Thursday, March 30, 2006

Update on John Barlow's Intoxicated

The publication of John Barlow's novel Intoxicated was noted here on 7 February. Subsequently, however, John sent me a copy of the book, with a not-so-cryptic comment to the effect that I might as well have a copy, since no one else wanted one.

At about the same time, in a comment on Walter Ellis's sad tale about how he got lots of publicity but no sales, John said this: 'Walter, I read your comments and they almost broke my heart. However, since I had a very similar experience to accompany the recent publication of my own book, my heart was already broken.'

And, if that is not enough, on his own blog John writes that 'If your book flops, you’ll know very quickly; just check your infolder, and if it’s still empty seven days after publication, you’ve written a flop.'

From all of which, you will deduce that the public reception of Intoxicated has not made John a happy bunny. And, if he will forgive me for rubbing salt in the wound, the rest of us might benefit from trying to decide what, if anything, went wrong.

Bit of background to begin with.

John Barlow read English at Cambridge, and later got a PhD in Applied Linguistics. He first came to public attention through the Paris Review, which seems to have as high a literary reputation as any journal in the world. And his first book, Eating Mammals (a collection of novellas), was greeted with favourable reviews in such prestigious places as Publishers' Weekly, Booklist, and the Times Lit Supp. All very promising, and the right sort of credentials for a literary novelist.

You also need to know about John's geographical background. He was born in Gomersal, West Yorkshire (England), and Gomersal features as the location for at least one story in Eating Mammals. The Bradford/Leeds/Gomersal area is also the setting for Intoxicated.

Now the details of the novel's publication.

Unusually for an English writer, the first edition of Intoxicated came out in the US, published by Morrow, part of HarperCollins, and therefore a big-time, prestigious imprint. As is often the case with American books, the actual physical object is produced to a higher standard than a typical UK equivalent would be. It's a hardback, on decent paper, handsomely bound. The layout is well designed and has been given a good deal of thought. A considerable sum, several thousand dollars, has been spent on the dustjacket.

As for the actual content, the text, I find myself admiring certain aspects of it very much indeed. Overall, it is a very fine piece of work. I have criticism,s and it certainly isn't perfect, but it is the product of much intelligence and hard work. In fact, when I reached page 349 (out of 353) I noted down that 'this is a very beautiful book'. And I shall have to try, in a minute, to explain both to you and to myself what I meant by that.

On the negative side, I have quite a number of things to say. First, like almost everything else these days, Intoxicated is too long. At a guess, 120,000 words. And in my view it would be far more effective at two-thirds that length. But you can always skip.

And then there's its subject matter. The book is about a Yorkshire family, in the nineteenth century. Yorkshire then made most of its money ('brass') from wool. And Isaac Brookes is a successful mill owner who meets a hunchbacked midget on a train. They go into business together and produce a fizzy, fruity drink from... Well, actually from rhubarb. Rhubarb being a curious vegetable/fruit which grows well in the Yorkshire area. And Rhubarilla, as the drink is called, becomes enormously successful and popular.

Well now. Suppose you were an editor of literary fiction in a New York publishing house, and an Englishman with one respectable publication to his name came to you with a novel set in Yorkshire, in 1869, about a hunchbacked midget who makes a successful fizzy drink, what would you think?

Would you think Wow! This is an absolute winner. Watch out Michael Cunningham; and take a look over your shoulder, Dan Brown? Or... Would you scratch your head, study the Bookscan figures for literary fiction in general, and say to yourself, Well, this is all very fine in principle, nicely written and so forth, but...

And the principal but would be, in my opinion, Who the hell is ever going to read this thing, even if it's available free in a library? As for buying it -- is the average New Yorker, faced with the choice of this or the latest Jackie Collins, going to have much difficulty in settling for Jackie?

The surprising thing to me, and I mean this with no disrespect, is that the book ever got published in the US at all. I would have been faintly surprised to see a US edition even if there had been a UK edition to begin with, accompanied by good reviews. But to publish it first in the US strikes me as an odd decision, even by the standards of literary publishers.

So. If we are to wrestle with the problem, What went wrong?, I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that a novel of this kind is inevitably going to have a very small readership.

