Home > Mr. Q's News > First copy sold, but … an author’s lament

First copy sold, but … an author’s lament

What’s an author to do when he hears that, before his new book is even printed or presented, it’s been sold in the charity shops for a couple of bucks?

I love being a writer. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. But sometimes my trade feels like an uphill struggle.

My first commercially published article, a purple portrait of the Syrian village where I moved in 1982 to try to perfect my Arabic, took me three agonizing weeks to write.

In my twenties, I felt guilty that I couldn’t write that brilliant young man’s book that my father always said I should. When I turned 30, a potential London publisher finally offered a meagre 200 pounds sterling for my first idea. He never paid up, yet a few months later he was stalking me round my house, asking for it back. That episode set me back five years.

In fact it took me at least a decade to work out how that first book should be and what it should say. As the Turks put it, to be a real expert, first you should first have eaten your way through ten bakeries’ weight of bread.

Then comes the search for publication. Floating a book idea always feels like going against the grain — after all, if it is a really new approach to a subject, no publisher can be expected to have heard of it or believe in it. But self-publishing is not a real option, being like talking to the mirror — and even T.E. Lawrence went deep into debt when he tried it with Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The first time round, I was lucky (thanks again, Gail Pirkis) to be signed up under the gaze of Lord Byron’s portrait at the fine old house of John Murray in London’s Mayfair. The next time, two publishers actually wanted me to do books on new horizons in Central Asia. Too busy to think, I tried to merge the two ideas. I ended up losing both contracts and having to return my advance. (Don’t believe that business about ‘they can’t get it back’).

And writing takes time, so much time. Books don’t pay enough to be a day job, so you end up working through the night. Still, I persevered, straining relationships, blaming problems on flighty agents, and piling up inadequate and unpaid leaves of absence.

At last, the manuscript is ready. Sending off a first draft, however, always turns out to be just a new beginning. Months of agonized waiting ensue as I wonder if my work will be liked or not. When the text finally returns, either the editor has done so little I feel he couldn’t possibly care, or she has really made the text fly, making me feel subtly inadequate and possibly illiterate.

All along, of course, I continue to pester friends and family to read the great work and make comments, which they almost never do. Frustrations mount and it usually takes a whole year for a book to be properly edited, published and marketed (and I count myself lucky – my poet friend John Ash is typically writing two or three volumes ahead of his publisher, who lags several years behind).

And then, miraculously, as rivals are conquering market share and the subject slides out of fashion, the book’s inner meaning suddenly becomes clear to me. I find myself begging the publisher to accept yet more alterations that might delay things yet again.

Months of worrying follow about who to ask for an endorsement, whether or not a third reminder message is appropriate, and whether it is a bad sign that half the people that say they will send a blurb never actually do. Control slips further as the author experiences the agony and the ecstasy of Great Review Lottery. Then comes the organization of a book launch week– and these days, that’s a lucky bonus — in which 200 people might present themselves for a creamy soiree at the Smithsonian, or in which just three people turn up for a bookshop signing, including the visiting relative, the tipsy functionary and the passer-by.

In short, by the time the actual publication date looms close, the author almost has no energy to keep the fire burning under any remaining hopes of high-flying speaking engagements, multinational book tours and best-seller fame.

At exactly such a moment in the trajectory of Dining with al-Qaeda, fate chose to deal a new authorial blow below the belt.

A friendly acquaintance in the State Department, two months before publication of my new book, and indeed before it had even been printed, cheerfully sent a message to say he had bought a copy and was half-way through it already.

How on earth?! I asked.

It turns out that the first copy of Dining with al-Qaeda knowingly sold is one of the galley proofs, sent off earlier to someone on the publicist’s list of the great and the good, and apparently just as rapidly passed on to a second-hand bookshop.

My friend vows that he wants buy the proper edition, and I know I should just be grateful he’s so keen to read it. Perhaps I should be happy that even one of those galleys – floppy, and with ink that rubs off the cheap paper pages – has some resale value.

Still, it hurts to see any new sign that an author should never expect that writing books will ever be more than a hobby, and that I should treat any actual income as a happy surprise.

So why do we do it? We writers can’t help pouring out reams of words, gushing like oil wells or blathering like bloggers. If we stop, there’s always somebody else ready to gush instead. And if anyone had found a way to make regular money out of books, the publishing industry would not look like it has done for so long.

The secret, perhaps, is what my former boss Gareth Evans used to call ‘psychic income’ (useful in all respects when it could substitute for real income in our NGO, International Crisis Group). A book can produce plenty of that. I got lucky when I heard that my Turkey Unveiled was on President Clinton’s reading list as he headed to Turkey, or when a Kazakh student in America sent a touching message to say that while reading my second book Sons of the Conquerors, he discovered an important and unknown part of his Turkic self.

My charity shop-visiting diplomat friend also well knows the value of a morale-boosting dose of this miraculous substance, and succeeded in soothing my ruffled authorial feathers: “Needless to say,” he purred, Dining with al-Qaeda “is a very good read.”

And indeed, what more can a writer want or hope for?

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