It's not what you know . . .

Posted by Guy Pringle, 13th July 2010

Proof copies of high-profile books aren't unusual in this neck of the woods - it's one of our innocent pleasures, opening the packages that arrive each day.  However, when they are accompanied by a hand-written card from the Trade Group Sales & Marketing Director of one of the UK's biggest publishers, I take it as testimony to the 'clout' that newbooks now hefts.

Said books are Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Glenn Taylor's The Marrowbone Marble Company - both likely to be highly newsworthy when they reach publication. But that's not the point, it's the fact that someone in as high-pressured a job as the TGS&MD concerned has taken the time to a) think we'd be especially interested in them and b) felt we would be able to do something special with them.

From outside the world of publishing it's too easy to think it is obsessed with buying shelf-space in WH Smith's, Waterstone's and the supermarkets. And yes, that does go on, but delving beyond that fight for space there are people who gamble their careers on their passion for books and authors.

You may have heard about Ian Rankin not 'breaking through' until his eighth book and how nowadays a debut author would be lucky to have a second chance if the first book didn't perform.

But the commissioning editor, the person who brought the book to the acquisition meeting and convinced her or his colleagues to invest, to buy the right to publish stands or falls by her or his hunches.

Given the fickleness we readers display nowadays this must feel more and more like a lottery. In both reading groups I belong to we rarely read – as a group - another book by the same author, regardless of how much we may have enjoyed say, We Need to Talk About Kevin or The Poisonwood Bible. There are too many other books to catch our feckless imaginations (although I very much hope this may not be proved true with Ms Kingsolver's The Lacuna).

So having placed the bet, rattled the dice, kissed the lucky shamrock or whatever superstition is inadvertently invoked, there comes a point where spreading the word before publication becomes an important part of the plan.

Looking back over nearly sixty, gulp, yes, sixty issues, it’s quite remarkable how prescient we have been in ‘discovering’ new talent. Messrs Franzen and Taylor may not be in desperate need of our attentions – or then again, it may be that we readers need reminding of their existence. Either way, by writing this short piece I’ve done my bit to pass the word down the line.

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