"...1989. I'm a 23-year-old war photographer... [all the men] are given solo exhibits. I share mine with another female on the slate that year, Alexandra Avakian. Ours is called "Les Deux Femmes Sur le Front," which translates as "The Two Women on the Front Lines." Of the twenty-six photographers featured in that first festival, we are the sole women.
... I sell my first book to Random House, a memoir of my years as a war photographer ... under the title Newswhore, which is the insult often lobbed at us both externally and from within our own ranks—a way of noting, with a combination of shame and black humor, the vulture-like nature of our livelihood, and a means of reclaiming, as I see it, the word "whore," since I want to write about sexual and gender politics as well. Random House changes the book's title to Shutterbabe ... I'm told I have no say in the matter. The cover that the publisher designs has a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. I tell them it's usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina. I fight—hard—to change the cover. Thankfully, I win this one, agreeing to shoot the cover photo myself, gratis. When my publicist tries to pitch the book to NPR's Terry Gross, a producer tells him that Terry likes the "Shutter" part of the title but not the "babe" part."
My book is a bestseller, gets taught in journalism schools... I write to the publications who called me a slutty Barbie stay-at-home mom and/or an insult to feminism, not to ask for a public retraction, but to request privately—privately! I don't want to get smeared—that they carefully reconsider how they're reviewing women. "Would you call a male author a stay-at-home dad?" I ask, among other rhetorical questions.
... I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it.
- she's long-term optimistic about prospects for authors and
therefore agents. It's just going to be a very bumpy three or so
years till we get there.
- more people are reading more books than ever before, partly thanks to digital; about 50% of books bought are now e-books. There are loads of good writers, and loads of keen readers who can get their hands on the books more easily than ever; it’s the joint between them which is in the process of being radically re-built.
- you have to ignore phenomena like 50 Shades, in looking at what's happening to the industry. Such phenomena will go on happening, perhaps more often, because the digital world means more people will hear about such things, and get hold of them from curiosity. But they're nothing to do with the normal business of writing, selling and buying normal books; so not a useful model of how any of our writing futures might be hoped for. (I'd suggest that if you do look to such a model, it's like trying to understand how everyday weather works in England by studying hurricanes)
- because of digital, the idea of the publishing
firm is going to have to be re-invented: less about
physical books on physical bookshop shelves, more about becoming
an imprimateur of good reading - helping/guiding readers to find
what they want - good books by good writers - without struggling
through the vast soup of self-published stuff. There's no obvious
model for this: publishers are having to work it out as they go
along and it will be bumpy while they do.
- as part of that, Amazon want writers as their customers for self-publishing, making direct money out of writers, and eliminating the pesky publisher who has opinions about discounts and commissions: have you noticed how much Amazon play down who the publisher of a book is? You really have to look. Divide and rule, in other words. This is not necessarily in the writer's best interests, (any more, it seems to me, than it's in a farmer's best interests to have only one major way of selling their produce.) Nor is it necessarily in the writer's best interests, even if they make more per book, to be part of the undifferentiated self-published digital soup, compared to having a professional publisher backing their book with that imprimateur of quality, as well as expert time and hard cash. The self-publishing that does well is the hard-core commercial genre publishing, where readers are looking for a book which just does exactly what it says on the tin, and will buy it as long as they see a highly recognisable tin, without being too fussed about the quality provided it delivers the expected satisfactions for that genre.
- the UK trade is in a DIRE state just now this minute, which is why publishers are being so super-picky, and why advances are so low. But that's largely thanks to Waterstones' huge difficulties, meaning books don't get in front of buyers: local difficulty, not the death-knell of the market for books and reading in the world. Local difficulties incl. the disastrous distribution Hub which duplicates what efficient publishers' warehouses do; being pushed into going with the Kindle tho' the whole trade knew they should go with the Nook. (Talking of Waterstones, an agent who'd better be nameless told me about a client of his who'd better be even more nameless - author with track record, and some form tho' not a mega-seller, and for the next novel, Waterstones, for the entire chain, took sixteen copies... And a crime-writer friend kicking off a new series, again a known tho' not huge name, found that W'stones took no copies at all...)
