Friday, December 31, 2004

British book publishing as a business -- part 2

Chapter 3: Penguin

As its title suggests, this chapter of BBPB reviews the history of Penguin. The starting point is the statement by Allen Lane, who created the firm, that few great enterprises survive their founder.

The history of Penguin is at one and the same time a success story and a bizarre chronicle of some curious fumblings. By 1974, for example, when Penguin had been bought by Pearson, the chief executive suddenly found himself with an executive chairman as well. He complained, with good reason. ‘Who runs Penguin?’ he asked. ‘Nobody knows.’ He also complained about Pearson’s ‘alarming incomprehension of publishing in general.’

Here are a few snippets from the rest of the chapter.

Bellaigue’s book as a whole has little to say about authors and their remuneration, but we are told in this chapter that M.M. Kaye’s book The Far Pavilions was made into a bestseller via a large promotional budget; the budget was funded through the author agreeing to take a reduced royalty rate. This, I must say, is a cunning wheeze. It reminds me of modern supermarkets, which demand up-front fees of £1m or so before they will even talk about stocking your yoghurt.

This chapter also provides evidence for a conclusion which can be found in many of Bellaigue’s chapters: it is that trade publishing is, by and large, a thoroughly unprofitable business when compared with (a) less glamorous forms of publishing and (b) other businesses in general. In the five-year period at the end of the 1980s, for example, Penguin’s operating margins were ‘consistently below those of [Pearson’s] other publishing interests and typically below those of other divisions.’ As many other companies have discovered, trade publishing has ‘limited growth prospects’ and ‘obstinately cash-absorbent characteristics.’

Yes, but it's so glamorous isn't it?

Bellaigue's book was published before the current Penguin warehouse problems; and although Allen Lane's suggestion that the firm might not survive his demise was clearly wrong, the warehouse business may yet prove to be a mortal wound.

Oh, and by the way. I had no sooner written the above paragraphs than I read the latest Publishers Lunch newsletter and saw that the Wall Street Journal was quoted as follows in an article headed 'Crunch time for Pearson plc's education strategy':

'The media company has been focused on fixing problems at higher-profile divisions: the Financial Times newspaper and Penguin publishing. But it is the less glitzy business -- education publishing -- that will determine whether Pearson's strategies are working in 2005.'

Chapter 4: Four publishing takeovers

Bellaigue’s fourth chapter examines four situations in UK trade publishing where one well-known firm took over another.

Once again, the case histories provide evidence of two characteristics which, I am sorry to say, seem to me to be entirely typical of UK trade publishing. One is the notable lack of business expertise, and the second is the curiously irrational nature of much of the decision-making.

Paul Hamlyn, for example, made a huge personal fortune out of publishing, but he is here quoted as follows: ‘To say the amount of financial expertise (in UK publishing) is nil is no overstatement.’ And presumably Hamlyn was in a position to know.

And when Anthony Cheetham, widely thought of as one of the smartest people in publishing, took over Weidenfeld and Nicolson, he ‘turned his face against educational and professional publishing – notwithstanding their highly profitable characteristics.’ Who cares about making money when you can have fun and/or make a contribution to culture?

Chapter 5: Associated Book Publishers (ABP)

In 1987, when ownership of ABP changed hands, it was possible, in theory, for an investor who bought shares in the company in May to have sold them in July for three times as much. Chapter 5 investigates the background to this curious phenomenon.

The story is interesting, but there is not much in it to detain us here. It is worth noting, however, that when Philip Sturrock was appointed managing director of Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1983, one of his early decisions was to introduce ‘profitability hurdles for new books.’ This, please note, in a firm which had been founded in 1834. Prior to Sturrock's decision it had presumably been sufficient for an editor to declare 'Our reader says this is a jolly good book,' and publish on the strength of that.

Didn’t I say something earlier about the irrational nature of much decision-making in UK publishing?

More tomorrow.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

British book publishing as a business -- part 1

For the next few days we shall be looking at a selection of essays by Eric de Bellaigue, recently published by the British Library under the title British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s – hereinafter to be referred to as BBPB.

In the past, relatively few people have shown any interest in book publishing as a business. Most individuals who have gone into publishing, and certainly most of the writers who have supplied the books, have been lacking in knowledge of, or interest in, the strictly financial side of things. Furthermore, those who have chosen to comment on publishing as a business have been few in number and have found even fewer readers.

The first thing to be said, therefore, is that Eric de Bellaigue’s scholarly and well researched book is much to be welcomed. It should be read by anyone who is contemplating a career in any aspect of publishing, whether as writer, editor, accountant, or salesman; not to mention any venture capitalists and media moguls who are thinking of buying a publishing company.

One thing that can be said with absolute confidence, however, is that few such people will actually bother to take this advice. More fool them. The least you can do, as a partial act of self-preservation, is to read this review.

For better or for worse, BBPB is not a cohesive whole. It is, as I said at the start, a collection of essays, some of them ten years old.

The introduction rightly points out that publishing is an industrial minnow, and a relatively unprofitable one at that; a business which, at first sight, is likely to be of minimal interest to those who are seriously interested in making money. Its one saving grace, perhaps, is the law of copyright. It is that law alone which enables publishers to go on making profits for decades out of those rare books which turn out to capture the public imagination (e.g. Lord of the Rings), or which require a place on every bookshelf (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book consists of ten chapters, and I shall make a few comments on each, with some overall comments at the end. Some of the earlier chapters, in particular, were originally written in the 1990s, and one sometimes needs to remember that while reading them.

Chapter 1: Post-war mergers and acquisitions

It has been a feature of the last few decades that the many independent publishers which once flourished in London (and a few elsewhere) have gradually been absorbed into a much smaller number of large companies. Large, that is, by publishing standards. Much of the book is dedicated to a study of this process and its effects.

I have remarked in the past that sensible discussion of the UK book trade is hampered by a lack of reliable figures; in fact, I have suggested that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics about the UK book trade. And Bellaigue himself admits that ‘debate centres on statistics whose consistency sadly leaves much to be desired.’

However, while Bellaigue does not have absolutely certain knowledge of what is going into the preparation of every company’s accounts, it is reasonable to suppose, I think, that his figures are about as good as we are going to get. So, we might begin, for instance, by noting that the total consumer market for books in the UK was worth about £1.98bn in 2002 (say £2bn in round figures).

If we assume that publishers get around 50% of what goes into the high-street booksellers’ tills, then book publishing in the UK earns about £1bn a year. This is not a large sum (though it sounds large). Bear in mind, please, that the combined income of solicitors’ firms in the UK is about £11bn a year; care homes for the elderly bring in about £10bn. The overall market for books is slightly smaller, in financial terms, than the market for chicken.

Chapter 2: Imprints under conglomeration

Bellaigue proceeds to consider the effects of the apparently unstoppable process of conglomeration. Is it reducing choice, and producing a homogenisation of product? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson is quoted on the effects of conglomeration. It has led, he says, to a transfer of power from the publishers to the large bookselling chains. It is the latter who are now calling the shots.

If true, and I have no reason to doubt it, this is hardly good news for either writers or publishers, though it may be good news for readers, if you regard cheap books and 3 for 2 offers as the most important factor in your choice of reading matter.

Bellaigue rightly points out that writers and publishers have been in this relatively subordinate position before. About a hundred years ago, in fact, when Mudie’s circulating library was hugely powerful. Mr Mudie dictated that all novels must be long (‘three-deckers’), and he also influenced the plots, to ensure that nothing available through his library could possible offend a sensitive young woman. Hardly a recipe for success in 2005, one feels.

The author’s overall conclusion to this chapter is that conglomeration has posed, and will pose, an increasing threat to diversity and individuality in publishing.

