In a world where the reading public cares only for the utterances of celebrities, publishers are having to think of new ways to sell books written by real authors
As any seasoned bibliophile will tell you with a sorrowful shake of his grizzled head, the publishing industry ain’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when Graham Greene sat in the sub-editors’ room in the old Times building, a fire blazing in the grate and, after ticking up copy from Our Own Correspondent, scribbled the opening chapter of Brighton Rock. Gone, too, are the days when Ernest Hemingway laid down his rifle after plugging a charging rhino between the eyes and added a pithy sentence or two to For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Today’s publishers don’t want writers; men and women who can make characters come alive, concoct devilish plots and tell gripping stories. If Kingsley Amis were to walk into a publisher’s office today with the manuscript of Lucky Jim, he would be shown the door. By way of explanation the stout bald man behind the desk would remove the wet cigar from between his teeth and, waving it in circles to make his meaning more clear, declare that he didn’t want no art, no meaning, no allegory, no nothing, what he wanted was sales. And what sells? Footballers – that’s what sells. Footballers and girls with big breasts. “And don’t come back,” he would shout down the stairs at the retreating artist whose rump he had just booted,” until you are a bona fide, three-in-a-bed love rat!”
That’s the kind of business acumen and vision that results in Wayne Rooney, the 20-year-old Manchester United blot on the public weal, getting a 12-year contract with HarperCollins to write a minimum of five books for an advance of &£5 million plus royalties. Or Katie Price, better known as big, boobylicious Jordan, signing a six-figure deal with Random House to write two novels. Yes, novels.
Like it or not, publishers, though late arrivals at the twenty-first century party, are making up for lost time. They have learnt that you can go paper your wall with literature, but what gets into the best-sellers list is celebrity, and what makes celebrity? Why, telly, stupid. If you’ve been on the box, you can write a blockbuster book, simple as that.
On the rare occasions when a publishing house, whether stricken by conscience or through some momentary loss of concentration, finds itself publishing a work of fiction by an author who has not appeared in the Big Brother house, it faces the unusual problem of how to promote the book.
Penguin must have found itself in just such a fix with The Simple Rules of Love, a new novel by Amanda Brookfield. As far as I know, Amanda has not eaten worms and lice in the jungle under the giggling scrutiny of Ant and Dec; she has not had her breasts tweaked or her bottom pummelled by Susannah or Trinny; she has not repainted a stranger’s sitting room in day-glo mauve; she hasn’t even been ogled by Parky. All she’s done is write books. And how unsexy is that?
Faced with an unusual problem Penguin came up with an unusual marketing solution. It has sent mailshots to potential women readers enclosing the first chapter of The Simple Rules of Love. The accompanying letter says, “We think we have an unusually wonderful book to tell you about… It’s beautifully written, intelligent storytelling and we wanted you to be among the first to hear about it… We’d love to know what you think about The Simple Rules of Love – and so would Amanda.”
Recipients of the mailshot who take up Penguin’s invitation to visit its website and add their comments are entered into a prize draw to win one of five Boden leather tote bags worth &£95 each.
The Simple Rules of Love “follows the fortunes of the Harrison family over the course of a year and the very different challenges they face in their lives”. I shan’t be giving away any secrets if I quote the closing lines of the sample chapter.
“Peter pulled the shirt back out of the cupboard, then swapped it for a plain white one. To wear pink required a certain exuberance and the argument, with the contemplation of his various dilemmas, had robbed him of that. White showed off his still striking tan, and was the colour of innocence, he mused bitterly, studying his reflection in the mirror but avoiding his own eyes.”
Sadly, we must leave Peter shelving the pink number, musing bitterly on the colour of innocence and admiring his reflected but still striking tan in a cross-eyed sort of way, but hats off to Penguin for daring to try something different. What next? Buy a VS Naipaul and win a trip to the World Cup?