Sometimes a thought arrives by a very circuitous route: this one started with reading ‘Lancashire Life’, one of those glossy mags that abound in England and mirror the lives of that tiny fraction of the population that can afford what lies within. As I am not one of that tiny fraction, I bought a copy last month because they were running a review of my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ and I was chuffed and curious. The book page was at the back and what struck me as I leafed through to find it was the number of advertisements for wedding venues, bridal shops, ‘mother-of-the bride’ shops and so on. This in turn prompted memories of some recent family weddings where the purpose of the exercise seemed to have been lost in a morass of unnecessary and costly rituals, mostly imported from the US. That experience, reinforced by the countless wedding industry adverts made me wonder, yet again, about what drives people to want what others have, and to do what others do, rather than stick to what they feel comfortable with. Why do we ape others rather than represent our true selves?
The more I see of the publishing industry, the more of a ‘business’ and less of a creative enterprise it seems to be, at least currently. My impression is that the current obsession with ‘fads’ is relatively recent, probably since the acquisition of money to stay afloat in troubled times became the main imperative. Editors and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of quality in this enterprise. Their role has been replaced by the agent, a mediator between the writer and her means of public expression, who lives by taking a percentage of the writer’s earnings. If your livelihood depends on the certainty of financial success, and the people you are selling to are also risk-averse, all of you are intensely concerned with finding books that will sell big and sell fast, creating and then riding a public wave which is powerful but transient, a wave to be surfed not a long-distance ocean swell.
This is the breeding ground of trends, fads, fashion, whatever term you choose. Everyone in the book business is now on the look out for sure things, and the only evidence they have to use is the last sure thing. If we analyse what made the last successful book popular and replicate it, then we might catch the wave before it fades and make some money. The problem for books is that they cannot, or should not, be written fast. If you want to catch the wave, you haven’t got time for a book to be written. Instead you go yet again through the pile of stuff you already have, looking for the desired combination of criteria. Speed is of the essence. No time to read more than a chapter or two, if that. Agents talk constantly about ‘falling in love’ with a book as their only criterion for choosing one book over another. This has to be a ‘coup de foudre’ not a long, measured appreciation. Quick flick: does it have the necessary genre features that the last best-seller had? Does it fit the bill? Is the author photogenic and have a good story? Can we sell this big and fast? If so, let’s go. If not, throw it back onto the ever-mounting slush pile.
I know it’s not as simple as this, but to someone on the outside of the conventional book business looking in, this is how it feels. Writing and publishing a book, like planning a wedding, can be an expression of your approach to life and your individual values. Or it can be a way of demonstrating how fashion conscious and competitive you are. The big fashionable wedding will get into the glossy magazines, where the wedding planners’ choices and expenses will be scrutinised by others. And the publishers’ choice of a handful of manuscripts, which are then lavished with expensive editorial and promotional support, will get noticed by the book business cogniscenti, which then adds to the hype and presumably increases sales. Fads and fashions create a barrier between the ‘in-crowd’ and the ‘out-crowd’: the in-crowd are necessarily and frenetically peer conscious and competitive, while self-publishing outsiders like myself are free to follow our own paths with some chance of staying true to ourselves.