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Sunday, July 2, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-One, in which Self-Publishing prevails

Publishers do not put out books as a public service to readers. They are in business to make money, acting as a middle-man, distributing the creations of writers to the consumer. Publishers put all manuscripts through an elaborate distilling process designed, not to retain only the purest gems (like the famed Slaves of Golconda), but to identify the most marketable and saleable products. They feign objectivity, yet the appreciation of fiction has ever been, and will continue to be, purely subjective. Quality of the writing, talent of the writer, any artistic merit matters only if it will generate more sales of the book. Even things that most consumers expect, like veracity, will be overlooked if sales are certain.

As long as there have been publishers, there have been what is commonly referred to as vanity presses. These presses offer the writer some of the same services that a regular publisher does, but they do not assume any of the costs, they pass them all on to the writer. With the explosion of the internet, subsidy publishers have experienced a boom in growth. Writers still accept the costs, but now, with the technology of print-on-demand, a minimum print run, which often leaves stacks of books unsold, is no longer required. A book is formatted and ready to go, so when a consumer wants one, one is produced; when ten consumers want one, ten are produced. The result can be virtually indistinguishable from a book from a traditional publisher.

This new form of publishing has not received good publicity from the establishment. One hears claims that without a traditional publisher, and an agent, readers are more than likely to find the life story of Aunt Mable the Amish goodwife, instead of "a thrilling, heart-pounding murder mystery that left us breathless and craving more killing." Yet perhaps not one in one hundred readers could tell if a certain book has come from Random House or Alfred A. Knopf (or if they are even different companies any more) or Lighthouse Press. Rarely, if at all, has a publisher established a recognizable brand, so that, for instance, a consumer who is looking for a good ChickLit book automatically thinks of Hummingbird Press. For all their claims of quality standards, Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, and Warner still put out books like Lady Boss, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Da Vinci Code--not exactly masterpieces of literature. What those books do, though, is sell to a mass audience, and that usually by appealling to the lowest common denominator. Books that are challenging, unusual, or generally uncategorisable often have difficulty finding a publisher, because publishers are conservative beasts that don't thrive on risk.

All of which brings us to Marcel Proust. One of the sins generally to be avoided by any writer is to have a character fall asleep, particularly at the end of a chapter. Such a lull in the narrative drive of the novel can possibly signal a reader to put the book aside and go to sleep herself. Publishers want a book that a reader just can't put down, that she stays awake all night just to finish. Proust has his narrator go to bed in the very first sentence of his epic novel. Du côté de chez Swann was initially rejected by several publishers, one of whom, according to Joseph Wood Krutch, returned it noting:
"I cannot understand why a gentleman should employ thirty pages to describe how he turns and returns on his bed before going to sleep."
In other words, "We don't believe readers will ever buy a book like this."

Proust was undeterred, and arranged with Grasset to pay for the costs of publication himself. What does this tell us about the judgement of publishing houses? They are interested in saleable stories that will turn an immediate profit. Waiting for seven volumes over fourteen years is too long. Writers take note: publishers are not arbiters of good literature.

Among those who had input in rejecting the novel, André Gide eventually apologized to Proust for:
"one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of my life."
Today In Search of Lost Time is regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.


  1. Andre Gide also turned down Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit, which was another massive literary hit. You do begin to wonder about his judgement!