Do Modern Readers Only Want to Read Easy Books?

Dear Thief is, without a doubt, stronger and more raw, the book her fans knew she could write. But just when the world should have behaved as if it had been waiting for that very novel to arrive, Harvey’s career seemed to lose momentum.

Her editor Dan Franklin explains, a little despairingly, that “the really difficult thing about her is that she writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste. People like easy-peasy books that slip down without any trouble. How do you have a career in 2015 writing really thoughtful, philosophical books? In a way, the miracle was that The Wilderness worked—not that the other two didn’t.”

And so, Harvey finds herself at the heart of good fiction’s very modern problem. Not so long ago, everyone thought the main threat to publishing was the ebook. But that hasn’t turned out be true: ebooks have been predominantly aimed at commercial fiction, and have, for the most part, worked well. The much greater difficulty, now that bookshops are in decline and newspapers have increasingly little space, is how to tell readers books exist at all. Amazon doesn’t champion anything; Waterstones buys very little upfront and only gets behind a book once it has already shown signs of life. As Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, tells me, “The challenge in book publishing is not digital. It is how do you get the next great book noticed?”

-Gaby Wood on why Samantha Harvey’s book might have landed with a thud when it was released in the UK. Dear Thief failed to sell despite incredible reviews. The novel was originally released last year by Atavist Books in the U.S. and is being re-released next month by Ecco.

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