Monday, October 15, 2007

Miscellaneous accumulations

A day or two ago, the Bookseller offered two stories right next to each other. One will attract huge headlines, and indeed already has done, and one will pass largely unnoticed, but it raised a small cheer from me.

Doris Lessing has won the Nobel prize. That's the first story. Well, at least she's more readable than most of those who get this accolade.

The other, rather more important piece of news, is that Orion have won a landmark libel case in the Court of Appeal. The Court has ruled in favour of investigative journalism; as a result, one allegedly bent copper and his supporters are left with a huge bill.

Judging by the web site, Ron Wulkan's novel The Gook Lover seems to be a cut above the average. Certainly it is written by a man who has had an extraordinary life and knows whereof he speaks. Having lied about his age, he found himself, aged 17, serving as a military policeman in occupied Japan.

David Loye is another World War II veteran, married to an internationally known holocaust survivor (Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade). He was a television newsman back in the Ed Murrow days, and an award-winning author himself (The Healing of a Nation) in the Nixon era. Now he's running the Benjamin Franklin Press, dedicated to publishing books 'for the restoration of national and global sanity'.

David is has not entirely given up the idea that the world may have a future if we do the right things. Take a look for yourself.

Margaret Atwood told the Cheltenham Festival audience that young writers need an awful lot of luck. 'Writing is not a job description,' she said. 'A great deal of it is luck. Don’t do it if you are not a gambler.'

For a longer discussion of the same important truth, see my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

In the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle does as thorough a demolition job on If I Did It as I have ever read. He describes it as:
A book that is simultaneously morally disgusting and excruciatingly dull. A filthy little project that, although extremely brief (there’s a lot of padding in those 208 pages), succeeds in both boring the reader beyond endurance and making him gag.
Furthermore, Liddle describes O.J. Simpson as a man who 'murdered his wife'. Where was the ST duty lawyer when that went to past the sub-editors? 'Spare yourself and don't buy it,' Liddle concludes.

Commenters on my piece last Thursday, about the PFD debacle and the generally matey atmosphere in publishing, have accused me of a certain lack of consistency. Surely, they say, I have always argued that modern publishing is all about the money?

Well, maybe. I would not claim to be immune to inconsistency, but here I think I have just not explained myself very well.

Yes, modern big-time publishing is mainly concerned with profit, whereas once the big-time publishers were more concerned with literary quality, the public good, the need for the truth to out, and all like that. But where do books come from, whether chosen for literary merit and general worthiness, or for their ability to sell in large numbers?

Answer, they come from writers and agents. And since big-time publishing often pays big money (by publishing's modest standards), everything depends upon judgement, track record, reliability, trust. An editor who is going to pay half a million for a book ideally wants it to come from a writer with a proven track record, and a well known agent who will advise her wisely in the writing and marketing of same.

These relationships take a long time to build up. If an agent departs from an agency, taking her clients with her, you can't replace her in the same way that you can replace a van driver or a copy typist. That's why I think the money men have got it wrong where PFD is concerned.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the really smart money men take a quick look at publishing, decide that it's an absurd business, and push off elsewhere. Consider the career of Luke Johnson. He was once a publisher, but described it as a 'terrible business… a barely rational industry.... You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.'

Not surprisingly, Johnson has recently bought the UK division of Borders.


Anonymous said...

Nice bit in y'days Observer by Carole Cadwalladr on the agents and publishers at Frankfurt,,2190553,00.html

Anonymous said...

To quote:
"'Writing is not a job description,' she said. 'A great deal of it is luck. Don’t do it if you are not a gambler.'"
Margaret Atwood is quite right. At least about the 'luck'. I am not a gambler but I know I am largely faced with a lottery factor If I try to get them published.
(GOB'S On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, told me this ages ago.)
But it would seem the publisher has higher stakes to consider than I had imagined. To quote from Gob's today's post:

"'You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.'"

No wonder booksellers are not interested in selling my lowly publications! ("Flick that fly away, Miss Smith.")

