It’s rare that I purchase a Jane Austen sequel. Generally, publishers will send books for review or I’ll pick up a copy at the library. When Death Comes to Pemberley was announced I did not hesitate to purchase a copy for my Kindle. P.D. James, the book’s author, is a highly regarded mystery writer with a solid record for selling mystery books to discerning mystery fans. (The book placed third on the NY Times best seller list this weekend.)
A good friend of mine, whose judgment I value, owns every single P.D. James novel and was overall satisfied with this novel. I had never read a P.D. James novel before, and she was curious to know what I thought of this book. Another Janeite friend had read it and remarked that it was very well done and followed the forensic detective work of its time. They waited to discuss the book with me until after I had finished reading it and could give my opinion. Last weekend the three of us came to the same conclusion, which was that the mystery was weak and a bit lame, and that the actual murderer was so preposterous as to be unbelievable. My question to them was: “Why would a famous author like P.D. James waste her time writing a Jane Austen sequel, especially if the mystery was less than sterling?” Both defended her decision to write this book, while I was not particularly swayed. Both were ecstatic that she had written one more book, for they fear that their author, being 90+ years old, might not have too many novels left to write. To that I said she shouldn’t have bothered.
My suspicion is that had P.D. James been an unknown author peddling her manuscript for the first time to publishers and agents, Death Comes to Pemberley would have been tossed on the slush pile and she would have received a slew of the rejection letters, one of which might have looked like this:
Dear Ms. P.D. James,
Thank you for your submission of Death Comes to Pemberley, which we read with interest, for your writing style is quite extraordinary. I’m sorry to say that our interest in your manuscript was killed by its long talky scenes and sparseness of mystery plot. I don’t need to hear about the crime from potential witnesses, then learn the same information during the inquiry and then again during the trial.
You will need to solve a major problem with the plot by writing the denouement towards the end of the story, rather than 2/3 of the way through. After I discovered who the murderer was, I frankly did not care to sift through another five chapters so that you could tie up loose plot threads. Let me make a few suggestions for improvement before you send the manuscript on to others:
1. Check your facts. In the first chapter on the first page you referred to Mr. Collins as Mr. Bennet’s nephew. He is Mr. Bennet’s cousin. I almost stopped reading the book right then, for the mistake and others made me wary of the quality of your research or understanding of Pride and Prejudice and its characters.
2. Show don’t tell. Yes, I understand that this is a Jane Austen sequel and that you are working with familiar characters, but you slowed your plot to a crawl with your reams of exposition at the start of the novel and, strangely, at the end. Also, your men were too talky. While I appreciate the fact that they might have spoken more formally two hundred years ago, men don’t as a general rule talk in long unbroken sentences, especially to each other.
3. Write an original novel with your own characters. Whenever you deviated from Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and other Pride and Prejudice characters, your novel jumped to life.
Sincerely, Vic @Jane Austen’s World
Death Comes to Pemberley is yet another instance of a famous author joining the Jane Austen bandwagon. Some of you might remember Colleen McCullough jumping into the fray with her detestable The Independence of Mary Bennet, which must have garnered riches for the publisher before readers caught on. (Read my review here.) These two best-selling authors, while they rightly have earned their literary reputations, fell down in my opinion when they so cynically wrote novels that, to put it kindly, barely scraped bottom when compared to Jane Austen’s own brilliant work. Besides, what business had they to write a Jane Austen sequel? Do they really think it is all that easy?
The career of a Jane Austen sequel writer is not an easy one. Most write their books out of love for Jane Austen and her characters. Those that I have come to know through correspondence are earnest about their desire to continue Jane’s stories. They work hard for very little recompense. Unless a publisher anticipates a blockbuster novel (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a concept novel if ever there was one), most provide book advances that barely cover the cost for postage or time spent researching a topic. Once upon a time book publishers, editors, and agents invested in long-term relationships with new authors, building their reputations up slowly and giving them time to develop their talents.
This is no longer the case. A writer has only two or three years to make money back for the publisher.*(See Laurel Ann’s comments below.) That is a lot of pressure, considering that royalties on the published price of trade books ranging from 10%-12.5% and on paperbacks from 7.5% to 10%. Many first time authors fail to realize any profit on their books. The average first novel sells around 2,000 – 4,000 books, but the break even for publishers is around 5,000 books. Four out of five first novels fail to make money for the publisher. Authors might only earn the total amount of their advance, minus the cost of extra copies of books they have purchased for giveaways and bookmarks, and the loss of spare time as they visit book stores, libraries, reading clubs, and groups and attend conferences all over creation in order to publicize their books will never be made up. These days authors are expected to oversee their own blog, and a Facebook and twitter account as well. Many spend hours writing down answers to interview questions or being interviewed online.
As readers you will notice a big push for books several times a year, when many new titles are competing with each other. Before the holiday season this year, P.D. James received an automatic “in” from most of the major book critics; she received extremely kind reviews in my estimation. It’s almost as if even the most discerning critics didn’t bother to read her entire book. The ordinary sequel writer gets no such first-class treatment. Their eyes are glued on Amazon’s rankings, hoping they will break free from the midlist and sell enough volumes to give them a second contract for another book.
One author I talked to said she made almost no income from writing; another said she was unlikely to collect royalties this year. Another author, who lives in my city, was dropped by her publisher despite glowing reviews, only to be picked up by another publisher. For these authors, their writing careers must seem like an unpredictable roller coaster ride.
While I am not a great fan of Jane Austen sequels and prequels, I do salute these writers, who follow their passion. Many have written a truly enjoyable story that I can wholeheartedly promote. I can’t exactly say the same of Death Comes to Pemberley. Sorry Ms. James, but I give this book only 2 out of 5 regency tea cups.
For more information about the life of a writer, read The New Literary Lottery. This NY Magazine article by Alex Williams is a bit dated, but fascinating.