Commercial vs. literary considerations in publishing

In the London Review of Books, Thomas Jones deplores the increasing shift in publishing toward commercial considerations and away from literary ones, suggesting that trying to predict the next best-seller is a bit of a loser’s game anyway:

The habit of dousing untried writers in money doesn’t do anyone any favours. It makes sense that first books, especially first novels, receive relatively modest advances, and that the sums increase as the author establishes a growing readership with each successive book. But too often the reverse happens. The advances that some of the most likely looking first-time writers get today are pretty much guaranteed to lose the publisher money: indeed, there are agents who believe they’ve failed if a book earns out its advance. The first novel not having done as well as it was unreasonably expected to, the publisher is then reluctant to spend as generously, if at all, on the second. This is no way to ‘nurture talent’, one of the things publishers are supposed to do. It’s hard to believe that, not so many decades ago, Jonathan Cape, on receiving the manuscript of Norman Lewis’s fifth novel, wrote to Lewis thanking him and saying that the book was ‘very promising’. Not even first novels are touted as merely ‘promising’ these days, though that’s inevitably what most of them are, at best.

Jones goes on to call Penguin’s Good Booking campaign “grotesquely undignified” and “a waste of time, effort and money.”


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