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‘Wins’ Without Losses: Agreeable Disagreement

Porter - Provocations in Publishing logo header WU [1]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Five Quite Recent Provocations

Provocation One: Man Booker Irrational?

When the American novelist Lydia Davis was given the £60,000 Man Booker International this week in London, the prize administration rushed to its site to quote one of her short works:

“I was recently denied a writing prize because they said I was lazy.”

Writer Unboxed, Porter Anderson, Provocations in Publishing, books, ebooks, authors, literary, literature [3]
Lydia Davis

“Well not anymore!” chortled the site’s folks in what might be the most charming, personable home-page announcement seen on a big-prize site [4].

But by Friday, Dennis Abrams [5] was reporting at Publishing Perspectives [6] that a blogger was asking, Is The Man Booker International Prize Not International Enough? [7] This was the third consecutive International Man Booker (of five total) to go to a North American, after all. And four of the five had gone to English-writing authors.


Provocation Two: Are Amazon’s Fans Fictional?

When Amazon Publishing [9] announced its ingenious everyone-gets-paid plan to publish fan fiction through its new Kindle Worlds [10] program, one reader quickly got to me on Twitter to say:

“I’m offended. There are real authors out there with fresh voices. This is a slap in the face to them.”

Writer Unboxed, Porter Anderson, Provocations in Publishing, books, ebooks, authors, literary, literature [10]Some of publishing’s oldest guard, who normally can utter nothing good about Seattle—don’t even mention Tacoma—were quietly calling Amazon’s program “brilliant.” And yet I was simultaneously in an exchange with this author who earnestly felt that Kindle Worlds somehow gave fan-fiction writers an unfair advantage over original writers.


Provocation Three: A Patchett Job

When one of the best-loved authors among us, Ann Patchett [12], said to The Bookseller [13] in London that “authors have been protected for a long time, we are very well cared for” and “we need to think about our other partners, from bookshops to publishing and self-publishing,” you’d think Pope Francis had opened fire on a family of doves.

Writer Unboxed, Porter Anderson, Provocations in Publishing, books, ebooks, authors, literary, literature [14]
Ann Patchett

Never mind that she was doing an interview in support of the UK’s upcoming Independent Booksellers Week. No, here is the headline on one blog post: Ann Patchett Doesn’t Know Shit About Publishing [15]. And that post sends you to this one [16]

Passive Guy has just about decided that the differences between indie publishing and traditional publishing are so great that nearly anyone immersed in traditional publishing has almost nothing useful to say about indie publishing.


Provocation Four: Barnes & Noble’s Lists—Pretty Rank? 

When some authors looked at their rankings on Barnes & Noble’s Nook best-seller list, they complained that titles once at No 5 had fallen to No. 126 and/or No. 127. In a matter of hours. While sales were high. Others, rising in the ranks, got no higher than No. 126 and/or No. 127. And these were “racy” books; erotica.

Writer Unboxed, Porter Anderson, Provocations in Publishing, books, ebooks, authors, literary, literature [18]
Hugh Howey

Author Hugh Howey [19] wrote it up in Does B&N Manipulate Its Rankings? [18]

It turns out that two other authors have experienced the same thing and with the same number! Gail McHugh saw her book rise to #126 and go no higher. It appears that any flagged book, whether due to racy cover or racy content, is given a hard ceiling. Couple this with allegations that erotica books have been deleted from NOOK UK with no explanation and no recourse. Folks, this ain’t right.

Soon, we all trundled over to the KindleBoards [20], checking out some compelling accounts [21] from authors including Holly Ward [22], who recently topped the Digital Book World Top 25 eBook Best-Sellers list [23]. On the face of it, something does look amiss here, and it looks serious. What’s the explanation? We need to hear from Barnes & Noble.

Provocation Five: Dan ‘n’ Dante 

Writer Unboxed, Porter Anderson, Provocations in Publishing, books, ebooks, authors, literary, literature [25]
Dan Brown

When I got busy in Writing on the Ether [25] with some of Michael Deacon’s [26] exhilarating Dan Brown parody—”using the feet located at the ends of his two legs to propel him forwards”—a friend and colleague berated me strenuously on Facebook for my “negativity.” She was going to take Brown’s new Inferno to the beach, she said, no matter what, and there was no way I could stop her.

