Are you going to be OK on the Underground?

In a feisty – nay, combative – piece for the Guardian, the author Anthony Horowitz wrote:

I remember my first meeting at Walker Books. The first question they asked me – and I swear this is true – was what mug would I like my tea in: the one with the teddy bear, the tennis racket or the pink one with the flower? And when I left the building, they asked me if I’d be OK taking the tube on my own. I was 33.

You’d think that was a one-off. A bizarre aberration by some numpty publishers. But it’s not. Any author who’s kicked around in the industry as long as I have done, and who knows as many authors as I do, will be aware that far too many publishers regard authors as something of an annoyance. Yes, they’re needed to produce the books. And yes, they’re needed as a chunk of meat to dangle in front of the media when that book is launched. Aside from that, however, authors are too often regarded as (a) time-consuming, (b) ignorant of the industry, (c) dangerously combustible and therefore, (d), to be handled as you might handle a bagful of gelignite. Delicately. And from a distance.

If you think I’m kidding, then explain to me why the senior Curtis Brown literary agent, Jonny Geller, should feel impelled to write for the Bookseller as follows:

Here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain—an Agent’s Manifesto, as it were, to All Those in the Business of Publishing Books on Behalf of the Author:

The author is the expert. Why assume that the one person who has spent the past 12-18 months on the subject, the story and the world of their work, knows least about how they should be represented to the trade and to the reader?

The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication. If they have a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.

The author loves bookshops. Bookshops need to learn how to love authors again. We need to bring them back together.

We publishing professionals are the ones who bear the risk—agents with time; publishers with investment; retailers with space. Authors risk only their whole life, self-esteem and their babies.

Publishers need to understand that “Author Care” is not a euphemism for “Care in the Community”. Authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like an adult will experience a phenomenon called Trust. Trust breeds loyalty; loyalty means longevity; longevity means sales.

Authors will endeavour to understand better what a publisher does—e-books are not created after two minutes of scanning and ticking a series of boxes on Amazon’s self-publishing program.

Of those points, it’s only the last I have any quibble with. Yes, of course authors need to understand the publishing process as well as they possibly can. But – um – doesn’t that mean publishers (ie: the guys who know about that process) should educate authors?

If I ran a publishing company, I’d do that very directly. Once every month or two, I’d set aside a day in which newbie authors (or those wanting to update their knowledge) could come and meet my staff and be tutored through the whole damn show. I’d make it clear where authors could really, really add value and where their interference would be annoying & useless. I’d also explain some basic commercial mathematics. Why your new literary novel is not going to get heavily advertised with poster campaigns in town centres. Why your book may not get reviewed.

Some of those facts will be gnarly and depressing. But authors are human. Intelligent ones who know they’ve launched on a tough career. Who, as self-employed small businesspeople, will be willing to work their knackers off to make things work.

Oh, and if I were a publisher, I wouldn’t have mugs-with-kittens. I’d have mugs with dollar signs. Mugs with skulls. Mugs with gold on one side, tin on the other.

And I wouldn’t ask an author if they were safe to use the Underground.

(PS: Do check out the first comment below. It’s well worth the read.)

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  • Anonymous

    I’m keeping this anonymous because this so resonates with me. I’ve published a bunch of books over the past ten years, and as good as my publishers have been to me, there are other times when I feel like I’m going to bust a blood vessel.

    I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to having a drink, but I remember clearly first meeting my editor a few months after receiving my first book deal. He said of an evening at some writerly bash I had travelled to from the North that they should get me down to London some time to ‘do a signing in [name of well-known bookshop]’.

    I was a bit taken aback, because I’d tried to educate myself in at least a few of the ways of publishing. I knew there was no point in going to London as an unknown, first-time author, with a reasonable but far from outstanding first deal, to do a signing for a putative audience who had no idea who the hell I was, in a city where you could toss a coin and it had a decent chance of landing in someone’s book launch. It wasn’t like they were paying me huge amounts of money (I wish) and wanted to get some publicity going; far, far from it.

    Now, I’m kind of rubbish at telling when somebody’s had a bit too much to drink because I don’t really drink that much myself. But maybe, I thought, the editor knew something I didn’t. Otherwise why would he, with a number of seriously well-known writers on his imprint, suggest I come down for a signing?

    The next day I approached him to ask if he’d been serious. Perhaps he misheard my question. Perhaps – or even very likely – he didn’t remember what he had said the night before. He gave those at the table where he sat a look of ‘here we go *again*’, and proceeded to talk down to me as if I were a child, explaining to me that it really wasn’t worth all the bother of having me come all the way down to London from the north.

    It was a humiliating and embarrassing experience. I stuttered that I was aware there wasn’t much point, given what I already knew. I was just a bit surprised, I said, that he would suggest it given that.

    But he wasn’t even listening that closely. Personally, when I deal with people I’m doing business with, I don’t get roaring drunk. It’s business, however convivial the surroundings or company might be.

    After he retired, I met his replacement at a lunch for myself and some other writers. The editor was very chummy with one or two of the London-based authors there. So much so the editor proceeded to literally ignore not only myself, but also another author who had travelled down from the North. They kept their eyes fixed firmly on an acquaintance of the opposite sex with whom they were clearly too busy flirting to have one damn word to say to us.

    I afterwards spoke to the other author who had been ignored in this fashion and he was almost literally spitting with fury. Once again, editor fail. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. But articles such as this make me think otherwise.