Monday, 28 July 2008

Rapped on the knuckles

This news story (brief as it is) seems to me to sum up much of what is wrong with publishing today.* Big advances being paid to people who have no track record of writing books simply because they have celebrity status.**

It raises so many questions.

Why were such large advances (well, they weren’t that big compared with some, but they’d keep me warm and fed for a good few years) paid in the first place? These people didn’t need the money.

Why was there not a clause in their contracts stipulating that the advance would have to be repaid if a publishable manuscript was not delivered by a set time? Does this mean that the publisher caved in to these celebrities’ agents and gave them contracts that most writers could only dream of?

Why did these celebrities not finish their manuscripts? They entered into contractual agreements. Other writers manage. You know, proper writers. The majority of whom do not earn enough from their writing alone, despite being professional in their approach and experts at their craft. The majority of whom have to fit their writing in between their other commitments like bringing up the children, cleaning the house, laundry, and so on. And if these celebs could not manage because of other commitments why did they commit themselves to such an agreement? Why not pay a ghost to finish their work?

Why did this (or any other publisher) feel the need to produce books by people who are not writers? There are thousands of very good writers out there who never get a look in. I weep for them. They do not have agents or celebrity status. They cannot walk into a deal for which they care nothing, showing nothing but contempt for people work their hearts out to produce high quality books that never get read by anyone but the author’s mum.

It sickens me.

In the US and the UK, hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. People go into bookshops or go online and they buy them. You would think it was the ideal time to drive up the standards of the printed to word. There is no need for a badly written book ever to appear in print. Yet there they are. By the truck load. By the ton.

Yet, for some strange reason it is becoming more and more difficult to get into print, especially if you write fiction.

Authors are told they have to up their game. Write better books. Agents and publishers rush out their How To Get Published books which are snapped up by desperate authors. Those same agents and publishers ignore their own advice and buy up dreck and drool over celebrity deals so they can shift vast amounts of their garbage at Christmas.

One or two well known authors have joined this game, exhorting writers to produce better work. I have your names a list. You’ll be first against the wall.

To repeat a point I have made before, I am talking about good writing here. The content of a book doesn’t concern me – from the biography of a vacuous celebrity to a complex philosophical argument; from the latest western or hospital romance to high literature (via any and all genres, sub-genres, and anti-genres) – we should have all those. But there is no reason on earth why any one of those should get into print if it is badly written.

Dull books are borderline. Some people like to plod through a story. But writers who are semi-literate, whose bad writing screams a constant distraction from the story, who break all the rules agents and editors exhort us to keep because they do not know what those rules are, who re-write their favourite author’s work – they should not be getting into print. But they are.

Why? Why is this? Where did it all start to go so wrong? At what point did the commercial drive, the desire to line the pockets of shareholders, take over so completely that any old product would do as long as makes a big enough return on the investment. And why can this not be done by producing quality books by hard working authors. Sure, we’d all like to live in luxury, lie on our sofas and dictate a novel a week to our secretary – take the other eleven months of the year off. In reality, writers would be happy to earn a decent living for their hard work and not get kicked in the teeth on a regular basis by stories like this that demonstrate their livelihood is in the hands of idiots.

* I have never believed in a Golden Age of publishing. It has never been perfect. But it sure has been better.
** I’m not picking on these particular celebrities (before anyone accuses me of being sexist, racist, or a music lover).

Thursday, 24 July 2008


It’s that genre thing again. I just don’t get it. Not genre. I understand that. It’s the increasing obsession by some publishers with putting things in a pigeon hole. Apart from being uncomfortable for pigeons, it is a self-defeating attitude. It’s more than that. It’s plain, bloody stupid.


I’ll repeat that. Loudly.




Genre used to be a way of describing a book after the fact, a convenient way of giving the reading public a general idea of what kind of work they might expect. This was especially important in the days when authors didn’t get tied to a particular kind of work because that is what was expected of them. But even then, it was always a bit hit and miss.

And before that, you were lucky if you got past ‘tragedy’, ‘comedy’, and ‘history’.

Nowadays it seems as if genre has become a formula by which you must write a book in order for it to stand a chance in “today’s difficult market” (the current favourite rejection phrase). We even have editors and agents writing books telling authors how to do this.




If we all go down this road we are going to end up with nothing but formulaic garbage. It plays on the desperate urge of writers to get published. People spend years busting a gut, sweating blood, running up debts, and alienating all three of their friends to produce their novels. They want to do something out of the ordinary so it doesn’t conform to genre or any other marketing group. The language sparkles, it tackles difficult themes, has an unusual structure. And then, heartbroken, they go away with their rejection letters, and turn their well-crafted original work into pap in the hope that this time it will get published and they can afford to go and get the dog out of the pawn shop.

It’s already happened. Go to a bookshop. Look at all the clones. Armies of them. But as with photocopies of photocopies and as with cloned plants and animals, each generation is a degraded copy of the previous one. Even books that try to break out of it are given their own genre – slipstream, cross-genre… they have their own section now.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for a stonking good thriller or crime novel. Publishing a book that happens to be firmly within a genre is no sin. Rejecting a book because it doesn’t fit into that year’s marketing fad, rejecting a book because it isn’t the next Rowling, rejecting a book because it tries to be something original – those are sins. And they are sins that compound, because the more you take that attitude, the worse books will become. Sales will fall.

Publishing is not a science. It cannot be put in the hands of the marketing and finance department. It cannot be done to a formula. Yes. Books have to make money so that publishers can stay in business. But publishers have to learn to start taking risks again. They have to learn to start nurturing their authors again so they can develop and experiment. A publishing industry that doesn’t do this is cutting its own throat.




Saturday, 12 July 2008

Speed bumps

Those annoying things that slow you down. Not that slowing down in a car is either annoying or bad... Hmm... should have chosen a better metaphor. Anyway. Work on the novel has ground to a halt. This is partly because of other commitments, partly because I went mad in the garden (a sight to behold) and helped dig up our first lot of potatoes. This was about ten minutes of sitting on a stool running my fingers through crumbly soil to pick out fine young spuddies. Result: totally knackered and in bed for days.

There is another reason that I won't go into in detail as it is something of a legal minefield. Suffice it to say, if the naysayers are correct it seems to me that it would be illegal for any writer of fiction to have one of their characters talk about or refer to a book, film, or television programme, or a character in any of those, without getting copyright permission to do so. In other words, you cannot have your characters living in the real world (unless they only refer to things out of copyright). It would make an interesting test case. Which is why I'm going to ignore what I've been told and, when I'm well enough, plough ahead with the w-i-p exactly as I want to write it.

See you all in court.