Musings of a fiction writer

Top ad man and author Ben Kay graced these pages back in 2011 with a personal insight into the world of a blockbuster fiction writer. Via his brilliant ad-industry blog ‘If This is a Blog Then What’s Christmas?‘ he brings us up to date with the process of creating his follow up second book…

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a potential new agent (I’ve finished the sequel to my bestseller Instinct but my old agent wasn’t quite right for me. He got me a good deal with Penguin but he didn’t have enough experience in exploiting my further rights for movies, video games etc. Also, he wanted to concentrate more on non-fiction. We parted amicably).

The new guy is Darley Anderson, and he’s the agent of people like Lee Child and Martina Cole, so he knows a thing or two about selling books.

Our conversation was very interesting because it highlighted several issues about the literary world that hadn’t really occurred to me and probably don’t occur to the vast majority of people who read or write books.

The main difference between Darley and most of the other literary agents is his commitment to publishing as a business. Most of us consider books to be special things that see us through our first break-up, or a trying bout of glandular fever when no friends were allowed to visit for six months. Of course that’s true, but they are also ‘things’ that need to be ‘sold’ otherwise large corporations go ‘bust’, and if that happens no one gets to read about incidents of dogs in the nighttime or lives of Pi. Commercial fiction financially props up literary fiction. Without Martina Cole there is no Hillary Mantel, so we can either acknowledge and foster the writing of the books that sell millions of copies in airports or we can look down our noses at them for failing to be Thomas Hardy or Kazuo Ishiguro. (By the way, I am fully aware that ‘literary’ fiction can sell in great numbers, but it does so far less often than commercial fiction.)

So we discussed Lee Child a great deal and he told me that Lee has absolutely no interest in becoming a ‘brand’ himself. He is only interested in promoting the brand of Jack Reacher. This is based on the fact that Harry Potter, James Bond and every superhero ever invented are far more memorable and powerful than the people who created them. Lee and Darley fight tooth and nail to reduce Lee’s name on his covers and increase the point size of Jack.

Lee  seemed to have a very pragmatic vision for the massive success of his novels from the outset. He writes a book every year without fail (sometimes two), working from September to March. You can guarantee there will be a Jack Reacher novel out in hardback in September, to be followed by a paperback for the holiday market the following summer. That’s what the creation of a brand is: the consistent supply of what your consumers want, and that doesn’t necessarily mean following a kind of formula as Lee/Jack does; it can also mean literary eclecticism along the lines of Ian McEwan’s output. His fans expect a well-written novel, often with some shocking violence and dark humour, but the inconsistency of his output is his brand, so people expect the unexpected. Along the same lines, many actors and musicians have a brand (AKA something they are very good at). When Tom Cruise leaves the action hero brand people tend not to bother with his films, even though he’s a massive star. Equally, The Rolling Stones brand of edgy rock is incredibly strong, but if Mick Jagger tries to step outside it with some solo work, no one is interested. People love Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but Cadbury’s Smash failed because it went outside the brand.

So you have to choose your game. Do you try to create a deliberate degree of consistency that will have people returning for more of what they’ve already liked, or do you believe that literature is a pure art form that consists of whatever the muse drops into your lap, or whatever stories you need to tell? I believe there’s nothing wrong with either route, but both involve playing a different game to provide distinct benefits for the people that play them. If you want money or (in my case) to make a movie from your story then creating a commercial fiction brand will drastically increase the odds of both those things coming your way. However, if you want to feel you have artistic integrity, or indeed artistic quality (however subjective that notion) then you probably want to just write ‘books’ and not really mind that they don’t sell that many copies and need to be compatible with a day job so that you can pay the rent (of course, most books exist in the area in between the two).

This can then throw up the thorny issue of whether or not you aim for the absolute pinnacle of everything you try to do, and what that really means. We could all try to be Dickens, but even he was thought of as a commercial fiction writer who was disregarded until many years after his death. Is it wrong to aim for popularity and not spend years searching for every single one of the mots justes? Like I said, there is no wrong. You are allowed to try to do things that aren’t what other people consider to be the best use of your time. It’s probably best to just aim for something that makes you happy and fulfilled, then spend your life trying to achieve it. You might find that the journey leads you to a destination you weren’t expecting.






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6 thoughts on “Musings of a fiction writer

    June 19, 2013 at 09:34

    Great piece Ben – and I guess that if Jagger were as savvy as he claims to be, he would have realized that the brand (Stones) was the thing, not his rather feeble attempts to ape them.
    On a point of order – I had always imagined that Smash was quite successful anyway, even before the BMP campaign? Do put me straight….

  2. Worm
    June 19, 2013 at 12:33

    very interesting and well written piece

  3. Brit
    June 20, 2013 at 20:16

    The trade publishing industry is indeed bonkers, being in what NN Taleb calls ‘extremistan’, where a few mega-hits fund everything else the publisher puts out.

    So when it comes to bestselling fiction, I see the point about looking “down our noses at them for failing to be Thomas Hardy or Kazuo Ishiguro”.

    And yet, and yet… what puzzles me about fiction is the way that smash hits can be just total and utter crap, worthless on every level. Dan Brown, Fifty Shades of Grey etc – these do not stand in relation to Hilary Mantel as mass market pop songs do to Beethoven, or blockbuster popcorn movies do to arthouse films.

    Smash hit pop songs might be disposable rubbish, but they are also expertly crafted, with an understanding of melody, beat, structure and how to press the right buttons. Ditto blockbuster movies, which understand pacing and have special effects requiring amazing technical expertise.

    Dan Brown is not like this. The Da Vinci Code is the equivalent of a tone deaf man howling lyrics that don’t scan or rhyme while bashing away at a piano after two and half lessons. Or an Ed Wood film like Plan 9 From Outer Space. “The famous man got into the expensive car” etc.

    Yet countless people love it, so countless people must be tone deaf to prose. It does depress me slightly that good writing is such a niche product.

    • Gaw
      June 21, 2013 at 08:59

      Perhaps the analogy is with people who eat solely to be full versus those who make a fuss about the taste and provenance and ambience, etc.?

        June 21, 2013 at 11:40

        Nando’s is the Dan Brown of food. It does depress me slightly that good food is such a niche product.

        June 21, 2013 at 13:07

        I’m not sure that holds either. Everyone’s got to eat but fiction is optional. And the Da Vinci Code isn’t the equivalent of a KFC, never mind a Nandos. It’s more of a shit sandwich.

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