“My book deal ruined my life”: that’s the title of a good piece in the New York Observer this week. Reporter Gillian Reagan interviews a host of authors and gets them to talk about what it’s really like. The feature is a welcome antidote to the authorial superstar puff pieces we constantly get in the press about JK Rowling’s millions and the latest successes of Stephen King and John Grisham.
The fact is that some 99.5 per cent of unsolicited manuscripts received by major literary agents are rejected. Of the few that get through and appear in print, the majority appear on bookshop shelves for a few months and then disappear without trace.
If being a book-writer is a lottery, it's one in which the odds of winning are as low or lower than other forms of gambling.
The journalist highlights as typical the case of Leah McLaren, a Canadian newspaper columnist who landed a book contract with HarperCollins Canada in 2003 for her chick-lit novel, The Continuity Girl. “You start to think, ‘This is my lottery ticket …. It could be optioned for a movie or become a huge best-seller!’ But then, it could completely disappear and sell five copies,” Ms. McLaren said. “And you’ll never be heard from again. You’ll disappear. And that’s the real risk of writing a book.”
In the event, her book was published “to little fanfare” as a paperback original.
The reporter also chronicles some more spectacular crashes. Jessica Cutler was a blogger known as Washingtonienne who became famous for receiving a six-figure US dollar advance for her novel based on her blog. Hit by lawsuits from her humiliated ex-boyfriend, she has already filed for bankruptcy.
And then there’s the infamous James Frey. He had a million-dollar two-book deal with Riverhead -- before it was revealed that his memoirs were largely fabricated. The deal was scrapped. Now he is writing blogs and working on novels which do not have contracts. This is “the literary equivalent of living in a trailer park”, Reagan writes.