I have a story which is about to go out to publishers. What better moment to post my recent Endpaper piece for The Author magazine, providing a useful cut-out-and-paste guide for authors?
After a while, experienced professional authors learn the importance of the calendar. They learn that it is not so much which editor to approach with what project, as when to do it. Trying to get a publisher to take an interest in a project is as delicate a matter of timing as asking someone to go to bed with you - too soon and they find it presumptuous; too late and their interest has shifted elsewhere.
When to make your move? All that the Endpaper think-tank can do is to present the publishing calendar, with its seasonal ebbs and flows, so that authors have at least a chance of catching a brief of moment of milky sunlight before the storm clouds gather once more.
January. Nothing ever happens in January. Everyone is too depressed about Christmas, which was without doubt the most disastrous in living memory. Mention a future book idea to an editor at this moment, and all you will hear is incredulous laughter. The few books which are actually published in January disappear without trace. Their authors have been told that this is a good month to ‘catch the book token market’, one of publishing’s more hilarious lies.
February. The returns are back from Christmas. They are far worse than anyone feared. Even the celebrity books flopped, and it is widely agreed that the industry must return to publishing real books by real authors. The sales department merely insists that authors of these real books should be well known. Editors start hanging out at film premières and in TV chat-show audiences.
March. It was such a disastrous Christmas that publishers have had to ‘re-structure’, which is trade-speak for sacking a lot of people. February is a month of strategy meetings, at which words like ‘synergy’, ‘digital’ , ‘platform’ and ‘holistic’ fill the air. Occasionally, for light relief, the entire corporation goes to a hotel for a team-building weekend, from which staff will return hating each other even more than before. At the Bologna Book Fair, children’s publishers take their annual works outing.
April. Sexual yearning has publishing in its grip throughout the year but, for obvious reasons, it is particularly acute as Spring does its cruel work. Publishers meet at the London Book Fair and hungrily negotiate with one another, only occasionally mentioning books. Only the bravest or most foolish of authors will attempt to interrupt these vernal rituals.
May. We are now well into the year, and publishers suddenly discover that there is a hole in the autumn schedule where their Christmas bestseller should be. They decide that maybe they do need a ghosted celebrity book after all. Surely there must be a comedian or chef who has not been published. Editors are ordered to stop reading manuscripts and to watch The X Factor and Celebrity Big Brother instead. The ghost-writing industry is now in overdrive; everyone else has stalled.
June. Editors fly to America for the big BookExpo conference, and return gloomier than ever. They have discovered that the American book trade is in a far worse state than the British, or far better. Either way, it is depressing. In the UK bookshops, it is quieter than in living memory. If you happen to have a book published this month, editors will look at you with a one-word message in their eyes: remainder. They are clearing their desks in preparation for holidays, and so no new project is welcome.
July. They found their big Christmas book! A comedian who had written a couple of memoirs thinks he can dictate enough for a third if the price is right. There are meetings about marketing and packaging the big book. Meanwhile, a few new titles are dolefully released into the market under the pretence that they will be “picked up in reviewers’ holiday round-ups”, another of publishing’s hilarious lies.
August. Holidays. Nothing happens. Editors, sitting by a swimming-pool, try to write the novel they have promised themselves. They return, three chapters done, in a foul mood.
September. It is the busiest time of the year. There is the post-holiday catch-up, the pre- Frankfurt Book Fair panic. Unless you are Stephen Fry, Alan Titchmarsh or Dawn French , it is pointless to publish a book now. The word in the trade is that this year’s celebrity books are better than last year’s. It is a bad time to talk to an editor about ideas; in the current climate, ideas are the last thing she needs.
October. There is anticipation, tension and clammy excitement in the air. Meetings, drinks, lunches and dinners are being organised – time, place, items on the agenda. It is the Frankfurt Bok Fair, the event where by tradition the British book trade finds its annual sexual relief in desperate, doomed adulterous affairs, conducted in German hotels. Pre- or post-Frankfurt, it will be impossible to get any sense out of publishers. The code-word for this mating frenzy is that ‘foreign publishers are in town’.
November. There were reports that Christmas came early, but they proved optimistic. The atmosphere in the trade is gloomier than it has been since June. The affair which your publisher started at Frankfurt has ended, as it always does, in guilt, regret and self-loathing. The big celebrity book is piled high in the shops but the public seems to think that, because the comedian has written two bad memoirs before, a third one will be no better. At Christmas parties, resentment hangs in the air like stale farts. It is generally agreed that there is one cause for the current problem: authors like you.
December. It is the worst Christmas ever. No, seriously, if you thought last year was bad, you should see the disaster unfolding in the shops right now. Obviously, it would be absurd for publishers to consider your ideas now. Besides, they are about to take their holiday. When should you try? Maybe some time next year.
More invaluable insights into the literary and publishing life are to be found in my Writer’s Shed