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On understanding your publisher’s speech at a launch party

Recently in these pages, a small number of idealistic authors have been arguing for more honesty and openness from their publishers. The culture of casual, routine deception is harmful, it has been said. There should be a great bonfire of publishers’ lies, after which negotiation and communication between them and us should be conducted in a spirit of frank, open comradeship. What a ghastly mistake these poor, innocent fools are making. The fact is that, while the truth may set us free, it is lies, illusions and fake hope that keeps us going from day to day. The last thing most authors want or need is to be told the truth about their careers. Now and then agents try it, caringly revealing to an author that he or she is simply not producing the kind of stuff which the market requires, but these acts of casual brutality do nothing but...

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On developing your public image

The word from the new editorial regime at The Author is that the team has to buck up its ideas. There’s too much gloom in our pages, for a start. The emphasis from here on is going to swing towards a sunny, positive vibe. Members of the editorial committee have been instructed to answer their telephones with the words, ‘Hi, I’m an author and I’m feeling good today!’ At the last editorial conference, we were each told to come with a ‘reason to be cheerful’ from our own working lives. I mentioned that Bloomsbury had forgotten to send me their usual six-monthly reminder of an unrecovered advance dating from 1996, and just about got away with it. On the other hand, it can sometimes be difficult smiling on through. This month brought news that has confirmed that the show-offs are now officially running the show. The rest of us -...

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On solving the practical problems of an author’s life

For some reason, attending to practical matters seems to bring the more sensitive kind of author out in hives. While the most complex literary conundrum causes him no problem at all, the need to change a light-bulb can bring on an artistic crisis. What does the light bulb feel about this? Won’t changing it alter the balance of illumination throughout the house as a whole? Maybe darkness is precisely what the project needs at this point? For others, the mere sight of a bill can bring on a severe case of writer’s block. Too many of us, it seems, follow the example of Martin Amis who famously confessed – or perhaps that should be ‘boasted’ - that he was physically unable to open a brown envelope and that any which happened to be addressed to him would be passed queasily to his wife. Not every author has such an understanding...

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On being promoted by a pair of underpants

The distinguished author was in a bad mood. He had always been a writer who had presented serious themes with a pronounced comic swing but these days, he said, publishers had decided that it was commercial death to suggest in a blurb that a novel might be humorous. ‘Uplifting’, ‘savage’, heart-breaking’, ‘coruscating’: these were the adjectives which they liked to use. Under pressure, they might just agree to deploy that handily double-faced construction, ‘darkly comic’ but, as a general rule, any book presented with humour was mysteriously diminished in the process. The assumption, complained the author, was that it is not to be taken seriously. I nodded in sympathy but, in a secret corner of my heart, I was with the publisher. What sensible grown-up goes into a bookshop in search of a rib-tickler, a book whose only reason for existence is to whip up those famous gales of laughter?...

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On being a dinner-party novelist

I was in one of those profound creative reveries which take the form of watching in very great detail what is happening on the bird-table outside my office window, when the telephone rang. It was a distant cousin from whom I had not heard for some time and he was wondering whether I could help him with some advice on a writing matter. Here was something of a surprise. A nice enough chap, my cousin is not known for having literary tastes extending beyond the Racing Post, the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review and an occasional Dick Francis. It turned that he was calling on behalf of a friend who was working on a novel. She had a terrific tale to tell, some great characters. At dinner-parties, she would often keep the whole table gripped by stories from the novel. As he spoke, I anticipated the request that would soon be on...

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On the illnesses of authors

Authors in America are facing a new problem. Those who are considering earning their living by trying a different genre - an established thriller writer with an idea for a children’s book, for example - runs the risk of suffering from what publishers now describe as “brand disintegration”. The brand that is their work and image will be eroded and destroyed by any hint of versatility. For a few authors, particularly those whose brand disintegrated years ago, this news is hardly a surprise. The act of writing for publication lays one open to many such everyday occupational diseases. As a medical service to members, a new Endpaper consumer guide covers, in simple layman’s terms, the more common authorial illnesses and complaints. Repetitive Book Syndrome At the opposite end of the diagnostic scale to Brand Disintegration, RBS leads to a compulsion to write virtually the same book year after year. Fortunately...

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On teaching a creative writing course

The literary world can sometimes be surprisingly generous with the little rewards and favours it bestows. Stick around for long enough, be seen at the right festivals and parties, avoid hitting critics or sleeping with the wives of publishers while allowing a dribble of publications to issue forth under your name, and eventually you will be repaid. Years ago, in another lifetime, I published a rather brilliant and affecting first novel called A Touch of the Other. Today its author Clare Morgan is Dr Morgan, course director of a brand new creative writing course that is to be run by Oxford University. Announcing the setting up of a two-year masters degree, Clare told the press that she was currently looking for tutors who would provide multicultural diversity, a range of writerly voices, imaginative engagement, and so on - all of which has conveyed the same message to me. It’s payback time....

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On the unexplained mysteries of the writing life

Some authors believe that the modern publishing world is a cold, mercantile place whose typical inhabitant is a lizard-like character of indeterminate sex, with calculator eyes, a credit card for a heart and an emotional life as carefully controlled and sponsored as a Waterstone’s display window. There may be an element of truth there but, perhaps because the industry still depends upon the fragile talents, and even more fragile temperaments, of writers, not everything that happens there can be explained by a balance sheet. In fact, a powerful element of the unknown, even the magical, continues to run through the everyday business of the book world. These unexplained mysteries of the writing life change and shift over time but continue to impinge spookily upon our lives. Who can tell what strange influences cause them? All we can do is be prepared. Any sales figures mentioned by an editor will be...

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On meeting a grand old bookman

It was a glorious autumn day when I set out from the Endpaper office, strewn with the detritus of the literary life - old copies of theLondon Review of Books, invitations to launch parties, scraps of half-completed poems - and headed southwards towards Sussex. My quest was for nothing less than for a glimpse of the past, an encounter with a legendary figure from publishing’s golden age. I was to meet Sir Julian Farquhar, creator of the famous house of Farquahar and Velch, chairman of the Society of Bookmen 1963-75 and widely regarded as one of the last great publishers of the old school. Books have been good to Sir Julian. Although his family were comfortably off, allowing him to live off a private income while working for Walter Hutchinson in the 1930s, he was later able to acquire an Elizabethan manor to which he retired and where we now...

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On some useful attributes for a writer

There comes a moment when the excitements of buzzing literary gossip become wearisome, and the yearning for golden critical opinions, mind-boggling sales, perhaps the odd little prize, begins to fade. You are a writer. Your basic needs are simple. You want to be left alone to write stories, and then be paid for them by a polite, grateful publisher. Surely that cannot be too much to ask. But it is. A chill wind is blowing down Freelance Avenue, rattling the shutters of all but those who live at the smart of the street. Alternative options have to be considered. So when a tentative enquiry comes in as to whether you would be prepared to write an instructional manual on how to write a novel, you suppress your immediate reaction - a loud, derisive “Hah!” like the Arabella Weir character in The Fast Show - and begin to think about it. Would it...

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