Saturday, 16 May 2009

Salon des refusés

Rejected by the jury of the official Salon in 1863, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe was hung in the Salon des refusés. (Digression: I once saw a play by David Pownall that opened with the actors arranged exactly as in this painting; one of the two men was Marx, the other Freud, though I have may have misremembered the Freud one.)

Writers A, B, C, D and E are all established authors with prizes, good sales records and cuttings files of good reviews, and they are all now sharing the experience of having their new books rejected by the mainstream publishing salon. The new book of writer F was accepted but then had its publication postponed indefinitely. Writer G was at one point a household name but now has no book in print, and no publisher is interested in reissuing them. (And these are just the ones I’ve happened to meet in the past few months; there must be many more.)

There’s a recession, but that’s more of an excuse than an explanation; writers A to G are safer bets than many. We’ve been heading here for some time: corporate takeovers; business models concentrated on the bottom line; investment in marketing for the books that are assumed to be the hot sellers, to the exclusion of others; high overheads making the publishing of anything risky a loss-making activity.

Meanwhile, technology. Traditional litho printing obliged you to print in high numbers to get a decent unit cost; digital printing allows you to print short runs, even individual copies, for little money. Writers A to G tend to nod off here; for them, me too, books are for reading and writing, not haggling over with printers. But during my back-room years (a humdrum life, but at least I didn’t have to stand up and spout nonsense at sales conferences), I picked up, largely by accident, some of the non-writerly stuff (it’s not difficult), and I'm now helping writers A, B and C to self-publish.

The usual advice on self-publishing – don’t – generally still holds. It’s not enough for the book to be a good book; you need access to some form of media publicity to get it noticed and sold. But at least there’s no reason now why the book itself should be any less well edited, designed and printed than a book from a regular publisher. And these days – just as Manet shared wall space in 1863 with Cezanne, Pissarro, Whistler – the company you’ll keep in the Salon des refusés is becoming increasingly renowned.

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