Throw a paperback at a room full of writers, and chances are that it’ll hit someone with a grievance. Writing is a lonely trade, and success – the genuine life-changing success which follows a major literary hit – is astonishingly rare, not least because so very many books are published these days. There were more than 170,000 new titles in 2012, up almost 20,000 in three years. How many of these were hits? And what’s a hit anyway?
I’ve never encountered an industry as subjective as book publishing; we who work in it, and particularly we who write books, are dangerously prone to the fallacy that because we have observed something, it must be both true and a signifier of something wider. Because isn’t that what we try to do with our books – speak some larger truth, comment on some aspect of society, make the story resonate beyond the page? But when we write an opinion piece based on those beliefs, things come dangerously unstuck.
To quote the old saw: the plural of anecdote is not data.
Take Robert McCrum in the Observer today: he has written a piece with the provocative title ‘From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life’, which caused me to fear it was going to be about the suicide of a scribbler. But no, it’s about how certain authors are struggling to make ends meet. Three authors are cited, two others (Paul Bailey and Hanif Kureishi) are yanked out of the cuttings file, and the general tone of the piece can be summed up by this paragraph:
To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.
Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. The years 2007-2010 are pivotal: first, as Thomson has described, came the credit crunch. And it occurred at the very moment that the IT revolution was wrecking the livelihoods of those creative classes – film-makers, musicians and writers of all sorts – who had previously lived on their copyrights.
This is asserted, without any supporting evidence or data. It is just fact. Computers killed books. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. But on this specific point – that technology is killing content because of piracy – McCrum is, at least when it comes to the UK book trade, just wrong. I looked at the numbers, and I wrote about it in the Literary Review. Here’s the piece, and here’s the Ofcom report that highlights the minuscule amount of book piracy in the UK.
Now, we might be hell-bound. But at least let’s be hell-bound with the facts straight. At least let’s point out that more books are being published than ever before, that just as many if not more are being bought (don’t believe me? Check the Publishers’ Association figures – they’ve got charts and everything). Let’s be honest that writing is and always has been a precarious business, that making money from it has always forced writers into queasy compromises with themselves and their art. Glen Duncan wrote a whole host of brilliant and critically-acclaimed books that didn’t sell particularly well. He decided to do something about it, and wrote something that did. What specifically is wrong with that?
I look around me at the writers who had their first books come out around the same time as mine. Some have been successful, others less so. Broadly, they’re being supported by their publishers (thus giving the lie to the old ‘publishers don’t support new talent’ canard). They’re all having to look at their bottom lines, calculate affordability, wonder where the next cheque is coming from. That’s freelance work, friends, and it always has been. So my anecdotes are entirely different to McCrum’s anecdotes. Who is right?
There was another (infinitely less egregious) example of this in the Telegraph, in which Jamie Fewery, a publishing fellow who knows of what he speaks, wrote that there was a crisis in reading amongst young men. It was actually an interesting piece, but it opened with the following thunderous bellow of subjectivity:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that men read fewer novels than women.
Or, at least, that’s my experience, based on over ten years of working in the book industry.
Yes, Fewery’s experience is valid (and it’s a lot more trustworthy than McCrum’s misty reminiscing). And this was, after all, a comment piece, not a piece of data journalism. But Fewery’s central point – that there was once a category of books one could broadly define as commercial fiction for men, or chaplit (my horrific neologism, not Fewery’s) – is surely provable with data. Can’t we show how Tony Parsons’ books are selling?
And as for the assertion that ‘young men are reading fewer novels than they used to’, that, surely, is also demonstrable. It may even be true, though if one were to say that one should also point out that young men are probably reading more than ever, it’s just the format that has changed, from novels to games and social media.
But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that we should not continually play The Last Post over book publishing, particularly those of us who make their living out of it (such as Sunday newspaper literary editors). Being able to write books for even a semi-living is a privilege, not a burden. And finally, our individual stories of failure or non-success should not lead us to state, categorically, that everything is failing. We all of us sit on the precipice of obscurity and disappointment and the great majority of us, sadly, fall in.