The Invisible Novel
People don’t care where quotes come from.
Does a book exist if nobody reads it? To the author, certainly. The profoundly innovative, ill-fated Ronald Firbank, who hid entire literary worlds in half-sentences, self-published in ever-shrinking quantities to no acclaim whatsoever. And that was in a time when the writer word was the sole media, so how about today, when authors compete against every kind of amusement imaginable? How do you get heard above the shouting?
Publicists are given missions to promote new talent, the young, the physically attractive, the well-connected, the comfort-reads, and literary festivals play up to that. Cheltenham is a fame factory; like Hay-on-Wye it prefers ready-made media stars who’ll get the bums of middle England on seats, and that’s fair enough, because famous faces fascinate us, professionals talk well to audiences and non-fiction contains talking points for Q&As. Plus, it’s much harder to sell fiction to a live audience.
What if you have a thriller and want to publicise it? You’re pretty much on your own. There’s very little a PR can do except put it out to reviewers. Now multiply that problem by seventeen. Why seventeen? Because ‘The Lonely Hour’ was my seventeenth Bryant & May novel, and received not one single review from the press. But before you think this will turn into a complaint about coverage, consider;
The novel got great reviews from online critics. Publishers have been slow to realise that online review sites are as respectable – in many cases more thorough – than newspaper critics. As an ex-national press reviewer I watched my word count slashed to the bone (60 words for a full review including all the book details) while well-informed reviewers on book websites wrote eruditely and at length about their latest passions.
One thing I learned from years of film marketing was that people don’t care where quotes come from. After years of championing online reviews we are now starting to see them on book jackets, and about time. I value reviews from sites like Deadgood, Crimetime and FullyBooked more than I trust a one-line summary from the Express or the Mail.
I feel for every author who slaves for years on a book only to have it met by critical indifference. These days it usually means that the time-pressed and cash-strapped reviewer has not even had time to lift the cover. Each Bryant & May novel I write is a separate crime novel that happens to have running characters, but I’m sanguine about their relative invisibility in the press because I recognise the pressures under which everyone in the publicity chain labours.
The one thing readers can do to help their favourite authors (and it’s something I do) is to leave a short review on Amazon or Goodreads. The important thing is to avoid Firbank’s fate and find a readership, preferably in one’s own lifetime!