Hardly surprising that few unknowns get published. Thinking of my last two novels, If they reached the 'headlines' for whatever reason, or were expensively publicised, then they might be winners but otherwise? I doubt it.

Like Job, I repent in sackcloth and ashes!

I do not wish to achieve celebrity status by devious means, nor produce fodder for the masses, so I will do continue to do my own thing.

My own publishing backyard (Magpies Nest Publishing) suddenly has a charm of its own. I rest (and write) content!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I have to gloat a bit over the fact that Lessing won the Nobel on the merits of a book written 45 years ago.

Damned bad news for today's breathless young writers who see their Nobel right around the corner.

June said...

Will be interesting to see if anything changes at Borders given those comments that Luke Johnson made. Persoanlly I won't be holding my breath. What he needs to do imo is take a leaf out of Waterstones book and get an independent author advisor to work with the small presses and self publishers and help them get stocked in his stores. At the moment finding information on how to do this is well nigh impossible, with nothing on their website and a buying team who refuse to call you back ....

Anonymous said...

June, I wouldn't get too moist over Waterstone's efforts if I were you.

I spent quite a time having my novel 'vetted' by Waterstone's’ 'main office'. (And anyone who works in a 'main office' must know their stuff, no?)

Then, after it was 'approved' by the 'main office' I was told all I had to do was contact the shops individually. I'm not shy about these things and I called a lot of them (an awful lot). I also sent a press pack to each one then called again after they had received said pack.

The branch of Waterstone's in the area of the town where I was born (Leith) and which has very few authors (Irvine Welsh pretends he's from Leith for some reason - street cred., I suspect, for Leith is a mighty shithole) told me that their budget could not stretch to a single copy on sale or return, even though I explained that a self-published novel with fourteen major reviews (including the TLS) wasn't all that shabby. The manager actually shouted at me. I was shouted at by three Waterstone's shop managers in all. (And ignored by however many managers they employ throughout the UK minus the four or five that purchased one or two books.)

These people are paid like they were on the dole and they are instructed to plant skiploads of shit at their front doors in order to achieve their 'targets' (set by the same 'main office' that, presumably, houses the 'independent author advisor').

All this talk about independent author advisors must have missed the actual system that exists and the people within it?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Allen,

I've enjoyed reading your blog since early summer and would like to comment on your post about "Publishing is a very friendly business" and Andrew Franklin's article on PFD.

It seems to me the real message or lesson is Jason Epstein's:

Writers and publishers who still fail to get that message are living with their heads in the sand, ignoring what's already happened in the music industry and is beginning to happen in publishing.

You wrote: "As mentioned here once or twice recently, this agency has fallen into the hands of the money men, who simply do not understand the ethos of publishing. Consequently agents and clients are fleeing in all directions."

Many writers are fleeing to POD, while waiting for Jason Epstein to work out the bugs, physically just as good a product as anything else, only to improve, and regularly used by the mega-publishers themselves, through Ingram's Lightning Source and others.

"But where do books come from, whether chosen for literary merit and general worthiness, or for their ability to sell in large numbers? Answer, they come from writers and agents."

Any writer who doesn't begin to try to figure out a way to get rid of as many of the middlemen as possible is a damn fool as far as I'm concerned: 55%, returnable copies stocking other's shelves, 12% pittance, etc., all has to change. Either I make money on the book I've spent twenty years studying for and writing or NOBODY, including myself, makes money on it. Ultimately, it is the writer who has got the goods. The illiterates who have taken over for their stockholders need a very serious wake-up call, here in the USA as there, by the sound of it, I’d say, as has recently happened with music in the UK.

I invite you to consider what’s now possible:

Order Books, WORLDWIDE, at

See also, the mission of Earthrise Press:

As a writer who had a crusty old grandfather from Headley, Hampshire, thank you for your instruction.

Frederick Glaysher

Earthrise Press
P. O. Box 81842
Rochester, MI 48308-1842 USA
SAN: 853-4985

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