Last night the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced: Paul Beatty triumphed with The Sellout. The author won fifty thousand pounds, decent publicity and guaranteed future sales, and his publishers took home prestige and bragging rights.
The literary pages of the broadsheets have something to write about. Like the gossip rags they look down up, they can now generate a few days-worth of articles and debate about the decision, manufacture a bit of controversy, keep the thing going, and everyone will be happy.
But my question is: in the real world, especially in the world of publishing which exists now, the living world of writers and readers, which I have seen with mine own eyes: who really gives a toss?
Of course, it´s every authors dream – every artist´s dream, really – to find themselves standing on a platform in front of an adoring audience, humbling thanking their nearest and dearest for supporting them, taking in the applause and, hopefully, finding it plugs that strange, empty space they have in their souls which needs recognition. Others would happily take simply being published, or noticed – anywhere! But what do these ceremonies mean in relative terms? Do they deserve the attention they receive or are the press being lazy? Are they simply lapping up another ready-made story and ignoring the real story? Can they see the worlds that exist beyond the Guildhall or their next wine and cheese book launch?
The publishing landscape is changing radically. New worlds are being created and discovered daily. The old country still exists, populated by the same old faces – the aristocracy, if you will – but there is a shocking amount of activity going on almost in secret. A democratic, mass action is underway among writers and readers and both worlds seem almost independent, even ignorant, of each other.
This is not news to anyone under the age of, let´s say, twenty-five (or the more well-informed or inquisitive among you). I am forty-something: it´s big, take-off-your glasses, eye-rubbing news. Platforms like Wattpad and the extent of the world of indie publishing have come as a total surprise to me. Not that they exist but that they exist in such quantity and that there is so much activity going on. I feel like I´ve been wandering through a forest, looking up at the ivory towers on the hill, hoping to one day live there, or even be invited, when I have suddenly noticed ants – insects – for the first time in my life; whole civilisations at my feet, bustling about, oblivious to me, ignorant of me, ignoring me, working on even if I try to stamp them out or ignore them.
The numbers are worth a quick peruse. Book sales figures, like Hollywood actor´s salaries, are fairly difficult to pin down and that, of course, is for a reason. The book industry, like Hollywood, relies on smoke and mirrors; marketing. This is understandable and, like it or not, is how business works. Fine. But just how skewed are the stats?
The Sellout, on Amazon.com, has, at the time of writing, between 250 and 300 reviews. One can only guess at its sales but up to ten thousand copies wouldn´t be bad. Twenty thousand would be fantastic (many prize winners sell in the low hundreds). Fair enough, it´s a niche book, a “literary” novel, but we´re told it´s important, it receives press coverage, it is debated and talked about. Now on Wattpad, the most shared story – yes, it´s a story – is, today, called The Girl He Never Noticed by Neilani Alejandrino. It has been looked at, or viewed, more than a hundred and thirteen million times. It is the favourite story of almost three million people.
Just have a think about that.
Sneer, by all means. Say I´m comparing different things, by all means. But digest the numbers and think about it. Have a look for yourself. There is a world of readers out there, and writers, which is thriving apart from the traditional world. And it´s not all rubbish. It´s not all sword and sorcery or bondage (not that there´s anything wrong with those genres, but they are the most sneered at). Much of it is well-produced; the covers are decent, the editing is often well-done, the ebooks are technologically advanced.
My point is, there are whole communities out there beyond the castle walls: in the fields, on the islands, under the sea, in the air, which are worth looking into. They have their own support networks and reviewers. By and large they are not in competition: they help each other. They are communities of literate people, of literature, and they are being largely ignored or sneered at.
What a waste of energy!
So, to any author in that horrible scrum outside the castle gates, desperately holding up your wares, hoping you´ll be noticed and let into the Lord´s market place to peddle your goods, I say, turn around and look about you. That’s your market. That´s your world. And it´s a new world and well worth visiting.