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RANDOM PENGUIN -WHY BIGGER DOES NOT MEAN BETTER

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Posted on: 30 October 2012

 

  BIGGER DOES NOT MEAN BETTER
 
Like a lot of authors, I am not feeling happy about the proposed merger between two giant publishing houses, Penguin and Random House. Despite an email from somebody so senior I had (naturally) never heard of him attempting to reassure me that this was a good move, which would be beneficial to authors, I could only think of the last time a Leviathan was created – in the case of Random House itself.
I still remember being taken by my publicist into the shiny new offices by Victoria and shown where all the proud old imprints which ad once had their own buildings were now shoved, like so many battery chickens.
“Chatto & Windus have two budgies called Chatto and Windus,” she said, disapprovingly. “I don’t think they realise that publishing isn’t about individuality any more.”
No, I thought, but writing is. Even if a proportion of modern publishing profitability is concerned with thinking up commercial ideas and getting some celebrity into harness with a hack to write up a “property”, the kind of book that makes publishers millions is, like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey, a freak produced by somebody glueing their bum to a chair for many months and letting their imagination out to play. You may not like the result – and having read Fifty Shades, I can say unequivocally that I don’t – but it isn’t something produced by a corporation.
One of the things I especially liked about this year’s Booker short-list was that it reasserted the belief in the novel as an art form. It was no surprise to find that three of the books short-listed had been rejected by the big publishers – and alas also by the more art-house kinds – and produced by tiny imprints. Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home only saw light of day three years after completion because And Other Stories raises a subscription for each novel it publishes. When I finally got round to reading it earlier this month, I was astounded. Ten years ago, a novel of Levy’s quality would have had no difficulty in being picked up by, say, Picador or Granta. It is beautifully-written, suspenseful, intelligent and packed with the feeling of other people’s lives. Today, the literary writer has had to resort to the same device as the eighteenth-century novelist. I dread to think how many other novels of real interest and worth are now not seeing light of day. Pat Ferguson, whose new novel The Midwife’s Daughter has now been published by, yes, Penguin, and serialised earlier this month for Book at Bedtime, had over a decade of this kind of thing, with the tiny independent Solidus keeping her work in print; only the Orange Prize long-listing kept excellent novels such as Peripheral Vision from disappearing altogether. Lionel Shriver’s outstanding novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which became a bestr-seller after it won the Orange and which was also made into a first-rate film, only found a publisher in Serpent’s Tail. I can think of half a dozen other good novelists whose work has been rejected by everyone for no very obvious reason. Are publishers now wholly in thrall to their accountancy departments? Do they not dare take even one punt – the punt which makes publishing a genuinely creative and innovative profession rather than a purely mechanistic one?
As a critic, I get sent hundreds of books for both children and adults, 99% of which are dreadful beyond description. They are books written without an iota of flair, craft or passion, churned out to feed readers who, presumably, exist even if one never sees them reading. It’s a mystery to me why these books are published and other good ones aren’t. But as the big fish swallow each other and diminish the variety and vigour of what is published, I think those of us who love books have every reason to be concerned.

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Comments

At 09:58:18 on 30 October 2012,  Lucy Coats wrote:

Thank you, Amanda. The Time of the Leviathan, with its seven heads and ten crowned horns, is upon us as far as publishing is concerned. All we authors can do is try and weather the tidal wave it (and others like it) will create. I fear that much good writing will be either drowned or swept away. And that's quite enough apocalyptic metaphor for today.

At 18:24:36 on 30 October 2012,  Amanda wrote:

 Yes, it does feel Apocalyptic doesn''t it?

I don''t want to see publishers as our enemies - they tend to be decent people, at least in private. But the relentless grinding of the machine pulverises too many.

At 10:34:25 on 30 October 2012,  Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow wrote:

I agree that writing is about individuals. I think that there are real opportunities in these days of mergers for publishers with their own voice, with a distinctive personal taste, and with the ability to treat authors as individuals to shine. Many - but not all - of these publishers are small and independent. I wrote about what what I see as the advantages of being published by a small publisher vs a big publisher in this blog post: http://nosycrow.com/blog/small-publishers-v-large-publishers-which-is-best

At 01:37:20 on 02 November 2012,  Sue Guiney wrote:

Excellent review of the situation, and a keen analysis. My heart sank when I read about the merger, but to be honest, it was all too dismal to take the time to find the words to explain why. I'm glad you did. As an indie writer myself I have often been asked why I'm not "trying" to find a home for my novels in one of the Big 6 houses (or is it now Big 5?). But I know I am fortunate to have a publisher at all, and especially fortunate to have one who champions my work in all its forms. Maybe if I could write thrillers or murder mysteries or whatever is the latest craze (ie erotica) I would be with some other publisher. But a writer writes what he/she writes, and my work just isn't ultra-commercial. What keeps me buoyed up, though, is the response of the readers that I do have, who may not number in the tens of thousands, but do number in the many hundreds. Sorry to waffle on like this, but in case other writers of literary fiction are reading this, I guess I'm just here to say that there is another route, and one you can be proud to be a part of. Thanks.

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