The unspoken truth of the literary world

The mysterious, complex, closed world of publishing turns out to be none of these things
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The Independent Online

Log on to the Amazon internet bookshop today and you will be offered an unusual investment opportunity. A single second-hand copy of a book, of which most people have never heard and which has appeared without the help any major publisher, has just come on the market. Its price to you would be £1,950.

At the very moment when fantasies of Muggles and Middle Earth are earning fortunes in bookshops, another kind of fantasy is being played out among the many thousands of people who dream of writing stories themselves. The book which is causing bibliophiles to act like eager futures buyers in an overheated financial market is called The Valley of Secrets. It was completed in 1987 by Charmian Hussey, the wife of a West Country farmer.

Mrs Hussey was then in her late forties and her book, an adventure fantasy for children, was so profoundly unfashionable at the time that none of the publishers to whom it was sent at the time showed the slightest interest. Last year, an enterprising local publican agreed to release it, set up St Piran's Press to do so and printed 250 hardbacks and 3,000 paperbacks.

After an enthusiastic review in Country Life by the explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, the printing sold out and, without hype or marketing, word began to spread that The Valley of Secrets was an unusually compelling story. It is at this point that the tale deviates from the usual rags-to-riches beloved of media journalists. Before Mrs Hussey even had an agent, speculators on the second-hand book market had decided that there was money to be made here. "I had missed out on the first Harry Potter and Philip Pullman and was determined not to do so again," as one dealer put it.

Something strange and significant is happening when a single used copy of a book that has not even been marketed or sold by a mainstream agent or publisher sells for the kind of money which not so long ago might have been offered as the whole advance for a first novel. Mrs Hussey and her private publisher have happened upon a great new truth about the books business, one that was first coined by William Goldman when writing about Hollywood: nobody knows anything.

The accepted wisdom about her and her story will have been that, in the tough world of contemporary publishing, they were no-hopers. She was middle-aged, with no literary track record, living in Cornwall, and, at least in the eyes of the self-obsessed, inward-looking London media, supremely unpromotable. Her story was old-fashioned and was offered at a time when other factors influenced what was to be published - glamour, contacts, chat-show credibility and a product that could be summarised in a brief, snappy phrase.

It is hardly news that, over the past few years, the books industry has often put style before substance and publicity before quality, but it has taken The Valley of the Secrets to point up an uncomfortable truth. The mysterious, complex, closed world of publishing turns out to be none of those things. In fact, sometimes, an author can do better for herself by avoiding it altogether.

Some might say that this was predictable development. As the industry came to be dominated by a small number of powerful publishers and acquisitive bookselling chains, most of its energy and interest was expended on a relatively small number of certain, bankable bestsellers. Large advances were paid and then enormous budgets - bribes, really - ensured that those books were displayed and promoted in all the country's leading bookshops.

Publishers would argue that it was not those extravagant investments and campaigns that lost them money but the small, irritating, unpromoted books which made up the numbers on their lists and were inevitably squeezed out by the blockbuster thriller of the moment. Unfortunately, it is precisely these awkward, unclassifiable books which now and then, like The Valley of Secrets, appeal to readers.

What the St Piran Press has revealed is that, thanks to the low cost of producing books and the buzzing grapevine of information that is the internet, it is now and then possible for authors or tiny publishers to promote books rather better than large publishers do. For their part, readers have grown wary of the bullying promotions of information conglomerates, and are more adept at seeking out the green shoots of literary quality that are quietly growing beneath the mighty, creaking timbers of an unadventurous industry.

Self-publishing has already become profitable business in America. Disappointment will await most self-publishing authors who believe that copies from their little first printing will one day make thousands on the internet but, after Mrs Hussey's success, the valley of secrets that was the closed world of book publishing has become rather less mysterious.