There’s an interesting piece in today’s Guardian CiF by Mark Lawson. Entitled How fiction lost the plot, it looks at the presumed sorry state of modern fiction publishing and runs through the usual suspects: cliquishness, discrimination, book prize juries descending to compromise. In the end, though, he pinpoints the failure of the public library system to support literary fiction, devoting its shelves to DVDs and Citizens Advice Bureau pamphlets rather than novels. Books that were once guaranteed a thousand hardback sales now languish in warehouses and, finally, remainder book stores, assuming they’re published at all.
I’ve always been too much of a hoarder to feel happy about borrowing books, though I valued the opportunity the British Council library in Rome once gave me to sample writers I couldn’t afford to buy in the pre-Amazon days when imported books cost the earth. The only person I know who consistently used a library is Jane, who went to the public library in Mare Street, Hackney, at least once a week. She now buys her books almost exclusively from the new and extremely well-stocked Oxfam book shop on Dalston Road. This is great for her and, of course, for Oxfam, particularly as she regularly re-donates the books to the shop. It’s less great for the author and publisher, of course, as the copy has already been sold further up the line, although I’ve often found that a book bought in a charity shop leads on to other works by the same author being bought from retail booksellers, much as downloaded music, in my case at least, leads on to the purchase of a legitimate CD.
Lawson concludes by saying that the success or failure of a book now depends on the vagaries of judging panels. My editor confided in me that prizes can actually make very little difference to sales, and can even have a deleterious effect on them if the effect of the prize is to provoke spitefulness among the winner’s rivals and peers. It’s also true, though, that a book with a very low profile indeed can’t help but benefit from a little attention. I’m obviously thinking about Little Monsters, for which no longlist is too long, no recognition too abject. I remember, some years ago, Hari Kunzru turning down a prize from the Daily Mail and wondering at the time if I’d have his moral integrity. Well, I don’t wonder any longer. I haven’t.
A couple of last thoughts. One comment was left by someone who published a first novel but had the second one turned down as being ‘not good enough’. Gulp. Another contains a link to someone who failed to find a publisher at all and took to droplifting his novel. Droplifting involves leaving copies of the book in booksellers. The piece is entertaining, thought-provoking and worth a read.
PS Pansies, as you know, was the title of DH Lawrence’s best known collection of poems. It doesn’t refer to flowers, and it certainly doesn’t refer to the morally disordered (pace JP2), but is derived from the French pensées – thoughts which, according to Lawrence, come “as much from the heart and the genitals as from the head.” In other words, I’m rambling.