Bellaigue is certainly right as far as big publishing is concerned, but things have changed somewhat since the essay was originally written. We should not overlook the impact of changes in printing technology and the internet, both of which make it much easier for individuals and small companies to publish new work than was the case in the past.

Bellaigue includes in this chapter a section on authors’ attitudes to conglomeration. He makes the point that, given their publishers' increasing emphasis on economy and profits, authors have begun to turn to their agents for services (such as advice on plotting, and even editing) which might once have been provided by publishers. To cope with the demand, the number of agents offering their services has markedly increased in recent years – from 34 in 1946 to 120 in 1994.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Old Dependables

Professional musicians sometimes find themselves playing a symphony for the 99th time, an experience which may be just the tiniest bit wearisome. However, when a conductor finds his orchestra sounding bored, he may encourage them by pointing out that, although they have played the symphony many times before, someone in the audience is always hearing it for the very first time.

So it is with books. Names which are familiar to you and me, and have been for years, are not necessarily well known to everyone else. So this post will be devoted to a few Old Dependables who have recently published books which are well up to their usual standard. It may be that somebody, somewhere, will be coming across these masters of fiction for the first time.

We will begin with John Mortimer. John has been a successful writer for over forty years, enjoying his earliest successes in the theatre. Nowadays he is perhaps best known as the creator of Rumpole, and this year he has given us Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.

Rumpole is a barrister, i.e. a British lawyer who appears in court. In Rumpole's case he always appears for the defence, never the prosecution. (In real life John Mortimer had a similar career, though rather more distinguished than Rumpole's.) In this latest book (about the fourteenth in the Rumpole series by my count), we hear about the case in which Rumpole first made his name as a young man.

Rumpole is, I suppose, a comic creation. And for those who have followed the series, either in book form or on television, the latest book contains much that is familiar: the Timson family of small-time criminals; fellow barrister Claude Erskine-Brown, who has an eye for the ladies; and She Who Must Be Obeyed (Rumpole's formidable wife); overall, however, they remain as entertaining as ever. And the book is mercifully short, thus demonstrating, not for the first time, that you don't need to grind on for 150,000 words to make an impression.

Next, Carl Hiaasen, with Skinny Dip. Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida, where he writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. He first appeared as a novelist some ten years ago, and produces about one book a year. He too writes about crime, with more than a touch of humour.

Skinny Dip centres around Joey Perrone, a young woman whose husband tries to murder her by throwing her off a cruise ship. She survives, and sets out to get her own back on the bastard. There are, of course, complications, mainly arising from the fact that her husband is a corrupt scientist who is disguising the fact that his employer is systematically poisoning the environment in pursuit of the almighty dollar. There is also a romantic element.

As with Rumpole, some of Hiaasen's characters appear in more than one book. Here, for instance, we meet the one-eyed man who lives rough in the Florida Everglades; if memory serves, he is a former State Governor. (You'll have to read the book, or better still, read them all, to find out more.)

Finally, Terry Pratchett, who is well up to par with Going Postal. Well you'd expect that, really, wouldn't you? Older musicians (so to speak) will know, of course, that Mr Pratchett is the creator of the Discworld, a parallel universe or fantasy world which contains not only humans but also trolls, golems, various gods unknown anywhere else (such as Anoia, a minor goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers), and assorted other wonders. The hero of this particular Discworld novel is Moist von Lipwig, a con artist who is given the choice of reviving the postal service or being hanged by the neck until dead. Not much option then.

All the above books are by masters of the novel form. It so happens that all three are men, but that's a coincidence. What is not a coincidence is that they have all written a substantial body of work, over a lengthy period of time. They know how to do the job.

All three are commercial writers, rather than literary, but all have had perfectly respectable reviews from respectable critics. And all of these writers are well aware that the realities of life are unbearable unless you learn to smile at them, at least from time to time.

If you really insist that your novels must deal with Grand Themes and Ideas, rather than just tell a story (which is enough for most of us), then I can promise you that all the above books contain food for thought. John Mortimer's theme is justice, as ever. Carl Hiaasen has much to say on the pollution of the environment in the pursuit of profit, and the corruption of politicians and others which can follow in its wake. And Terry Pratchett is also well aware of the immoral and illegal actions which big businesses undertake in the interests of the bottom line.

Sometimes an Old Dependable can produce a book which is a tad below par, and disappoints; but for these three, not this time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas break

Mrs GOB and I are taking a brief break, removed from computer terminals, and thus there will be no further posts on this blog until about Wednesday 29 December.

I see that various authorities are complaining about the de-Christianisation of Christmas, but I'm afraid I don't have much sympathy with that. There was a mid-winter festival long before Jesus Christ was born, and the justification for it was the fact that, somewhere around 21 December, the days stop getting shorter and start getting longer.

Back in east Africa, where the human race apparently began, I don't suppose the seasons mattered very much. There was plenty of food all year round -- that's why human beings started to increase in numbers. But once we got into Europe, and started to experience some serious winters, the length of days, and the amount of sunshine, started to have some real significance.

Human beings didn't need to be very smart or observant to find the crucial point in the year when the sun shone for a little bit longer than it had done a week or so earlier. (Technically, this is the winter solstice.) True, winter had not yet finished; but with the sun regaining its strength, so to speak, it was time for a party.

My guess is that this celebration began thousands of years ago, long before the creation of written records. Certainly we do know that, as soon as written records began, there was a mid-winter festival. The Romans called it Saturnalia; the Germanic tribes called it Yule.

When Christianity arrived on the scene, the early Christians were unaware of precisely when Jesus was born, since the Gospels don't give a date. But it wasn't long before the Christian authorities decided that it would be a good plan to latch on to some of the popular pagan festivals, which they promptly proceeded to do. Hence any grumbles from today's Christians that Christmas is being de-Christianised should be countered by a gentle and polite reminder that the mid-winter fun and games were being celebrated long before the Church joined the bandwagon.

I still think it's a good time for feasting and drinking, even in this electrically-lit and centrally heated age.

See you before long.

The next big thing? has provided a couple of links in recent days to a piece on about the future of publishing. Beginning on Thursday last, Umair Haque has been considering whether publishing as we know it has a future. There have been a couple of comments, leading to a further piece by Omar on Friday.

This is all well worth a read, but personally I don't find the diagnosis -- the imminent death of publishing -- at all convincing. Reason: I am quite old enough to remember the invention of video recorders (which are now on the way out as a dead technology). When video recorders first began to appear you could find articles in quite reputable journals predicting the death of the cinema. Similarly, when cable and satellite came along, some otherwise sensible people were telling us that the big TV networks would be dead within five years.

Yes, there have been changes, of course, and there will continue to be. But publishing is not going to die just yet.

The bubblegeneration site also contains a lot of other interesting stuff, for instance on the new economics of music, and particularly on something called human licenses (to use the American spelling). I haven't had time to absorb it all as yet, but if you're at all concerned about copyright in general, and the licensing of rights in particular, it would be worth a look.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Credibility problems

I have been reading John Grisham's The Summons. It's a tolerably interesting read: 'classic Grisham', the Times called it. But I found myself wondering, as I went along, how it would fare if it were to turn up in some agent's slush pile, written by an unknown.

Let's see now. It's pretty well written, especially at the start. But before long the agent would scribble in the margin 'too much telling, not enough showing'.

Then there's a big credibility problem. The main character is a professor of law -- a well educated fellow, ultra respectable -- and yet before long we find him doing something not only illegal but pretty damn silly and more or less guaranteed to lead to trouble.

Now, Grisham being Grisham you go along with this and see where he is taking you. But if it was in a slush pile? Nah. The agent would want you to fix it.

