Kate Kellaway writes in today's Observer about the difficulties for first-time novelists in an article titled: That difficult first novel. Well, I guess it's an ironic title (a play on the more usual phrase that difficult second novel), but I can't decide if the article itself is ironic or confused, as many of the problems it outlines seem indeed not to be the problems of first-time novelists but of second- or third-time ones. Getting a first novel published - and publicised - is harder than ever before, she says, but if Danuta Keane's research is anything to go by, publishers are publishing more first novels than previously and cutting back on their mid-list authors - for the very reasons of unearned advances, Neilsen Bookscan monitoring and heavily discounted books which Kellaway quotes.
The issue of publicity is a different matter. Kellaway quotes Kate Saunders, currently a judge of the Orange Prize: 'It is harder for first-time novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.' And as for first-time innovators, well, here's Kate Saunders again: 'Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.'
Well, this is indeed serious confirmation of what a lot of us have been saying, but if it's bad for first-timers, what's it like for the second-timers starting to grow crow's-feet, especially if they're stupidly innovative enough to divert from their own 'formulae'? And sure enough, it is those second-timers who did make it as first novelists which Kellaway ends up concentrating on. How do you follow a brilliant first novel with a second? she asks, and one publisher replies in ominous terms: 'I'm staring down the barrel of that particular gun at the moment.'