Thursday, July 20, 2006

The rise and rise of Sam Bourne

Nicholas Clee has kindly sent me some figures from the Bookseller which will, he says, make me splutter a bit.

Well, yes. And then again... no.

The main story that he tells relates to last week's sales in the UK book market. The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, has gone to number one on the bestseller list, with sales of 30,624 copies in seven days. Katie Price, aka Jordan (doncha just love her?), has to be content with second place again, with her novel Angel selling 26,654 copies.

How did this first place for The Righteous Men come about? Answer, the Sam Bourne book was included in Richard and Judy's summer reading list, a list than which there is no greater shifter of books in the UK (think Oprah in a UK context). Sam and his book were, I gather, featured on the show quite recently.

This is, apparently, only the second time that an R&J nominated book has made it to number one, and it gives HarperCollins their first overall number-one title for two years (the last being Cecelia Ahern's PS, I Love You).

And why does Nicholas think this will make me splutter? Well, because I have a well documented antipathy towards Mr Bourne and his book, based on the old-fashioned idea that there are other writers out there who deserve this kind of success far more than he does.

The saga begins (do feel free to click away if you've heard this before) on 16 September 2004, when I noted that Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, with Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown acting as his agent, had sold the 'partial manuscript' of a thriller, entitled The Righteous Men, to editor Jane Johnson at HarperCollins. A six-figure sterling advance was involved, and the book was to appear under the Sam Bourne pseudonym.

'I am bound to enquire,' I said sniffily, back in 2004, 'whether there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who can explain to me how this deal can possibly be justified.'

But I had already answered my own question, in the same post. I had already pointed out that, from a modern publisher's point of view, the ideal author is a practising journalist. Such a person can not only string words together on paper but is likely to be articulate, personable, well connected, London-based, media-savvy, and all like that. Ideally, of course, the journalist should be female, absolutely stunning to look at, single, and ready to sleep with anyone short of the Pope -- but, at a pinch, a bloke will do.

So there wasn't really anything too surprising, depite my outrage, at Bourne/Freedland being handed a juicy contract for a partial manuscript.

I then forgot all about Mr Bourne and his book, until it finally came out. Curiously, not even the strict code of Fleet Street practice managed to get the man more than a couple of reviews (as noted in my post of 17 March), and those reviews that did appear were, to use the technical term coined by Glaswegian untermenschen, shite. This was all very distressing to those who, like myself, were bubbling over with goodwill towards the entire project, on which much of Mr Bourne/Freedland's future pension doubtless depends.

There was, however, as in all the best stories, a white knight on the horizon. Or two white knights, actually: Richard and Judy. On 20 June I reported that The Righteous Men had been included in R&J's summer reading list. And if that doesn't shift a few copies, I said, nothing will.

And now it has.

There are just a few morals to this story, and, since there are always new, young, and impressionable young writers appearing on the scene, it is worth, perhaps, pointing them out again.

You may have been brought up to imagine that literary fame and fortune will be yours if only you write a great book -- 'great' being defined in any way you wish. But that is not true. That may be the way it should be in principle, but in practice it simply ain't so. Having a 'great', good, or even competent book is neither here nor there. What is needed today is the package.

As The Righteous Men's story demonstrates, if you have the right package you don't even need an entire book. An idea will do. But you, the author, have to be the right sort of person. And you have to have the right agent, who will not only get you taken up by the right publisher (i.e. a big, powerful one), but will continue to act on your behalf thereafter.

We have already discussed the nature of the 'right' author. As for agents -- well, Jonny Geller, as I pointed out in 2004, is the agent de nos jours. He is a man with a considerable track record in taking very average writers and building them, at least temporarily, into stars. (See my discussion of Jake Arnott and The Long Firm).

Given Geller's prestige and success, anyone in the book trade will take calls from him. Including, I suspect, Amanda Ross, the lady who actually decides what gets the hands-on blessing from R&J. I would bet a modest sum of money that, at some point, Jonny called Amanda and invited her out to lunch. That's what agents are for, after all.

Over lunch he would have drawn her attention to the many virtues of his client, a man so far underrated but clearly (he would have said) with the legs for a lengthy Ian-Fleming type career (Fleming was, after all, a journalist himself). And Amanda, who, in her recent Times interview, told us all that thrillers are not her thing, seems to have accepted the argument. And besides, you never know when a friend on the Guardian might come in handy.

I don't think I feel an urge to splutter over this. Not any more. I dare say I would have, once. But spluttering over it is about as much good as spluttering over the fact that the sun rises in the east. You and I, after much earnest discussion, may agree that, all things considered, everything taken into account, one thing weighed with another, the sun really ought to rise in the south. But tomorrow morning it will come up in the east, just the same as ever. And Geller will go on selling books by journalists for six-figure contracts.

