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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering