Monday, March 13, 2006

Magnus Mills back on route

In last Saturday's Times, Magnus Mills had an article about getting his career back on route.

Magnus, you see, was once a London bus driver. Then his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, became a bit of a literary success (shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel and Booker prizes), and, after that, Magnus gave up being a bus driver and became a full-time novelist.

However, it seems that he found that being a full-time writer wasn't as much fun as he'd hoped. So he got a job driving a van. And now he's back being a bus driver again, and seems quite happy with it.

There might be a few lessons here for those of you who feel frustrated by having to earn a living in a day job. But there are also a few lessons to be had from a previous experience of Magnus's. Details of this experience are a little hazy on the internet, so I will have to depend somewhat on memory.

Back in 1998 or so, when Magnus's first novel was about to be published, his publisher had a pretty good story on her hands (Bus driver writes literary novel). But then an enhanced version of the story appeared in one of the UK newspapers. It said that Magnus had been paid an advance of £1,000,000 for his book. So now it was an even juicer story. Now it was Bus driver makes million with first novel.

This was so good a story that it was lifted, without acknowledgement -- and, please note, without checking -- by every other UK newspaper with readers who also read books. So it became, as it were, established fact. And it generated numerous column inches of free advertising and lots of comment and gossip. It's my belief that the publicity went a long way towards getting Magnus's book on to various shortlists, because the book itself, if anyone troubled to read it, wasn't all that exciting.

After a few days, however, the author's publisher, or agent, was so horrified by the inaccuracy of this report that she was obliged to admit that the story was complete nonsense. The advance had actually been £10,000.

The Bookseller then ran a little comment, sarcastically saying that the newspapers weren't far out; they had only got the figure wrong by three noughts. But actually, of course, if you look at the figures (set out above), you will see that it was wrong by two noughts. So the Bookseller didn't get it right either.

Furthermore, if you think about it, you will realise that Magnus's contract was probably a pretty standard one, calling for the advance to be divided into two, half payable on signature and half on publication. So, far from being made a millionaire, Magnus had in fact received £5,000, less agent's commission, less tax, less expenses. Let's say enough for a week's holiday somewhere nice and a few nights out with the boys.

A couple of year's later, the Guardian ran a story about big advances in general. And in the course of that story it was claimed that the original 'million-pound advance' stuff about Magnus Mills had been cooked up by Magnus himself, with the aid of a journalist friend.

This little history, coupled with the fact that Magnus is now happily driving a bus again, demonstrates a number of points, all of which have been made here before but are worth repeating.

First, any stories about big advance payments for books should be treated with extreme caution, because they are probably the product of some publicist's fevered imagination. They are on a par with claims that we have to go to war with a foreign country because it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

Second, the glamour of the book world is not what it's cracked up to be. Gertrude Stein told Sam Steward that if he wanted to become a writer, he should get a day job as a butcher. Or driving a bus, she might have added.

And third, if you want to make your book famous, learn how to be creative with press releases. You could start by studying the working methods of Charles Faulkner, publisher of Emma Maree Urquhart and Libby Rees. See also the claim that Libby Rees is about to host a TV chat show.

1 comment:

Andrew O'Hara said...

Does this mean Libby Rees is going to become a threat to Oprah on television? I can't wait for her selections and critiques, which I'm sure will be done by her alone. Not since Mozart have we seen such a plethora of toddler geniuses--warms me heart.