FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS
Independent publisher Pete Ayrton has an author on the shortlist for this week's Orange Prize. As his company celebrates 10 years, he tells it his way
"Oh, it wasn't too bad, it's fiction ..."
"Tell me about it. There's no smoke without fire. Check this out, you're German right, living in Hungary right, people all around you are speaking Hungarian and you can't understand a word, right? You feel like an upside- down beetle."
"Czech, not Hungarian."
"Yeh, the Balkans, right. Lots of corpses in the cupboard."
Cameras zoom out of Frank Kafka, to zoom in on a dapper middle-aged man wearing a hunting-lodge hat.
"My next guest is Albert Nobel. Albert makes dynamite but he reads a lot and in school got a prize for his knowledge of Swedish literature ..."
Today, in the marketing process, first comes the author then comes the book. At the Frankfurt bookfair, a publisher pitching a book to you starts by bringing out a photo of the author, who is invariably young and attractive. The French have even invented a word for it - mediatique - which means "presents well on chat shows". To be a success today an author must score on chat shows, read his/her work well in public and have juicy bits of personal life that are always assumed to be the subject of their fiction. Fiction is assumed to be autobiographical. An author who writes a novel set in 19th-century Patagonia can just about get away with it, but any work set in the Western hemisphere in the present will invite questions beginning "how did it feel to ...?".
This dominance of the media does not stop at the demand that the author be young, attractive and articulate. It's a lot better if the author can claim to be a victim of the oppression they are writing about. Chat shows like Oprah have added to our vocabulary with verbs like "incested". Publishers' marketing departments are always on the lookout for ways of presenting their authors as victims. Michael Bracewell's wonderful last novel, Saint Rachel, was promoted as a "Prozac victim" novel - the book disappeared in a sea of drug platitudes. Serpent's Tail published the first book by Sapphire, a very talented black American poet who is a lesbian. Push, her next book, a powerful novel about an incested girl growing up in New York was bought for $500,000 by Knopf, the leading US publisher. Such a price can only be justified by a marketing plan that will get Sapphire on the key chat shows and wow the audience with tales of incest and lesbian sex.
Of course, the author often actively colludes in the process - but without much chance to opt out. It is often written into authors' contracts that they will do what the publishing house asks of them in terms of media appearances, interviews, etc. A successful writer whose book is translated into many languages can spend two years going round the world giving the same interview to the English, French, Japanese, Dutch media. Often all they want to do is get on with writing their next book: instead they have to answer questions about one they wrote three or four years ago and can hardly remember. In their marketing plans, publishers reinforce the generic nature of fiction - in their blurbs, with cliches like "fast page-turner", "coming-of-age" (short for "it's about the author growing up"), or "roman a clef" (French for "there will be saucy bits about famous people"); in the language of cover design - gold-embossed for "bestseller", textured collage for "upmarket fiction", pastel woman looking across dales for "aga-saga", and so on. For large publishers a contract with an author represents a substantial investment and they want to leave as little to chance as possible. The book is only the first (and financially often the least important) link in the chain that leads to mini-series, CD-ROM or feature films. They know how "similar" books have performed and their marketing strategies will want to ensure that this sales pattern is maximised and improved on. They like nothing more that a writer who churns out the same book, every year - the market is predictable and within their grasp. This process of generic marketing is fundamentally inimical to both the writer and the reader of fiction.
The relationship between writer and small publisher is very different. It is more artisanal than industrial, more romance than arranged marriage. There is that first moment of exhilaration when you read the manuscript of an unpublished author, then follows a period of courtship (with the agent as chaperone), the marriage ceremony and the honeymoon period when you are attentive to the author's needs, allow him/her to have their choice of cover, provide an editor who has the time necessary to make sure the book realises its potential, together choose who will come to the launch. The South by Colm Tibn, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett, Hanging by Her Teeth by Bonnie Greer, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley and most recently Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Dunker were all Serpent's Tail books whose publication was the result of such a romance. For the small publisher the exhilaration of the text must sustain him/her in dealings with the media. Without a huge advertising budget, what will get the books noticed is the enthusiasm of the publisher.
Small publishers are too often paranoid about having to deal with a media hostile to their sense of adventure. In the first year of Serpent's Tail, I remember receiving a call from a Financial Times reviewer stating in a friendly way that her review copy of The Virtues of the Solitary Bird by Juan Goytisolo was defective because it started in mid-sentence on page 11. I replied that all copies started in mid-sentence on page 11 because that was how Goytisolo had written the book, put the phone down and feared the worst. The review that appeared a few weeks later was glowing, and recognised Goytisolo as one of Europe's leading writers.
Publishers always feel that their books do not get the recognition they deserve and blame this on the dominance of the "mainstream". What is in fact happening is that the "mainstream" is fracturing and giving way to a rich variety of micro-cultures. If they have their ear to the ground and are able to give a voice to these micro-cultures, independent publishers, like indy record labels and FM stations, are set for a period of proliferation and growth. The inclusion of Pagan Kennedy's Spinsters on the Orange Prize shortlist is a clear sign that the literary establishment is receptive to new voices.
In our first decade, Serpent's Tail has published C L R James, Kenzaburo Oe (the 1994 Nobel Prize winner), Dennis Cooper, Elfriede Jelinek, Derek Raymond, David Toop, Luisa Valenzuela, Alison Fell and Noam Chomsky - and we fully expect to be as richly eclectic in the next ten years. !
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