We’re Not On The Same Page Anymore

Reading & Writing

‘I got halfway through and stopped reading,’ said my New York agent. He was talking about my new manuscript. ‘There’s no market for it over here.’

‘Things must be pretty bad when your own agent fires you,’ said a friend. ‘Why don’t you write to their market?’

‘I don’t know what their market is anymore,’ I replied. 

There has always been a gap in the shared language of British and Americans. Reading patterns have changed radically in the last three years, so that we find ourselves traveling in opposite directions.

It’s said that US publishers hire staff by careful examination of their credentials and background, and we hire staff by instinct. If I read a US periodical like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair or the New York or LA Times I expect a deep dive into the subject matter, bedrocked by data, balanced and informative, not the kind of lazy surface skim you get in British equivalents. We employ too many non-professionals. Many of the guardian’s articles are so short that they feel not like stories at all but mere headlines.

A friend of mine, a veteran journalist, the old school kind who fact-checks thoroughly before submission, was just fired from a newspaper for concentrating on the arts and not saying nicer things about the TV soap ‘Succession’. Populist opinion currently rules. But how different are we from Americans now? Is ‘the other side of the pond’ starting to look more distant?

A quick look at a range of US bestseller top tens reveals the disparity. At No. 1, ‘Burn After Writing’ doesn’t even have an author name on the cover but it’s by Sharon Jones and is self-help for teenaged girls. There’s a treasury of dragons, a ‘Dune’ reprint, a plethora of heartwarming family books and, squatting like a poison toad in the middle, there’s the print version of the alt.right conspiracy rant ‘Plandemic’. There’s John Grisham and Real Housewives and the memoirs of celebrities whose names mean nothing here. It’s all genre stuff, with very little serious fiction.

In the UK we currently have at No.1 position, ‘Mrs Hinch: Life in Lists’, a self-help book that doesn’t even bother to have an author, the memoirs of Billy Connolly, Mrs Tyson Fury, Bob Mortimer and Daisy May Cooper, whoever she is, and the Guinness Book of Records. But then quite a lot of populist fiction, novels from TV presenters Graham Norton, Richard Osman, and the one author shared in both sets of bestseller lists, John Grisham.

Amid this, my New York agent has preferred not to represent my books in America for the time being.

‘Hot Water’ is simply too English to find a market and my earthy epic ‘The Foot on the Crown’ is apparently too Eeuww! for the squeamish SFF ladies of US publishing. It needs to be nice, not boat-rocking, safe and emotionally comforting, probably child-friendly – unless it’s a deranged conspiracy theory book or a political hatchet-job, apparently.

As writers age we become more extreme versions of ourselves. I fear I’m now beyond market requirements in some territories. My New York agent is right to turn down the books. If he can’t sell them to the American public nobody else can.

28 comments on “We’re Not On The Same Page Anymore”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Where to begin ? With some, but too few, exceptions, mainstream publishing on both sides of the Atlantic is, to all intents and purposes, on life support. Or euphemism aside, on Amazon support. Fortunately, the small presses are still turning out what used to be called literature. As I keep banging on about, with attention spans approaching that of an armadillo (with no anthill in sight) and the invasion of the mind snatcher aka the internet — books are no longer anticipated ‘destinations;’ if anything they have become motorway service areas. Fuel up, grab a quick bite and then be on your way. The faster the read the better. Being sufficiently voyeuristic certainly doesn’t hurt either.

    There may be a virtuousness in being seen reading a book, but it is too often for the sake of appearance — much like your designer sunglasses or handbag. The preferred attribute now is how well a book, in fact, compares to the way we process information online and in particular, the level of immediate gratification it can provide. So ‘merit’ has largely become how big an order can we get from Tesco or Walmart and how soon can we slap a ‘National Bestseller’ snipe on the cover. And of course how it is being treated algorithmically by the ‘big A’ — that great gatekeeper of culture and housewares.

  2. Lois McNally says:

    I’m so glad to see that Titan Books will be publishing Hot Water. I look forward to reading it.

    Re-reading your Bryant & May books while locked down at home has been an excellent way to escape social media and the endless grim news of the world. I appreciate your work. You do me good. We have visited London many times so part of the enjoyment of the B & M escapades is virtually wandering down familiar streets with them.

