Let me say first that this was a large Zoom group, and the editor and author are both alumni of Selwyn, one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge, as I am. I did manage to ask one question. Since it was a private group I shall not name the figures, though you may be able to guess who they are, particularly the editor.
The editor founded one of the largest independent publishers in the world in the eighties, and has published Booker Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners. He also discovered JK Rowling–to whom he offered the princely advance of £1,500 for her first novel. (Her agent persuaded him to raise the offer to £2,500!) Many people in the meeting asked questions about how to find a publisher, whether an agent was necessary, and so on. The straight skinny: he said an agent is vital. His house won’t consider unagented fiction. He was also asked by a young black writer of literary fiction (another alumnus) whether his house was seeking to improve its representation of black and other minority writers. He said they definitely were. No surprise there.
My own question, which won’t surprise anyone who reads my posts, was about the prevalence of woke authors and woke subjects. He was a bit evasive in response, though he stressed free speech, and justified publishing a famous conservative author on those grounds. He said he would never ask a potential employee whether they would be willing to work on a certain book.
We also spoke to a young woman who can’t be thirty yet: she matriculated in 2010, took a law degree, then did a Master’s in Creative Writing. She has just received the largest advance ever for a debut children’s novel in Britain: seven figures. A million quid, then. At least. The novel is about bloodthirsty unicorns. Yes, there was a bidding war on a novel about bloodthirsty unicorns. Get your mind around that! True, I haven’t read it yet. Perhaps it’s a work of genius, full of symbolism and profundity.
On the other hand, instead of spending over a million on one person, they might have given 100 advances of £10,000 each. They could have taken a chance on a hundred ambitious novels. But this is the world we live in: a handful of superstars make all the money and get all the attention, while the rest struggle to be heard. Again, nothing new there.
It makes you wonder if it’s worth persevering. But then we do it for the love of the art, don’t we?