When flattery and flowers are no longer enough

LAST WEEK a respected senior book publisher offered pounds 150,000 for a novel, sight unseen, written 10 years ago by a man who was then in his early twenties. The author had abandoned his juvenile literary efforts, gone into TV, and, in the way of things, had become a personality. Then one day, he remembered that he had a nice little earner in his bottom drawer.

Sight unseen? That, in publishing-speak, means that the publisher had offered for a novel without having read a single word of it. Presumably the agent knew that, quite often these days, the words on the page are least important part of the book product. Profile is the thing. By now, the pounds 150,000 may well have been judged a paltry under-estimate, and another senior, respected publisher will have doubled it. Virtually no folly will surprise those who know the strange, chippy world of books.

Edgily aware that it is less glittery than TV or film, less moneyed than advertising, less brash than journalism - and less youthful than any of them - book publishing has an inbuilt inferiority complex. When someone from a glitzier neighbourhood in Media Village decides to write a book, publishers get terribly excited and throw money at him in the hope that a touch of tinsel will make their books less book-like. Within the breast of the most earnest editor beats the heart of a frustrated vulgarian.

Some see this trend as the death of serious publishing. They see a direct connection, for example, between the pounds 600,000 paid to Amy Jenkins, the creator of the TV series This Life, on the strength of a few thousand words of a proposed first novel written over a couple of days, and the increasing number of established, well-reviewed authors who are unable to get their work published. In fact, this is as simplistic a view of publishing economics as AS Byatt's claim a few years back that the pounds 500,000 paid to Martin Amis somehow made less money available for serious but less turkey-cocking authors like, well, AS Byatt.

The danger is not to smaller, less flashy authors; they were in trouble from the moment the abolition of resale price maintenance handed the book market on a plate to big conglomerates selling big authors to big bookstores. And the publishers themselves will survive - less money is lost on one over-hyped disaster than on a list of quietly dignified flops. As for the culture itself, the idea that publishers should be keepers of the flame has always been fairly nonsensical, and never more so than today.

Perversely, those who are most likely to be harmed by publishing's new hysteria are the writers who may seem to be benefiting from it. The celebrity approach - a one-off blitz of promotion - is now being applied to young authors on the threshold of their writing careers. The sort of six-figure first-novel deal which was amusingly but, in my view, unwisely described by Maggie O'Farrell in last Saturday's Independent involves a hothouse effect, a forcing of talent that makes writing that second, third or fourth novel incomparably more difficult. Fiction is a long game, and the hype and cash surrounding a first effort can cast a forbidding shadow over future work.

"The important thing is to avoid making an enormous amount of money before you're 40," VS Naipaul is reported to have said in Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. The career parabola of many young writers - feted, enriched and then discarded - bears out the wisdom of Old Grumpy's remark.

So, should Maggie and the rest refuse the big advance, the promise of author tours and promotion? Of course not. But it may be wise for them to bear in mind that publishers and literary agents are in the entertainment, money-making business. Most of them lost the habit of thinking beyond the short term years ago. Just as another hot TV presenter can be relied upon to find a long-lost novel in his drawer, so other talented first novelists can be found if the last one did not quite work out. In other words, the adoration of editors, the money, the marketing meetings, the flattery and flowers are fun while they last, but are essentially nonsense and have nothing to do with the business of writing.

Three years ago, a publisher announced to the press that he formally staked his professional reputation on the success of a novel by an unknown author for which he had paid pounds 350,000 or so. The book bombed; the author is as obscure as ever. The publisher has just been promoted.

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