It’s a November Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the local park. The cool but bright sun flares gold on the autumn leaves of the plane trees. Kids play on the climbing frames nearby, and people walk their dogs, no doubt reminding themselves how impressive it is that the Mayor ordered the river to be diverted so it now winds through the middle of the park, meaning no more ad hoc football matches; instead we have an ‘ecology pond’ with a sign next to it showing all the wildlife you might see, but which the absence of David Attenborough peering through the bushes indicates is more likely to be wishful Lewisham Council thinking.
I’m sitting on a cold steel chair outside the little cafe, a mug of coffee next to my notebook, the top page of which is empty at the moment. I’m bothered by something to do with writing but not sure what exactly. Which is a familiar state to be in, similar to before I begin writing an actual story.
Something . . .
I can almost feel it, like trying to recall a dream upon waking, grabbing at wisps of scenes and feelings, forcing meaning back in to them, like blowing air into the lungs of a dying man.
I’m relieved when Ben unexpectedly appears, smiles and asks if I want company. I nod and he gets himself a coffee, sits.
“There can’t be much money,” he says, “in making notebooks for writers.”
“I think I’m thinking about how to start.”
“What, a story?”
“No, how to start being a writer.”
He squints into the sky, then yelps, lurches forward, grabs both hands around his mug to stop it flying, as a streak of hurtling dog bumps into him on its way to recover something its owner has just thrown.
“Sorry, mate,” says a man behind us. “I meant to chuck it the other way.”
The dog returns with a yellow plastic miniature rugby ball between its teeth, that squeaks. He drops it at the man’s feet, who picks it up and this time manages to throw it away from me and Ben.
“The problem is,” says Ben, “that very few writers choose where to start. The ones who get taken on by a publisher are dropped half way down the road before they’re even aware there are roads to be half way down. I have a theory . . . ”
The dog keeps running after that ball as if it’s the first time. I’m glad Ben has a theory.
“Back in the 70s,” he says, “when we opened our book shop, publishing was very different. Take children’s books – ”
I know he says this because I was/am a children’s author. And while I know what he’s going to start with at least, I’m happy to hear it – a story about stories, really.
“Publishers were smaller than today and the children’s department would be run by the senior editor. She’d decide which books to buy, commission an artist to do the cover then the book was sent out. No damn marketing men.”
“They didn’t need a sales team,” I say, “because they already had places that were guaranteed to buy enough books to keep the authors developing.”
“Yes, book shops and libraries,” he says. “Not huge sales, as you say, but it allowed the model to work, which back then was to discover good writers and give them several novels to find their audience. Then, extra sales were icing on the cake. But tasty icing, not the synthetic sugary shit publishers put out these days.”
I sip my coffee, noting I’m slightly tense, half-expecting a squeaking rugby ball to land in my lap when it and my bollocks will disappear into a nasty set of canine canines.
“Thing was,” he says, “those buyambienmed.com children’s editors only cared about quality, about good writing. So much so, they not only didn’t look for mass-market bestsellers, they actually banned them; at least the libraries did. Like Enid Blyton.”
“When I was at college in Swansea in the 70s,” I say, “I spent a few hours with a local librarian, and she told me about the Blyton ban. Said it was because the writing was so bad. She handed me a Famous Five book, opened it to a random page and told me to read a paragraph. It went something like, ‘Dick got in the boat and got out the oars. Anne got out the sandwiches and made sure that everyone got their fair share . . . ‘”
Ben smiles as if hearing a distant symphony. “I know what all the liberal idiots would say to that: it doesn’t matter, as long as children are reading. But it does matter. Blyton was too lazy to think of better words, so just used ‘got’ all the time. And that would subconsciously programme her readers into thinking that’s the way to use language.”
“You were going to talk about starting,” I remind him.
“I’m getting to that . . . So two things changed: first, publishers amalgamated, got bought up by big multi-national companies who only saw books as products to be sold. Which meant they weren’t going to let a writer find her audience: either she sold right from the word go or she was out. Second, the new sales teams which had final say on acquisitions realised there was a Blyton-sized hole in the children’s market. But they didn’t know how to fill it. Children’s books weren’t segmented like adult literature: genre, literary, mass-market, etc. They were all pretty much in one block, left over from the days when it was all good quality so it didn’t matter how you marketed it.”
I know what’s coming next but let him say it.
“Then Harry Potter happened.” He laughs. “And you know the greatest irony of all? All those mass market sales meant nothing to small shops like me. The discounts we were offered were so small, I actually ended up buying Potter books off Amazon to sell in our shop; and then it was just to keep faith with our customers; we didn’t make any money on them.”
“Is that why you’re thinking of giving up?”
“No, I’m thinking of giving up because most of the books we sell are crap. Blame the publishing model. Anyway, what I’m saying is that writers think they’ve already started when they get that publishing deal, but in fact they haven’t. When that book comes out, it’s only the publisher who’s started.”
“Not sure you’d sell many copies of this if you put it in a how to write book.”
“Writers always underestimate the power of the commercial concerns who are hiring them. I’m telling you, it’s the publisher who’s started that writer, not the writer.”
“So, what can the serious writer do?”
“Make sure that he’s started, on his terms, before he sends anything out to publishers.”
“Maybe but then the publishers haven’t just brainwashed the writers, they’ve done it to the readers, too.”
“But why wouldn’t they want writers to really express themselves?”
“The same reason any corporation doesn’t really want its employees to express themselves: control.”
I know he’s right. But he isn’t finished. “The worst thing of all is that it isn’t the publishers’ control that’s the most damaging. It’s the control the author exerts over his own creativity, because he’s frightened of functioning without it.”
I think about the blank page of my notebook. I haven’t started it yet. But, Ben’s right: I actually started a long time ago; the question is, did I really choose where from?