And then there's the big surprise that comes at the end. Or it should do. This is where the bad guy is revealed. It's a 341-page book, and I had it figured by page 215, so I'm afraid that isn't too impressive either.

All in all I reckon the agent would call it a good try but not quite up to snuff. Have you got anything else you could show me, John? Please let me have a look at it when you do.

Then there's Agatha Christie. Some enterprising television-production company has decided to remake some of the Miss Marple stories, in two-hour format; very glossy, with lots of top British stars, even in the bit parts. What is more, the producers seem to have decided to update the plots. Or at any rate they did in the first one, The Body in the Library, shown a week ago yesterday.

There's a problem with credibility in this one too. The book was first published in 1941, and the plot turns around the decision of a millionaire to adopt a working-class girl as his daughter.

Now, anyone who knows anything about English life in the 1930s and 1940s would know that such a decision stretches the credulity. And yet somehow, over all these years, Agatha has persuaded us to swallow it. Perhaps it is easier to take in the novel format than in the two-hour TV film. Anyway, it's certainly a big problem. However, Agatha was Agatha, and she got us to believe that black was white so often that it's scarcely surprising that she got away with this one.

Once again, an agent reading a slush-pile submission with a hard-to-believe plot device like this would either want it fixed, or pass on the privilege of offering the book to publishers.

So what am I saying -- that new and as yet unpublished writers have to work to higher standards than established names like Grisham and Christie? Well yes. I'm afraid so. Listen, I never said that this business was fair, OK? Or easy.

By the way, in the latest TV version of The Body in the Library (there have been others), the scriptwriter has changed the plot and given us a new villain. Or rather two new villains: a lesbian couple if you please. This is a smart move, because otherwise the whole thing would be so creaky and old-fashioned that only the most determined Christie fan cum couch potato would watch it. If you want to know who the original murderer was you'll just have to read the book.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A new version of an old story

The Blogger dashboard page has a link to an article in the New York Times, and for once you seem to be able to read it without having to register. Not, I hasten to add, that I would urge you to go read it.

The article is headed 'A New Forum (Blogging) Inspires the Old (Books)'. It is written by one Joshua Kurlantzick, of whom I know not.

The correct technical term for this article is, I think, tired. It includes, in one handy package, every story about bloggers being offered book contracts that you have read over the last few months: Salam Pax, Belle de Jour, wonkette, and a few others. The article even includes, for the Rip Van Winkles, a description of what a blog is. And, yawn, you can also find out what an assistant professor of new media studies thinks about the blog phenomenon.

It is perhaps worth pointing out, once again, that what we have here is another glorious instance of what Dr Taleb calls the drowned worshippers. In other words, Mr Kurlantzick seems to be ignoring all those bloggers who tap away, day after day, week after week, without any publisher showing the slightest interest in them.

According Kurlantzick, there will be 10 million blogs by the end of the year. So, if 7 of those 10 million have been offered book contracts, it means that there are 9,999,993 bloggers, give or take a few, who haven't yet received that phone call. Which means that the idea that the new forum (blogging) is inspiring the old (books) is stretching the facts a bit. Wouldn't you think?

Still, it fills up the space between the adverts, and that's what most newspaper stories are for.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The problem of length -- part 4

In part 1 of The Problem of Length, I promised that, before concluding this discussion, we would have a look at one writer whose work does at least challenge my general conclusion that 70,000 words or so are sufficient to allow anyone to make their mark as a novelist of note. That writer is Neal Stephenson. (Oh but you’d guessed! Clever you.)

For those who haven’t been paying attention, or even reading this blog regularly, let me say that Neal Stephenson is a novelist who produces seriously long books. In the last two years alone he has published all three volumes of his Baroque Cycle. The first volume, Quicksilver, runs to 927 pages; The Confusion has 815; and The System of the World 887. He has also written several other successful novels, all of them much longer than the average work of fiction.

Occasional references on this blog have also demonstrated beyond doubt, I hope, that I am a Stephenson fan. So what is this, then? I have been arguing so far that it is unwise and unnecessary for a novelist to go over 75,000, tops – so am I inconsistent, am I forgetful, or does Stephenson constitute an exception which proves the rule?

These are very reasonable questions.

Before answering them, let us be clear what ‘proves the rule’ means. It means ‘test the rule’.

Once we have established a general rule, as we have in this case (short novels are better than long ones), and once an apparent exception to that rule appears, we then have to ask ourselves whether this exception is so important that it invalidates the rule which we have so painstakingly developed.

In considering the ‘ideal’ length for a novel, the process of testing the rule comes down to asking this question. If Stephenson, who writes at enormous length, is considered to be such a hotshot (and not only by the GOB) then do we have to admit that the suggested general rule is a load of eyewash?

No, in my opinion, we do not.

The key point in my thesis is that long novels are almost invariably too long for their intended effect: they are overstuffed with material which is unnecessary in order to achieve the desired effect; or they are overwritten on a scene by scene basis; or both.

Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a formidable piece of work. When I started to read it, I did consider, at first, that the author might have done better to divide volume I into three separate novels, making up some sort of a saga. But I soon realised that that was not such a good idea; ideally, volume I needs to be read as a whole. And by the time I reached the end of volume III I realised that the entire three volumes do in fact constitute one quite exceptionally long novel. It is a fully unified work; unified, that is, around its intended effect.

This massive chunk of fiction is not, in my view, overlong; and for several reasons. First, every word of it, as far as I can see, is necessary to the final effect. Second, the scenes are not, in my view, over-written; I was never tempted to skip. And third, when you get to the end you realise that everything in it is beautifully planned and hangs together in a most remarkable way.

Stephenson, in short, is a quite unusually talented and hard-working writer, with a formidable grasp of the history of Europe and the history of science, and no doubt a dozen other esoteric subjects as well. As one reviewer remarked, to appreciate Stephenson fully you probably need at least a couple of liberal-arts degrees, plus a good working knowledge of the natural sciences.

Stephenson himself has put his finger on the nature of the problem of length. On his web site he has a short (!) piece about the Cult of Brevity. Here is part of what he has to say: ‘As must be obvious, I am not an adherent of the Cult of Brevity. Personally, I am delighted to read extremely long books, or series of books, as long as they hold my interest.’ And that, of course, is the key. ‘As long as they hold my interest.’

It is self-evidently possible for a writer of Stephenson’s class to produce a long novel which holds his readers’ interest. (Consider his massive fan-base.) But the rest of us find the task impossible, and we would be well advised not to tackle it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The problem of length -- part 3


Today we try to draw some conclusions from the discussion of the ideal length for a novel which has occupied us for the last couple of days.

We began (in part 1) by considering the various demands for books of a certain length which have emanated from publishers in the past, and which continue to have some influence today. And I hope we can agree that what publishers expect of novelists, in terms of length, at any given time, has really had very little to do with any understanding of what makes a novel effective. After all, if publishers really knew how to write an effective novel they would do it themselves, because the rewards can be substantial. Effect is, in any case, not closely linked with length, except perhaps inversely.

No, what has determined publishers’ attitudes to length has been economic considerations (as perceived at any point in time). And there is good reason, in my view, to suppose that publishers’ demands for books of a given length (particularly when they have wanted long ones) have in fact hindered rather than helped the creation of effective fiction.

In part 2, yesterday, I pointed out that there are many examples from the history of this medium (or art form, if you will) to show that a short novel can be every bit as powerful in the emotions that it arouses, and hence in the reputation that it creates, as a long one.

It follows therefore that those who propose to write novels should clear their minds of any idea that they must write a book of a certain length if it is to make any impact. This is true whether the writer’s aims are commercial or literary.

