In his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler gripes: “[t]he average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average–or only slightly above average–detective story does.”
Among the “average” detective writers he calls out is Agatha Christie. He’s partly right–her murders are often unrealistic (Really? They were all the killer?) and she shamelessly recycles story elements. But publish she did: Christie, a literary hustler of the highest order, is the best-selling novelist of all time.
Christie wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916 and published it four years later. (She was 30 when she published her first book. Take heart, recent MFA grads.) Hercule Poirot, the detective in Styles, went on to appear in half of Christie’s 66 detective novels and 52 of her short stories.
With Poirot, Christie hit the center of a Venn diagram of elements sure to appeal to the British public. First, with his quick “little grey cells,” French bon mots and scrupulously correct appearance, Poirot followed in the steps of the eccentric, brilliant and very popular Sherlock Holmes. Second, he was Belgian: Britain had welcomed more than 250,000 Belgian refugees from the first World War. Thanks to the idea that Belgian resistance to their German occupiers had bought Britain and France some time, public sentiment about the refugees was largely positive, if patronizing (“plucky” comes up a lot.) Last, as a genteel fish-out-of-water, Poirot could make little comments on English society that would amuse without offending (What unpredictable weather! What bumbling men!) Poirot was a leading character in the golden age of detective fiction and the public ate him up.
While Christie was a natural at matching her creative output to her readers’ desires, she didn’t take as easily to the business side of writing. Her first contract, with publisher The Bodley Head, promised an even split on serialization fees, but no royalties until more than 2,000 copies of The Mysterious Affair at Styles had sold; after that initial 2,000, she would get a 10 percent royalty on net sales (after sales costs and wholesale discounts). Plus, she was on the hook for five more books under similar conditions.
Just less than 2,000 of the initial printing of Styles sold and Christie earned only £25 (roughly $1,000 today) from serialization. For comparison, I’ll just leave this here. So how did she go from £25 for an entire book to eventually owning eight homes around the world? She learned how to play the publishing game.
By 1923, Christie had wised up to the fact that The Bodley Head had taken advantage of her, and got herself an agent, Edmund Cork. In 1924, he moved her to another U.K. publisher, William Collins & Sons (eventually to become HarperCollins.) Christie duly fulfilled her contract with The Bodley Head with some thrillers, detective stories and an anthology of previously serialized short stories, using those books to try out new characters and diversify her oeuvre. Once out of her original contract, she did much better with William Collins. Her first book there, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, sold 5,000 copies in its first printing in the summer of 1926. Ackroyd is considered by many to be the best work of her entire career.
However, 1926 wasn’t all glorious ascendancy. Early that year, her beloved mother died. That fall, her husband Archie, a handsome, golf-obsessed, former pilot (COME ON, REALLY), asked for a divorce so he could marry his mistress, Nancy Neele. So our friend Agatha did what any self-respecting mystery writer would do: she encountered an alien wasp, kissed her daughter goodbye and disappeared, abandoning her car next to a lake with the hood up and the lights on. For 11 days, the country searched for her. Arthur Conan Doyle even did his part by taking one of Christie’s gloves to a medium. Thanks, Art!
Christie was eventually found in a hotel under the name Mrs. Teresa Neele (!), where she was seen “dancing the Charleston, playing bridge, doing crosswords and reading the newspapers” (!!). The media denounced the episode as a scam to sell books, to spite Archie or even frame him for her murder, but Christie claimed a nervous breakdown and amnesia (!!!). They’re all so fantastic; I can’t decide which explanation I prefer.
Through it all, Christie’s book sales kept increasing, and she expanded into writing radio and stage plays. She did well in the U.K., but it was the cash from American publications and serializations in magazines like Colliers and Cosmopolitan that helped her accumulate real estate; at the time, the top U.K. income tax rate was 90%, but foreign income was exempt from taxation. Since Christie’s prose was straightforward, her work was quick and cheap to translate, so other foreign royalties started rolling in, too.
But by the 1950s, U.K. tax laws would catch up with her, and Christie toned down her output to roughly one book a year. She was unwilling to write essentially for free, and she wanted to avoid “enlarg[ing] the finances of the Inland Revenue who would spend it mostly on idiotic things.” (O, to be a writer who is making too much money from writing too often.)
Today, Christie’s books still sell four million copies annually, earning millions for Agatha Christie Limited, a company partially owned by her grandson Mathew Pritchard and his children. The majority stakeholder since 1998, however, is a media company called Chorion Limited, which also owns entities like Paddington Bear, Peter Rabbit and the Very Hungry Caterpillar series. Oh, and twist ending: all the works of some guy named Raymond Chandler.
So what can we, as modern writers looking to improve our literary hustle, learn from the life and works of Dame Agatha Christie?
Approach writing as a trade, not an art.
Christie had a knack for writing popular work and now her great-grandchildren are very, very rich. In her autobiography, Christie explains that the only criticism she would offer to another writer would be to issue a warning if:
…[t]he would-be writer has not taken any account of the market for his wares. It is no good writing a novel of 30,000 words—that is not a length which is easily publishable at present. ‘Oh,’ replies the author, ‘but this book has got to be that length.’ Well, that is probably all right if you’re a genius but you are more likely to be a tradesman… If you like to write for yourself only, that is a different matter—you can make it any length, and write it in any way you wish; but then you will probably have to be content with the pleasure alone of having written it.
Write regularly, on everything, even–especially–if it’s just notes.
Collins advertised “a Christie for Christmas” every year and Christie obliged. She was an efficient writer, reusing elements often–her elderly amateur detective Miss Marple’s fictional village of St. Mary Mead has to be up there with Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove for an astounding per capita murder rate–and plotting out stories thoroughly before beginning to write. Christie would keep notes for a single novel across dozens of notebooks, shopping lists, her daughter’s school papers—anything she could write on. With a proper Excel file, she probably could have churned out a book a month (hello, James Patterson).
Read contracts and agreements carefully.
Here’s Christie on her first contract: “Having given up hope for some years now of having anything published…the idea of having a book come out in print went straight to my head. I would have signed anything … I didn’t even notice that there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels.” Beware poison pills.
Do lots of things in lots of places.
In both world wars, Christie worked in a hospital dispensary, cultivating a working knowledge of poisons, which would obviously come in handy for her. She also traveled extensively, especially with her second husband, who was essentially the British Indiana Jones. The best way to invest in your long-term creative ability is to have a good range of experiences. Say yes to things.
Get skilled help.
After her bad experience with her first contract, Christie relied on her agent for nearly everything professionally, getting, as she called it, “first-class advice as to what to do, and, even more important, what not to do.” Even if you aren’t going the traditional publishing route, there are groups like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts who will help you with things like contracts and intellectual property questions; freelance editors can be found through organizationss like the Editorial Freelancers Association. Know when to call in your Poirot.
Rebecca Brinson’s Hustle and Prose will be appearing in The Toast monthly. Next up: Laura Ingalls Wilder.