In the past few months I've had some distressing emails from friends - successful writer friends published by big publishing houses here and abroad. One of them was a Whitbread award-winner with his first novel and the others have also won awards, as well as being very commercial - one has regularly had books serialised by the Reader's Digest. But two in particular have really made me aware of the cruel and destructive power of the contemporary publishing industry, which cares more for its shareholders than the creative egos of the authors it depends on for its income.
Recently two friends have told me stories which are very similar. Both are distressed, depressed and have had their lives, their confidence - and their writing careers - damaged by the very people supposed to nurture and support them. It's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the supposedly 'traditional' model of the publishing industry has begun to cannibalise itself.
One symptom of this is a recent post on the blog Random Jottings about the historical fiction author Cynthia Harrod Eagles - always chronically under publicised. Recently the publishers have suggested that she should bring her very successful Morland Dynasty series to an end because it is no longer making quite so much money (but still selling and still in print). This produced an outcry from her readers, but was apparently very wounding for the author. The publishers could have promoted her books (they're as commercial as Philippa Gregory) in order to make themselves more profit, but they preferred to wield the axe instead. Why? Something is going on in publishing that is very damaging to authors.
One of my friends - with whom I shared an agent for a couple of years - had a couple of successful novels published both here and in America. They are upmarket literary fiction - think Marika Cobbold, and Maggie O'Farrell - but they're also potentially very commercial. She's recently had another baby and has taken a while to finish her third novel, which is a big, glorious account of twenty first century society - a complex Russian style novel with four main characters and narrative threads woven together. Her agent (my ex for good reasons) initially praised the book, then began to make discouraging noises and asked her to rewrite whole sections of it, deleting characters and changing the plot. But the book was complete just as it was. To delete characters and plot-lines would have turned the book into something it was never intended to be. It could never be a commercial pot-boiler romantic saga - there's a lot of stark realism and some challenging situations. To turn the book into what the agent wanted it to be would have maimed it fatally, even if the re-write had been possible.
It's a situation that Costa award-winning Indie author Avril Joy addresses in her new book 'From Writing With Love'. "It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are. I’ve done it. I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent. I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours."
My friend wanted to believe her agent was right and could be relied on - we trust our agents to give us the right career advice, so she believed that the fault was with her and that her book was no good, although her gut feeling was telling her the opposite. It came as a shock to realise that what the agent was really doing was advising her that she could only write for the market - the books she wanted to write, however great a work of art they might be, were just not going to be bought by a publisher. I read the novel to give an objective second opinion. It's a wonderful story, wonderfully written. It deserves to be sold and sold and sold. But her first two novels hadn't sold enough - there was some half-hearted muttering about re-launching her under another name. My friend has lost confidence in her agent, the publishing industry and in herself as a writer, losing sleep and feeling depressed.
|The cartoon says it all - but it's no joke for writers|
Both of them wrote to me asking for advice and there was only one piece of advice I could give - do what the rest of us have done and publish the b***** books yourself. If publishers have lost the plot to the extent that they can't recognise a good book when they see one, then we have to take things into our own hands. What bothers me most is that there are still a lot of writers out there who trust the traditional publishing system absolutely and are having their confidence and even their mental health affected by their treatment in the system. Publishers want the new, the fluffy, the edgy, the quirky, the absolutely marketable, headline in the Mail on Sunday, one hundred percent guaranteed money-spinner. What they do not want is the quietly crafted good read that thousands of their readers enjoy - the mid-list that earned its keep but not the managing director's Bentley. Publishers have share-holders who need to be kept happy in this 'difficult economic climate'. They are no longer there to nurture talent and hold the hands of frail artistic geniuses. And agents are there to feed the hungry maw of the publishing machine with fodder, because they too have mortgages and cars and foreign holidays to pay for.
|E-publishing is only one of several options . . .|
It has never been easier to publish your own book - self-publishing is as old as the book trade itself. S** snobbery! If a book's worth sweating over for years of your life, it's worth publishing - get out there and do it!! It takes a couple of weeks to turn a clean Word document into a published paperback and E-book courtesy of the Demon Amazon. Go on - I dare you .... press the button . . .
Her novel The Sun's Companion is now available in both paperback and E-editions, with 5 star reviews.
Kathleen's acclaimed new biography of the Faber poet Norman Nicholson - The Whispering Poet, is also available on Kindle and in paperback.
Find Kathleen's regular blog 'A Writer's Life' at www.kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com