When we last checked in on the tattered integrity of the publishing industry, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Review of Books, was reminding us that good writers will never need to self-publish:
Our thinking, which may be old-fashioned, is that with so great a volume of books being published each year by traditional publishers, and with so many imprints available, every book of merit is almost certain to find a home at one or another of those presses.
It would be a fallacy to suggest that all books published by mainstream publishers are works of merit, and someone with Sam Tanenhaus’s privileged industry access would never suggest otherwise. Rather, he’s simply asserting that there are no self-published works of merit anywhere in the known universe, and never will be.
I was reminded of this bit of expert analysis recently while reading about the first novel written by the Kardashian sisters, apparently in tag-team fashion:
“As wild as our real lives may seem on TV, just wait to read what we’ve dreamed up to deliver between the covers of our first novel,” Kourtney, Kim and Khloé said in a statement last week, announcing that William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, would publish a novel they had written.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s unlikely anyone who wrote a train-wreck sentence like that is capable of writing an entire book. But you might also be thinking it’s a bit unfair that the Kardashian sisters have a book deal with HarperCollins, while Sam Tanenhaus is crapping all over your writing life by summarily defining you as a failure because your mother didn’t pimp you out for a TV series.
I’ll admit that at first blush this seems a bit unfair. What you have to remember is that the single most important criterion for publication is celebrity, not writing talent. Still, Mr. Tanenhaus wouldn’t suggest that the Kardashians’ novel has merit, and I’m reasonably confident the Book Review won’t review the work in print — if only to protect its own reputation as a broker of intellectual and artistic celebrity. (Suitably appropriate review here.)
Still, if you aspire to writing quality, it has to be a little galling that the Kardashians have a book deal with a traditional publishing house — the kind of publishing house that, by its very existence, determines literary merit for the New York Times Review of Books — while you can’t get anyone to even look at your work. Well, I’m here to tell you that you are in fact justified in feeling a little bit disrespected by this, because the publishing industry by and large is jerking your chain like a Wall St. banker.
“Publishers are smart enough to cash in where it’s appropriate,” said Ira Silverberg, a literary agent. “The question, I think, for many of us is: Is it simply commerce and we should laugh it off? Or does it take a slot away from a legitimate writer?”
It’s here where Mr. Tanenhaus runs into a bit of a snag in his assertion that all books of merit are published. If it’s true that more and more publishing is being driven by celebrity, and if there’s a finite number of works that publishers can produce each year, then it stands to reason that publishers may have — at least in theory — passed on a few books in recent years that previously might have been stamped with Tanenhaus’s Book-of-Merit seal of approval. Which means, at best, that Mr. Tanenhaus’s lofty standard is in fact regulated on the back end by commercial motives having nothing to do with literary merit, and, at worst, that Mr. Tanenhaus is just another self-serving front man for an industry that talks out of both sides of its mouth.
Which brings us to another subject I’ve talked about before:
There is certainly a wink-wink understanding among publishers, editors and agents that ghostwriters are behind many novels by celebrities, but it is not made clear to readers. Press releases announcing book acquisitions, like the one released by Gallery Books about Ms. Polizzi’s novel, rarely mention that there is another writer.
Not only is it the case that celebrities are often not the authors of the books that bear their name as author, but those same celebrities lie about that fact with the approval of the publishing industry. Yet because you haven’t been published by one of those same publishers you can’t get Sam Tanenhaus to even consider the theoretical possibility that your book might have merit, over and above the fact that the name on the cover is the name of the person who actually wrote the words inside.
— Mark Barrett
Richard Burke says
Interesting article, Mark, and I think you are right on many counts.
My agent once told me that his agency marks potential new writers out of 15. There were 5 marks available for the quality of the book, 5 for whether it was ‘now’ or not (topical, fashionable, etc), and 5 for how marketable the writer was (which is where your point about celebrity comes in).
The kicker was that, out of 15 available marks, a book-and-writer had to get 10 before the agent would even consider signing them. SO, if you weren’t a marketable *person*, the book had to be absolutely perfect and absolutely of the moment.
More significantly, even if you had written a literary masterpiece, it only got you 1/3 of the way to being what the agent considered successful.
Publishers don’t judge the quality of books, they judge what they think will sell. That’s where the money comes from for the whole industry.
I have had two novels published and I’m considering self-publishing my third. But if I was starting out right now? Dunno.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I have no problem with the publishing industry putting profits first. That’s what businesses do. What rankles me is the pretense that quality matters, because it clearly doesn’t. If you’re a celebrity you can not only have your own mangled prose extensively reworked by an “editor”, you can simply omit the first draft and have a ghostwriter do the whole job for you.
By the same token, I think your agent was perfectly justified in using the criteria you describe.
Where I’m tempted to put the whole lot of these people in a blender and press puree is when they assert that nothing good can be written outside their purview. It’s a patently false assertion couched in qualitative terms yet conveniently designed to assert control over the medium and market. No matter how it’s phrased, it’s a lie.