Discover more from The Villager
The Way Publishing Works
(Sorry for the three posts in as many days. I promise I'll calm it down a bit after this.)
Loosely speaking, the way publishing works is that you get a few books and authors that publishers, and the industry as a whole, gabble a lot about and really put some weight behind. Some of those books are very good, and some aren’t, but that’s not really the point. They’re big books, buzz books, and the sheer heft of coverage and chat about them makes them sell, at least for a while, although quite a few of them end up in charity shops, still unread, not long after that. Sometimes it can seem like these are the only books in the world, which is partly a function of that saturation, and partly a function of the fact that it’s probably easier to think of the planet of literature this way, because actually trying to comprehend how many books are out there – even how many books are published in the average week – makes your brain ache and prompts you to seek a quiet place to lie down. When you tell someone you’re a published author and they respond, “Oh really, would I have come across any of your work?” it is these books they are thinking about, and what the person asking you the question really means is “Are you one of those authors who get a huge marketing budget behind them and films made of their books and are constantly in people’s faces?” which is why I find the correct answer to the question is always “Definitely not”.
Beneath these big buzz books are the rest of us, so so many of us, on our various levels of being a “normal” author, some of which, with the help of some other writing and broadcasting, might even just about add up to what could be seen as a living. Just like those writers who actually exist up there above us on the surface of the world, our sales figures are not necessarily any reliable guide to the quality of our work. Many of us have no desire to be rich or famous and are somewhere between very wary and thoroughly phobic of the potential trappings of that kind of life. But many of us would also like to see our work a little more widely read, have a few more quid in the bank, if only to reassure ourselves that we will definitely be able to keep doing what we are doing until, as our self-employed author pension plans dictate, we are legally forced to stop doing so, due to an irreversible case of death. Some of us will even transcend the limitations placed on us by lack of marketing budget, distribution and “buzz”, becoming slowburn cult successes, assisted by excitable word of mouth by people who have actually read our books (as opposed to people who are just talking about them because lots other people have been talking about them). In this case, death will assist us greatly, as it will make us seem cooler, transform the neglect our art experienced during our lifetime from a humdrum phenomenon to a sexy, mysterious one. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Less than half a dozen people turned up when Hilary Mantel – already a veteran of several novels – did a reading and signing in the mid 90s at a library close to where I grew up, on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. By the second decade of this century, you’d have been hard pushed to find a reader of literary fiction in Britain who had not heard of her. Yet, having read several of them, I don’t think there’s much of an argument for Mantel’s early books being any less brilliant and special than her celebrated Wolf Hall trilogy. What can we learn from this? Probably not much, apart from “you just need to keep writing”. And there is not even any guarantee that this will change anything, especially if you don’t happen to write books as great as Hilary Mantel did, but you should do it anyway.
There was a time when I obediently wrote the books I thought people in the publishing industry wanted me to write. These days I write the books that don’t exist that I find myself aching to make exist, the books that make me the happiest, the books I’d like to see someone pull from a higgledy-piggledy pile in a second hand shop sixty three years after my death and say, "This looks fucking weird. I think I will buy it for Joan." I’ve written fourteen now: the obedient early ones, the slightly less obedient middle ones, and the recent disobedient ones. A few of them hit the bestseller list - including one that briefly reached the top ten - but none of them have changed my life in the way I once expected writing a book to change my life. My attitude now, once I’ve written one, is different to what it once was. “Great,” I think. “Finished. Now I get to write another book!” I like this place where I find myself, after years of struggle, even though it will no doubt continue to be a struggle, in many ways, forever. Writing in my own way is my full time career, so I consider myself one of the fortunate ones. And I am very glad that Substack makes this choice I have made to carry on, and on, no matter how neglected or non-neglected I feel, until I am no longer scientifically able to, a little bit less terrifying.
Me (left) being interviewed by Julian Mash at the 2022 End Of The Road Festival.
You can order my latest book, Villager, with free worldwide delivery here from Blackwells.
Nearly all of the writing on my Substack page is free, and I welcome all free subscribers, but if you are able to take out a paid subscription, it helps me do more of what I love.