John Barlow could reasonably take issue with that, and point to some of the favourable reviews that the book has already received. E.g. 'Intoxication delivers the goods' (Washington Post). But reviews don't necessarily sell books. And the absence of reviews isn't always a handicap. Josephine Cox, mentioned yesterday, is never reviewed in any UK journal that 'counts', but she regularly sells over 100,000 paperback copies of each of her two books in every year.

No, I'm afraid there isn't much mystery. There never was a profitable market for this book. The best that publisher and author could hope for (And they do hope, don't they? Oh yes.) was that the book might be one of those lightning strikes. Another Life of Pi, a book that no one really wanted (except one eccentric publisher, who was willing to take a punt), but which somehow, by the grace of whatever gods may be, took off.

And this one didn't.

My final thoughts on Intoxicated are very personal, and probably of no interest to anyone. But how did I come to find myself feeling that it was very beautiful? And what did I mean by that emotional reaction?

The answer lies in my family background. The characters in Intoxicated are Yorkshire people of the nineteenth century, and they remind me of relatives, long since dead, whom I knew and loved.

My parents were from Yorkshire -- from Bradford, to be precise -- and I suspect that my ancestors could be traced back to Yorkshire for a thousand years. Possibly ten thousand. When I was a boy, therefore, I spent a great deal of time in Yorkshire, staying with a multiplicity of aunts, great aunts, grandparents, and the like. Since I am getting on in years myself and since some of the great aunts and uncles were themselves getting on when I was a boy, it turns out that I actually knew some of the people -- or the kind of people -- that John Barlow is writing about. And I have no doubt whatever that they were the finest people I ever met in my life. They became my role models.

My family were skilled working class. Or not so skilled. They were not bookish people, but they were educated, to a point, and self-educated after that. They had talents: music, and amateur dramatics. They were not at all religious but they were law-abiding, honest, sober, reliable, hard-working, and decent rather than merely 'respectable'. They lived in crowded houses in narrow, dark streets, which were black with industrial soot and fumes. My grandmother could remember the mill girls going to work, so early in the morning that it was still dark, with the wooden clogs on their feet clattering loudly on the cobbled surfaces.

When my great-aunt Ethel became too old to look after herself, and had to go into a home, the man who ran the home remarked that he had never had an old person in his care who had so many visitors. She must, he said, have helped a great many people when she was younger. I don't doubt it.

And I suppose that is why I found Intoxicated so impressive. Despite its faults. It wasn't until about page 300 that I really began to get interested, and that after a good deal of judicious skipping. But if you can stick with the book that far you should find the end rewarding. The portrait of Taffy Thomas, for example, the music-hall performer, is a wonderful achievement. And the book is full of marvellous writing, even if it is, for my taste, over-written.

Oh, and before I forget, I enjoyed the various references to walking sticks which either do, or do not, have a horse's-head handle. I wonder if they came from Woolworth's?

The moral of all this, for writers, is probably not one that they wish to hear. But the moral is this. It can be a very painful and damaging experience to invest enormous time, energy, and emotional capital in a project which, if you are able to look at things objectively, is never likely to succeed. It may be best not to start.

Writers, almost by definition, find rational thought difficult. But surely, they will say, every year sees an example of an unexpected book suddenly rising to fame and fortune. Mine has a chance of doing the same.

Well yes. That's true. Sort of. It's also true that, if you go to Blackpool for the weekend, you may, like young Albert, end up by being eaten by a lion in the zoo. But it's not very likely.


Anonymous said...

Why does the absence of an instant hit mean the book is a flop? We have ample evidence to suggest that the publishing world is almost entirely incapable of first finding and then promoting writers who may have written decent stories with large potential markets. As long as a copy of the book exists there is always hope that word-of-mouth can kick-in.

It seems that one simply has to keep on bloody writing and hope that the next book

1. Gets properly published.
2. Finds ‘a market’.

Mr. Barlow seems to have #1 in hand (unless someone at his publishing house decides that this ‘flop’ is evidence that money cannot be made from this man’s output) but #2 seems to require a level of publicity only provided by great wads of cash or one of the many glittering prizes on offer. (Although most of these seem to be chosen from a pre-culled list by junior minions frightened of and unable to spot writing that does not induce coma.)

It seems to me that many of the world’s biggest sellers had to write an awful lot before their output somehow became ‘financially viable’ in the eyes of those who have the power to shove books down our throats.