  3. Peter+T says:

    Is self-publishing a possible answer? It eliminates all the middle people. I accept it leaves a big gap between the author and the market in the areas of publicity and distribution, but Amazon seem very happy to fill that in, at least partially. I’ve been working on a text book at a rate of progress that limits the possibility of ever finishing the thing. However, considering the pain of the traditional route, the ridiculous prices that publishers ask for scientific works and the microscopic royalties they offer, if it were ever completed, I would self-publish.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    Forgive the presumption — but about this ‘ageing out’ of markets business. You haven’t left some markets; they’ve left you. What to do ? May I suggest taking a gimlet-eyed look at your true interests in light of the sea change in publishing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have never written ‘to market;’ you write what you want and that has usually turned out well, especially with B&M. ‘Word Monkey’ will no doubt have universal appeal,as will ‘Peculiar London.’ These are quintessential ‘Christopher Fowler’ (obviously, in the case of the memoir), for better or worse — and they have the literary equivalent of a ‘hook’ in popular music. ‘Hot Water’ and ‘The Foot on the Crown’ probably less so.

    But then I have to believe that ‘sellability’ was not at the forefront of your mind when writing each; simply writing them was the imperative. So do you write because you have to or, do you write to be read (and by as large a readership as possible) ? Yes, I know, very metaphysical. But there are options to consider these days other than established publishers, whose interests in a contracted industry may very likely diverge from yours. If you’re to have reduced expectations, let them be yours to control.

  5. Stephen Winer says:

    As one of your American reader, whenever I hear something like this, it only makes me want to read those books more. Guess I’ll be ordering them from the other side,

  6. Ed+DesCamp says:

    @ Stephen – yes, needs must. The only way to fill out your Fowlerbrary is to order in. The eejits at Amazon aren’t a huge help.

  7. Helen+Martin says:

    I always have ordered from the UK so I could have my Fowler undiluted. It’s all very well to say, if the agent refuses the book then go it alone, but you still have to have a publisher and it’s the agent who gets you there. We are waiting anxiously for anything that Chris puts out but are we enough to support a printing? Would the British publisher be interested in a speculative North American shipment? Are there stores or chains that would take on an unattached book? Would this proposal contravene contractual arrangements between publishers?
    And what about self publishing? The only hope with this is that a publisher sees it and adopts it – and your agent, experienced at this game, feels that it won’t happen. Are we at the “There’s a big old barn. We could put on a show,” stage?
    Chris, one thing is for sure. You have a following on this side and if there is no uptake on the part of North American publishers then you can still count on these sales. We have friends and relatives, too, with birthdays and Christmas and so on. How much help our cheering on the sidelines is I don’t know, but we’ll at least do that.

  8. chazza says:

    How long will it be before bookshops (what are they?) are there only to sell colour-coordinated covers to match one’s personal fashion statement only?

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    Let me elaborate on my gratuitous advice (and lo, the sound of gnashing of teeth was heard abroad in Blogland). Without knowing the present state of play of ‘Total Midnight’ or ‘The Foot on the Crown’ (if possible, ‘Hot Water,’ as well for other than the UK market) — and for all I know, you may already be considering one of those ‘options’ I suggested above — you might, in fact, want to embrace the Great Satan — at least on a test basis. These days, like the website cookie choices we are presented with (as if ticking one box or another actually matters…) — even the Great Satan offers alternatives to completely selling your soul. It may require a sliver of pride but you already have an established reputation which is always the major stumbling block for self-publishing and even more so with crowdfunding.

    Yes, both are double-edged. And yes, both require some effort other than phone calls, emails and glass-enclosed meetings. Let your agent do some donkey work for a change — although you are obviously quite handy with all things internet. Not a be-all and end-all you understand, but in fact, (1) a way to appeal directly (with the emphasis on ‘directly’) to an appreciative, or certainly interested, audience and thus (2) quite possibly (with even a modicum of success) attract a traditional publisher (no advance required and you will have done test marketing for them), if that’s the way you ultimately decide to go.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’ve been casting about for another proper compliment. You may remember me calling your writing ‘exuberant,’your scenes ‘organic’ and I may also have mentioned in passing, your facility and technical prowess. But after reading this post, I rather assumed you needed at least one more, so I redoubled my effort. As it happened, not soon after reading it, I happened to be spending time with someone who is a professional singer. They claimed to have absolute or perfect pitch — something I had not known before, so of course I had to test this assertion. I was at least satisfied that their ‘A’ could very probably tune an orchestra as well as the usual oboe.

