the state of things

 

Never Judge A Book... etc etc

by Douglas Lindsay - 09:02 on 26 February 2009

A couple of years ago I was talking to someone from the Scottish Publishers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was hoping she'd give me advice on how to sell millions of books, but she seemed inclined to think that I was going to get Absolutely Nowhere self-publishing and was much keener on giving me advice on how to get another publisher to take them on.

We discussed book covers, as she looked disparagingly at mine. She said she'd sat with a WH Smiths rep once as he chose which books to put on his shelves. He raced through a large pile of books, making instant one-second decisions on whether or not to stock the books based entirely on the cover. It was that brutal.

There was a guy sitting nearby from one of the Edinburgh publishers. She took one of my books over to him for a brief chat. She returned a minute later to say that he hadn't liked the cover. Given that the point of her discussing my books with him would have been for him to take them on and publish them, the cover couldn't have been less important. But it was all he looked at, and he made an instant judgement.

She gave me his card, and I never called him.

This is taken from the introduction to François Rabelais' 16th century La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel:

You, my good disciples—and other fools with too much time on their hands—reading the cheerful titles of some of my books, like Gargantua, Pantagruel, Guzzlepot, The High Importance of Codpieces, Peas in Lard (With Commentary), etc., can more easily perceive that they're not just about mocking and scoffing, full of silliness and pleasant lies—having seen, without having to look any harder, that their outer image (that is, their titles) is usually received with mocking laughter and jokes. But it's wrong to be so superficial when you're weighing men's work in the balance. Wouldn't you yourself say that the monk's robes hardly determine who the monk is? Or that there are some wearing monks' robes who, on the inside, couldn't be less monkish? Or that there are people wearing Spanish capes who, when it comes to courage, couldn't have less of the fearless Spanish in them? And that's why you have to actually open a book and carefully weigh what's written there.

I just have to hope that Maurice the Skeleton, the new Face of Barney Thomson, has more of an impact.


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