The Depressing World of Publishing

August 4, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

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.

Useful Resource for Writers (who want to get published!)

April 25, 2009 in On Writing

Just quickie – I’ve started getting seriously serious about my studies, given that exams are just a month away!  That being said, while randomly surfing during one of my, er “breaks”, I came across FirstWriter.com.

The layout looks fairly plain, but it seems there are lots of goodies on it.  I haven’t looked at its ‘Writing Tips’ section yet, but what caught my attention were the specific search engines for literary agents and (book and magazine) publishers.  In particular, you can modify your searches to limit them to your particular type of writing (eg fiction or non-fiction) and genre, plus you can allocate a specific geographic region.

There is also a writing competition search engine which I’ve tried, and it’s pretty cool too.  Recently I started thinking about (and even did a couple of) short stories, so maybe I’ll give some of these competitions a go to try get some writing credits to pad (well, start) the portfolio.

A Word About Novel Word Counts…

March 11, 2009 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing

thick-book2

Potentially my finished manuscript

 As the first draft of my fantasy novel surged past 90,000 words, I started to worry about the final word count for the very first time. 

It was never something I gave much thought to before – after all, most fantasy novels you see on bookstore shelves these days are thicker than some of my law textbooks (not many though).  However, with my story not even at the half way mark (or so I think), I’m beginning to wonder just how much of a door stopper the finished product is going to be.  250,000 words?  300,000?

While I will be ecstatic just to finish the book, I’d be lying if I said publication has never crossed my mind.  But forget about selling any copies – would any sane publisher even contemplate publishing a 250,000-300,000 word book from a first time writer?  I’m certain the answer is a decisive ‘no’ (if I was James Joyce, maybe, but unfortunately I’m not).

So what is a publishable length for a novel?  I was lucky to come across this blog post at The Swivet (the blog of Colleen Lindsay, literary agent).  The post is almost a year old, but I doubt the publishing landscape has changed that much in a year.  According to Colleen, the ideal length of a fantasy/sci-fi manuscript is 100,000 words, and up to 120,000-130,000 for a truly spectacular epic fantasy.  Agents and publishers tend to think that if a novel is too long, it probably reflects a lack of writing ability (in my case it’s probably true).  The limits don’t necessarily apply to established, published authors who have already proven they can sell.  There are also exceptions like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (which I have read and personally don’t think is that great), but she was already a star and award winner, which few first time writers are. 

If you scroll down that post, you’ll see a message which lists the word counts of recent and historically popular novels.  Some of them caught me by surprise, like the first Harry Potter novel, which was roughly only 77,000 words, or the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was only around 455,000 words!  Really?  I could have sworn both felt significantly longer when I read them.  Part of this might be because I’m already up to 90,000 myself and I feel like nothing much has happened in my story!

Yes, it’s just a first draft, and there will be a lot of re-writing, editing and cutting (A LOT!), but I just can’t fathom squeezing the completed manuscript down to a publishable 100,000 words.  So…perhaps a trilogy?  One that comes to mind is Patrick Rothfuss, who wrote The Name of the Wind (which I can’t wait to read).  He originally wrote a mega-long book entitled The Song of Flame and Thunder, which was rejected by all publishers he submitted to.  However, after he won the Writers of the Future competition, he managed to sell the book by splitting it into 3 volumes, the first of which was The Name of the Wind (which is still a ridiculously thick book that I’m sure exceeds 100,000 words).

Anyway, enough dreaming for now.  Have to try and finish the damn thing first.

PS: I can’t believe this is my 100th post!

Writing Success Stories

January 12, 2009 in On Writing

That last post was too depressing, so I’ve decided to share some success stories to cheer myself up.

JK Rowling and Stephen King

jk-rowlingMost people have probably heard of the most famous ones, like JK Rowling and Stephen King.  Rowling was a single mother on unemployment benefits, and the first Harry Pottstephen-kinger manuscript was rejected by all 12 publishing houses it was submitted to.  Now she’s one of the richest women in the world.  King, on the other hand, spent years getting rejected, submitting short stories to magazines for chump change and even pumped gas for a living.  There’s no need to describe how successful he is now.

Both authors apparently had a bit of luck.  In Rowling’s case, rumour has it that the daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman read the first chapter and urged her dad to get the rest of the manuscript, which led to publication.  For King, he had thrown the draft of Carrie into the trash, and had it not been for the encouragement of his wife to continue the story, it would never have been finished.

Nicholas Sparks

nicholas-sparks1Famous soppy romance novelist, Nicholas Sparks, is one of my favourite success stories.  In short, he wrote The Notebook while selling pharmaceuticals and sent 25 query letters to agents.  Only one, a rookie agent, agreed to represent him.  He ended up selling the book for a cool $1 million.

You should read about his story for yourself at his webpage.  Here are the links to the stories of how he found an agent and how he found a publisher:

http://www.nicholassparks.com/WritersCorner/MyAgent.html

http://www.nicholassparks.com/WritersCorner/Publisher.html

Also have a browse of his very interesting and informative “Writer’s Corner”, very worthwhile.

rockySylvester Stallone

I only came across this the other day.  I don’t want to spoil it, so I will say no more.  Follow this link (http://www.rockysdream.com) on how Sylvester Stallone shot to stardom with Rocky (which he wrote), as told by motivator Tony Robbins.  The guy really does know how to tell a story. 

Matthew Reilly

The guy may come across has a bit of a toss, but one cannot deny that Matthew Reilly knows how to write excitement.  His story is also one of continued persistence and hard work.  After being rejecmatthew-reillyted by every major publishing house in Sydney, he decided to self-publish 1000 copies by borrowing money from his family.  Unbelievably, he even lost some of his books from the back of his car through theft.  However, eventually one of the copies of his book Contest was picked up (from the book store he negotiated with) by an editor from Pan MacMillan, and he went on to sell several bestsellers.

Reilly also comes across as a bit of a shameless self-promoter (maybe that’s what you need to be), but you cannot help but admire the things he did to get to where he is today.

And more…

The list goes on and on.  Just about every famous writer ever has an inspiring story of success or funny rejection story to tell.   Here are just a few examples of what famous authors have received in their rejections (from Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections):

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: “Sentimental rubbish…Show me one page that contains an idea.”

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: “I haven’t really the foggiest idea of what the man is trying to say.”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”

And last but not least, my 2 favourites:animal-farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”

and

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence: “For your own good do not publish this book.”

I’ll add more success stories or funny quotes if I come across any (or if I remember them).