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.

500 Posts!

August 2, 2010 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study

Can you believe it?  This is my 500th post!

I started this blog on 11 January 2010 while I was (supposed to be) studying and bored out of my mind.  18 months, 420,000 hits and 1,200 comments later, I’m still studying (albeit a completely different field) — but the crucial difference is that I love what I’m doing.

Anyway, after a lengthy semester break (where I naturally did less writing than I intended do) I attended my first post-break class tonight.  Editing.  I took the elective because I thought it would be helpful for my writing (and in case I wanted to pursue a career in the publishing field).  So far, no complaints.

It was a little depressing to learn just how rough it is these days to crack into the publishing world, and how tough it is even if you do end up selling that first book (ie for most people there’s little money but lots and lots of pressure and stress), but the class was informative and fun.  We learned about the publishing hierarchy and the publishing process (I had no idea!).  We were getting real world and practical advice as opposed to merely theoretical advice.  Plus the readings have all been excellent pieces.  I never thought I’d say or admit this, but I’m enjoying studying.

On the writing front, not much progress on the novel(s), sadly, but I am finally making some progress on the non-fiction writing, getting my reviews and article ideas out to publications.  Still lots more to do, but it lLooks like I’m going to have a busy 6 months coming up.

Finding a distinctive narrative voice

May 21, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

Narrative Voice

One of the most important things in creative writing is find the right voice for the narrator.  Admittedly, it is also one of the most overlooked.  I used to write without giving much thought to voice other than whether I would use the first or third person perspective, but I’m finally starting to realise that having the wrong voice can absolutely destroy what may have otherwise been a good story.

When I say “narrative voice”, what I mean is the way in which the narrator tells the story.  It’s the style, the tone, the use of words.  Do you want the narrator to be up close and personal, like a father telling his son a bedtime story, or do you want to be more distant, like eavesdropping to a stranger in a bar?

Picking the right narrative voice can be tricky.  For example, if you’re telling a story set in the 1800s, using contemporary language and prose probably won’t work.  Conversely, if you’re writing a story about the technologically advanced future, you wouldn’t want to write it like a Jane Austen novel.  Who knows, maybe you would.  That’s the thing — you can’t be perfectly certain until you try.

Finding a Distinctive Narrative Voice

Some writers always write in the same way and with the same narrative voice.  Some others like to experiment and try different voices in telling a story.

Regardless, finding a narrative voice that is distinctive and stands out is crucial.  Especially if you want to get it published.

I was reading a magazine the other day that interviewed a few successful authors.  When asked what the recipe for success was, most of them answered that it was to “stand out from the crowd.”

Usually, I would presume that to mean having a fantastic, original premise, or at least an original slant on an old premise.  And while I still think that is probably the quickest way to get noticed, this particular publisher (Louise Thurtell for Arena) said:

A strong or distinctive narrative voice is gold to a publisher.  So many manuscripts we receive are marred by a bland, forgettable narrative voice.

And that was when I said “Crap!”  She’s absolutely right!  I thought about some of my favourite novels and what I liked most about them — The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (off the top of my head) — and I realised that apart from having a pretty decent story to tell, what I loved most about them was the way they told the story.

If you have a great idea for a story, you might be able to get away with it, but let’s face it, considering how hard it is to come up with anything truly original these days, it won’t hurt to put a bit more thought and effort into creating a distinctive, powerful narrative voice.

Which just reminds me — I’ll probably have to do something about that when it comes to my stagnant novel, when I eventually get back to it…

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!