The illustrated life

December 11, 2008

The first thing I should say is . . . Look! Sarah’s blog has finally moved into the twentieth-first century; my web-meister, Rowan, has tinkered with the mechanics in the engine-room to allow photos to be inserted. It’s taken a while and cost thousands of lives, but I’m very excited to be able to reveal our very first image from the Greenhouse.
You see, I felt we all needed some fun in our lives. Because basically the news is Not Terribly Good. It feels like every time I log on another troubling announcement emanates from the transatlantic book industry. Pay freezes, acquisition prohibitions, staff laid off, retail sales sliding in the final months of 2008, rumours of sales (companies, not book rights), articles telling me that it’s going to be tough to sell debut or literary fiction. And now the most brilliant get-out has emerged – the recession rejection: We’re sorry, but the recession means we don’t feel we can offer to acquire this great manuscript. Well, it’s a lot easier and less painful than admitting that you don’t find the concept or voice or characterization quite outstanding enough.

So am I downcast and miserable as I sit here with the rain sliding down my windowpane? No I’m not. Or perhaps (thinking towards the January 20 inauguration, where I shall be flocking together with about 4 million others) I should say: YES WE CAN!

Yes, I believe we can sell books in 2009. And yes, I fully intend to do so. The children’s area of this industry has always been a little more resilient in bad times than adult books, which should give us hope. And I still believe absolutely that a great manuscript/a great book will be in demand and find its home. But what we do have to recognize is a trickle-down kind of caution. Publishers are under a lot of pressure to make the best commercial decisions, and I can imagine that all houses will be putting their editors through an acquisition process that will make the Inquisition look gentle. Dollars, pounds – and potentially an awful lot of them – are at stake every time an editor buys a book; not just the acquisition money that buys the rights, but all the other money that goes into production, overheads, publicity and marketing, warehousing. The cost of having an editor sitting at a desk in a room in New York or London is jaw-dropping (I saw the figures for my own seat, my own desk, a few years ago and had a new reverence for my little plot of publishing ground); the cost of an hour of a publisher’s time is very significant when you cost it all in. And as for agents? Well, their business doesn’t make any money at all unless they seal a deal (you ask Jerry McGuire). We are, it must be said, quite brave people.

So where does all this leave us? It leaves us under pressure to make very, very good decisions – which, of course, one only knows fully with the wonderful gift of hindsight. Publishers will be under pressure to acquire the work that will be easy and rewarding to market. Agents will be under even more pressure to represent the manuscripts that have the best chance of selling. The work that will be squeezed hardest will be the new literary voice, the gentle or not-quite-standout storyline, the experimental, the work that lacks an evident commercial angle, the voice that’s nice but maybe, possibly, not quite interesting enough or that needs to develop a little more. Breathe in, because our belts just tightened a notch.

But having looked down from the tightrope and seen the market, I now intend to look up – to the wonderful world of this industry which I love so much. It has weathered a lot of storms in the past, and I say again, the best writing, the best ideas, will sell – and deals will be done. I look at Publishers Marketplace daily and see them – rows and rows of books sold, new writers getting launched, gripping plot lines seeing the light of day, even as bad news trickles in. Because the fact is, no publisher will survive or retain/grow market share without product – and the product is books. No one will want to miss out on acquiring strong work for the future, not least because who knows what the market will be doing in 2010 or 2011 when many of these new books will appear on the shelves. If you don’t speculate now, you can’t accumulate later. Every sentient agent or publisher is scared of missing a big one!

So what does this mean for you writers out there? Be informed, read what’s going on in the industry – but then clear your head to write the book that only you can write. It’s what I’ve said throughout this blog – carve out the absolutely strongest plot you can find, know where its commercial hook and focus lie, and learn the craft of writing with all the means at your disposal. We need a standout story, an original and effective voice, characters that leap off the page and into our hearts. Achieve all that and you too will be saying, YES WE CAN!

But as this damp and grey day drips relentlessly on, I suggest you forget your plotting and revisions and anxieties. Because here to amuse you is a piccy of the hotseat of the Greenhouse USA. You will notice that it is an unusual agency: its senior staff member has completely disappeared, leaving behind only a pair of green shoes. Has she evaporated? Or fled the country? Then, of course, there’s her assistant – the ever-faithful and ever-snoring Hound (NB: My thanks to blog-reader Emily Cooper who wrote expressing her virtual affection for this critter). How can one feel even remotely dismal when looking at that malodorous mound of fur?

So, all together now. We’re going to shout in unison and very loudly: YES WE CAN!