I read two or three books each week, cover to cover, of which maybe half are recently published and mostly from mainstream, major publishers. That’s partly because I pick up leads to new books from mainstream periodicals - principally The Literary Review, The London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. The first two are conservative in their review choices; the TLS has become more adventurous under its current editor and notices a fair number of books from small and foreign language publishers.
For the past ten years I have posted reviews of some of my recently read books on this blog. They do not offer reader recommendations or puffs which a publisher might pick up for a paperback edition; I only review when I have something to say. That does mean that some books which I think are simply terrific don’t get a review. Most recently, that’s true of Edward Wilson-Lee’s A History of Water (William Collins 2022). I don’t have any of his expertise and I can’t see any way in which I could better the craft which turned his research findings into a fascinating tale.
I have read lots of good books and quite a few duds, often from the same publisher, and begin to wonder about explanations, especially for the bad ones. How do they get published? I can only speculate.
There are a very small number of books where at the end (I rarely give up) I just want to ask who the author is sleeping with.
Then there are books which will have gone through the VIP lane to get their contracts because the author is established in one way or another and sells well every time, regardless. The VIP lane is the route where you are simply waved through. I have a candidate for a bad book by a good author which surely got published regardless. And even if I am wrong about that, there are plenty of readers who will have experienced disappointment with the latest from a favourite author. Few enthusiasts for Ian McEwan will be enthusiastic about Amsterdam (Jonathan Cape 1998).
Most publishing is big business publishing. Sometimes readers are clear beneficiaries: rows of black-backed Penguin Classics on my shelves, cheap, carefully edited and reliable are evidence for that. I am very grateful. But sometimes, and perhaps especially for academic or semi-academic books where the print run will be small, a publisher can only afford a limited budget - that means, limited time - to assess a potential title. As a result, publishers are now in the habit of asking authors to fill out questionnaires as long as those required by the United Kingdom’s Home Office and if the authors game the questionnaire successfully then they are well on the way to get their visa. They have done a lot of work which used to be a publisher’s job. And if you are rubbish at filling up forms - and some of the questions are pretty inane - you won't get published however good your book. But if the paperwork is in order, you are well on your way.
Some years ago [5 March 2016] I responded here to Gerald Steinacher’s generally well-received Nazis on the Run (Oxford University Press 2011). The title alone would sell it, but the book is a mess. And, given its subject matter, I wish it hadn’t been. After trying to set out the historical context it is concerned with I ordered my criticisms:
First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph.D.
I then set out to show that it failed to present its evidence in a way which was decisive enough to justify the conclusions Steinacher drew or wanted to draw. To put the book right would have taken a great deal of editorial labour. As it stands, the book should not have been published.
But then there is the opposite problem where a book has been spoilt by intrusive low-grade (and probably low-paid) editing which makes the author look a fool. I was first alerted to this problem when I read Tim Parks Where I'm Reading From reviewed here 22 February 2015 who described the appalling treatment accorded one of his books by an American publisher - I outline the problems he encountered. More recently, I found an example which indicates that Parks' case was not a one-off.
In 2020 Oxford University Press (USA) published a perfectly acceptable academic monograph with an eighteenth century focus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés. French Words That Turned English though clearly Émigrés didn’t because it is being given two accents not one on the cover. Leave that aside (but it has potential….). I published a long review [28 October 2020].
One of the things which troubled me was some dumbing down which could only have been the responsibility of some dumbed-down copy-editor. Thus at page 114 I encountered this:
The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..
Hang on a moment. This is a specialised monograph which will be read mainly by specialists in eighteenth century French and English literature. Which ones did the copy editor think would not know that M. Rousseau was French-speaking or Genevan or a thinker and writer?
It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. But the copy editor who put their mark on this book disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter and all-round bad boy Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? The answer is this: there is no proper name in the immediate vicinity of the poem to trigger the copy-editor’s little App which is limited to providing patter around proper names. Am I exaggerating? I rest my case with the first use of the App in the book, at page 80:
playwrights such as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…
It could have been worse. He could have been English-speaking. But, still, Professor Scholar was ill-served by his publisher. Had Professor Scholar added those glosses himself in a misguided attempt to make his book more accessible, an alert editor would have taken them out as out of keeping with the academic level of the book..