McCrum On Originality In Publishing Today

“How can good new writers be published when the industry is ruled by people who aren’t interested in originality?”

This is the question posed by Robert McCrum in an article entitled, Stop the bean-counters ruling the fiction roost on the Guardian.co.uk this morning. He recounts a personal tale of a new author’s attempts to place a novel with several large publishers. McCrum’s conclusions are that the all-powerful pen of the editor at large publishing houses is no more, and the real literary gatekeepers are now the sales and marketing departments, guided by the mighty pound and dollar.

“In the past month, I have had conversations with the CEOs of two conglomerates in which both have complained bitterly about the difficulty of launching new talent. Yet everyone knows that fiction is what the reading public wants, that fiction can become really commercial. You can lose your shirt on it, but you can also laugh all the way to the bank.”

There may be great weight in McCrum’s opinions about large publishing houses slamming their doors in the faces of new and original voices in fiction, but there are greater reasons beyond commercial profit and realism which has taken us to where publishing is today. Agents shopping typescripts around the houses in an effort to deliver the highest bid have contributed to advances being paid to authors far beyond the true sales and market potential of the published book. This has led to the greater proportion of books never earning out their advances in royalties. Perhaps if the sales and marketing departments of large publishers had shown the caution they so positively exude now – the cheque book would long have been snapped from the hands of acquisition editors and we would not be in this sorry mess.
This is one of the reasons at the start of this year I suggested the publishing industry needs to seriously consider a publishing model which does not pay advances – certainly not on works of fiction. There is a case for an advance on the costs of research and resources for an author writing a book of non-fiction. Independent publishers have long worked out that they cannot compete on every level with large publishers and consequently examined their models of business and development strategy far closer. What this means is independent publishers are quicker to embrace digital print and ebook advances, revise contract agreements and offer authors better royalty percentages and more involvement in the promotion and marketing of a book.
As some commentators to McCrum’s article have also pointed out, there is also an onus on reviewers, newspaper arts editors and the wider media to place more focus on books from independent and self-published authors. Worthy original voices are consistently published from these areas of the publishing industry, while the voices from genre fiction published by the large publishing houses seems to become less common and distinctive by the day as editors and marketing departments slavishly look to follow the template and trend which results in bookshops filled with shelves and shelves of formulaic fictional offerings.

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