So there I was lying on the settee yesterday, reading the latest copy of The Author and feeling all my optimism and positive energy drain away to be replaced by a flood tide of doom and gloom.
Article after article talked about the shrinking book market, the death of the midlist author (or indeed any author not already a best-seller) and the impossibility of making any kind of living from writing for any but the most successful celeb.
Here’s a little selection.
(Warning – unless you’re feeling irrepressibly upbeat, look away now!)
• ‘The midlist author has already become an endangered species … a healthy literary culture depends on book buyers being able to find a wide range of good quality affordable books. It also depends on authors being able to afford to write those books.’ Andrew Taylor
• Discounting is ‘driving readers to different books, for example to discounted new books in preference to full-price backlist and to discounted bestsellers in preference to non-discounted midlist … All retailers … promote pretty much the same titles.’ Tim Hely Hutchinson
• Nicholas Clee writes re a novelist whose first 2 books attracted a £75,000 advance. 18,000 copies of the first were sold – more than the first sales of many authors who have gone on to become bestsellers, but not enough to cover the advance.
‘The publisher has already written off the investment. It is giving no promotional support to the second novel … The current publisher will not throw good money after – in its view – bad; other houses, noting the author’s record, will stay away.’
This author’s agent is quoted as saying, ‘The author’s at work on his third. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to bother.’
• ‘You can get a high five-figure deal, or even a six-figure one, and still find your career is over in the time it takes to read a BookScan print-out. Still, winning a publishing contract remains preferable to not winning a publishing contract – the fate that is befalling an increasing number of first-time writers, as well as experienced ones.’ Nicholas Clee
• ‘Leading publishing houses are cutting their lists … (one) UK company has reduced its annual output in the past five years from about 600 new titles to about 350. That scale of reduction is common.’ Nicholas Clee
• ‘In fiction, if a book is not likely to be on the front tables (of Waterstones), publishers don’t want to take it.’ Clare Alexander, Gillon Aitken agency
• ‘You’re either going to get £100,000 or zero. No one’s going to say, “This isn’t bad: I’ll give you £15,000 for it.’ Jonathan Lloyd, Curtis Brown agency
• ‘No one wants a midlist. An author is either on the way up, or on the way out.’ Helen Fraser, Penguin
• ‘The number of novels selling more than 10,000 copies has been dropping like a stone for the past three years.’ Ursula Mackenzie, Little Brown
• ‘If you are an author … you should be aware of the trends. You might produce lead title after lead title, and be a darling of publishers and agents. If that happens, you will become very rich. If it does not, you will certainly need a more lucrative day job.' Nicholas Clee
• ‘Yes we would all like to make money out of writing and selling books. But we might also like the moon to be made out of green cheese.’ Robert Cole
There’s more. Much more.
I felt swamped by negativity. Yet again, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Either way, any hope I may have been harbouring about making a (modest) living from my writing was clearly an illusion. Who the Hell did I think I was?
But then, just before I drowned in self-pity, there was this other article … At first, in my negative state of mind, it seemed like even more bad news along the lines of ‘I’ve seen the future … and there are no books in it.’ Or at least, ‘There are some – but yours ain’t among ‘em, baby.’
It was about the advent of the e-book. New products are coming onto the market, Sony Reader for example, that are set to revolutionise our reading habits. The size of a small paperback with a display that ‘looks like paper’, these little devices can store up to 80 books downloaded from the internet (a la iPod), 100s if you use a memory stick or similar. The current sales price is £200 but this will come down as demand increases and the technology improves.
After I swallowed down the initial instinctive distaste bordering on horror, I started thinking …
Let’s take a step back and look at the pros and cons:
• For all those of us who love the feel, smell and sight of a Real Book, the thought of its possible demise is little short of catastrophic
• The advent of the e-book will be disastrous for the already beleaguered independent bookshops
• We’ll have less and less face-to-face contact with Real People
• There would be huge job losses in the printing and associated industries
And now the advantages
• No more deforestation to produce paper
• Think of the costs to the environment of producing a book – from tree to wood mill to pulp to printer (remember the machinery involved, the ink etc) to storage to truck to distributor to truck or train or plane to more warehouses to bookseller to reader. Think of the drain on the earth’s dwindling resources … the pollution …
• No more shelves groaning under the weight of books both read, not yet read and never likely to be read. No more teetering piles of books gathering dust in every corner of your home
• A full library of books of your choice – fitting into your pocket
• Because of the savings in production costs, downloadable books will cost a fraction of a Real Life book
• Due to all the above – wait now – this is The Big One for me – publishers will be in a position to sign up a truly diverse range of books and authors. Far more than now. The costs will be smaller, the risks correspondingly less …
It’s going to be a matter of adapt or die. If the advent of the e-book is inevitable, it’s no use doing the ostrich routine. There are advantages. We either concentrate on them and go with the flow – or wallow in misery and self-pity.
In spite of feeling unspeakable sadness at the losses implicit in the changes that are ahead, I know which I want to do …
Sorry this is such a long post. I'm really looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts ...