Fay Weldon: Acclaimed author looks back over changing times in the books industry

Tank traps always stand between the author and his reader, laid by agents, commissioning editors, marketeers and Amazon sales figures

Getting a book published used to be so easy – those were the days! Sherwyn Sexton, the hero of my new novel, Before the War, gets his first book published by marrying a publisher’s ugly daughter since no one else will: a simple ploy which goes on to win him fame and fortune. Things are not so simple now.

Tank traps always stand between the author and his reader, laid by agents, commissioning editors, marketeers, Amazon sales figures, and so on. Life was easier when publishers didn’t ask for a synopsis, but simply read your novel (all of it: they had the time) and made a decision.

My first book, The Fat Woman’s Joke, came out in 1967 and was the novelisation of a TV play, The Fat Woman’s Tale, transmitted by Granada in 1966. Since Granada had just bought up the literary publisher McGibbon & Kee, they published it without delay or demur. It took two male-dominated industries by surprise: TV (brash, brittle and new) and publishing (seen in those days as a venerable gentleman’s profession). What surprised them both was that a work by a woman and about a woman sold not just well, but very well. The play has been long since wiped (tape was expensive and re-usable) but the novel is still in print, and it alarms me because so little in our domestic lives seems to have changed. 

Sherwyn’s first novel – which he thinks is a literary masterpiece – has its title changed and is sold as a thriller. Even 95 or so years ago, gentlemen publishers tended to be high-handed, even punitive, if they were one’s father in law. 

I took my second novel, Down Among the Women, tied up with string in a plastic bag round to MacGibbon & Kee two years later, only to find they had closed down that very week. A helpful girl clearing out the office suggested I try the publisher around the corner, so I went round there and left it at reception. That was on the Monday. Two days later Charles Pick, the big cheese at Heinemann,  rang me up while I was cooking fish fingers for the children and said he was just off to the Bahamas but he had read my novel and would like to publish it. The book is still in print, and was all set to be turned into a Hollywood film in the Seventies, but the director was run over and died on the first day of production. Well, you win some and you lose some.

Sherwyn – a writeaholic like me – gets many of his books made into films, but becomes so identified with his glamorous detective hero Delgado that he begins to behave like him: writers do tend to have split personalities. 

After I’d found an agent, and a good one (the late admirable and legendary Giles Gordon) I stopped signing everything that was put in front of me and became an all-purpose writer – TV, stage plays, radio, journalism, short stories, criticism – before settling down to be a novelist in a rapidly changing publishing industry.

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Fay Weldon suggested authors should tailor their work for Kindle readers

When Sherwyn’s publisher, Jeremy Ripple, dies nobly in the Blitz, saving first editions from the flames, he is unaware of what fate has in store for his gentleman’s profession.

In the last three decades of the 20th century rents rose, publishers moved out of central London, new publishers came and went, historic names amalgamated or went bust, agents became publishers, former publishers became agents. No more handing manuscripts in carrier bags at reception. Synopses were scrutinised; publishers ceased to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Marketing voices drowned literary-minded editors; agents saw a future in  re-writing their clients’ work; university departments of creative writing sprang up. Absurd sums were paid to “name” writers – including me – until in 1999 Amazon came along with its actual sales figures and a bitter sanity was restored for some 10 years; until ebooks arrived and started another revolution. It was of the same order as when Caxton came along and printing took over from manuscripts hand-copied by scribes, and readership went from single digits to thousands. Suddenly, with the internet 500 years later, billions of readers became available. Publishing is still adjusting to the shock, but managing pretty well, considering. 

For me, as for Sherwyn, there were setbacks on the way. I lacked prudence. He was fired by lust: I was fired by indignation. In 1977, I lost the Booker prize to a better but less overtly feminist writer, Penelope Fitzgerald; and in 1983, as chairperson of the judges, I made so aggravating a speech about the bad behaviour of publishers towards writers that a leading publisher – who shall remain nameless – walked over to our table and hit my agent, and I was banned from Booker dinners thereafter. (I’d given the speech to concerned parties to peruse beforehand, but no one actually read it.) Ten years later, trusting they had forgotten all about it, I went along as a guest and the head of the Booker conglomerate himself, the late Michael Harris Caine, came up to me over pre-dinner drinks and said: “It is not by any wish of mine that you are here tonight”.

Then there was the Bulgari episode, when in 2000 I accepted a brief to write a piece of fiction mentioning Bulgari 12 times, to be given away at a formal dinner at Claridges. It ended up as a brief gothic novel, The Bulgari Connection, about the love of expensive jewellery, and the word Bulgari appeared dozens of times. My publisher liked it and published it. We wondered whether to change the name Bulgari to an invented one, but that seemed vaguely dishonest, so we kept it. There was uproar. The first sponsored novel. My name was mud. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece referring to me as “Ms Mud”. On 10 September 2001, I was on CNN and on the 11 September in Time magazine, but that was the day that the twin towers came down. 

And then and then – well, one could go on for ever. Sherwyn Sexton, my hero in Before the War, is somewhat inspired, though not literalistically based on, my uncle, Selwyn Jepson. He wrote thrillers, notably the one Hitchcock filmed as Stage Fright. I come from a family of novelists. My grandfather, Edgar Jepson, a best-selling Edwardian novelist, taught me, my mother Margaret, and my Uncle Selwyn: “Never trust a publisher. They’ll take you out to a good lunch but take it away from your royalties.” So take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I’m a writer of fiction, and a writeaholic.

‘Before the War’ by Fay Weldon is published by Head of Zeus at £18.99

Extract from ‘Before the War’ by Fay Weldon, Head of Zeus, £18.99 

‘It is in pursuit of a husband that Vivvie is going to London this morning. She means to propose to Sherwyn Sexton, an attractive and many say charismatic young man, if NSIT (not safe in taxis), who is in her own father’s employ as an editor at Ripple & Co. In this she is very unwise indeed; she will suffer and be humiliated, but humiliation is her lot in life, as it is for most plain girls, forget one with an awkward nature.’

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