On understanding your publisher’s speech at a launch party

Recently in these pages, a small number of idealistic authors have been arguing for more honesty and openness from their publishers. The culture of casual, routine deception is harmful, it has been said. There should be a great bonfire of publishers’ lies, after which negotiation and communication between them and us should be conducted in a spirit of frank, open comradeship.

What a ghastly mistake these poor, innocent fools are making. The fact is that, while the truth may set us free, it is lies, illusions and fake hope that keeps us going from day to day. The last thing most authors want or need is to be told the truth about their careers. Now and then agents try it, caringly revealing to an author that he or she is simply not producing the kind of stuff which the market requires, but these acts of casual brutality do nothing but depress all those concerned. If publishers start showing tough love by ripping away the various fantasies that keep us going, an epidemic of despair and panic will sweep through the great community of authors with disastrous effects.

An example. The other day, an old publishing friend revealed, in a moment of sozzled frankness, that even the time-honoured ritual of the speech made by a publisher at the launch party for a new book is invariably a work of creative fiction. He explained the kind of thing that he might say in a speech – and provided a translation revealing what he really means.

‘It is almost a year now since the agent of Angelina Author rang with some exciting news. He said simply, “Great news – Angelina’s pregnant”.’

Phew, I thought to myself, that should keep her away from her writing desk for a while. Sales for her last book hardly troubled the scorer and, since then, I had forgotten that she had existed. Then, horrors, the agent revealed that he had been talking metaphorically. The baby that Angelina was carrying, and would soon be delivering, was a new novel.

‘From the moment, I began reading the manuscript of Angelina’s novel, I knew that we had something very remarkable on our hands.’

I still experience a lurch of embarrassment when I hear the title that she chose – Fever Bitch. We had had laddism, football books, chick lit and now, in a perfect and pure act of derivation, Angelina had managed to combine them all. Hers was such a vulgar and obvious idea that Marketing were sure to love it.

‘Who could forget the marvellous opening paragraph of Fever Bitch? “The first night that I spent with to Darius Buchan, Britain’s most highly paid footballer, I discovered that it was true what they said about him – he was strong, skilful and scoring came as naturally to him as breathing. As for his tackle, that was, to coin a phrase, a whole different ball-game!”’

Yes, it has come to this. When I first went into publishing, I had dreams of discovering an author who would win the Booker Prize. On that glittering, triumphant evening, my marvellous, distinguished author would thank the editor without whose firm yet sensitive guidance none of this would have been possible. Job offers would come in. I would probably set up an imprint, specialising in literary yet profitable new work.

Once, not so long ago, that had all seemed possible. Then – overnight, it seemed – I was editing books about bimbos going to bed with footballers. Managing directors stopped reading books and began studying balance sheets. Accountants ceased to be joke figures who lurked obscurely on the top floor. Sales managers, once below-stairs types we could gently patronise, were now my bosses, telling me what I could and could not buy.

I discovered that my ambition was no longer to publish a Booker winner, but simply to survive. I learnt the knack of compromise, when to be visible and when not, the art of corporate ingratiation. And here I am, making a launch party speech for a book that, in real life, I would be embarrassed to be caught reading.

‘I must say that Angelina has been a model author, a joy to edit.’

All right, I’ll admit it. The thought did occur that we could have been talking about serious hands-on editing here. She was divorced, wasn’t she? Maybe I was the whole new ball-game she had in mind. I could help her career and she could help my… my self-esteem. To tell the truth, that was why I pushed her manuscript so hard in the acquisitions meeting. How as I to know that she really was going out with a footballer?

I’m glad to report that my friends in Marketing have produced a wonderful campaign for Fever Bitch.

Here’s how it goes. The publicist mentions a concept, however crass, to a tame columnist. He squeezes out the required 800 words – for, against, it doesn’t matter – that mentions your little publishing idea, and then the debate starts. The concept here was that a new genre had been born. It was called ‘kick lit’ or, as I prefer to call it, ‘sick lit’. Talking of which –

So let us all charge our glasses and drink to the success of Angelina Author and Fever Bitch!

Make mine a double.

Autumn 2003