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Friday, August 18, 2006

Would the Brontes Survive BookScan?

This article from The Australian warns us of the dangers of publishing becoming more and more like manufacturing industries (such as asperagus canning). BookScan is a publishing technology which keeps track of sales information for every book purchased. The fear is that publishers will use the information to cut talents from their lists because they are not big sellers.

The world of fiction writing is full of tales (and some fantasies) about manuscripts that almost failed to be published and that went on to sell well and become beloved classics. Think Bronte, think Potter (Harry). It is possible that if sales are the only marker by which works of fiction are to be selected, will the Bovaries and the Heathcliffs and the Potters never see the light of day? Would that matter? I happen to think it would, because readers would be denied the joys of those particular excursions into the world of the imagination. So what to do?

Well once upon a time, I have been led to believe, when publishing was a funny old gentleman's club, when the Penguin paperback had not been born and when you carried your manuscript around in a battered suitcase that you might absent-mindedly leave on the platform at Paddington, publishers were silly enough to subsidise the publication of risky novels and collections of weird poetry by the sales of sure-fire bestsellers. Perhaps even then they were books about diets and how to get the bloodstains out of the carpet after a party. Is it really no longer possible to do that?

Why not gamble on the Flaubert of Flemington, the Sartre of Sans Souci, the Charlotte Bronte of Bronte Park in the sure and certain hope (Book of Common Prayer) that they might one day pay off, come home, sell a bomb?

This does confuse me somewhat. At least in Canada, publishers still are silly enough to invest in works they believe in but know will not sell. And, yes, they do pay for them by selling a lot of really bad books that people will buy. Independent bookstores are forced to do the same to survive. Whether or not the Brontes would suffer if they were publishing today is an interesting question but if we are basing our views on the sales of the novels in the 1800s, BookScan would not be an issue. They would not go up to the Parsonage and say 'sales are a bit down this quarter: mind spicing things up a bit?' The question would rather be one of style- I think, and of length. Consumer criticism of the Bronte novels tend to revolve around a few areas: lack of appreciation for poetic description, complaints about length, and complaints that there isn't any sex in the novels.


mandyjoy said...

"Consumer criticism of the Bronte novels tend to revolve around a few areas: lack of appreciation for poetic description, complaints about length, and complaints that there isn't any sex in the novels."

Isn't this true for so many great books? Its very disheartning to think we've become to base and lazy to even read a good book!

mysticgypsy said...

Well, there's always a market for good poetry books, as a result of a certain segment of the population that adores Poetry. I believe the same would apply to the Brontes' works.

Brontëana said...

to mandyjoy:

I'm afraid you're right- at least that is what I am seeing from reading the bloglines. There was a meme about why people stopped reading certain books. It seemed people just didn't like the length of books, and in the case of the Brontes wanted more terse prose. They complained that it took too long to say something. Mr Rochester was faulted for 'talking too much' and most of the novel's descriptions of nature were marked for cutting.

Brontëana said...

to mysticgypsy:

I'm sorry to say this, but that isn't at all true. Everything that I learned while in editing and publishing, as well as from the writers I've met, poetry is not selling well at all. Poets are ignored, largely, compared to novelists, and no one buys poetry anymore. Buyers are not willing to pick up a book of poetry, but they'll try out a novel. The group that do love poetry is so small they couldn't support independent bookstores who sell only poetry.

mysticgypsy said...

Ah, yes, the group that reads Poetry is small, but they'd always be there, right?

Sadly, this doesn't give much hope for independent booksellers..

Brontëana said...

to mysticgypsy:

I hope so! And there will always be chapbooks... but it would be nice to have more widespread appreciation for poetry- even in prose works, such as the Brontes. If I were only reading for plot, I could go with Coles Notes...

I know... I was thinking of becoming a bookseller until I learned more! Really, you have to live on your passion.