With a leap and a bound he was free

And, with a leap and a bound, he was free

The joys of publishing

“I remember finishing the first draft of my novel. I’ve read a few books in my time and my creation (I thought) is definitely something special. Sparkling, original, witty, a book everyone’s going to love.

I do my research (about 5 minutes) and set off to buy my first and only copy of the Artists Handbook with all those listings. I say ‘only copy’ because once I’ve picked my agent I won’t have much use for all that gumpf but at least I’d have a copy of the fat, happy tome to remind me of the time (5 mins, remember) when I was an undiscovered writer.

So there I am in my local bookshop (Daunts in Marylebone), chatting with the owner, feeling great, on the verge of something special. But how exactly do you pick an agent. Oh, I know, I use my new purchase to see who looks after these writers I like. Annie Proulx, John le Carre – doesn’t take long to make a shortlist. In those days I didn’t have a printer so I wait in the print shop. The guy behind the counter likes books, he tells me, and he’d definitely keep a look out for mine. This won’t take long, I’m thinking while they print my documents, and I can’t help myself dreaming about the movie even though the screenplay adaptation hasn’t even been written.

Everyone says the post isn’t too reliable these days but that can’t be what’s holding up the responses. Never mind, easy to be productive while I wait. I download a template from the BBC website and tap out the screenplay. It’s a whole new experience. When I wrote my novel I did it the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper … Do I actually need an agent? I could go directly to the publishers. On the other hand, agents must be useful otherwise Darwinian selection would sort out a problem like this. Not quite sure what to do but I pick a publisher or two anyway and the packages are in the post.

A few weeks, couple of months, is there a postal strike? In the meantime, I occupy myself with casting. Michael Palin is everywhere, books, on TV and just as I’m telling my wife he’d be ideal for the leading role, he walks past us on the high street … But while I’m thinking, the moment is lost. Probably hesitated because I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it should be Jeff Goldblum. If he turns up in Marylebone, I’m definitely going to say something and for a day or two I find myself carrying a copy of the script just in case. Which makes me think about the title. Books are personal but movies seem more international and I need something different for Hollywood. In an idle moment, I map out a speech for the Oscars too.

And then, one day, when I get back from grocery shopping, it happens. Message on my answering machine from an agent. I should have had more faith. A watched kettle never boils, I remind myself. But when I call back, it turns out to have been a mistake - the agent dialled the wrong number. Still she’s nice and we have a quick chat. She did read my chapters and although my confidence has taken a little dent she’s encouraging about the ideas. Even the style is deemed okay.  The problem, she explains, is that 9/11 caused a sea-change in the publishing market. Witty, up-to-date frivolity isn’t right for these times. People are looking for something deeper, more meaningful than this airy fluff drifting on the surface of things. Time was when I would have told her why she’s wrong. She hasn’t understood my book at all – of course she hasn’t, she’s only seen two chapters. How can she be expected to understand the fundamental nature of my story?

But I take the point. The world does seem different and there’s something I’m itching to get started on. I’m from South Africa, Jewish, a family of refugees and immigrants, of course I can do ‘serious’. The ideas are pouring out, introspection, apartheid, psychoanalysis, can’t get much deeper than this. In the mayhem, I’ve forgotten about the problems with my first novel. Writing is much more enjoyable than waiting for someone to pick my diamond out of their desktop pile of sludge.

I really like this new book. Of course, I still like the old one, the first one, but I’ve put more of myself into the new manuscript. Run a quick spell check and I send it off to my friend the agent. Not that I’ve been signed up formally but why would she have been encouraging if she didn’t want to keep in contact?

Hmmm. Doesn’t take long to get an answer this time. All very interesting, she says, but this introspection is just too heavy. We’re in the age of chicklit. The world is in a terrible state and people want an escape. But, I start to ask, what about all that stuff she told me when we spoke about the first novel. Nope, she’s not interested. Oh well, I’m working part-time as a medical adviser in a law firm, my wife’s pregnant, I don’t need this hassle. Anyway, a couple of nights ago a new idea popped into my head. I don’t know how other writers get started but there’s something swimming around at the back of my mind and then suddenly I think of a title, a phrase that encapsulates the essence of my idea. “A Fat Man in an Ill-Fitting Suit”. Means nothing to anybody else but once I’ve found my opening line, I’m ready to go. I know where I’m headed, vaguely, and I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun.

As I finish the first paragraph, I realise something important. This ‘fat man’ I’ll be writing about? He needs a family. You can’t know about someone or something without getting to grip with the context and, before I know, my idea has morphed into a trilogy. Five years later and I wake up to discover I’ve written a pile of novels. All gathering dust in an imaginary drawer because I don’t have a desk and I’ve given up storing piles of manuscripts – the cloud is populated with copies I leave on various websites in case one or other of these internet companies decides they don’t want to keep my stuff.

Over the years, I haven’t bothered to send anything new to agents. I met a publisher a few years back who liked one of the original novels from the time when I had just started writing. For a long year they debated whether to take the book but eventually decided it wasn’t a commercial proposition. At the time I was busy with my trilogy and didn’t really have time to think about all that. Actually, I was pleased they looked at my work and took so long to think about it. Lack of commercial promise is not what I’d call a fundamental criticism. Anyway, I’m fully occupied with my family and these new books which seem to be going well. So far so good. And then, one Sunday morning, my wife and son get together and gang-up on me: ‘When are you going to get your books published?’

I make a few enquiries but the cycle of rejections is just the same as all those years ago. I’m not quite so naïve anymore and I know a few people so I ask around. It’s not just me; too many rejections go back to the author with the message: ‘Good luck. Lovely book but it doesn’t fit our list.’ Maybe the lists should change? In the age of celebrity, David Beckham’s Cookbook would make a ton of money but who believes another pint of cream is worth an afternoon with Mr Tompkins.

I have to think about all this. Time was when I dreamed of handing over my manuscript to one of those big presses, the corporate world of literature. But now I’m feeling a little different. I believe in my books and much as I’d like to see them in the bookshops I want to be involved in everything. Publishing turns out to be really interesting. I find myself looking at covers and typefaces, layout and bindings. There are companies out there producing fantastic books – when my books are published, I’d like them to look like this.”