When Is A Good Story Even Better?
A major talent’s powerful début (a good story) has come to the world’s attention after a decade of rejection that some say is a shameful indictment of the publishing establishment’s commercialized interests (making it an even better story).
And yet, even in its new fame, US readers won’t find it in their national market until September. I’m not so sure that’s a good story. I’m conflicted on this. But I’ve got the reason for you, from the horse’s mouth.
At issue here is author Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.
This singularly expressive novel won the coveted Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) last week in London. Judged “original and incredibly emotionally involving” by the Baileys panel, its victory has triggered an international wave of hope, not least because it’s decidedly not cookie-cutter, thumb-sucking blockbuster material.
Baileys jury chair Helen Fraser — a former publisher whose berths have included the managing directorship of Penguin Books UK — calls the book “an amazing and ambitious first novel…an extraordinary new voice…this novel will move and astonish the reader.” Even in prize-giving moments, these are flares being shot above the Thames, keenly effusive comments ricocheting off the Hungerford Bridge and right out to the rest of us. We get it.
Writing about A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, the Baileys judges tell us both what McBride’s book is about and why its narrative technique is so much a part of the discussion:
Eimear McBride’s debut tells the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. It is not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconsciousness railing against a life that makes little sense, forming a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a young and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to plunge inside…the narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand.
Thus awarded the Baileys £30,000 purse and a bronze ‘Bessie’ at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on June 4, the Irish-born McBride is rocking the literary scene at a time when important, idiosyncratic, fiercely intelligent work couldn’t be more needed when the industry! the industry! is flabby with entertainment and the market is waddling.
We’re all but drowning in genre fiction — as good as some of it surely is — and not least because genre work is the first foam of the self-published riptide that’s washing over what once were beaches and lagoons of traditional literature.
But check out McBride’s book at Amazon.com, the American site, as I did.
- You can sample some of the linguistic finesse they’re all talking about by using the Look Inside feature.
- You can pre-order the book, although only in hardcover and paperback at this point — I see no Kindle listing.
- You can see lots of encouraging blurbs from the UK and a note that it won the 2013 Goldsmith Prize there. Oddly, there seems to be no update, as of this writing, mentioning the Baileys Prize.
- And you can also find out that it’s going to be published in the US by an independent publisher, Coffee House Press in Minneapolis.
- But you can’t get it yet.
You can’t get it in a US edition for about three months. September 9. The reason is, in some ways, running parallel to the book’s pathway to its new acclaim.
“Don’t Underestimate Me The Reader”
One of the reasons many of us in publishing love this story is that A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing defied the gatekeeping odds of the traditional industry to come into the formidable spotlight it’s enjoying now, but it’s not a self-publishing jig we’re dancing.
McBride’s efforts to find a publisher for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing were turned down for some nine years. Not until she showed it to a bookseller, Norwich’s Henry Layte, did it find the tenacious friend it needed.
Layte tells The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell in Bookseller Henry Layte on discovering McBride, “My feeling was this was either one of the greatest books of the late 20th century or it was complete crap. I was positive I was right and it was in fact a seriously important book, but at the same time I thought ‘how come the publishing industry has turned it down for 10 years? I might be wrong.’”
[Layte] compared the first reading of it to how he felt encountering Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. “I didn’t know anyone could write like that,” he said.
That’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? A bookseller, no less, saying he didn’t know anyone could write like that. Fantastic.
In actuality, the heavens finally had opened for the long-rejected McBride. Layte had formed an independent publishing firm, Galley Beggar Press with two associates, Sam Jordison (a Guardian books journalist) and his wife, Eloise Millar. Their precise interest in Galley Beggar was in finding books that major publishers wouldn’t touch. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was a full-figured model of what they were after.
One of the more gratifying elements of this rejection-to-riches turnaround is that there’s some healthy rancor here. No one needs to be mean, of course. We have all the boors we need in publishing, thanks. But at the same time, a profound, constructive, defiant message is being sent in this instance to an industry that’s struggling to understand how badly damaged its reputation really is among many creative people.
