Saturday 20 December 2008

“Che di non esser primo par ch’ira aggia.” (Petrarch)

“Furious that he's not given pride of place.”

I was at another literary party yesterday evening. As it happens, it was in Richmond this time, so for once I didn’t have to worry about driving above the limit on my way back home (joke). It was a very good party, and I met a number of writers and other interesting people, among them Carole Seymour-Jones, Neil McKenna and Yvonne Antrobus.

The host, Naomi May, is an ex-Calder author and a fine writer. I have heard from John Calder – not the most reliable of sources, I must say – that he was about to publish her third novel when Naomi’s daughter, who was an agent, decided that it should be submitted simultaneously to several publishers. A new publisher did not materialize, and in the meantime Calder’s list had moved on and was bursting at the seams with new authors. The result was that Naomi’s third novel never saw the light of day. She continued to write over the years, and penned a number of other novels which remained unpublished – but that accident knocked her off her stride and practically killed her career as a writer. It is a great shame, as she is a talented novelist, but I suppose in modern times writers must keep one eye on their pens and the other on their tracks.

In the last few years, it appears that managing your writing career is almost as important as the quality of what you write. Aspiring authors are desperate to have their breakthrough and be published, believing that this will be the end to all their frustrations, and that success will follow almost as a matter of course. They are wrong. Being published once doesn't mean you'll be published again or be able to write another work, because as soon as you get published the stakes are raised and the pressure increases – pressure to sell, to make yourself heard among the hundreds of thousand of published authors, to secure a new contract, to write the “big” book, to win some prize, to write a bestseller.

Whether you are a debut novelist or an established writer, once you’ve received a good advance and the book has not performed to your publisher’s or agent’s expectations, be sure you will be in the firing line. If your latest book has been moderately or even decently successful, you’ll be expected to do better with your next one – and if you don’t, you’re dead in the water.

These days I am receiving more and more submissions – very often unagented, which is worrying – from published writers who have been dropped after their first or second book. They come to us with very good credentials: they have been published by Cape, Chatto, Faber… they’ve won prizes and their books have been translated into many languages. Still, their publishers have lost faith in them and let them go.

This kind of authors are usually more desperate than unpublished writers – firstly because they feel they are entitled to be taken more seriously than the amorphous rabble that has yet to make it into print, and secondly because they believe that – having published their first book – they can now make a career out of their writing and build their life around it.

I think this is one of the worst mistake a writer could do. Extremely few authors are able to make a living out of writing, so to believe that your first book gives you promise of a steady income for years to come is to live in cloud cuckoo land. If you are an aspiring author, my suggestion is that you don’t try and make it into a profession, but keep is as a hobby or as your second or third job – both for your mental sanity and the health of your finances.


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