We’re a shy bunch. Dali walked down Fifth Avenue naked with a pizza on his head. The man could paint but who cared until they saw his dick swinging about? I’m not suggesting Mr. Barlow get naked in public but I am suggesting that we should no more trust ‘PR people’ to attract attention than we’d trust 23-year old graduate publishing trainees to tell us how to strengthen our female leads or to get more ‘edgy’.

Sadly, after five minutes on the shelf the books start firing back to the publishers (Dan Brown needs more shelf space I tell you) and one is an ‘official’ flop.

But at least writing an ‘official’ flop goes some way to providing some psychological metal-plating for the arses of publishers who might risk a few thousand on the next book.

I’d have to ask these questions of Mr. Barlow:
1. How many publications did you personally call to try to get reviews?
2. How many shops did you personally contact to investigate the possibility of an event?
3. How many radio and television stations did you personally contact?
4. Did you make any ‘newsworthy’ features of the book immediately obvious to the people responsible for the PR? Did you call any journalists?

All of the above are soul-destroying and entirely distasteful activities. Talking to shopkeepers about a book one has written is something I intend to write about one day (if I ever become truly enlightened and I can do it without going purple). But at least the properly published can take the high ground in such matters (shopkeepers lie in wait for the pathetic self-published).

I just looked at Amazon (UK). There is not a single review of Intoxicated. The publisher should and must do some blurb surgery and plant those blurbs online. Your publisher should be ashamed of himself. I’m not saying that an Amazon review will sell more books but it would only take a few minutes and it couldn’t hurt. You have two terrific reader reviews on Amazon US. You surely must have some ‘proper’ reviews that should be on the Amazon page. It is indicative of the publishing world. Nobody wants to do any work. Either they get behind a book (or usually a pair of tits and a ghostwriter) with cash or they mid-list the fucker to death.

You know, you could get in touch with Amazon yourself. They’re really quite helpful.

Have you tried bludgeoning your publisher with something blunt and heavy? It might not do the trick but I’d bet that an attempted murder would garner sufficient media coverage to turn you into a bestseller. You might even want to fake it with your publisher? But then again, so many agents have recently been murdered by gay boyfriends and rent boys that perhaps that strategy is becoming old hat?

Francis Ellen.
(embittered writer)

Anonymous said...

Jonathon Freedland's article in yesterday's Guardian about pseudonyms is a truly admirable example of recycling. Not only is it substantially the interview he gave to Radio 4's "Open Book", (broadcast last Sunday and again today), it even quotes my own contribution to that programme. Now that's what I call economy of effort.

Jenny Haddon

Anonymous said...

Hello Francis

You comments deserve a reply.

On the nature of flops, I used the term rather melodramatically. I’m proud of the book, with all its faults and excesses.

The mechanics of a market ‘flop’, though, are interesting. The week prior to publication we had two syndicated radio interviews coming up, reviews slated for Atlantic Monthly and for the biggest advertising trade magazine in the US (the novel touches on advertising); all the big newspaper book editors had the novel. Three of the ‘big four’ trade reviews had been good; Mathew Pearl (The Dante Club) had offered an amazing blurb for the cover (on the strength of which the rights were sold in Russia); the novel had got a Booksense notable pick. The only negative point was a bad line (a killer line) in a trade review. Unfortunately, it was Publishers Weekly.

The Washington Post ran an early review, which was stunningly good. But then no one else ran anything. It might have been PW, or not. The radio interviews were cancelled, the Atlantic review was pulled; ditto the magazine. Not a single piece of press of any sort, in any media, was generated for the book from then on. And, let me tell you, I was looking. A fortnight after publication, two friends visited bookstores for me, a city centre Barnes and Noble in Washington DC, and a central B&N in LA. The book was not available.

The issue of publicity is very difficult. First, the book is only out in the US, and I am 4000 miles away. Nevertheless, I did absolutely everything I thought I could do without treading on the toes of the publicist and her dept. In retrospect, I think I might possibly have trodden on some toes. But you live and learn. I took the decision not to mess them about by compromising their work. So, I called nowhere to get reviews, did not drop into shops, and especially did not contact broadcast media or journalists. It’s a strange situation. These same people handle publicity on some of the top selling books in the US. The contact book at HarperCollins publicity dept. would probably make your eyes pop out. And the last thing they want is a bloke with a funny Yorkshire accent getting on the blower every morning to ask whether the editor of the Des Moines Reporter has got a review copy. Respectful distance is expected from you, and I think that’s understandable.

