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Monday, November 29, 2010

The Best Lack All Conviction, So American Publishers Prefer the Worst

In this article from the Financial Times, journalist Gillian Tett describes a difference between British and American book marketing that she encountered after writing a book about the financial crisis:
Initially I planned to start the book by admitting that I was not a true expert on high finance: instead I crashed into this world in 2005, after a background spent in journalism-cum-social anthropology – making me a well-intentioned amateur, but without complete knowledge.
My friends in the British publishing world loved that honesty; in the UK, self-deprecation sells, particularly for “well-meaning amateurs” such as the writer Bill Bryson. But my American friends hated it. In New York, I was sternly told, absolutely nobody wants to listen to self-doubt. If you are going to write a book – let alone stand on a political platform or run a company – you must act as if you are an expert, filled with complete conviction. For the US version, the preface was removed entirely.
Based on conversations I've had with publishers, marketers, and publicists, this rings sadly true to me.  Which raises discouraging questions about the long-term future of book publishing in America.  After all, what are serious non-fiction books for if not to explore the subtle nuances of complex topics?  If Americans have little tolerance for the uncertainty and ambiguity that is inherent in such exploration--preferring, I suppose, the shout-'em-down self-righteousness of cable-TV "debates"--then why bother reading books at all?


  1. I love comparisons between US and UK publishing--only Americans would put something called a "violator" on a book cover--and I agree that it's pretty shameful the author's preface was removed. But I think the problem described has more to do with a broader cultural difference than publishing chicanery. Sarah Lyall's brilliant Anglo-files has a funny chapter on the importance of the word "sorry" to British English--basically, every sentence has to begin with this word, if not the sentiment. It just seems silly to our ears. Michael Lewis was pretty honest in Liar's Poker that he was a total imposter on Wall Street, but he was a little more brazen about it. I suspect it's the apologetic tone of the author, not the information, that rubbed the publisher the wrong way?

  2. Interesting. I bet you're right about the apologetic tone. When Americans assert that they might not be complete experts, they tend to do just that -- assert it, without apology. More of a "This is who I am, take me or leave me" attitude.

    If the publisher found the preface objectionable, why not just ask the author to rework it? Or edit it and run it by her?

  3. You may be right about the apologetic tone, Neal. I do know that US publishers--at least some of the ones I've worked with--believed that a take-no-prisoners, in-your-face, assertive style is the best way to attract publicity and therefore sales. I've been in a number of publishing meetings that basically consisted of the marketing and publicity people asking me (as the editor or publisher), "Can't you get the author to juice up the message and make it more forceful?" Nuance doesn't sell.