Friday, 19 February 2010

RISKY WRITING AND THE MODERN WORLD

In difficult economic times, sensible people think more carefully about risk. Sensible publishers are more cautious about flinging their money around; sensible writers take more care to make sure their book is as good as it can possibly be before they send it out.

Going, going, gone are the days when an agent or editor drooled over raw talent and positively ached to spend eleventymillion hours honing that talent into a publishable book. Welcome to the modern world.

Did I say modern? I'm reading the US ultra-mega-seller Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann at the moment. I know, bit late, but I wasn't allowed to read it as a teenager - actually, "they" made sure I never heard of it - and I had to wait till I was 48 before I dared. The main character's man of the moment - I'm only halfway through and God knows how many more men there'll be; or women - is writing a book, which he is desperate to publish.

Bearing in mind that Valley of the Dolls was published in 1966, I thought you might like these snippets from it:
"Right now, I'm not sure if I can write. I'm not sure the book will even be good. At this very moment there must be half a million ex-GIs sitting at type-writers and hammering out personal versions of Normandy, Okinawa or the London Blitz. And each of us - we really have something to say. It's just a matter of who says it first - and who says it best."   ...
"Lyon ... after the book is finished, will you marry me?"
"I shall be delighted to - if the book turns out to be a good one."
She was silent for a moment. "But you said yourself ... even a good book doesn't always make money."
And then in a scene a little later, Anne is talking to a friend, Jennifer, about the fact that Lyon has finished his book. (That was quick...). Jennfier says:
 "Wonderful! Now you can get married!"
Anne laughed. "It's not that simple. First it has to be accepted by a publisher. He gave it to Bess Wilson - she's a very important literary agent. If she likes it and agrees to handle it, he's halfway home. A publisher will automatically read a manuscript with more interest if he gets it from Bess Wilson."
So, it was never easy, and agents were always important, and writers still sruggled. Even good books didn't necessarily make money. 

Oh, by the way, Lyon gives Anne up for the sake of his writing. He takes her type-writer and disappears to the North of England - as in England, UK, not New England. Crikey, isn't that where Jane Smith lives? - and plans to write, because, "If I want to write, there's only one thing to do - write."

Yep. That hasn't changed either.

Oh, and he plans to marry "the first plump English girl who will cook and tend for me." Typical bloody man.

Anyway, back to the thing about risks and the real modern world, the one with a recession and all sorts of horrible threats to books. I was reminded of all this by this excellent post on whether children's editors are taking risks any more, from the Kidlit people. I think it nicely explains the situation. And don't think this only works for children's publishing. It applies to all genres.

It shouldn't depress you but it should goad you to better and better. There's no room for laziness or second-best if you want readers.

And as for plump English (or even British, as some of us prefer to be called, in case we might actually be Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish) girls to cook and clean for you, fugeddit. Atcha with my pointy shoes.

28 comments:

Helena Halme said...

Such a sensible post, yet today I'm not feeling sensible at all. What's new.

Re the plump British (see how I avoided the English/Welsh/Scottish problem there?)girl for feeding and tending. What are your views on how easily women versus men get published? There was an interesting leader in Mslexia about it last month. Before reading this, it hadn't even occurred to me that men might have it easier.

Helena xx

Old Kitty said...

Hi Nicola

The link to the "excellent post" you refer to is broken?

It's just that I was so getting into the article and then, oopsie.

Thanks!!

x

Nicola Morgan said...

Old Kitty - thanks! Done it now. Not sure what happened.

Helena - take a look at the comments beneath the previous blog post. the discussion got quite interesting!

Floot said...

"And as for plump English (or even British, as some of us prefer to be called, in case we might actually be Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish) girls to cook and clean for you, fugeddit. Atcha with my pointy shoes."

*much laughter*

I still had problems with the link - you seem to have two urls. I got to the kidlit article by clicking on the last 't' of the link! :)

Was worth persevering though, helpful and to-the-point post.

Sulci Collective said...

The clarion call/reminder for making the work as high standard as possible can never be restated enough times.

As to the risk factor, well some of us are just perverse and relish the challenge of pushing the envelope, er tilting at windmills, um pushing at a locked door and other such cliches that need to be rendered into the 'exception that disproves the rule'

Timely as ever.