Sol Stein, who is a highly experienced editor and publisher (as well as a writer himself) says in his book Solutions for Novelists that most of the unpublished mss that he sees are too long for what they do – i.e. too long for their stories.

There are two versions of the over-long novel. In the first place, the story may simply include scenes and incidents which are not necessary to the story's ultimate effect on the reader; and in the second place the scenes which are included may simply be over-written, with the writer getting carried away by the sound of his own wonderful voice, and the amazing insights which he is able to generate (the result, of course, of his undeniable genius).

Some of the 'great' novels of the past clearly contain material which is more or less irrelevant to any story they may have to tell. Moby Dick, for example, begins with lengthy portraits of the main characters, a defence of whaling, bits of history, and a zoological taxonomy of all known forms of whales. At this point, Melville realises that he has been rambling on for too long (a good 50,000 words) and writes: 'God keep me from ever completing anything. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!' Only then does he get on with the real story.

Similarly, Stendhal begins La Chartreuse de Parme with a description of the battle of Waterloo which has no necessary connection with the rest of the story. Balzac declared that it should have been left out.

The implications of all this, for the practising writer of today, are simple. Plan to write a relatively short novel; you are producing one book, not a library. When writing a first draft, by all means let the story rip, so to speak. But at the revision stage, tighten everything up. Go for speed. And if you want an example of speed, taken from another medium, watch the first five minutes of Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man; the economy and pace of the scene-setting are breathtaking.

I should perhaps mention, from my own experience, that even an experienced novelist can seriously misjudge the length of a novel. In 1994 I set out to write a new novel, not having written one for some years; I soon realised that what I had thought could be told in 75,000 words or so would require three times that length. A major rethink was involved.

So. If you are looking for a neat conclusion to this series of three posts on the problem of length in the novel, here it is: Most novels today are altogether too damn long.

They are too long in the sense that they include excessive and unnecessary material in order to achieve the effect that the author intends; and this redundant length is to no one's advantage, least of all the writer's.

If you are proposing to write a novel, then for heaven's sake plan it to be of reasonable length. There are innumerable examples from the past to prove that 60,000 or 70,000 words are quite sufficient for you to make your mark.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, let me add that a writer who restricts himself to, say, 75,000 words as the upper limit, only has to do half the work of a writer who hammers out 150,000. And the two shorter books give twice the chance of royalties, and twice the chance of reputation-building reviews. This is scarcely rocket science, is it?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The problem of length -- part 2

The aesthetic imperative

This section of The Problem of Length (which continues from yesterday) represents my attempt to answer the following question: What is the ideal length for a novel, ignoring all demands of the publishing marketplace? In other words, if we consider ‘aesthetics’ alone, what is the best length for a novel?

It will be immediately obvious, of course, that the answer, in any specific instance, will depend at least to some extent on the content and nature of the novel. But in general my answer to this question is that, in all probability, the ideal length for a novel, whatever its subject matter, is probably a good deal less than is usually thought.

Before we consider aesthetics in isolation, let us first empty our minds of literary reputation, because it will prove, on examination, to be irrelevant.

This whole issue of length is clouded by the influence of those well known enemies of clear thinking, the professors of English literature, and their concept (God help us all) of the Great Novel. We have all been brought up, for instance, to believe that War and Peace (all 745,ooo words of it) is a ‘great novel’. Whatever that means, and in my opinion it means damn all.

To enlarge on that point, let us suppose that we put a thousand liberal-arts graduates in a theatre. Hands up, we say, anyone who agrees with the statement that War and Peace is a great novel. Lots of hands will go up, perhaps even three quarters of those present, because they've all been good boys and girls and have listened to their teachers. Then we say, Keep your hand up if you have actually read War and Peace. How many hands will remain? Let us say ten, because I’m feeling generous. And no, dear, seeing the movie doesn’t count. And finally we say, Keep your hand up if you really and truly, cross your heart and swear to die, can say with a clear conscience that you actually enjoyed reading War and Peace more than any other novel you’ve read.

How many hands remain in the air?

I hope my point it clear. It is that the accepted wisdom in literary circles bears no relation whatever to people’s actual reaction to books. Books which are hailed by the literary establishment (choose your own example) remain very largely unread; we could easily make a list of fifty novels which are widely recognised as literary masterpieces but which are read by no one who doesn’t have to study them for a degree (and half of those who are supposed to read them for study purposes don't bother either). Meanwhile, novels which are despised and rejected by that same literary establishment continue to demonstrate their effectiveness and power, either by selling in vast numbers and becoming popular successes, or by becoming cult classics in various genres.

It follows, therefore, that we should ignore literary reputation when we consider the ideal length for a book. The fact that certain novels, mostly big fat long ones such as Moby Dick (220,000 words), have acquired significant literary status gives us no clue whatever as to the ideal length of a work of fiction.

When we come to consider the aesthetics of the novel, what we are talking about is the extent to which fiction communicates emotion to its natural audience. A novel which hits its readers hard, with the emotion which the author intended them to feel, is a successful novel, no matter how large or small its readership is, and no matter how long or short the novel is. And sheer length, as we shall now perceive, has got very little to do with success in that sense: short books have, historically, been at least as successful as long ones; and in my view they are often more so.

It's time for some examples.

Who are the most memorable characters in nineteenth-century fiction? Well, for my money two of the candidates are Ebenezer Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes, neither of whom show any sign of fading from public consciousness.

Scrooge was created in the space of about 43,000 words, by my calculation; somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 anyway. As for Holmes, he does appear in some novels but he comes to us chiefly through the short stories.

Move to the twentieth century and choose the most memorable character from that era: James Bond, for example. Bond was created by Ian Fleming in 1953, in Casino Royale. The book runs to 159 pages in my paperback copy, which is barely 60,000 words, at a guess. I still have copies of the first Pan paperback editions of most of the Bond books, and few of them creep over 200 pages.

(Incidentally, in the examples which follow I shall give the length in thousands of words if I know it, and in the number of pages if I don’t. Printed pages will, of course, vary in the number of words they contain, but as a crude rule of thumb you might assume that three pages equals a thousand words.)

There are many, many other examples of short books which have embedded themselves in the folk memory of readers. The Time Machine (Wells) runs to about 80 pages in most editions; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson) is 70 pages.

Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury) was written in nine days on a hired typewriter and the first edition contained 158 pages. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) has 172 pages. Bonjour Tristesse (Sagan) was 30,000 words, and Georges Simenon built a whole career on novels of a similar length. The Bridges of Madison County (Waller) is shown as 180 pages on Amazon, but I believe that too is about 30,000 words. So is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, if you want a literary example; the book received special recognition in his Nobel Prize citation.

Hemingway, by the way, offered the following advice: ‘Eschew the monumental. Shun the Epic.’

Enough. We have demonstrated that you do not have to grind on for 250,000 words to make a powerful impression on the average reader, or, for that matter, on those who decide on the next Nobel Prize winner.

Perhaps, before we leave the topic of aesthetics, this is the place to point out that the reader’s experience is in my view profoundly influenced, albeit largely subconsciously, by the size and weight of a book, and by the layout of the words on the page.

To begin with, a large, heavy book is an awkward object to carry around. It does not fit easily into a pocket. Your arms get tired holding the damn thing up. Some people find such books intimidating.

As for the typography: well, it seems to me that an art which was once taken seriously is now more or less ignored. In years past, for instance, no respectable printer or publisher would have allowed a right-hand page to end with a word divided by a hyphen. Neither would they have allowed a chapter to end on a page with less than perhaps five lines on it. To prevent these occurrences, minor alterations would be made in the spacing of the lines, or the words, higher up. Nowadays, I am sorry to say, nobody gives a shit. In all probability no one in-house reads the printed book anyway; and in many instances they don't read it in manuscript either. (Geller wants six figures for it so it must be OK.)

