Like everyone else in publishing, literary agent Simon Trewin is searching for the next big thing. But for most young hopefuls, that exciting first book deal will spell heartbreak rather than happiness.
Published in the Independent on Sunday, 20 June 2004
“I want more than anything else in my life to be published – to read my reviews and to see people buying my book. That would be a thrill on a par with losing my virginity, getting married and getting my first job.” So said a student on a well-known creative writing course, but sadly the likelihood is that at the end of the process she will feel more like she has caught a nasty STD, discovered her partner in bed with her sister and seen her employer go bust on pay day. Signing that elusive publishing contract can often be the beginning of recurrent nightmares rather than of dreams coming true.
Authors I talk to tell of having three different editors over a six-month period, of traveling 100 miles to a reading to discover an audience of two and no books to sign, of doing 15 interviews with journalists who made no pretence of having read the book, and, in one case, of going into their local bookstore, seeing a pile of their books on the front table and asking if they could sign them. “If you must,” came the unenthusiastic reply, “but only if you can prove you are the author.”
Authors wear these stories like battle scars but the fact that no one I spoke to was prepared to be quoted on the record speaks volumes. No matter how bad the publishing experience is, no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them. Publishers will tell an author anything to get them to the bedroom, and we all want to believe them and to be seduced by this literary pole dancing. One author told me that selling her book was rather like “being courted by an impossibly handsome and desirable suitor. He rings all the time. He writes you emails. He seems too good to be true. Your instincts and all your friends tell you to beware. But he is so flattering and so insistent that in the end you begin to believe that maybe he’s telling the truth. So you lower your defences (metaphorically speaking) and just at that point he never rings again. Total silence.”
We are in a market now where the poverty gap is yawning: the small books remain small and the big books get bigger and bigger and swallow up most of a publisher’s resources. Of course, if you are a Zadie, a Monica or a DBC with large advances that really focus a publisher’s mind, your book will be the publishing “event” that everyone craves; but with thousands of book published each year, they can’t all be “events”. It is a sobering thought, but the majority of debut novels will be published to deafening silence, and without ringing tills and positive sales figures the publication of Book Two is likely to flounder and Book Three will probably remain on the hard-drive forever. Bookshops base their orders on precedent, and publishing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far from untold wealth and being feted in the media the reality is that most writers make less than £9,000 a year from their craft. Clearly, the compulsion to write should come from a genuine desire to say something, rather from a baser desire to get rich fast. Writing for the market is the quickest way to produce a hollow novel which won’t get off the starting blocks.
As an agent who actively recruits new talent, I find that an increasingly important part of my job is to manage expectations. Telling writers how it could go wrong is crucial, especially when most unpublished authors have a skewed perspective on the publishing world gleaned mainly from sensationalist news reporting of first book deals. These stories paint a picture that is as far from the common author experience as winning an Oscar at 19 is from the average lot of a recent drama graduate. But still the bright-eyed hopefuls keep on coming…
One debut author told me that her experience of being published was not dissimilar to a comprehensive student getting into Oxbridge. She described the euphoria as like having managed to “gain access to an exclu-sive club against all odds and the reward for all the hard, lonely hours spent not having fun but writing – only to find that Oxbridge is just what you had been warned it was, an elite club, and while it might allow a few peasants like yourself to hang around its doors every now and then, you don’t actually belong and you’re not actually wanted.”
We all hope that each debut novel will hit the big time, and it is that hope that keeps us coming back for more. When it does happen it is wonderful, but this is a very rare event. If your first book isn’t selected for a “3 for 2″ or a Read of the Week promotion, then unless the critics “discover” it or it becomes this year’s Schott’s Miscellany, then it is probably dead before it leaves the warehouse. A potentially glittering career can be over before it starts, despite the passion of all involved.
In this promote-or-die culture, consumers don’t want choice – they want direction and the author’s ambitions can be squashed somewhere in between. “I was told either to consider changing my name to leave a poor track record behind or give up,” said a now-rebranded author who has his fingers crossed for better times ahead.
Careers are also much shorter now. Whereas 10 years ago an author would be allowed to start slowly and build their confidence (and their sales figures), now it is a question of hitting the ground running. One author told me: “Apparently my first book only did ‘okay’ so the pressure is on. I have found myself trying to write in a ‘hook’ to Book Two that will get us the promotional campaign I know I need. If I don’t, then my career is over. My first book was written for fun, and to see if I could do it. With the second one I am constantly looking up at the sword of Damocles.” In my experience, this attitude is near fatal – great books are written from the inside out rather than the outside in – but you can absolutely see where this nervous author is coming from and that worries me. And one hopes it is worrying the editors out there as well.
Editors nowadays move jobs much more frequently than before, and have little experience actually working with text. This leads to authors feeling unloved and badly treated. Young editors are being taught to be risk-averse, and although desperate to buy books, they are finding the barriers for entry get higher. They are going for the obvious choices or, tellingly, the novels which are in need of very little editorial work. Novels that merely show promise do not get sold – novels that are brilliant and in need of almost no attention do. All too often, it isn’t the editor who calls the shots, but the dark forces of sales and marketing – the engine room of the business. An editor is going to have much more clout in arguing for marketing spend for a book they have paid £100,000 for than one which has cost a mere £20,000. It is less about the prose and more about the maths at this stage.
This devaluing of the editor is creating a skills gap in the next generation and we will find ourselves, if we are not very careful, in a creative world where the text will be taken for granted, the editor will be merely a conduit and on the top of the pile will be the sales and marketing directors. It is not uncommon for an editor to be forced to “let go” an author they really believe in because the sales figures don’t add up. This is heartbreaking all round. “When I signed my publishing deal,” one author recalls bitterly, “it was all champagne and lunch, but when they dropped me it was by email to my agent. I was airbrushed out of the editor’s life overnight. That hurt like crazy.”
Despite all I’ve said, publishing is full of genuinely enthusiastic people who want to find the next big thing, but the major trade publishers have ceded so much power to the retailers that there is a danger that innovative publishing will be marginalised and with it authors who cannot produce homogenised product. Next time you are in a bookshop, do look beyond the front tables and into the wealth of talent behind.
And spare a thought for the poor chick-lit author who turned up at her launch party recently with 50 friends to discover that the bookshop had been sent 100 copies of the Bible instead. Was someone trying to tell her something?
Simon Trewin is a Literary Agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop, part of the CSS Group