Thursday, 1 October 2009

THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Although you're reading this on October 1st, I'm writing it on September 26th , and I've just read this in today's Guardian. You can read it if you like but the point relevant to my post is that today (Oct 1st), 800 new titles will be launched. In the UK alone.

Now, this is obviously more than on most days, for reasons that aren't relevant to my point but which the article nicely explains. My initial point is that in any one week / month a hell of a lot of books are being published. Around 120,000 a year in the UK, though that number is somewhat skewed by odd things like maps and reissues of Chaucer or whatever. And Thomas the Tank Engine books by idiots like me. Sorry.

After a recent post of mine, Marion Gropen, host of the Publishing for Profit blog, added a comment giving the equivalent US figures. She allows me to quote it here:
"Here, we had more than 400,000 new books published last year alone. So, if you took a quite large bookstore (you know the kind that cover most of a block, and have two or three floors), you'd have enough to fill that store 8 times with those new books. And then you'd have to fill it a 9th and a 10th time with the older titles still selling (we call it backlist) and the imports.

"There are 2,000,000 manuscripts floating around looking for a home each year here."

Very scary.

The main point of this post is to ask you to think a bit logically about why publishers often turn books down. (Not often enough, some might say, in view of the fact that such a ridiculous number are published. That, however, is an argument which you will not like and which I will therefore shield you from, kind old bat that I am becoming.)

This is what I'd like you to think about. I warn you: it does not make pretty reading. Forget the depressing (or exciting, if you're worried about books being dead) figures and think of some others.
How many books do you read a month? 
How many books does the average person read a month?
Now, I don't know the answers to either of those questions. But let's guess. I guess I read 3 - 4 books a month  -  I mean properly read, having bought or borrowed from the library. Ignoring people who never read a book, and then leaving aside those at the extreme ends of the reading spectrum, including professional reviewers, I guess that perhaps 3 - 4 books a month is average for average readers? I think I read somewhere that 40 a year was an average and that pretty much supports my guess. (Young children will read / have read to them more, granted.)

So, let's say, for the sake of argument, that a "normal" reader reads 40 books a year. Factor in the fact that a normal reader won't read just any 40 books, but 40 books that tend to fit his or her preconceived ideas of personal reading tastes. So, I'd be unlikely to read chick-lit, or romance, or manga. Factor in some gender differences and some age differences.

Now factor in those 120,000 new UK books every year. And factor in all the 000000s still on the shelves from previous years.

Finally, factor in the fact that the vast majority of those new books are obviously not debut books.

Now take a deep breath, especially if you are unpublished or otherwise struggling to get a contract, AND if you are self-publishing ...

Now tell me why you think that your Work in Progress is so compelling that a total stranger should pick it to be one of the 40 books he or she chooses to read in a year? Not only pick it but pay for it, invest money and time, precious time, engaging with the words you happen to think are worth reading.


Finally, tell me that you don't understand why your book has not been snapped up by an agent or publisher.

But what about all the crap that is published? I know: I've tackled that before, here. Thing is, publishers know that there are plenty of people who love to read what you call crap.

I am very sorry. I should have warned you that this was going to be a tough one. Now, please, pick yourself up, go and have some chocolate and then get back to your keyboard and make damned sure that your beautiful blood- and sweat--stained MS is as wonderful as it can possibly be before you send it out there into such a cruel world. Because it will have to be.

24 comments:

Marshall Buckley said...

I can think of only 2 reasons why I should have decided to submit my MS:

1. It's good
2. I'm delusional

On the basis that it has been picked up by an agent and is being submitted to publishers, I'm hoping that (1) applies.

Simon Kewin said...

I find these figures strangely encouraging. I think it's easy for some writers - I include myself in this - to get discouraged and start thinking they're just no good when they don't get picked up. Of course, that might well be the case, but they might also be very good - just not quite good enough. Yet.

Aimee States said...

I got my A$$ kicked by an editor yesterday, so this was particularly painful to read...BUT, back in the saddle I go.

Marisa Birns said...

Grim. And, yes, the Muses have to visit and allow very good, wonderful writing to happen. Also, the stars have to align properly, the witches have to brew the correct potions, and one bored reader in the slush pile room has to say, "Eureka!"

Sweat, blood, tears, luck AND chocolate?

Sounds like a plan ;-)

Thanks for the post (and to Darwin who started it all)...

Amanda Acton said...

Oh gawd. That kind of depressing post is just the thing my greedy procrastination needs to fill itself. :S

I will keep writing. I will keep writing. I will keep writing. I willkeepwritingwritingwritingwriting... preferably my ms and not this comment. :P

Sulci Collective said...

Tough love Mother Crabbit.

One can only bang one's head against a brick wall before reeling away concussed. That sums up my submissions history.

So my response is to grab the bull by the horns and do it myself. If I may quote you from this post:

"Now tell me why you think that your Work in Progress is so compelling that a total stranger should pick it to be one of the 40 books he or she chooses to read in a year? Not only pick it but pay for it, invest money and time, precious time, engaging with the words you happen to think are worth reading."


Simply because I will see my gentle reader and raise them double in money, time and precious time to provide them words to engage with and then to try and reach out in the market place and alert him/her to its existence.

