On being a genius, a talker or a one-book wonder

You are getting a partial view. Occasionally, through the clamour of writers having their say in these pages, the voice of a publisher can be heard, speaking up nervously, politely and with proper respect for the great profession of authorhood. You don’t fall for that, do you? You know that he’s either going through the motions, or has dreams of being a writer himself, or is simply some kind of throwback to the days when publishers and authors used to get on. In book trade circles, he will soon get the reputation of having gone over to the other side. By this time next year, he’ll be probably be on the scrapheap.

Because, as a general rule, the modern publisher is far too busy to worry about authors – their blocks, their breakdowns, their hilariously untidy personal lives. Listening to their views about how to run his business would be like an architect consulting a pile of bricks.

The fact is, authors are difficult. They are cranky, paranoiac. Quite often, they are congenitally unable to see beyond their own concerns. It was no accident that Paul Scott, the one novelist who, as a literary agent, had to deal with other authors, had a drink problem, nor that Graham Greene took to consuming a large martini at mid-day during his brief period as a publishing editor. ‘I had to have lunch with authors,’ he later wrote. ‘The idea of listening to these dreary people talking about their books right through a meal persuaded me that I had to myself a boost to endure this drudgery.’

Publishers are too sensible to spell this out. They know that their own thin-skinned authors will take personally any tiny item of criticism, however generalised and carefully expressed. If they dared, or if they could be bothered, they would reveal the true personality-types that they see behind the smiling face of each new author.

The winner. For her, writing is not a vocation or a job, but the fast track to riches and fame. She has studied the bestseller list for the fastest-moving product lines. She has studied manuals on characterisation, plot, research and colour. She has heeded the advice of her role model Jeffrey Archer and understands that the writing of a book is less demanding and important than the marketing of it. Once she has delivered her manuscript, she will hit the publisher with the force of a Sherman tank, bombarding the art department with design ideas, bullying the publicity department every morning, flirting outrageously with the reps at sales conferences, sleeping with a couple of the more influential features editors. When she succeeds, as she will, she will become more screechingly difficult and jealous of other authors with every book.

The mate. He’s one of the team now, isn’t he? Soon he’ll know the name of the receptionist, play snooker with the guys in the post room, advise the contracts manager about the collapse of her marriage, e-mail share advice to the managing director. Quite often he happens to be passing his publisher and calls in, hanging around in his editor’s office, picking up on the latest gossip, talking endlessly about the progress of his book as if other authors didn’t exist, asking anyone and everyone out for a jar at the end of the day. He will feel personally betrayed when his next book is turned down.

The one-book wonder. He wrote a novel three years ago. It bombed and, like a jilted lover, he can’t let it go. What went wrong? He received a lead review in the Hampstead and Highgate Express (thanks to his own efforts, incidentally) but otherwise his novel appeared propping up fiction round-ups, dismissed in a weary final paragraphs. Why was that? Surely your publisher was meant to ensure that sort of thing didn’t happen. And don’t talk to him about publicity! They treated him as if were a state secret. One interview on British Forces Broadcasting and that was it – no wonder the book didn’t sell. Not that it was in the shops anyway. Every day he rang the sales manager to tell her the shops where he had failed to find a copy until she became really quite short with him. He had only been trying to help. He wants to write another book but frankly what’s the point? Then cover was pretty disastrous, too.

The genius. His wife answers the telephone and whispers, ‘He’s working, of course I can’t interrupt him. Local radio? Oh, please. Does Martin do local radio? Does Milan Kundera? Does Saul Bellow? All right, I’ll ask him when I take him his tea and slippers.’

The talker. She misses the company. Of course there’s nothing quite like roaming the magical world of her imagination where you literally do not know what is going to happen next but, she’s so glad she’s had a call from her publisher, because in chapter ten, Dirk the seductive, brooding baddy – well, she thought he was going to be the baddy but he’s turned and has become a really sympathetic character – was planning to do something to John, the husband’s car brakes – oh, you won’t believe the problems she’s been having with the car, it’s failed its MOT again, her husband had sworn he’s going to buy a new car but – no, not the husband in the book, her husband. That’s the trouble with writing, you mix up truth and fiction, don’t you. Perhaps she should read you the scene she has just written. It starts with …Hullo? Hullo…? Honestly, publishers.

Autumn 1998