Publish & Be Damned
Writing a novel is an inefficient business. So many ideas discarded, so much paper sent for recycling. I can never recover the energy or time spent in explorations which come to nothing (the History of Armenia; Lascars). This is not how they work in the biscuit industry.
However, once a book is finished, a more rationalized process does at last begin. The writer is no longer only a writer, but also a participant in a commercial process designed to bring a commodity to market.
This isn’t to say that the fun is over; but when it’s time to publish the fun will be different.
Lazarus is Dead, my new novel, had a publication date of 18 August 2011, and for an August publication the anxiety starts around Christmas. At the copy-editing stage I have to decide on whether god is Him or him (or indeed God), and whether Galilee should consistently be prefaced by ‘the’. These deliberations, serious as they are, itch at the terrifying possibility that tiny details might make all the difference between success and failure.
I’ve been living with mild failure (or limited success) for seven previous books. When new friends find out I write books they’re often faintly disappointed, as if I’ve let them down in some way by not writing a bestseller. I feel their pain: they’re not as disappointed as I am. I vow to do better next time, and since my first novel was published in 1996 I’ve learned to write without fear. What I haven’t managed, and which causes most of my writer’s anxiety, is to learn to write without hope.
But publication is not writing, just as for a writer a crisis of confidence is not a crisis. It’s a regular occurrence which publication often makes worse. The first shoulder-slumping moment comes in June, seeing the physical book for the first time. Here is my book, my lovely unique book, but you know what? It arrived by standard mail and it’s only a book. It was so much more powerful as an abstract idea. Before this moment my ‘book’ had been an artistic ideal, a life-changing fantasy, whereas this object they have sent me has a dust-jacket and a spine and pages. I appear to have written a book like any other.
Though to look on the bright side, at least it’s a hardback book.
When publishers want writers to accept publication in trade paperback, they say it makes no difference to reviews and sales. It makes a difference to me. The important writers are published in hardback so I want that too, though unlike punctuation or chapter-breaks this is one of many decisions that is no longer mine to make.
My work, however, is not done. I need to offer the publishers all the help I can, because the stakes are absurdly high. A failed novel is not just a disaster for the time and effort spent writing it. The time lost and to be mourned is also the time after, the imagined future and those many bright days of glory. A failed novel requires a doubled grief, looking in both directions at once.
So let the industry begin. I should prepare for the launch. Back in 1996, after I finished my first novel X 20 while on the MA course at UEA, HarperCollins organised a party at the Two Brydges club in London (such a cool venue it doesn’t have a website, even today). The American novelist Harry Mathews was there, as was Perec’s biographer David Bellos, and also the devil.
The devil looks like Grace Jones, a tall woman with a minimum of clothes and two spikes of afro hair dyed red. She was drinking alone at the private bar when I arrived. She welcomed me effusively, kissed me extravagantly on one cheek and then left. She was never seen again.
Everyone wanted to know who she was. I had no idea (not at the time), but assumed that this would now be the pattern of my writerly life: daily adventures and double layers of corduroy.
Yes and no.
In 2011 there are few book launches. Their extinction has been rapid. Once the publishers used to pay. Then the publishers would pay for the drink and invitations if the author found a venue. Now the publishers will turn up with some books if the author does the venue, the drinks, the invitations and possibly provides a children’s entertainer.
I thought of holding a launch at Lambeth Palace, but in the end couldn’t be bothered. The reason publishers have given up on launch parties is that literary journalists (those that remain) can’t be persuaded out to any but the biggest names. Without publicity, the commercial value of a ‘launch’ is minimal.
A launch party still has personal value, a chance to get a gang of friends together to celebrate an important event. But by this stage I’m beyond the personal. I’m ready to sell some biscuits.
Select a token date, get the book out there, and the publicity that will not have come from a launch now has to be generated elsewhere. For the first time, in 2011, I have Twitter as an aid to self-promotion. Other novelties include Amazon sending out email alerts to anyone who has bought a Richard Beard book in the past. My mum tells me this. She is impressed.
