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The State of the Novel   (October 9, 2007)

Today I reprint an essay on book publishing by Martin Shepard, who with his wife Judith own and operate The Permanent Press, the small publishing house which published my novel I-State Lines. If you have ever wondered why the book industry seems declining or sickly, this insightful essay is a real eye-opener.

The State of the Novel by Martin Shepard

When we started publishing 27 years ago, editors at major publishing houses seemed to hold the balance of power in deciding what books to take on, which allowed editors to pick books they loved to read. But over the years that balance has shifted. Loving a book is not enough, for todayís conglomerates insist on taking books they believe can make money. Their choices of what to publish are dictated, ultimately, by salesmen--by in-house salespersons and/or Barnes & Noble buyers, who vet titles they feel have limited sales potential.

The problem with this shift, as it concerns the novel in particular, is not conducive to the promotion of fine fiction despite the fact that exceptional books do still appear. Nor is it a good thing for a gifted novelist who fails to make a big impact with his or her first or second book.

Weíve sold reprint rights over the years to books weíve published in hardcover, with the authors then advancing to more lucrative contracts for their next books with the hardcover arm of the acquiring paperback house. And while their new novels continued to receive wonderful reviews, they failed to sell the required number of copies to turn a profit (usually a minimum of 10,000 books). After one or two such efforts they rarely receive another contract from a major house and have little choice but to return to us or another small press because the verdict is in: they are deemed not profitable.

One gifted writer I know got around this problem by changing his name, submitting his fifth book as a 'first novel' to one of the majors, and got the deal his talent deserved. Had Barnes & Noble reported back on his earlier sales figures to his new publisher, he would most likely not have gotten the contract he received.

Since we have no sales force and donít consult with Barnes & Noble, Judy--my wife and co-publisher--can only publish books we like to read. Corporate publishers assume to know the reading tastes of the general public. We operate on the assumption that if we like to read a book, there are others like us out there that represent a decent potential audience.

Iíll gladly admit that their operating model may be superior to ours. But how, then, does one account for the ever shuffling job-scene at the top, where senior editorial and marketing people are let go by one house because of 'poor performance' and are then picked up by others? Or the innumerable times that books, which have been passed over by mainstream publishers as unmarketable, break out when, as a last resort, authors or agents run out of options and take these manuscripts to a small press?

It would seem to me that this 'expertise' in determining an audience (and sales) by the chains and sales forces is far from perfect. If these experts were so able, how does one explain the marginal profitability of the industry at all levels? Also, these sorts of assumptions lead, increasingly, to more and more sameness--books that follow a formula, while winnowing out those with something more unique to say.

This impoverishes whatís left of the reading public, for in fiction, at least, they are offered minor variations on the 'lowest-common-denominator-widest-possible-audience' books that tend to overwhelm the marketplace. The consequence, of course, is that this contributes to the dumbing-down of America.

By nature Iím a skeptic and someone whose life has been shaped in part by questioning authority. In the process Iíve come to appreciate that what most often passes for authority is little more than Frank Morgan--a spindly-shanked nondescript everyman--hiding behind the impressive image of the Wizard of Oz. Sadly, the 'authorities'--the movers and shakers of the publishing world--not only affect whatís 'fit to publish,' but these bottom line judgments are antithetical to originality, for they take the 'novel' out of the novel.

For a personal account by a published author on the travails of getting a book in print, I highly recommend Kissing Frogs: The Greatest Risk by author John Joss.

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copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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