Sunday, June 28, 2009

Authors as Publicists

Here it is from a publisher (my own publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt): in a blog post intended primarily, I think, to educate submitting authors, he says:
Great writing doesn’t always make for great books.
By 'great books' he means those which become recognized as great and don't sink without trace. Now Chris is passionately committed to great writing; by no means is he here subscribing to the (too horribly widespread) view that if a book doesn't sell either it can't be any good as literature or wanted by the public (two separate notions which are sometimes conflated). No, what Chris is saying here is that however great a book is as literature, it can't be recognized or even known as such if it isn't properly publicized, and in such a way that embeds the idea of the book in the public mind. Rhetoricians are of course committed to the magic number 3: provide a list of 3 linked points and the underlying notion will stick in the mind of the audience. A book will sell, says, Chris, if it has three 'hooks that people can remember' and 'knowing what they are is the key to getting published.' His implied advice is that submitting authors should know them, that this is how a book must be sold in the first place, by the author to a publisher, and the message is clear: publicity is everything, perhaps for literary writing more than anything.

In another provocative and revealing blog post he advises:
The best way to beat the slush pile is to avoid it in the first place. Unsolicited submissions are the worst way to reach an editor, less than 1% succeed. Most editors are receptive to recommendations (some ask their writers to be on the look out for talent). In a people business like publishing, who you know really matters. Writing is social. A couple of recommendations from the right people will open doors for your writing. It reveals two things: firstly, other published writers think you’re worth investing in, and secondly, you are already building your profile and finding readers.
It goes right against the grain for me to admit it - I would love to think there were possibilities for good writing to rise on its own - but he is right. I got my own break at the start because my tutor on an Arvon course, Martin Booth, sent my work to his own agent. My second novel was published because I was talking to an editor in a bar after a reading and she suggested I send it in. So many published writers will tell you similar stories. And I have a big envelope stuffed with the form rejections I received from publishing houses when I was just sitting at home conscientiously honing my literary skills and in touch with no one else in the literary world...
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