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Antipodean Antipathies
March 10, 2010

Confessions of a Non-Bestseller
by R. J. Stove

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — In the Internet age, there are only two surefire methods of determining whether you have authorial clout. One is a new one. The other is an old one.

The new method is to type your name into Google. You can thereby observe — with whatever degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction the circumstances warrant — web pages emerging like (in Fred Reed’s deathless simile) “mushrooms on a decaying stump.”

The old, pre-Internet but still eminently functional method is to get a hard-copy royalties statement in your mailbox. I received my latest one from the splendid ISI Books — publisher of my little Student’s Guide to Music History — not long ago. Quite a sobering experience. ISI lost $3,274.25 by investing in me.

Neither lack of coverage nor hostility of coverage constituted my problem. Often I would have four telephone interviews in one day. Some interviewers seemed to know the book better than I did. All, whatever their state of interest in classical music, were polite. Nor can I complain about the print media’s commentary on my book, commentary that ranged from the well-mannered to the near-worshipful.

With my two earlier books, Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (1990) and The Unsleeping Eye (2002), a similar tale could be told. Media coverage: check. Courteous media coverage: check. Nearly incessant media coverage: check, at least in The Unsleeping Eye’s case. For a while there I seemed to be vying with Brad Pitt in terms of column inches, at least in the Antipodes. Reverent bookbuyers at launches wanted copies that bore my signature. The one hostile notice I recall came from a card-carrying Communist historian who resented The Unsleeping Eye for mentioning Martin Luther King’s plagiarism. And even this historian usefully pointed out a small error of fact that I had made elsewhere, thereby proving that — improbably enough — God created even Commies for a purpose.

The trouble was that, after the book launches finished and the reviews ceased, neither book’s sales were worth a straw. Both books could be accurately described as comprising, in commercial terms, turkeys of truly world-historical proportions. It is, as my old Marxist professors used to observe, “no accident” that Prince of Music’s publisher has now shut down. So has The Unsleeping Eye’s. Will I end up inadvertently ringing down the curtain on ISI as well?

That is for others to decide. Nevertheless, I should like to submit a heretical conjecture about the notion of literary PR in generating sales.

Does media exposure sell a book? As one who had media exposure coming out of his ears, I increasingly suspect that it might not. Certainly the linear causal relationship — which most critics appear to regard as an article of faith — between such exposure and book sales did not occur in my case.

I actually fear that any relationship that occurred could have been an inverse one. Specifically, I fear that the more people heard my voice on the airwaves or saw my name in print, the wearier of me they grew, and the less likely they became to hand over their hard-earned readies on buying the product being promoted. “Oh, not that Stove guy again!”

This is, I repeat, conjecture. I have seen precious little literary analysis of the phenomenon involved. Some statistician really should research it.

In the meantime, British historian Sir Charles Petrie (1895-1977) had interesting thoughts — conveyed via his 1972 memoir A Historian Looks At His World — on the subject. His first-hand dealings with such press barons as the egregious Lord Northcliffe confirmed his views. Since Petrie himself achieved genuine monetary success during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, his remarks about literature that makes money necessitate serious consideration. I quote from them:

“Northcliffe's dictum that it does not matter what people say as long as they say something, which may or may not be true where individuals are concerned, certainly applies to serious books. Even a hostile review, so long as the work in question is not described as dull or inaccurate, is decidedly better than no review at all. If the reviewer describes the author as a bloody-minded and pestilent fellow with whom no reasonable human being is likely ever to agree, there are sure to be some bloody-minded and pestilent people among the readers of the review who will want to see what the book has to say. It is silence that kills.

“One publisher, even more prosperous than his fellows, once remarked to me that books are largely sold by talk, and there is a good deal in this. 'My dear, you simply must put so-and-so down on your library list', and 'I've just finished a damn good book, you ought to read it', are the recommendations that help sales enormously, and particularly is this so in the larger centers of population.”

Well, we can certainly concede Sir Charles’s point that silence kills. It always did, and it always will, Internet or no Internet. Perhaps — though this is a counter-intuitive conclusion — the effects of mainstream media silence are actually more, rather than less, damaging in the Internet era. But what of Petrie’s other statements? Possibly I would have benefited from being made the target for a reviewer’s hatchet-job. As I have yet to undergo this experience, I really cannot say.

About the importance of private talk in selling copies, I have no doubt. Nor, more significantly, has J. K. Rowling or Alexander McCall Smith. Both those novelists won very large word-of-mouth followings before the average literary reviewer or press agent had even heard of them.

Yes (it might be objected), but they deal in fiction. What about nonfiction? More particularly, a nonfiction book that, while it has no televisual tie-ins or capacity for Oprah’s Book Club appeal, might nevertheless make it as a “sleeper”?

Commercially, most nonfiction is dead in the water. We could round up the usual suspects, and blame progressive education, cyberspace, neocons, Dubya, Obama. But a diagnosis is not the same thing as a cure. I see no cure.

One dirty little secret of nonfiction publishing in 2010, especially in its university press incarnation, is the extent to which it has turned itself into vanity publishing. Would that I had $1.95 for every author who has told me that, before his manuscript will be even considered by a major university press, he has been expected to supply cash. Some authors — above all, youngish lecturers who realize that the “publish-or-perish” syndrome alone gives them a chance to enrich their résumés — swallow hard and pay up. A few academic authors manage to make a hit through an openly commercial publisher instead. Most do not.

It increasingly looks as if we have entered not only a post-literacy age but, for the most part, a post-nonfiction age, a post-publishing age, indeed a post-professional-author age. I do not deny that publishers will continue to exist, including excellent publishers like ISI. What I do deny is that the situation from which hardback, paperback, and periodical literature benefited in the 1950s and 1960s — a “perfect storm” combination of educated writers, educated readers, educated publishers, non-masochistic WASP-dominated elites, and no trash TV — will ever occur again.

Half a century ago, Russell Kirk and Hannah Arendt could live off the proceeds of their dense, demanding, and allusive books. When Petrie’s friend, fellow historian, and contemporary Sir Arthur Bryant died in 1985, he left a massive fortune that would be unthinkable now. Neither a reincarnated Bryant nor any other historian could attain anything like such an income today, unless he were a market genius or had an Ivy League senior professorship or moonlighted as a supermodel.

There are precedents, of course, for non-professional authorship dominating a society. Elizabethan England had almost nothing else. But one does sometimes wonder why one ever bothered learning to write.

At any rate, I am now in a position to offer, to any aspiring scribes who might be reading this article, absolutely foolproof vocational advice. Study my own career moves. Then do the precise opposite.

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The Antipodean Antipathies is copyright © 2010 by R. J. Stove and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

R. J. Stove, is an Australian writer who resides in Melbourne. He is the author of three books:
• Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (Quakers Hill Press, Sydney, 1990)
The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003)
A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2007)

See a complete biographical sketch.

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