Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lit v Pop - The Other Half Of The Arse

Interestingly, after my earlier post on Lit V Pop I tonight caught Newsnight's interview with Stephen King who also namechecked Ian McEwan, in a rather unexpected way. According to King, McEwan has had a great deal of trouble being accepted as a 'proper author' in the US because he writes plotted novels with elements of suspense... Mark Lawson, conducting the interview, commented rightly that we in the UK would be surprised as McEwan is considered a literary author here, and King opined that literature is much less of a closed circle in Blighty than it is in the States.

How odd.

The differences between the US and UK literary scenes are matters of regular discussion for myself and my old friend (by which I mean our friendship is old, not her) Nicole, an American living in Canada (or Can-AR-duh as I find it amusing to pronounce) who is also looking for a willing agent. She tells me that US agents actually have word-count restrictions, something that sounds quite bizarre to my ears (especially given the American propensity for wallowing in excessive detail - I'm looking at you, King). Agents in the States regularly discourage anything over 100,000 words, whereas here we have first novels with four-figure page counts (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, to give one splendid example) and think nothing of it.

This is deeply worrying for two reasons. One, the American publishing trade is in a state to which we are headed with alarming speed - the total commodification of literature, the notion that fiction is something sold in pounds and ounces like beef or beans. Britain is not far behind in this, our publishing trade having for the most part narrowed its focus to the guaranteed bestsellers and nothing else. With every round of cost-cutting more midlist authors disappear, and the profitable 'head' of the sales graph shrinks further. If this infernal evolution continues there will be but one publisher for each of the six top authors and nobody else will be able to publish a book, because it just isn't profitable within the broken business model that is modern publishing.

Secondly, this indicates that the Americans are more snobbish than we are about literature.

Just let that sink in for a moment. The Americans are more snobbish about literature than the British.

We're British. We invented snobbery. How can we have let ourselves become so complacent as to let a nation whose collective belief in (a) alien abductions, (b) George W Bush and (c) spray-on cheese as a genuine form of sustenance makes the Church of Scientology look like a bunch of egalitarian individualists overtake us in the arbitrary definition of non-U?

Taking deep breaths and leaving point two aside, publishing looks to be in a sorry state if American agents think no publisher will buy a book by a first-time novelist that's more than 100,000 words long. That is taking the economy drive a little too far, and smacks of desperation. The truly stupid thing is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, this is a reaction to Amazon - a business that succeeds on the strength of the long tail, not the guaranteed blockbusters. The bricks-and-mortar bookstores are trying to compete with a superior apple salesman by only selling oranges and this is quite, quite insane.

The only solution is large-scale, far-reaching change in the book industry. I would love to see a delocalised network of publishers' databases (let's call it the BookCloud) holding all the books they publish in digital form, and stores with on-site POD facilities printing the ones that readers want to buy. Then the publishers can concentrate on marketing the ones they see doing well, while the rest of the world's authors happily sell a scant dozen copies a year without costing their publisher anything. Publishers would try to attract authors, instead of actively beating them off with the proverbial shitty stick. Customers would get a wider choice. Stores could fulfill any order no matter how outlandish in a matter of moments, and could focus on selling instead of messing about with absurd returns deals only necessary due to the antiquated print-and-pulp mechanic of Olde-Worlde publishing.

The BookCloud is probably at least twenty years away and at least half the major publishers will go bust rather than move with the times (including at least one major book chain in this country), but it's the only avenue left in the digital age. And with every book being nothing more than whirling bits and bytes until a customer, Schroedinger-like, makes it solid with their choice, the question of who is pop and who is lit will be more definitively moot than ever.

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