Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Whatever happened to Timothy Mo?
Earlier this morning I was reading DJ Taylor's book A Vain Conceit, his 1989 survey of contemporary British fiction. It's a wonderfully opinionated polemic which still hits a nerve 19 years on and mentions a number of writers who have faded into obscurity. Do the names Mervyn Jones, Helen Muir or Jeremy Brooks mean anything to you?
One name that I did recognise was Timothy Mo. He used to be mentioned in the same breath as McEwan, Ishiguro and Byatt and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times with Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession and The Redundancy of Courage. Then he made what was, perhaps, the greatest mistake of his career.
Allegedly fed-up with the practices of British publishers, he decided to cut out the middle man and self-publish his next novel, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard. It was viewed by some as a brave decision, but others felt that with Mo's track record, it could be a very lucrative one.
Sadly for Mo, self-publishing turned out to be a disastrous move. Perhaps the novel wouldn't have sold anyway - the title was pretty awful. However although the reviews weren't as enthusiastic as they had been for his last three books, they were still pretty decent and the book should have sold purely on the strength of Mo's reputation.
What went wrong?
First, there was the jacket design. It was bloody awful and looked really amateurish. Second, however well-establish an author is, they don't have a marketing department that will ensure that the front cover of the new novel is plastered across dozens of tube stations. Third, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard was published just after the Net Book Agreement collapsed, making the book trade a tougher place for full-priced hardback fiction.
Mo self-published another novel in 2000, but since then he has remained silent. There is an author website, but it is a masterpiece of brevity and gives no clues about any forthcoming works to be published by the appropriately-named Paddleless Press.
Self-publishing has its success stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The demise of an author of Mo's stature is a sobering example of what can happen if you try to go it alone.