Thanks

Marc Nash

Sally Zigmond said...

Thanks, Floot, for the hint on how to get the link to work.

Like in all things, there seems to be this myth that there was a Golden Age when it was 'easy' to be published, like other such ages when your children did as they were told and we were all poor but happy.

And I suggest that guy in question doesn't come to this part of Yorkshire (rather than the softy southern bit Jane lives in) he'd soon be sent packing. Women rule up here.

Ann said...

I was unable to get to the excellent post you refer to. Still I found your post very interesting. Thanks

catdownunder said...

Not sure whether my tail is drooping or whether it is curled up just far enough to avoid the ground...hmmm it might be the latter even after the KidLit post. I never did get to Valley of the Dolls but I can remember the fuss about it. Should there have been a fuss about it?

GalaktioNova said...

Ah, thank you so much! This is what I secretly hoped to hear.:-)))) Your blog is a true source of encouragement, thank you so much!

David Griffin said...

Thought-provoking post, Nicola.

Here are some of them (thoughts, I mean!): So it was always difficult to be published; now it's even more difficult. The stakes are high; the rewards, for the majority of published writers, relatively low. One has to get a novel as "perfect" as can be, for the days are gone when an author can expect major rewriting by any editor. Even considering a first published book, a quote by Martin Myers springs to mind: "First you're an unknown, then you write one book and you move up to obscurity."

No-one said writing was easy, I guess. And even if, for some people, it's not that difficult, there's still the agents and/or publishers on the other side of a seemingly impenetrable wall.

But for those of us who are unpublished, (as well as published writers), I guess love of writing and wanting to give "readerly pleasure" drives us to continue to hammer at that wall.

Avoiding risky writing almost implies avoiding anything other than "commercial" at the moment, although that leads us into foggy territory concerning what a commercial novel really is.

OK, I'm off now to demand that my wife leaves the washing machine's next load, after the hoovering is done, so that she can cook a three course meal for me... ;-)

:-)

Dan Holloway said...

I'm with Marc on this (funny, for two people with so much in common, we rarely agree on minutiae) - if you are going for a publisher what you have to do more than ever is hand it to them on a plate. Show them the market, show them there's little to be done to polish up; show them - well, like they said in Jerry McGuire.

Sadly, the (absolutely correct) caution that big business always shows in recessions (and publishing is no different from any other business) is one of the things that hamstrings it and means that IF some other external comes along they are ill-placed to adapt (I promise I won't say "AOL Time Warner" again, but seriously, anyone who answers "who?what?" needs to read a business history book).

Publishers are not well placed to "dip their toe in speculatively" and if there were no water into which to dip their toes that would be fine - sadly for them there's a whole Great Lake system going on out there with tech and underground culture, and their response is all it can be - hive off a tiny wing, call it an "indie-esque micro house" and do what they can with it using basically the same philosophy as their parent company has. Imagine what google would be doing - they'd take their 1000 brightest and most idea-laden, slosh them a slush fund and say go play and hope 10 or so hit paydirt. Publishers just can't do that.

Which means that new, small, flexible, experimenty, unhidebound operations will. They're the literary equivalent of hedge funds only with the malignity largely removed and only the exciting stuff left - most of them will fail and disappear before anyone's heard of them. A tiny few won't, and they'll get so huge with the literary equivalent of the hedge funds' whacking leverage that people will wonder where the heck they came from, and the CEO of Time Warner, er I mean Harper Collins, will still be wondering as she signs over the deeds to a company with no history and a hundredth the personnel.

There are more than justtwo ways of approaching getting your work in print (trad published/self-published). there are two different worlds of business model, and I really don't know there's a lot publishers can do about it - other than fragment themselves and start thinking small, before the mergers and acquisitions people move in and do it for them.

Jemi Fraser said...

I haven't read Valley of the Dolls either - same reasons :) One of these days...

Samantha Tonge said...

I've written a risky chick lit book (half of it is set in Ancient Egypt) - one top agent was complimentary and said she'd like to see more of my writing if i ever wrote anything less risky, times being hard bla bla.

It is frustrating.

I doubt it's ever been easy to get something published, though, that is a bit different. I just think it always boils down to the writing. Clearly mine isn't good enough yet.

