We were walking in lush green fields, alongside a river that maybe used to be deep and mysterious and now tumbled lazily over rocks – or maybe on a dry day was just a muddy ditch but that day tumbled lazily over rocks for us; and we were with our children, inhabiting the world with them, alongside appreciating it for our own selves, and so we remarked upon the world in ways designed to capture their imagination, as parents do, although in truth these were attempts to transport ourselves back to our own childhoods: Wouldn’t it be fun to take our shoes and socks off one day and walk in the river? I wonder how far we could walk? And: what a raucous bird that is in the tree! Can you see him? I wonder if he is as pretty as he sounds. And: look at the dandelion clocks all standing up straight in the field, with the sun behind them, they look like they have haloes don’t they? I wonder what time it would be if you blew all their seeds away?
And the children had wet green grass stuck to their legs and mud streaks on their clothes and sandwich crumbs in their hair and sticks in their hands because we had been walking for a few hours by then and had long since given in to the dampness of the fields, the irresistibility of the puddles, and become sweaty countryside warriors, walking a dangerous line in our little troupe, off-path, bramble-stamping, stinging-nettle-beating, somewhere between river and hill. And in this state we were alert to treasure – a sheep skull, perhaps; or fish bones; curious stones or wild flowers; opportunities to engineer dams – and so it was that several of us spotted the tiger in the woods at once. His jaws opened in a roar, his fur a burnished orange, he seemed to leap from the river mud into my daughter’s arms as she bent down to catch him.
We fell on to his muddy bed, overjoyed with our tiger, marvelling at his tiny plastic body, and almost immediately a zebra was introducing himself to my son and a giraffe seemed to need rescuing from a sticky situation and what should we see next but a red spade, still usable despite having been long since abandoned and so we dug around a little and soon we had the whole zoo, with a leopard and a lion joining the three others in our hands. We took our exotic treasure to the river and gently freed the dried mud from behind their ears and rubbed their hard bellies with our fingers so that we could see their brilliant colours clearly. We thought with fondness and love of the child who had last looked after these animals, and also with pity, as we each wondered at the sad events that had separated he or she from their menagerie. But it was a happy day for all: for now they were ours.
These animals, with their sweet faces so animated and still all at once, sit in a prominent space in my house, on one of the widest sills, in one of the sunniest spots, because they are more precious than anything bought, for they were found; and in some lights they are even more beautiful than my holy collections of stones and shells because they were found out of place, so unlikely and unexpected, as if unbelonging, to the riverbed, only becoming their true selves and comfortably beloved and belonging once seen by us and brought home to our house.
We had discovered them, or they us.
Publishers talk of discovery often and for good reason because it is a powerful idea: a Power Word that encapsulates transport and transformation just as we were transported from the English woods to the rainforest in our discovery that day. A publisher’s job is to bring books into the world but only through discovery will those books be bought and read by us. We are all in the woods, looking for adventure, after all.
And the thrill of discovery is what we agents love about our work – the hope every day to catch sight of a tiger in the mud, a flash of orange in the forest. And to understand instinctively how to make a particular tiger more beautiful through tender polishing; and to know just which sunny window sill – call it a publishing house if you like – is in want of our beautiful tiger, so that the tiger might be appreciated and discovered by hundreds and thousands more.
Stories of discovery are some of our favourite industry myths: authors rejected time and again before finding a patron, manuscripts lost and found, slush pile jewels, books bought with tiny advances by independent publishers which go on to sell millions. Perhaps we love to talk about these discoveries because they are the best metaphors we have for the great discovery which is the act of reading itself.
In publishing we understand the science of Discovery: how algorithms both help and hinder effective discovery on the Internet and specifically on e-retail sites; how we often need to aid discovery across multiple platforms from print media to social media to paid advertising to news sources to bookshop merchandising before a book emerges into the light. We know that readers crave more help in discovering new authors; that our efforts are welcome. We have embraced the idea of curation as a means of selecting, grouping, editing and presenting stories to the public so that they find the ones that appeal most to them. We, all of us, are in one way or another dedicated to discovery: to finding and nurturing good authors, to publishing skilfully, to marketing and publicising stories, to selling books, to writing and talking about them, reviewing them.
And so we foster books together in concert and they burst onto the market, driven by news stories about the fortune paid in advances, and by six figure marketing budgets, and through ‘super lead title’ status, and with constant talk and high expectation. We stack them high in our bookshops and wait for the readers to come and find them.
And yet, in turning discovery into a science, we mustn’t lose sight of how and why discovery works. Quite often, those books published with fanfare and noise just fail to launch, whilst other books sneak up behind us and take us by surprise as they dominate the bestseller lists for months from its deep middle waters.
But of course! My animals are precious to me because they were found, not bought. What we need are marketing campaigns which capture the wonder of the unlikely and the unexpected – the simple joy we felt, as we chanced upon the tiger and he leapt into our arms. How do we tell readers which books to discover, whilst allowing them to feel they found them themselves?
What we call word of mouth is the still the most effective form of discovery we know – people who have found a book and loved it, talking about it to everyone they know. Just as booksellers telling customers from the heart which books they have loved is the best sales strategy we have. As agents, we start this conversation: our letters and phone calls to editors about our new projects are passionate attempts to convey the thrill of our discoveries and to invite editors to discover with us and to share in our unexpected delight.
The pride and pleasure we feel in sharing our discoveries is the key. Just as I have loved to photograph my animals and tell you their story today, so do readers love to talk about their discoveries with other readers, and to put their favourite books on their virtual and real bookshelves and window sills.
Does our science have a new equation? Perhaps Wonder + Delight + Pride = Discovery.
In designing and engineering our conversation about books, publishers must be careful not to come between readers and authors – or between readers and other readers – when they discover, curate, market. Cleverer marketeers than I can work out how each reader might feel as though they found a book and made it Theirs. And how to remind readers that it is only when they share their discovery with others that they will fully experience the joy of reading.
I see the power of discovery every time a child visits my house and chances upon my animals, roaring at them from the window sill halfway up the stairs. Their eyes light up as they reach out to hold their irresistible little bodies. Let’s read a book together, I said to my nephew a week ago after a few minutes of conversation about the leopard. Let’s find a book to read. Come on, we can take the leopard with us. Show him your favourite book.