Dynamist Blog

Could Eudora Welty Get Published Today?

022_preview.jpgSharon Steel of the Boston Phoenix reports on a trend she finds worrisome: promotion of writers (more precisely, of literary fiction writers) based on their looks. She writes:

Literature, unlike so many other media industries, is technically a meritocracy. But that won't stop book marketers, bloggers, critics, and the literary community at large from collectively slobbering over a pretty author. No, the literary rules changed ages ago. Books no longer need to be serious in order to be published; there are fewer and fewer venues available for reviews (rendering competition more intense with every passing catalogue season), and critics aren't doing their job unless they are merciless. Perhaps as a response to all of this, publishers have begun to count on their authors to do double-duty--to act as sex symbols as well.

The trend isn't new. I included a mention, citing a couple of similar articles from the U.S. and U.K., in The Substance of Style. As long as personal profiles and TV appearances are the most efficient ways to promote books, looks will matter. But looks aren't the full story. As an unkind anonymous commenter observed, Tyler Cowen is " not particularly pretty...nor fashionably dressed." Yet he gets profiles promoting his new book, Discover Your Inner Economist. Tyler may not look like George Clooney, but he's an interesting, quirky person who makes a good story. Good looks are only one way to attract attention. Dave Eggers would be famous even if he weren't good looking, because his personal story was compelling and he was already well known as a literary entrepreneur. (His brother Bill, an old friend of mine, doesn't get as much publicity or sell as many books--but not for lack of looks.)

Book marketing has two big problems. Books are "experience goods," which means you don't know whether you'll like one until you've actually invested in reading it. That's all the more true for fiction, where merely explaining the book's premise or setting doesn't come close to capturing what it's like to read. But there are lots of experience goods on the market, from movies to massages. The much bigger problem for book marketing is that there are so many books. Everyone who might be interested in seeing a particular movie probably knows that the movie exists. Not so potential book buyers. Simply getting potential readers to know about your book is the author's (and publisher's) biggest challenge. That's why it's an author's nightmare to be a guest on Oprah but forbidden to even mention a new book. (Chris Rose's column here is quite funny.)

The dirty little not-so-secret of book publishing is that it is a meritocracy, but one in which "merit" includes more than just writing quality. An author who will get attention--whether because of looks, connections, celebrity, or a dramatic past--is more valuable than an author who won't. Again, from Steel's article:

"We're not out there to perform. Well--most writers aren't out there to perform," says Katherine Taylor, 34, whose first book, Rules for Saying Goodbye, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) this June. "I think, though, that in the current publishing climate, readers--not the real readers but a certain type of reader--want more of an icon than they want the book. I think that only because I'm shocked at the coverage I've gotten. You write a book and you expect the book will get the attention. And it's surprising how a lot of the attention--even in supposedly super reputable arenas--the attention's been focused on me and not the book, really, at all."

She's right. On the strength of the Spring 2007 FSG catalogue alone--which included a page about Taylor's forthcoming book, as well as a photograph of her that was taken by her brother--the New York Observer's Spencer Morgan was assigned a profile on Taylor. When they met, she says, he told her he hadn't even read her book, but that his editor had told him to write the piece. In his "Farrar Thinks Pink," Morgan began by asking whether the catalogue ought not to have come with a warning sticker: "Va-va-va-voom!" he panted, noting that Taylor's "curvy bodice is simply straining against a clingy T-shirt" in the picture. He fake-checked himself to make sure that the catalogue was FSG, not Abercrombie & Fitch, and inquired slyly whether FSG, regarded as one of the last old-fashioned literary publishers, was pushing Taylor's book in an attempt to foster their own Marisha Pessl phenomenon. They had T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Cunningham, and a total of 22 Pulitzer Prize — winning authors. Where, Morgan pondered, did someone like Taylor fit in?

Ever hear of Susan Sontag? She was one of FSG's best-known writers, and as famous for her image as for her ideas.

I wrote about buzz marketing and experience goods here.

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