As for worrying about the readability of type -- one might as well forget it. No one seems to care (apart from the specialist large-print publishers) about the use of tiny type, lots of lines on the page, narrow margins, and so forth. But all of these things influence the reader’s experience, usually unfavourably; and it is obviously easier to give a text ‘air’, so to speak, if the wordage is short than if it is long.

This is probably also the place to point out that there is a deadly vice which affects writers, once they have reached a certain stage in their development. At first, the task of writing a full-length novel seems impossibly difficult. But then, gradually, writers get into the swing of things; their fluency improves, and after a while they realise that, hey, I can really do this! It isn’t so difficult to sit down and write a novel after all! And you know what, I’m really rather good at it!

This is, of course, drivel. And a writer who begins to enjoy the sound of his own writing voice is a writer who is more than likely to produce drivel.

A corollary of this vice is a reluctance to cut anything. The writer's attitude often boils down to: I wrote it, so it must be marvellous. This is the madness which afflicted Ross Lockridge, for example, in producing his 600,000 word ‘masterpiece’ Raintree County (eventually published at 380,000 words). In his case the disease proved fatal -- see my post of 4 October.

Tomorrow: some conclusions.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The problem of length -- part 1

'The history of the novel is a monument to self-indulged miscalculation in the use of words.' Thomas H. Uzzell

Please sir, how long should my novel actually be, sir, please sir? Actually, sir?

Well, Jones Minor, your novel should probably be a great deal shorter than you might imagine. Actually. For reasons which will now be explained.

This is a potentially lengthy subject (groan), so I will be as brief as possible; even so, the discussion may take a few days. The discussion is couched mainly in terms of the UK book trade, but the conclusions, I believe, hold good anywhere,

To begin with, it will be necessary to differentiate between the demands of the marketplace, on the one hand, and the aesthetic imperative, so to speak, on the other. Then we will try to draw some conclusions which will be of practical value to those of you whose delusions take the form of believing that you will one day be a great writer. (It is the least I can do to save you from your misguided yourselves.) And finally we need to examine at least one exception which will prove (i.e. test) the rule which has emerged from our deliberations.

The demands of the marketplace

(a) Long books

If you look at the history of the novel, it is clear that, at various times, the length of a typical novel has often been determined by what publishers are actively looking for. After all, there is no point in writing a book, whether short or long, if you are fairly certain from the outset that a ms which fails to fit the desired template will be rejected without hesitation. I myself once had a novel rejected in America for precisely that reason; excellent in every way, said the editor, but too short to fit the house rule. Early on, therefore, writers learnt to pay some attention to what publishers want.

In the nineteenth century, what publishers wanted was long books. And their demand was in turn conditioned by what the market was calling for. And the market, especially towards the end of the century, was for what are known as three-decker novels.

The introduction of compulsory schooling gradually meant that the pool of potential readers greatly increased in size; but these readers were for the most part not able to afford to buy novels. They could, however, afford to pay a fee to a lending library. The most famous and successful of these libraries was run by Charles Edward Mudie.

Mr Mudie very soon twigged that a novel published in three parts allowed him to divide the book between three separate subscribers, thus increasing his income. So that was what he bought from publishers: long novels, capable of being published in three parts. Publishers were quick to meet his demand, particularly as he would sometimes buy up the entire print run.

Incidentally, Mudie was also highly influential in determining the content and tone of nineteenth-century fiction. He was religious and prudish, which is one of the main reasons why the novels of his era do not feature any sex.

The influence of Mudie, and the other libraries, must always be borne in mind when we look back at the successful novels of the past – successful, that is, either in literary or commercial terms. It is undeniable that there were some very long novels published in the Victorian era which were enormously popular, and other long novels which are regarded as works of great literary importance. We must always remember, however, the effects of survivorship bias.

When we look back at the past, and see big thick books which became famous, we are seeing the survivors. A select band indeed. We do not see the big thick books which were bloody boring and of no real interest either to the literati or the hoi polloi. Neither do we see those novels which never achieved publication at all, because they were judged to be too short. Who knows what lost masterpieces were in that category? We must greatly beware, therefore, of falling into the trap of thinking that long novels are, by virtue of their length, somehow inherently superior to short ones. (Examples will be given shortly, in the section on aesthetics. Be patient.)

(b) Short books

By the middle of the twentieth century, economic circumstances had changed greatly. In the second world war, the shortage of paper meant that publishers were hard put to stay in business. Even in the 1950s, publishers were acutely conscious of the cost of typesetting and paper. So, when I began my writing career, in the early 1960s, a publisher such as Robert Hale was still making it very clear that the ‘correct’ length of a novel was no more than 55,000 words. That was a sufficient length to provide a novel which would sell to the public libraries, which were Hale’s principal market, and a novel of 100,000 words would have been rejected out of hand because it was too expensive, from Hale's point of view, to set the type and print.

(c) Back to long books again

Somewhere in the 1980s, perhaps, a theory began to gain ground among publishers that what the book-buying public wanted was value for money -- i.e. a book which looked as if it contained a lot of words. (This idea represents a serious misjudgement of what it is that readers actually do want from a novel, but that is what passes for clear thinking in the world of fiction publishing.) A fat book was therefore judged preferable to a thin one. A big book would keep a reader going for a week or two, it was argued, and such a book would be more readily bought than one which could obviously be read in an evening.

So, as recently as five years ago, Hodder Headline in the UK were issuing an information sheet which showed that they were interested in commercial fiction in the more popular genres which ran to at least 100,000 words.

Certainly it is not hard, these days, to find books which would be wonderfully useful for preventing a door slamming in a high wind. Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White has 835 pages. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has 653. And Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides has 1376. These books are, in fact, not so much novels as slabs of concrete, and, as far as I'm concerned, just about as enticing.

Recently, another motive for demanding long books has surfaced. The theory goes that bigger books make bigger margins (in profit terms). There are, of course, additional costs involved in publishing a long book; but (or so they say) you can charge a disproportionately higher price for it, thus boosting the bottom line! Wow! Aren’t we clever?

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is no.

(d) And next?

There may shortly be a move back to publishers favouring short books. One editor was quoted recently as saying ‘I think the status quo thinking right now is that short books work – people point to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’

Of course, if you check on Amazon it turns out that the Haddon book runs to 224 pages, and the Sebold to 336. Which shows you how rational the ‘status quo thinking right now’ is, if they regard those novels as short. As we shall see tomorrow, many successful books have been half that length.

Tomorrow: The aesthetic imperative.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Advice for the lovelorn

Human nature doesn't seem to change much, does it?

I am prompted to think that thought by the events of this week. It would be invidious to name names, but it has come to my attention that there are at least two individuals who have recently conducted love affairs of a slightly unfortunate nature. Both these individuals have first names beginning with the letter D. Out of consideration for their finer feelings, I will identify them no further than that, except to say that one of them is a princess, or was, and the other is the UK Home Secretary; or he is as I write these words, though the situation may soon change.

