Over the last week or so, my British publisher has begun sending out proof copies of The Book of Lost Things to various people in the trade: booksellers, reviewers, literary editors, and the buyers for the big chains.
It is the next step in a gradual process that began when my editor and agent saw the initial manuscript back in October 2005, a process that will conclude with the book's eventual publication in September 2006. With each step in the process, more and more people have been exposed to the book, but it is the point at which the proofs become available that the author (or this author at least) begins to fret in earnest.
After all, those who read the book in the earlier stages - the people at the publishing house whose task it is to turn my manuscript into a book that people might want to buy - were probably reasonably predisposed towards it. They hoped that it would be good. They wanted to like it, because if they liked it then their jobs would be a bit easier. There is, I imagine, little joy for an editor or agent who has to go back to a writer and say "Um, well, this needs some work . . . " which, as any fule kno, is subtle code for "Um, well, this isn't very good at all . . ." or, to put it bluntly, "You screwed up. Badly."
Thankfully neither my editor nor my agent said any such thing, so the first potentially major obstacle to publication was safely crossed. What happened next was that the manuscript was circulated throughout the publishing house, so that people in marketing, sales, art and publicity could read it. Since they would all be intimately involved in its publication, it was important that they got a chance to read it and offer their input. I've had feedback some of those people who liked the book and were kind enough to take the time to say it. Still, there remained that niggling voice in the author's mind that taunted: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They're hardly going to tell you it's a stiff." (I suspect that they would probably maintain a diplomatic silence, to be honest. They're very nice that way.)
Occasionally, a manuscript may find its way out of the publishing house and into the hands of someone not immediately connected with the details of its publication - a bookseller who particularly likes the author's work, for instance, or a reviewer who might be relied upon for some supportive word-of-mouth - but for the most part it stays within the confines of the house. In the case of The Book of Lost Things, Lawrence Jackson, the brilliant producer who looked after the Nocturnes stories for BBC Radio 4, read the book in manuscript and wrote a note back to my publishers expressing his enthusiasm for it, which was good for everyone, I think. It meant that someone outside the house, someone who was liked and respected, shared their opinion of it.
But the proof stage marks the point at which the book moves into a more public domain. About 1500 copies have been sent out by Hodder in the UK and Ireland, with more circulating in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and all of Hodder's international markets. Soon the Americans will follow, and thousands more will pop into mailboxes in the USA and Canada. I've already received emails from booksellers and buyers letting me know that they have a copy. Some of these people I know well, while others I have never have met. They have no reason to butter me up, and I know from experience that they are tough critics. They approach a book both as readers and as individuals who have to sell that book on to other readers. There is some room for sentimentality, but not much.
Oddly enough, the way in which books are sold means that orders have probably already been placed for The Book of Lost Things, even before copies were available to read. To a degree, its initial impact on the shelves has already been decided. The book trade works so far in advance that chain and independent buyers will, in the weeks to come, be looking at the Christmas catalogs (and it's hard to feel festive in July). But, in truth, the response to the proofs will determine to a large degree whether The Book of Lost Things lives or dies on the shelves. It is a book that will rely greatly on the enthusiasm of those who read it, and of booksellers in particular, to persuade others to pick it up. There is only so much that the publishers can do to make that happen.
So now I wait. It's a difficult time, rendered more painful by the fact that this book is, in many ways, rather unlike what I've done before, although there are themes in it that have reared their heads in my earlier work. I won't hear back from some of those who've told me that they have proofs, and that will trouble me. Did they read it? If they read it, and I haven't heard from them, then does that mean they haven't enjoyed it? Did they think that it stank? Is that what they're telling people? Would I be happier if they wrote back and told me that they didn't like it? Probably not, but at least I'd know. Is that what I'm going to read on the Net in the weeks to come: that it doesn't work?
Because that's the other matter to consider. There was a time, not long ago, when it took rather longer for word-of-mouth to filter through on a book or a film or an album. In fact, writers and filmmakers and musicians could rely on a certain grace period during which their work would have time to find an audience, a period during which the mass of critical opinion would be formed. That is no longer the case, and a film or a book can be damned even before it has a chance to reach, respectively, its potential audience or readers. In years past, a writer might only encounter negative criticism beyond the pages of a newspaper or journal if he was unfortunate enough to encounter that semi-mythic, and much feared, figure, the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, an individual practically simmering with rage at the time and money he had wasted on a the writer's work and just itching for a chance to tell the miscreant in person. Now critical opinion comes in thicker and faster than ever before, and it can be hard for an author to avoid. Bad news travels quickly, and has many willing messengers.
I have to put these concerns aside, because I have other work to do. I'll continue to improve the current draft of The Unquiet, and I'll hope and pray that The Book of Lost Things, a book, truth be told, of which I'm incredibly fond and protective, will be received positively. The genie is out of the bottle now, and this little book will have to stand or fall on its merits. I think it's a good book. I just hope that others think so too.
But - and here's the thing - even if it were to be rejected by all, selling only a handful of copies and provoking general muttering and finger wagging from the disenchanted, I wouldn't have written it any other way. If it comes back to me head bowed, like an unsuccessful child at the end of school sports day, it will still be mine, and nothing that has occurred will diminish my affection for it, or the quiet pride I may feel in having written it.
Come along, come along. There will be other days . . .
This week John read
The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World by Lawrence Osborne
and listened to
Fear Is On Our Side by I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Fisherman's Blues (Deluxe Edition) by The Waterboys