Byline: JASON COWLEY
Before university Santa Palmer-Tomkinson (right) spent a year in Argentina. It was the formative, perhaps the most idyllic time of her life.
'I really thought I belonged there,' she says. When she returned, a year or so later, everything had changed: those with whom she had once lived and socialised had moved on, to America and elsewhere, and she now felt lost, no longer at ease in Argentina.
An aspirant writer, she had spent much of her late adolescence working on children's stories, pastiche Mills & Boon and sketches for romantic novels.
Then, when she was 25, she met her future husband, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who encouraged her to take her ambitions more seriously and to strive to become the writer she had always wanted to be. So she wrote a novel set in Argentina. It is soft-edged with nostalgia, and full of the vitality and richness of her earlier encounters with that country.
The novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, was sent out, anonymously, to four agents under, she concedes, the unoriginal moniker 'Miss X', which made her sound more like a porn star than a novelist. 'I did that because I really didn't want to read about myself in the gossip columns.
You know the kind of thing: "Poor Santa is trying to cash in on the success of her sister, Tara."' It was rejected by three of the agents, but the fourth, Jo Frank, liked what she read. Together she worked with Santa Montefiore to improve and burnish the novel until it was ready to show to potential publishers. The first publisher to read the book, Hodder & Stoughton, made a pre-emptive bid of pound sterling100,000. 'I was astounded,' Santa recalls. 'I had expected, if my book was to be published at all, to receive an advance of, at best, pound sterling20,000.' She advised her agent to accept the bid. In the event, the book was put up for competitive auction. 'The auction was an exciting but awfully anxious experience, not least because everyone began bidding at a very low level, much less than we had been offered originally.
Soon there were only two publishers left, HarperCollins and Hodder. I was working at the time for Ralph Lauren. I spent the whole day sitting at my desk receiving phone calls from Jo every couple of hours. She has this cool, phlegmatic voice.
She would say: "Hi Santa, it's me. The figure has now reached pound sterling80,000."
The whole thing was like a dream.' In the end, Hodder won the auction - for pound sterling100,000, the same figure as its original pre emptive bid.
Daisy Waugh is another novelist who, like Santa Montefiore, experienced what she describes 'as a lovely bidding war'. In her twenties she had published two books, a novel and a book about Africa, but neither had made much of an impression. After that, she spent a long time 'having babies and writing rather rubbishy journalism'. So when she eventually returned to writing fiction, her expectations and confidence were low. Still, she sent five chapters of her work-in-progress, The New You Survival Kit, to the agent Clare Alexander. The chapters were swiftly offered to interested publishers and, to Waugh's surprised delight, an auction began.
'When you set out to write a book you dream that people will bid to publish it, but you never believe it will happen. When Clare told me that Little, Brown and HarperCollins were competing to buy my book, making these outlandish bids, I was so thrilled but, at the same time, unwilling to believe that it was really true. Then she kept calling and with every call the price would rise, so that, in the end, you are moving in a kind of fuzz of disbelief. It was wonderful!' Waugh - who eventually received pound sterling120,000 for The New You Survival Kit and its follow-up, Ten Steps to Happiness, which is published in January - and Montefiore are the fortunate beneficiaries of an inflationary trend in the modern book business towards what the literary agent Simon Trewin calls 'winner-takes-all publishing'.
The bleak truth about modern publishing is that very few books make a profit; in fact, 90 per cent of all titles on any one list are published at a loss. This means that publishers are increasingly determined to find, and spend money on, the minority of authors who sell. These authors, as it happens, tend most often to be already famous, hence the recent obsession with celebrity memoirs; or, if less well-known, they are, like Plum Sykes - whose first novel was recently bought in Britain and America for an estimated $900,000 - eminently marketable, because of their glamour and good looks or some other attribute, such as a difficult but sensational life story.
'The reality is that nowadays you have to bring something else to the table,' says the publisher-turned-agent David Godwin, who famously discovered Arundhati Roy. 'It's not enough just to write a good book. That book has to be sold, and marketed, and it helps if the book - or indeed the author - can offer that something extra that can make all the difference, if the book has its own spin, its own story.' If that happens, and publishers desperately want a particular book, they will pull any kind of stunt to acquire it.
Trewin, for instance, recalls sitting alone in his London office when Philippa Pride of Hodder & Stoughton arrived unannounced carrying a champagne, canape and chocolate lunch. Pride had read and liked the manuscript of Imogen Edwards-Jones's first novel, My Canape Hell (2000), a witty satire of the celebrity party circuit. Her pound sterling100,000 offer for the book was wrapped up in a damask tablecloth on the tray.
Trewin immediately called Edwards-Jones at home. 'The finer points of the deal were hammered out over the main course, and the done deal toasted in champagne and chocolate,' he told The Bookseller magazine at the time, adding: 'The editor left clutching a six-figure while I was left with the washing-up.' Yet, when now I speak to Trewin, he is far more sombre about what he describes as the precarious state, the predictability and the conformity of the modern book business: too much money being spent on too few books and authors. 'It's true that a few authors, such as Imogen, are lucky enough to receive excellent advances, but, on the whole, things are pretty bad out there at the moment. It's harder and harder to encourage publishers to take risks and to be innovative, and to get the big book chains to stock anything other than what they consider to be sure-fire bestsellers. Of course, there's glamour at the top end, but for the majority of writers things are bad, and getting worse.' So how to be noticed? Daisy Waugh's grandfather, Evelyn Waugh, once had this advice for a prospective young writer: 'Reviews matter very little in the case of a novel. The important thing is to make people talk about it. You can do this by forcing your way into newspapers in some way.' His words are perhaps more true today than they have ever been, because the surest way into public consciousness (and on to the bestseller list) is for a writer to liberate herself from the ghetto of the books pages and to become news, which is why a large advance is so important. It becomes a talking point, and a mark of intent on the part of the publisher.
