RUNNING ON EMPTY
The Hollywood Reporter recently gathered together six leading New York literary agents to share their thoughts on the publishing industry today. You can see this fascinating hour long discussion on line at www.litrejections.com/agents-roundtable/. One of the agents, Eric Simonoff of the WME agency, recalled one author’s letter which accompanied his MSS. It read; “Dear Mr. Simonoff, it would be an egregious lack of judgment for you to represent me; let me outline ten reasons why…” The writer got a deal. For literary health and safety reasons, I wouldn’t recommend you try this method, but I wish I’d known about it some years ago when agents and publishers still paid attention.
I’ve heard a lot over the years about ‘writer’s block’ yet it’s not a condition I’ve ever had to contend with. The ideas keep coming, the fragile flame of hope that I can continue to make a meagre living still flickers, and without a daily target of words I feel lost. However, as with all occupations, physical or desk-bound, there comes a time when, imperceptibly at first, age, cynicism and lassitude begin to wear you down. As the literary landscape around you begins to change, a feeling of despair and isolation sets in. After a dozen published books, (deals mostly negotiated without the aid of an agent) countless magazine features, radio and TV work, to paraphrase Groucho Marx I’ve worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme obscurity. I still write every day, but when it comes to optimism, I’m running on empty.
It’s a common whinge among us older scribes that writing and publishing aren’t what they used to be. Technology may have initially seemed like a liberator, yet it has also become a destroyer. In the ancient era of the typewriter, a re-write of a day’s work would have taken you just that - a day. Now, on screen you can zip through it in a couple of hours. This ought to have freed up more time for human interaction, but the reverse is true. Good manners and communication in the field of publishing have been eroded almost to the point of non-existence.
I was struck recently by seeing a facsimile of a rejection letter from Faber and Faber dated July 13 1944. It was addressed to George Orwell, a whole page and a half, around 500 words, telling him why Faber wouldn’t be publishing Animal Farm. It was signed by T.S. Eliot. Of course, Orwell was an important writer, yet it was the gentlemanly thoroughness of the rejection which stood out. Eliot and Faber’s directors had actually read the MSS. The two-page typewritten response was detailed, reasoned, helpful. Time had been taken to assess and evaluate a submission. One has to wonder, in the age of the ‘slush pile’, what might have happened to Animal Farm today.
Needless to say, I’m no Orwell, just a jobbing old hack minus an academic past. With three GCE ‘O’ levels and a fascination with history, I set out to be a writer in the 1970s with no idea how to get into print. Yet even then, three decades after Animal Farm’s rejection, with all my futile romantic hopes and grammatical shortcomings, even a vain would-be wordsmith was allowed to communicate with the commissioning editors of the publishing world. When I tried to write a book in 1971, a history of an obscure Yorkshire railway line killed off by Dr. Beeching, no less than the managing director, David St. John Thomas of the publishers David and Charles, wrote to me a few days after receiving my pitiful MSS with a two page critique of my work and style, with pointers as to how I could improve the work, and encouraging me to keep on writing. In that same year, when I wrote an article on spec for the Observer, the editor of the Business Section, Anthony Bambridge, not only wrote me an uplifting letter, but telephoned me to thank me for my submission. And he printed it. At that time my work was being featured on BBC Radio 3 on a show called The Northern Drift. The producer was the late, legendary Alfred Bradley. He even agreed to meet me in a pub in Hull, where we sat for over two hours as he offered me advice.
Fast forward to the so-called ‘age of instant communication’, 2016. Two months ago I sent out 7 detailed proposals, four to TV production companies and three to publishers. Return postage and envelopes were enclosed, the submissions all backed up by e-mails. The result to date is … zilch. For nine months last year, as instructed by an interested publisher, I re-wrote a children’s novel five times until they were happy. Then silence fell. I badgered them: eventually they said that their ‘budget wouldn’t allow taking my work on at this time’. Would they have told me had I not kept at them? No. Today more than ever, time is money, and no-one has any to spare. Magazines, newspapers, publishers, the BBC, today all are infected with this courtesy by-pass, where good manners have been burned on the corporate bonfire. That said, I did encounter one pocket of ‘old school’ good manners when I wrote to Ian Hislop with a TV documentary proposal. He actually wrote back, in longhand, telling me he was ‘too busy’ but wishing me luck.
Of course, it is quite possible that after 40 years of work perhaps my ideas and my creativity have run their vague commercial course. However, I still fall back on Thomas Edison’s dictum; “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
David St John Thomas died in his sleep on 19 August 2014 at the age of 84 while on a cruise in the Baltic. I shall remember him and Alfred Bradley fondly, because something good died with them; the human etiquette of response and considerate correspondence.