Publishing’s Shrinking Attention Span

THE Scottish novelist Val McDermid, who has sold 10 million books, says she wouldn’t have a career in today’s relentless marketplace. One of the things the Internet and the superstar economy have done is to shrink our already shrunken attention spans further, and that’s doubly true in the culture industries.

Crime writer McDermid, best known for her Dr. Tony Hills books, tells the Telegraph that these days, publishers want an instant hit, or a big award, or writers get cut loose. It’s part of a larger collapse of the midlist writer or artist and a still larger threat to the middle class of the creative class. Says McDermid:220px-ValMcDermid

Back in the day when I started you were still allowed to make mistakes. You got to make your mistakes in public, in a way. I think the world was a more forgiving place when I started my career, in the sense that we got time and space to develop as a writer… If you don’t make the best-seller list, if you don’t get shortlisted for any prizes, it’s goodbye.

Literary agent Jonny Geller told the paper something similar:

It’s never quite as bleak as that but publishing is a lottery. What they are doing is putting big bets on some unknowns and it’s all or nothing. There’s a whole mid-range of novels that don’t have a hook or spectacular angle that would have been published five years ago, but fewer publishers want to take the risk.

We’ve had famous and celebrity writers for centuries now. But much of publishing seems to be joining Hollywood and the rest of the US and UK economies in a march toward a winner-take-all culture. Part of me wonders, what took them so long?

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