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The Editor's View July 06


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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It’s sell, sell, sell, not just write, write,

write. . . Dame Catherine’s centenary . . .

a toff who brightens the scene

BOOK of the of the week...manager’s choice...recommended read...solus position on a gondola end...fiction buyer’s of the week.

Do you get conned or tempted by this sort of nonsense? Most of the labels and recommendations are meaningless as the Sunday Times once more pointed out.

All it means is that the chain stores, among them W H Smith, have charged the publisher for the privilege (?) of hanging such tag or similar accolade on its book.

Of course the book stores claim that they would not grant this accolade to any old book and they need the money to spend on point of sale material and television advertising. So what happens to the 40 per cent margin?

Libby Purves, poured scorn on this view in The Times, reporting that one publisher told her it cost £200,000 for a pre-Christmas push. She writes: "If books matter they are to remain different from packets of detergent."

With few exceptions you cannot trust these "read of the week" and similar accolades.

Independent bookstores are different. Some are genuine. But pity the poor reader. If he trusts the reviews in the Sunday heavies he does not know if the reviewer is the partner of the author. Or agent. Or shares an agent or publisher with the author.

On our current issue Christina Rogers reminds readers that book publishers are in business to make money. It’s a truism but one frequently ignored by would-be authors. Assuming your agent has convinced a publisher’s editor to consider your book, Mr Editor has to do a selling job to sales, publicity, marketing, finance and possibly rights.

The publishers in turn have to sell the book to the chains: Borders, Waterstone's, Ottakars, and Smiths; distribution centres, book clubs, ASDA, Tesco and other grocers.

It’s a long battle before Writers’ Forum or the Bookseller reports that Betty Hopeful has won a three-book contract worth £60,000 from Fodder and MacIntosh. Sad.

* * *

JULIAN FELLOWES is good value for money, whether as a writer (Gosford Park) an actor, raconteur or chairman of an inconsequential TV panel game. Certainly he’s a toff but he is an eccentric toff who enriches our scene.

In any case, you cannot dislike a man who describes himself as a squashed tomato and has married one of the most strikingly beautiful women you could see in a day’s march.

I was watching his programme, Never Mind the Full Stops, on BBC4. There was a quiz in which contestants were asked to decipher some obscure, heavy regional dialects. One from Dudley and another from Durham. In the course of the second the word spondulicks occurred.

I had recently told a work experience student that it was American slang for money. Not so. It’s from Durham.

I investigated, using the monumental and excellent new Partridge Dictionary of Slang which comes in two fat volumes. Spondulics, spondulix, sponds, spondos it tells us comes from the USA around 1857. So who’s fooling who, as the song goes.

* * *

DID you know that June 27th was the centenary of the birth of Catherine Cookson? Her life story far eclipsed the gritty plots of her books.

She grew up in East Jarrow, the setting for one of her best known books, The Fifteen Streets. She was illegitimate and her mother a poverty-stricken alcoholic. Catherine left school at 13 and went into domestic service before getting a job in the South Shields workhouse laundry.

She moved to Hastings in 1929 to run the workhouse laundry and saved to buy a large Victorian house where she took in lodgers. In 1940 she married Tom Cookson, a teacher at the local grammar school. After several miscarriages and a breakdown she began writing. Her first success was Kate Hannigan, published in 1950 and from then on her career took off.

For 18 years she was the most borrowed author in (UK) public libraries (29 million) and she became a millionaire many times over. She and Tom retired to Newcastle and her charitable work was legendary.

Her books appeared under three names: Cookson, Kate McMullen, her maiden name, and Catherine Marchant. Her stories featured working class heroes - and villains – trawling a background she never needed to research. The plots adapted well to television and sales of her books have exceeded 100 million.

Honours flowed her way and if you want to read more about her try The Girl from Leam Lane: the Life and Writing of Catherine Cookson by Piers Dudgeon.



John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2006. Reproduced from Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.