Normally a sunny person who likes to look for the positive in life, I seem to have fallen victim to a certain cynicism while writing my Endpaper column for the Spring edition of The Author, published by the Society of Authors.
Maybe I really do believe that, as an author, you should should embrace Buddhist simplicity and ‘walk through your professional life with a vague, goofy smile, like Prince Charles visiting an organic farm.’ Certainly the idea of setting light to a bonfire of trivialities (publishers, publicity, reviews etc etc) seems a touch drastic.
Too late to take it back now, so here it is:
You may not have noticed, but things have become a little blustery out there recently. Authors are having to work for nothing, or not at all. A mean-spirited government is reducing the microscopic amount they receive from libraries and copying by “rationalising” PLR and the ALCS. Publishers are in such a state of terminal funk that many of them have actually stopped going out to lunch.
What were midges of annoyance and distraction for authors during easier days CAN become mighty hornets during the bad times. Many of US have contemplated extreme measures – drinking, hiding under the duvet, teaching creative writing – until the storm passes.
Here, though, is an alternative strategy. Simplify. Downsize spiritually. Walk through your professional life with a vague, goofy smile, like Prince Charles visiting an organic farm.
The process is not as difficult as it may seem. Once you realise that various aspects of being an author - things we have come to assume have to be part of our lives - are nothing more than lumber, they can be discarded. Life will be soon be simpler, sunnier, happier.
First on the bonfire of trivialities will be endorsements from other authors. I had not realised, until I recently helped judge a literary award, how feverish, and how pointless, the once-innocent practice of helping other authors has become. Every book by a newish writer, it seems, is now published with the help of a warm puff from a more experienced colleague on the cover.
There is nothing new in the practice - years ago, Auberon Waugh used to respond to requests for quotes by going wildly over the top, describing a rather ordinary work in such hilariously effusive terms – “the best book on this, and possibly any other, subject” – that no sensible person could fail to see the joke.
Today the whole thing is taken more seriously. The familiar, shop-worn compliments, plucked from the critic’s thesaurus ( “sparkling debut”, “gripping yarn”, “an exciting new voice” and so on) are so ubiquitous that they have ceased to mean anything to writer or reader. Rather than wearily churning out ‘Step aside, Dan Brown!’, the endorser might just as well write, “I met this person at a dinner-party”, “We share an agent” or “Getting my name on the cover of other people’s books is free publicity”, and have done.
Now that you have started down-sizing, you can go one can go one step further, and recognise that the vast majority of reviews are a waste of an experienced author’s time. After a few years of writing, you will know what has worked in a book, and what has failed. An opinion expressed on a books page, whether it comes from an exhausted hack or an ambitious literary psycho, may affect sales but there is nothing you can do about that. Reading the review will be a waste of time: compliments are meaningless and insults are either irritatingly unfair or depressingly accurate.
The truly pure in spirit will continue their professional spring cleaning by removing from their lives any activity undertaken only for reasons of publicity. Now that publishing is largely managed by those with a background in marketing, the ruling myth of PR – that it is an essential part of any author’s success - has become accepted as a sort of holy writ. To suggest that talking to a magazine about your pets or favourite films, appearing on a radio or TV chat shows or trying, like some crazed cult leader, to win “followers” on Twitter will achieve little or nothing in terms of sales, and may eat into the soul of a writer, might be deemed eccentric within publishing, but the wise author will know it is true.
Some people are born promotable – they emanate mysterious spoors which, for reasons no one truly understands, catch the curiosity of strangers. Why Jeremy Clarkson? Why Martin Amis? Why Joey Barton? There are other people who are more interesting than them, but who simply lack the publicity gene. Most of us could appear on the Graham Norton Show for three consecutive weeks and still never be recognised, let alone sell books.
The mature author will realise that this is a blessing. A realisation that publicity is a mystical process beyond the understanding of normal people is a huge relief, removing many humiliations and wasted hours.
For those worried that by taking a brisk, grown-up attitude to promotional silliness they might alienate their publishers, the identity of next irrelevance to be dumped will come as good news. It is the publishing industry.
Authors can go mad, worrying about “the trade”, what is up and what is down, forgetting that the way the business works, or fails to work, is irrelevant to them. It is, metaphorically if not actually, below their pay grade. Publishers march to the beat of a different drum. Trying to become one of their team, earnestly getting yourself introduced to people in production or contracts department, flirting with reps and/or receptionists, sending out Christmas cards on an industrial scale, is actually unhelpful to your career. It will quickly erode what makes you attractive to publishers: you are not like them.
The very things that embarrass us – tatty clothes, a tendency to express impolitic opinions, a general vagueness about management or the new media – are what earn us respect within the books industry. We are authors, not would-be entrepreneurs or fame-hungry competitors in a TV reality show.
Without these trivial concerns buzzing around your head, you will be left with a clutter-free life of direction and clarity. In a state of smiling spiritual calm, you will know that for an author, the world of generalities - PR, image, company politics - counts for little beside the specific and the personal.
It is the individual which matters: a good editor, a good reader, and, of course, your good self.
My other Endpaper articles for The Author, a comprehensive source of caring advice for those who write – or would like to write – for a living, is to be found in my Writer’s Shed here.