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Publishing novels: Darwin in a literary species

Every year there is a debate on the number of novels published in the United States and elsewhere. The new technology of POD (Print on Demand) and publishers such as iuniverse make the counting all that more difficult. No one can be certain as to the number of manuscripts that are submitted by writers but an educated guess would be in the hundreds of thousands. M.J. Rose gives a range of between a low of 5,000 to a high of 25,000 published adult novels in the USA for 2004. There is no evidence that the top end of this range will be any lower for 2005. In Thailand, we only have a fraction of this output available at local bookstores. The buyers for the chains of the English language bookstores (for the most part) rely upon stock from the large publishers. The largest 12 houses in the USA, the ones most people would have some vague awareness about e.g., Random, Simon, Harper, and Penguin, accounted for just over 5,000 of the published novels in 2004. A few hundred pocketbook novels from these 12 houses gradually filter through to Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.

The figures amount to nearly 300 new adult novels each week. This is enough to cause reviewers to wonder how they can possibly keep up with the torrent of books that appears on their desk every day. The answer is that they can’t keep up. Taking the figure for all novels published, about one-third published in 2004 according to M.J. Rose were reviewed in the major review outlets. That means most books drifted like a small asteroid lost in space.

Then as everything seems doom and despair, there is a school teacher who teaches French in Yorkshire named Diane Setterfield sold her first novel to Orion for 800,000 pound sterling. The Yorkshire Post reported the novel, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, will appear on 20th September 2006.

“The novel follows a reclusive famous author as she tells her life story to a biographer, and is described as a ‘compelling emotional mystery about family secrets and the magic of books and storytelling’.”

Out of the 25,000 plus novels bought in 2005 a handful receive a huge advance, notice and worldwide discussion while the rest march on seeking to avoid extinction. In a Darwinian world, only the most fit survive. In the world of books, if fitness is defined solely by the amount of advance paid, then one bet that Diane Setterfield stands a better chance than most writers whose future is uncertain.

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