On etiquette for a writer

A senior agent boasted in a recent interview that an important part of his job lay in advising authors on a variety of non-literary matters. One of them might need to know what to wear for a publishing meeting; another was concerned as to whether he should drink wine or beer when lunching with his editor. Most were worried about the class structure of the book business. Was your publisher essentially your boss, they wondered, or your employee?

What is shocking about these remarks is not that they suggest a certain unworldliness among authors – we have higher matters to consider, after all – but that anybody should actually seek advice on etiquette from a literary agent of all people. Those uncertain as to how to behave while pursuing a writing career need do no more than bear in mind these basic guidelines of deportment.

Agents, emotional relationship with
Just because your agent is the most important contact in your professional life, it does not mean you have to like him or her. When appointing one, distrust equally the agent who offers long, sympathetic discussions about your emotional life and the one who hyper-ventilates with excitement at your work and offers to make you rich. Imagine a sensible, intelligent accountant and you already will be on the right track.

Brassieres, the wearing of for publishing meetings
While many of our best female authors like to go bra-less on professional engagements, it is wise not to be too relaxed in matters of underwear early in your career. Most publishers seethe with sexual anxieties of a complex and slightly disgusting nature, and anything which can distract or confuse them is to be discouraged.

Christmas cards
Send cards to everyone with whom you have dealings, particularly if you loathe them. It will remind them of your giving, human side.

Drinks, buying
Publishers and agents cling to the idea that their author is quite likely to be an alcoholic, incipient or confirmed, when almost invariably it is they who have the problem. In social situations, it is quite acceptable for you to buy a round of drinks but serious binges should be enjoyed only in the company of friends or fellow authors.

Editors, responding to the amorous advances of
It is an unhappy fact that many editors like to sleep with their authors – it a traditional way for them to mark their territory. If you can bear it, you should allow yourself to be seduced once but (not that you will need this advice) should avoid repeating the experience. The incident, however ghastly, will provide you with a shared emotional background which can be a useful pressure point at a later date. Always compliment them on their performance, however woeful it may have been.

Junior staff, attitude towards
Many authors make the mistake of learning the receptionist’s first name, remembering the date of the secretary’s
birthday and chatting to the post-room staff about football. For various complicated reasons, over-civility is distrusted more by those who really matter than downright rudeness.

Jargon, deployment of
Those working in marketing departments of a publishers frequently talk in a foreign language, referring, for example, to “bogofs” or talking about “sourcing” or “growing the business”. Even if you understand these terms – when they “bogof”, they are agreeing a buy-one-get-one-free deal with a bookshop – do not attempt to speak the language yourself. You will get it wrong and seem unnecessarily ingratiating and knuckle-headed.

Manuscripts, presentation of
Publishers have learnt that no author of any worth produces immaculately clean, beautifully printed copy and that those who present their words sloppily probably wrote them sloppily as well. A deft, unshowy middle way is required.

Pretensions, intellectual
As a general rule, an author should talk plainly and simply to agents and publishers, adopting the tone one might use while talking to a rather bright teenager. Any hint of intellectual seriousness will make them panic.

Pain, sharing your
However intractable your personal or writing problems, do not under any circumstances reveal your feelings to your agent or publisher. Like hyenas, they are sensitive to any hint of weakness or vulnerability among other pack members and will soon seek to abandon you to save themselves.

If in doubt, assume that the office-dwelling person with who you are dealing will not do what he or she has promised to do. Remember at all times that, while agents and publishers may help in matters of money and advice, you are the true professional in this relationship.

Telephone, time to be spent on the
Writing is a lonely business and there is a temptation, on those startling occasions when the telephone rings, to chat, gossip and generally shoot the breeze with the person who is ringing. This is amateurish. Authors should establish a network of confidants among fellow-writers but speak briskly when rung by an agent or publisher, indicating in their tone of voice that, with every trivial, spoken word, brilliant, unwritten sentences are racking up in their brain like planes over Heathrow. Always be the person to hang up first.

Winter 2002

etiquette for a writer

By now, all but the most cosseted authors will have become aware that the role of the modern publisher is essentially hands-off and managerial. The primary duties of an upwardly mobile editor are to suck up to the sales department and booksellers, discover what they require to be published, attend management meetings, and make the occasional cameo appearance at a launch party which has usually been organised and financed by the author.

The dreary, detailed stuff – reading, editing, copywriting and so on – is either shipped out to a freelance whose mind is on her own novel or, most often of all, is left to the author to sort out.

