A new chapter begins in the maid's story

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"I WANTED to be rich and famous" is hardly a literary reason for writing one's first novel. In Kate Atkinson's case, it has, however, proved startlingly prescient. Last week she walked off with the Whitbread Book of the Year award, a cheque for pounds 21,000, and a grand sweep of headlines. The "unknown chambermaid" is, indeed, rich and famous.

She is also very rare. In the shaky post-Net Book Agreement publishing world of unpredictable prices, Ms Atkinson's chosen route to wealth and acclaim is one few would advise. Big names such as Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham may command giddy advances and sell in huge numbers, but the prospects for new authors are bleak. And, reflects Kate Atkinson, the literary establishment's frosty, if not frankly hostile, reception to her win, suggests that the outsider's lot may be tougher than ever.

"The press have made an astonishing fuss over the chambermaid business," blinks Ms Atkinson, but it would be difficult to overstate the degree to which she is a highly improbable literary interloper. The trail of unlikely previous employment runs from care worker to cleaner, as she married, split up, wed again and split again, bringing up, on the way, two daughters.

The now well-documented Woman's Own short-story prize came in 1988. "That was one of the best moments of my life. When you start writing, it's for therapy - every writer has to get all that autobiographical crap out - but the thrill of finding that someone else thinks you are talented was just wonderful.

"But no one at home ever took me seriously. If I sold a short story to a magazine, my mother would say, 'Oh, that was lucky'. I never dreamed I might write something longer - well, I couldn't find the time."

Her novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was just a few disparate chapters when an agent fell upon it at another short- story awards ceremony.

"Suddenly I had an advance - and it was absolutely terrifying. Until then, my mother had been giving us money each month, when she saw how we were living. I went through a few weeks of trauma with this money - my agent told me sometimes they have to take it back, because the author panics so much - then I sat down and wrote the whole thing in three months."

It isn't difficult to see why Kate Atkinson's success has given rise to unease. She is neither your conventional young literati-in-waiting, nor your lovable "working-class hero" in the style of Jeff Torrington, the Glaswegian who won in 1993. Her engagingly ingenuous, well-isn't- this-all-a-bit-of-a-laugh approach ("It's great here at my publishers. They give you tea, and cars, and they're so nice. What a happy place!") has earned a sniffy reception in some established quarters. Her novel, one of the judges commented, is post-modern, though "I don't know if Kate Atkinson knows it."

"I'm not entirely surprised by the reaction, though I find it intensely irritating. I don't know any writers, I live in the North, I used to write romantic fiction for women's magazines," she acknowledges ruefully. "It's just bad behaviour on their part, really."

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an account of working- class life in York over three generations, is currently at number five on the bestseller list. It has sold some 16,000 copies, and a new print run has been ordered. So is she very rich? "Well, I'm comfortable right now. I think it is still possible to make money like this - but I don't know how much yet."

Mark Le Fanu, head of the Society of Authors, is less optimistic. "If writers were to write first novels with the aim of becoming rich, they would be better off playing the lottery," he says. "Most novels don't ever get published, and the vast majority of those that do are lucky if their advance is even a few thousand.

"Some 80,000 new titles get published each year, but the number of writers who can live, let alone live well, from their work, is not more than a few thousand.

"Occasionally you get a Nicholas Evans, with The Horse Whisperer, or a Michael Ridpath. There are always one or two fairy stories like that - but there are not very many fairies at the bottom of the garden."

The question the publishing world is waiting to see answered is what impact the demise of the Net Book Agreement will have on new writing. When the agreement collapsed, there was widespread fear that advances, already cautious, would be squeezed even tighter for unknown authors in an uncertain market. But there were also hopes that bookshops would not only discount big names such as Martin Amis, but promote new authors too.

Martin Neild, managing director of Hodder and Stoughton, says: "We've maintained all along that, without the NBA, booksellers will be able to do 'Our staff recommend this new author this month'-type promotions, as you see in the United States. People will be given a financial incentive to buy new writers." So is this now happening? "Well, no. Not to any great extent."

Everyone is still waiting to see how the structure of publishing will shake down, but Caroline Dawnay, president of the Association of Authors' Agents, is increasingly anxious about the future of the second novel.

"Every publisher will always be prepared to take a punt with the good first novel. The really worrying thing is, if it doesn't win the Whitbread, will they ever publish the second?"

A glance down the list of previous Whitbread first-novel prize winners confirms its credentials as a guide to future success - Jeanette Winterson, Paul Sayer and Bruce Chatwin are all there. But the Booker Prize's announcement last week that it is tightening the entry requirements by limiting each publisher's number of entries, will only add to concerns about the struggle facing new writers.

After three days of media frenzy, Kate Atkinson is back in Edinburgh, richer and more famous, and facing the completion of her second novel. "I don't think anybody really wanted me in London," she cackles merrily. "And thank God. It's much more refined in Scotland."