When I first started, long, long ago, I sent bad plays to the BBC, which returned them with personalised (not standard) rejection letters which told me they weren’t quite right for them. But always, somewhere in the letter, there was some sort of encouragement – with some they liked the dialogue or characters, saw promise in the plot of others, praised my sense of humour. It was always enough to make me think ‘OK, I’ll try again’. And, one day, it worked and they broadcast the next five. Then came the novels and, once again, I sent the first one I wrote to an agent, who liked it and signed me up. He didn’t manage to place it but I wrote another and he liked that, too. But still there were no takers. And (unbelievably to me now), I changed agents – just like that. And the second agent got my third and fourth novels published.
So that’s what it was like in the good old days.
Today, the planet is full of writers, some of whom should definitely not quit the day job but thousands more who are very, very good and deserve to be published. But driven, understandably, by the need to make a living, agents and publishers don’t seem to have the time, patience or courage to take on individuals who have no proven track record. I was told that, if an agent tells a publisher ‘My client has already had books published’, the response is not ‘Are they any good?’ but ‘Did they sell?’ And so the whole climate is forcing writers to become PR and marketing specialists and generally whore themselves around.
Which is fine. In the halcyon days, many writers were unrealistic. They assumed that society owed them a living. Today, however, we have to resort to different stratagems such as the FaceBook fan page. I’m not sure how long this has been going on but there’s now a fad for them. I’m a fan of lots of writers whom I admire there and I started wondering whether I should start a fan page myself but realised that all I was doing was duplicating the page I already had.
Instead, I’ve taken to a marketing strategy which is probably backfiring badly, in part because of the differences between British and American humour. Brits, as I may have said before, find it hard to blow their own trumpets, wave flags and generally talk up things they’ve done, so my way of overcoming that was to accentuate the negative. For example, for my spoof crime novel, The Sparrow Conundrum, I quoted some actual comments taken from a peer review of it on a website. They were:
“Your adverbs look corny and misplaced.”
“Your story does not stand up in this century.”
“You show clearly you know nothing about IT, mobile phones or modern crime.”
“My personal opinion of your story is that it is not particularly funny or even marketable.”
The idea of course, was to suggest that my willingness to relay these opinions was evidence of how confident I was that they’re wrong. In fact, the book has done rather well and, at the end of last year, won first prize in the Forward National Literature Awards for Humor. But I’m still not sure that a marketing campaign based on bad-mouthing your own product is effective, except in ensuring that no-one buys it.