We’re Sorry. This Book is too Well Written for us.

Steve Almond has a future-of-publishing piece up on The Rumpus, touching on what it's like dealing with an agent who says your novel is “too literary” for today’s market, and on why he self-published his collection This Won't Take a Minute, Honey --

“I was cool with Harvard Bookstore selling it. But other than that, Minute, Honey is available only at readings. My reasoning is pretty simple: I want the book to be an artifact that commemorates a particular human gathering, not a commodity.”

Recently I read Josh Lukin's “Minnesota Review” interview with Samuel R. Delany, Asked why he advises younger authors nowadays to consider self-publishing, Delany provides some perspective on the collapse of the publishing industry --

“When there was a greater variety of commercial publishers and more economic competition between them, self-publishing was a way to avoid competition. It announced that you couldn't take the heat. That's why I advised against it, back then. At that point, nobody really took self-published writers seriously. Self-publishing was for books such as Thoughts of God, by John Francis, Forty Years a Backwoods Doctor, or (the title is Auden's) A Poultry Lover's Jottings.”

“Today, the collapse not only means that there's no real economic competition, but the kinds of things that publishers are looking for have changed. Commercial publishers today are far more distrustful of good writing than they have ever been before, and usually won't consider it unless it comes with some sort of ready-made reputation or gimmick. In the last half dozen years, writers have shown me rejection letters from publishers such as Harcourt Brace that actually say, under the letterhead, 'We're sorry. This book is too well written for us.' This means that competition is of an entirely different order than it was, say, thirty years ago, when such a letter simply would not have been written.”

I find this state of affairs easier to accept intellectually than I do emotionally – which I guess just goes to show that taboos die hard. Delany notes in About Writing that Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Crane, Raymond Roussel, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all self-published notable works -- “But that is only to say that, for them, the competition began after publication, not before.” Which is part of why it's disingenuous of Almond to deny that This Won't Take a Minute, Honey is a commodity.

I'll be reading at Why There Are Words tonight (Thursday February 11th 2010) at Studio 333, 333 Caledonia Street, Sacramento, along with Stephen Elliott, Joan Frank, Tanya Egan Gibson, Lauren Becker, and Judy French.

1 thought on “We’re Sorry. This Book is too Well Written for us.”

  1. cotton headed ninny muggins

    Read Jacob Epstein in the NYRB http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23683
    on backlist as vital annuty:

    "… Without the contents of our libraries—our collective backlist, our cultural memory—our civilization would collapse.
    By the mid-Eighties I had become aware of the serious erosion of publishers' backlists as shoals of slow-moving but still viable titles were dropped every month. There were two reasons for this: a change in the tax law that no longer permitted existing unsold inventory to be written off as an expense; but more important, the disappearance as Americans left the cities for the suburbs of hundreds of well-stocked, independent, city-based bookstores, and their replacement by chain outlets in suburban malls that were paying the same rent as the shoe store next door for the same minimal space and requiring the same rapid turnover.
    This demographic shift turned the book business upside down as retailers, unable to stock deep backlist, now demanded high turnover, often of ephemeral titles. Best-selling authors whose loyalty to their publishers had previously been the norm were now chips in a high-stakes casino: a boon for authors and agents with their nonrecoverable overguarantees and a nightmare for publishers who bear all the risk and are lucky if they break even. Meanwhile, backlist continued to decline. The smaller houses, unable to take these risks, merged with the larger ones, and the larger ones eventually fell into the arms of today's conglomerates…"

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