Let me do what novelists like to do best. Let me tell you some stories. Two stories, in fact.
In 1998, my first novel In the City by the Sea is about to be published by Granta Books. I’ve received an advance that’s nowhere near five figures – but I’m 25, it’s my first novel, and I still can’t quite believe anyone’s paying me to publish a book I’ve written. My then-agent, Alexandra Pringle takes me out for lunch and says, ‘You’re a proper writer who should have a long future in publishing ahead of you. Don’t feel disappointed if this first novel doesn’t cause a big stir. What we want with a writer like yours to build your career. Perhaps the second or the third novel will make a bigger noise – with this one let’s keep our fingers crossed for good reviews, and if you get onto a first novel shortlist that would be wonderful.’ I was prepared, wisely it turned out, to believe anything Alexandra said. This was someone who took the skimpiness of an early draft, sat down with it and me for a long afternoon session during which she cleared everything else off her schedule, pointed out lines that didn’t work as well as characters who didn’t work – and showed me how to make a skimpy draft into a novel.
Well, the book came out. Didn’t cause a big stir. Did get nice reviews. Was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys award. Sold not very much. Alexandra moved from agenting back into publishing, at Bloomsbury, and bought my second novel – she’s remained my publisher ever since. No one made me feel there was any need to worry, or that the second novel would have to do much better than the first if I were to carry on being published. Which is just as well because the second novel did only a little better than the first in terms of sales, and not nearly as well in terms of review space. That didn’t stop Bloomsbury from buying the third novel. It wasn’t until my fifth novel Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, that I wrote a book, which made a bigger noise. And just as well, because by that time – a little over a decade after first publication – the world of writing careers built on respectable but modest successes was fast evaporating.
A year or so after my first novel was published I heard an agent fall into a conversation with a banker who asked her questions about the way finances work in publishing. Very soon he became quite confused. He couldn’t understand why you would sign on writers who you knew wouldn’t make very much money; he couldn’t understand a world in which ‘unearned advances’ on a novel weren’t a reason to decide the writer had been a bad investment and should be disposed of immediately; he couldn’t understand this business of ‘building a career’ in an industry in which is was so difficult to predict success. And he particularly couldn’t understand publishing writers who seemed unlikely to ever have a big success but were ‘important voices’. I was sitting next to the agent during this conversation, hearing snatches of it, and I kept thinking how grateful I was to be in an industry that knew of course you couldn’t go bankrupt but that didn’t mean you forgot that ‘value’ was a word that didn’t only attach itself to pounds and pennies.
Well, here we are in 2015 and it’s difficult to imagine an agent having the same kind of conversation about quiet publication and building a career that Alexandra had with me in 1998. It’s also difficult to imagine a banker feeling quite so lost in a conversation about publishing and finances.
Don’t get me wrong. At no point am I doubting the importance of the money side of things. Writing pays my bills. But the nature of writers and writing means if you’re ever going to have Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient you have to be willing to take a chance on Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter – a book of genius, with its experimental jazz riffs, but not a book that’s likely to set the cash registers ringing. This doesn’t mean that we don’t also honour and value the Jackie Collins’ of the world – my adolescence would certainly have been far less interesting without her, and she could teach most literary novelists a thing or two about how to write about power and patriarchy and other deeply serious matters.
It’s hard to make the case for ‘building careers’ and considering different kinds of value among all the noise and panic – Amazon is here, box sets are here, too-few-ways for books to get attention are here. Moneymen who only look at the bottom line are here. Through all of this, as Nicola Solomon mentioned in her speech, publishing profits are remaining steady; this could create the delusion that the status quo is working. But how can it be working if writers’ average earnings are shrinking? If more of us are finding it difficult to reach readers? If publishers want only the hare and not the tortoise?
I suggest we need to both look back and forward. Back to editors who edit, to publishers who build long careers, to words like ‘trust’ and ‘relationships.’ And yes, this cuts both ways; writers, too, have responsibilities to the people we work with. But the difference is, our entire career and livelihood is dependent on the choices we make regarding one publisher, one agent. There’s a terror and precariousness to that position.
But the looking forward part is important too. Instead of taking risks by throwing lots of money at the handful of writers who look as though they’re going to be next year’s bestseller – largely because something in them echoes or overlaps some other year’s bestseller – take risks on writers who are fresh and surprising. Don’t just publish the book to be read by fans of Jonathan Franzen, publish books to be read by people who think fiction never gives them what they want. The joy of novels is in their variedness, from E.L. James to Marlon James. There are tastes out there that aren’t being met, that no one knows exists. There is no story the novel can’t tell, so why is it that the writers being published don’t begin to reflect the stories being lived in this nation? I would suggest publishing houses look at the demographics of who is working within their walls to find the most obvious answer to that question. This talk is a call for industry unity – the industry doesn’t only include published writers and loyal readers, it also includes the unpublished writers, the readers in search of books. Consider the excitement of publishing in the UK in the 1980’s: Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Virago Modern Classics. Even if The Bookseller didn’t quite get it right in 1983 when it declared the 80’s ‘the decade of the gay novel’ the fact remained that books in the 80’s were different to the way they had been before. And publishing was better for it. It’s time surely to let more difference in – and then for marketing departments, booksellers, reviewers, festivals, prize judges, and other writers to put some elbow grease into sending that difference out into the world.
But most importantly, it’s time to think very deeply about what the word ‘value’ means when it come to books. Consider the state of Britain today – referendums and refugees, airstrikes and austerity. Are we hearing the complex, nuanced, human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live?
No, but we could – and we must.
That should be publishing’s bottom line.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She has also written a work of non-fiction, Offence: The Muslim Case. A trustee of Free Word and English Pen, she grew up in Karachi and now lives in London