How different the lives of these two Ds would have been if only they had heeded the words of Mario Equicola (c. 1470-1525). Michelle Lovric, in her splendid anthology Venice, Tales of the City, tells us that Mario Equicola was the author of a book published in 1530 and entitled The New Courtier, on Prudent and Moral Living. Here, by way of a taster, is what Mario has to say on the subject of Love. And let his words be a lesson to you all.
I would suggest that you should flee extreme Love.... The souls of the Lovers have the time-honoured privileges of raging, arguing, frequent battles and declarations of peace, of rare pleasures and frequent miseries, and hardly ever a brief moment of stability.... According to many unvarying testimonies from those who, with irreparable damage to themselves, have essayed excessive Love, there comes a rapid turbulence and an inevitable (even to the wiser minds) blinding passion, which, as well as transforming a man from humble to insufferable, from shy to insolent, also obscures intelligence, confounds the Memory, dissolves conscience, and cancels out mercy, dissipates all earthly faculties, corrupts the strength of the body, exterminates freedom and brings old age before its time.
Now don't say you haven't been warned.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The McCall Smith production line

From time to time, as you may have noticed, I have expressed a general preference for commercial fiction as against the literary stuff. And on 18 May I made the point that Alexander McCall Smith looked like being ‘one of the most ruthlessly commercial writers to have appeared on the scene for some time. Giving the readers what they want, with knobs on.’ (See my post of 6 August for a discussion of the origin of the phrase ‘with knobs on’.)

The Ottakar’s Christmas catalogue tends to confirm my view of Professor McCall Smith as a highly commercial author: he has a whole page to himself, containing five separate offers, as follows:

In the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the first five volumes are available in paperback, and Ottakar’s are offering three for the price of two.

The sixth volume in the No 1 series can be had in hardback at £10.99.

The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom contains the whole of the Von Igelfeld trilogy, i.e. three books effectively for the price of one (paperback).

Then there’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, which introduces McCall Smith’s new female detective, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh (hardback).

And, finally, you can buy the paperback edition of last year’s The Girl Who Married a Lion.

Please note that nearly all these books of McCall Smith’s are notable for being quite short. For example, each book in the Von Igelfeld trilogy was originally published separately, and they ran to 144 pages apiece. Several of the No 1 series come in at 224 pages. The Girl Who Married a Lion is 208. And so on.

Why is this significant?

Well, I have long held the view, and have doubtless expressed it here, that the smart writer is the one who writes little and often. In the first place, if you haven’t hit the reader with some powerful emotions in 60,000 words, you sure as hell aren’t going to do it by ploughing on to 120,000. And in the second place, by writing two shorter books instead of one bloody great long one you obviously stand a better chance of increasing your royalty income. Especially if you’re any good. Because the delighted reader, having found one satisfactory book, immediately goes looking for the rest of your oeuvre.

Compare McCall Smith’s prolific output with that of Louis de Bernieres: ten years between Captain Corelli and the next one; and Tom Wolfe, who had an eleven-year year gap after Bonfire of the Vanities. Simple arithmetic surely tells us that, other things being equal, the writer who gives the fans a couple of books a year is going to generate greater revenue. Think Josephine Cox.

Of course, there are those who feel themselves to be well above such sordid considerations as earning money. Because they write Literature. Their work is Art. And it’s Art because they Express Themselves. They write only when the Muse strikes, and they are uninfluenced by the thought of cash. Until, of course, it comes time to seek a subsidy from the Arts Council. Then they’re the first in line.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Da Vinci Code -- again

Yesterday’s Times law supplement had an article about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s alleged plagiarism of an earlier book by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (plus Henry Lincoln), The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Unfortunately you have to register to read it.

The article, which was written by Margaret Tofalides and Alasdair Bleakley, of Addleshaw Goddard’s media group, echoed my own earlier forecast (post of 17 September) that Baigent and Leigh will have a hard time proving that Brown copied enough of their work to get them any compensation.

However, I do have one little problem with Tofalides’s and Bleakley’s analysis. They say that, ‘according to Baigent and Leigh, Brown has borrowed heavily from their novel.’

Well, m’Lud -- if I may have permission to speak – it is, admittedly, some years since I read the Baigent and Leigh opus on the holy grail, and I did, admittedly, consider it a work of quite remarkable imagination at the time, but it was not, unless my faculties have deteriorated to an extent greater than hitherto suspected, a novel. No, m’Lud. By no means.

By way of evidence, m’Lud, I submit the fact that Amazon has the book classified as religion and spirituality, history. The publisher (Random House/Arrow) has it under religion and beliefs. The British Library catalogue has both the 1982 and the 1996 editions of the book classified as Dewey decimal number 001, which is the knowledge section. (My own novels, by contrast, turn up in class 823.) The book also has an index and a bibliography, which should give readers a clue as to its nature. It is said to be based on ten years of research. It may, for all I know, be a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end, but the authors appear to believe that they are dealing in fact.

So, whatever else Baigent et al may be alleging in their case against Dan Brown, it is unlikely to be that he copied the plot of their novel.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Best of Friends

The Best of Friends 11 is a collection of monochrome photographs, edited by Roger Maile. If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone with a serious interest in photography, this would do very well. It's not that all the images in the book are perfect -- far from it -- but they will at least provide a photographer with ample food for thought.

About twelve years ago, Roger Maile set up a group known as the Friends of Creative Monochrome -- Creative Monochrome being the name of the company he was then running (now replaced by Arem Publishing). His intention was to increase participation in monochrome photography, and, no doubt, to increase the profits of his company. Each year since then he has edited and published an annual volume of photographs, the final selection being made from a much larger number of prints submitted for his consideration by members of the Friends group.

To the layman, monochrome might mean black and white, but almost from the beginning of photography the practitioners of the art have used various chemicals to add 'tone' or colour to their images. That practice continues today. Indeed in the digital age it is easier to achieve consistency in this area than it ever was before. For the most part, however, the photographs in this collection have the look and feel of black and white prints.

This year, the actual printing of the collection has for the first time been done in the four-colour process, thus allowing much improved reproduction, even of those images which have no visible toning at all. It is hard to imagine how the printing of monochrome photographs could be done any better than in this volume, and both the editor and his printers, DAP (Sussex) Ltd, deserve congratulation.

The Best of Friends 11 is essentially the work of amateur photographers. However, they would, I think, claim to be trying to work to the highest standards of photography, and therefore it is not unreasonable, I feel, to judge them by the highest standards. So now let us consider the images themselves.

There are 172 of them in all, selected from a total submission of some 2500 prints. As you would expect, with such a large field to choose from, the technical standard is impeccable. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all the prints are interesting, even to someone (like me) with a fifty-year record of involvement in, and appreciation of, this form of photography.

The choice of images, and their arrangement in the book, undoubtedly reflects the editor's taste; it could hardly be otherwise, and there is no point in complaining about that. But it does seem to be a fact that many of the photographers represented here seem to be quite happy to produce prints which could have been made at any time in the last 50 years; or even in the last 150 years.

This thought having struck me, I went to the bookshelf and took down a copy of a similar book which was published fifty years ago: Photograms of the Year 1954 (PY54). This book was the fifty-ninth in an annual series. The title, by the way, is not a misprint: 'photogram' is simply an archaic word for a photograph.

A review of the images in Best of Friends 11 (BF11) soon reveals that they are very little different from those in PY54. In both volumes we have, for instance, pictures of cute kids; kittens; portraits of noble working men; trees covered in snow; castles; classical nudes; quaint-looking foreigners; flowers in vases; moody landscapes; and so on.

The quality of the image as printed on the paper is, of course, far superior in BF11, but then one would hope so. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. It would be invidious to single out any particular print, perhaps, but one print in BF11 has contrived, through a combination of filter, lith printing and grain, to emulate almost exactly the feeling and tone of an image reproduced in PY54, the latter exhibiting all the limitations of the printing process as it then existed.

It gets worse. Worse, that is, if you hope for some sort of originality in photographs, as opposed to a demonstration of mastery of (admittedly difficult) technical skills. PY54 includes, at the back, a series of images from the previous hundred years, pictures produced by the 'early masters of pictorial photography'. Of these, Julia Cameron's 1867 portrait of Henry Longfellow could be set between plates 137 and 138 of BF11, and, if they were otherwise unidentified, I would defy anyone to date any of them accurately. They are all three pictures of bearded men, with little to distinguish them.

