Monday, 19 October 2009

Of Bloody Toes and Other Gruesome Things...

Hi everyone,
Some of you have sent me messages asking about my status line in which I congratulate my friend Carlos on finishing the Jungle Marathon. For those of you unfamiliar with this torture fest, the Jungle Marathon takes place over five days and covers 200 km of hostile terrain in the Amazon. We're talking jaguars! Snakes as thick as a man's thigh! Piranhas! Apart from jungle trails, the competitors also have to wade through swamps, climb steep elevations and do river crossings. The second to last stage have them running 87 km for two days non-stop. Carlos is my kickboxing trainer and a former European champion. Believe me, he is no sissy and I once saw him fight with two broken ribs. But this was something else altogether. He was one of 55 out of 120 competitors who managed to finish the entire 200km, but he is shattered. His feet look like something out of a George Romero movie. He wasn't just doing all of this for the T-shirt, though, he was also running for charity. Sponsorship money will go towards helping AIDS orphans in Kenya.
From bloody toes to another blood sport. The Frankfurt Book Fair took place last week. FBF is Europe's biggest book fair and every autumn publishers and agents from all over the world gather to sell and buy foreign rights to books. Editors meet with agents over Bratwurst and kegs of beer and engage other editors in bitter battle to try and secure the best titles for their respective houses.
By all accounts the 2009 FBF was a rather subdued occasion with both sales and attendance down on previous years. American publishers sent fewer editors across the ocean and there were fewer mega book sales. The hottest fiction title of the Fair was The Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Viking US reports that they've sold well over seven figures in worldwide rights sales so far. Harkness's book is her debut novel and in it she describes a world in which four species - vampires, witches, demons and humans -- live side-by-side. The heroine falls in love with a vampire although inter-species sex is prohibited. Not exactly a novel premise, maybe, but by all accounts the writing is excellent. On the non-fiction front, the book of the Fair was The Mandela Diaries, sold by my own agent, Jonny Geller.
It has been a very tough year for scribes in general. Whereas Dan Brown still sells up a storm, for the rest of us, the picture is far from rosy. I belong to the UK Society of Authors, which recently commissioned a survey and found that authors' advances have been cut by as much as 70%. The majority of authors expressed fears that their contracts will simply not be renewed. But even those with contracts are not safe. It used to be that once a publisher has signed a contract with an author, the writer was assured that he will be paid the full advance and that his book will go into print. Yes, there is something called an "acceptance" clause, which means that if the publisher deems the manuscript to be of too poor a quality to publish, that it has the right of refusal. But the only author I know of who fell foul of this clause is Joan Collins. You may remember the case? It happened in 1996 when Ms. Collins took Random House to court after they claimed her manuscript was "unreadable." During the trial Random House tried to prove its point by reading out loud sections of Ms. Collins's manuscript:
"The eye signals between Paul and Venetia precluded any necessity for small talk. They each knew what they wanted. She saw him quiver as she gave him a languorous look from beneath her heavy-lidded innocent eyes as she danced lasciviously close to him at the club and they made a date to meet."
This could not have been very pleasant for the plaintiff, but she did win her case. Random House had to pay her 1 million dollars. For that kind of money, I suppose putting up with a little public ridicule might seem like an excellent deal.
The only other clause a publisher can use to revoke a contract, is the one which states that an author has to make her deadline. In practice, an agent can usually manage to get his author another 3 to 6 months wiggle room if necessary. It does irritate your publisher somewhat as promotion and editing schedules get messed up, but publishers realise that writing a novel is not like baking a cake and the creative process is not always on tap. But now, the waters are bloody. Publishers are using this clause to get rid of authors in whom they no longer have faith and agents have sent out letters to their clients urging them to meet their deadlines. There have been reports of authors getting axed even after they've already worked for more than two years on a manuscript.
Anyway, enough of the gloom! In this economy everyone is suffering so why should writers insist on being pampered. However, industry insiders are predicting a revolution - not in the sense that authors will storm publishing houses and drag editors to the tumbril - but in the sense that book publishing may evolve into a hybrid form. Check out this link in which Anthony Zuiker's new "digi-book" is being discussed. The idea is that readers will buy a book and then combine the reading experience with video material and interactive online surfing.
How do you guys feel about this? Would you like to have this kind of multi-media experience when you read? Or is this a bridge too far?
And then finally: a reminder that yours truly will be talking about suspense, fantasy and gothic in the 21st century at the Richmond Literature Festival on the evening of 13 November. Those of you who don't have to take a plane to get here-- it will be great to see you in the audience. I am nervous! As I mentioned before, some of the other authors participating in the Festival are pretty amazing writers -- AS Byatt, Martin Amis, Tibor Fischer. I've been trying to think of innovative ways to tempt people to attend my presentation instead but all I can think of is to offer them free alcohol. I have no shame and I can attest to the success of this strategy. Many years ago, on an icy winter's evening, I took part in a book reading event at Borders Bookstore in Oxford Street. There was a massive poster outside mentioning that free South African wine was on offer. It was a gratifying sight: every seat was filled. Of course, it took me a while to realise why the entire back row was asleep. These poor people were homeless and had obviously decided the offer of booze and warmth made the boredom worthwhile.
If you're interested in attending, here is a link to my events page:
Hope to see you there and to raise a glass together!

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