That difficult first novel – tell me about it

Copyright (c)

Still somewhat dizzy from the night ferry twix’d Brittany and Devon – I’ll bore you with snaps in a later post – I’ve been perusing the books section of the Observer Review. The old chestnut of ‘the tricky first novel’ has been placed on the open fire of journalistic regard, and the author of the article, Kate Kellaway, makes some interesting points.

Some of this, of course, we know already. We know that publishers will either pay a first author a sum that reflects the real-world takings of a first novel (rarely more than a few grand, a fraction of the minimum wage when counted) or a stonking sum that reflects outlandish hope and ‘confidence’ that the publisher has bagged an author of golden-egg-shitting proportions. We know that wheelie-bin loads of books are published each year, and publishers have the devil’s own time spotting the one that will make them money.

We know that the emphasis is on ‘placeable’ – a marketing term. As such, it is on speaking terms with literary quality, but frequently makes the beast with two backs with celebrity endorsements (cf. Jordan’s upcoming literary efforts). I once heard Mark Kermode shout at someone that the point of movie trailers is emphatically NOT to advertise the film per se, but to provide enough of the film to convince the sheep-brained viewer that he or she has ALREADY SEEN IT (Mark’s emphasis, though I’ve wiped away the spittle). So, on choosing a film, we think, ‘Ah, that Jarhead film looks almost exactly like Full Metal Jacket, which I saw when I was younger and adventurous, and I’d quite like to see it again, so – one adult please, and mind you liberally drizzle my nachos with that cheese-inspired chemical.’ Placeability is key.

Somewhat typically, Kate Kellaway goes on to talk to several new authors, and rather than highlight (because remember, folks, this will work as a marketing piece) those who take the greatest and bravest risk on first-time authors – i.e. small publishers – she has chosen to highlight two from Faber, two from Doubleday, and one from Harvill Secker (a Random House imprint). No mention was made of, pff, The UKA Press, or The Friday Project, or Long Barn Books. It’s her article, of course, not mine, but I thought this was a shame.

The article finishes with some interesting factoids, compiled by Anny Shaw:

  • Around 70,000 titles are published a year in Britain, of which 6,000 are novels
  • Any large UK publisher will receive 2,000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year
  • The average sale of a hardback book by a first-time writer is 400 copies
  • Many publishers use this rule of thumb to work out advances: they pay 50 per cent of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run
  • According to the latest edition of Private Eye, first novel The Thirteenth Tale by ex-teacher Diane Setterfield (author’s advance £800,000) has sold 13,487 copies to date. Only 516,129 to go and the book’s paid for itself…

To which I can only add: Bloody good for you, Diane. If a publisher has judged her worth to be 800,000 green ones, then let us – gasp – see what she manages to produce over the course of a career, rather than pronouncing our smug judgement on her debut. I only hope she makes it that far.