Sunday, 27 November 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

13. Phoebe Marlow (Sylvester)

Quite how Phoebe Marlow managed to become a published author is something of a mystery, as she seems relentlessly to have broken most of the rules laid down for the advice and betterment of aspiring novelists.

Her first questionable move was her choice of agent. Miss "Sibby" Battersby is not, to my knowledge, a member of any professional body for authors' agents, and has no prior experience of the editorial side of publishing. Indeed her only credential is that she has a cousin who is a junior partner in the publishing house of Newsham and Otley, although as they are, if not a vanity house, a house with more self-regard than any reputation for publishing romances, this hardly qualifies her to represent Miss Marlow. I can only assume that Phoebe had somehow discovered Miss Battersby's propensity to hit the gin pail and assumed that she must be Miss Snark.

Given Miss Battersby's lack of experience, qualifications and indeed any sign of innate ability, it is hardly surprising that her first and only move is to attempt to place The Lost Heir with Newsham and Otley. As publishers at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from the world of fictional romance, it is easy enough to see how they would react when presented with a hopelessly overwritten gothic extravaganza by an incompetent agent representing a naïve and trusting new writer. They would obviously snap it up on contract terms that would make the Society of Authors gibber before selling it on under considerably more advantageous terms to Anthony King Newman's operation. And what contract terms they are. The idea that the author should pay to have the book bound is still somewhat frowned upon by the Society of Authors, and many reputable agents would suggest that the author bearing all losses was coming it a little too brown. What Miss Battersby might have gained from this contract is unclear, much like the gin in which she would almost have certainly invested it.

Luckily Miss Marlow must by this stage have read a few how-to books, and while she does not go as far as sacking her agent she does manage to secure an advance (payable through her agent, who thus ensures that she can keep herself in mothers' ruin for a little while longer), although had she read beyond the blurbs on the back she might have noticed that her contract apparently gave her no royalties nor a two book deal, nor any clarity on translation or theatrical adaptation rights. This contract does, however seem to have forced Newsham and Otley into publishing The Lost Heir themselves, perhaps for fear that the vastly more experienced Mr Newman would hoodwink them the way they tried to hoodwink Miss Marlow.

As every writer knows, publication is just the beginning. To be successful a book must be marketed, and here Newsham and Otley's inexperience in the field of commercial fiction starts to show. They at least have the sense to ride the wave created by Glenarvon, but here their ideas seem to have run out.

Meanwhile Miss Marlow's reading of how-to books must have come on apace, as she seems to have spotted Newsham and Otley's faults, and contracted the Dowager Duchess of Salford to run her marketing. There is a long tradition of women of aristocratic background going into the marketing and PR business (although they are usually a little younger than Her Grace of Salford) and not without good reason: "Mama-Duchess" Rayne clearly knows her stuff. Despite it being some 60 years before Pasteur came up with the concept of viruses, the Dowager Duchess manages to launch an extremely successful viral marketing campaign, ensuring that The Lost Heir is talked about as the publishing sensation of the season. It is however when Lizzie Rayne ventures into the field of author PR that things become a bit shaky. Her plan is certainly bold; marrying her author off to a Duke would certainly get her talked about. Her plan is also a little self-serving, as the Duke in question is her own son, a relationship that is unlikely to go unremarked upon, even in the deeply nepotistic world of the haut ton. But where the Dowager Duchess really slips up is in not remembering that her client has been published anonymously, and as countless anonymous and pseudonymous writers have discovered, combining the mystique of a pen name with a sustained existence in the on dit columns is a tricky act to pull off. Where was Miss Marlow's agent at this point? Need we ask?

It is not surprising then that everything goes pear-shaped. On the one hand the anonymity strategy crashes and burns as Ianthe Rayne, that archetypal D-list celebrity, blows her cover resulting in nothing less than the cut direct from Lady Ribbleton. On the otherhand the connection with the Duke leads to Miss Marlow becoming entangled with the affairs of Sir Nugent Fotherby, of the Fotherby Tie and the silly Hessians - hardly the sort of company with whom an aspiring author would wish to become associated. Even the author tour to France seems to have been a hopeless fiasco, with nowhere expecting Miss Marlow to visit, no copies of The Lost Heir available, and the combination of Edmund and Chien once again proving that writing for children (and animals) is a less daunting prospect than working with them. Somehow Phoebe survives all this, and even ends up marrying her Duke (although with little sign of the PR spin from such an event contributing to her sales figures), but it seems to have been a somewhat fraught and conflict-ridden exercise throughout.

Surely it would have been so much more sensible for Miss Marlow to have simply written a killer synopsis and taken her chances in the Minerva Press slush pile?

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