On the unexplained mysteries of the writing life

Some authors believe that the modern publishing world is a cold, mercantile place whose typical inhabitant is a lizard-like character of indeterminate sex, with calculator eyes, a credit card for a heart and an emotional life as carefully controlled and sponsored as a Waterstone’s display window.

There may be an element of truth there but, perhaps because the industry still depends upon the fragile talents, and even more fragile temperaments, of writers, not everything that happens there can be explained by a balance sheet. In fact, a powerful element of the unknown, even the magical, continues to run through the everyday business of the book world.

These unexplained mysteries of the writing life change and shift over time but continue to impinge spookily upon our lives. Who can tell what strange influences cause them? All we can do is be prepared.

Any sales figures mentioned by an editor will be reduced by at least a third when the royalty statement comes in.
It is a surprising fact that, even today, those in publishing who deal with authors and those who control money live in separate, parallel universes. Editors, perhaps corrupted by their proximity to authors, tend to believe that good things are still possible. What they would like to be true is, at least when they talk to an author, really true. They present an idealised world-view in which sales people never lie, readers have perfect taste, and every book will soon be a success in its own terms.

Financial directors and managers of royalty departments, on the other hand, believe that the natural state of a published book is one of failure, that even a bestseller is just a potential flop that happened to get lucky. By a mysterious process that no one quite understands, this malign view is reflected in royalty statements.

Between these two extreme positions of hope and despair, the truth about how many copies of an author’s book have actually been sold will almost certainly reside.

BBC producers have a superstitious fear of mentioning money.
It is a familiar story. A man from the BBC would like to check something with an author, or quote from something, or get him to contribute to a programme. Towards the end of the conversation, the author, if he is very daring or simply inexperienced, may venture to raise the question of what kind of well, er… remuneration.

It is a terrible faux pas. Profoundly embarrassed and rather hurt, the BBC man will explain that he doesn’t deal with “that side of things” and that, if money really is such a concern, he will get someone from contracts to call.

This squeamishness is only partly caused by an item BBC etiquette which suggests that any mention of money suggests a background in trade. Many editors and producers actually believe that a voodoo curse will descend upon them if they talk about money, dooming them to a grim, blighted future in Talk Radio.

Only good news is worth publicising.
In a curious reversal of the way things work in the outside world, news of setbacks, disappointments and disasters in the book world tend to disappear into the ether without ever reaching the reading public. The once-popular author who can now no longer find a publisher, the great hope of last season whose book never sold, the many ducklings who resolutely refused to grow into swans: such depressing developments are all quietly and conveniently forgotten and wiped from the record.

Positive stories, on the other hand, benefit from an equally mysterious process of magical inflation. Large advances become larger. Film options become outright deals. A small, pleasing success becomes a sensational, unprecedented breakthrough. Everybody plays a part in this conspiracy of good news – author, agent, publisher, film producer – because each of them clings on the traditional folk belief that if you publicise a fantasy, one day even you will believe that it is true.

All book trade slumps are times to coincide with the publication of your book.
As every author discovers, a cloud of gloom will settle over the book trade approximately a week before the publication of his or her new book. Sometimes the weather has kept people from the shops (no weather is ever good for book-buying), or people are cowering at home in fear of a terrorist attack, or books have been locked up in a warehouse, or someone has gone bankrupt. A month or so after your publication day, the trade will perk up again.

A curse will descend upon an agent who fires an author.
Many authors believe that the reason they are still on their agent’s books, in spite of not making any money for several years, is that old-fashioned standards of kindness and pity still pertain the book world. The truth is altogether stranger.

In the community of agents, it is held that any client fired outright will continue to haunt the business, casting a malign spell over every deal. As result, all but the rashest or stupidest of agents will actually dump authors, preferring instead to shake them off using a variety of sophisticated and well-tried methods – failing to return telephone calls, expressing weary disappointment at work, losing manuscripts and talking at great length about the many successes of their other, more worthwhile clients.

It is one of publishing’s crueller ironies that, even when an author is allowed to linger on as a client, he or she can still haunt the agent, like one of the host of the undead. From rusty filing cabinets, a ghostly shadow of crumbling hopes and faded, yellowing ambition is cast over their innocent, dewy-eyed successors.

Summer 2005