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Seven Figure Book Deal Proves Talent Beats Data

While the government is busy telling us to tighten our belts and make our own sandwiches, publishers are honey-badgering these times of austerity and whipping out fliff like sultans for the next big novels. None moreso than Little, Brown US who are rumoured to have paid a massive seven figures for  the debut novel of Australian author Hannah Kent (deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings). And they said telling stories will never pay. HA!

Single-handedly, this novel manages to debunk two myths about being a writer we’ve seen espoused lately:

1) Writers don’t and can’t make money just from having writing talent

2) You have to come with a ready-made following in order to cash in with a publisher

Oh, and I might add in 3) best manuscript awards and their associated prizes are total bollocks (though it’s arguable that the manuscript would have gotten representation without winning Writing Australia’s ‘best MS’ award).

All this is a bit surreal for me – a bit like looking into my neighbour’s garden to discover they’ve won the lottery – as this is where I go my start in publishing, too. Writing for the under-25 literary journal Voiceworks, hanging around in Melbourne bars with editors, dreaming of starting a lit journal before funding cuts and the internet made that both too difficult and too easy. But (along with probably every writer ever) while I might fall to my knees, weep at the sky and shout ‘It could have been me!’ I do actually know that no, it couldn’t. Because I’m not that good at writing.

Last week on The Naked Book, Dennis Johnson of Melville House spoke about how certain businesses take the view of hedge fund manager or investment banker when approaching manuscripts – how analysing existing data in order to identify areas of profitability takes away the hunches and surprises that are at the centre of publishing a great book. I can see his point. As Chris McVeigh said:

4fifty1 talking sense

After reading two really terrible new books last year I went on a pessimism bender about the quality of new writing for exactly this reason. I assumed that to some extent all publishing deals were made off the back of not quality, not hard work, but an identified gap in the market.

Since working in trade publishing (and I’m aware how much this will sound like propaganda, and I might not be able to convince you of its truth, but in my experience it is completely accurate) this is simply not the case. There are massive investments in books that are outstanding for no other reason than the skill of the author.

It is incredibly encouraging to me to see the centre of this story focus on Kent’s writing talent. Geraldine Brooks said: ‘Here is an original new voice, with a deep and lovely grasp of language and story’ – a sentiment echoed by Kent’s editor at Picador who said: ‘Hannah has this extraordinary ability to combine really imaginative storytelling with incredible craftsmanship.’ No mention of data, just a recognition of incredible skill that’s worth investing a butt-tonne of money in.

There are writers out there working on their manuscripts, putting their hearts and souls into it their MacBooks, re-phrasing sentences, second-guessing adverbs, and re-writing the story thing for the 40th time who will go out and be paid accordingly. It’s good to know raw talent and hard work is still valuable, even as we see frontlist book prices fall away.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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