Each week in the Independent On Sunday I search out an author who has been unjustly neglected of late, either because their books have gone out of print, or they’re currently not what publishers are looking for, or sometimes because they themselves have decided upon a career change.
As the series heads toward a hundred columns, I’ve decided to turn it into a book. It’ll take a while – I’ve quite a lot on my plate this year – but I think it will be interesting.
You think when you write a book that it will last forever. Most books don’t, and the ones that do are often the ones that shouldn’t. The public rarely gets to choose what to save; the publishers decide which authors will be promoted and which will die of oxygen starvation.
This holds true in all forms of commercial art, but writers are especially vulnerable to these choices, which are governed by a range of factors. Changing tastes, shrinking budgets, poor cataloguing, lack of marketing and the need to pump the publishing budget into this month’s single sure-fire title all conspire against the author.
Sometimes the authors conspire against themselves. They’re difficult, not pretty enough or new enough, they won’t do publicity, won’t interact with their readers. Things were always like this. In the 1920s Winifred Watson was given her break not just because she’d written a good book, but because she was an attractive young secretary with a pleasing backstory, having written it in quiet moments at her office.
That’s not so very different from the image we hold of the young JK Rowling scribbling her Harry Potter stories on scraps of paper in a café. The fact that we remember Watson now – and will remember Rowling – is largely due to another factor; both had their books made into films. As long as the films stay around, the publishers are more likely to keep the original books in print. But old films find new audiences more easily than old books. You might stumble across a film on TV late at night and be entranced by it. It’s harder to do the same on the internet with a rare book.
We tend to forget that Agatha Christie was a very photogenic young lady when she wrote her first book, and this certainly helped her get noticed, just as it does today. Modern authors are expected to behave like their characters, though. It’s why Brett Easton Ellis has a false ‘personality’ that he adopts for book events.
Authors are now expected to operate across all media. It’s not enough to merely write; you must use a social network, run a blog, write free newspaper articles, appear on panels, on radio and television, perform before an audience, or at the very least be prepared to head off into the hinterlands to give a readings in half-empty libraries.
The work is more time-consuming now than it has ever been before (readers expect much more research in their stories than they ever used to). And it’s so poorly paid that only a handful of authors reach the point where they can afford to abandon their regular jobs. For many this means that writing comes after working a full day, running a family and performing the household chores. It’s no wonder so many good writers simply disappear.
Hopefully, ‘Invisible Ink’ will bring some of them back to life.