I just woke up to the fact that the phrase “a New York Times bestselling author” is a simple turn-off for me. I was reading about a book which sounded quite interesting, a book about trees, but as soon as I encountered this claim I stopped reading and moved on to the next item. OK, you can of course accuse me of being an élitist snob, but that’s not the point, I think, whether it’s true or not. My point is that an author’s motivation is a huge aspect of the success with which they’ll be able to write their book. What the book’s useful for will in large part be determined by the author’s intentions. So you have to choose: important book for readers, or profitable book for the author.

Some popular authors can I dare say just churn the stuff out, but for most writers I’d imagine that writing for money must be an awful grind, and utterly wearing on your self-belief. It must be a bit like writing advertising copy without the organizing structure provided by the product. When you’re own your own, you’re always hitting that writer’s block wall, and when you do get going you have to face your financial commitments: you’re either running late or finding you’ve written way too much and have to cut. These two problems will naturally tend to occur together as Parkinson has decreed. Then of course your imagination will start telling you that your publisher will surely be out to screw you. When your book does eventually roll off the presses, inevitably your worst enemy will be asked to review it. And perish the thought that the thing doesn’t rise to number one in the bestseller list. A bestselling author cannot afford to write (m)any books which don’t get into the bestseller list. Is it any wonder that trade books are more often than not less than brilliant? With all that hassle who’s got time to focus of literature?

On the other hand — I’ve just finished reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, and now notice with chagrin that its cover carried a tag line: “The Sunday Times Bestseller”. I have the UK edition; no doubt the US version says “New York Times bestseller”. I thought the book was brilliant, so I’m having to tell myself that insofar as it was a bestseller it must have been a borderline bestseller! Maybe this is that rare phenomenon: important and profitable. Should there be a category “Accidental Bestseller”? — a book written for a serious purpose which nevertheless manages to sell in quantities associated normally with entertainment pap. I never knew anything about fungi — they turn out to be fascinating. Hard to classify, but they are clever little guys, and a lot of fun. They are specialists in cooperation, with us naturally, but most dramatically with plants where they supply phosphates to the trees in return for the carbon they need but can’t make themselves, they seem to be everywhere.

Mr Sheldrake concludes the book with a tour-de-force bibliographical metaphor: “Now that this book is made, I can hand it over to fungi to unmake. I’ll dampen a copy and seed it with Pleurotus mycelium. When it has eaten its way through the words and pages and endpapers and sprouted oyster mushrooms from the covers, I’ll eat them. From another copy I will remove the pages, mash them up and using a weak acid break the cellulose of the paper into sugars. To the sugar solution I’ll add a yeast. Once it’s fermented into a beer, I’ll drink it and close the circuit.”

Here’s a picture from his website:

I wonder if those mushrooms are protected by copyright?

Jacques Testard, owner of Fitzcarraldo (who didn’t publish Mr Sheldrake’s book), says “I never want to publish a book for commercial reasons. I think of publishing as an intellectual project: if we grew so big that I couldn’t read all the books, I would find that depressing. Then it becomes strictly a business and I don’t really see the point in that.” (From a piece in The New Statesman.) Publishing books which aren’t “real” books just to make money is as boring as writing them must be. Books accidentally getting into the bestseller lists as quite a few Fitzcarraldo titles have done, is of course altogether acceptable. It’s not the money we object to; it’s the grubbing for it we deprecate.

Money can of course be made off books, but it’s much pleasanter to make it as the publisher rather than as the author.