If you haven’t read Where the Crawdads Sing, I think you may have heard of it. At the last count it had 53,000 ratings on a certain review site (which I assume equates to many, many more sales) or you could check it out on the ‘unaffiliated’ Goodreads. I’m not going to write a full review but I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Kya, abandoned by her parents to make a life for herself in the marshlands of North Carolina. Kya finds the key to her future when a boy neighbour teaches her to read but she still can’t escape the prejudice of the local community. It’s a great read and worthy of making the impact it has achieved.
However for me the biggest question it raised was how another book of similar character and equal power has remained largely unnoticed. It’s some time since I read Avril Joy’s Sometimes a River Song, but I still remember how the opening pages captivated me – or as one reviewer puts it, ‘sometimes a novel sings.’ Here’s the official outline:
Set in a river boat community in Arkansas, this poignant story chronicles Aiyana Weir’s spirited determination to break away from a life, like that of the women around her, defined and dominated by brutal patriarchy. Aiyana’s voice, unique, hesitant and uneducated, expresses the turmoil of her inner world through the details and rhythms of her beloved river and charts her secret pursuit of literacy – her only means of escape from the abuse of her father …..
For marsh read river and for North Carolina read Arkansas and you can easily see the points of similarity. Both main characters have original voices which seem to rise naturally from their watery surroundings. (My review of Sometimes A River Song is here). Differences? Well Crawdads has a court case which perhaps adds tension but Sometimes A River Song gripped me from the very start. Aiyana’s journey to freedom is very much a coming-of-age story in which we are left to guess at her future while we see Kya coming to terms with the life that was left to her. She remains ‘Marsh Girl’ to the end.
So if we have two books which sing, why has only one of them flown to the sales and publicity stratosphere? Crawdads is ‘The multi-million copy bestseller, soon to be a major film and number one New York Times bestseller’. Sometimes A River Song has had numerous excellent reviews and scooped the judge’s award in the People’s Book Prize – the only one of its awards based on judge’s opinion rather votes cast. (And we know how these voting systems work or don’t work!) but I’m assuming not many of you have heard of it.
The answer’s easy of course. Crawdads was published under the Putnam imprint, part of Penguin Random House, possibly the biggest of publishing’s ‘big six’ houses. Sometimes A River Song was picked up by the discerning but tiny Linen Press who work with minimal staffing and a negligible advertising budget. This is why Crawdads’ author has, I am guessing, made her fortune as well as established herself as a writer. Avril Joy is a well-regarded poet and novelist but I imagine her fortune (if she wants one) is yet to be made.
However it’s not just about the money. A writer wants readers, and with a huge publisher your work will be streamed across continents and platforms via established channels and networks. Try sending a book from an ‘indie’ publisher to a broadsheet or national TV book club and without some magical occurrence (or friend at the top) you will be ignored. Nor will your indie book appear on the shelves of Waterstones nationally (maybe your local branch if you are lucky) or a supermarket chain. This isn’t discrimination exactly but simple economics. A big publisher offers massive discounts to retailers to showcase a title, discounts which would bankrupt a small publisher. Success is built not just on talent but on the power of money. As for prizes, a few smaller publishers (Blue Moose, Gally Beggar, Sandstone), have managed to get noticed by the big prize judges, but the bigger the prize the higher the entry fee levied on the publisher (a sum of thousands in some cases) to cover the prize’s marketing costs – with no outcome guaranteed. (A fine line here between economics and discrimination. Couldn’t bigger publishers subsidise smaller houses for the sake of unearthing great writers?)
Not all of us can be best-sellers, some of you may say, and maybe there was something about Crawdads that caught the eye in a way that Sometimes a River Song didn’t, maybe Delia Owens found the right agent (I feel another blog post coming on!) or maybe Sometimes A River Song was a little ahead of its time. Either way, in terms of the quality and power, there is nothing to choose between them and if you liked Crawdads I’m sure you’ll like Sometimes A River Song just as much as I did.
Buy it here (ebook or paperback) or borrow it from your library. Read it and talk – or shout – about it. That way it will get the attention it deserves and which one of the smaller fry of the publishing world can’t afford to buy. While you’re at it take a look at the other things Linen Press has to offer, nip across to Louise Walters Books or Inspired Quill or search for ‘small presses’ or indie publishers’. You may find some very nice surprises.