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Friday, 23 May 2008

Share my pain

It's not often I feel sorry for a multi-millionaire Formula One driver, but my heart went out to Lewis Hamilton the other day. With his sponsors presumably pulling the strings, Hamilton put in a toe-curlingly embarassing performance as the God Apollo when he "descended" into a musical version of the epic battle for Troy dressed in full racing overalls. Remember the moment in Spinal Tap when the miniature Stonehenge is lowered onto the stage - this was much worse than that. Hamilton looks like he's swallowed a wasp - poor bastard.

But then at least he's sold his integrity for a couple of mill. I traded mine in for a coffee and a croissant. I'm talking, of course, about my recent appearance on "Meet the Author", a shameless attempt at self-promotion and glory that you can enjoy at your leisure. I personally haven't been able to bring myself to watch it yet, so I leave it to you to tell me how bad it is. It was actually one of the hardest things I've ever done - speaking for a minute or so, unscripted, looking straight into camera. What made it worse was that the more takes I did, the more rubbish I got. But with The Gilded Seal out in less that two weeks, it's all hands to the pump, all shoulders to the wheel and dignity out of the window.

Apparently Joan Collins was the best they've ever done - you can imagine it can't you? "Hello darlings, Joan here to tell you about my fabulous new book. Sex, money, sex, silicone, sex. It's got it all." Hard to compete really.

Believe it or not, my video escapade is not the most embarassing thing I've ever done. That probably came at university when I had been invited to a dinner at the Oxford Union before a debate on the legalisation of prostitution. I was sitting next to a very nice man, a doctor I seem to remember, who over bread rolls and soup leant forward and asked me in a conspiratorial voice:

"So which one's the prostitute?"

Glancing round to check that no-one was listening, I nodded down the table.

"The one with the blonde hair."

"In the blue dress?" He winked knowingly.

"No," I corrected him. "In the black."

"I think you'll find," He hissed. "That she's my wife."

Monday, 12 May 2008

Literary lottery

Fresh from a meeting with Harper Collins and very encouraging signs about the impending publication (2nd June) of the paperback version of The Gilded Seal in the UK. Pre-orders are looking really strong and all the big retailers are stocking it and including it within their summer promotions. On the back of this, HC is planning to market it with posters etc. at airports and train stations. Woo-hoo.

For someone who first developed a love of thrillers when buying "bumpy cover" books at the airport, this is especially exciting. One of the biggest kicks I have ever had as a writer was when The Double Eagle was first published and I saw a massive floor to ceiling bay at Heathrow.

These days I'm a bit harder to impress. In fact aspiring writers often ask me what it feels like to see my book on the shelf and are a bit disapointed when I say not much. Maybe I've got a bit blase (how do you do an accute accent?) about things as time has gone on or forgotten that just getting published is in itself an achievement. The problem is, I've never seen it quite like that - in my view, if a book gets published it's because a publisher thinks they can make some money out of it, not as some act of selfless charity that a writer should in some way be grateful for. And being on the shelf is nothing (actually that's a lie - you wouldn't believe how hard it is to even get stocked) - it's selling copies that counts!

Depressingly, according to a report I read in The Times late last year, of 200,000 titles sold in the UK in 2007, 190,000 sold fewer than 3,500 copies. More damning still, of 85,933 new books published, as many as 58,325 (or 68%) sold an average of just 18 copies. Can you believe that? All that grief to write and edit and publish a book and then its sells an average of 18 copies. That must mean there are tens of thousands of books selling no copies at all.

In a way, the whole publishing game is a bit like walking across the Peninnes - every time you think you've reached the top of a hill you find that another, higher crest, lies just behind it. Write a book, get an agent, get a publisher, get stocked, get reviewed, get accepted into retail promotions, sell ten copies, ten thousand copies, sell a hundred thousand copies, have a movie made ... It's a never-ending staircase which leads ... God knows where.

Looking back, the hardest part for me was getting an agent rather than getting a publisher. It took almost a year to get an agent, whereas it took my agent a week to get two offers - that's the advantage of having someone who knew exactly who would like my writing. I remember one day when I was visiting him and went to hang up my coat. He pointed me to a large cupboard - perhaps six feet long and eight high - and when I opened it was stuffed neck-high with manuscripts. This was, apparently, their slush pile - unsolicited manuscripts sent in by aspiring writers. And believe it or not it was onto this pile that my own rather rubbish early draft had been slung, slowly working its way up through a series of readers until six months later I got a call from J-Lo lui-meme and an offer to take me on.

We're talking about hundreds, possibly thousands of manuscripts a year, of which they will publish six, maybe ten books. So while seeing my book on the shelf doesn't quite excite me as much as it probably should, I do get a kick every time I think of that cupboard and beating the odds. Now I just need to sell more than 18 copies ...

By the way, conference season is starting soon so thought I would tell you about two upcoming events I'm speaking at, where I am hoping not to have to repeat last year's Daphne du Maurier fun and games (see Mild and Bitter):

CrimeFest - Bristol - 5-8 June
CHAIR: Declan Hughes
PANEL :Katherine John, Michael Marshall, Jason Pinter, James Twining

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - 17- 20 July 2007
JAMES BOND - THE SPY WE LOVED - 18th July (5pm)
CHAIR: Simon Brett
PANEL: Joseph Finder, Catherine Sampson, Charlie Higson, James Twining