“… quite the page-turner… a strong central character… slick and pacy… action-packed… strong characters… I really enjoyed it… an accomplished writer…
Actually these snippets are not from reviews, but they are genuine comments, taken from rejection letters for a novel which my writing partner Peter and I currently have doing the rounds of publishers. It’s only gone to a few, so it’s early days (authors rejected by dozens of publishers include John Le Carre, Orwell and J K Rowling) but what’s dispiriting is that all of the above comments – which, strung together, really would be a brilliant review – came with the inevitable ‘but’: “I don’t like the subsidiary characters,” “it could have gone deeper into this or that,” “the plot needed to be simpler,” and so on.
I’m not complaining – we’ve got a brilliant agent, who I’m sure will sooner or later be able to place the work. But I can’t help thinking that there was a time when publishers actually nurtured writers, taking them on even if their work wasn’t perfect as it stood, offering expert advice and editorial input that would allow them to publish a book with the kind of attributes they were looking for, without the aspects they didn’t want. Because they will have gone back to the author and said, “we love the book, except for this bit or these bits, which we want you to fix. And by the way, here are some ideas about how we want you to fix them.”
Peter and I might have been spoiled by the fact that our first book was published by the wonderful Quartet Books back in the seventies, whose original owners were enthusiasts who did exactly what I I’ve described above: liaised with their authors and offered advice. They were editors as well as proprietors. Moving on a few years, ‘Full Moon,’ our bio of Keith Moon, was originally published by W H Allen back in the eighties, under similar circumstances: the commissioning editor who bought the book loved it, but didn’t think it was perfect. He sent us away to fix what he didn’t like, and we did. On the basis that a fresh pair of eyes can see things that the author can’t, I think it was probably a better book for it (and as it slowly became the classic chronicle of rock’n’roll excess, eventually being republished by the illustrious Faber & Faber a few years ago, between us we must have been doing something right.)
But there came a point in the nineties, when I placed a YA novel with a London publisher that’s now a household name, that I found that all that was over and done with. In the first place, it seemed that the commissioning editor literally didn’t want to talk to me (or any other authors, I later found out.) I couldn’t get hold of her or her minions by phone, and only rarely by email. Essentially, she only contacted me when it suited her – I was basically just an outworker who happened to provide the product upon which her whole edifice company. This non–communication meant that my approval of the cover, despite being contractually required, was overlooked, resulting in a disaster of a cover that did nothing to help the book’s chances. That’s not all though. My line editor – the one whose job it was to go through the book to check for inaccuracies and inconsistencies – was a freelance, who I never saw or had a conversation with (she was also useless, actually changing correct things to incorrect things, but that’s another story.)
So even then I could see which way the wind was blowing and now, anecdotally at any rate, the situation is much, much worse. As the publishing industry boils down to a few big global players, they are looking more and more for sure-fire best-sellers that are guaranteed to boost their profit margins, with little interest in nurturing talent for the long term, to taking a punt on material that’s outré, out of left field, obscure, weird or unpolished. In particular, to go back to my opening argument, it seems that they are looking for books that can be published virtually without alteration; without the faff of having staff liaising with authors, without the expense of competent in-house editors, and ideally without having to make any alterations to the manuscript, which should arrive on their doormats perfect, fully-formed, without a comma having to be changed. It reminds me of the music business in the seventies, when the Holy Grail was someone coming into the record company office with a demo which was not only a potential hit but which could be released as was, with no further alteration.
Finally, just to end on a depressing note, here’s a precis of part of a presentation recently given by Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association, about publishing trends for 2016: “Hybrid publishing will become a more prominent business model, with publishers acquiring authors that subsidize their own work. This is not vanity publishing. These publishers follow a traditional acquisitions process, vetting new titles, and offering traditional sales channels. As self-publishing continues to grow, the demand for hybrid publishing will grow with it. This is the alternative for people who want to publish their book but can’t find an in into the traditional sales channel, and don’t want to have to market and sell books themselves. We have to leave space for these kinds of emerging models in the industry, and I predict that we will see this continue to grow in the future.”
To me this is truly astonishing. In a world in which it is already difficult enough for writers to make a living at all, let alone a good one, it now seems that publishers are expecting us to enthusiastically embrace the worst of all worlds: we’ll suffer from publishers’ traditional incompetence and half-heartedness, poor editing and mostly-asleep publicity departments, while at the same time having to pay for it. To go into review mode: “sorry, the idea is just too far-fetched.”