I’ve always had an idealised kind of view about books. While I might get a kick out of watching Avengers Assemble or emotional enrichment out of Rust And Bone, in a way reading even something like Twilight (oddly compelling despite everything) is a more worthwhile choice for me. Because I’m not sitting in front of a screen, letting everything be processed for me before I take it in. A reader has to help construct the world in the book, breathe true life into skilfully arranged words.
So it’s taken a long time for me to accept that the publishing industry isn’t as ‘noble’ as the art it produces.
My Exhibit A is The Bone Season (let’s call it TBS for short), undoubtedly the most hyped-up book in the fantasy/sci-fi genre for 2013. Bloomsbury got the publicity machine chugging from the moment it snapped TBS up in 2011, unashamedly suggesting that its 19 year old Oxford undergraduate author, Samantha Shannon, was the next JK Rowling. I suppose if any publishing house has a right to make that claim, it’s the one that was responsible for propelling the original JK Rowling to success. But it’s still a rather underhanded ploy to attract book fans’ attention, especially if the book itself doesn’t make good on what was promised. In the case of TBS the comparison was tenuous at best, based on threadbare links such as that it was first in a projected seven-book series, and featured magic. But invoking the name of Harry Potter’s author made sure that media interest in TBS snowballed, so that the bestseller success it’s gone on to achieve was all but guaranteed.
…that’s the fault of the publisher, not the reader…
But here’s the kicker: TBS is nothing more than average. Perhaps the hype did get to my head, and I was expecting a work of brilliance equal to the media storm, and the six-figure advance that reportedly Shannon received (which I’m sure didn’t hurt in stoking interest). But that’s the fault of the publisher, not the reader. TBS is a novel-by-numbers, riding the safe current of in-vogue YA dystopian fiction, with a dash of genuine imagination but also a smothering dollop of clunky world-building, unspectacular prose and a hilariously terrible romance.
To be fair, despite a number of either blistering or tepid reviews, the book’s reception has been positive. Its Goodread and Amazon pages are filled with 4 and 5 star reviews (who mostly seem to love the romance – Twilight’s dubious legacy?). But I can’t help thinking about how many genuinely better books there are out there that will never reach the same heights of success or readership simply because they haven’t had a big publishing house throw a giant marketing budget at them. Granted, my own opinion is subjective, but when it comes to fantasy elements like world-building, for which TBS has garnered plenty of praise, there are so many better books out there. As an avid reader of fantasy I have happily lost myself in the rich stories of authors like Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch. Their stuff is so good I would eat it if I could.
…It’ll be interesting to see if the momentum can be maintained…
Instead, when it came to TBS, what Bloomsbury did was simply find an averagely-written yet sellable book by a sellable author, and weave a tale of success around the pair. Janet Maslin of the New York Times hit the nail on the head when she slammed TBS for being hyped “as a human interest story, not as a book”. The vast majority of the articles I read in the run-up to the publication of TBS and afterwards started with a healthy-sized section on the author’s life story (i.e. mostly centred on the fact that she was 19 when the book got picked up) and only then moved onto a blurb or review for TBS.
Am I the only reader who is tired of ploys like constantly invoking JK Rowling’s name to sell new books? Particularly when the only criteria that need to be filled are that the author is a) writing in the fantasy genre, b) young (ideally under the age of 20), and most importantly c) female? Certainly this was the case with Emma Maree Urquhart and Catherine Banner, teenagers who both had the JK Rowling label slapped on them when their debut novels were published. Yet I very much doubt that anyone can recall their names or their books now. Shannon is the exception in that the hype and publicity reached the ‘threshold to fire’ this time. It hit the hardback bestseller lists in the UK and US within days of publication, and is apparently into its third reprint now. It’ll be interesting to see if the momentum can be maintained for the following books in the series, and whether Bloomsbury will keep plugging it or ease back a little in the expectation that their job is done.
…the average reader expects a book written by a celebrity to be marketed largely around this point…
I miss the good old days when books were sold on the basis that they were books and not that their author was notably young, and/or had a vaguely interesting backstory (biographies being the only exception), and had written something that was vaguely in the same genre as an already hugely successful book. Sales tactics like those that Bloomsbury has used are tainting the publishing world, dragging it down to the level of more openly cynical industries like Hollywood. TBS was more of a marketing strategy than a novel, cold and calculated. Bloomsbury isn’t alone in this behaviour of course; novels written by celebrities, for example, are always going to have a unique selling point. But the average reader expects a book written by a celebrity to be marketed largely around this point. Otherwise, they expect the book they are reading to have been published purely because of its contents, not the real-life story around it.
The publishing industry is obsessed with finding the next Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins or JK Rowling. In fact, Samantha Shannon has been compared to all three by Bloomsbury (the Advanced Reader Copy edition claimed that the book would “challenge” Twilight and The Hunger Games). But what the first three authors all have in common is that their books were hits that came out of nowhere. It’s as if publishers like Bloomsbury have decided that if they predict a new JK Rowling enough times, the odds are that one of the arrows will hit the mark and then they can point and say “SEE! We’re good at this!”
Hype gets sales, but can it earn the kind of long-lasting legacy like books such as Harry Potter?