We know how fashion works in clothes. Someone – usually one of the big fashion houses – decides that the coming season’s colour will be ‘ecru’ or orange, or whatever. Or that women’s hemlines will be high or low, trousers wide or narrow, or whatever. The new ‘look’ is pored over by the fashion writers and ready-to-wear clothes manufacturers and the word goes down the supply chain: after a few weeks the shops are full of the latest look, and the sale rails full of last year’s stuff.
The more I listen to agents and publishers talk about the book business, the more parallels I can see. I used to think that what mattered was ‘quality’ and all would be clear when I understood what ‘quality’ really meant. Old and cynical as I am, I wonder if the real ‘quality’ that creates and perpetuates the fads and fashions of the book business is mostly about money. There are two levels, it seems to me. First there is the definition of quality that engenders a Booker Prize shortlist, for example, which in turn guarantees relatively healthy sales. And then there are the outsiders, who for whatever ‘unliterary’ reasons are picked as potential best sellers and hyped vigorously enough to make them so. Different definitions of ‘quality’ apply to these two categories. Let’s face it, some of the ‘bestsellers’ are pretty bad by any literary standard, but if they boost the finances of a hard-pressed publishing house, who really cares? The publisher of the ghastly Dan Brown, for example, could brag to his/her peers about sales figures however embarrassed he/she should be about the absence of any literary merit. It’s like admiring Donald Trump just because thousands of people turn up to hear him ‘speak’.
Once a ‘best-seller’, however poor, has established itself the rush is on to replicate it as quickly as possible. If it’s an 800 page doorstop that’s what we’ll see more of; if it’s ‘chick-porn’ there’ll be more, God help us. If the hero is a dysfunctional depressive alcoholic similar miserable protagonists will rise up everywhere: the next fad has been established and the bandwagon rolls on again down a different track.
There will be exceptions, of course, but not too many as the financial risk is now too great. No wonder finding an agent feels like such a lottery, and the criteria remain notoriously vague. The book business seems to demand that the agent finds a few offerings from the thousands on offer that resonate with current fads, has a good look at the ‘marketability’ of the writer as well as their work, and brokers a deal with the publisher in terms of potential sales. The publisher then invests as much as possible in promotion, persuades the other authors in their ‘stable’ to write the come-on reviews, and prays they’ve backed a winner.
Tell me I’m wrong about this. Persuade me that the book business is not dominated by fads and fashion. Please. In the meantime, writers can avoid the whole sorry business and have the guts to publish their own work, which can hardly be worse than some of the stuff that makes it through the commercial publishing process.