As for the nudes... Well, it has been a long-standing tradition in 'serious' amateur photography, continuing even unto this day, that no nude must ever be suspected, in the slightest degree, of generating so much as the memory of an erection in a male viewer. Nudes must be chaste, bloodless, and wholly unerotic. Given this tradition, I have to say that I prefer those which appeared in PY54, particularly as one of them is by the wonderful Joan Craven. It is a notable fact that some of the very best nudes have been taken by women photographers: e.g. Rosalind Maingot, Yvonne Gregory, and the peerless Eva Grant.

What are we to make of all this?

Well, if you want a demonstration of fine-quality traditional darkroom printing, then BF11 will provide it. And that has its own value and interest. But if you want cutting-edge stuff, a demonstration of the possibilities of the digital era (and I'm not talking about Photoshop 'special effects') then, with one or two exceptions, it ain't here.

There is nothing here which is dangerous, disturbing, or even adventurous. You could show the book to your great-aunt Jane and she would think it was lovely. All the images in BF11 are safe, polite, and, frankly, dull. The photographers represented here here have all mastered the technique of their medium; but, having acquired this mastery, they don't seem to know what to do with it.

But perhaps that's just a result of the editor's choice. I get the feeling that, just as the original manuscript of Harry Potter was turned down by every publisher in London save one, a budding Dan Burkholder or Nan Goldin, or even Michael Kenna, would not find a place in the Best of Friends series.

Speaking of Michael Kenna, I am reminded that, on an internet newsgroup about photography, I once read a message from a member of a traditional UK camera club. Someone had recommended that he should take a look at the work of Michael Kenna. He had done so, he said, and on the whole he 'didn't think much of Michael Kenna's print quality.' This counts as the single silliest statement that I have ever read on the internet, an arena in which foolishness is not hard to come by.

As it happens, Michael Kenna has had one-man exhibitions of his work in major galleries and museums all over the world; he has produced books which sold out their 10,000 initial print run without difficulty and were then reprinted; and he currently sells prints for $1000 and upwards. If it is indeed true that Michael Kenna's print quality isn't much good, then the rest of us need to get our print quality amputated at the earliest opportunity.

And that's the problem with BF11. The print quality is superb. But there's something missing.

Monday, December 06, 2004

No nannies needed for them

Once upon a time there were two smart girls, Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, who worked as children's nannies to wealthy New York families. In the course of time Kraus and McLaughlin wrote a novel (The Nanny Diaries) about a girl who worked as a nanny for a wealthy New York family. The book was, no doubt, complete fiction from beginning to end.

The Nanny Diaries was reportedly a substantial success, selling two million copies. Thereafter, however, things did not go altogether smoothly. The girls changed agents, changed publishers, and were, as you might expect, subject to a certain amount of backbiting and jealousy among the writing community. Who were these two upstarts? And where did they get their creative-writing degrees? What? They haven't got degrees? Banish them to outer space! Rumour had it, moreover, that the two girls had lost their heads altogether and were demanding to be treated like movie stars.

Well, on Friday last the Rocky Mountain News published an interview with our brave girls which proved that most of these rumours were, also as you might expect, more or less complete balls. The girls are currently touring the US to plug their number two book, Citizen Girl, which is about a young lady who is pursuing a career rather than bed partners.

'A lot of the reporting on us and our publishing journey is frequently made out to be infinitely more dramatic than it is,' said Kraus, adding that changing agents and publishers is much more common than gets reported.

The publishers of The Nanny Diaries declined book number two because it was too different from the first one. You see? Haven't I told you, over and over again, that if you do have a success your publisher will expect you to rewrite it, year after year, until well beyond retirement age. But these two young ladies had the balls (metaphorically speaking) to say no. I salute that.

Then they signed with Random House, a contract which was reportedly worth $2 million for a two-book deal. Eventually they hit an impasse with Random House, and they had to pay back the advance to be free to go elsewhere. And here is the bit which really caught my eye. Paying back the advance was not all that difficult, the girls say, because the money was to be paid 'in very tiny increments parcelled out.'

This confirms another of my contentions, which would be hard to prove because it is in everyone's interests to lie -- but I have long maintained that many of these big-money contracts are not worth nearly as much as the announced figures would suggest, because of the small print.

I would be willing to bet quite a lot of my own cash that almost any advance which is newsworthy enough to get reported in the press is in fact hedged around with so many conditions and clauses that the quoted figure has only a tenuous relationship with reality.

So the girls weren't too bothered by the fact that, with two books under their belt, they were already on their second agent and third publisher. And, having read their interview, neither am I. It seems to me that Kraus and Laughlin have (if I may mix my metaphors somewhat) their heads screwed on straight and their feet planted firmly on the ground.

These two are in the business of writing commercial fiction. And, despite some iffy reviews of Citizen Girl, they seem to be making a pretty good fist of it. Naturally, none of this goes down well with the literary brigade, whose heads are well above cloud level, and who live in a dream world.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Big sellers

On 1 December the Scotsman ran an article by Danuta Kean (linked to by about the current state of the bestseller lists. Unfortunately, you have to register to get access to it today.

Incidentally, and not that it's particularly relevant except for the proofreaders and pedants among you, the classic text on big-selling books refers to them as 'best sellers' -- two words. (80 Years of Best Sellers, by Alice Payne Hackett.) The Oxford Concise uses a hyphen, best-sellers, as does the Scotsman, and I use one word, bestsellers. So does the Daily Telegraph. You can take your pick.)

Danuta Kean is, I believe, a freelance journalist, and will doubtless conjure up an article out of the slimmest materials, and good luck to her. Her piece in the Scotsman includes both useful information and some unrealistic conclusions which I doubt whether even she really believes, because she's much too well informed.

First, she quotes us some actual figures for sales of books, as reported by Nielsen Bookscan. Such figures are not all that often reported in the press, largely, I suspect, because subscribers to Bookscan have to pay a hell of a lot of money for the data, and they naturally don't pass it on for free. Anway, the lovely Danuta tells us that Jon Snow's memoirs have sold about 9,000 copies. Since HarperCollins are reported to have paid an advance of £600,000 for the book, this is what you might call a flop.

There are other flops in recent months too. Greg Dyke's book on the Iraq row (£500,000 paid, again by HarperCollins) has sold 6,000, and Rageh Omaar's book, also on Iraq, has managed 16,000 copies for another £600,000 investment, this time by Penguin.

Actually we knew the broad outlines of these situations before, but it does no harm to be reminded.

By contrast, Danuta points out that some of the smaller publishers have recently had some unexpected hits. She quotes the autobiography of Katie Price, aka Jordan, the many books of Alexander McCall Smith, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and so forth.

All of this, Danuta suggests, constitutes 'a reversal of the natural laws of publishing'. Well yes. And then again, no.

The article has earned Danuta a few guineas, and I don't begrudge her that, but nothing has changed. For at least thirty years, and probably longer, publishers have been paying out large sums of money for books which they thought would be sure-fire bestsellers, only to find that the public made loud raspberry noises when actually confronted with the product.

Equally, there have been countless times in the past when a book, bought for tuppence ha'penny, suddenly took off and started to sell in vast numbers, catching the publisher completely cold. Danuta mentions the famous case of the first Harry Potter book, which can never be mentioned too often for it remains a lesson to us all. (Incidentally, and again this is of interest only to real publishing groupies, Danuta says that the book was rejected by 20 publishers, which is a higher figure than I have seen before, and describes the advance paid as £3000; previous figures which have appeared in reasonably reliable places have been £2000 and £2500.)

