Friday, May 19, 2006

State of the Industry

So you've got a 2 book deal! Fantastic news! Your head's in the clouds. Nothing like this has ever happened to you before. The life-changing potential seems huge - as well as very very scary!
Everyone's telling you you've made it. You're a published writer. People who never gave you the time of day before are suddenly jostling for your attention.
You keep telling everyone that you just want to enjoy the ride and see where it takes you. That nothing's predictable and that you're still struggling on a teensy income and living in a council flat.
So then you get accused of spoiling your chances by not being positive enough. Which then makes you feel guilty.
But you feel having your books published is such an amazing feeling anyway - it's what so many people dream of.
When you first get signed up everyone tries to convince you you’re going to be the Next Big Thing. Cue huge fanfare. What they don’t tell you is that it’s going to be a case of one strike and you’re out.

Here’s how it goes:

• No matter how hard the publicist might work their socks off, unless there's been mega hype, first novels rarely get widely reviewed. So the number of copies sold to the bookshops is almost immaterial, as few people will actually know the book exists!
• The trade is dominated by the huge chains. Buying is done centrally with managers of local branches only able to order one or two copies of anything not ordered by head office.
• Publishers don’t have the resources to approach all the wonderful independent bookshops that are out there or to go to local branches of the chains.
• The chains reserve their space and energy for the books that are assured bestsellers – the front of house 3 for the price of 2s.
• Other books are on the shelves for a month or two at the most before being returned to the publisher if they are unsold by the end of that time.
• This gives no opportunities for a slow burn or spread by word of mouth. At the point when the book disappears from the shelves, no one’s going to stumble across it and they won’t have heard of it due to the lack of reviews, so are unlikely to go into a bookshop and request an order to be placed.
• When your second book is published, the chain buyers examine their records of how many copies of the previous book were sold, using a system called Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS). Most likely (given the points I’ve made above) sales won’t have been brilliant (even though you're personally blown away that there are 1500 or so people out there who have read the book YOU have written). The chain buyers therefore order very few of this second book.
• The second book gets more reviews than the first.
• The Catch 22. More people will have heard of your book but, alas, it’s not widely available in the shops!

It used to be an accepted truth in the book trade that authors often don’t take off until their third or even fourth or fifth books. Suddenly the word seeps out and they are ‘discovered’ by readers, at which point sales of their back catalogue would increase, often resulting in reprints.

Nowadays, this is well nigh impossible. If your first book doesn’t take off (against all the odds given the points above) everything is against you being able to make it with subsequent books. 3rd and 4th book deals are notoriously hard to come by for authors who haven't 'made it' commercially with their first two.
Even if there's a small but loyal band of readers who can't wait to see books 3 and beyond on their shelves ...
See what I mean about Catch 22?

If you’re an as yet unpublished author, I wish you loads of luck. Keep on writing and keep on trying for that elusive deal.
Enjoy the ride and, if you do get lucky, revel in the thrill of seeing your work in print and on sale. But try to keep expectations realistic at the same time.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to minimise the importance of positive thinking!
In retrospect, I really wish I had my site up and running when my first book was published in 2003.
Ah well, better late than never ...

16 comments:

skint writer said...

Thanks debi, this is good information and good advice. Keep the faith - but keep it real.

Debi said...

Couldn't do it any other way!

Lee said...

I agree with Skint that this is an excellent informative post, containing much which is new to me. But my conclusion? Less and less inclination to bother with conventional publishing.

Debi said...

Hi and welcome. Glad you find this somewhat negative rant useful.
Any ideas about the alternatives to the convention? (Apart from what we're doing now.)

roger said...

Sobering post. I find it particularly chilling as I'm about six weeks or so on from the publication of my first novel. That means the returns should be coming back from the bookshops around now!

I've had some great responses from actual readers - I was hoping for the word of mouth effect. Second generation readers, and so on. The slow burn, in fact. How naive!

When I was an unpublished writer I used to find bookshops the most depressing places in the world. Now I'm published, they're oppressive as well as depressing. I can hardly bear to go in them!

Debi said...