But, as I have said here before, and meant it, I do try hard to bear in mind the admonition of a friend of mine, who was a high-ranking trades-union official. None of us, he said, should ever resent the success of a fellow labourer in the vineyard.

Now I have to admit, when pushed up against a wall, with the usual loaded revolver pressed to my right temple, that there are many labourers in the vineyard whom I woud rather see prosper than Sam Bourne; and almost any published thriller writer with a decent set of reviews to his name can reasonably lay claim to being a better choice for R&J's beneficence than this Bourne fellow.

However, if it is any comfort, bear in mind that, where writers are concerned, success doesn't come very often. When it does, the 'success' is often more illusory than real; and the money is never as much as the publicity would have you believe.


Anonymous said...

Hey. I resent your use of the term untermenschen' with reference to Glaswegians. What are you trying to imply.

Wee Glesgae Bochle.

Anonymous said...


Elberry said...

just read this in Iris Murdoch's lively & unusually accomplished 1st novel, 'Under the Net': "it's easier to publish garbage if you're known, than genius if you're unknown."

(not an exact quotation)

Hameeduddin said...

Now the shah knows what he's gotta do. Run! to enrol in a journalism course! Wait an year...form connections .... and hope you write a shitty enuf garbage proposal coated with silver and glitter and court a leachy agent to fall in love with his triffle idea..OR ... he can continue to write with the passion that he has begun with and hope that someone somewhere has enuf common sense.

What Shalt he do?

Sapphire said...

Thanks for confirming why I'll never be published!! I don't have the package.

Susan Hill said...

But Michael, The Pure in Heart, my 2nd crime novel, sold almost 90,000 in paperback in 4 weeks since it was published and the 3rd, The Risk of Darkness, has sold almost 20,000 in hardback and I have never in my life been a package. Not so far as I know anyway.!

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against Jonathan Freedland, who is an excellent newspaper columnist – especially when he is dealing with events in the UK, as distinct from the Middle East. But there is no doubt that he has been almost absurdly lucky with his novel, The Righteous Men.

In the first place, he was lucky to get Johny Geller on his side. I wrote once to Geller with an idea for a novel that was actually rather good. He did not reply. But for Jonty, he was prepared to move mountains. This is because Freeland (Sam Bourne) is a highly placed hack on The Guardian, with a sideline doing think-pieces for Radio 4.

Second, a top publisher proved ready to publish the thing, sight-unseen, for a lot of money. This was because Freedland was a "name" and so was Geller.

Third, he received considerable publicity after the book was published. Ironically, this related mainly to the fact that it was slated in The Times by a reviewer whose notice was rejected by the Guardian at Freedland's insistence. But now the hare was running.

Finally, for reasons that can only be guessed at but which undoutbedly centred on good "connections," The Righteous Men was featured on Richard and Judy. The rest is mystery.

Can we assume that Freedland wrote a note to his tv hosts thanking them profusely for their help? I think we can. And were Richard and Judy thrilled to see their boy hit the number one spot? You bet!

I can think of another highly placed journalist who has benefited from his connections: Matthew D'Ancona, the editor of The Spectator. D'Ancona's first novel, written after an exploratory lunch with his then agent, was Going East, set in London's East End. Again, it was bought before it was written – almost unheard of in modern publishing for a first-time novelist. When it eventually came out, it did not do very well, especially in America, where, mysteriously, it was also published, But it was generously reviewed. D'Ancona could be heard talking about it on the radio. It was discussed up there with Monical Ali's Brick Lane. Later, in accordance with his six-figure deal, he had to produce a second novel, which he duly did even as he was dealing, as a political commentator, with the decline of New Labour, the demands of a young family and, toward the end, switching from being deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph to the editor's chair in Doughty Street. I have not read the gratuitously titled Tabatha's Code, a slight affair, which sounds like a lovechild of Andy McNab out of Mills & Boon. Nor have most people. But there it is, earning the poor wee mite the bawbies he so obviously craves.

Most would-be novelists labour long in the vineyard without ever getting to taste the wine. Others drink life unto the lees. If it was simply a matter of some writers being better than others, that would be one thing. But it isn't. As with everything else, the key ingredients in success are talent, hard work and ... connections. Too often, the third is the critical factor. Without it, you end up going nowhere.

Jonathan Freedland should consider himself blessed. Everything that he has touched so far has turned to gold. But he should spare a thought for those who can't just pick up the phone and have lunch with Geller. The Two Johnies, plus Richard and Judy, What a combination!

- Jeremy Snippet