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Comment from the book world in March 2004

March 2004

'A mere arm of the movie industry'

29 March 2004

'My experience has demonstrated that it is wrong to think that bigness is better. Carried aloft by robust Christmas sales in 2003, many American publishing houses seem, as of this writing, to have had respectable years, but the wild success of a few mega bestsellers does not obscure the dire condition of literary fiction, not to mention poetry. While scribblers like Dan Brown or James Patterson can, with one novel, rack up sales in the millions, it is not uncommon for noted literary novelists to sell between 3,000 and 6,000 copies of their latest work. Selling 10,000 books in this climate would be a resplendent success. These kinds of alarming sales figures are prompting more publishers to weigh whether they should concentrate on 'airport books' alone...

The equation is simple: A large advance, at least six figures, is required for a book to be taken seriously. As a result, the book proposal becomes the almighty determinant of a book's success -- especially for the works of nonfiction, which I primarily edit. Indeed, a trend has emerged in which proposals are 'gussied up'-- repolished and rewritten -- often by people other than the actual author. This often means that months or years later, hapless editors may be confronted with a manuscript that bears little relation to the proposal.

If publishing is to save itself from being a mere arm of the movie industry, executives must realize that they cannot divine a book's success through money tendered at contract time.'

Robert Weil, Norton editor, in Washington Post Book World

'A wildly unfair anachronism'

22 March 2004

'There are three essential components in making a book available to the public: the author, the publisher and the bookseller. There are, increasingly, endless hired hands in the interstices, including agents, paper makers, binders, printers, wholesalers, internet booksellers, book clubs and so on. But fundamentally there is the author and those who exploit (sell) his or her work and, as more and more of the latter thrust their oars in, the less the author seems to receive.

It might reasonably be construed that everyone makes or stands to make money out of "the book" - other than the author.

Is this fair? ...

Instead of agents arguing with publishers about percentages received subject to discounts given to book retailers (over which agents and authors have no control) authors should henceforth be paid an actual sum of money per book sold...

The time-honoured device of royalties to an author being expressed as a percentage of different discounts worked well in a different era. It has become a wildly unfair anachronism in our new century.'

The late Giles Gordon, whose memorial service was held last week, in the Bookseller

'What is fiction for?'

15 March 2004

'A story of two airliners, commandeered by flying-school novices armed only with box cutters, smashing into the World Trade Centre in the war against the great Satan is too far-fetched. A swaggering President telling a fearful nation "We're going to get these folks," is the stuff of schlock.

Literary fiction is simply not equipped for the story of the hanging chads and the helpful brother in Florida. Halliburton and the gnomic sayings of Mr Rumsfeld are beyond make-believe...

Maybe the final question is: what is fiction for? Kafka came closest when he said it should be an axe to smash the frozen sea within us. There may be a good case that there is something too absurd and frightening and paradoxical and banal about modern politics for it to translate into fiction.' Tania Kindersley, author of Nothing to Lose, in The Times

'Digging down into the past'

8 March 2004

'I had the idea right from the beginning about digging down into the past and that, unless you have come to terms with the past, confronted it honestly, you can't move forward.' Her books are about 'people edging towards salvation, wisdom - understanding the meaning of their lives. I want to talk about what it's like to be alive for all of us, and all the great questions. I'm interested in what it's like to be a woman, a mother, a friend, a lover, to fear, to hope, to love.'

Rose Tremain in an interview with Dominic Bradbury in The Times about her new novel The Colour.

'It's the story, stupid'

1 March 2004

'I think I'm a storyteller rather than a writer. The difference is that with me the story comes first, rather than the literature. When people go on about literacy and why children are put off books, and they can't quite grasp why children don't love spelling and punctuation, you have to point out that what they're missing is that it's the story, stupid. The story has to come first, it's the heart of the thing. And then, of course, there's the telling of it, which is the literature.'

Michael Morpurgo, the new Children's Laureate in Publishing News