Thursday, September 16, 2004

Guardian angel

My attention has been drawn (I can truthfully say) to a mention of this blog by William Boot, in the Bookseller for 3 September.

Mr Boot maintains that I am not as grumpy as he is. He alleges that I am no more than ‘mildly cynical’. Ha! Well we’ll see about that. Boot obviously didn’t read the post a few months ago in which I said that (a) I wasn’t going to bother reading the Bookseller any longer, and (b) I didn’t think that anything which appeared in the Bookseller was worth a bent halfpenny of anybody’s money. If he had read that he might have taken a different view.

However, Mr Boot’s jibe, justified or not, has prompted me to try to be a bit more grumpy in future, since I wouldn’t want to disappoint my readers. So I will start by referring to a matter which, once upon a time (before I learnt wisdom), would have had me jumping up and down with fury.

I have long maintained that, from the modern publisher’s point of view, the ideal writer is a 29-year-old woman who looks drop-dead gorgeous in a black mini-skirt and writes a column for the Guardian. Such a creature, I have stated publicly, and more than once, could get a contract to write a novel on the strength of an outline sketched out on two sheets of paper. Widely spaced.

The fact that a gorgeous young woman with columnar experience knows absolutely nothing about writing fiction would, I have long maintained, prove to have no bearing whatever on the situation. Fiction editors are capable of endless folly, and any one of them would be prepared to cough up the traditional six figures – before the decimal point – in return for the promise of a novel from such a divine and dazzling creature.

Why so? Well, because the young woman in question would, by definition, be someone who (a) can be photographed in Vogue and similar media without embarrassment, (b) can hold her own with Richard and Judy, and (c) has an address book of media contacts an inch and a half thick, most of them being people she has either slept with, or supplied coke to, or both, and who owe her one.

And guess what. Last week produced a press release which more or less proves my point. With one or two minor variations.

Nicholas Clee, in one of his periodic surveys of the book trade, tells us that HarperCollins have paid a six-figure sterling advance to Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who is to write a thriller. Publishing News tells us that the editor concerned is Jane Johnson. The deal was done on the basis of a ‘partial manuscript’, which presumably means a bit more than a two-page outline. Possibly three pages plus the back of an envelope, I would guess. And the agent, of course, was Jonny Geller. (My dears, there is just nobody else.) The book will be entitled The Righteous Men, and will be published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.

Of course, Mr Freedland does not quite fit the ideal template for a publisher's wet dream. He originates from the Guardian, which is a good start, but his age is not stated, and he is a bloke, so the mini-skirt thing is presumably out. On the other hand he might be a bit of a cross-dresser, and for six figures who wouldn’t be? And the inch-and-a-half-thick contacts book he will certainly have.

Mr Freedand is doubtless a man of many virtues, who regularly helps old ladies to cross the road, and the editor at HarperCollins is, equally doubtless, a legend in the publishing world. Nevertheless, I am bound to enquire whether there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who can possibly explain to me how this deal between the two of them, and Geller, can possibly be justified.

Consider how this arrangement would look in other contexts. If Freedland were to put forward a bid to design a new building, for example, in competition with experienced architects, would he not be expected to have some kind of qualifications? He would be asked, would he not, to detail such previous experience in designing buildings that he might have had? And if he had not even so much as a garden shed wherewith to demonstrate his skills, would he not be shown the door in pretty short order?

But in publishing, apparently, considerations of this sort do not enter anyone’s mind. Freedland uses words in his day job, and a novel is just words strung together, isn’t it? Sure it is. So it’s more of the same, right?

Wrong, actually. But I can’t really be bothered to work up a head of steam. I just can’t be arsed. I really would like to be thoroughly grumpy about this deal, because it fully deserves it, by my heart isn’t in it.

No, I will just sit here and watch, and let you know from time to time how this (to me) absurd project is progressing.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, and it won’t be the last. A few years ago, I recall, there was a former publishing executive called Robyn Sisman. She also decided to write a novel, without having previously done so, and on the basis of a chapter or two she was given the inevitable six-figure contract. Robyn Sisman's only qualification for the job, so far as I could see, was that she was on first-name, let's-do-lunch terms with all the key decision-makers in publishing, and with many media people.

In interviews, Ms Sisman was later frank enough to admit that she had found the task of writing a novel to be a bit trickier than she had imagined (it looks so easy, doesn't it?). And when the book, Special Relationship, finally appeared, it proved to be less than stunning. It received, of coure, acres of press coverage, but not all the reviews were by friends, and not all of them were friendly. The book ‘never even resembles a nail-biter,’ said one. ‘Just too tame,’ said another.

I do have to feel a little sorry for book editors in the current climate, a climate of cut-throat competition for which they find themselves totally unfitted. They know full well that unless they come up with a constant stream of big sellers their career will go down the tube. But they haven't the foggiest idea, poor bewildered souls, how to find these books.

So they try to manufacture them. A celebrity biography one month, a controversial book on politics the next (but not too controversial of course; steer clear of the Saudis); and they commission a good solid journalist to write a novel in the month after that. Some of these cunning wheezes succeed, and some of them don't.

I stil haven't managed to be really grumpy -- I just haven't got the energy this morning -- but I will close by making the point that any editor with a brain between her ears could do better than commission a novel from an untried talent. There are plenty of experienced writers around (such as the modest author of this blog, for instance) who would be prepared to write her a professional piece of work for a lot less than six figures. They are precisely the sort of people, in fact, who have been dumped from publishers’ lists in considerable numbers over the past few years. But, give them the kind of publicity budget which inevitably accompanies a six-figure advance, and who knows what they might achieve.


Anonymous said...

Well, you may not be grumpy, but I bloody well am. I have had three perfectly good novels turned down in the last five years and am in the process of watching a fourth go the same way. I get lots of honeyed words from publishers, but no cigar. And believe me, if cross-dressing would do the trick, I'm your man. Sadly, a 57-year-old in net stockings and black leather skirt cuts no ice with the wankers who dominate today's publishing industry. God rot the lot of them!

Anonymous said...

I must protest. The "Jeremy Snickett" who wrote to you so eloquently yesterday is not me, ie Jeremy SNIPPET. Did he intend to confuse you? I don't know, But it would be nice in future in anonymous contributors found their own noms de plume.

J. Snippet