If the tweeting and the Facebooking and the blogging of writers can sometimes sound desperate, that’s because it is. Nobody ever talks about how embarrassing it is to have a book go nowhere. Who do you think you are (or were), to write a book and presume that success could happen to you? If some bragging on Twitter can make a difference it’s worth the gritted teeth.
It’s useful, however, as in an auction, to set an idea of a decent result in advance. What counts as a successful return? For me the ambition at this stage is pragmatic. I need some good reviews or a prize to earn a year or two of grace, of invitations to literary festivals and a stronger chance of another contract. I need enough positive noises to keep me writing, to allow me to call myself a writer. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask, if that’s what I actually am. And if I’m not, there are plenty of people out there happy to give their opinion.
‘Scrapes the barrel …’ says a one star review on Amazon, by a reader whose previous review was for the Philips GC2930/02 PowerLife Steam Iron (5 stars – ‘Everything an iron should be’). But then what exactly do I want from my readers?
I once listened to an edition of Radio 4’s Loose Ends, in the days of Ned Sherrin, when the Minnesotan writer Garrison Keillor appeared with Stephen Fry. Fry tried to ingratiate himself with a comic riff about the tedium of book-signings. Keillor cut him off – ‘I stand and embrace each of my readers.’ With Fry silenced, Keillor went on to explain that writers would only truly be satisfied by one critical reaction: ‘Rise up, oh Sun King, we will follow you.’
In the absence of outright devotion, any reaction is better than none. Newspaper reviews are the first goal, then prizes, or perhaps the other way round. Doesn’t matter, but one tends to follow the other. For prizes, however, the first challenge is to get my novel among the contenders.
Publishers put forward a limited number of books for each prize, and this year I met a writer who had prize nominations included in her contract. Great for her, but how many novelists insist on these clauses? Some of the major prize contests may be closed before they begin.
What about reviews? Since 1996, review space in the newspapers has visibly reduced, and within that shrinking space each review is shorter. That doesn’t make the emotional experience of reading a review any less intense.
The secret with reviews is either to read them or not read them, but don’t half read them. Engage with what the critic is trying to say, even if their fee for 150 words isn’t enough to make them read very carefully. Stare those reviews down, because for every ‘impressive’ (Financial Times), there will be a ‘dry’ (Observer). I agree and I disagree but I’m never indifferent.
Then at literary festivals, whatever the reviews say, I speak about Lazarus is Dead as if the book has achieved my every intention. In the public space of publication, talking about writing, I’m trapped into half-lies and mock certainties. Why did you write this book? Are you a Christian? Did Lazarus exist? I don’t know, but I invent answers to fill the A of my Q and A contracts. I speak in tents without seats, the wet grass clearly visible between scattered feet. Publicity without a public becomes an existential concern.
For a while, I lose perspective, it’s true. Setbacks that to me are an outrageously cruel injustice are to others, including my agents and publishers, just the way things go, shruggable events in a working week.
And then, when interest in the book fades, as it always will, it feels like getting the sack. There’s the same sense of becoming unnecessary, of having nothing left to do but sit on benches in parks. At this point, happily, the writing life can begin again – the life of actually writing. There’s no escape from the reality of having to write another book, hopefully, the next surprise bestseller.
The business of publication can deceive writers into acting as if writing is not what writers do. As if being on the radio is writing, which it isn’t. When I feel myself rolled into the industry, I look up Naomi Klein on brands: ‘When brand awareness is the goal shared by all, repetition and visibility are the only true measures of success.’
If visibility becomes a writer’s measure of success, then something has gone badly wrong. Stuck in the biscuit industry. Worse, the writer (not even the writing) becomes the biscuit.
What I really think remains unchanged. Do the writing. Guard the text. Nothing else is under control – the marketing, the publicity, the sales – but then nothing else is important.