I don't know about you, but I have largely lost interest in the bestseller lists. Most bestsellers these days are manufactured by the time-honoured (and often effective) methods of pouring lots of money into advertising, getting the book featured on Richard and Judy, getting it reviewed in high places, planting stories in gossip columns, et cetera. By and large, the only people with the money and other resources to do all this are the big firms. Little firms, generally speaking, don't have a hope. Unless, of course, their author happens to be Jordan; she, for some reason which I am too old to understand, seems to have the knack of getting her picture in the newspapers without the publisher having to pay for the space.

Self-publishers please note. Despite the sudden spate of articles (including another one by Danuta) telling us that self-publishing is a quick way to a small fortune, it ain't gonna happen. Stop dreaming.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Alzheimer's and literary style

Most of yesterday's broadsheets, e.g. the Guardian, carried a report of some research carried out by Peter Garrard, of the institute of cognitive neuroscience at University College, London. Garrard and his colleagues compared the early novels of Iris Murdoch with her final work, and concluded that, towards the end of her life, her vocabulary had dwindled and her language had become simpler. This, they suggested, provided evidence of Alzheimer's disease some time before the writer was actually diagnosed as suffering from that condition.

Well, there seems to be no doubt that Iris Murdoch did suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and I am quite prepared to believe that this showed up in the way she wrote. However, there are a couple of points which I would like to make in relation to Garrard's research and in relation to Iris Murdoch's writing generally.

First, it would come as no surprise to me if, over the course of a writing career lasting twenty or thirty years, a writer's style did become simpler, using a larger proportion of short words. From casual, rather than scientific, observation, it seems to me that young writers, particularly in the literary genre, do tend to think it clever to use great long rambling sentences (the Faulkner influence) and to employ words with a multiplicity of syllables. Their style, in short, is consciously and deliberately sesquipidalian. And ten to one you've had to go to the dictionary to find out what that means. Young people think it's clever to do that sort of thing, and it isn't. It is entirely possible, I hope, that in the course of doing a few books, and listening to some wise advisers, a writer might learn to write in a more readily comprehensible manner.

After all, the whole point of fiction is to create emotion, and the whole point of non-fiction is to convey information. Neither objective is achieved by being long-winded and obscure. Faulkner once criticised Hemingway on the grounds that he never used a word which would oblige the reader to consult a dictionary. But Hemingway's response, which I fully endorse, was that he was trying to produce emotion, and you don't do that by using words that the reader can't understand.

In non-fiction, exactly the same applies, of course. Some decades ago there was a famous American journalist called Ed Murrow. Towards the end of his career, Murrow was told by an eminent professor of English that the prof had identified the secret of Murrow's success. It was short sentences. Murrow's comment was that he didn't think short sentences were much of a secret.

So, back to Iris Murdoch. Yes, Peter Garrard and his friends are probably right. Iris's last book probably does reveal early signs of Alzheimer's. But it is at least possible, in theory, that she had decided to write in a way which could be understood by people who don't actually have a PhD and an IQ of 175.

The second point I want to make relates to the actual examples of Iris Murdoch's prose which Garrard quotes. The Guardian gives us two sentences (only), one from an early novel, The Sea, The Sea, and one from her last book, Jackson's Dilemma. Here is the first sentence (and I am assuming that the Guardian quoted it correctly, though with the Grauniad you can never be quite sure):
The chagrin, the ferocious ambition which James I am sure quite unconsciously, prompted in me was something which came about gradually and raged intermittently.
This, I repeat, is just one sentence, presumably chosen at random but intended to be fairly typical of Iris's early style. It would be grossly unfair to read too much into one sentence, but what can we say about it?

Well, if I had read this sentence in isolation, not knowing who had written it, I would say that it seems thoroughly sloppy. It is a sentence written by someone who is writing on automatic pilot, putting down the thoughts pretty much as they popped into her head, and not bothering to arrange them in a sensible order once they were set down on paper. Furthermore, the punctuation stinks. It is the kind of construction that you might expect to find in a letter dictated by a busy estate agent.

What on earth is the woman on about? Chagrin seems to me to have nothing to do with raging ambition, though the connection may be clear if you read the sentence in context. Even so, the whole thing screams out for an editor's pencil, or, better still, a complete rewrite on the part of the author, who suddenly realises (as you do) that what she has written down in the full flood of inspiration doesn't actually make much sense.

Let us now look at the sentence quoted from her last book, Jackson's Dilemma.
Owen had laid out a little table with whisky and red wine and orange juice and ham sandwiches and plums and cherry cake.
Dr Garrard tells us (and I believe him) that the sentence from The Sea, The Sea contains 24 tokens of 22 different word types, and that the second sentence contains 25 tokens of 20 word types; over the course of a large text these differences become highly significant.

Stylistically, however, the second sentence seems to me to be an improvement. Admittedly, all those 'ands' are a bit odd -- almost childlike -- but they don't bother me unduly. And at least the meaning is crystal clear. The difference between the two styles is, however, ascribed in this case to incipient Alzheimer's, rather than a conscious decision to adopt a simpler style.

Unfortunately, Iris Murdoch had little incentive to change anything. Ever. She was told, by a host of sycophantic critics, early in her career, that she was a terrific writer, and was frequently described as 'the most brilliant woman in England'; so why consider change? The fact that there were masses of people, like me, who tried to read one of her early books, found it impenetrable, and never bothered to try again, doesn't seem to have disturbed Iris or anyone on her team.

So, at the end of her life Iris has become another of those well known literary figures (such as Sylvia Plath) who are talked and written about a great deal but are hardly ever read. Such is the fate of writers who believe their own publicity.

In 2001 a film was made about Iris Murdoch's life. The young Iris was played by Kate Winslet, and the older, sick woman was played by Judi Dench. In interviews both actresses revealed that, although they admired Iris Murdoch enormously, neither of them had actually got around to reading any of her books. Kate claimed that she didn't have time. Well you don't do you, being an actress and that.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Kala Trobe: The Magick Bookshop

Through some process of serendipity, fate, or karma (I am not sufficiently familiar with the vocabulary of magick, or esotericism, to know the right term) I came across a copy of Kala Trobe’s The Magick Bookshop in my local public library.

The Magick Bookshop is a novel, with the subtitle Stories of the Occult. It is published by Llewellyn, a firm I have not come across before. Based in St Paul, Minnesota, they specialise in books on wicca, paganism, shamanism, magick, and the like. Founded in 1901, they are obviously well established and successful.

Kala Trobe’s book is a most unusual read. I might have referred to it as ‘original’ but that is a term which I try to avoid. Books labelled as ‘original’ usually aren’t, being based very firmly on someone else’s work. And, if they are truly original, they normally aren’t much good. So I won’t say that The Magick Bookshop is original; but it is certainly unusual and different. I recommend it to you, but I do offer a warning: you have to be prepared to be open to some new ideas. If you are one of those feet-on-the-ground people who can’t bear to read any form of fantasy, science fiction, or imaginative/speculative work, then this probably isn’t for you.

The novel takes the form of six linked stories; they all centre around people who work in, or patronise, Mr Malynowsky’s antiquarian bookshop in Oxford.

The book is clearly based on the author’s personal experience. The blurb tells us that she has been ‘rigorously trained in magick and occult symbology’, and that at one time she ran a bookshop such as the one described in her novel.

I don’t think I need tell you much more than this. The writing is fluent, practised, and eminently readable. According to the author’s web site, another series of stories may appear soon.

I can’t say that I am overly familiar with occult fiction, but Llewellyn seems to publish a fair bit of it. What I do remember is that fifty years ago the English writer Dennis Wheatley had a whole series of bestsellers based on the occult. The books remain in print (312 listed on UK Amazon) and a few fans remain loyal. So there is an audience, and perhaps Kala is the one who will hit the big time; she seems to have the talent.