First of all, hearty congratulations, Roger! Don't let me get you down! You could be the exception that proves the rule. It's impossible to predict who will make it and who will fall by the wayside and (sadly)it doesn't necessarily depend on the quality of your writing, as is obvious from some of the dross that's on the shelves as well as the maasive number of gems that never make it to first deal.
Publishers and agents always say that, even with massive marketing budgets (which few authors get) not all books make it, while there are others who fly high with minimal publicity. It's all about creating a buzz, but no one can tell you how that comes about.
Keep on doing what you're doing to spread the word from the bottom up. I wish I'd done that earlier.
Good luck! And for Chrissakes try to enjoy it!

skint writer said...

Yeah even though the holy grail of publishing anything substantial has teased me for too long, since starting blogging I'm not so bothered about it, and posts like this help a lot.

Minx said...

Thanks Debi, and no I don't find this a depressing post, just a realistic one.
When I first started to think about submitting my work I read Carole Blake's - From Pitch to Publication. She pulled no punches from start to finish, laying out the pitfalls page after page.
What I came away with was that pursuing publication is a natural progression for me. I love writing and I can't stop. If I ever get to the place where you are I shall be eating the icing, the cake and the wrapper as well!
If not, then I can say with hand on heart, that my grandchildren will have some interesting stories to tell their children at bedtime!!

Debi said...

So we're all of one mind then.
-We love writing and couldn't stop if we wanted to.
-We each have a story (or several) we need to tell whether there's anyone else out there who wants to hear it or not.
-It's a natural progression to want to be published to give others access to our work.
-We recognise the limitations of the above even if we do get published.
-But if we do get into print, we're determined to drain every last drop of satisfaction from the experience as well as recognise our privilege.
-We find blogging just as creative and satisfying as any other type of writing.
-We're all yummy scrummy people who deserve only the best!

Minx said...

Absolutely!!

Maxine said...

Absolutely squared and cubed.
I love your outlooks, everyone. I am sure that your "conviction writing" will win through, somehow.

I wonder if the technology "solutions" I am always reading about will help authors? At some point conventional book publishers will all go bust (read, eg, Michael Allen (GOB) on the randomness of it all), and we will be into an Infogeognostic-like situation of readers' choice between print, ebook, pdf or whatever, with Google Scholar (or other) indexing at author's cost (or something) -- and a page-rank-type system with reader ratings (a Google book search/Amazon hybrid) for books to reach the "top" of their subject categories. So books are kind of self-selected, rather than "published" as such.

Hmmmm -- Lee, are you there -- can you feel a sci fi story coming on? Put me in the acknowledgements -- the rest is yours to take and run with!

roger said...

Well said, Debi. Especially the last bit!

Lee said...

I 'm here, Maxine! Don't know if all conventional book publishers will go bust - film didn't destroy theatre, though perhaps the analogy is not quite appropriate - but there are major paradigm changes coming. Predictions are notoriously difficult and rarely accurate, so who knows what forms the new models will take? Interesting time, isn't it?

Debi, everyone always seems to assume writers want to publish (your 'natural progression'), that everything else we do is because we can't somehow break into the arena. But how about refusing to play the gladiator? The internet is one way. After all, how many novelists can actually support themselves through their writing alone? Think of all those MFA lecturers ... And the academy threatens the future of poetry, at least in the States: poetry needs to be free of the university, needs to be much broader, and more subversive.

Debi said...

This is good stuff innit?
Maxine - your brave new world is scarey! But I think there will always be people who want to hold a real book in their hands. I know I will. And to continue Lee's analogy - photographs didn't replace paintings, tv didn't replace radio, dvd's ... vinyl, digital photography ... film.
But you're right - we ignore the new technology at our peril and would be crazy not to try to use it for our own purposes.
Lee - I'm always up for anything subversive!

Maxine said...

I love thinking about all this brave new worldy stuff and doing "thought experiments" as to where all this new tech might or could lead to.

However, my own actual experience of implementing "digital solutions" at work, which we do a lot, being a publisher, is that they are imperfect, and usually need a "manual check" throughout. Even typesetting is like that once you start putting in greeks, eqations and special characters. You can't just press a button.

So there is hope for us all yet but it is fun thinking about it all -- or maybe I am just a geeky nerd (not in reality but in what passes for my brain).

Good words, Lee --- so long as you can buy the Tesco stripe beans, whatever they are! (See Minx comment on later posting).

Maxine said...

Forgot to spell-check again so got equations wrong, apologies.

At least I got typesetting right this time, usually my fingers go "typsetting".