Sunday, December 7, 2008
Can Quality Writing Prevail in Publishing Today?
The New York Times’s Timothy Egan complained that Samuel J. Wurtzelbacher, known as "Joe the Plumber" in the current election campaign, has come out with a book. He also mentioned that Sarah Palin may command as much as seven million dollars for a book under her name, although it is clear from her general communiques to the public that she is a hopelessly inadequate writer. However, that never stopped celebrities from "penning" tell-alls.
Egan's complaint is based on some simple painful facts. There are many fine novelists who cannot get agents or publishers, just as there are fine poets and memoirists who have no hope of finding space on bookstore shelves. So many good writers will never command an audience on the scale of fabricated books of the kind Egan condemns that it makes us realize that self-publishing is not just for vanity seekers.
Quality comes in many forms, and right now it is very hard for good writers, writers of literary quality, to place a book with a publisher unless there is some previous media blitz or unless there is some powerful person who can promote the book with a powerful editor. Even some very fine novelists whose early books showed great promise tell me that there is no market for their current work. No commercial press will touch them because the early books did not sell well enough for them to take the risk. Of course one reason they cannot take the risk is that the publishers have lavished advances on non-book books. The result is that writers of quality prose will not have the chance to develop their talent in the open marketplace.
Maybe it has never been much different, but today with fewer "big" publishers and with many editors and support people losing jobs in publishing, things certainly feel different.
The end result is that the idea of founding a publishing house whose mission is to bring out good books that don’t fit the commercial mold seems more and more appealing. Hammonasset House Books is an artists’ cooperative dedicated to publishing a few good books. For people who like good books.