Tell It Like It Is is a new column for the blog, featuring Freight employees giving their own views on matters relating to the publishing world. These views are even more personal than the usual personal views being read, and in no way stand for Freight’s philosophy, way of thinking, or direction of movement.
So, A S Byatt has really shaken things up over the last few weeks, hasn’t she. Not in global terms, but in terms relating to the state of publishing in the UK at present. For those of you not keen, interested or inclined to read the London Evening Standard, she said this on the back of only one Briton making it to the shortlist of the inaugural Folio Prize. The Folio Prize, for those of you who don’t know, is a big two-fingered salute to the Booker, in the shape of wad of notes totaling £40 000. No books are submitted to this award. Instead, books are nominated by members of an Academy created expressly for this purpose (Academy does carry a lot of weight, doesn’t it? Sounds like it’s been around for ages[i]) and then the top weighted books are judged by a jury of five, chosen at random from the the Academy.
Now, I know I may already be sounding quite Private Eye about the Folio, and I don’t want to come over all cynical at all, so let us leave it there, and return to some of the things Byatt had to say, because they were interesting.
She queried why UK publishers were not finding writers to match, and warned a concentration on picking up successful self-published titles might be contributing to “dumbing down”.
She said: “I think ebooks and the sort of over excitement about online writing isn’t doing British publishing any good. This might be very good for making money but not for British literature.”
UK literary committees “find things they’re very excited by but are all very depressed by the low standard of most of the work they receive.” Byatt, author of Booker Prize-winning Possession, said she began writing at the same time as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess and William Golding, but “I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.
[All the above is a quote from the Evening Standard Article]
Now, there is quite a lot going on here, but the three main points are, as I see it:
- Self-publishing is bad
- Ebooks are bad
- There just isn’t the same calibre of writers there were back when she started writing.
I think that we can accept her view that ebooks are financially good for publishers, take it as read, and just focus on the gripes. This is not really news, but rather an ongoing saga of despair over the state of our industry, particularly that of Literary fiction. In 2012 Jenny Diski, writing in the LRB, stated that the situation was ‘dire,’ and that the supermarkets (and I think Amazon can be included here) had destroyed the age old model of producing tat in order to afford producing the good stuff[ii].
There are many of these articles (at least one a year), and they all cry doom at every turn. Even when Granta published their list of twenty Best Young British Novelists[iii] there were groans that there weren’t enough native Brits on the list and also/because of this, it just wasn’t as good a list as past years.
So you’d be thinking that things are dire on the talent front, and you’d certainly be right in thinking that things on the selling front haven’t been great, but are things really so dire? Is it all fin de siècle dross? I’d say no. And here is why[iv].
I can’t lie to you. Publishing is currently stable, but it has been contracting in value terms. What has been growing, however, is the number of books people are reading, which is fantastic. That they don’t fancy forking out £7.99 on a paperback of variable physical quality is something I don’t judge them for whatsoever – I often read things on an ereader, usually those books that I wouldn’t care to keep on my bookshelves, and it is brilliant. For the big publishers, declining revenues are hitting profits, which make shareholders stroppy, and so we are seeing mergers a la Penguin Random House, or consolidations of imprints (HarperCollins Group) in an attempt to stick fingers in the dyke. Whether this stops their leaks I don’t know, and neither do I really care. I believe that small units work better, are more flexible, and create more interesting output than larger ones (especially in bookselling – I’d take a Looking Glass Books over a Waterstones any day of the year). For smaller publishers, those who are honoured with an ‘Indy’ tag, there is a different story emerging. They are, on the whole, doing what they do best; growing slowly and working out ways to change. Revenues aren’t enormous (when have they ever been) but they don’t really want that, they just want to be able to afford to produce books they enjoy. Here at Freight, our more interesting titles (or, at least, the ones we see as interesting) are funded by humorous books for the Christmas market. We think this subsidy works well.
This takes us neatly on to Quality. What a tricky definition Quality has, eh? I mean, it is entirely subjective. There are more books being published (be that published traditionally, as ebook only, or self-published, or even scrawled on the wall of a pub in Shawlands) in the UK now than ever before, and probably 90% of these are of little literary merit, because people by and large aren’t interested in reading Ulysses and would rather have a giggle at 50 Shades of Grey. This is for one, very simple reason; that reading, for many people, is a pastime, not an exercise in intellectual betterment[v].
