|"Hot Type" courtesy of photographer Andrew Beierle
of Running Springs, California and sxc.hu.
Once publishers and editors felt it an honor to choose the best books, guide a career, and develop an audience for a writer. No longer is that so (at least not to the same extent and not for most writers) as anyone who hasn’t been living under a plant pot in Mr. MacGregor’s potting shed knows full well. After all, our great edifices of culture have been sold overseas and are no longer entirely ours. The gentleman’s tiny profit margin of the early twentieth century is no longer considered sufficient.
Now the big-house publisher perceives an audiences—a mass audience—and looks for something that will grab its intention and sell in large numbers. Examples abound. Why else would a young woman of nineteen like Bristol Palin write memoirs? Houses—that is the publisher, who is a real human being, and the editors, who are likewise—may not like or want these changes, but if you steer a New York editor into a corner and are the sort of person who keeps her mouth shut, he or she may well tell you that they are forced to look for the commercial these days. I have been in the corner, and I have been told..
THE CHILDREN’S MARKET
This goes for the young adult and children’s market as well. Yesterday I flipped through a novel that my youngest child bought, recommended at a school book fair; it is poorly-written but sells itself to teens by sensationalism and blood. If the protagonist thinks, he signals the motions of his mind by chewing his lip. It’s a wonder he still has a mouth by the end of the book, especially since he has a weakness for the taste of the old crimson juice, fresh-squeezed. Descriptions are contradictory. He can hardly flee (which he must do often) without promptly tripping over the shoelaces of a poorly-chosen adverb. I don’t object to young teens reading books about vampires; I object to poorly-constructed books about vampires that sell on the basis of cheap thrills. Yep, such a book sucks. And what it sucks most is the attention and care in bookselling that might be given to better children's books.
TYRANNY OF SALES
All this is not to say that editors don’t desire good books any more. They do. But the press of finance and the demands of a large organization affect the books chosen. They affect where the publisher puts marketing money. And since books don’t tend to sell all by themselves without help, many writers are subject to the tyranny of numbers. Earlier I mentioned that only a few books can be anointed as lead books.
The ones that are not anointed frequently sit, often beautifully, in the shade. Each ensuing submission is judged by prior sales, as though the publisher could be only a salesman and not a builder of culture. The writer whose books sit beautifully in the shade inevitably sees his or her numbers drop. Usually nothing makes up for lack of push. Occasionally a writer has the freedom (that is, time) and guts and youthful steam of somebody like Christopher Paolini, who in one year flogged his first book at more than 135 schools and libraries, gussied up in a pseudo-medieval tunic and cap. Not having read it, I can’t speak to the book, but I can certainly be impressed by that blistering pace and sheer oomph and his willingness to play the jester in the service of his book. Clearly the strategies most writers use to make up for what the publisher and marketing departments choose not to do are ineffective. (Here I suggest that you look in the comments of the last The House of Words post because it deals with marketing and gives the viewpoints of writers, an imaginative marketer, and a publisher.)
Continued (The House of Words is growing rather fat and unwieldy; it now takes the rather tubby house a little space to turn around.)
* And the title comes from Dave Bonta, poet and online culture maker.