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.

34 comments on “The Selling Of Words”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    Copyrighting cobbles! Jesus. The most egregious attempt to copyright something (and if I ever encounter the git who tried to do it, I shall probably render him immobile on behalf of countless thousands of people) was by an American businessman, who, in 2001, tried to copyright, for his own financial gain, the following: ‘9/11’
    What an utter c**t. Shocking.

  2. Roger Allen says:

    ” It could be that I worry too much about the words, and that gets in the way of selling.”

    There are writers whose only talent is for selling.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    (Aside to Laurie: your stories do have background, foreshadowing, and surprises drawn from character so possibly they’re not “real” Holmes stories. You know what Chris means, though.)

  4. Barbara Boucke says:

    First of all, thank you for writing about all that is involved with a book once it has been accepted for publication. When I am reading, I don’t think about all of the hoopla that is involved or might be involved with the publication. I’m just reading.
    As to worrying about the words, I’m glad that you do even though it probably causes stress trying to get something right. Sometimes, Arthur Bryant will tell an overly wordy character to get on with it, but that’s part of the story. I’ve never been reading along in one of your books and wished you would “get on with it”. I just recently semi-finished a mystery – I say that because I ended up skipping to the end to see who dunnit – in which I wish the author would have paid more attention to the words. The character of the police constable used the word “bally” every time he had something to say which was throughout the book. I know what the word means, but I failed to understand why he couldn’t have used other words. I almost started counting how many times the word showed up on each page – but I didn’t. Thank you for paying attention to the words. They matter.

  5. admin says:

    There’s a separate post to be written about the flaws writers develop, although to do it without naming names would be tricky!

  6. Liz Thompson says:

    I remember The Naming of Parts. An impressive poem that I re-read several times to try and work out why it made such an impression on me. Couldn’t decide.

  7. Barbara Boucke says:

    I understand, especially if the writer is still here whether or not he or she is still writing. It’s why I didn’t want to be more specific about the book. I think it might be possible to talk about someone long gone – even if he or she is considered one of the “greats” of the Golden Age of Mystery. I have my own opinions of Freeman Wills Crofts, for example, that have caused me to skim down a page of one of his mysteries because he went on with a part of the story so much that it got in the way of the plot. But that’s just me.

  8. brooke says:

    ” A moderately intelligent dog can write a Sherlock Holmes story” Indeed. I’m surprized there aren’t more Baskerville stories written by the hound. I no longer buy/read any book with Doyle’s characters or with Doyle himself as a character.

    The flaws writers develop…one is ‘macro writing.’ When you can’t be creative, just hit a function key and out pops a hackneyed phrase, like “somewhere a dog barked.” I could/will name names.

    Check out “Kill Your Darlings.” New Yorker, Feb.15-22, Shouts and Murmurs section for laugh til you’re sick examples.

  9. Jan says:

    I know this is a bit off piste but you writing this has given me excuse to write about that fantastic Mark Haddon book
    “The Curious incident of the dog in the Nightime”

    God I really liked that story that was a spin off on the idea of the purist detached detective I never thought I’d get to read
    So clever
    What I lovely story I know everybody else read it over a decade ago but I’m no intellectual and it’s just what turns up in the phone box I get to read at present. .This was the business though.

    I wonder how much of Haddon’s essential idea inspired the modern update of the Sherlock Holmes Canon the Cucumberpatch modern version. This idea of Sherlock’s detached reasoning being something almost on the autistic spectrum is something that’s played with certainly.
    It’s still pretty amazing to me at least now all the facets of the late 19C translated so well into the early 21C..

    Sorry if there’s loads of wrong spellings in this post have lost my glasses again.

  10. brooke says:

    “For some authors, being dead turns out to be a viable career move.” More important is having a gangsta mom who finds your manuscript and won’t let up until it’s published. E.g. Confederancy of Dunces. It also helps if you were an imaginative writer with something fresh and new.

  11. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you Jan not just for your comment about the book – which I think I have somewhere – but the last bit about losing your glasses. I spend more time every day wandering around my house trying to figure out where I put my glasses last!

  12. Peter T says:

    I still enjoy the original, some of the parodies, and most certainly the Cumberbatch, but, given that I read a couple of series where the main character is a dog, I guess that’s not at all surprising.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Our school staff did a professional day based on us having read “The Curious Incident.” The discussion became quite incredibly revelatory of disturbing incidents in various individuals’ backgrounds and a surge of empathy for students with learning/behaviour difficulties. The hope was that it would also be reflected in our teaching patterns. The teacher who led that discussion also took us on a walk through China Town which ended with lunch at an open air location that turned out to have some of our parents staffing it.
    I, too, spend time prowling for glasses now that I only wear them for reading and close work.

