A friend and I were talking recently about an agent that became an author and got a multi-book deal with a major publisher before even releasing their first book. This raises some very obvious ethical questions, primary among them being: Where did the idea for the debut novel come from? Even if the agent in question exerted great effort to avoid taking others’ ideas (which I’m sure the agent did), there is still the fact that if one is receiving hundreds of pitches monthly it’s inevitable that some of them will find a place in one’s subconscious and take root there. Think of it like music, a certain melody that drifted its way into your head stays there and finds expression in a new song you write without your even being aware of it.
Aside from the closed-door policy this implies (an insider lands a huge deal without the backing of large sales as proof of profitability while those trying to get into the business are forced to grovel for representation), what else is going on here? How are the decisions about what we’re given to read—for that is the end result of the choices the major publishers make, in many ways an inconspicuous form of censorship—made and aside from the primary concern of profit what drives them to those decisions? Would Kurt Vonnegut get a form rejection letter telling him there was ‘no market’ for his work today? What if Alan Moore hadn’t gotten his break with Swamp Thing? Would the world still be blessed with his many great works or would they be limited to his circle of friends, unable to find a wider audience?
It seems to me, and keep in mind that I don’t know anything, that the modern commercial novel is square in the middle of an identity crisis—and this is entirely the fault of the industry and not the writers producing the books themselves. From what I can tell the books that are sought after by publishers and then promoted with the most gusto are those that are either already a movie or that can easily be made into one. In short, they are looking for entertainment value. Is this our fault as consumers? Have we driven publishers to this by preferring escapist literature that makes us ‘feel good’? I would say that’s part of it, but we shouldn’t forget that behind the scenes choices are being made about the options to give us to buy, and if we prefer escapism, and therefore push the industry to make more of it in order to meet sales targets, it is only because those escapist tales are the best of what’s available to us. By not taking risks with new writers and untried formulas major publishers are simply pushing this wheel to spin faster. We buy shallow fantasy books with happy endings and so they produce more of them, causing us to buy even shallower fantasy books with happier endings. And who suffers? The reading public. We have been stripped of our options because the drive for profit has left us with nothing to read but Hollywood scripts-cum-paperbacks. I want my books back! I want to read for stimulation and not just to kill time. Maybe I’m missing something here, but it strikes me that the very important dividing line between films and literature has been blurred so badly that it’s ceased to exist, to the detriment of both.
Next week, Paul j Rogers takes a look at digital piracy.