This is why I’m glad that Layte, in talking to Campbell, doesn’t sugar-coat his feelings about the struggle that McBride faced to find a footing for her work. Campbell writes:
While [Layte] conceded that “it is very easy to read the first few pages of the book and not like it,” he was angry other publishing houses had not taken it on before Galley Beggar. “I hope this has told the publishing industry something and conveyed that actually people do want to read challenging books,” Layte said. “They do not just want easy books. The fact that this book wasn’t published before is disgraceful.”
He continued: “After it we published it, a lot of these agents were scrambling over themselves saying, ‘We want to represent her’ but she turned them all down – and good on her. Many of the people Eimear sent the manuscript to at first were quite offensive about it.” He added: “If the publishing industry doesn’t take a risk then who will?”
And he’s right: then who will?
Don’t be too quick to yell, “She should have just self-published the damned thing!” If the publishing houses want us to believe they’re out to find and deliver good material, then they need to take responsibility for that mission, not just tell everyone, “Do it yourself, and we’ll see if we like it.”
A blog post has been contributed to The Bookseller by Fiona McMorrough — not a journalist but a PR and marketing executive whose firm, FMCM, represents a couple of literary prizes. She writes:
A writer, but a self-declared reader first, [McBride] returned the challenge with her Bessie held high to the Southbank ballroom floor, facing the publisher suitors who had rejected her first. You may have underestimated me the writer, she declared, but please DON’T underestimate me the reader, or by extension, my potential readers.
And here was McBride, herself, speaking to The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi after winning the Baileys:
Publishing has become very homogenous and conservative and market driven, under false pretences. [There’s a thought that] heavyweight middle-brow fiction is all readers want. There is a place for that, but there’s plenty of room for others too.”
Yet, for all this good story around McBride’s good story…why can’t we in the US read this book, which has been out in the UK in its Faber and Faber edition since early April?
So I ASKED The American Publisher
Caroline Casey, managing director for Coffee House Press, couldn’t be more gracious and forthcoming, especially with a journalist patting his foot and wanting to know, ‘Well, Caroline? Is it out yet? How ’bout now?”
In fact, Casey has yet another good story to tell about this book and the fact that — as with Galley Beggar in the UK — it’s coming to readers in the States only through the good work of an independent publisher.
“The story is very similar to the UK story,” Casey tells me.
“Nearly the same thing happened here—US publishers passing. And then our publisher, Chris Fischbach, saw a tweet by [author] Elizabeth McCracken about the book needing to be available in the US. He replied to her, we got the manuscript, devoured it, and Chris negotiated the contract from a small town grocery store parking lot while he was on vacation. We knew it was a great book and wanted to make sure we had signed it before everyone else found out.”
As I said during a panel discussion I moderated at BookExpo America’s IDPF Digital Book Conference at the end of May, I think too many authors these days overlook independent presses. You either go for the Big Five or self-publishing, they believe. Wrong. On each side of the Atlantic, you’re seeing independent publishers bring forward such important work as this.
Okay but if Coffee House and other independents are so great, why are we waiting around until September to read A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing?
After all, in the UK, the book had sold 6,494 copies at the time it was given the Baileys Prize. Faber, which now is co-publishing (it’s not the Galley Beggar group that actually took the chance on it), is printing 25,000 copies for the UK. The book is that big. And clearly the files for every format are more than ready. No translation needed.
September, huh, Caroline? I’m going to let Casey have her say in its entirety without my annoying interjections because she has answered me in good faith and I respect what she’s telling us. Here you go:
We bought the book last year, and have been planning its rollout since then,” Casey tells me. “As much as the Baileys Prize is terrific news, to really have a book penetrate the wider reading public you need review coverage as well. That doesn’t happen instantaneously, and so we made the decision to keep the publication date.
