As recommended last week by Ann Reid, I’ve bought Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel – not a book I’d be seen dead reading, you understand. That title is on a par with How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Joy of Sex – not things we Brits like to admit to needing or wanting.
Would I like to write a blockbuster novel? That depends on what it means. If it means having your name embossed in letters over two inches high on a paperback that balloons as soon as you open it into a great fat thing you can’t put down because it’s a tense and breathless read but then, as soon as you finish it, you throw it in the bin and out of the mind, then no, I don’t.
If it’s a well-crafted piece that’s taken years to write and then suddenly takes off in the public consciousness, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, well then, oh yes please, of course I do.
Life is very difficult for the artist, whatever the medium. It’s super-celebrity or nobody with nothing in between. Really good actors, especially of the female variety, have to have their eyes set on Hollywood rather than the RSC if they want to get work. Cellists do better if they have magnificent thighs in slinky dresses. Singers need to be drop-dead gorgeous to look at before we start to listen to them. There are exceptions to all these of course, but in the main the entertainments industry is dominated by a small coterie of repeating faces when you can be sure there’s hundreds if not thousands to choose from. But the producers, in whatever guise, look for the bankable name.
I’ve just looked up ‘midlist’ to see if it means what I think it means, and it does. Here’s the definition from good old Wikipedia, long may it live:
‘Midlist is a term in the publishing industry which refers to books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author). The vast majority of total titles published are midlist titles, though they represent a much smaller fraction of total book sales, which are dominated by bestsellers and other very popular titles.
Authors who consistently publish acceptable but not bestselling books are referred to as Midlist authors.’
Reading on, I discovered it was a court case in the US which changed how publishers have to account for and can depreciate unsold inventory each year that made life difficult for the midlist author. I also clicked the link to find out what The Long Tail is, and began to feel more hopeful.
Things may be changing. For a start, everyone tires of the same old same old. We all know why Pa has been absent in the current series of Larkrise to Candleford – he has another life at Downton Abbey. (Little does Ma know that he’s not a stonemason in Oxford at all, but a butler in a large country estate).
New developments like e-readers, and the sudden market dominance of Amazon’s Kindle (curses, curses, am I to be enslaved to Amazon forever? – a blockbuster company if ever there was one) will allow us to be more wide-ranging in our choices, more experimental in our purchases perhaps.
And then there’s the Long Tail. This is the view that it’s better to sell fewer longer than to sell a lot all at once. Again, the e-reader makes the Long Tail more possible, since it overcomes the huge expense of storage.
Godstow Press has just signed an agreement with the distributor, Central Books. I didn’t know about Long Tails when I was telling the director that A Tabernacle for the Sun sold about five copies a week when it was published by Allison and Busby back in 1997. ‘Fourteen years later, it is still selling five copies a week,’ I told him. ‘And that, I reckon, is a real publishing phenomenon.’ I was joking, of course, but he was quiet for a little, then said, ‘Do you know, it is.’ But we’re hoping that between us we can make it ten.
I would so much rather write something enduring than something that bursts like a firework only to die in the sky seconds later. Nevertheless, I have turned to Mr Zuckerman’s book with much interest and am half way through the chapter on Point of View. So that will be the next posting, on Wednesday.
Have a good week. My advice is, don’t worry about the fate and future of your writing, just write. It’s only the book you can’t stop writing that has a chance of becoming a book the reader can’t put down.