As the uber-agent Andrew Wylie told me: 'I've always operated from the belief that a publisher will only be motivated to sell a book if he pays a lot of money for it. I wish it wasn't this way, but it is.' The list of writers represented by Wylie is impressive: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Elmore Leonard and the estate of Andy Warhol. Through a blend of charm, belligerence and calculated opportunism, Wylie has done more than any other agent to force publishers to pay inflationary million-dollar advances for serious literary fiction, when serious literary fiction is seldom profitable. For this, he is considered a hero by his writers and as a 'jackal' by publishers from whom he extracts the money.
But, as David Godwin points out: 'No one forces publishers to pay the advances that they do. Publishing is all about risk - and small risks at that when compared with the movie business and the cost of making a film. And, in book publishing, if you get it right, the awards are enormous.' There were more than 120,000 books published in Britain last year, most of which enjoyed only a transient public presence and were certainly not reviewed at all, before beginning that short, brutal journey to the remainder bin - from where only the oblivion of the pulping pit awaits. Yet publishing, as Godwin correctly says, is nothing if it is not about risk. It is a speculative business that thrives on novelty, experiment and the biannual renewal of hope and expectation. No publisher knows which of his books, even those with a hefty marketing budget, will flourish, which explains why the phenomenon of word of-mouth recommendation is increasingly so important.
Some of the most successful books of the past decade - Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling, The Beach by Alex Garland - were bought for modest amounts. Their authors were not, at the time of publication, fashionable. They were not supported by marketing budgets.
Yet their books had a special difference. They sold and continue to enjoy a radiant afterlife way beyond the first year of publication.
The New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point (Little, Brown) - itself something of a word-of-mouth success - suggests that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves or the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, is to think of them as epidemics: 'Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses.' In this sense, people contaminate one another with preferences and recommendations.
The 'tipping point' is the moment at which a social epidemic becomes contagious and crosses a threshold to reach critical mass, the point at which nothing can stop it catching on and spreading. 'The world of the tipping point,' he writes, 'is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than a possibility. It is - contrary to all our expectations - a certainty.' It's an attractive idea, but if only it was that simple. If publishers knew how to start and control Gladwell's 'positive epidemics', publishing wouldn't be the frustrating, often profligate business it is. Nor would it, though, be capable of such glorious surprises, as Santa Montefiore, and the lucky few like her, can testify.
Jason Cowley is the literary editor of The New Statesmen
pound sterling10,000 advance
J K Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Publisher: Bloomsbury Advance: Less than pound sterling10,000, plus a Scottish Arts Council grant Critics: Imaginative, impressive Sales: Millions Verdict: Worldwide bestseller; Hollywood movie
pound sterling3,500 advance
Title: Longitude Publisher: Fourth Estate Advance: pound sterling3,500 No 1 bestseller Critics: Small but perfectly formed Sales: Number one bestseller Verdict: Launched a whole new literary genre of fun, sexy science books
Less than pound sterling20,000
Millions sold Title: Bridget Jones's Diary Publisher: Picador Advance: Less than pound sterling20,000 (two-book deal) Critics: Witty, authentic Sales: Millions Verdict: Worldwide bestseller; Hollywood movie
pound sterling100,000 advance
Title: Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Advance: pound sterling100,000 (two-book deal) Critics: Mostly gentle, with the odd barb Sales: Top-ten bestseller Verdict: The new Rosamunde Pilcher?
Top 10 bestseller
pound sterling120,000 advance
Title: The New You Survival Kit Publisher: HarperCollins Advance: pound sterling120,000 Top 10 bestseller (two-book deal) Critics: Another writing Waugh Sales: Top-ten bestseller
Verdict: A good start
pound sterling150,000 advance
Hundreds of thousands
Title: The God of Small Things Publisher: Flamingo/ Roy HarperCollins Advance: pound sterling150,000 Critics: Mixed, but Booker Prize-winner Sales: Hundreds of thousands Verdict: Worldwide bestseller; Roy refuses to sell film rights
pound sterling250,000 advance
No 1 bestseller
Zadie Smith Title: White Teeth Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Advance: pound sterling250,000 Critics: Startling debut; a brilliant comedy Sales: Number one bestseller Verdict: Big winner; Channel 4 drama series
pound sterling100,000 advance
Imogen Edwards-Jones Title: My Canape Hell Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Advance: pound sterling100,000, pre-emptive two-book deal Critics: Oh no, more 'chick lit' Sales: No more than steady Verdict: Much depends on her new novel, Shagpile
pound sterling250,000 advance
Paul Golding Title: The Abomination Publisher: Picador Advance: pound sterling250,000 Critics: Pretentious and solipsistic; obscene Sales: Dismal Verdict: Huge flop
pound sterling600,000 advance
Amy Jenkins Title: HoneyMoon Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Advance: pound sterling600,000 Critics: A dismal failure Sales: Disappointing Verdict: Huge flop