Darwin’s Theory applied to the Book Trade
Brad Lang, the author of a private-eye series featuring Fred Crockett and who maintains a website called Hardboiled Heaven has kindly passed along his comments on the subject of how books are selected for publication and the longevity of books once they are published.
“While I don't know that it would be of specific interest to my readers (they might even take it the wrong way, if they see a parallel between old movies and "old" books), I found it interesting. I happen to be one of those readers who only reads what he likes, regardless of whether or not it's a current bestseller, so I don't contribute to the feeding frenzy for whatever's new. I think there's more going on with that experiment than just the fact that the subject matter of the books may have been out of date. I suspect, in fact, that if you sent manuscripts of chapters from even more recent books (as long as their subject matter didn't identify them as being from current novels) out to publishing houses, the majority of them would get rejected, too. The reading process at most publishing houses is not set up to discover new authors; it's set up to eliminate as much as possible from the "slush pile" as quickly as possible so that the top level editors can spend their time trying to land the latest hot author rather than developing new talent that might serve them well for years to come.
Still, I agree with you that many novels published in the 70s probably aren't very relevant today. By the same token, there are probably a few unpublished works that might have been enduring classics had some agent or reader been a little more open or spent a little more time with them. The book publishing process is a curious one, and I guess we can be thankful for print-on-demand and ebooks! Still, to me it's more satisfying to read something that has actually been printed and bound and looks like it might be worth keeping in a bookcase somewhere. It says that somebody had enough faith to spend a little money on it, rather than just digitizing the thing and asking the reader to invest in the paper and ink!”