We have been cataloguing masses of fiction lately, so I was amused to find this slim volume of advice, for would-be authors written by a London literary agent, George Magnus.
According to Magnus, literary merit was no guarantee of success – in fact, quite the opposite. “The better the novel, the smaller the royalty … the sale of a really clever novel, that is neither sensational nor offensive, frequently is not sufficient to pay in royalties for the typing of it”. Action, incident and exciting situations are “more requisite than polish and intimate character drawing”.
The book gives details of how much money new authors could expect for their work – a 10% royalty on a 6s (30p) novel, or £1 per 1,000 words for a serial publication, earning around £60 for an average-length novel selling 2,000 copies. It doesn’t sound very much, but you could buy a house for under £150.
Magnus recommended writing stories for boys – they should be “full of life and action”. A love interest was by no means essential, and “when introduced should be of the type labelled milk and water”. He also states that there was a big demand for “religious fiction”. Authors are advised not to mention particular denominations, but to “write a sweet, highly moral story in which true religion enters into daily life, unlabelled”. Other recommended subjects include original incidents in the ball-room, naval and military love stories, airship and aeroplane racing, dramatic mining stories, and stories of adventure in fictitious foreign states.
Every book needs an attractive or mysterious title. Magnus advises his readers to include words like kiss, fan, waltz and wooed – and to have a double meaning in their title. I wonder what he would have made of my all time favourite title from the Tower – One frail woman and four queer men by Edgecumbe Staley (1902).
As well as dispensing advice, George also tried his hand at writing fiction. So did he follow his own rules? We have a copy of his novel “Two in the dark” (1908), the story of an author and critic, and his pursuit of a young lady who writes serial stories for popular magazines. While neither sensational nor offensive, it is quite racy for the time. Sadly it was not a great success, and he doesn’t seem to have published any more. In contrast, How to write saleable fiction ran to at least 14 editions, and remained in print until the 1920s.