Pulp fiction: Dreams turn to mush


Pulp fiction: Dreams turn to mush

ZELDA BEZUIDENHOUT reflects on publishing houses destroying perfectly good books.


IT lands like a sucker-punch. No, wait. It lands like a punch in the gut as you sit quietly on a beach chair with a G&T in one hand and ELO's Mister Blue Sky in your headphones. You are totally relaxed, self-satisfied and blissfully unaware of impending doom when the unthinkable news arrives: a book you've written is being pulped.

Ping! The Dear Lettie letter zooming in via email is clearly a template that has been used for hundreds of other authors. Writers who prefer not to talk about it.

“Dear [Writer's Name]

As an aftermath of Covid and due to the current economic climate, publishing houses worldwide are suffering particularly hard. Your book [Book Title] unfortunately didn't sell as desired and is now on our pulping list. We need to make room in our warehouse for new titles that are more deserving."

The last four words aren't really in the email but they are what you understand in your shocked state.

When your pulse rate normalises, you read on. As a kind of consolation prize, you are now allowed to purchase your novel at cost. That's to say, if you want to and if you can afford it. But it doesn't comfort you. It adds insult to injury. Remember, we're talking about your brainchild. An important part of the modest oeuvre that defines you as a writer.

Your first reaction is that you're going to save your book. At all costs. You are going to purchase as many copies as possible at the bargain price and store them somewhere. Your home is small and already full of things that only you consider valuable, but you will make a plan. Even if you have to stack the unwanted books in the pantry up to the ceiling.

Death row

You search for your author's copy of the poor Death Row book and look at it with new eyes. Why don't people want to read this exceptional piece of art? Do readers even know it exists? You make your coffee and sit down on the porch to officially say goodbye. Your book, which is now starting to look drab and less exceptional, is lying on your lap. You look at it critically. You remember how long you deliberated over the title. How many people you asked what they thought of this or that option. In the end, you came up with something perfect. Or did you? It sounded like a bestseller. Or did it?

You think about the back-and-forth emails between you and your editor about the cover. The excitement of the days before the book was officially launched. A brand new book with sharp corners like an army bed. Each word carefully selected, reconsidered, sometimes replaced, proofread several times, finally printed. And now, barely two years later, it's being pulped. Not backlisted, silenced or simply ignored. No, pulp. A cruel word for a merciless death. It evokes images of barbaric calculatedness in you. The determined focus that comes with annihilating a Parktown prawn. The book on your lap is starting to turn transparent in places.

What does the machine that ruins writers' dreams look like? A Google search leads me to a video that looks like a clip from a World War 2 documentary. It's not pretty. Imagine the mother of all cement mixers, filled with water, chemicals and, of course, thousands of books. The video shows the fictional British character Alan Partridge, played by actor Steve Coogan, who watches with horror as his book (also fictional), Bouncing Back, is pulped. “It looks like porridge!" he screams exasperatedly over the rumble of the machine. 

Domestic violence

There is a good reason why you won't find on the whole of the world wide web videos of real writers watching their books being pulped. Real writers don't talk about it. If negative reviews feel like emotional harassment, destroying books feels like domestic violence. After all, this is done to you by your most intimate book partner — your publishing company. That's why you keep mum about it.

When it happens to you, you believe you're the first author with a book that does not sell to your liking. You believe it's all your fault. And you are so embarrassed about it that at first you don't tell anyone. You begin to doubt your talent and self-worth. For months you can't write anything but the two words Buy milk! This you write one Thursday on a pink sticky note that you put on your refrigerator door. And you wonder if the exclamation mark doesn't make you sound desperate or a little hysterical.

“I had to go through several sessions with my psychologist to say goodbye to the dreams I cherished for my novel," says an author friend whose sweet book recently became word porridge. Moreover, those 50-minute hours with her therapist devoured the royalties she earned with her work. “Did the therapy help?" I want to know. She didn't answer.

“I started drinking," says another writer. Let's call him Piet. “For weeks. And didn't feel like writing again until a year later."

Maybe you think this only happens to debut writers. Rookies. But you are wrong. I was brave enough to ask one of our most successful and prolific writers if some of his books had ever ended up in that Great Cement Mixer from Hell. His response was astounding. “I stopped counting how many times long ago. You can't let something like that get you down." Does this only happen with work that is substandard? By no means. Sometimes books that have won literary prizes end up on the dreaded pulping list.

Stock-keeping is a publishing house's biggest issue, explains someone trying to paint the bigger picture. And because books have the potential to remain sellable for years (as opposed to a product like clothing, which is seasonal and soon goes out of fashion), warehouse space must be strictly controlled.

Again, it doesn't comfort me. The book on my lap, I see, has almost completely disappeared. The black coffee in my mug is extra bitter on my tongue.

I really need to remember to buy milk.


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