What on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?
Yes, I know, it’s a question that has no answer so why even bother asking the question, but seriously, what on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?
The industry is undoubtedly in a state of flux, with the rise and rise of ebooks and the ability of authors to publish themselves in a variety of forms and media, making traditional publishing look like an old man stuck in a rocking chair. But my bafflement was increased last week when I read an article by Robert Collins in The Sunday Times about the next great novel on the block, A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.
This is a novel that nobody wanted. De La Pava spent three years sending it out to agents and he either got a straight no or they didn’t even bother replying. So he self-published in 2008, expecting it to languish in obscurity as many self-published books do, but through the tenacity of his wife sending out copies to the community of on-line reviewers, the book’s profile began to creep up. One reviewer compared it to Moby Dick, another to Crime and Punishment. Of course the mainstream publishers can spot a ready-made buck when they see it, so it was finally picked up by Chicago University Press and Quercus, and has now won the PEN prize for a debut novel. Collins himself writes that it is ‘remarkable’ and ‘unputdownable’. High praise indeed.
There have always been stories about the problems of getting published, how difficult it is for agents/publishers to spot a really great book, and how even then all the elements have to be perfect with the stars aligned and the perfect combination of cappuccinos and muffins at the acquisition meeting for them to actually say yes. But it seems to me something else is happening here. With the option of every author to self-publish this has enabled publishers to absolve themselves of actually having contact with new writers until they have created their own success. Self-publishing has become the new slush-pile, and all the hard work has been done for them. The reviews are available to read on-line, the readership is already established, the author’s name can easily be Googled for more information on his/her writing and his/her life.
At the moment, I don’t think anyone knows what this means for books, writers, readers and the publishing industry. There will inevitably be problems along the way, but as I’m ever the optomist I’m hoping this new dynamic will become a revolution in the variety and depth of literature available, a levelling of the playing field for writers, and it may even make the industry less conservative. As I said, I am ever the optimist.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear. All writers need to go out and get themselves a diligent wife, someone to cook the meals while the great masterpiece is being created, and then send it out to the reviewers when the hard work is done. I’ve started looking for mine already…