Sunday, 17 May 2009


After what I've done in the last 24 hours, it's hard to be rational, but I will do my best because this must be a Very Serious Post. Before that, though, I know you are clamouring to know what I've done that was so taxing: a seriously serious radio programme - all my previous forays into radio being comparatively doddly and unserious, usually involving me talking about myself or my books, two subjects on which I am quite literally the world expert. No, this was the Shereen Programme, BBC Scotland's Sunday morning current affairs prog, where the news and papers are discussed intellectually by some erudite guests, plus, on this occasion, me. So, I had to spend yesterday trying to read every story on MPs' expenses, MPs' expenses, MPs' expenses, KatiePrice+PeterAndré's surprise (que?) divorce, and Eurovision.

So tired was I after being forced to watch the WHOLE of Eurovision on my own (no one else would join me) and consequently getting to bed late and not quite sober, and then getting up at 5am, that when we got to Katie Price, I had a bit of a rant. I am now in hiding in case she understands the bit about "plastic body and plastic brain". I was surprisingly well-briefed on KP, having spent all of three minutes on her pink and sparkly website (well, the bits I could get into without paying the sub - from which, btw, she earns a tidy £20,000 a month, even after she's reduced her sub because she is "taking into account the current financial situation everybody is experiencing.") To save you from having to look at even the free bits of this piece of tat (the website, not the woman ... or, on the other hand ...), I will quote my fav bit: "My no-nonsense approach has earned me the status of "thinking man's crumpet" as well as making me a strong, realistic, female icon for ordinary girls and women."

Your mind stoppped boggling yet? Lock up your daughters. Esp bearing in mind that 85% of visitors to her website are women. Including me.

Clearly, I enormously digress and must now come right down to earth.

Writing in a Recession

I was drawn to this topic for two reasons. First, it's the title of a talk I'm involved with in the Edinburgh Book Festival (in an organisational and chairing capacity, rather than having to think of anything profound to say, fortunately - we're leaving that to Mark Le Fanu, the General Sec of the SoA); and second, Sally Zigmond recently did a poignant post about how her was-to-be-published-soon book has been buggered by the recession.

So, how are writers being affected by the financial situation and what, if anything, can we do about it?

1. Some publishers are certainly behaving differently. Some (as I know through work with the Society of Authors) are pulling out of contracts; others are taking longer to make decisions. But, let's unpick this and see what we can say, a bit more specifically.
  • pulling out of contracts sometimes masks pre-existing weakness in that company
  • and is sometimes an unnecessary reaction
  • taking longer to make decisions is often simply rabbit behaviour. Sometimes, rabbit behaviour is wise. If you're a rabbit. But it sometimes isn't, especially if the thing chasing you is another rabbit.
  • sometimes, taking longer to make decisions is a good idea because many decisions should be reached slowly and a decision reached slowly may well be the right one
  • sometimes, for a publisher to pull out of a contract is a seriously stupid thing to do. In this case, for the author, it's a good thing, though it may not seem like it, because that publisher was a seriously stupid publisher and you really do not want to be with a seriously stupid publisher.
  • of course, sometimes it is a wise decision and genuinely necessary
2. Is this bad or good?
  • Obviously, it feels bad. Especially if you're the one who's just been dumped. In which case it's going to feel seriously rubbish.
  • On the other hand, too many books are published (and everyone in the know agrees with this - in fact, there are more and more being published every month, even now) and the more carefully publishers think about their decisions, the more likely they are to pick books that will sell, which is what they have to try to do.
  • BUT, trouble is, there are certain genres, very wonderful genres, which sell in small numbers and are more likely to be hit in a recession. (Lit Fic being the prime example. And Lit Fic is very very important.) So, this is bad news for them.
  • On the other hand, this creates a survival of the fittest situation, which is arguably good ...
  • ... unless you're the unlucky gene that gets gobbled. (I don't think that was the word Darwin used, but he was a bit old-fashioned and those stiff collars made it hard to say words like that.)
  • Some enterprising smaller publishers see this as an opportunity, because they're lean and clean and know exactly what works and how to sell it, even if it is gem-quality Lit Fic. Lynn Price of Behler Publications made this point when commenting below Jane Smith's post about how to beat the recession. (Thank you, Jane, you inspirational person, you!)
  • And some big publishers who are well-run and also lean and clean will also do fine in this situation too.
So, things are not as gloomy as you may be led to believe.

And, if we're clever and calm and if we're, most importantly, brilliant writers, there are things we can do to help our own situation, whether published or not yet.

What should authors do to survive and thrive in this recession?
There are three main things, and you should consider how they each apply to you before rejecting them. If you reject them all, that would be foolish and you'd deserve to fail. That would be not so much rabbit behaviour as ostrich behaviour.
  1. Look extra carefully at your MS and your work in general. Everything about good writing applies even more when the barrier is set higher, as it is. See this high barrier as an incentive, not a brick wall. Read everything you can about how to write the best possible book within your genre; practise as much and as open-mindedly as you can; read everything you can that's being published now within that genre; be the most critical judge of your own work that you can possibly be, and do your utmost to get it read by someone you absolutely trust. (People in the know - people working in the business, or published writers within your genre. Honest people. Not friends and family.) This might be the time to consider some form of course (we're also doing an event on that at the Ed Book Fest ... details of all our events coming v soon) - but it must be the right one for you, and be taught by genuine professionals, published authors or people in the writing industry.
  2. Understand your genre and its marketability and consider carefully whether you should branch out and work within another genre, either as well or instead. Now, I know this is a horrible thought if, for example, you passionately believe in the value of Lit Fic (as you would be right to). But you have to be realistic: if your sort of writing is not selling, then you may set yourself an unreachable target by continuing to try. My advice is: continue to write your beautiful Lit Fic, but at the same time write something else, something that might sell. This achieves several aims: publication will boost your morale hugely, publication may give you a foot in the door to other types of publication, and you may discover a hidden talent in and love for something else.
  3. Boost your writing profile by selling articles, short stories, fillers, anything. If you've done research, use it for something else. Your novel could inspire a short story. Magazines and newspapers are always looking for short fillers. Talk to someone in that industry or look at the many books and websites that give you insights. Writing a blog is useful - it keeps you writing, gets your name out there, helps you meet other authors, and can lead to something else. Note that I said "writing profile" not income - of course, income would be nice, and I'd never suggest you sell yourself short, but this is about getting your writing out there, and sometimes the pay just is crap. Most writers do also need "proper" jobs, at least at first.
In short, be realistic, be active and pro-active, be positive. Don't be like a rabbit or an ostrich. A recession can be an opportunity for talent to float to the top. Grasp that opportunity - but first, hone that talent. Talent has never been more necessary than it is now - though nor has luck. Only a few people get where they want with luck and no talent.

