Short attention span

I’ve been working with Stephen Davis on a proposal for a new television drama series.

Stephen’s got a terrific idea, of course, but it’s a hell of a job to come up with a document that caters for a short attention span and still proves there’s a lot of substance to the idea.  The temptation is to spread out all the riches in front of the prospective producer:  Isn’t it a fantastic concept!  Look at these compelling characters! It can be pitched like this, but it’s different because of that!  Isn’t it exciting?!

So you end up with 12 pages of intelligent, subtle prose.  No one’s going to read that long a document.  The search is on to find 10 attention-grabbing words for the first two sentences – without compromising the whole idea.

It seems that the process with which we buy things involves a couple of seconds to get interested – or otherwise.  Once we’re hooked, we have a long attention span (assuming the series delivers).

But what a pro Stephen is.  I’m so looking forward to what he’ll come up with.

Kate Griffin’s The Minority Council

Kate Griffin’s new book The Minority Council is out this month.  Kate, of course, is actually Catherine Webb, whose first book was published when she was 15.

And how scary was that.  First of all, I didn’t want an editor who would publish the book apologetically: “Here’s a book by a 15-year-old but actually it’s really good.”  Happily, when I was telling Tim Holman of Little, Brown about the book, he was horrified at that idea, and said if it were his, he’d publish it on its own merits.

So I had Kate in, resisting the usual impulse to give an author a glass of wine, and providing tea and chocolate biscuits instead.  The next issue was to work out whether the book was actually her own work, without too much help from Mum (also an author) and Dad (a publisher).  When she said she was working on her next book by making a list of 10 things that had to happen, and why, I began to relax.

We went along to meet Tim; Kate in her school uniform.  He didn’t remotely patronise her, but got her into a conversation about politics.  Afterwards, when we met her mum in a coffee shop round the corner, I broke the news that the offer Tim had made was about enough to buy a decent sports car.  It’s very easy to like someone if they’re offering you money, and I wanted to get a sense of whether she liked him genuinely.

A fair few books later, Kate’s now in her mid-20s and – after doing a History degree at the LSE and then one in Technical Theatre at RADA – she’s a lighting designer and technician as well as writing.  Impossibly cheerful, good-looking and brainy, she describes her style as ‘headlong’.   She writes urban fantasy, and is writing some excellent stage plays as well.

There’s a rave for her new book here:

The publishers’ announcement is here:


Anne Perry

Cheering me up after last week’s flu is an advance copy of a new book:  Anne Perry’s A Sunless Sea is published next month, in handsome hardbacks from Headline (UK) and Random House (US).

Anne was my first client, and is having an astounding career.  Well over 50 novels;  none of her books ever going out of print; 25 million copies sold; bestseller in a number of countries including the US; enormous critical acclaim; and the latest reviews say her work is even better than ever.

Besides being enormous fun to work with, she’s been my education as an agent.  There’s so much to keep track of that I’ve had to grow an extra lobe of my brain to contain it all.  If there are any phrenologists out there who’d like to feel my skull, they’re welcome to explore the Anne Perry bump.

Creatively speaking, she’s taught me a huge amount, too.  How to wring as much tension out of a plot as possible; how to counterpoint themes; how to push characters to their limit; how to create unexpected twists in the story.

Running such a long career brings its own challenges, too.  Keeping series fresh is a big feature.  Anne needs to start each book feeling excited about what she’s going to write, even after several discussions about the outline.  The rest of the team – her editors, the publishers’ marketing departments, our foreign co-agents – need to feel they’re receiving not just ‘another Anne Perry book’.  The publishers have to keep the booksellers motivated.  Hard enough getting to the top; this is about staying there.

Anne usually takes her idea from current affairs, and then looks at the year her characters are now living, to find a historical parallel.  For instance, A Sunless Sea connects the re-examination of the David Kelly case (someone possibly killed for revealing a shocking truth) with the historical movement to label medicines.  In those days, a young mother would ask her friends what they used to soothe a baby, and go and buy something like Doctor Pettigrew’s Child Silencer, not having any way of knowing whether it contained gin, morphine, or god knows what.

This means that the story she’s telling us today is about something relevant to us, even though it’s through a historical lens.  She makes sure we don’t know where her characters will be taken in this next story.  This far into her series, many of her readers have been following Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, or William and Hester Monk, so she has the luxury of subverting expectations and bringing new layers of characterization.  And once in a while she’ll step out of Victorian London to visit another time period.

The publishers keep things fresh by occasionally re-designing Anne’s covers.  Nowadays, too, metadata is key.  Some readers like to research an author before trying one of their books; others like to know more about a writer they love.  Author interviews on the web, a blog, the Amazon author’s page, publishers’ additional information on their website – all of these make the experience richer.

Is it hard work for all of us?  But is it worth it?  Absolutely.

Correction to previous post

I was a bit elliptical about the process for authors.  Once a book has been registered for the scheme, authors have six months to opt out; after that, opting out looks like a long, difficult process.  The original print publisher will be given first refusal to exploit the ebook rights; after that the rights will be offered on a non-exclusive basis. Payment will come via a registered collecting society.

Scary changes to French copyright law

I hadn’t expected to be so political in the early days of this blog, but there’s something drastic going on in France.  Having nobly stood up against the Google Book Settlement, our neighbours across the Channel have ‘done it for themselves’.

Books published before 1 January 2001 and currently out of print can now be digitized and sold, without the consent of the author.  Authors can opt out of this scheme but it looks like a long, difficult process.  Publishers can exploit the e-book rights for 6 months, as I understand it, and then payment will come via a registered collecting society.

A very clear guide to what’s going on can be found here, thanks to Copyright Hero Gill Spraggs:

This is just the latest episode in a drive to make all content available online.  I’m all in favour – as long as it doesn’t trample on authors.  Despite Samuel Johnson’s assertion that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’, writing is not a good way to get rich quick – if ever.