We’re Not On The Same Page Anymore
‘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.Â
There has always been a gap in the shared language of British and Americans.Â 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 ofÂ 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.