Monday, May 2, 2011

Old Excesses

In April 2011 literary agent Carole Blake tweeted a link to a blog by US agent Josh Gertler about authors waiting to hear from publishers. The piece was on the deliciously named “Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room” blog – to read it see http://tinyurl.com/3nm8qxx. (Carole Blake’s tweet was on 21 April – a very long time ago in Twitterland.)

Josh Gertler’s piece (“No News”) was a lively – and ultimately reassuring – treatment of the agony of waiting to hear from publishers and agents. The waiting is, as Mr Gertler says, “excruciating”. Of course, whether you’re a writer or not waiting is never fun, as anyone who’s ever sat an exam or applied for a job knows. In publishing, though, there’s an extra dimension of awfulness in that you don’t know when you’re going to hear – it could be a week, three months, six months, even longer – and in some (thankfully rare) cases it’s never. All unavoidable of course: no one’s to blame, though I know from some other comments I’ve read that there are people who do seem to think that the Publishing Industry is in cahoots against them. It’s a situation that at its worst can cause ill feeling on both sides. However, as Mr Gertler points out, no news really is no news.

In fact, it seems that the long wait is a tradition stretching back to publishing’s early days if the case of poet John Clare is anything to go by. According to the splendid biography of Clare by Jonathan Bate, Clare’s second collection of poetry was advertised in November 1820, but did not appear until September 1821. Understandably, Clare found the waiting difficult. In his case it wasn’t helped by a friend who helpfully told him that his London publishers, John Taylor and James Hessey, “had been sitting on a set of proofs for a month, without bothering to send them to Clare”.

Another helpful friend told John Taylor in August 1820 that the poet was so upset by the delay he had taken up drinking again. Taylor was hurt. He had a heavy workload and his own health problems, on top of which Clare’s work was a struggle to edit because of his poor handwriting, spelling and grammar. The publisher wrote to the poet: “I had thought you felt more Regard for me than to plunge into old Excesses and lay the Sin at my Door.” Then, Bate tells us, “Clare, in turn, was upset at the accusation that he had been complaining about Taylor. He would sooner the volumes were delayed till the Christmas after next than have anyone other than Taylor himself do the editing”.

Clearly, it was a difficult situation for both Clare and Taylor, exacerbated by the facts that the economy was in recession, and the bottom had dropped out of the poetry market. That sounds familiar too. Perhaps, despite the huge differences between publishing then and now, the basics haven’t changed all that much. Authors still get anxious over delays and publishers and agents still get exasperated at their lack of commercial sense. At least we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we are part of a great literary heritage - while being careful of course not to blame agents and publishers for driving us to drink!


Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room –the blog has lots of other interesting and entertaining articles for authors - http://heydeadguy.typepad.com/heydeadguy/

John Clare: A Biography, by Jonathan Bate, is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and in the UK by Picador – and it’s a fantastic read.

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