If we had gone to print the day she won the prize, it still would have been more than six weeks before the book was available. The interest would have waned by then (there are very boring hard numbers behind that). And we think this is an important book—I don’t want to react to news in a way that undermines the overall health of her audience in the US market.
Eimear has done something remarkable with this novel, and it deserves as many readers as possible. We want it to be reviewed and talked about and featured—the Faber reprint is working off of a year of sales and reviews and ardent UK champions, so the situations aren’t really comparable.
It’s not that we don’t have the files, so much as we want them to be used to the greatest effect. And to sell a electronic edition right now would be a real disservice to our other partners—independent booksellers. I want the book to be out there for all readers and all retailers at the same time. We like a level playing field.
Okay Now I’ll Be Annoying. Respectfully.
I do get everything that Casey is telling us. And clearly, if you want to know how good and rich and wise a publisher this Coffee House is, read Fischbach’s fine essay from May 23 at Virginia Quarterly Review, Literature Is Not the Same Thing as Publishing. He’s writing about a reassessment the company has made of what it does:
Today, Coffee House Press defines itself as an organization that connects writers and readers by designing and producing literary experiences. The primary way we do this is by publishing and selling books, like everyone else, through a distributor in a traditional manner. In fact, we’ve always connected writers and readers; we just didn’t think of it that way.
I like that.
And I think Coffee House might do a little more thinking.
Today, what’s important is not so much the launch — bang! — of a book. So long is the tail, so international is our understanding of the industry, that books don’t have to be shot out of a cannon at just a certain angle, just a certain moment, just a certain speed. Print on demand means you don’t have to have a warehouse of the things on the loading dock for trucks. And ebooks are forever. An author’s best friend.
I realize that Casey feels that “connecting writers and readers,” as Fischbach wants to do, is predicated by connecting writers and critics. I respect that. I’m a National Critics Institute Fellow, myself. I hear her. But I’m not sure she’s right. Or, at the least, I’m not sure she’s as right today as she might have been a decade ago when McBride started trying to find a publisher.
Let’s be clear: it is ridiculously easy for me to sit here and write that I think Coffee House should get busy and start connecting A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing with US readers right now. I take nothing away from the publishers of the world whose risk involves both financial and emotional attachment to such important work.
And I have seriously congratulated Casey and Coffee House on Fischbach’s smart capture of this book. I’m applauding, unstintingly, and I’m especially glad to see its American iteration come about as a result of an independent publisher’s savvy, as occurred in the UK. Bravo.
But I’m sorry that our industry players, even in the independent world, aren’t sometimes quicker to hook up international success with local access.
The Baileys Prize, alone, is an intoxicating thing and not just because it’s sponsored by the next best thing to Campari, but because it works to help illuminate the work of women in literature. That, to my mind, is something all by itself worth rushing about.
Do American readers really look at UK blurbs and say, “Oh, gosh, that’s a London critic praising that book, I couldn’t possibly read it until a US critic raves about it”…? #cmonson
Do we really do a disservice to our independent bookstores with digital-first publishing? I do like all formats to move together, as I told Casey. But if digital precedes print, isn’t the real goal to help bring bookstores into the digital age by pressing them to embrace electronic sales?
Look, I’ll be glad to see McBride’s book issued in the United States right on Coffee House’s timetable. More than glad, I’ll be tweeting it madly. You know me.
But it’s important for all of us to think twice about old assumptions in introducing literature.
The digital dynamic can help us raise our good stories with electric speed and the dazzling frisson of one nation’s readership saying to another’s: “Listen to us: we have this fantastic book here among us, it almost got away, and we want you to read it, and you can do that right now.”
With all respect for Coffee House Press — all respect, believe me — when I’m in London this week for the FutureBook Hack, I’m going to duck into a bookstore and buy A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Maybe at Waterstone’s I can even get it onto my Kindle Fire. If so, I’ll be doubly happy.
I won’t be hanging on for print. And I won’t be hunkered down until September. Eimear McBride already had to wait too long. So did we.