Saturday, 19 June 2010


Or, in the words of my favourite film, "Life's a piece of shit / When you look at it."

I don't really do depressed. I do a fabulous line in moaning, in an upbeat, ranting, WTF sort of a way, rather than anything more Eeyoreish. But right now I can't find any cause to be anything other than morose about the state of publishing. Everyone I know is having a bit of a crap time. Some are having a seriously crap time. I am hearing stories that would surprise you: award-winning authors being "let go" because they haven't sold enough books, contracts being cancelled, the third book of a trilogy being dropped, and already small income falling through the floor. Publishers and agents, of course, are suffering as well, though publishers have different responses and the balance of power is with them. Decisons are increasingly made by number-crunchers, not editors. Some editors now have no power to decide which books a publisher will push hardest, or which will be put forward for awards. The gap between mega-sellers and the rest is yawning, and the number of big sellers dwindling - though their sales figures are impressive. For most authors, what would have been regarded as derisory figures five years ago are seen as success now.

You may not be hearing the personal stories of difficulty. No one is talking about individual woes in public. No one is standing up and saying, "Yep, I got dropped by my publisher and I don't know what to do." Everyone is carrying on smiling, signing, promoting. Those who aren't yet directly affected know it could be them. Only the best-selling authors can feel relatively relaxed.

There are three main reasons why all this crapitude is happening to published authors right now:
  • The recession, innit. Or, as we are supposed to call it, the economic down-turn.
  • The obsession with cut-price books. I like a bargain as much as anyone but the problem now is that if customers see a book that's not discounted, they think they're being ripped off. They're not - but if the book is discounted, the author's the one who pays. So does the publisher, but the publisher made that choice.
  • The "information should be free" mantra which is spiralling through readers' psyches, fuelled by the rise of ebooks and the inability of publishers or authors to agree how best to thrive in the challenging digital world.
There are some other reasons, such as the recession hitting the US first, meaning that US publishers suddenly weren't taking books from UK publishers, so UK publishers did not recoup the advances they'd paid for books they expected to go to the US.

I don't care so much about the reasons. All I care about is that good authors are suffering. And you should care, too, because the good books that you might have read in the future (or that you might be writing) may not be published. Or written. We can't afford to write what won't be published or what won't sell enough copies.

To quote a publisher I spoke to at the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week:
"I really worry for the state of literature two years from now."
When I do school events, pupils often ask, "How much does a writer earn?" And my simple answer is, "If you don't buy books, nothing."

What does this mean for you, if you are trying to become published for the first time?
  1. Publishers are taking fewer risks and taking longer to make decisions.
  2. It is ever more important that you are prepared to help promote a book by doing events and being creative with promotional opportunities.
  3. Your book and its hook have to be stronger than ever. The selling potential must shine.
  4. You need an even greater understanding of the market than would have been necessary five years ago.
  5. Your MS must be at a far greater state of readiness when you present it - publishers cannot afford to spend the editorial time coaching you.
  6. BUT, on the positive side, publishers want new authors. They are much less willing to keep an existing author on if he or she is not selling, whereas they might take a punt on a new, potentially successful author.
What does this mean for published authors?
  1. We need to be aware of what's going on and protect our careers and talents, while looking for opportunities to create new readers. Don't have your eggs in one basket.
  2. We may have to diversify. We may have to rethink what we write, just to survive, and have an eye more than ever to the market, rather than what we might believe is art. There is no reason why we can't carry on writing exactly what we feel should be written, but we may have to a) fight harder to get it published and b) write something else as well, to earn money.
  3. We have to remember that the world does not owe us a living and yet we must continue to believe that what we do is important, even essential.
  4. We need to support each other by buying books whenever we can. If we can't, we at least need to shout to support good writing.
  5. We need to recognise that performing and doing events is not only necessary to support our books, it is also a useful extra source of income. In many cases, it's the only way to survive - and it's a good way, if you can do it. We must be creative and imaginative about this.
What does this mean for me?
I have spent the last few weeks feeling depressed about this, listening to authors' stories of woe and feeling the pinch myself, but, as I said, I don't do depressed. I do getting off my backside - or possibly, in the circumstances, onto my backside - and writing for readers. Readers who will actually buy my books. Because without people buying them, I can't write them. Simples.

So, I have decided that the serious / literary teenage market has shrunk too far at the moment and I need to do something else for a while. I still love doing YA, and hope to return to it soon, but I have to earn something in the meantime. I can't survive financially selling a small number of books at high discount. (Please don't believe what you may hear from a few big-selling teenage authors - the difference between the commercial big sellers and the rest is enormous and increasing. The market for my sub-genre is very, very difficult.)

