Sunday, July 10, 2011

Publishing Now Versus Thirty Years Ago by Thomas H. Cook

Thomas H. Cook is the author of 25 novels and three works of non-fiction.  He has been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award numerous times in numerous categories.  His novel, THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR won the Edgar for Best Novel in 1996.  He is also the recipient of the Barry Award for Best Novel for RED LEAVES.  He has twice won the Martin Beck Award of the Swedish Academy of Detection, the only author ever to have done so.  His works have also been nominated for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Hammett Prize, the Silver Dagger of the British Association of Crime Writers, and the Grand Prix Litterature Policiere in France.

Publishing Now Versus Thirty Years Ago
by Thomas H. Cook

I have lately been pondering the difference between publishing now and thirty years ago, when I published my first novel. I was published in hard back for the first time by Houghton Mifflin.  The book was called THE ORCHIDS, and it was a small, literary novel.  Even so, the head of the company, Austin Olney, a true Bostonian, took me to lunch.  "We don't publish books," he said.  "We publish authors."
By this statement I was to understand that as long as I wrote well, I would be published by Houghton Mifflin, that as a company, Houghton Mifflin believed in and stood by the few authors it selected.

I have no doubt that Mr. Olney meant this, and that other publishers at that time were giving similar assurances to their first novelists.  No such assurance could be given today. Now, a new author is given one chance, perhaps two, and if the books fail to meet commercial expectation, the promising novelist will find himself or herself without a publisher.   What this means is that the careers of writers who might have gone on to greatness are being snuffed out.   Down the road, the inevitable result of this will be the loss of a mature literature.  For who but more seasoned writers can address literature's most universal  themes?  What young writer, for example, can have an inkling about regret, surely one of life's most searing experiences   In lieu of a literature whose richness only accumulated experience can provide, are we to have nothing more than a series of flashes in the pan, writers who, for one reason or another,  burst upon the scene, find favor for an instant, then vanish, never to be seen again?   Conrad was in his forties when he published his first book.  Most young writers in America today will be very, very lucky if they're still publishing at all by the time they are in their forties. 

My 25th novel, THE QUEST FOR ANNA KLEIN, has just been published.  It is not a book I could have written in my twenties for the simple reason that I could not have brought to it the same measure of knowledge and experience.  My fear is that those writers now in their twenties - coming as they are into a much changed publishing industry - will not be as lucky as I have been.


Julia Buckley said...

A fascinating question, and some important questions about publishing here. Must everything be driven by money, including art? Aren't there still publishers who will say, "Hey, we know this book is good and we're going to MAKE it a bestseller?"

Your books are a testament to what you say here. A new-to-writing whippersnapper could not write with
your wisdom. As you know, I am a fan of your work. :)

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

bo parker said...

Thomas, readers are the lucky ones to have found an author who has weathered the storms of the publishing world for nearly 40 years. For the record, RED LEAVES is one of the ten books I would take to the deserted island.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Looking forward to reading "The Quest of Anna Klein."

I think you're right, Thomas, that there are some experiences that younger writers can only imagine. Publishing has changed tremendously, as most businesses have. I know there was a generation where men would work for the same company all their lives and leave with a gold watch. No longer.

I think, in the future, young writers who have lost publishing contracts will consider other options...and there are other options these days besides the traditional approach. If they're good, their readers will follow them.

Sandra Parshall said...

As a reader, Tom, I'm grateful that your books are still being published. I recommend them to friends all the time. It's always wonderful to sink into a beautifully written, intelligent, engrossing story.

I feel fortunate to be with a small press (Poisoned Pen) that *does* stick with its authors as long as they continue producing good books. Many PPP mysteries, including mine, receive great reviews, often with stars attached -- but the big publishers aren't interested in us, regardless of how well we write. The quality of the writing is not what matters most in NY.

Thomas H.Cook said...

Thank you all for your comments on my blog this morning. They were wonderful to read. I continue to be disturbed by the persistent dumbing down of our culture. Please check out Roger Eberts comments on the most recent outrage, this one perpetrated by the Macmillan Reader, a dumbing down of THE GREAT GATSBY that will break your heart.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Tom, Welcome! It's always a thrill for me to see you here at Meanderings and Muses - Thank You.

I'm following the opinions from everyone regarding the publishing industry with great interest. This is quite thought provoking and I appreciate you sharing your feelings with us.

Cannot wait to read THE QUEST FOR ANNA KLEIN.