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.