    And so it struck me: your dialogue — with the few exceptions I might find if I looked long and hard enough — is pitch-perfect. Especially the banter and otherwise snappy patter which never descends into sitcomese, something which could almost be assured in lesser hands. So there you have it. Another shameless attempt at emotional blackmail. I’ve done my part. Now, when can we expect that next entry in the B&M oeuvre — preferably one with the usual bodies. Or, as I’ve said, are you going to force us to try to figure that out one cryptic clue at a time on Twitter ?

  11. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Helen – about that big red barn…how many tickets could this gang sell to kickstart an ebook of the collected short stories? As long as we could download it on this continent and in Europe, we could put on a show!

  12. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Chris and all:check out Anu Garg’s reference to Bryant’s use of “charientism” on his A Word A Day website. Yes, you do have some notoriety!

  13. admin says:

    Stu-U-Are, Word Monkey will most resolutely not have universal appeal, in the same way that Paperboy and Film Freak did not (neither were sold to markets other than the UK).

    Hot Water does but The Foot on the Crown does not. Most of what I write is untranslatable. The key to success is simplification, universally fashionable subject matter, short words, a good hook. That’s it.
    None of which I’m good at.

  14. Paul+C says:

    Agree with your description of the bestseller lists – very depressing. Is there any TV celeb that hasn’t written their life story or a boring novel ? Who reads this guff ? I suppose if they sell in large numbers it helps to keep bookshops and
    publishers in business. A necessary evil similar to the multiplexes showing 11 screens of tripe so we can have 1 intelligent film. Perhaps we should therefore be grateful for trashy books and empty-headed films ?

  15. Jan says:

    Chris What if you have a rethink about “Foot on the Crown” and tilt it away from the science fiction fantasy angle and move it along more toward the Bernard Cornwell end of the market?

    The “eeuw” ladies surely would have little to object to if instead of SFF we were talking very early largely “Dark age” history? In fact would have nowt to do with them.

    Lots of the early Anglo Saxon period and the battling for the City is pretty strange in its own right couple that with the odd flip flopping (between Pagan and Christian kings from Essex and later Kent) which went on for a couple of centuries, the strange story of the St Brides sacred site its well waters usage in cleansing part of the coronation route for English kings for centuries and the possible usage,of the waters in the coronation ritual itself .( I ain’t talking about washing the streets down here btw!! )

    Plus St Brides attracts the Romans and ASs which happens far less often than you think…. Well there’s more than enough peculiar history to centre your novel on. Just think of all the places the Hawksmoor St Mary Woolnoth site which had been the site of a Roman Temple and likely a prehistoric sacred site appropriated by Roman forces. Now part of Woolnoths undercroft is London Underground TFL (with its own ghost.)

    There’s the long rumoured prehistoric stones beneath St Paul’s, the Mithraic temple (which has got about about a bit). There’s tons of stuff to play into the Guild’s, the Anglo Saxon Thames frontage the Fleet, Smoothfield, honestly it’s wall to wall. The Roman Roads which turn out to be modified and improved prehistoric drovers tracts. The wells and Gates of the City walls. The prehistoric site of the Tower of London. There’s so much there for you to play with. Just change your angle – easy 4 me to say I know.

    If its a way to find the novels market is it time to hop into another genre? It’s not like you’ve not done it before with great success! You’ve put all the work in now and created the bloody thing just think honestly we are talking prehistory into when the Normans with lots of resonances onwards – but which become more explainable in terms of trade. Would you consider giving it a run?

  16. Jan says:

    Above should read when the Normans are about.
    Sorry long posted comment.

  17. John Griffin says:

    I was in Indianapolis in 1978, and at the local college everyone was watching Monty Python episodes. Beer in hand, I sat watching too. They laughed in all the wrong places. That epitomised, for me, the gulf between two seemingly similar cultures.

  18. Liz+Thompson says:

    In a way, this reminds me of the problem with ‘academic’ books. They take ages to get published, only get reviewed in specialist journals, aren’t stocked by public libraries, and cost a fortune to buy. As a result, they don’t sell to ordinary mortals who might well be interested if they knew and could afford them. Mind you, trying to locate the poetry books reviewed in Morning Star can be quite a puzzle too, as Amazon has never heard of them (and quite often, GoodReads hasn’t either). But “academic’ writers, and poets, tend to write because they must, and you’re in the same boat. Your books are what you want and need to write. Don’t let agents or publishers, best seller lists, tacky reviews, advice put you off. There will always be readers who will search stuff out, pursue odd titles and subjects, harass their local independent bookseller, and provide you with your followers, your fans, your appreciative audience. There’s no satisfaction to be had in lowering your standards, don’t do it!