Of course, I hadn’t tried to stop her. As I told her, I was and am happy for her to take it to the beach and read it, over and over if she likes. Commit it to memory and terrify dinner party companions with recitations from it, fine with me.

What I’d written was that while nobody can or should deny the popularity of Dan Brown’s books, those huge sales, in my opinion—just mine, you don’t have to agree—don’t do much to lead people to better-written work. Dan Brown’s books exist in a realm of entertainment that includes the action films made from them, and are not as salutary an event in literature as many like to say they are. I have yet to hear an excited reader say, “You know, that last Dan Brown book was so good that I’m going to try the new Barbara Kingsolver.”

No one suggests that reading romance or science fiction will lead readers to DeLillo and Didion, but Brownians love to tell you how good their man’s astronomical sales are for publishing.

Indeed, one of our most astute observers of the realm and a great, favorite colleague of mine, Philip Jones [30]in London, wrote in his Future present [31] blog post at The Bookseller that “newspaper critics” of Brown “once again show how disconnected they are from readers.”

I disagree, and I ask that we talk in terms of “reviewers” and “critics,” not lumping them together. The literary critic’s job is not to judge the quality of Dan Brown’s work by the fact that readers buy him. Readers bought 50 Shades of Grey, too. And while consumer reviewers might want to focus on popularity as a criterion, what literary critics are saying is that they (for the most part) don’t agree with the readers’ high regard for Brown’s books. That’s disagreement, not disconnection.

And here’s my real point: no hard feelings. Jones, if and when he reads my comment here, will see me drawing the familiar line between consumer reviews and literary criticism. There’s even a debate to be had about whether what he refers to as “newspaper critics” should be critics; maybe consumer reviewers, who tell you to “read” or “don’t read” something, are all that’s wanted in times of Dan Brown launches. But for Jones and me, there’ll be no animosity. No beach-blanket wails of “Negativity!” No Gustave Doré writhings in agony. Jones and I are colleagues. We can disagree and still respect each other, easily, readily, without a bump.

That’s what this column is about.


Here’s the Deal

We’re flagging these columns “Provocations in Publishing” because the industry! the industry! is one overwrought place these days.

Have you noticed how many publishing people stage every disagreement as if it’s life and death?

No Writer Unboxed reader would ever do this, of course. It’s the others we’re talking about.

There are a lot of provocations in publishing. Most of my writings deal with them. Some are serious. Some are less so. Any major business locked in the wrenching upheaval that publishing is undergoing will be wracked with challenging, divisive issues.

We tend to confuse those issues with our emotional responses to them.

The United States was founded on disagreement. Our forebears ankled England because they disagreed with how things were going. And yet, we’ve become a society addicted to happy agreement. Many times in this past week of so many “publishing provocations,” I’ve found myself assuring somebody that it’s just fine to disagree—with me, with others. No need to be nasty…no need to snarl…no need to win…no need to win…no need to win…getting that?…no need to win…

That’s it, isn’t it? In many Western cultures these days, we probably love winning more than we love the freedom to disagree. In publishing, you see it everywhere, from pundits who claim they’ve “won” because they predicted something (who cares?) to authors who claim they’re “winning” because their favorite model of publishing is “better” than someone else’s.

I don’t have to win. I also don’t have to see you win. I’ll still love you if you come back on your shield.

So in coming posts, as we look at provocations in publishing here, bear that in mind, please. Nothing you read here is meant to say you’re winning or losing some odd, unseen competition. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing. I’m glad it includes spending some time with this diverse WU community.

The provocations we discuss here are in publishing, dear Brutus, not in ourselves. As long as we remember that, we’re friends, Romans, and countrymen.

So, do you want to give me a piece of your mind about Dan Brown and his popularity? Or Barnes & Noble’s best-seller lists? Or Ann Patchett’s be-nice-to-publishers comments? Or Amazon Publishing’s fan fiction deal? Or Lydia Davis’ Booker win? I’ll get you started: “Porter, you ignorant slut…”

About Porter Anderson [34]

@Porter_Anderson [35] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [36], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [37] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [38]