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End Of The Properly-working Dog

Posted by acdtest on April 8, 2002

The End of the Properly-working Dog

ome years ago I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “you really ought to sit down and write a novel. No, not the Great American kind. Something a bit more modest. A nice little murder mystery, perhaps. Shouldn’t be too difficult, and pretty much everyone likes to read a good murder mystery, right? Of course right.”

And so I sat down and wrote a nice little murder mystery. A neat by-the-formula-connect-the-dots genre number more manufactured than written, the genre I chose called in the biz a “cozy”. Piece of cake, actually, even though I’d never so much as read a murder mystery before. Not all the way through, anyhow. Not even a Christie. That might be evidence of a streak of snobbishness in me, but I tend to think not. It’s simply that each time I attempted to read, say, a Christie (that master of the so-called puzzle mystery or whodunit, and the fons et origo of the cozy), I had the identity of the murderer, and why he (or she, or they) dunit, by page fifty. I mean, what was the point of reading further?

So, now I have this nice little murder mystery written, and the next thing to do is sell it. This, it turns out, is not a piece of cake. No more direct-to-the-publisher with your precious manuscript, its pages still damp with your blood, sweat and tears. No more a reading by a qualified editor or editorial assistant to determine its suitability for publication. The major houses don’t have the necessary staff for that anymore. They now depend on agents to perform that function for them, and won’t even look at a fiction manuscript by an unknown author not submitted by a bona fide agent. It’s the publishing house’s almost-guarantee the manuscript is, at minimum, of publishable quality and worth at least a look. Ninety-nine percent of fiction manuscripts submitted to agents for consideration aren’t, as dismaying and disheartening a bit of news as that might be for starry-eyed wannabes.

And what primarily determines whether a fiction manuscript is of publishable quality? Strange to relate, not the quality of the writing. That’s some way down on the list of essential requirements. At the top of that list is how well the manuscript will sell when made into a book. If an agent determines a fiction manuscript has high potential in that regard it’s ipso facto publishable. If not, not, even were the quality of its prose and construction such that it might have been written by a latter-day Joyce.

Is something wrong with this picture?

Just about everything, as a matter of fact. It’s classic tail-wagging-the-dog, but it’s what today overridingly controls the acquisition and market practices of the major publishing houses. You might be tempted to ask if things were ever any different. And the answer would be, indeed they were. During the era stretching from the turn of the 20th century up to the early 1940s, the era that saw the emergence of the great American publishing houses — Knopf, Random House, Scribner’s (begun in an earlier era, but whose zenith period as a book publisher began during this era), Simon & Schuster, etc., — things were very different indeed. Those houses were founded and run by men who first and foremost loved books. Great books especially. Books whose most salient characteristic was the stellar quality of their writing. And these men held as their primary role the sale of those books to as many people as possible because they were great books. Which is not to say they were against making a healthy profit on those sales, or that they were any less ruthless and conniving than their most crass commercial brethren. But it was their love of books rather than profit that turned them into publishers instead of purveyors of you-name-the-product, the manufacture and sales of which would have brought them far more filthy lucre with far less trouble than they could ever earn by making and selling books.

This is a properly-working dog, and these men not only did good, but made a great deal of money doing good.

So, what happened? Why is the dog now working ass backwards, and what made it work that way?

The facile answer is corporate greed, and while that answer may be facile, it has much to recommend it as the answer that most pointedly, and most accurately, answers the question. The men who founded those great American publishing houses are of course all gone now, their houses purchased and run by huge, multi-national corporate entities, and with them has gone the dedication to the Great Book — that is, the Great Book as understood in that era of great books. Great Book today means any book that sells, or has the potential to sell, at least 50,000 copies in hardcover, and the threshold number for admission into that exalted category is fast rising.

So, what chance, then, my nice little murder mystery given numbers appropriately scaled down for its niche (genre) market? Not much as it turned out, and three agents tried peddling it, two of them first-rate, seasoned veterans. And what was the remark most heard against it by publishers? Too literary(!), by which I suspect they meant no sex, car chases, shootouts, or things blowing up.

Uh-huh. I get it. I understand perfectly.

In a pig’s eye I do.

You may download an ad hoc eBook (Free) of the “nice little murder mystery” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader (Free), or Acrobat eBook Reader (Free) to read).


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