Red Button Publishing

Publishing and Consultancy

Books smell good: A response to Michael Levin’s Huffington Post article

I recently stumbled across a rather incendiary piece in the Huffington Post written by bestselling business author Michael Levin, entitled  “Why Books Stink”.

“The dirty little secret of the publishing industry is that virtually every new work of fiction and nonfiction hitting the marketplace today is a piece of garbage,” Levin begins. Strong stuff. There were some points I agreed with, but as I read the piece I felt myself further and further away from being able to reconcile my own view of the book industry with what Levin sees.

The mid-list author is dead, he maintains: if a writer doesn’t hit the bestseller list immediately, they are dropped like a stone. Regrettably, I am sure this is true in some cases; but what about authors like Hilary Mantel? Mantel has been published since the late eighties, but in 1998 she was snapped up by her current publisher, Fourth Estate. Her books did reasonably well, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Wolf Hall swept her onto the bestseller list and earned her the first of two Man Booker prizes.

Acquisition editors, says Levin, are incompetent. “If these people are so good at ‘curating'” he asks, “why haven’t they discovered anyone worth reading?” Erm, here are a few recommendations for you, Michael: NoViolet Bulawayo, Christie Watson, Rachel Joyce, Stephen Kelman … I’m sure readers of this blog could throw in a few more names of writers who have debuted in the last few years and are “worth reading”. But maybe that’s a matter of taste …

Levin makes some good points about book recommendations, which are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Newspapers have reduced their coverage of books substantially and the literary pages ignore entire areas of the publishing world, including many independently published titles. Amazon, Goodreads and other social media platforms are going some way to making the process easier, but in a world where the number of books published in a year has more than quadrupled, there is still a vast sea to navigate to find your next great read.

It’s Levin’s assertions that publishing is fixated only on profit that really grates. Publishing is a business. No business can survive if it makes a loss. Publishing is also an industry under pressure. The huge changes brought about by digital publishing, the ever growing marketplace for books, the loss of bricks and mortar bookstores, the growing demand for other types of media and entertainment and the pressure on retail price are all issues that every publisher must recognise and deal with. Is it any wonder that the “sure-fire seller” is so alluring? And lest we forget, these books do, for the most part, sell! “Is that any way to run a publishing industry?” asks Levin. Well … if you’d like to keep yourself and your colleagues in a salary (which Levin notes is not a big one; nobody is in publishing for instant riches), yes. Yes it is. Without those sure-fire sellers, however questionable Levin finds their content, publishers wouldn’t have the funds to take a risk on unknown debut authors.

Levin paints a picture of an industry consumed with easy marketing: signing up authors with celebrity status, a massive social media following and an established media presence instead of new unknown writers, regardless of the quality of their writing. Perhaps this is more true of the American market (although I doubt it), but here in the UK we have seen the rise of small independents in recent times. Salt, Galley Beggar, & Other Stories (and dare we say it, Red Button) are filling the gaps between those big brands with new names. Books that perhaps would have been overlooked a few years ago but thanks to advances in digital publishing are allowed to breathe and find their audience.

I’d like to think that Michael Levin’s view is not shared by the majority of people. I think it’s fantastic that authors have the opportunity to make a choice about publishing their work their way. The fact that many authors, our own included, prefer to work with a publisher speaks volumes, though. Publishing in the last few years has been more exciting than at any other time in my career. There are new names emerging, writers are at the forefront, published writing is becoming more diverse and exciting that at any other time in the last decade. And the books? They’re smelling pretty good to me.

Caroline Goldsmith 


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This entry was posted on May 14, 2014 by in Publishing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .
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