Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Biographers fear that publishers have lost their appetite for serious subjects

Works about major names no longer attract huge advances and publishers are only interested in familiar figures like the Brontës

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent The Observer, Sunday 14 November 2010
 Victoria Glendinning: 'Publishers want me to do something exactly the same as before.' Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Victoria Glendinning, author of lives of Edith Sitwell and Anthony Trollope, is being forced to self-finance the research for her next work as a result of the shrinking market for serious biography.
"Getting an advance is very, very hard if you want to do something a bit different to what you've done before," said Glendinning, who is shortly to set off on a self-financed trip to south-east Asia to research a major new work on the life of statesman and adventurer Sir Stamford Raffles, best known now as the founder of Singapore.
"I'm not commissioned. But I'm feeling quite confident somehow," she added. "I will write 50 pages and try to sell it."

Jeremy Lewis, author of studies of Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly, suspects that the publishing industry is undergoing a backlash after a long spate of huge advances for books that were always unlikely to make much money. "Writing a biography is time-consuming and labour-intensive and is getting increasingly difficult, but it will be sad if the only people who can afford to write them are salaried dons," said the writer, who is embarking on a biography of David Astor, a former editor of the Observer, for Jonathan Cape. "I have a fifth of the £50,000 I got for my book on Connolly in 1992, but I'm not complaining. The publisher in me disapproved of those absurd advances, anyway… publishers were behaving stupidly."

Editors tried to push him towards a better-known figure, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, but in a piece for the Oldie magazine he argues there is no need for successive studies of the same few literary figures. "Sixty years ago Jonathan Cape told Norman Lewis that he couldn't go wrong with a life of Captain Cook; his modern equivalents seem obsessed by Hitler, Churchill and Conan Doyle, but take a dim view of less familiar names," he writes.

Glendinning came up against the same prejudice: "This new book will be a biography of a fascinating man… in my opinion, this is the book of my life. I thought publishers would all be thrilled. But no. They want Victoria to do something exactly the same as before."

She was asked, instead, if she would write about the Brontë sisters: "I nearly fell off my chair. It is playing safe to a ridiculous level. The Brontës have been so well written about. They don't need another book and I cannot go on that tragic trip with them again."

Full piece at The Observer.

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