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    I remember a book from my youth about a Professor Brainstawm – had pairs of glasses for various things, and one pair just to find the others. I have a pair for reading, a pair for computer work, a looking at the world pair, and a pair of vari-something or others for reading those little menus on the back of my camera, and they double up for shopping and reading those tiny price labels. Sod’s law dictates that I always have a pair of glasses on, but at least 80 percent of the time not the correct ones.

  15. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you Martin Tolley for a good chuckle at the end of the day. Fortunately I only have one pair to “lose” but a pair for looking at the world might not be a bad idea to have as well.

  16. SteveB says:

    Hey Admin, name the guilty 😉

  17. Roger says:

    Professor Branestawm, Martin Tolley. The early books were wonderfully illustrated by Heath Robinson.

  18. Peter T says:

    Frameless and thin framed glasses, I have a pair disappear every couple of days. I have to find another pair to recover the ones I’ve lost. One pair escaped when I was taking the bins out. I came across them down the road a few days later when I trod on them. The only damage was a row of scratches, fortunately just off the sight line.

  19. Martin Tolley says:

    Roger, Thanks. I’ve since looked him up on Google. I had several of the books and borrowed others from the library. Mine are all lost now. I remember the pictures and how good they were. I didn’t know about H-R then. When the current madness ends I’ll go back the the splendid H-R museum in Pinner (hope it survives).

  20. Roger says:

    Perhaps we could expand the H-R museum and include his follower Rowland Emmett. I think Admin has praised him here before.
    In fact an entertaining story would involve H-R committing a murder in his own inimitable way and Emmett investigating (or vice-versa). An idea for you Admin. I’m good at concepts but hopeless at putting them into practise.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Professor Branestawm. What a great character. Books written by Norman Hunter, for children, but with a rather adult style. The W. Heath Robinson illustrations of the first book were perfect, with machines containing coal scuttles, cricket bats, bent nails, string, etc., all perfectly feasible – you could make these daft things. Later books were dynamically iillustrated by George Adamson, who was, for me, the definitive artist. The description of things was a big draw, too. A ‘Baby-burping machine’ in the second book, ‘Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt’, is described thus:
    “It looked like a toy steamroller with three funnels – but not very much like one.” There are phrases used throughout, such as:
    “Almost entirely unlike”, which also appear in books by Douglas Adams, which suggests he read these classics, too. These books are a great store of mad ideas, and an awful lot of silly words. My favourite Branestawm story is:
    ‘Ici One Parle Die Languages’, where the Professor invents a universal translator, and goes, with Mrs Flittersnoop, his housekeeper, and his best friend, Colonel Dedshott, of the Catapult Cavaliers, on a trip through Europe. Then the translator breaks in Germany… I’ve never managed to read this without laughing out loud. There are parts of it that would not have been out of place on an episode of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. Two TV films were made by the BBC, a few years back, with Harry Hill playing the Professor. He was excellent, and as both films were written by Charlie Higson, who obviously loved and ‘got’ the source material, they were a lot of fun, with some sneaky sci-fi jokes squeezed in.

  22. Peter Dixon says:

    ‘A moderately intelligent dog can write a Sherlock Holmes story.’ True, but a moderately intelligent dog can’t invent Sherlock Holmes.

    There’s something about the Holmes/Watson contrivance that still works for us as a supposedly educated audience. We need to be given all of the clues, we need a narrative that points in a direction, we need the lovely details of Victorian life (so different yet so close to our own), we need a sinister or murderous threat. The beauty of the stories is that we don’t ever know what Holmes is thinking – only the semi-frustrated viewpoint of our narrator. The formula has never been bettered, and when you compare Conan Doyle to his contemporaries in detective fiction he uses modern English, not a strangulated late Georgian, formal, format.

    As an audience we need to be intrigued, puzzled, interested, horrified, shocked – and yet secure in the knowledge that our hero will win in the end because he can see more than mere mortals can be bothered to look at or appreciate.

  23. brooke says:

    Hear, hear, Peter D. And few authors have Doyle’s depth of experience and education as a basis for their writing.

