Have Fiction Publishers Got It Wrong?

The publishing world is after one thing: selling shed-loads of books.

Writing for Now

Here’s a list of the best-selling books of 2010 (according to buzzle):

  • Alex Cross’s Trial by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo
  • Cross Fire by James Patterson
  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  • Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
  • House Rules by Jodi Picoult
  • Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • The Confession by John Grisham
  • The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  • U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

And you have to say that the publishers have got it absolutely right, haven’t they? These books do sell shed-loads. But, I think it’s fair to say that none of these books will still be selling in a hundred years.

Does that matter? Not if your publisher is owned by a French arms company*, it doesn’t, no (or an Australian media magnate for that matter*). They couldn’t give a monkey’s pyjamas for English literature.

Writing for the Future

But let’s have a look at the ten best-selling books EVER. The books that don’t just sell millions, but tens, hundreds of millions.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (>200 million)
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  3. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  4. 红楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin
  5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. She by H. Rider Haggard
  8. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (65 million)

This is where it becomes more interesting. Yeah, sure, there’s still a huge heap of garbage here. The Da Vinci Code is never, ever, ever (please God) going to win award for literary merit. But A Tale of Two Cities? The Catcher in the Rye? Hey – some of these are actually good books!

Some of these are actually worth studying, worth holding up as genuine achievements of human creativity and beauty, rather than simply excellent business models and marketing talent.

Further down the list, in amongst Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsAngels and Demons and The Happy Hooker: Her Own Story, you’ve got genuine classics of world literature like To Kill a MockingbirdNineteen Eighty-Four and the Divine Comedy.

So my point is this: if publishing were an industry built around long-term strategies, then literary merit would be a legitimate marker of profitability. Unfortunately, in this time of take-overs, no one really cares if your book is going to be a hit in a hundred years or not – and the loss is ours, the loss is to humanity.

I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.

Any Ideas?

So is there a solution for writers who want to write – not just good pulp – but great fiction? Maybe.

Maybe the answer is to do it yourself, to win your audience through hard work, rather than swapping greatness for money.

Maybe the answer is to team up with a publisher who has more modest financial ambitions and more courageous literary spirit, publishers like Zer0. I went to a talk given by the founder, Tariq Goddard, last week and was impressed and heartened by his passion for literature and by his confidence in the power of the long-tail of our great, ignored literary fiction.

Maybe, when we’re all history; history will remember the greats as well as the pulp.


*Hodder and Stoughton, owned by Lagardère, who co-control the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company; HarperCollins, owned by News Corporation.

What do you think?