Bennett's Blog

Artistic Freedom Under Fire

Bennett R. Coles | April 22, 2012

 There is definitely something wrong with the publishing industry when a book that is unanimously regarded as excellent, including by those in the industry, has absolutely no chance of being considered for publication. Sound odd? I thought so too.

I was having coffee with a fellow-author friend of mine not long ago, and we were discussing the various trials and tribulations of dealing with agents, doing our own marketing, and in general the challenges most authors face in the publishing world today. We found a lot in common, but I was shocked (and, at the same time, sadly not surprised) when she told me of the reaction by agents to her book.

The book in question is called “The How Did You Die Show” and it’s a stunning collection of mixed-media works from the exhibit of the same name that graced several major art shows in Toronto. The title is provocative, the art within compelling. The artist, Lisa-Scarlett Cruji, enjoyed so much success with the shows that she decided to publish the exhibit in book form.

How Did You Die, Ava? One of the best-selling works from the showDespite her success in the art world, Lisa-Scarlett struggled to get the attention of an agent. But she was lucky enough to meet with a literary agent who worked for the TV industry – someone who could give her an honest, professional assessment of the book’s potential with no obligation. The agent devoured the artwork, and when she finished reviewing the entire collection, this was her conclusion:

“It’s fabulous. I love it. No agent will ever touch it.”

Her explanation was that the book didn’t fit into any established category. It would be hard for an agent to create a snappy “elevator pitch” and harder still for a traditional editor to know how to work with it. It might be brilliant, but because it was so different it would be too much work (read, too much money) for the traditional publishing industry to embrace.

In three simple sentences, the agent captured one of the big problems with today’s publishing industry: it is totally about the money. Whereas in the old days publishing houses had the liberty to take chances on unique, niche books like “The How Did You Die Show” for their artistic merit, today the various squeezes on publishers force them to put their resources into those books for which there is an immediate, obvious and lucrative audience. The latest Jody Picoult novel will be gobbled up by her fans. An autobiography of, say, Justin Bieber will send the tweens flocking to the ebook sites. But an artistically fascinating collection of mixed-media artwork on a sometimes-uncomfortable topic by an artist unknown outside Toronto? Sorry, not gonna happen.

Now don’t get me wrong. Jody Picoult is a brilliant author who deserves her legion of fans, and the Biebz is just so darn cute how could I not want to know his hard-earned insights over eighteen years of life? But books, like all art, are supposed to be able to challenge us and open our minds to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Perhaps like no other media, books have the ability to explore deep into the human condition, to reveal truths gradually and often with powerful counterpoints built in. No visual art can compete with literature for the gradual, thoughtful revelation of the profound, and while music is beautiful and essential, it can’t explore intellectual ideas with the precision of writing. All art has always been about pushing boundaries, and some of the greatest artists in any medium have been those who have thrown aside the conventions of the day and created something revolutionary.

So why is the publishing industry turning away from the innovative and strange, and instead fillingThe Cover of  the bookstore shelves with yet another glossy picture book on jet fighters, yet another retired politician’s memoirs, and yet another summary of why the Kardashian sisters are so completely amazing?

Because those books sell. Period.

I’ve come to know quite a few people in the publishing industry, and by and large they’re excellent, sincere, hardworking folk. But when I ask about their company’s attitude toward manuscript quality versus marketability, they sigh and shrug, and just resign themselves to the fact that that’s the way it is. A publisher’s got to make money, otherwise it goes out of business. Likewise an agent’s got to represent financial winners, otherwise no commission cheques come. I get this. I understand that publishing is an industry like any other, and that companies have to be profitable to survive. But publishing has a responsibility to the art form that it represents, and one of the biggest aspects of that responsibility is to ensure that new, avant-garde forms of this art have the chance to meet the public.

Will everyone like “The How Did You Die Show”? Probably not. But many will. That’s the thing about art – it’s personal and subjective. The more important question is: does the book deserve the chance to be judged by the wider public? Absolutely. It’ll be only one of approximately 85,000 books published in North America this year, so it’ll be up against some stiff competition, but it’s a quality piece and it deserves the chance.

The modern publishing industry fails its audience when it retreats completely into the economic safety of mass market best-sellers and rejects the unusual or the bold. With the various e-technologies now becoming more and more accessible to all, the modern publishing industry is at real risk of losing the best and brightest authors to new media. The revolution is already beginning – stay tuned.

Originally published at Life as a Human

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