Londonstani and TV ads for books
Robert McCrum writes bizarrely in his Guardian blog that the tv ads for Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani are a “passing fad”. Hasn’t he seen the ads pioneered by Penguin, Headline and HarperCollins for genre authors from Nikki French to Josephine Cox? Maybe he is only interested in “upmarket” names – he quotes Ian McEwan and John le Carée in his blog.
To be fair, it may be that McCrum didn’t notice the other ads. Most are appallingly bad – Headline’s recent tv treatment for James Patterson were hilarious, hailing back to corporate promos fronted by fading celebs inspired by Duran Duran vids. Gawd ‘elp us!
Good TV ads for books are rare. Penguin’s creepy treatment of a Nikki French novel a few years back was memorable. It featured a woman being chatted up over coffee by a nice man. Appearances proved deceptive: he was a serial killer. It played on the stranger danger fears and loneliness of many women. It set my friends – most of whom are not in the industry – talking.
McCrum says dismissively that the Londonstani ads will undoubtedly have some impact on sales of the book, and seems to regard the campaign as Fourth Estate desperately trying to claw back its £350,000 advance. It will, he says, be a rare TV push for a first novel.
I do not agree.
McCrum’s argument is based on a number of false premises. First is that by splashing out money on tv the advance will be recouped by sales. TV ads are very expensive. Publishers’ commercials are so bad because they operate on budgets far below those of other media. Bestsellers, especially literary ones, do not sell in the Harry Potter-like numbers needed to justify a massive spend.
Also, the advance is not quite the amount mentioned, which means the overall investment is lower and therefore easier to recoup. Advances are usually for two-book deals –Londonstani is the same. It is unlikely to signal a one off, but the start of Malkani’s career as an author. I doubt very much £350,000 was paid into his account….he will have received maybe a third to half of that. Have a look at my feature on authors’ earnings, Don’t Give Up The Day Job.
When Gautam signed his deal with Fourth Estate it was because they had ideas for the book that went beyond marketing to the usual suspects: middle-aged, middle-class, white. Gautam was excited by Fourth Estate’s ideas to reach a wider, more diverse audience with Londonstani, a readership not so far from the people he writes about. I know, because he told me this.
Personally, I thought the book was great. It is an astonishing first novel. A lot of the negative press seems inspired by the advance or the fact that Gautam works for the FT (though not being from the same background as your characters never got William Boyd or a host of other white men writing from the p.o.v of women in trouble).
A similar thing happened to Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist - a good book given a rough ride because of the advance. I do not blame critics. Not at all. I blame the crazy way the book trade is going. We are all complicit.
The money is used to signal quality and “must review”. It gets everyone focused inside a publishing company, and is a useful “in” for publicists trying to get authors coverage in an increasingly competitive market and sales people trying to get bookshop buyers to promote a book. The problem is that critics are placed in the position of having to say: is it worth it? Let’s face it, for most authors, their first outing is rarely their best. The advance is a handicap based on what agents are willing to demand and publishers willing to pay. And before anyone says, the author could say no, ask yourself what you would do?
That brings up a whole other issue: inflated advances paid to first time authors because they look marketable and have no sales record to sully their chances with the chains and supermarkets. It is a ludicrous, neophile culture, which militates against nurturing talent and condemns many promising young – and established- authors to either a future of dimishing advances as publishers “correct” past mistakes or a future on the slush pile because their books never earned out
Inflated advances that encourage “is it worth it” reviewing play into the British desire to cut people down to size. Ours is a mealy-mouthed culture. We don’t bring tall poppies down to size, we eradicate them, which makes for very bleak meadows. Or in book terms, very boring bookshelves.