This is normally fine – authors are temperamentally more focused and efficient than career-addled publishers – but the one area which can still cause problems is that of blurb-writing. We may be convinced that our latest book is a towering achievement destined to change the face of contemporary literature but we have the old-fashioned idea that someone else should be the person to say it.

It is for these difficult tasks that The Endpaper Dictionary of Blurb-English is being prepared. Because Blurb-English is a specialised form of communication and is constantly in a state of flux, this work of reference may take a while to complete but, in the meantime a brief guide for author copywriters may be of use.

Front cover copy
It is essential that there is a bold strap-line which will impel potential buyers to pick the book up. The old-fashioned approach was to go for crude, thumping alliteration – “Powerful, passionate and provocative”, “She was daring, deadly – and dynamite!” – but these days publishers like to place a book squarely in its genre.

The best way of achieving this is to give the book a free ride on the coat-tails of a better known author with a phrase like “In the bestselling tradition of JK Rowling”. Given this line, an experienced jacket-designer at the publishers will give exaggerated prominence to the famous name in the hope that myopic or inattentive buyers might actually buy the book, mistaking it for the work of the bestselling author.

Alternatively, if you happen to have written a book that has been attacked as a scandalous waste of publishers’ money and has generally been kicked about by the critics, a useful copy-line is “The book they are all talking about”.

Any book that has sold over 5000 copies in hardback may be described in Blurb-English as a bestseller.

Whether they are on the front or back cover, review quotes should be simple and conform to type. So, when you are sent the cuttings, look out for certain prototypical compliments which will make would-be readers feel at home. Favourites include:

“Makes (Apocalypse Now/ Lady Chatterley/ Irvine Welsh) seem like (Dad’s Army/ Lady Bracknell/ Enid Blyton).”

“Do NOT read this book on a train for fear that your hysterical cackles of laughter will disturb fellow passengers!”

“——— cannot write a dull sentence.”

“——— challenges our view of ourselves.”

“Quite simply, a classic. Read it.”

Back cover copy
It is sensible in a blurb to use certain codewords which, down the years, have been used to cover up a book’s flaws. For example, rather than revealing that the plot is ludicrously implausible, some kind of reference should be made to “the best traditions of magical realism”. A narrative style that is twitchily self-indulgent should be described as “a ludic subversion of the form itself” – some mention of postmodernism is almost obligatory on these occasions.

With the help of blurb-English, the feeblest work can come up sparkling and new. It is not ill-written, but “raw”, not pretentious but “poetic”, not depressing but “bleak”, not dull but “subtle”, not unreadable but “challenging”. Any uncertainty of tone in a novel should be covered by the term “ironic”.

Like interior decoration, copywriting benefits from telling variations in colour. While “a comedy of manners” may be of little interest, “a dark comedy of manners” will already sound more contemporary, “a black comedy of manners” adds yet more cutting edge and “a comedy of manners noir” reaches a new level of literary seriousness.

Just as there is a vast difference in Blurb-English between “black” and its sophisticated French cousin “noir”, so the careful use of foreign phrases – “tour de force”, “bildungsroman”, “jeu d’esprit” and so on can confer a touch of class upon a book. A novel that might pass unnoticed will take on new life as “an irresistibly charming conte”.

Throughout the blurb, a few passing comparisons to other authors is always advisable. If the book is about the crisis in masculinity, Nick Hornby should be invoked. If the prose is strutting, self-conscious and full of swearwords, it is “Amisian”. Any novel of unmarried female angst must be “worthy of Bridget Jones” while it’s post-nuptial equivalent is “worthy of Joanna Trollope”. Stories of scruffy drug use should refer to Trainspotting while the description of any new author who is young, black and female must always include the words “Not since Zadie Smith has…”

A novel that is set against a sporting background – lawn-bowls, for example – should be said to be “doing for lawn-bowls what Dick Francis did for horse-racing”.

The climax
Certain adjectives are traditionally used to bring a blurb to a suitably ringing conclusion: “towering”, “searing”, “coruscating”, “explosive”, “majestic”, “blistering”, “unforgettable” and so on. The prose equivalent of white noise, they have no real meaning but represent a final blast of verbiage designed to propel the potential reader in the direction of the till.

These words should always be used sparingly. Too many bombastic adjectives, strung together at random, can suggest desperation and are the Blurb-English equivalent of a faked orgasm.

Spring 2003