DanielB said...

Great link... and it all makes sense. Seems to match what my agent is saying.

And men have it "easier"? Ugh! I can feel myself *bristling* with rage already. I'm off to read that Mslexia leader!!

Old Kitty said...

Thanks for fixing the link, Nicola.

I'm sort of heartened yet kind of saddened too reading the Kidlit link and your post. It's like the "good ol days" when an editor spots a raw talent and nurtures it lovingly are now well and truly over. The talent has to be perfected elsewhere before even considering any sort of submission especially in these lean mean times.

Then again maybe this should be a wake up call to aim for perfection and nothing less! No more "Don't let's ask for the moon, we have the stars".

I think it's aim for the Moon time.

:-)

Take care
x

Emma Darwin said...

As I recall, Jacqueline Susann knew a thing or two about the difficulty of your work heard.

I've been reading Arnold Bennett's The Truth about An Author and laughing hard, in a rueful sort of way... It was like that in 1925, too and if you tweaked the style, it could have been written in the last decade.

Emma
Emma

Theresa Milstein said...

As I was reading it, I was thinking of Mary's post at KidLit, and then you linked it. With the economy and the world of publishing on shaky ground, it seems like it's harder than ever for new writers to break in.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat - re Valley of Dolls - well, I can see why there was a fuss made about it, because of the content, not because it's amazingly well-written (I guess even in those days a bit of shocking content could win over writing ability). It's a rattling good yarn, though, very readable, and very much with its own voice. I'm enjoying it and enjoying noticing rules that are broken, POV switches, etc. It's not high-art, but it's enjoyable and engaging.

Galaktionova - thank you!

david - I think that the risk is mostly relating to publishers taking a risk by taking a book which is so raw that it may not be possible to get it sorted. Sometimes a writer can seem potentially amazing but then fail to get to grips with what's necessary.

Until recently, my agent would be able to sell my next book based on the idea and a couple of chapters - now an editor would need to see it finished.

Dan - I know what you're saying but I think that you're in danger of a) being too simplistic and b) confirmation bias. Your views are quite legitimate but fail to recognise a) the great variety of types and styles of trad publisher and b) the likelihood that they will actually adapt to changing circs, even if later than they sometimes should. Writers generally want and need to spend their time writing, which is why they will continue very often to choose to sell rights to publishers in return for the publisher doing everything apart from the writing.

Let me give you a real example: I've just been offered a non-fiction book deal, without my agent (but with her blessing). Now, it would be very easy for me to self-publish this particular book: I have a route to market, a platform, and I know what I'd need to outsource. I'd make much more money. BUt I have chosen to accept a deal which gives me a small % of the book's earnings. Why? Because i want to write. And talk, yes, and even shout. But I do not want to administer, distribute and sell. Or even think about it. No self-publishing package can be trusted to do it for me. Why? Because they would take my money and not care how many books were sold. Whereas my publisher will. Because that's the only way they'll recoup their money.

It's their risk, financially. My risk is emotional. I utterly respect your views and your determination, and that of Marc, of course - but I think you over-simplify the respective benefits / disadvantages of the two systems. I never denigrate the art of self-publishing but far too much is claimed for it by people who just can't write well enough to be published. You and Marc are very notable exceptions to that and I have massive respect.

Nicola Morgan said...

DanielB - I haven't read that article and I would also be pretty angry at a "men have it easier" or "women have it easier" jibe. A man once said to me, "Of course, it's easy for you: you're an attractive woman" (yeah, he was probably after something and definitely lying...) and that really annoyed me. On the other hand, I remember chairing a Soc of Authors in Scotland AGM and saying, in answer to someone's point, that I didn't see that our industry was particularly sexist, and got a frisson of grumbling from some in the audience. BUt I really do believe that the writing world is less gender-biased overall than others, either one way or the other. There are aspects and situations where women may be luckier and vice-versa, and occasionally there is encouragement to change one's name to the other gender for usually spurious marketing reasons, but generally I think we're usually treated pretty equally (granted that we'll snipe at each other sometimes). Of course if you're vehemently against that view, you'll find plenty of examples of bias, but each side could find equal examples, which i think proves my point.

ANYWAY, how did we get onto gender??!! Actually, I'm going to do a post about age bias very soon, in response to comments after the last post, about middle-aged heroines.

