Publishing fiction has always taken a lot of instinct, nerve, experience and, frankly, luck. When, after leaving Constable and Robinson I drifted into becoming an agent, I decided to stick with what I knew. As a politics and economics post grad I chose to represent politics and modern history books. I knew the market, could help my authors with the text and, crucially, knew the relevant editors. I felt I could not do fiction because I did not have the instinct for fiction and did not know many fiction editors.
However, life has a way of playing tricks on us. Through a mutual friend I met NIck Gordon, an ex deputy editor of the Daily Mail. He had a successful career in journalism in East Africa and was the journalist who broke news of the Rwanda massacre. He had also written two well received non-fiction books. I said I would find an agent for him but he asked me to represent him. The novel starts off in Africa and has a finale in Oslo via Europe and America. I actually thought that this would be easy and, indeed, all the reports back from the editors were very positive. I will give a quote from just one editor who said that the novel was both authentic and fast paced. However, sales and marketing from 14 publishers gave the thumbs down.
I was asked to represent another novelist, a writer I took to Arcadia, Justin Kerr Smiley. His first book Under the Sun got good press reviews and a plug from William Dalrymple. The author’s second book is based on the last 24 hours of President Allende. Two Chilean exiles who have read the book, and who suffered under Pinochet, both said that the author has really captured the mood of the country at the time. Again, I thought I would have no problem placing him, but again, thus far, I have had no joy.
I know, just know, both of these books would sell and was seriously thinking of setting up a publishing company but I have other commitments. The answer for me and for my authors lay with Endeavour, set up four years ago by Matthew Lynn and Richard Foreman, as a digital only publisher. It is NOT a vanity press, the standards are good and to maintain those standards they employ most of the editorial processes that are to be found in any traditional publishing house. It is absolutely crucial that they do not publish everything they are sent. They select material just as in a traditional publishing house. I already had two fiction authors on their list. John Hughes Wilson with his Vengeance Man series gets consistently good sales, sales that any traditional house would be happy with. Edwin Alexander has just gone to press with his new book, Dig Two Graves, which features his private detective Al Hershey; a sophisticated tale of revenge prompted by an incident in the Vietnam War. Both Hughes Wilson and Alexander continue to gain followers.
The interesting thing about publishing fiction now, though, I would contend, is that in some ways it should be easier to get published and less likely for publishers to lose money on their first novelists. I know I am not the only one who tends to download most of my fiction reading onto my Kindle. It is easy and effective and, however much I want to buy a print book, I just don’t have the room for them. I know I am not alone in downloading most of my fiction, indeed, India Knight did a very good piece about downloading fiction in one of her newspaper articles. I recently got rid of eight boxes of books and it was almost impossible to give them away. I was having dinner at a friend’s house the other evening. She is an editor at a well known publisher and again books were piled everywhere. We all love books, but we all only have so much space to keep them in.
As always I realise that the real trick is making the readers out there aware that there is a wonderful novel in the market place. Publicity and marketing is the key to a book breaking through, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, a print book or digital only. Raising the profile of any author or book is the key and author recognition is fundamental.
Digital should mean that publishers are more adventurous. Although they still have all the start up costs and all the time commitments, they don’t have paper, print or warehouse costs, and yet it seems to me that publishers are much more wary when publishing new fiction. Digital, however, can reach far more readers and good digital marketing is priceless. The audience grows by the day.
Andrew Hayward is a literary agent and m.d. of Ether Books.