I’ve had several “journals” online and one that was short-lived but managed to capture in the two months I used it an interesting turning point in my life (at least looking back on it retrospectively) was the one I kept at Journalscape. On a whim, looking back through that small pile of posts tonight, I came across an entry I wrote about taking part in an online interview with A.S. Byatt that was open to the public to ask her questions at the time. Something she said in her interview that I find provocative and interesting now is this:
American editors speak of some imaginary person, The American Reader, who will not understand things. I have formed the view that they are speaking of somebody who would never buy books anyway. America is full of readers of all different sorts who love books in many different ways, and I keep meeting them. And I think editors should look after them, and make less effort to please people who don’t actually like books.
I think there’s truth in this, but I don’t think it’s just America. I know of books that don’t get printed in England because the editors don’t think the readers in England will be interested enough in this subject or that subject, or whether or not the writer is English, etc. But I do think the comment is in a spirit of truth essentially. I sometimes think corporate capitalism manifests itself in different ways depending on the industry, and in the publishing industry I think it tends to make up a largely arbitrary template of “what sells” then creates a sort of totalitarian fiction that this is the “only thing that sells” and sets many editors and publishers on a sort of search for the Holy Grail of that template, which leads to a sort of tunnel vision that excludes a lot of books with amazing potential that don’t fit the template at all, mostly because they would require a completely different sort of approach to marketing, and this is probably considered “inefficient”.
But these are my intuitive thoughts on this subject and could be completely wrong.
Hmm. That publisher’s timidity is one side of it, I guess, but I think there’s also an authorial timidity that says I’m not going to try to reach The American Or English Reader; I’m happy writing to my highly specialized core audience, even if that means alienating a lot of people who might very well be into what I’m doing if I gave them a chance.
Where does that timidity on the author’s part come from though? I think if it’s there, it’s largely probably rooted in fear that a publisher won’t buy it if they don’t write a certain kind of book more than in encozening themselves with a niche audience that would probably buy whatever they wrote if they’re in the author’s particular niche audience anyway. I could be dead wrong, but it doesn’t sound logical. Maybe I’m not the best person to wrestle with the idea that authors, without the fear of not selling a book to a publisher due to an awareness of “what sells” and “what doesn’t”, would be so timid. I’ve blissfully ignored the idea of “audience”, the sort that I think publishers think about at least, from the beginning, mostly out of ignorance on my own part. I’ve always been my own audience, I’ve always written to please myself, and I’ve always assumed I’m not so wildly different from the average reader because I don’t find myself to be special in any particular way, so I always figured there would be readers who would want to read what I’d want to read, which is what I’m writing. But slowly and surely I did get an idea from others that there is a kind of book that sells and a kind that doesn’t, and this was news to me (a long time ago, that is) because probably I am just an eclectic reader and maybe most readers aren’t? That’s the only thing I was able to come up with to explain why a bunch of different kinds of books weren’t “sellers” but a few different types are. I guess I’m more inclined to think as Byatt does.