A Week in Books: Core principles are needed in the muddled business of books

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The Independent Culture

The literary agent John Brockman, who makes over significant scientists into successful authors, has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. He seeks suggestions for contemporary "laws", just as Boyle, Newton, Faraday and other pioneers gave their names to the rules of the physical universe. (That eminent pair, Sod and Murphy, soon followed suit.) Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines, and you can find their responses at www.edge.org/q2004.

Cultural endeavours might also benefit from an update of their own laws. Corporate publishing, for instance. For far too long, personal hunch and taste have persisted in an industry that should adhere to the strict principles of modern management. So, to welcome the new year, let's propose a few core principles to clarify the muddled business of books:

1. All books now are either quick, or dead. Retailers' demand for high-profile, high-turnover stock means that each new title enjoys a narrower-then-ever "window". After a couple of weeks, they'll send 'em back. Farewell to the slow burners, the word-of-mouth ripplers, the works that never attract a killer discount. These days, "sleepers" seldom wake.

2. Every author has a duty to be a celebrity. Cross-media mega-deals for soccer stars, errant royals and showbiz icons matter more than ever. But pre-existing fame mightily eases the passage past the all-powerful chain buyers for every genre. If you truly want to make it as a writer, get known for something else (politics, acting, TV game shows).

3. Only TV presenters may act as intellectuals. It's not that publishers don't respect big serious books about evolution, psychology, history and so on. Just that these tomes must arrive with a screen-friendly face attached (Starkey, Schama, Winston...). Print admits its lowly status in the media pecking-order.

4. All serious novels aspire to the condition of film. Caught Cold Mountain yet? Looking forward to Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Human Stain? Modern Hollywood loves classy fiction. And The Big Read, in effect, felt like "The Big Book of the More Famous Movie". We're now talking 400-page treatments for Harvey Weinstein and the good folks at Miramax.

5. In the future, every novel will be a first novel. This is Royle's Law, as novelist Nicholas Royle devised it. Every wheeler-dealer craves the Astonishing New Talent. Eventually, they'll also value the Grand Old Doyen(ne). In between the stages of ANT and GOD, most major publishers would prefer it if "literary" novelists just went to live in a hole outside Tikrit.

6. For débutant(e)s, talent come fourth - after looks, youth and connections (in variable permutations). A gender-blind law: "promotable" hunks and babes excite accountants equally. As for friends/relations in high places: the British literary scene indulges in a level of nepotism that might make a Medici blush.

7. No one ever lost money on Lord Nelson. Or Captains Cook and Scott, Mary, Queen of Scots, Churchill, Monroe etc... This was the original Jonathan Cape's law. It enjoins publishers always to select old familiar faces - and formulae. Bridget Jones mocked the fictitious "Kafka"s Motorbike"; last year saw the genuine Einstein's Refrigerator.

8. Everybody knows everything, but nobody knows anything. A book-biz variant on William Goldman's first law of Hollywood. The "everything" publishers know stretches from the exact sales history of each author to the likely impact of any marketing spend. Yet gold-plated dead certs can still, mysteriously, bomb while a punctuation manual from a small indie house eats the competition, shoots up the charts and leaves the giants gasping. Frankly, it's only the belief that this rule has the power to trump all the others that keeps many bright and curious spirits in the industry. They, and we, should be hoping against hope for a law-breaking new year.