Friday, March 12, 2010

Guardians of Literary Culture? Ha!

Makoto Rich began a recent article in The New York Times, "Book publishers have long seen themselves as the gatekeepers of literary culture."

Book publishers might have seen themselves as gatekeepers of literary culture when Maxwell Perkins was editing Thomas Wolfe, but that was a long time ago. They may still see themselves as such at certain self-congratulatory awards events, but who are they kidding?

Book publishers have always been profit-making enterprises. At one time, if you believe the industry's story, they made enough profit that they could take a chance on a talented unknown author, support him through several money-losing but increasingly assured books, and be rewarded either in profit or literary status or both. Today, I suspect, profit is all. Is there any publisher today who believes it is worth spending the company's money cultivating an author? Is there any editor who would go to his or her publishing committee and say that "this might not be a best seller, but it's a fine book by an author who shows a lot of talent and any house would be proud to publish it."

The irony it seems to me is that while publishers reportedly spend big bucks to buy best selling authors, no one knows what makes a best seller. (Okay, a brand name helps: John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, James Patterson...but how do you become a brand name?) Publisher's Weekly has run year-end review stories about the books publishers flogged enthusiastically that the public just as enthusiastically ignored and the books that took off with virtually no publisher support. Rather than trying to hit a home run (read: publish a best seller) with every manuscript, a publisher would probably be better off trying to hit a lot of singles and doubles, knowing the odds favor an occasional home run.

None of this is to say that if a book is a best seller it cannot be "literary" whatever that means. Nor is it to say that if a book is literary it cannot be popular. It is to say that if a book does not fit into a well-defined niche—mystery, romance, thriller, science fiction, chick-lit, etc., etc.—most publishers don't know what to do with it, and rather than work to find out, it is easier, and certainly cheaper, to pass and literary culture be damned.

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