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.
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
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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