The Book of Dust

Delighted to learn from the Guardian that Philip Pullman is to publish a new trilogy set in the same context and with some of the characters from his earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. The new trilogy will be entitled The Book of Dust and the first volume is due out in October 2017. Looking forward to rediscovering more of the magic and the thought-provoking writing of Pullman.

If it fits in a box, sell it!

In an article published Oct. 11th entitled Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss, the Guardian quotes Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, as stressing the need for greater diversity in the origins of books being published.

While I hail the call for diversity championed by Penguin Random House in their new #WriteNow project, it seems to put people into recognisable boxes the same way the industry has done with the books it publishes. Just like sci-fi, fantasy, crime, YA, etc are convenient saleable categories, so LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, ethnic minorities) or people with disabilities are also marketable packages.

The Guardian article recognises that it is not because you are black or from Scunthorpe that you necessarily have to write in a way that is directly identifiable with your origins or ethnic background. In other words, it is the writer that fits the category and not the writing. Although the journalist does underline that origins will necessarily influence the writing, suggesting a coherence between an author’s books and her origins. In addition, Weldon insists that such a shift in policy will require a change in staff, no longer requiring employees to be university graduates and reflecting the type of authors being targeted.

But what of those who don’t fit into categories? Those whose identity lies in straddling boundaries. Those for whom convenient boxes are a nightmare everyone tries to shoehorn them into. Those who are subsequently rejected because they don’t fit other people’s categories. Those strange people who can’t do otherwise than flirt with limits and often suffer greatly for it. Their necessary fluidity, what is seen as a stubborn refusal to fit, makes others uncomfortable if not angry. Yet it is these misfits, in daring to stray beyond the confines of rigid communities and god-given categories, that afford the possibility of change and innovation for everybody.

The role of the editor

The Art of Editing is an interesting podcast from the Guardian in its books series that is well worth listening to. For someone who lives abroad in voluntary linguistic exile, like myself, the mix of voices and the variety of accents is refreshing; so unlike the schooled tones of BBC Radio Four news programmes or the seasoned actors who narrate the audiobooks I enjoy so much. 

Particularly of interest in this podcast is the idea that a multiple skill set is required of editors these days that goes well beyond what was traditionally seen as an editor’s role, i.e. getting the manuscript of a book into shape for publishing. The podcast hints at the historical evolution of such work. With this expanding role of editors, not all have the various skills necessary from that skill set. 

This dilemma can be found in many other professions where a move away from specialisation requires the individual to be proficient in a range of skills, even when those skills don’t necessarily fit together. An author, for example, is nowadays expected to also be a saleswoman, a marketing specialist, a public speaker and a businesswoman. Yet running after an audience is time consuming, and shifts an author’s preoccupations away from words and story and characters, making inspirational writing all the more difficult. Why? Because such writing requires the author to plunge herself in the world she is creating. Business and marketing are unwelcome distractions. This move away from specialisation and the demands placed on the individual to master a multitude of skills invariably leads to frustration and a loss of quality.

Perching on the publishing pinnacle

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Yesterday I attended Polly Nolan’s workshop organised by SCBWI Switzerland at the International School in Lausanne. Polly Nolan (photo above with Joy Manne) is a literary agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.  The detailed portrait that Polly gave of the publishing process and how that could affect the would-be writer was stimulating. Her answers to our many questions were clear and coherent but also often heartfelt. At the same time, the goals and limitations of the mainstream publishing process portrayed were challenging for me as an author.

As I struggle to make sense of what I heard (and felt), one thing is clear – and excuse me for stating the self-evident – despite Polly’s refusal of the word ‘product’ for a book, the publishing industry is about selling and preferably selling big. The more time goes on, the bigger the targets the industry sets, the higher the returns they expect. Although clearly many of the books chosen for publishing will only reach middling results, the bar below which a book is deemed a failure continues to rise.

Those of us who write novels in the hope of getting published via traditional channels might do well to factor that quest for blockbuster success into our plans and dreams. It colours not only the types of books publishers are prepared to take a risk on, but also the way they are written. It was personally reassuring to hear Polly insist that a good story will always win out. My whole quest in writing is about telling a story as best I can. But in terms of form and length as well as in terms of content, not to mention personal taste, the criteria for what constitutes a successful book limit the story that can be told and the form it can take.

Despite the growing interest in alternative channels of publishing, traditional book publishing is still viewed as the pinnacle would-be authors should aspire to. All print media and most on-line review sites refuse to review indie or self-published authors. While this may be essentially aimed at stemming the overwhelming tide of submissions, it also tacitly reinforces the vision that only those who traditionally publish their book are worthy of interest. But then media and most review sites are also driven by readership and ratings and big numbers.

If the threshold of success continues to rise for the publishing industry, the author has to ask herself what level of ‘success’ suits her. The video artist Bill Viola talking about installations said that they were never complete without a spectator standing in the middle of them. As authors, we clearly want to be read. I certainly do. I write stories for people to read. Apart from those who aspire to or dream of making a full-time living out of writing novels, us other authors need to ask ourselves what is our measure of success and how (and if) we can reach that, including whether the effort required is such that it causes us to cease writing.

In writing all this, I in no way seek to demonise traditional publishing, but rather, thanks to Polly’s presentation, try to see it for what it is and what it can do (or not) for me as an author. As I raise the question of what size readership will satisfy an author’s need to be read, a more fundamental question arises: in a society that increasingly measures all value in terms of monetary considerations, what financial return should an author legitimately expect from her work?