A few months ago I attended a spiky, confrontational, but illuminating keynote speech by the writer Will Self, in Manchester. In it, with unusual candour, the clearly unprepared Self spoke about the money he had made from writing- and for once this was a name author talking numbers. He actually drew a graph for the audience- with Time on one axis, and Pounds earned on another- detailing how, over the years, his advances for his books had changed. What was unsurprising was that as he had become more famous he had been able to get larger and larger advances. The line simply went up. What was interesting, however, was that his book sales did not follow the rising line. His sales had initially gone up, now fallen, and they now made for, on paper a rather aesthetic bell-shaped curve. It was his fame that made him advances- not his book sales.
Publishers and agents have access to any author’s book sales. Some mysterious database allows them to know exactly how many copies of your beloved tome you have sold. So the implication here is that Self’s publishers would have known that his sales were dropping, but still paid out more for successive advances. So why?
Well- the prestige of having a well-known writer on their books. The clients that a publisher already has are likely to be a bit of a strange mixture. Made up of one or two big names, that sell a certain amount (usually less than the public might expect), a couple of somehow often less known writers who really shift books, and then lots of authors who sell under a hundred or so copies. The less well known take the hit for everyone else, and keep the company going.
So, how important is the prestige, in the publishing business? If it is not just your sales that dictate the opportunities you get as a writer, is it the prestige of your words? Again, this issue is more complex than might be expected. JK Rowling released a crime fiction novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and it sold in the region of a thousand copies, having got great reviews in the broadsheets. But once the author’s identity was exposed sales rocketed. It was the same book- only now it was getting a radically different treatment. Just as it is often the same book, which all publishers and agents have rejected, that we later see winning Man Booker Prizes. Clearly the publishing industry has no real scale in how it chooses what is worthy, and what is not worthy.
Advances, of the type that Will Self enjoyed, do not exist in the same way any more. We’re in a situation where the old economic model of publishing- where advances are, by definition, advances against future book sales, simply doesn’t work any more. The agents and publishers aren’t necessarily interested in your sales- they might want big names, or at least cool names, to introduce into the mix of writers on their roster. They use these names to attract the authors who really will sell?
With authors desperate to being published, publishers have adapted to this skewed playing field in two interesting ways. Either they will try and retain copyright of your books to ensure that if you do start to sell, further down the line, they can help recoup their losses and make up for the books that didn’t sell. Or they try and draw you into contributing to costs.
Lot’s of authors will tell you there’s no money in it. I find that disingenuous – often the ones that say that are those that, relatively speaking, have cleaned up. There is money in it. A friend of mine sold a teen fiction novel a few years ago and was recently able to buy a new flat outright with the sales from it. Another friend of mine (can I count her as a friend if we’ve offered each other’s books endorsements) was asked to ‘name her price’ by a publisher, and she got £100,000. Don’t be discouraged. But do, if possible, be aware of how the game is changing.
At the end of the day, the novels and stories you have laboured over are worth being treated with huge respect. You have crafted them, possibly researched for them, and anxiously seen each word toddle out into the world, polished and preened to perfection. But also, don’t be stung by the complex reactions the world may have to your words- from showering them with money to trying to make you pay for your own coming out party. Take it from me- both the sweet and the sour will be offered with the same tone, by someone seemingly in-the-know saying ‘surely you know this is the way it works?’ That can be confusing. It was, for me.
My view (and I know it is a shaky one) is that a piece of writing which has true value should not have to funded from your own pocket. I know plenty of self-published authors who disagree, and perhaps rightly so. The self-published authors who I personally know to be successful are either genre writers (which attract their own crowd) or they are famous in some way. Usually as people exposing a story that only they can tell. They argue to me, again and again, that the tilted playing field in the world of publishing is not for them. They say, with plenty of evidence to support them, that the numbers are unfair on writers. They take their ball onto their own field, and self-publish. Many of them, as far as I know have sold well. You could argue that their works will not be as well edited as they would’ve been with a commercial publisher. But I can’t think of any publisher, from the indies, to the likes of Penguin, who haven’t published novels with mistakes in then. The whole production process is being run very hard as a system at the moment, and quality, as well as the bank balance of authors, often suffers.
There are still bright spots then. A great story can find a market without your words, and money, being cornered by publishers. Even if there aren’t as many generous advances as there used to be, and even if the market is over-stuffed with books, there are still prizes, grants, and academic posts to be won.
Your words are worth the world. It’s just that some people, in that world, won’t tell you that.