I can think of an example, but I would prefer not to think about the plastic one any more today.


Jane Smith said...

(Nicola, might you be thinking of the comment that Lynn Price made to this blog-post of mine?)

You're right, of course, that writers can improve their profile by writing articles and short pieces: no matter what's happening at the banks all those newspapers and magazines still have to fill their pages, and editors are always keen to find reliable and competent writers who are prepared to form and express their opinions. It's not the same as writing glorious literary fiction; but in a way it's more rewarding, as the feedback is almost immediate and the cheque is usually nice and big in relation to the number of words that you put out.

I'm glad your radio interview went well: I was thinking of you this morning. I could have managed to sound reasoned and coherent on all of those subjects but the Price/Andre divorce which I just don't care about. It's their business, and far too pink and fluffy for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jane - oh, OOPS! SORRY! I will go and rectify that right away. I'm hopeless with details (even really important ones like who wrote the words of wisdom) and tend to remember ideas and points instead. Grovelling apologies, though I know you'll forgive me if i buy you a drink.

No, I don't care about their relationship but I do care when on her blog she calls herself a strong role model for ordinary women and girls.

Sally Zigmond said...

I'm working hard on no. 3 at the moment and also having a rethink my whole writing 'career' as the years slip away from me faster than Usain Bolt.

Ms Price (Katie not Lynn) does have a talent. It's called knowing the price (sorry) of everything and the value of nothing.

Helen P said...

My writing 'career' has been as erratically helter skelter as K and P's relationship. You're right, Nicola and Jane, it is possible to make a living as a writer in a recession but it's tough. I started off five years ago with a few letters in women's mags, greetings cards verses and lowly paid features in slightly more obscure publications; thank goodness for the editors who gave me a chance. After working for a local paper I then bagged a few better paying freelance features until I now make a living as a freelancer,albeit a precarious one. It is so tough out there, lots of competition and blimey, I don't aspire to literary fiction, not good enough - I'd be much better at setting up an 'exclusive' with Katie on the sad demise of her marriage, but I believe she and Peter would like some privacy at the moment, which is a shame, I think I would have done a good job!
Katie, I'm easy to find and I don't charge anything if you'd like to look at my website!

Sarah said...

So this explains the Eurovision comment on the Behler blog.

You know, I love having to Google different parts of your blog- words or places I'm not familiar with. However...

I could've gone a lot longer before learning about Katie Price. Thanks for that. (Part of me feels sorry for her, too. I didn't like reading about her- what's it like to BE her?)

The suggestions, though, were wonderful. I appreciate realistic, yet optimistic, advice.

Phillipa said...

So.. don't panic Mr Mainwaring? Thanks for this post Nicola. I've been a copywriter for 22 years and I still am - big project right now in fact. I often wonder whether commercial writing counts as 'writing' but I sure as hell enjoy it and I get paid nicely.

Phillipa said...

Sally - Your post about time slipping by is so apt.

behlerblog said...

Bloody mahvelous post, Nicola dahling. Publishing is an evolutionary process, and what worked back "in the day" no longer holds a glass of gin. Authors who are willing to evolve and learn about the industry are miles ahead of those who sit on the fence and complain about being left behind or sabotaged by those involved in the business...hello Mary Walters (I wrote about her here: Bah.

Melinda said...

I cannot help thinking that had my first novel come out a year earlier then it did things would be very different now. Because irrespective of the writing and the story, timing and luck have their role to play in the career of a writer and this has never been more true than it is now. I can wish circumstances were different but instead I'm trying to come up with creative solutions to the impact of the recession on me. Maybe there is another way to make the publishing accountants give the green light to my next project?

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Nicola, just wanted to say I'm looking forward to following your blog. Wouldn't have found it but for your thought provoking guest doodah on Jane's blog. Will say for starters that I'm sure I'll disagree with lots you say, but I think you're bang on with this - for those with that talent and nous combo, a recession is possibly the very best time, because the laurel-resters and ostriches get taken out of the equation. I'm sure there are some business studies stats stuff to prove it, but it feels like common sense.

Dan Holloway said...

Thank you, Nicola.

Couldn't agree with you more about leanness. I wrote a piece called The Shape of Publishing to Come ( the basic premise of which was that the publishing industry would emerge from the recession with a flatter business model. All big businesses, especially those with multiple functions and complex bureaucratic processes struggle in recessions because they can't act quickly enough, nor can they play to their strengths (because some parts of the business are alwasy stronger than others, and it's impossible to untangle the mess). So what happens is smaller, leaner businesses sprout up and swallow them (AOL Time Warner is THE locus classicus of course). All of which means if you're in the wrong boat it's heckish scary, but if you're in the right boat, switched on and prepared to work, it's heckish exciting instead