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Monday, January 05, 2004

The start of a new working week 

Welcome back to the office, the new book, the new project. If you're a first-time author you're probably hoping to snag that 2-book deal like everyone else. Too bad publishers are looking to slash their lists by 20 percent over the next three years. "Publishers are reducing the number of books they release to concentrate on "big name" authors or "good-looking" first-time novelists who are more marketable."

Now, this news applies to the UK publishing industry, but this sort of thing has been happening for a while now in US publishing. The big deals go to the Grishams, Cornwells and Pattersons, who have huge backlists that outsell several midlist authors combined, or the Hot Young Things who have unlimited potential. I've been calling it the Sandwich Effect, because publishers would much rather throw their money at sure bets or those with unknown and seemingly limited potential. But a limited track record? Forget it.

But are things really so dire? Well, yes and no, for a couple of reasons. First, publishers are certainly cutting their lists, but in the end, like anything else, it's a business and they have to go with what sells. But the thing is, what actually sells? This is the question that no single publisher can truly answer. Sometimes all the hype in the world does work: look at Dan Brown, whose DA VINCI CODE was no surprise hit, considering how much Doubleday was wooing sales reps and booksellers a good eight months before publication. But the landscape is littered with authors who received sizeable advances, only to be abandoned by publishers after flagging sales. The flip side, of course, is when an author really "breaks out" for no apparent reason. Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES was a big hit in 2002, but the first printing was quite modest, as was her advance. It was only after folks in Little, Brown realized what they had that they gave it a bigger push at the very end.

Second, the new "it's a business" model means there's more pressure, but it also means that the product of a first novel had better be marketable in some way or another. But absolute crap does not (usually) get published at the very beginning, and publishers can usually spot a book that was "written to sell." So what to do? Just write a book that you truly believe in that manages to fill a hole in some way. Never said this was going to be an easy process, after all...but then I'm an optimist when it comes to the publishing world. Quality does will out in the end. It just has to be marketable quality, somehow. What that market is, of course, remains a mystery.

In other news, Ahmadou Khourona, an African novelist who challenged French ideas about colonialism and language, has died at the age of 76.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has become a two-part, six-hour play which is beginning its run at the National Theatre. It's already on its way to being a bit hit.

Lynne Truss tries to explain the success of EATS, SHOOTS and LEAVES to a somewhat befuddled American audience.

Michael Frayn's newest play Copenhagen, now debuting in Canada, focuses on a 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr. He didn't think it would make much of a ruckus at all, but it seems that's the case, and then some.

The Wall Street Journal ran a review of a book that compiles various features on animals that have graced the front page over the years, edited by Ken Wells. Who wrote the review? Why....Ken Wells, actually.

Patrick Anderson goes gaga over John Lawton's new spy novel, calling it "superior popular entertainment."

Sherman Alexie's marvellous new short story collection TEN LITTLE INDIANS has finally been published in the UK; the Independent likes it quite a lot.

and finally, the Age tries to understand the nature of fanfic. Having read some of the Harry Potter 'fic "who rival Rowlings's own talent for rococo prose and colossal word count," all I have to say is, yeah, it's true, but their time is better served writing original stuff that maybe, just maybe, they can actually try to sell (dire conditions or not.)

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