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    What I believe, agree with or don’t is totally and unalterably irrelevant to the life and times of Christopher Fowler. For example, despite rights not being sold ex- UK, I find it hard to believe ‘Paperboy,; if not ‘Film Freak,’ did not do respectably well in the US and other English-speaking countries. Although the setting may be ‘foreign,’ the story certainly has universal appeal as I believe will ‘Word Monkey.’

    I am a stubborn cuss (‘Well, slap my arse and call me Sally,!’ you say in mock disbelief) and on behalf of those I care about as well. I rarely suffer ‘no’ for an answer gladly and have even been known, on occasion, to refuse to accept ‘yes.’ This is particularly the case when I perceive something as received wisdom. And yes, as might be imagined, this has led to more than a few contentious moments. But I have been proven right enough times that, like Pavlov’s dogs, I tend to start “salivating” as it were, to what I sense is an out of hand dismissal. I am well aware of the commercial ‘facts of life’ in the entertainment ‘business,’ and to an extent, in publishing. Given today’s reduced expectations — mass any way you can achieve it is ‘merit’ and in particular for those who have a financial interest in an author; and heaven forfend that the ink-stained wretch theirself should have a few extra coins to caress. But that doesn’t mean a book is not without appeal or ‘sellable’ — it usually means it’s just not subjectively worth the effort to try for the scale thought to be necessary or, to get the ponderous gears of mainstream publishing turning.

    Every situation is almost certainly different and in yours there well may rights issues that no one need know about but you and yours and, of course, personal ones. But, if you can, do yourself, or at least we faithful, and what has to be many hundreds (if not thousands) of potential other committed readers, a favour. Actively explore self-publishing and/or crowdfunding or even a small press. It is not as if you have a single dog-eared manuscript you’ve been trying to peddle for years. You are a prolific and highly regarded author (has the lily been gilded enough do you think ?) and now have a well-deserved membership in the prestigious Detection Club of Great Britain, to boot.

    Take a chance, if you can. We will all thank you in every way. Is the possibility of selling several hundred or perhaps several thousand copies of ‘The Foot on the Crown’ and/or ‘Hot Water’ (rights permitting) worse than selling none because an agent decides they can’t sell them ? Only you can decide of course and this will be the last ‘nudge’ on the matter from me (collective eye roll).

  20. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Liz+Thompson Hear! Hear!

  21. Peter T says:

    Liz, The Morning Star and Amazon have to be mutually exclusive concepts. Some things are impossible, like a love affair between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill.

  22. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Liz and Stu are correct.
    There are many of us happy to purchase your work by whatever means possible. If you don’t have to give a percentage to anyone else, that’s better still.

  23. Gary Locke says:

    We have Book Depository, a service that allows readers like me in the US to get books from the UK. It’s convenient and quick. It’s also how I managed to get your books before they were published (or, not published) over here. If people want to read your books, they can.

  24. Liz+Thompson says:

    Gary, I’m afraid Book Depository is owned by Amazon, and I’ve noticed a nasty habit of them selling direct at a higher price than their offers are listed in Amazon’s sellers.
    Peter T, Morning Star and Amazon are only mutually exclusive if you adhere rigidly to left v right, socialism/communism v capitalism. As an anarchist, I use both with due suspicion as to their murky motives, but Morning Star reviews stuff Amazon don’t stock, and Amazon unfortunately does stock stuff I can’t get elsewhere, i.e. books that Waterstones and independent bookshops can’t seem to locate, or that can only otherwise be ordered direct from other countries with inordinately high postage rates. I entirely agree with the underlying point about Amazon and Morning Star being at opposite ends of the political/economic spectrum.

  25. chazza says:

    Pills, sunglasses, reading glasses, T shirts and cheap(?) paperback of Arthur Machen’s “Hill of Dreams” go with me everywhere…

  26. Paola Sergi says:

    I have read all the books in the Bryant and May series and I hope there will be many more to come.
    If I had to name a favourite, it would probably be “Seventy-seven Clocks”, even though I have enjoyed them all.
    Being a “Londonphile” (does the word even exist? well, if it did not, it does now) one of the things I really appreciate are all the tidbits of historical lore (one example: the origin of the term “tip”, as explained in “Oranges and Lemons”, but oh! so many others).
    So, please, keep telling us about these two elderly detectives, their sidekicks, and their exploits.
    Many thanks.

  27. Pingback: What We Read
  28. LAM says:

    To borrow/distort a line from baseball fiction: “If you build it, we will come.”

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