If a book were a vaccine

Imagine you’re a bright ambitious novelist who has already proved your writing skills in, say, non-fiction or journalism. You spend a year or two researching, planning and writing your debut novel, fitting it around the day job and your family commitments. You work on the dining room table after the kids have gone to bed. At some point you realise the plot isn’t working, so either dump the book and start again or re-plot and re-draft it. Finally, you are happy with your 120,000 words and send it out to beta readers or a professional editor. After a few weeks they write back saying how they love the ending but the middle of the book is flabby and we need to feel more empathy with the hero. You write another draft or two to take account of their comments, then a final proof for typos.

At last, the novel is fit to send to an agent. You spend a year emailing it out, waiting weeks or months for replies and of course many never reply at all. Eventually you are in luck and an agent spots your talent. She suggests revising the book to fit the latest market trends – more pace and stronger female characters. You comply.

Once satisfied with the manuscript your agent sings its praises to publishers. One comments they already have a writer with a style just like yours, another they are about to publish a book with a similar plot, but after a few months one bites. They change the title, and want it cutting down to 100k which means completely dropping a sub-plot. You revise the book again, proof it, send back to the agent and if she’s happy, it goes forward to the publishers. Their editors get to work, asking for a change here and there before you eventually receive a galley to check one last time. It is all ready for the reader to devour, but the marketing people insist publication waits until early next year so they can catch the book fairs.

One year after delivering that final proof, your book slides off the printing press and you walk beaming into your launch party. Your overnight success has taken you what, five years? Ten?

Now, imagine that the government recognised that you were the nation’s best hope to top next year’s bestseller list. They pay a handsome up-front royalty – no more day job! You are given a PA to handle all your chores and admin, and a full-time researcher to ensure all your facts are straight. You are provided with a fully equipped office, a top spec workstation and an unlimited travel budget. Based on up to the minute market research, the government gives you a heavy steer as to what they want to see in terms of genre, tone and length. An editor will work with you in real time, polishing your work as you go along. Nobody is bothered what other writers are doing or how similar your plot may be to another work in progress. You don’t need that ‘lucky break’ of an agent picking your book from the slush pile and a top-flight publisher with an empty niche your book fills perfectly. Publication is guaranteed and the printing presses will be warmed up ready to go the moment the final script is delivered. A world-wide PR blitz will herald your breakthrough novel.

There are only two snags in the dream scenario. First, you must deliver your manuscript in nine months, working night and day if you must. Second, before publication the book will be reviewed by a panel of literary critics who will judge whether it is worthy of mass readership. No pressure there, then! However, if you have the drive and the talent to deliver that book all the brakes on your literary career are off.

If it is a good book, I wouldn’t claim it was rushed into print and refuse to read it.

I’m a writer, not a medical researcher, but I can understand the obstacle course that gets in the way of vaccine development; budgets, resource constraints, funding applications, bureaucracy, international rivalries, lobbying and the distractions of existing projects. Remove the obstacles and vaccine researchers have a clear run. Everything is then down to the science and the talent of the scientists.

If a Covid 19 vaccine is approved by regulators, I’m not going to claim it was rushed and refuse to take it.

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