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The Editor's View July 2004


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Learn from the masters: Binchy and Harris . . .

Once it was doctors, now it’s lawyers . . .

Have you an old elephant?

TWO outstanding authors from different backgrounds and with a differing approach to life feature in this month’s issue: Joanne Harris and Maeve Binchy. What have they got in common?

Both are superb at crafting a story, producing a novel which is satisfying, original in thought and immaculate in execution.

Anybody stepping out on a career as a novelist may well find them inspirational, particularly their ability to develop memorable characters.

By studying Harris and Binchy’s books you could learn more about creating characters than from a dozen lectures on the subject.

* * *

THIS IS an unforgivable piece of hyperbole but every lawyer in the United States, whether successful or not, seems to be churning out best-sellers. I suppose the answer is that writers should become lawyers, but that is not so easy. And the magnificent John Mortimer excepted, they do not seem to have the same success in the United Kingdom.

If you want to become a doctor you study for years, take many examinations and when you pass become a medical practitioner. You may even become a surgeon. Everybody accepts you as such.

IF you want to become a writer you can take a masters in creative writing or even a Ph.D. on the novels of Tolkien but publishers do not necessarily jump up and down with joy at your first manuscript. To be a writer you must be published.

After a few rejections even your mother might think it best if you got "a proper job."

"Like a lawyer, mum?"

Let’s get back to the one lawyer in question: Lisa Scottoline. She is American, talented, and did not turn to the keyboard because she got lost in the world of tort. She has written 10 novels, the latest of which is Killer Smile. Pot boilers? Genre fiction? Not so. Ms Scottoline is pushing John Grisham and Scott Turow for a place at the high table of crime fiction.

* * *


In an effort to revitalise the credibility of the Man Booker Prize the sponsors are to make a new award. It will be worth £60,000 and will be awarded every two years to an author who has published fiction in English or whose work is widely available in translation.

There will be no submission process. A team of judges, led by Professor John Carey, will select a number of books from their personal favourites and whittle it down to a short-list of 15.

Just how much unofficial lobbying will go on nobody is saying. It would be good if they missed out the usual suspects who have already taken a Nobel Prize, Booker or Whitbread and go for somebody who has produced a substantial canon of work without ever quite getting an award.

Who would you nominate? My choice for quality of output would be William Trevor.

* * *

MUCH huffing and puffing in the publishing world about book prices.

Everybody will remember that the latest Harry Potter was discounted in the chain stores from day one, which makes a mockery of printing the price on the jacket.

Some retailers, notably supermarkets, want to price the books themselves. So what happens to authors whose royalties are based on a percentage of the cover price? Good question.

Authors seem to be the last people consulted on this important matter. The debate is not helped by the collapse of book suppliers Cork Suppliers have seen their margins eroded to such an extent that for many the business is barely worthwhile.

* * *

GOOD news from libraries. Visits by the public increased last year, which was against the usual trend. Some 323 million visits were made. Mark Wood, chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, thought the introduction of 32,000 computers into libraries as part of the People’s Network project helped the cause.

* * *

HOW OLD is your pet? Orion have signed up the biography of a Timothy Tortoise who expired earlier this year at the ripe old age of 160. He was a ship’s mascot in the Crimean War and came ashore in 1935.

No doubt he had three good conduct stripes to go with a crown and crossed anchors. (Well, he must have reached the rank of chief petty officer.) Orion think they have got the 2004 Christmas book. Can you see it rocketing up the sales charts? Or will it just crawl. Anybody out there with an old elephant in the back garden – or a parrot who could tell his own story? It would be nice to give Tim a crawl for his money.

* * *

THE RISE of the small publishing house continues with yet more success for The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Published originally by Polygon, a small, Edinburgh-based house, and now jointly with Time Warner, it has soared to success purely on personal recommendation.

Sales of the series are now close to five million and it has been translated into 31 languages.  AMS has just picked up his third national award - Waterstone’s Author of the Year. Good for him and good for Polygon


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


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

© Writers International Ltd 2004. Reproduced from the December-January edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.