Staple – Getting In Print – the need, the sweat, and just a little luck

Staple, No. 69/70, Summer/Autumn 2008

Getting in print is damn hard these days, and you’re always going to need a little luck! If you’re not a celebrity – and preferably one that is a chef, model, singer, footballer, media pundit or talent show judge – then chances are you’re going to struggle. And even if you do manage to – to get an agent and convince a publisher to take a punt – you’ve next got to battle it out on the high street, a ruthless place where publishers and retailers increasingly tend to bet on just a few books.

Each store only has so much shelf space, and unless your book is going to be a bestseller it is, quite literally, a waste of space. Added to this, your publisher is not going to throw money at it and invest in a substantial consumer marketing campaign unless it has the full support of the retailers: it makes little sense to invest in media when the book isn’t available anywhere.

Thus, if you’re not already a big name author (someone who’s been churning out the same old stuff for yonks); not a likely top thirty title (your media profile is in the ascendancy because you’ve started fucking someone famous – it all helps, let us not forget!); not one of Richard & Judy’s chosen few (the two of them might as well call themselves ‘God’, they have so much influence on the UK book trade now); and not a recent prize winner (or at the very least a shortlist nominee) – well then, to be honest, you don’t stand much of a chance.

What will happen to your book, then? Well, a few bookshops around the country will each take a couple of copies and plonk them in range (the A-Z part of the store, now always found at the back, a dimly lit place where no one ventures any more – for the modern consumer is only interested in what is front of store, where he or she will find the titles that are hot, in the chart and must-have), and then these few copies will most likely be returned to the publisher a few months later (the business is S.O.R., sale or return), once they have started accumulating dust on the shelf, with a small note from the bookseller to your publisher stating, ‘We tried, sorry,’ or something equally patronising.

I sound jaded, and well, that’s because I am, but not by writing but by the market. The former I care deeply for. Call me an idealist, but I believe in books, their capacity to affect, to inspire, to transform. But I do not believe in the demands of a market which is driven solely by profit and demand, and hence has no place for the difficult, the challenging, the obscure. ‘If this writer will not appeal to the majority of our customers, then there is no place for him or her in our store,’ so goes the logic of the savvy bookseller.

Savvy this might be, but not wise (at least in the metaphysical sense), and hardly conducive to a culturally rich society – there is only so much that the aforementioned celebrity authors can offer us. This is why the many other books, and there are many, though they might only appeal to a small number, a minority, must still be afforded the space in the marketplace and not simply ruled out because they’re not mass market, not going to make a load of moolah.

Faced with such a profit-driven market – obsessed with the wants of the majority, a popular mass that it must perpetually mould, manipulate and cater for – if you’re going to write you’ve got to really want, perhaps really need, to write, and it was when I submitted an early draft of my first novel, Love and Mayhem, to The Literary Consultancy a number of years ago that I realised this.

The reader and editor I was assigned, Ashley Stokes, was tough on my manuscript. In short, he judged it to be painfully austere, self-indulgent, repetitive and verbose, with few commercial prospects – all the hallmarks of a first novel, in fact. I was angry, less with Ashley and more with myself. ‘I am putting in all this damn work, and for what?!’ I asked myself. ‘I have spent years on something which might never see the light of day, and if it does, well it will hardly pay the mortgage. Why should I heed his editorial advice? And why should I work at yet another draft? What’s the point?!’ I was becoming increasingly gloomy and apathetic.

But then it hit me. Because I want and need to write, that is it. And because of this, then surely the best thing I can do is take instruction, learn the craft, graft and sweat at it, and, ultimately, produce good work. If I feel this desire, and it is this demanding, this insistent, then I might as well strive to accommodate it, to fulfill it (I sure as hell can’t ignore it!). For this is what it is about, when it really comes down to it.

Writing is not about possessing a perfect understanding of the marketplace in order that I might pen the definitive mass market paperback (though this would of course be nice); it is not about winning a big literary prize and consequently becoming a ‘great author’ (it was Anne Enright, this year’s winner of the Booker, who remarked, rather wonderfully, on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme that she, or any other writer for that matter, ‘would be mad’ to take any literary award that seriously); and it is not about selling as many books as possible so that I can lead a lavish lifestyle, indulge myself and make it nigh impossible for any of my contemporaries to judge me as anything other than a ‘winner!’ (though I would no doubt revel in it, a little, if I were).

No, rather, it is simply about meeting and honouring this need I have to do it, to write, and finding fulfillment and contentment in this, and if a few people along the way take note and get something from what I’ve written, then all the better.

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