Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a potential new agent (I’ve finished the sequel to Instinct but my old agent wasn’t quite right for me. He got me a good deal with Penguin but he didn’t have enough experience in exploiting my further rights for movies, video games etc. Also, he wanted to concentrate more on non-fiction. We parted amicably).
The new guy is Darley Anderson, and he’s the agent of people like Lee Child and Martina Cole, so he knows a thing or two about selling books.
Our conversation was very interesting because it highlighted several issues about the literary world that hadn’t really occurred to me and probably don’t occur to the vast majority of people who read or write books.
The main difference between Darley and most of the other literary agents is his commitment to publishing as a business. Most of us consider books to be special things that see us through our first break-up, or a trying bout of glandular fever when no friends were allowed to visit for six months. Of course that’s true, but they are also ‘things’ that need to be ‘sold’ otherwise large corporations go ‘bust’, and if that happens no one gets to read about incidents of dogs in the nighttime or lives of Pi. Commercial fiction financially props up literary fiction. Without Martina Cole there is no Hillary Mantel, so we can either acknowledge and foster the writing of the books that sell millions of copies in airports or we can look down our noses at them for failing to be Thomas Hardy or Kazuo Ishiguro. (By the way, I am fully aware that ‘literary’ fiction can sell in great numbers, but it does so far less often than commercial fiction.)
So we discussed Lee Child a great deal and he told me that Lee has absolutely no interest in becoming a ‘brand’ himself. He is only interested in promoting the brand of Jack Reacher. This is based on the fact that Harry Potter, James Bond and every superhero ever invented are far more memorable and powerful than the people who created them. Lee and Darley fight tooth and nail to reduce Lee’s name on his covers and increase the point size of Jack.
Lee seemed to have a very pragmatic vision for the massive success of his novels from the outset. He writes a book every year without fail (sometimes two), working from September to March. You can guarantee there will be a Jack Reacher novel out in hardback in September, to be followed by a paperback for the holiday market the following summer. That’s what the creation of a brand is: the consistent supply of what your consumers want, and that doesn’t necessarily mean following a kind of formula as Lee/Jack does; it can also mean literary eclecticism along the lines of Ian McEwan’s output. His fans expect a well-written novel, often with some shocking violence and dark humour, but the inconsistency of his output is his brand, so people expect the unexpected. Along the same lines, many actors and musicians have a brand (AKA something they are very good at). When Tom Cruise leaves the action hero brand people tend not to bother with his films, even though he’s a massive star. Equally, The Rolling Stones brand of edgy rock is incredibly strong, but if Mick Jagger tries to step outside it with some solo work, no one is interested. People love Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but Cadbury’s Smash failed because it went outside the brand.
So you have to choose your game. Do you try to create a deliberate degree of consistency that will have people returning for more of what they’ve already liked, or do you believe that literature is a pure art form that consists of whatever the muse drops into your lap, or whatever stories you need to tell? I believe there’s nothing wrong with either route, but both involve playing a different game to provide distinct benefits for the people that play them. If you want money or (in my case) to make a movie from your story then creating a commercial fiction brand will drastically increase the odds of both those things coming your way. However, if you want to feel you have artistic integrity, or indeed artistic quality (however subjective that notion) then you probably want to just write ‘books’ and not really mind that they don’t sell that many copies and need to be compatible with a day job so that you can pay the rent (of course, most books exist in the area in between the two).
This can then throw up the thorny issue of whether or not you aim for the absolute pinnacle of everything you try to do, and what that really means. We could all try to be Dickens, but even he was thought of as a commercial fiction writer who was disregarded until many years after his death. Is it wrong to aim for popularity and not spend years searching for every single one of the mots justes? Like I said, there is no wrong. You are allowed to try to do things that aren’t what other people consider to be the best use of your time. It’s probably best to just aim for something that makes you happy and fulfilled, then spend your life trying to achieve it. You might find that the journey leads you to a destination you weren’t expecting.
(PS: Lee on how he writes. Great advice.)