Samantha - yes, it boils down to the writing, but it also boils down to the idea. At various ppints along the process, people have to sell your idea, without having read your writing...

Colette said...

I was never allowed to read that book either -- I just might have to now! And for the record, girls from New England (in the US) will not be slaves to their men either!

Akasha Savage. said...

Mmmm... that post certain made me think. I am on the final draft of my first novel and am trying to make it as polished as I can. Going back to Helen Halme's comment, right at the very top: what are your views about women vs men getting their work published. I actually write horror, and I'm a little bit weary of the fact that this genre is mainly a male dominated one. Do you think this will impede my chances of getting published even further?

Glynis said...

I had forgotten about Valley of the Dolls, I must read it now I am over 50. I am sure mother will deem that old enough. LOL
This English (Essex) girl, and her DH now share all chores, no rest for him while I am writing. Gosh do men really get it easier? Mmmm what's new? LOL

DanielB said...

I can't find that precise Mslexia leader which Helena referred to (I don't think it is online) but the magazine defines its own title as:

"a difficulty, more prevalent in women, with getting into print. Mslexia is the complex set of conditions and expectations that prevents women, who as girls so outshine boys in verbal skills, from becoming successful authors."

I'm not sure what the proof is for this claim. But it looks a very well-produced and interesting magazine despite this somewhat chip-on-the-shoulder manifesto.

I agree with Nicola - the publishing world doesn't seem especially sexist, particularly when compared to other industries.

I think this came about because of the "plump English girl for feeding and tending"! I must say, I don't know many male (or female) authors in this situation... most writers have a partner who works at least part-time to supplement their meagre income, and feeding and tending are done on a mutual basis!

David Griffin said...

> "...and feeding and tending are done on a mutual basis!"

Here, here!

(Thought I'd better write that, in case anyone thought that in the last sentence of my comment, I was being serious! :-)

Anonymous said...

Good post, but you'd best not call Northern Irish girls 'British' because they are not. Northern Ireland is part of the UK but not part of Great Britain. Not being pedantic, just geographic/politic.

Bernardine Kennedy said...

I loved Valley of the Dolls when it came out and then re-read it a couple of years ago. Fascinating experience as I rarely re-read books but the time-gap was plenty big enough. (cough)
The book held up well and we still all speak about it but most fascinating, now I am an author myself, is how she went Jacqueline Susan went about 'making a best-seller'. Would it work now? Hmmmmmm.

Bernardine Kennedy said...

apologies for the poor editing of my comment.
don't you just hate it when that happens?

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, yes, I need to flesh things out a lot more I know (and I have done elsewhere - I feel anothr blog post brewing - you seem to be my muse!). I'm not sure I see self-publishing authors as the ones who'll get very rich - I certainly don't see Marc and I buying up Harper Collins. I guess I have similar worries when people say it won't happen to publishing that others have when I say it will - any business that says "ah, it happened in that business, but it won't happen in mine for x,y, and z reason" worries me. The fact is it DID happen with communications, and I'm not sure publishing is hugely different - although I'm happy to be proven wrong. I certainly take the point there';s a huge variety in traditional publishing, and the smaller, more focused, more outsourced, more specialist the outfit, the more I see it able to weather and even flourish. But I DO see new companies emerging, whose CEOs will be college kids - and like communications I think the coalface is in delivery - it will be people who rethink getting books to readers, and develop the means to enable that, who will get very rich (that may be something as simple as a "killer app" or it maybe someone who rethinks the espresso machine to make it less bulky, but most likely it will be someone who does something we haven't thought of). But there will be a second stream, and a third, consisting of content producers and their managers, who team themselves with the new delivery systems at the right moment.

Like I say I may be very wrong, but it's my intuition that when someone invents a small machine at music venues that, for the sake of argument, takes your old, unwanted book, pulps it, and prints out a new one the other end you do want, they WON'T go running to Harper Collins and Hachette for content - they will want to cowdsource, or to work with cutting edge authors - maybe mainstream authors, but direct with them, not publishers. Book View Cafe are already edging perilously close - and people really aren't looking carefully enough at what they're doing. They may not be ideological warriors in the way that some are, but they are paving a way.