Not number 41.

I had a very interesting response from an agent today on a book. Now, agents are notorious for form rejection letters and a wall of silence to enquiries, but this one was different and very much a breath of fresh air. I had to prod him via emails a couple of times (one assumes he is a busy man) but he responded, and did at least seem to have read the stuff, which is more than what a lot of other agents appear to do.

It seems the book didn’t grab him. However, as he has only taken on 40 out of the last 4,000 or so submissions, I guess it was always going to be a Himalayan climbing expedition to be #41, and I never was good with heights. He provided quite a detailed response, and a lot of what he said got me thinking. Today in the publishing World it isn’t what the agents really think about a book. It isn’t even what the publishers’ editors think. Actually, its the marketting people. Their say is the final one and is all based on whether a debut novel can, in their opinion, be shovelled through outlets such as WH Smiths, who I expect are quite picky about what they stock. Let’s face it, if I want a wide choice of books, I go to Waterstones or – increasingly these days – Amazon. WH Smiths is much more select.

Of course, the cynic in me asks “What the hell do marketting people know?” Well, what do they know? It is their job after all. They base their projections on what other books did, and I suspect like all other marketing people, they are fairly narrow minded and short sighted. Risks are left to the smaller publishing houses and sometimes even POD, where at times they can do quite well. But marketing, or at least enough money in an advertising campaign, can sell many things. Just look at all the Z-list ‘celebrity’ biographies about. Who buys these? I’ve never seen one being bought at the till or on the shelf in some-one’s home. It is a mystery. Of course, many do not sell well – take that woman from that gardening show for example. But she got her telephone number sized advance so she wasn’t all that bothered.

In a boom you can sell sand to the Arabs and sunbeds to the Africans. In a recession though, I suspect things might change a little. After all, it was the marketing people at Woolworths not too many years ago that said “get rid of the cheap toys and the habadashery. No-one wants that; they want bling and clothes”. Er, actually they wanted the habadashery and cheap toys if the comments I keep hearing on the radio and reading in print are true. The marketing people messed up.

The agent, in fairness, was brutally honest in this respect – it wasn’t really his choice; he had to be submitting the sort of stuff he knew the marketing people would give the okay to. Aparently cyberbunk is considered old hat, so I shouldn’t be mentioning that. That’s what the marketing people would say though, ignoring the record popularity that Philip K. Dick’s books are experiencing, not to mention many of the other Cyberpunk books on the successful SF Masterworks list and others like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Of course, many of those authors made it successful when publishing was different, so in the eyes of the marketeers they’re not “hip and fresh and on the cutting edge” despite them being what people are paying money for. Strangely (or not) Philip K. Dick’s entire back catalogue is available in every branch of Waterstones I’ve looked in, and I’m well travelled around the UK.

For a while I have thought that Print on Demand (POD) was going to be the way of the future, much as downloads changed radically the way much music was bought for the record industry. I’ve already seen a few POD books snapped up by mainstream publishers who had once rejected them, because the sales showed otherwise. My books aren’t mega sellers, but considering they have zero advertising or promotion behind them other than what I do between holding down a real day job, the royalties are keeping me in tins of baked beans. Supermarket ownbrand rather than Heinz, maybe, but beans nonetheless. In time, I suspect that publishing will change again, as POD threatens to dominate the market with successful titles the marketing people said “no” to.

Some of his other points were interesting. He brought up the fact I have a habit of multiple personal viewpoints within a chapter, rather than sticking with one person’s view. If that’s the way to convince the marketing people, I’ll adapt my style. I think also I’ll have to look again critically at my openings. The first few pages must really grab a reader by the short and curlies these days and not let go it seems. To be honest, I can only think of one book which really managed this for me – Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ (Incidentally, this is #22 in the SF Masterworks list mentioned above). Most other ‘classic’ sci-fi novels (and others for that matter) aren’t so addictive you find yourself reading on and on without realising. I never got into ‘Lord of the Rings’ because I found it quite boring and rambly. Aparently it’s a classic; I like the films but I couldn’t watch them over and over again. Similarly, I find many of Terry Pratchett’s early books quite boring and unremarkable. I’ve read them, because you tend to do that after reading the later ones, but I wouldn’t read, say, ‘Colour of magic’ or ‘Strata’ again.

So it’s back to what I was so familiar with through school with my English essays. I wasn’t very good at English, regularly scoring a paltry 40% in my work. “There’s a good imagination at work, but must try harder”. My spelling was dire and my grammer was like pin the tail on the donkey, largely due to being taught to write and spell phonetically in a 1984/5 trendy teaching pilot that didn’t work. I grew to hate the colour red as a result as it became synonimous with the circles and squiggles all over my homework when returned. Can you tell yet that I cannot spell very well? I use a spellchecker on my word processor, but laziness means I cannot be bothered installing one into my internet browser. I’m better than I was, honest.

I have one more attempt at the big time publishing contract to make (I still get annoyed at the one in 2002 that evaporated like pixie dust). ‘Bringing home the stars’ is the short story I have been toying with expanding on for a while. Indeed, ‘The stars came home’ which is part two has been started though I wasn’t totally happy with it. It may yet grow into a short book in much the way that Michael Moorcock expanded ‘Behold the man’ into a short book from the original novella in 1969. Fingers crossed.