Short Cuts

Jenny Diski

A few years ago I taught a writing workshop with a graduate of the UEA creative writing course, who offered very firm advice, such as ‘Always keep the active part of the sentence for the end so that the reader will find it easy to want to read on to the next one.’ It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the main job of a writer. In fact I don’t know how to teach someone to write, although I can make suggestions for improvements to those who can. On another occasion I heard of a novelist who had submitted each chapter of her novel as it was written to a focus group set up by her publisher. She amended her work according to their response. I think this is not all that uncommon. In ‘the real world’, writing to a focus group, or making it a priority to keep it easy for the reader, would be seen as best practice. But I’m stuck on the notion that writers write and readers keep up. Or they don’t. If they keep up they have all manner of opinions, thoughts and discussions about the work; if they don’t keep up, or choose not to, they can stop reading and never bother with that writer again. At the reading end, I’m pretty liberal, do what you like, it’s your book now. But reading comes after writing, and, I’d have said until recently, writing also comes before publishing.

The state of publishing – in particular of the kind of fiction which is politely called ‘literary’, meaning not ‘easy reading’ as in ‘easy listening’, or necessarily story-led, not bestselling before it is published – is dire. I understand that as financial concerns publishers are supposed to make a profit. Further assumptions mysteriously follow this one. I’ve been told quite often, by readers and literature students and some writers, that if a book sells well, it is by definition good. Until recently, there was another model: literary fiction was subsidised by blockbusters. Independent publishers took on writers they knew wouldn’t sell in large quantities because they thought their books ought to be read. They made their money out of the big hitters and felt good about publishing the other stuff. There was a very short period in the 1980s and 1990s when ‘literary’ fiction thrived thanks to the arrival of Waterstone’s, which treated literary fiction like popular fiction, piled it high and sold it in large enough numbers to enable writers to pay their gas bills. Then global businesses started buying up independent publishers, the net book agreement was ditched, and the word was ‘market’ – or ‘supermarket’. Editors might admire a fine book, but are overridden by marketing and accounting departments who now have the final say. I know of a novel that wasn’t accepted by one publisher after the manuscript was first submitted to W.H. Smith, who said that it wouldn’t sell enough.

Deborah Levy has recently had a new novel out, good enough to make you want to read it again as soon as you’ve finished it. Numerous mainstream publishers decided not to take it on because, as she explained, ‘the fear among those who admired it was that Swimming Home was too literary to prosper in a tough economy … to be fair, there was quite a bit of agonising, but in the end Marketing and Sales won the argument.’ One mainstream publisher offered to publish it, but proposed edits designed to improve its market appeal. She decided against it.

Here are two small-scale responses to this. Both work through the internet. Unbound (‘Books are now in your hands’) invites writers to pitch their prospective novels or non-fiction ideas on video and in a couple of paragraphs on their website. So, ‘instead of waiting for [authors] to publish their work, Unbound allows you to listen to their ideas for what they’d like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing.’ And if they don’t, well, there you go, you didn’t bring the market with you. Terry Jones of the Pythons and Tibor Fischer got the 100 per cent support they needed and have already published their books, but at the time of writing Elliott Rose is languishing at 22 per cent and still needs 1438 more pledges in the next 28 days if he’s going to get cracking on Demonica (‘about a beautiful spoilt girl who loses her face in a motorcycle accident, which changes her life for ever’). There are different levels of support: £10 gets you a PDF and your name in the back of the book, while £150 buys you two tickets to the launch, two personally dedicated hardbacks, goody bags and, as with all the other levels, access to the ‘Author’s Shed’, where you get progress updates, interviews and draft chapters of your chosen book.

Unbound suggests itself as a radical move away from commercial publishing, but instead of an alternative, it’s the concentrated essence of marketing. No one is taking any risks or making a leap of faith. This is a crowdsourcing model that is as crowd-pleasing as populist publishing, but on a smaller, safer scale. Readers control what the authors can write. In the past, libraries and bookshops were places you went to to find excitement. The excitement Unbound offers is that of a horse-race with a chance to feel up your horse’s fetlocks before it runs.

And Other Stories, the publisher of Deborah Levy’s novel, is a more interesting response to the commodification of writing. For £20 or £35 you can subscribe to two or all four of the new novels they will publish in the next year. You don’t choose the authors or the books; in fact, you don’t have any idea what they will be publishing. Stefan Tobler started And Other Stories in order to publish an international list of the kind of fiction, both translated and in the original English, which he believes is being rejected by mainstream corporations. The books or manuscripts are suggested by agents, interested members of the public, friends or colleagues, writers themselves; a shortlist is sent out for discussion to reading groups that have been set up around the world. Their thoughts are relayed back to an acquisitions meeting comprising what Tobler calls ‘the core team’, although people on the mailing list are welcome to attend. In the end, Tobler and his colleagues retain editorial choice, and are prepared, after broader consultation, to take a decision based on their own judgments. In much the same way as the old independent publishers.

Subscribers are welcome to participate in the process, but they aren’t putting their money on their favourite. They are staying curious and trusting Tobler and his small team to come up with four books that will engage and surprise them, even perhaps not please them, or maybe, as it was for me with Levy’s book, give them great satisfaction and a sense of relief that the book is there, handsomely designed and well produced, in the world for others to discover.

There is, of course, Kindle publishing, which might allow groups of self-elected readers to purchase and read the books that supermarkets don’t sell, but my guess is that it’s not at all what Amazon and Apple have in mind. The electronic reader is exciting, if only because I can carry all my books around without hiring a mobile library to follow me everywhere. But where one text will do, I really would prefer to have a book in my hands. I doubt that books will disappear, because there will always be outfits like And Other Stories prepared to reconsider the relationship between profit and good writing. Or I hope so.