Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Declining The World Over

At the recent BEA convention, the story was the sorry state of publishing. So many titles, so few readers, the moan went up amongst the crowd. What does the book-buying public want? Why can the publishing houses not figure it out?

Tony Farmar, past president of the Irish Publishers' Association, is worried about the health of Irish publishing houses, those small presses that struggle to compete with the mighty powerhouses in England. Irish authors are lured to London with the promise of large advances, loads of publicity and plenty of hype, so how can some small beer of a press ever hope to compete against those big wallets? His suggestion has some merit.

Like the publishers in New York, the London-based presses aren't much interested in culture beyond their city limits because they can't relate to it. If they don't relate to it, the reasoning goes, neither can anyone else, so why bother publishing something that won't sell. Irish authors go unpublished, even though they have something to say, because what they are saying has been judged too regional, 'wouldn't know how to sell it' as the literary agents say. Change the setting to London or New York City and throw in a bit of shopping at high end establishments and then we'll talk.

Mr. Farmar has suggested that the government treat small presses as cultural institutions, and support them as they support painters or sculptors or theatres. If it doesn't get written down and put into print, it gets lost, and if the big houses aren't buying something they deem too "Irish", shouldn't Ireland step in and rescue its written culture? In a land famous for writers and poets, is the written word something worth shoring up? It's been done in Canada, to help Canadian publishers keep their heads above the flood that is publishing in New York City.

Is it time for the states of Montana or North Dakota to promote local authors? If the literary agents in New York won't represent someone writing about a winter in the High Plains, should the local authorities step in to help so that their unique culture isn't lost? Would people read more if they had good books about people like them, living in the same sort of place and doing the same sort of things? Not shopping at Bergdorf Goodman, that is, or trading bonds on Wall Street.

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