Danuta Keane: All publishers want these days is a pretty cover story

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Viswanathan scandal is the inevitable consequence of a kind of "Pop Idol" publishing, which values spin over substance. One agent, unable to sell a manuscript by an established thirty-something author because his past sales do not impress bookshops, tells me he is inspired by this latest story. Eyeing up Viswanathan's $500,000 advance, he muses: "Maybe I should hang around the school gates and find a goodlooking 18-year-old about to go to Oxford and offer him 50 per cent of the advance if he passes off the script as his own. The book will go for a fortune, and who would know?"

Publishers will pay high for a marketing package rather than for a book with literary merit by an author without an obvious publicity angle. The same philosophy leads them to scramble over each other when celebrities such as Jordan announce they have a novel or three to sell. If a book is to be promoted by a chain or in supermarkets, it has to look like an obvious bestseller to the handful of people who choose what is displayed everywhere from Waterstone's to Asda. That means if it is not a shoo-in for "Richard and Judy", then it has to find other ways to stand out from the 200,000 other new titles published each year.

Retailers are ruthless with books that don't head straight up the charts. Slow performers can be pulled from their promotions within a fortnight.

The pressure on editors to deliver heat-seekers is enormous. To criticise them for being willing to believe anything if a book looks like a bestseller is to misunderstand the culture of an industry that retains a touching belief in old-fashioned trust and integrity.

Even if editors had time to check every fact or passage, which they do not, the idea that they should suspect their author is anathema. What is striking about editors' response to the 'Opal Mehta' furore is their disbelief that an author could betray their trust.

They should be more cynical. The rapacious appetite for virgin blood is leading even established writers to take desperate measures to get published. A growing number are submitting manuscripts under pseudonyms - and agents are colluding with them. In a publishing world that relies more on concept than quality, as long as they do not get caught, who would care?

Danuta Keane is editor-at-large of 'Author', the magazine of the Society of Authors