- but UK independent publishing (as in independent publishers, not, of course, a euphemism for self-publishing) is bouyant and increasingly high profile, from say Serpents' Tail right down to the titchy Tindal St... though hampered by the Waterstones problem
- the US is much more bouyant, not having a Waterstones problem, but is increasingly pushing for worldwide rights. Australia is likely to stop being part of Commonwealth rights soon - and so international appeal will be ever more important if you want to get a publishing deal
- her job as an agent has changed very much, from basically being concerned with getting good advances (obviously she is, still, if they're to be had), to keeping all her authors surviving professionally by hook or by crook - in the swim and up to date and not forgotten about - while this turmoil in the industry works its way through, and we all find out how it's going to work in the future. (something always to ask an agent who's talking about taking you on: "Are you taking on this book, or are you taking on this writer?")
- she is spending more time than ever in the US, seeing
everyone and keeping up with what they're looking for, because
that's where there are still decent deals to be done
(Another thing this is perhaps something to talk about to a
possible agent: how they handle US rights.)
- she genuinely thinks the prospects for authors are good in the long term, if we can just stay in business while it all shakes out.
And, yes, in moving on to talk about my own WIP, the fact that publishers are being so cautious came into it, in specifics about what the novel still needs...
The Author’s Lament
I wished I were an author and could write the whole day through;
I wrote and worked and subbed and wept, and followed every clue
to find myself a publisher who’d offer an advance,
so I could bin my office suit and write my way to France.
I longed to be a writer who could see her books on shelves,
in newspapers and library stacks and Waterstones as well.
I dreamt of readers emailing ’cos they just had to say,
my book had made them cry or laugh while on the bus today.
I joined a writers’ circle and I found an online friend;
I started to fail better and got strength to try again.
I learnt my craft and lost my shame and thereby found my art;
I practised sentence structure and I plumbed the human heart.
I wrote another novel and I took another class,
and some of those rejection slips regretted saying ‘Pass’.
And then one day an agent rang and said he loved my book:
he thought that he could sell it, if I’d please have one more look
at Chapter Three and Chapter Ten and just one awkward bit:
it’s where my finest writing is, but doesn’t really fit.
And then he waved his fairy dust and got a two-book deal;
I signed the line for both books at the poshest retaurant meal.
And now I am an author, and could write the whole day through,
except that I can’t find the words to write down for Book Two.
And then there’s all the manuscripts I work on to survive,
and all the students that I teach: their homework’s just arrived.
I’ve binned my office suit it’s true, and prob’ly just as well;
The house is ice, the heating bills seem forwarded from Hell.
Book Two is due tomorrow for I said a year was fine,
though One took half a decade… but my writing’s not just mine:
these days I have to write for editors and other folk,
and sometimes when I lie awake I wonder at the joke.
For readers write, and journos write, and bloggers comment too,
and I write cheques and long reports, ’cos writing’s what I do:
my job is bending words to serve their purpose and my will,
and only sometimes do I wish I dreamt the old dream still.
On good days now my dreams are new, of stories yet untold,
of characters so strange or good, of wickedness, of gold,
of treachery and comedy and love in all its glory,
and those are what will bend my words and make me tell my story.
And it’s these dreams that tax-demands and paycuts cannot steal,
and these the only dreams that I’ve full power to make real.
A while ago a US writer said that if you allow any thought of the market to affect your writing, then you're not a writer, you're a whore (and the comment made me so cross that I'm not going to try to find dates or names). And now I see that my post The Market for Ropes has been picked up as expressing my strong views about writing for the market. Well, I do have strong views about lots of things, but that wasn't quite what I was getting at in that post. What I was trying to express there was that thinking about product, at the wrong moment in your practice, really screws up your writerly horse sense, your intuition, your instincts about what your writing needs and how it works.
