How far will I compromise for that deal?

Two weeks ago today I was making plans to go down to London to meet an editor at a publishing house who was very excited about my non-fiction proposal for Rebel Muses. She's excited - I'm excited. Great! Excited and skint, though, so it would be the train, not the plane (all the way through the floods).

But only four days later, it was all off - the sales dept had told the editor my project wasn't commercial enough, so the meeting was cancelled. She did invite me to contact her though, to discuss it if I wanted to. I hesitated. At first I said no, then I emailed her. What made me hesitate? Probably the strong suspicion that a chat would be about what I should change to make my book more commercial.

In Lila Azam Zanganeh's excellent The Enchanter, she quotes Vladimir Nabokov: "(Nabokov) cautiously advised that the moment an author sets off to write, 'the monster of grim commonsense' will 'lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never never - And right then, just before it blurts out the word s, e, double-l, false commonsense must be shot dead.'"

Yes, my instinct was the same - commercial be damned! Shoot it dead!

Then I thought, hmmmm - how flexible am I prepared to be? Would it hurt me or my book very much? I couldn't - or wouldn't - be flexible with my last book, Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships. It had a very specific argument, and nine very specific women writers who fitted that argument. One agent had suggested changes - my book argues that the women in these literary relationships put up with bad behaviour for the sake of their art, that these relationships may have damaged them personally but benefited their work. She thought a book about women writers whose relationships with male writers had destroyed their careers would be better. I disagreed - that kind of thing had been done. This was a new feminist argument. I felt sure I was right and wouldn't budge. I got my reward eighteen months later, when Overlook Press signed me up.

But do I feel the same way about Rebel Muses? I thought about it and realised, yes, I am prepared to change things, within reason. But I need to know first what this publisher means by 'more commercial' and so, I've asked the editor to explain. Higher profile female muses? More populist artists? A stronger, perhaps more political, sense of rebellion?

What exactly does commercial mean?

Yesterday, I filed a review of Liza Klaussmann's debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, for The Scotsman. That issue was at the forefront of my review. This is a beautifully written debut, clear and dispassionate yet deliciously gossipy, too; a real treat. For the most part. And then there's a big problem. Because there's a dead body found right in the middle of it all (I'm not giving anything away, and don't worry, there are no spoilers here or in my review). And it didn't feel quite right to me. As the novel went on, it felt less and less right.

As a reviewer, if something jars with me, I think very carefully about why. And on this occasion, it seemed to me that this event jarred because it was too sensational, too - dare I say it? - commercial. Populist. Sellable. Whatever.

Would I have thought that if I hadn't just had my own experience with the 'commercial' impetus? When writers get bad reviews, there's a general 'oh, they're just jealous they're not authors too' attitude towards the critic. But most critics these days are authors as well. There's much more likely to be an overlap between author and critic, than there is to be a huge and unbridgeable gap.

I know that dead body would still have jarred with me, had I been a published author or not. Would I have reached the same conclusion, that it felt like a commercial attitude rather than an artistic one? I like to think so. But there's no doubt my own experiences as an author are impacting on my reviewing. For the better, I hope: I hope they mean I'm more informed.


  1. Really interesting to read this blog on how wearing both your hats as a reviewer and writer can colour your thoughts. Compromise, now there is a difficult thing, but you seem to hit the right note here. Good blog, lots to chew over.

  2. Thanks, Leela. So much of it is instinct, I think - knowing when to stick to your guns and when to bend a little. But it's really tricky to know if you're doing the right thing, for you, for your book, etc.

  3. Look forward to more posts like this, Lesley! It's that line 'the sales department had told the editor my project wasn't commercial enough' that rang so many bells with me. How many times have I been told 'I love your novel, but I couldn't carry the sales department with me.' I used to (almost) accept it, until I read a comment from somebody in a different line of business altogether, on the excellent Passive Voice blog in the USA. He pointed out that no business in its right mind would ever allow its sales departments to dictate new product development. Or not if they wanted to survive in a commercial world. They might be consulted in a small way, but would never be given the final sanction. Sales and marketing will be inherently conservative. For example, marketing at Kodak were probably telling product development that 'digital' was not what they did and was never going to be a commercial proposition for them. In effect, it would have put them outside their comfort zone. They would have had to do things differently. In fact, Sales and Marketing should be finding new ways of selling whatever writers and editors are sufficiently enthusiastic about developing. The balance is all wrong. And if it wasn't, traditional publishing would be in a much healthier state. I thought it a brilliant - and true - observation, but I hadn't realised it until he started to make comparisons with other industries. Then I saw the light!

  4. Great Blog Lesley, I look forward to more.

  5. I have a lot of sympathy for publishers, Catherine - I know it's a hard time for them, too, and a lot of them are responding to what the bookselling industry is telling them. Sales can't force big chains to take a book. Writers, publishers and booksellers ideally would all be working together, as indeed very often they are - I don't want to see things polarised.

  6. I have a lot of sympathy for the independents, not so much for the big boys who are owned by the huge corporations. A long time ago, I had a book bought by The Bodley Head which was immediately taken over by Random House. The change in culture was immediate and not good. It was about that time that publishers started demanding 'oven ready products' (as my agent termed it) and agencies started employing editors to do the publishers' job for them. All this was pretty good for the shareholders, but not at all good for the writers, nor for the other people at the sharp end, the good, committed editors, who lost their autonomy. We should be working together - I'm ENTIRELY with you there. I used to attempt to put this point of view - why couldn't we all become more businesslike in our approach. The way every other industry works. I was very tired of the 'humble supplicant' role in which I had been cast, but was fully prepared to work my socks off too. I didn't want nurturing - just the professional treatment I got in every other area of my working life. Sadly,I got a string of very dusty answers for my pains. I think things have become polarised whether we like it or not.


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