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
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
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
This is, I repeat, conjecture. I have seen precious little literary
analysis of the phenomenon involved. Some statistician really should
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
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
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.
The Antipodean Antipathies archives
The Antipodean Antipathies is copyright © 2010
by R. J. Stove and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved.
R. J. Stove, is
an Australian writer who resides in Melbourne. He is the author of
• Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (Quakers
Hill Press, Sydney, 1990)
Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter
Books, San Francisco, 2003)
Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware,
See a complete biographical sketch.
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