate its success. Right now we can see the same thing happening in response to Eats, Shoots and Leaves. There are many other, similar examples to be found, not just in publishing but in film, music and, in all probability, all the other creative industries. And if you look for reasons why, despite all the vicissitudes that have beset them, these industries have not only survived but are prospering, it is because they have always kept sight of the fact that we, unlike other industries, deal in a continuously renewed originality. [fake paragraphing removed for clarity]

By itself, I suppose, Ms. Michel's speech isn't all that disturbing. It reflects some truly abysmal reasoning, true enough; that, however, is no different from anything else that depends upon applying the rigid reasoning methods of "big business" to the arts, which by their very nature defy rigid reasoning. At least, however, it doesn't entirely ignore the nature of its product, like Liz Hoggard's swipe at fashion books. Far be it from me to defend that aesthetic appeal of most book design; but the package is not the product.

Does it really always have to be a choice between a worthy academic volume (no pictures) and a flip excuse for popular culture (all those awful studies of lingerie called Objects of Desire)? Because, you know, we're living in a fantastically rich fashion landscape. Who is out there to deconstruct the constant parade of outfits in Desperate Housewives and The OC (signifier of suburban greed or emancipated female sexuality)? Or that, after a year of boho milkmaids, feminist and former communist Miuccia Prada is dressing women in ladylike black again? I want to read that book. When publishers get it right, it will be the Holy Grail. [typography corrected]

The irony here is that she's trying to impose her vision of the right style for books upon books on style. (Perhaps she'll be happier with more Marilyn Monroe. I won't; but then, as should be clear by now, I'm not exactly mainstream in my tastes.) That someone as intensely interested in style and fashion might have such strong opinions is all well and good, I suppose. Contrast, however, her prescription with the reasoning in Ms. Michel's speech. Ms. Hoggard wants the "killer fashion book," the "home run"—which will, in its own horrible way, become the Longitude of its own subliterary movement as other publishers try to copy its success.

All of which leads to Don Maass's observations on writing breakout—as opposed to blockbuster—fiction. (Don is the former president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, the US trade association for literary agents.) His book Writing the Breakout Novel—well worth some careful consideration by prospective authors of fiction, both for its substantive advice and its wisdom on the publishing process—doesn't focus on style, or on subject matter, or on publishing category, or on formula. Instead, his basic structural advice concerns raising the stakes facing the characters in a way that remains consistent with the characters themselves. That means more than just throwing one's characters into a save-the-world confrontation; it means building that confrontation into the characters. (And this is a lot more glib than is Maass's presentation.) In other words, the path to success in the publishing game, at least for authors, is to write a better book. It is not to follow some formula or produce what the marketing geniuses think they want based on their 20/40 hindsight (which is, admittedly, better than the 20/400 hindsight in the nonprint media!). The contrast with the two pieces from the Guardian could hardly be more pronounced. Those commentators want more-profitable labels; Mr. Maass advocates more-profitable substance.