Having said that, I did some strange and unusual stuff to try and garner press, and the publicity people were supportive and receptive. I tried to get Pepsi to sponsor my webpage; I got the MS to a Hollywood director (a very famous one) through a friend of a friend; I badgered many, many on-line places, such as readers’ groups (I wrote a readers’ guide), review sites, specialist sites... I mentioned it on discussion groups, made sure my few influential friends got copies, paid for a good, professionally designed website (domain on the book cover). I got what bloggery I could muster, not least here on GOB.

However, when there is no press at all, and the bookshops start slipping the books back into the storeroom, there’s nothing much left to do.

Here’s an interesting thing. To my left, on the desk, is a copy of Val Landi’s A WOMAN FROM CAIRO. Next to it is Francis Ellen’s THE SAMPLIST, and Ian Hocking’s DEJA VU is in the living room. Yesterday I finished DOPE, a fabulous book by Sara Gran. This evening, moreover, I will be clicking to digital chapter six of Michael Allen’s HOW AND WHY LISA’S DAD GOT TO BE FAMOUS. And just to over-egg the pudding, I have SEA DUST by Margaret Muir, a fellow Yorkshire writer, whose book arrived the other day. The common factor is that I heard about all these books on the internet, on blogs or discussion lists. Not through ‘press’ or ‘publicity’. It is, indeed, a long time since I bought a book after reading a review.

Well, it’s a funny business. As I type this I am waiting for my agent to call. Now that will be an interesting conversation.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Well, just off the top of my head...a few suggestions. I base these suggestions on what Grumpy Old Bookman particularly liked about the book--its connection to Yorkshire--and a quick chat with my friend Bridget Biggane, author, if HarperCollins sees fit, and proud waver of a green card in the US. Bridget knows a great deal more about Yorkshire than a girl from Connecticut.

.Contact Ex-pat newsletters and get yourself interviewed.
.Issue a press release via email to all the local Yorkshire newspapers, TV and radio stations. Follow-up.
.Contact the Yorkshire Tourist Authority and let them know about the book. Perhaps they could distribute the book to their offices.
.Contact the librarians in Yorkshire. They may produce publications in which they could review your book.
.Get interviewed by British Airways mag.
.March into the airport and introduce yourself to the book buyer.
.Contact senior citizen-type centers.
.Get quotes from famous residents of Yorkshire and put them in every correspondence and/or email.

I'd work the Yorkshire angle, hard.

And, yes, it's a do-it-yourselfer. (And you thought you'd done your part! Hah!)


Anonymous said...

Suggested by Bridget Biggane!

Anonymous said...

just to mention, the book is not available in the UK. And I already posted on Yorkshireposts.

Anonymous said...

"It can be a very painful and damaging experience to invest enormous time, energy, and emotional capital in a project which, if you are able to look at things objectively, is never likely to succeed. It may be best not to start."

You are so dreadfully wrong here. All of life is pounding your head against a brick wall. Why should writing be any different?

Anonymous said...

While many of us struggle to be published or look to alternatives to current publishing it is disheartening to see this type of outcome for a published author. There are many lessons to be learned here! Steve Clackson

Anonymous said...

I think that John's summary comments (that he learned about several of the new novels stacked on his desk through blogs and the Web)point to the future of publishing for emerging authors.

Following World War II Ian Ballentine established paperback books as the dominant new format and exponentially widened the distribution network and sales potential for both authors and publishers. The new rule became: first hardbound, then paper.

I think that today's new model will quickly emerge as: first Web, then bookstore.

This will eliminate the insane 6-12 week window new books and authors have to establish their place on the shelves.

A new book launched on the Web supported by a blog and very tightly targeted text ads place on Google ("If you like "The Hours,"
you'll love "Intoxicated") using comparable authors as keyword selectors for six months to a year will allow authors like John to build their marketing and buzz platforms, find their audience, and build a track record with Amazon.

I've been posting blogs about A Woman from Cairo that weave commentary with chapter excerpts. As of ten minutes ago I had 681 visit to the blog post--"Where in the World is Osama bin Laden" based on content from a key chapter.

The Web first, bookstores second will be the new model.

It has two huge advantages: the author finds their market in a sensible, sane, leisurely manner and the publisher launches in the traditional manner with most of the risk sqeezed out the venture.

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