The Depressing World of Publishing

August 4, 2010 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

I’m back into the swing of things with my writing course, which has so far been extremely satisfying and enjoyable (for the most part).  Two of my subjects this term are editing and writing feature articles, both aspects of writing I’m really looking forward to.  The classes this first week have been small (less than 10, though a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t rock up) — and about 50% of students are ex-lawyers!  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it was interesting and depressing to learn about how difficult it is to crack into the publishing world and how difficult it is to stay there once you make that breakthrough.  It’s hard, it’s rough, and for the vast majority, little money to be made (especially in a small market place like Australia).

For starters, most big publishing houses these days don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.  They just don’t have time for slush piles, 99% of which is unpublishable drivel anyway (or so they say).  That means you need a literary agent, but not many agents accept people who have never been published.  Does that even make sense?  You can’t publish unless you can get an agent but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published.

Secondly, publishing has evolved into an industry where it’s all about making money.  Gone are the days where commercial fiction is used to prop up the literary fiction that generally don’t make any money.  If your book is unlikely to sell, then chances are the publisher won’t even consider it.  It could be a masterpiece, but if there is no market for the book, it’s unlikely the book will see the light of day.

There are some boutique publishers these days more willing to take on unknown writers and literary fiction writers, but the money to be made there is very small (clearly not enough to live off) and their budget for advertising/promotion etc will obviously be a lot more limited.  But at least there’s a chance.

Thirdly, and relatedly, it’s hard to keep books on the shelves these days with the increasingly accurate counting of book sales (thanks to systems such as Bookscan).  Bookscan essentially tabulates real sales from most bookstores across Australia (I’m sure there are similar systems across the world) into an exact, concrete figure.

This is important because back in the old days it was easier for publishers to inflate the success of their writers by manipulating the numbers.  For instance, you may print 5,000 books in your first run, and 4,000 of them are sold to bookstores.  The publisher might then say you sold 4,000 books, which is technically true — but of those 4,000, perhaps only 2,000 are sold from the stores, with the rest returned.  Now, there’s no hiding the truth.  If you sold 163 copies, you sold 163 copies.

So if you finally managed to get that first book published but it sold poorly, your chances of getting a second book published becomes that much harder.  You can’t even go to another publisher and lie about the success of your first book because they’ll have all the numbers right there in front of them.

Fourthly, and also related, is the fact that books don’t stay on the shelves for very long.  New titles that don’t perform well are pulled off the shelves within 3 months.  3 months!  How does that even give people a chance?  How can you build any momentum, any word of mouth?  It may take 3 months just for some people to read the book!

The need to make money out of every book on the shelf as become a recurring nightmare for aspiring authors.  That’s why we have the vicious cycle of the same books remaining on the bestsellers lists every week — you know, the Stieg Larssons, the Stephenie Meyers, the JK Rowlings and the Dan Browns — because these books are proven sellers.  People tend to gravitate to what’s “hot”, what everyone else is reading.  Hence instead of bringing in new books, book stores prefer to stock new versions (often just different sizes and covers) of existing titles to freshen them up a bit — the best example I can think of are the movie-tie-in versions and the Twilight red page-edge versions.

Let’s face it, the chances of becoming one of those superstar authors mentioned above are a hundred million to one.  Those guys can live (well, except for Larsson because he’s dead) off the sales of one book for the rest of their lives.  For everyone else, they’ll have to keep writing.

The advances on royalties for new authors in Australia are excrutiatingly small.  Essentially what they do is make a prediction of how many books you will sell, and then multiple that by 10% of the price of the book.  So if the book costs $30 and they think you will sell 2,000 copies, then your advance is $6,000.  Considering the book may have taken you 10 years to write, that’s not a lot of money.  And if the book ends up selling more than 2,000 copies, then each additional copy sold will earn you 10% in royalties.

The problem is, in a small market such as Australia, selling around 15,000 to 20,000 (in total) would be considered successful.  Even if each book is priced at $50, that’s still only $75,000-$100,000 — not exactly money you can retire on — and that’s only if your book is a success.

Look, there are still plenty of local success stories out there, such as Rebecca James (author of Beautiful Malice), which I talked about in this post here.  But these are rare, rare cases.  It’s like winning the lottery.

Few authors can become international superstars like Meyer and Rowling, but there are many minor to moderately successful writers who have been snapped up for multiple book deals at a price equivalent to working in a decent job (say $100,000-$200,000 a year).  That’s a pretty comfortable living.

However, the pressure of churning out one or even two books a year could take the fun out of the writing, and more importantly, the quality of the books will suffer.  Can you imagine being contracted to write one book every 12 months, especially if you say took 5 years to write your first one?  Can you write one every 6 months, and expect to put in the same amount of effort and ensure the same level of quality as your previous books?

That’s exactly why we have so many reasonably well-known authors (not going to mention names) that seem to continuously bring out new books, but each one is worse than the next.  It gets people wondering why the quality of their new stuff is so much less inspiring than their old stuff.  But at the end of the day, they still sell, and that’s what publishers care about.  After all, they are the ones putting up the money.

So it’s hard to get an agent.  It’s hard to get published.  It’s hard to stay on the shelves.  It’s even harder to get republished.  The money is unlikely to be good.  And even if you do get signed for more books, it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

And yet, despite all of this, I continue to write, and I continue to dream.  Why?  It reminds me of this awful movie I just watched (review coming shortly) where a woman says that her daughter is studying and wants to get into creative writing.  Her male companion is shocked and says, “But how is she going to make any money?”  The woman responds stoically, “She’s doing what she loves.”  I can relate to that.