I don’t have any numbers to say whether the quantity of literary fiction is in decline, and I have only my own views on the quality, but I reckon that the quality of the very best, the one percent of authors who will end up being the A S Byatts of the future, is undiminished, and is still going to be published. Whether it gets the press it deserves is another matter. It is my belief that the traditional print media, when not cutting books pages, is too obsessed with covering the latest blockbuster, rather than looking at what is being produced in smaller print runs. This is a huge shame, because blockbuster fiction by its very nature doesn’t need the press, whereas a book by a young debut author really does. It has the secondary impact of concentrating coverage on books published by the big megaliths of publishing, who have advertising budgets anyway. It isn’t the publishers’ fault that A S Byatt or Jenny Diski aren’t reading these great works, it is that they are getting their books suggested from the wrong places. There was an article in the Guardian about the London Review of Books recently, which suggested that it is ‘run by an exclusive coterie of literary-minded north Londoners.’[vi] I think that this is another symptom of the perceived disconnect at work here, one which segues neatly into the grumblings about the Granta young novelists.
The Granta novelists are not coming up through the channels created by our current intelligentsia, and as such are somewhat unknown to them. This is rather revolutionary, but only in that it has happened before and will happen again. They are just the tip of a whole new generation of writers who are emerging because the whole relationship has changed because of the rise of the computer and the explosion of the internet. This is where ebooks and self publishing come in to the mix.Suddenly, and this has never happened before, the nature of writer and reader has changed, because everyone can be an author if they want to. This is simply amazing, and creates a problem for traditional publishers like us at Freight, because we are sent so many manuscripts that it takes us months to get back to authors. This is happening across the board, and is something we have to address collectively, because it comes across as through we are being elitist and superior and just down right snobbish, when we are in fact trying as hard as we can to get everything given a good few readings. In response to our tardiness, authors are going elsewhere, usually to self publish as an ebook, but sometimes to have a go at print publishing too. This does create a situation where there are thousands of books out there that really need a good edit, and there is a certainty that some real literary gems are going to die an early death in the crush, but I think that this was ever thus, only on a smaller scale.
The obvious thing to say in the face of all this noise is that, ‘people should be going down the correct channels, that is what a publisher is for blah blah blah’ but that is reactionary, and what we need to do is evolve, maybe even specialise[vii]. We need to get better, not get cross, but it will take more time, and more effort, to catch up.
Our role as publisher is to provide a service that takes a manuscript and does more with it than could be done if it were self-published. It is not a favour, and we should not expect authors to be grateful. That is something at odds with traditional publishing, and until we tackle the perceived elitism things will only get harder for our industry.
Ebooks are not an enemy to publishing, and certainly aren’t creating a watering down of quality in terms of literary fiction. Ebooks can and will become the haven for two specific types of literatures; those that would today be printed as mass market paperbacks, and the truly visionary literary fiction that is important because of its brilliance, but which would be hard to give traction to on the shop floor in a print format. There is no reason why that sort of book would not do well on ebook, and as a result of that make it into print. The electronic world can be an important proving ground, a place for us to explore innovation and new ways of doing things. There is one other reason why I am happy that ebooks are doing so well, and that is that at least people are still reading books, rather than playing Angry Birds (I know that happens too, but the time is divided), and without the ebook they would not have access to literature in a format that we are all using day in day out.
I haven’t written this much in one go since I wrote essays, and can only hope that I have put forward the argument I was meaning to. Perhaps the subject was too great to tackle all at once, or perhaps I have succeeded. Either way, with luck you will have a glimpse of why I am so certain that A S Byatt is wrong, and that there is still great literature out there, and will be for many years to come.
[i] It is perhaps amusing, considering the nature of the word Academy, that the prize launched as ‘The Booker without the bow ties’
[ii] I’m being overly harsh. The article is a good one, and can be read for free here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n01/jenny-diski/short-cuts
[iv] For much of the following article, I will be responding to, enlarging on and occasionally stealing ideas that arose in a debate I took part with BTL in the Guardian a couple of days ago, which you can find here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/12/as-byatt-uk-fiction-open-thread
[v] This is entirely subjective – I know that I read literary fiction to explore and expand my mind and horizons, and it is not what I reach for when I want a few pages of something before I fall asleep. You may have different views. If so, please don’t keep them to yourselves.
[vii] Though not specialise to the point where we become the equivalent of giant pandas, who have effectively evolved themselves out of existence. Follow-up material on this can be found by searching for Panda Reproductive Problems, Why Pandas Have The Teeth Of A Carnivore, and Nutritional Content of Bamboo. They aren’t making things easy for themselves.