“The profession’s overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough…” Noel Coward’s advice to stage mother Mrs Worthington on thespian ambition for her young Mam’selle applies equally to getting work published. There are just too many books these days. And if there is any justice in this life, a number of published authors have totted up more than sufficient points on their poetic licence to have it taken away.
That being said, you have to take your hat off to those gatekeepers of new work, the literary agents. Through their bumbling incompetence, oftentimes rudeness and general inefficiency, at least they slow the tide to publication.
Yes, it’s a generalisation and, yes, probably it’s a fact that agents are carpet bombed with manuscripts from would-be’s and never-could’s. But you have to marvel at the collective contempt for this ready source of, let’s face it, money in the bank for them. It’s as if fishermen whined as prime cod threw themselves on deck, or farmers kvetched about how wheat grew amid the weeds.
A clue to this fatal combo of literary agent sloth and bile is in the name that agents give to this bounty, this veritable manna from the mailbox. To agents it is known as the ‘slush pile’. Yes, that is what they sniggeringly call unsolicited manuscripts, delivered gratis by new authors, among whom could be a Rowling, a Self or a Mantel.
Doubtless that pile – you can imagine dozens of manilla envelopes thrown onto some dusty spare desk in their Snipcock offices — is motley. I’d lay odds that among them are breathless romantic novellas, handwritten in green ink on lavender blue, lavender fragranced, Basildon Bond. Offerings most certainly come from “Less Passion, Less Protein, Less Sitting Down” raincoat-wearing garret-dwellers and oftentimes ‘new’ fiction is an unintentional – or not so — simulacrum of that best seller of a few years past.
In many cases, titles that would have seen the bookshelves in happier times for publishing must spark a instant glow on an agent’s “no meter”. These days, More Harvest Festivals of Tibet (an actual book, no, really, it is, I have a copy) is unlikely to be commercial. And only once in each generation can we tolerate a Velikovsky, von Däniken, Henry Lincoln or Dan Brown, so anything in the next ten years that hints at God being a Martian, planets bumping into Earth and killing the dinosaurs, Mayan calendars, or Mr and Mrs Jesus Christ settling down and starting a family, should fall at the first hurdle. But the question has to be: “How long does it really take to weed those out and get to the potentially good stuff? How much of the working day would it take for such an avowed expert as a literary agent to gauge commercial viability?”
Can’t they learn to speed read? Seriously though… a page of a book in two minutes is not asking a great deal, is it? Many agents protest that no author should realistically expect to hear back about their project until some arcane gestation of around 12 weeks or so. What!? Have they ignored the slush for so long that no amount of glancing at three or four demonstrably-not-off-the-wall books at the end of each day will catch up the backlog?
And if the new writer passes the “not bonkers” test, they are required to undertake a Mr Miyage-style “wax on, wax off” zen trial. Demands are as whimsical as they are wildly disparate. These are just a few: ‘Times Roman double spaced; first three chapters; first chapter and a synopsis; just a synopsis; black ink and by post only; only as a Word file; stapled; not stapled, not by e-mail’.
And, as if it were a municipal job application, writers are invariably asked to send their CV. They are forced to respond to such daft irrelevancies as “List five already published books which are like your work and say why yours is better”. The illogicality of this almost Rumsfeldian, ‘known unknowns, unknown unknowns’, conundrum further exposes in equal measure a lack of ability and lack of self confidence among agents.
Naturally every author thinks that what has taken a year or a decade to write is good – darn good, no, make that the best ever written – otherwise they would not have bothered. But has it been tried in the marketplace of ‘25 quid for the hardback’? Well, no. Books, if they are anything, are unique. So, if the agent, who has an insider’s best perspective on the publishing industry’s commercial winners and losers, cannot recall a few books comparable to the work before them, maybe they should choose another, less demanding career.
But of course the literary agent is just the first step in a chain that has more rust than the backside of Brighton Pier. Accepted for publication today, your magnum opus is unlikely to see the inside of a Waterstones in a twelvemonth. The only exceptions seem to be biographies for the prurient about the recently dead or recently infamous. (Even as we speak, Jim’ll F*** It: The Secret Diaries of Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris and the Didgeridoo of Shame are almost certainly being cobbled together from press clippings. Whatever the topic — and quickies are most often in that morbid pot boiler Lady Di/Kurt Cobain obitua-ography category – they provoke a fit of the vapours of distaste from the publishing fraternity when the process moves faster than their own Victorian, comfortably self-imposed, glacial timetable. And they wonder why the printed book trade is going down the dumpster and that wiser heads are cutting out Mr ten (or more) percent and doing digital for themselves.
Martin Hedges wrote neither Jim’ll F*** It nor More Harvest Festivals of Tibet. He owns not one sheet of Basildon Bond. He may just have burned a bridge or three.