But it's true that whether you should write for the market is a hardy perennial of most writers' talk. That US novelist, who'd better stay nameless otherwise I'll want to make a wax figure to stick pins into, is talking bunk. Because the market really doesn't have horns and a tail, still less fishnets and a basque: the market is another word for readers. Who else are we writing for? If we were really writing 'for ourselves' then we wouldn't go through the pressures and tediums and panics of getting published: we'd be quite happy sitting at home, scribbling away, and then stashing the notebooks under the bed: it wouldn't even matter if no one could read your writing. Yes, the writing process is actually a constantly revolving writing-reading-writing-reading cycle - we are our own first reader - but storytelling is fundamentally a communicative act. It needs a teller with a story but also an audience, and, to date, the only way to get lots of people to hear your story (and to feed and clothe yourself while you write the next one) is to put your words out into the market, which for better or worse is only the size it is because it can pay people to write, publish, print and sell books as a day job. (And no, sorry, giving away work on the internet is not the answer. What am I supposed to live on while I'm writing?)
What the art Calvinists don't acknowledge is that as soon as you clothe the ideas in your mind in words, and put them on paper so that others can read them, you're actually writing for a market: you're playing by a set of highly sophisticated, extremely evolved conventions about how storytelling works in our culture. In placing so much as a comma, let alone in describing a character, we're taking account of how readers read commas and characters: how they will affect their experience of the story. On the larger scale we use conventions of plot, ideas and prose as a carrier signal for what we're trying to say. And for a carrier signal to work, we have to know what equipment will be receiving it at the other end: who our readers are.
On the other hand, it's perfectly true that we all know the kind of routine rom com or spaceshipiana or plotless, overwritten faux-lit, which has been written to tick exactly the right market boxes, (it seems - you can never be sure of any writer's real intentions, but then neither can the writer) and for no other reason. Usually they're me-too versions of books which did do something new and interesting in either plot, ideas or prose, however dire the other elements - fourth-rank Bridget Jones, fifth-generation Dune, wannabe Roth. So it's no wonder that most of us, who live and breathe the breathtaking ideas, strange new worlds and new-minted words of good fiction, recoil in honest horror (or unappealing but headline-grabbing snobbery) from the notion that we should be ticking boxes. We will write for ourselves, and no one else! Fine, but don't blame me if no one else wants to read it: why should I want to read what you've written, if you've taken no account of me in writing it? All writers are egocentric, by definition, but some are positively narcissistic.
One problem, of course, is that while we writers have 120,000 full-frequency words with which to tell our stories to readers, the feedback from readers to writers is pretty crackly: narrow in dynamic range and full of static. Reviews don't help much and talk of 'the market' is often hugely over-simplified. It's partly so because the book trade is always desperately trying to get some working definitions - aka labels - stuck on who buys what, so that tight budgets and overworked marketing assistants can be best deployed in persuading them to buy more of it. And editors and therefore agents who take this stuff on board too simplistically are not good or fruitful to work with. And it's partly because, actually, there's not a reader in the land who doesn't fit some stereotypes of their age/gender/income/class/domicile, and utterly escape others. Of all the extremely satisfactory number of thousands of people who bought A Secret Alchemy in its bestselling week, I don't suppose a single one had exactly the same reaction as a single other one. There's nowt so queer as folk. So what do we do with anything we know about 'the market', or are told by our agent, or are shocked to find on a forum, or stumble on when guiltly sneaking a peek at The Ropeseller? We don't want to churn out little boxes full of ticky-tacky, but we do want to know what the best carrier signals will be for what we want to say. And we would quite like to sell more books - i.e. have more readers...
I think you just have to treat information about the market with as much open-minded scepticism as anything else which might go into your work. Jessica Ruston nailed it very nicely for me the other day on a forum debate: ideas for your writing come from everywhere, she said, and there's nothing different about one which comes from The Ropeseller. The mistake is when you let the conviction that it's the key to a fortune, or the work of the devil, overrule your ordinary writer's instincts about what this book needs now. A love-triangle from Shakespeare, something your teenager says about girls, the news that readers love books set in India, a profound thought about revenge while you're hanging up the wash, the news that Bridget Jones is now putting the toddler's name down for secondary school... Some of these go into the queue for the pot of the work in progress, others into the bin, some into the Tupperware box in the fridge labelled 'the next novel'. It's your cook's common sense which decides, tastes, chops, fries and transforms. The result will be full of flavours people know and - with luck - love. But it'll be your dish, and no one else's.