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'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