  24. Helen Martin says:

    I have just finished The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (recommended here by someone) and it is fascinating to read English of 1903, written by someone who wrote only this one piece of fiction, although he wrote quite a bit of non-fiction. He assumes we can knowledgeably sympathize with “Carruthers” when he moans about being stuck in London in Sept. and will be able to complete the tag “timeo danae” as well as knowing its meaning. We do actually know “carpe diem” but he uses it in a sentence so he changes it from imperative to declarative “carpemus diem”. Of course we don’t want to read about gushy stuff so the girl is relegated to gently protective description and praise of her single handed sailing ability. Their personal stories are i”rrelevant” after they escape Germany so the narrative ends there and we’re left with the “editor’s” analysis of British armed readiness for war. I’d call the style strangulated emotion. (Sorry about spelling, etc. but my glasses have gone missing.)

  25. Graeme Kay says:

    Thanks for reminding me about Professor Branestawm! He will definitely be getting a mention on when I post about my formative reading years.
    Christopher, I know you have a lot going on but I would like to invite you to do a guest post on my blog. Happy for you to promote your latest book but would also need three recommendations from you. Let me know if interested, Graeme

  26. Ed DesCamp says:

    Helen – I may have been the source of that recommendation for Childers. That book sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole – I’ve since found The Riddle of Erskine Childers, by Michael McInerny (75 pence, can’t remember when I picked it up in some used book shop in London), and The Shadow in the Sands, by Sam Llewellyn. Interesting character, Childers.
    My favorite sailing book of all, however, is from your part of the wiorld – The Curve of Time, by Wylie Blanchet. Again, while the book was fascinating, the author was even more so, and that led me to grab Following the Curve of Time, by Cathy Converse. Is this blog about reading books, by any chance?

  27. Martin Tolley says:

    Graeme, read your blog now and again, but have to limit myself lest the “must pick up a copy of that” list gets even more unmanageable. Meant to say before, I love the banner image. It reminds me of student days in Glasgow. There was a shed/warehouse/barn back of Byres Road called Voltaire and Rousseau which had its book stock arranged in a similar, though less tidy, manner. If a book fell on your head it was usually a good one, and you got a discounted price if you promised not to sue for damages!

  28. Graeme Kay says:

    Thanks Martin, had been searching for a banner image but as soon as I found that one I stopped looking any further!

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Erskine Childers was a very interesting man. He was executed by firing squad for supplying guns to Irish Seperatists, I believe. On the day of his execution, he is said to have shaken hands with every man in the firing squad, then, when in position, bade them take a step closer, so that there would be less chance of anyone missing. A proper and brave gentleman, it would seem. ‘The Riddle Of The Sands’ is generally understood to be the first modern spy thriller – and it was eerily prescient on Germany’s mobilisation of personnel and equipment in the run up to World War 1. Some people have seen the novel as a warning to the rest of Europe about Germany, disguised as fiction. It’s a brilliant, chilling book.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, dear, I see that rabbit hole ahead of me, Ed, so I don’t know whether to thank you or not.
    We check the “best sellers” list every summer to see how The Curve of Time is Doing. It’s fallen off a bit the last couple of years but yes, it’s a favourite indeed. At the end there is talk about a children’s book Mrs. Blanchet is doing. The book exists and I had it in my school library – it’s about a whale and I leave you to find it. Yes, we have Following the Curve of Time, too.
    People seem to be willing to follow the path of any sort of adventure, no matter how dangerous.
    By the way, you didn’t try kayaking down Seattle streets this past weekend, did you? It seems to have happened in Queen Anne, so probably not your area. I don’t know which was stranger, that kayaking or the holding of the Portland crosstown ski race after several years hiaitus.
    The Childers book was also of interest to me because my grandfather in law was involved in gun smuggling to the loyalists and Grandma Campbell insisted on the family moving to Canada because she wasn’t prepared to raise children who shot at their neighbours. Open minded for an Irish Presbyterian.

  31. Paul C says:

    An excellent Sherlock Holmes novel is ‘House of Silk’ by Anthony Horowitz. He wisely uses a very serious tone instead of the usual tongue in cheek approach and avoids guest stars such as Oscar Wilde, Queen Victoria, Dr Jekyll etc which often seems naff. His sequel ‘Moriarty’ was disappointing though.

  32. Lauren C says:

    If a “moderately intelligent dog” could write a Sherlock Holmes story, please explain why almost no one since Doyle has done so successfully. Sticking characters called Holmes and Watson into a tale doesn’t make it a Sherlock Holmes story.


  33. Ian Luck says:

    I’m very fond of Nicholas (Star Trek:The Wrath Of Khan) Meyer’s novel and movie, ‘The Seven Per Cent Solution’. Possibly the best non-Doyle Holmes story. I’m also fond of the spoof movie ‘Without A Clue’, where a victim is said to have been:
    “Struck over the head with a blunt excrement.” Possibly my all time favourite Malapropism.

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