I have carried thoughts about this blog around in my head since Christmas, but haven’t had time to write it because of the pre- and post-London Book Fair rush, and a trip to New York to see US colleagues and editors (and accompany Olivia Laing on her US book tour).
Oh dear, this is already turning into another blog about lack of time …
I was both comforted and kind of depressed to read an interview in Publishing Perspectives with Neilsen consumer insight’s Jo Henry where she says, ‘When we speak to publishers, we know that they’re absolutely maniacally busy. There’s a lot of stuff that could get done better but no one’s got time to do it.’ Neilsen is a company that works for lots of different major businesses. It’s interesting she talks about publishers in particular being ‘maniacally’ busy. It makes me feel less guilty about feelings of being overwhelmed by my job. But at the same time it points up one of the main challenges of an agent’s job: getting publishers to pay detailed attention to things. And when Henry suggests that ‘It would be nice to see publishers just cut their lists in half and really concentrate on the 50 percent they’ve got left to see if they can sell twice as much of them’, I partly agree (because it’s also what I’m trying to do as an agent) and partly feel anxious about the brilliant books that might slip through the net as publishers become ever more ‘focussed’ (or is that ‘narrow’?).
Anyway, back at Christmas – when I was pondering this blog on my bicycle rides home – I was feeling slightly vertiginous about the fantastic sales and reviews of Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! and other things that matter, and the fact that I kept seeing it in bookshop windows. I realised in retrospect what a great responsibility it had been when Diana handed me a sheaf of typescript and said she thought the essays it contained might be put together to make ‘one last book’. What if I hadn’t agreed with her? What if I hadn’t gone to tea with her in the first place? All those people would have been deprived of the perfect Christmas present, and I would have been deprived of the enormous privilege of becoming Diana’s agent!
It is an amazing feeling to watch books bloom, and to remember the original planting of the seed when you had no idea what – if anything – was going to happen. I had another moment of vertigo in January when Edward Dusinberre’s Beethoven for a Later Age was published to brilliant reviews (including accolade from Philip Roth and Geoff Dyer), and started selling really well for a book about classical music. I remembered the conversation with Edward in an Oxford pub where he said he’d like to write a book one day (he’s a world renowned violinist); the year during which he tried out ideas, and worked on a proposal during a heavy touring schedule (he found airports a good place to write); the rejection letter from a publisher who said, ‘I love to publish books like this but it would be madness [from a sales point of view]. I fear you know that’s true too.’ That was a moment for nerve-holding! The last thing an agent wants is to acquire a reputation for madly thinking that unsaleable books might sell, and wasting publishers’ time with them.
Yes, it would be wonderful to hold major auctions for every book, but in reality all it takes is for one publisher to offer the seed a plot of earth. Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe was the only editor to offer for Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels, and yesterday evening I heard that the novel is one of only three books to be shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot debut novel prize.
In the same way that an author never quite anticipates the magnitude of the journey ahead of them when they start writing a book (and it’s probably lucky that they don’t), I don’t always remember the massive effort it takes to get a book off the ground. (Even books by well known authors, or sure-fire bestsellers take massive effort – it’s the nature of the business.) Or perhaps I deliberately forget. If I thought about it too much, I might never take on a new author.
The inspirational children’s publisher David Fickling once said to me that holding on to belief in the books one believes to be good, through difficult times, is like carrying an ember, cupped in one’s hands, in order to go and light the next fire. I often feel as if I’m carefully carrying around a lot of very fragile things, or rather ‘seeds’. But it’s glorious when they find their patch of earth and flourish.
Next Friday (because I really am going to try to write this more regularly): ‘Title Hell’, and whether I’ve managed to extract myself from the horrible position of looking after several books that haven’t yet found the right title …
What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)
Non-fiction: Kate Fox’s hilariously funny Watching the English. Because in the lead up to the EU referendum I feel I want to understand my fellow countrymen and -women better. And because at the London Book Fair one of Kate Fox’s many foreign publishers said to me that it was a brilliant example of a book where an expert explains her methodology cleverly and entertainingly to the lay reader, and I wanted to see how it was done.
Fiction: Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Sorry, Ferrante fever ongoing. It’s so dark, though, that I can only read in small bursts.
Graphic novel: Mary and Bryan Talbot’s The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. A brilliant visual telling of the story of Louise Michel’s fight for freedom and equality, made all the more poignant for me in that it was partly inspired by my husband Alex Butterworth’s book The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, in whose pages I first fell in love with Louise Michel. It is so moving to see scenes from Alex’s book illustrated by the Talbot’s – just as I thought of them as I was reading.