The Selling Of Words
A moderately intelligent dog can write a Sherlock Holmes story.
Sometimes writing comes thickly and slowly. On a warm day it can feel like Henry Reed’s poem ‘The Naming of Parts’, the mind adrift, the fight to concentrate. But after the words have been forged into sentences, the sentences harvested and trimmed into the whole, the book parcelled up and packaged off, the real work begins.
The agent must sell. The editors must listen and become excited. The thatch must catch and burn. The excitement must spread. Everyone in the chain may feel differently about the book but they must each see to its core.
Some books sell themselves. Attach yourself to a brand that either has official sanction or skirts around it, and away you go. A moderately intelligent dog can write a Sherlock Holmes story. I love them and have done a few myself, always for money. A Holmes tale is solid and linear and has no subtext, no background, no foreshadowing, no impulse, no surprises drawn from character. The public want something new so long as it’s familiar. Holmes is familiar to the point where breaking with its familiarity courts outrage with readers.
Great editors seek to break new ground. Good editors find outlets for popular product. And there are bad editors. I know one with no understanding at all of how words work, or perhaps she’s deliberately chosen to favour a near-illiterate readership. I’ve known her for years and she seems not to appreciate why some books are unreadable. It could be that I worry too much about the words, and that gets in the way of selling.
Publishers trade on the desperation of the author to be published. Deals will hinge on world English language rights, audio rights, ebook rights, mass market paperback rights. Get one element wrong and you become saddled with a problem that can hang around for decades. Authors can be locked out of their own books. TV companies will take character rights, so that you can’t use the people you created.
There are several companies owning different parts of the Harry Potter brand. The film company owns only what’s unique to the cinematic version. They once tried to copyright cobblestones because cobblestoned alleys appeared in the films, until someone pointed out that pavements weren’t invented by Warners. Everyone wants a piece of the action.
And we authors give it away because we want to sell our words. We never retire and tend to stockpile work, so our books can appear years after we die. For some authors, being dead turns out to be a viable career move.
My old agent, Serafina Clarke, was the type of character that no longer exists in publishing; deeply eccentric, imperious, probably High Tory. I once wrote a parody of the Queen and she refused to accept it. The last time I saw her was at a bullfight with a bottle of strong red wine and a cigar, watching the great matador Padilla get back into the ring after having his eye gored out. You didn’t mess with those county ladies. Instead of algorithms they had hunches, instead of emails, arguments in restaurants.
There are still agents who push their authors to produce better work. It’s important to have this stimulus, because generally speaking other authors don’t fulfil the function. You’d think we would all share our experiences, but we don’t.
I believe we should not be involved in the selling of our own works because it detracts from writing. I always try to leave the sales to the agent. Novice writers are usually shocked by the snail’s pace of publishing, but I would say it’s nothing compared to trying to sell a movie script.
The concept of social reach has affected everything. As TikTokers frantically count the scores they’ve achieved for filming themselves pouting in a mirror, I wonder if the idea of a writer producing a novel for the sheer joy of writing it, whether or not it ever finds an audience, should now be considered absurd and old-fashioned.