Thursday, June 16, 2005

You've never had it so good

In my recent post about changes in the culture, I made the point (endorsed by some commenters, whose views are well worth reading) that the last fifty years have seen massive changes in all sorts of aspects of life.

And, since this is a blog about books and publishing, it strikes me that there is one area in which there have been particularly dramatic and useful changes: that is in the availability of background information for those who wish to become writers.

There is no shortage of ambitious young writers. Come to that, you get some old and ambitious writers too. Mary Wesley didn't publish a thing until she was about 70, and Vince Vawter recently pointed out to me a 72-year-old Englishman whose first novel is currently making a bit of a stir in the US. The author is Charles Chadwick and his novel is It's All Right Now.

(Haven't read it yet, Vince, but I will get there one day. Charlie boy, by the way, is represented by PFD, big-time agents, which is a neat trick if you can manage it. Wonder how he ended up with them? Bet it wasn't through the slush pile.)

For all of these writers, beginning or established, young or old, there is vastly more information available now than there was when I was a lad.

Back in the 1950s, any sort of background on publishing was hard to come by. True, the Bookseller magazine existed (I think), but I had never seen a copy. The broadsheet newspapers occasionally printed an article which gave some grudging insight into the book world. And there were the inevitable how-to books for writers, many of which then, as now, were written by people who didn't really know what they were talking about; and, in order to sell their book, were wildly over-optimistic about authors' chances.

Contrast that with today, and the difference is huge.

Suppose you want to select a publisher in order to submit your ms. In the 1950s there was one reference book (in the UK): the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. This gave a list of publishers, with their addresses and telephone numbers. As for what those firms published, the list usually went: fiction, non-fiction, reference books. And that was it. No indication, for example, that some firms published only the highest-brow literary fiction and some only romantic fiction. No distinction between massively powerful firms, with 60 salesmen, and those run by two men and a dog.

Thus sending off a ms in those far-off days was an adventure. In more ways than one, because there were no photocopiers, and even if you had made a carbon copy when you typed out your book, that copy was likely to be somewhat untidy. So, if the post or the publisher lost the top copy of your ms (and it was not unknown), you were back to square one.

All is changed. Today, if you are looking for a publisher, there must be a thousand sources of detailed information. This info is sometimes official, as when posted by the company itself, and sometimes very unofficial, as when writers on some forum or other relate the horror stories of how they were mistreated, cheated, and lied to by some thieving son of a bitch.

Here on the GOB I do my best, as and when I come across such useful information, to draw it to your attention. Which is the point (at last! you sigh) of today's little homily.

The Guardian last Friday carried an article called 'How to make a book'. This is a step-by-step account of the writing and publishing of one book: a 135-page comic novella entitled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists.

I'm not going to summarise the book, or the rest of the article, here. What I am going to say is that the author of The Pirates!, Gideon Defoe, somehow or other got taken on by the agents Janklow and Nesbit.

Well, I say somehow or other. The precise mechanism was this. The Times journalist Caitlin Moran apparently saw a discussion of the book (in ms form) on an internet forum and sent it to Claire Paterson, one of the two agents in the London office of Janklow. And Paterson, incidentally, got only one of her 40-odd clients through the slush pile.

Paterson, not surprisingly, given her firm's power in the land, got our young author a substantial advance.

As I say, no further summary of the article here. But what I am going to do is issue A Dreadful Warning.

This article about Gideon Defoe's book is a success story. It is a story of someone who wrote a book (pretty lightheartedly), found an agent, and got published.

But my Dreadful Warning is this. (And no matter how often I repeat it, no one seems to listen.) Do not assume that this will happen to you. Success (if that's what it is) of this kind is rare.

When you get into the car to go to the supermarket, you do not assume that you will be one of the infinitesimally small number of people who are that day killed in a road accident. But for some reason, when would-be writers sit down to write their book, they do assume that they will be one of the infinitesimally small number of writers who complete their ms, find a powerful agent, are paid a decent advance, and achieve some degree of recognition.

It must be something in the genes. But that's the way human nature is.

Meanwhile you can, if you wish, read about Mr Defoe's adventures. The article contains, all in one place, a vast amount of highly relevant information about the UK book trade.

Next, another instructive story. This one appeared in the Independent over a week ago. Sorry, sorry, I do try to keep up but we've had a new kitchen put in, and Mrs GOB keeps talking about putting shelves up.

This is the story of Robert Chalmers, who has had a couple of books published. Chalmers's novels got some good reviews but didn't sell. (Now where have I heard that before?) So the aggrieved author, ambitious as all get-out apparently, has devised a new marketing technique. His aim is to generate some word-of-mouth buzz, so he has travelled to a north-country town and has given away 1,000 copies of his latest. Yes, that's right. Given them away.

The article doesn't tell us (or if it does I missed it) who paid for these 1,000 copies. But I doubt that Chalmers's publisher was willing to do so. So the author is putting his money where his mouth is. Plus a good deal of time and effort.

It's a pretty desperate move, in my opinion. But who knows. It generated an article in the Indie. And a mention on this blog. So maybe the groundswell of opinion is, as of this very moment, lifting the book ever upwards, towards the top of the chart.

Or maybe not. Either way, you can read and learn. And that sort of thing, to repeat, was not available when I was a lad. Which is how I came to go so far astray.


Anonymous said...

You're correct, GOB, we've never had it so good with the world's information at our fingertips. And my fingers become cramped and my arse (your Anglo-Saxon) grows numb harvesting all the information. Such is the embarrassment of riches.

dhamel said...

If I may, let me just say that the pirate book is a very funny read. Here's my review of it: