Novels off the shelf

Fledgling authors face a seemingly insurmountable hurdle trying to get published. Developments on the internet mean that this needn't be the case. By Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Culture

What do you do if your brother is behind the Harry Potter bonanza yet you cannot even get your first novel published? That is the dilemma facing David Little, whose older brother, Christopher, is J K Rowling's millionaire literary agent.

Little the younger has penned Stuff, a semi-autobiographical novel about an alcoholic advertising executive who makes George Best's antics look tame. When Dumbledore-lookalike Christopher Little read it, he was encouraging, but ruled himself out as agent, saying that it was all a bit too close to home. There is also the problem that, like other top agents, he finds himself sinking beneath the weight of 60 manuscripts a day.

So Little, like an increasing number of budding novelists, is now trying to outmanoeuvre the publishing industry. In his case, he has garnered skills born from a lifetime in advertising and just launched to convince the faint-hearted that he is sitting on a bestseller. The interactive site contains extracts and invites comments. A few famous pals, such as film producer Lord Birkett, thriller writer A J Quinnell and even Fifi - Bob Geldof's daughter - have been recruited to sing the book's praises online. But Little believes that the site's really innovative feature is that readers can sign up to buy the book, should it hit the printing presses. "If we can get 20,000 people expressing an interest we would have a best-seller automatically," argues the writer who, at 59, is keen to sell more than soap powder.

He is not the only author ditching literary convention to get his work out of the publisher's slush pile and on to the bookshelves. The Rev Graham Taylor, Vicar of St Mary's, Cloughton in Yorkshire near Scarborough, did not even bother to send out manuscripts for Shadowmancer, a children's story of sorcery, intrigue and smuggling starring Obadiah Demurrel, a priest who villainously harnesses the forces of evil. Last October, he sold his motor bike and published the book himself. Critically acclaimed now as "hotter than Potter", he has just sold the North American rights for $500,000 (£298,000).

"A parishioner, Mary Evans, who was secretary many years ago to TS Elliot, edited it for me," recalls Taylor, 43. "I taught myself Quark and typeset it. Another parishioner painted the front cover and a printer in Finland ran off 2,500 copies. I contacted the local paper which ran a piece on it explaining the plot, I persuaded Waterstone's to do a signing and news just spread by word of mouth. It went so well that Waterstone's head office bought 1,500 copies and by the following month Faber and Faber had picked me up."

Taylor was lucky - having worked in the music industry he has broad skills. But he thinks his methods could be used by many authors (although he is careful to add the proviso "as long as the book is good"). He certainly took a quicker route to stardom than if he had taken his place in the publishers' slush piles. "As an author," complains David Little, "you need to have the patience of two saints combined. Don't watch out for the postman and don't expect a compliments slip because the communication is definitely one way only. Compared to the time it takes for anything to happen in the publishing business, an old tortoise on its last legs has Formula One performance. Ecstasy, I suppose, comes in the form of an acceptance slip and that will be from someone you're not likely to have met. Will you get on? Will you have anything in common? Does it matter? Publishing is a quirky business.

"Stuff took nine months to write, which nearly drove my family nuts, and it took nearly as long to be assessed. Then there was another three months of rewriting, when a new 10,000-word chapter formed the epicentre of the book, then it went through the reading and editing process all over again. I wrote this three years ago and it's been ready for nearly two. There must be an easier way to try to make a living."

Ebooks - novels published on the internet for sale - are nothing new. Carole Hayman, for example, initially published her thriller, Hard Choices, last year electronically, after it gained a succession of rave rejections from editors who loved the story but did not think it would make money. However, Stephen King demonstrated the difficulties of the medium when he suspended publishing his novel The Plant by instalments at $1 a time because of too much freeloading.

Little argues that his method - offering only limited extracts and collecting expressions of commitment to buy - is a better way forward. He believes it will create the word of mouth publicity that is key to all sudden publishing success and can convince nervous publishers to overcome their caution about new writers.

The technique is actually quite similar to that used to launch J K Rowling - but using more modern technology. In that case, Christopher Little sold the UK and Commonwealth rights to Bloomsbury for pennies and then refused to discuss selling any other rights until after publication. "It was my idea that we should not do anything else until people had read the book," he explained. "We had to wait two years but it worked. We got the reviews and the word of mouth. We just sat back and waited for the offers to come in." By then he was sitting on a literary gold mine.

David Little, a specialist in direct marketing, believes that pre-publicity on the internet can be particularly useful where there is a potential niche market. His semi-autobiographical work, for example, takes its main character through alcoholism, psychotherapy, bankruptcy, diabetes, cancer and eventual redemption. Totting up his potential readership, Little quotes John Sutherland, author of Last Drink to LA, relishing that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its 10 million members "is bigger than the Freemasons, the Rotarians, the TUC, the White Aryan Resistance, the Samaritans, the KKK, the Women's Institute and - in terms of weekly attendance - the Church of England."

So is this new way of marketing novels before they are ever published likely to catch on? The publisher, John Mitchinson, a director of the Hay Literary Festival, admires the energy of the experiment, though he doubts its long-term impact.

"It is an ingenious idea," he says. "I like the democracy of it and it might work for one or two books. The models of publishing are changing and there are bound to be more innovations like this as the costs of self-publishing and publishing on the internet go down. However, I don't see how it is going to change the process by which an editor will decide whether this book is right, whether it fits his list and will meet his sales targets. Also, although all this pre-marketing is helpful, it does not really do much to reduce the costs of publishing if you are still going to distribute it through the usual channels.

"Maybe David Little is going to find out whether he is better at direct marketing or at writing. Certainly, I think most authors would be better off working on their prose style than on marketing their own book."

Little remains undeterred. "The trouble with the present system is that publishers don't know they have a best-seller until they have got one," he retorts. "Take Harry Potter as an example. They only printed a few hundred hardback copies initially. If they had tested the book on children the way I am doing, they would have known what they had instead of being surprised when it was a hit. You may say that it doesn't matter. Harry Potter was eventually a great success. But I reckon these publishers miss plenty of possible best-sellers. I don't want mine to be one of them."