Double or quits. We'll have to wait and see how it shakes out.

Catherine Hughes said...

Oh God, oh God, oh God!

Firstly, I read a book every two days, not counting the ones I speed read before passing to my children. My Amazon habit is a killer that we really cannot afford, but my husband indulges me because a lot of what I read is then read by our kids, meaning that we at least get value for money from my obsession.

The school think I'm loopy. Every so often, they have a book fair during which they hope that as many of the pupils as possible will buy a book. Me? I go in (day beofre yesterday) and walk out with no less than thirteen books, doing my bit for the school's library fund (they get 20%).

As for my manuscripts, well... Truthfully, sometimes I go for Marshall's option 2. But, if I ask myself why someone would want to read my work, then my answers would have to be:

1) Because it is a thoroughly good yarn.

2) Because it is well written.

3) Because it's just a little bit different (I think - as widely read as I try to be in my genre, I could have missed something).

And then, I see that I've written those things and my head goes into rebellion and insists that I am really not good enough and should pack up my attitude, admit that I'm useless, and slink away from the computer to go and do something less creative instead.

But I'm not listening - la la la la! Nothing you can say - nothing! - will sway me from my chosen path.

Unless, of course, you were to read my stuff and tell me in no uncertain terms that it is utter crap. But that hasn't happened yet!

Here's to the bliss of ignorance and to determination in spades!

Jayne said...

Hello! In the past I have been guilty of sending out an under-cooked and rare MS, one that bled when the would-be agent turned the first page, and although I got nice rejections back (positive negatives, if you will), it's a lesson I never forgot.

Now it works the other way, I spend my hours around full-time work furiously redrafting, and keep postponing the date I will send it into the world to find a friend. Thank you for the good advice to keep at it and only let it go when the timer on the oven beeps. Cheers!

And ps - lovely blog, glad I found you!

David J Griffin said...

Personally, I'll soldier on, until "self-belief" reveals itself to actually be "self-delusion". I guess that point in time is different for everyone.

Jenzarina said...

Good post, good kick up the pants.

I'd say your figure of 40 books is high. I heard that 8-10 was the number cited by the industry for a 'keen' reader. 40 would be unusual.

Sulci Collective said...

that would make me unusual then...

I think 40 is not unreasonable - especially if you don't commute to work by car.

steeleweed said...

However accurate or inaccurate your estimates re Average Reader, the real problem is that 90% of the public seldom if ever reads books.
If everyone read even 2 books/month, we (and publishers) would be living high on the hog.

Rebecca Knight said...

Weird thing is, this post actually gave me a little shiver of excitement.

I'm an eternal optimist, so I immediately saw the flip side: When we ARE picked up, that means that we were good enough to not only be one of the few books people read in a year, but to have them spend their time and money to have the priviledge.

This is a very exciting thought :). One day, when I am ready, this is going to make me very proud indeed.

Remember, guys: If it were easy then everyone would do it! And where's the fun in that?

Sulci Collective said...

Ha ha ha, go online to some of the writing communities. everyone is doing it! With variable results it has to be said

Marion Gropen said...

I will add only:
Once you know who your ideal reader is, and have built a really good picture of that person AND why that person wants a book, it becomes easier to pick out the reasons that person might want your book instead of the others on the shelves.

Not only that, but knowing your ideal reader then also makes helping that reader find your book (aka marketing) a more viable proposition, and it makes your next edit easier, too.

Rebecca Knight said...

Okay, okay ;). Not everyone is being published, sticking with it, etc. I stand corrected!

JaneF said...

Scary.

And of the published books, how many readers will each have on average, I wonder?

I used to work as a production editor on scientific and medical journals. When we were rushing for deadlines, an often-quoted statistic in the office was that the full text of each article was read on average by only eight people – the copy editor, the author's mother, and six punters – none of whom could care less whether the Oxford comma was used consistently (least of all the copy editor).

I wonder if there is an equivalent statistic for new novels? And if so, do we really want to know what it is?

Pippa said...

I'm not sure if I'm depressed by this. I think I'm in denial and feeling more determined.

Now you've got me alliterating :)

Sarah said...

I agree, Pippa. It makes me feel more determined!

Sulci Collective said...

I wallpaper my study with all the rejection letters from agents/publishers. That keeps me determined, to prove them wrong.

If ever I feel a block coming on, all I have to do is lift my head from the monitor and turn to stare at my wall...

Some of them are very discoloured with age it has to be said

catdownunder said...

My fur is standing on end!

Paul Lamb said...

I suppose we should also factor in the likelihood that of those forty books the average reader will read in a year, maybe half of them won't be purchased at all but will be borrowed from the library.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments. While I was away I was reading them but it's hard to post comments when away and between appointments etc. Am now confronted by a desk full of tasks, but I'm going to pick some of your comments up in later posts. All good stuff and great to see different reactions!

I also think it's actually a positive message, because competition improves us rather than diminishing us.

Jo Franklin said...

The survival of the fittest it is -The first rule of fitness is to work out every day.
Second: study the competition
Third: Understand the rules of engagement (that's where you come in Nicola)
Then I guess it's jump in and see how you get on.
One thing is for sure, if you never submit you never will be published.