So, I'm very excited to be going younger! (If only this worked for my face and body...) I've done younger fiction before - Chicken Friend did really well and is still easily my biggest library earner, mainly because kids of that age still read and buy, or their parents do. So, I am working on a new book that I'm loving, really loving. It's (very) early days and it might not work out, but it's very refreshing to do, and to know that there could be a big readership out there. I'm also writing Write to be Published, as you know, and .... guess what? I'm well into an adult novel. That has to be a side-line just now, because the kids' stuff is what I do and therefore my best chance of success at the moment, but there's no reason why I can't do both, simultaneously.

Because, as I said, I have to get onto my backside to survive. We all do: we can't sit around moaning.

Except in an upbeat, ranting, WTF sort of a way...


Piedmont Writer said...

Thanks for the truth in this post Nicola. You hear it all the time from the agent blogs and the industry blogs, yet you never hear it from the authors and what they're going through. It's nice to get an understanding what we, as newbie's, need to really do to get out book out there.

Thomas Taylor said...

Good luck with this new direction.

Does it cheer you up a bit to hear that I am reading Wasted right now (its spine is cracked open on the desk beside me) and I think it's really quite brilliant? I hope so.

Yes, the publishing world is very uncomfortable at the moment, and I've felt the pinch too (less illustation work, lower advances on pic book texts etc). But I've had some good news recently, and new authors are still being taken on. However, like you, I just wish people wouldn't expect books to be so cheap. It costs more to order a chinese takeaway for one than buy a potentially life-changing book.

steeleweed said...

I wish you all the best success in taking a different direction with your writing. We have to do whatever works, and it seems a lot of things aren't working any more.

I suspect that in a few more years, the only books/writers who will be profitable are the mega-books (mostly garbage); celebrity/political memoirs, latest-news-soundbite, etc.

The problem is indeed an unjustified sense of entitlement which demands everything 'for free'. It's ironic (but perhaps inevitable) that this comes from a people who have been given everything without any effort on their part. Perhaps if the current recession leaves them unemployed or under-employed long enough, they will learn to value work, including the work that goes into good writing. It may also be possible that they never learn, and writers will always need a day job and write for the love of writing. If it comes to that, a lot of good writing just won't happen. Some potential authors won't be able to juggle two jobs and even those who can may end up writing 3 books instead of 15.

New venues - eBooks, multimedia, etc. may help, but it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I'm about to retire from my 'real job'. I write because I enjoy it but I don't expect to make a living at it. What bothers me is all the books I will never be able to read because they will never be written.

Like you, I'm more inclined to get grumpy than depressed. What I see going on today has me really grumpy. The We-Deserve-It-All-For-Free generation should grow up. And get a job. And get off my lawn.

Nicole MacDonald said...

what this means for me..

I'm grateful for my job and writing will continue to be a hobby :) and I'll continue to work on getting published. Ignore the numbers is my theory - they always throw you off anyway

Rosalind Adam said...

At the East Midlands Writing Industries Conference the keynote speaker, Graham Joyce, had two important messages for writers - diversification and independence. His talk was so inspiring that I blogged about it on 7th March this year... and I too love writing for children. There's so much excitement in their eyes.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you, Nicola, for such an honest post. You are right, though. There's really no point moaning. Writers have to make the best of it and try harder and try differently--and spread our possibilities.

I'm not so much depressed about the current situation, as weary. It is tiring to keep positive against the odds, tiring to keep smiling when you see the big-hitters achieving Monopoly-type sales figures, but for me to give up is not an option.

As the song goes, 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going.' And you sound like one helluva tough lady--and an inspiration.

morphine-moniza said...

I can't imagine a world where people don't buy books at all. How horrific. I suppose readers have to start promoting books with the zeal of religious fanatics. The alternative is just too frightening.

It should be really fun writing a children's book! I recently went shopping for my niece and there are some fabulous books for kids out there. And the books we read when we're young do leave a lasting impression. I'll always love books like wind in the willows and charlotte's web.

morphine-moniza said...

on behalf of the jobless we-deserve-it-for-free generation: we're really not that bad. I read fiction for free on the internet if writers put up samples, but I usually do so to see if I like the way they write. And when I do I buy their books because I love owning actual books. I have many friends who do the same. And I know many, many readers who range in age from late teen to early twenties. All of whom love shopping for books. There's hope yet!

Mary said...

Good for you! Looking at the more positive side of what you can do rather than dwelling on what others aren't doing.
It's brilliant of you to start at the beginning (children's lit) and go all the way through adult.
Best of everything, Nicola

Giggles and Guns

Emma Darwin said...

The difficulty is persuading people that they not only can't expect us to write for free - most people understand that, though they appear not to be able to make the logical leap to thinking that they ought to pay full price for our books. It's also difficult to get people to understand they can't expect us to appear for free either...

The Society of Authors' position is that authors ought to be paid if the audience is paying, and they have a set of standard rates. But it's a rare festival, or bookshop, or library, which does pay most authors, and and writers for adults there's much less market for us among the schools.

Ellen Brickley said...

I'm unhappy about all this too, Nicola, as an unpublished writer who hopes to start querying in a year or so. But if this recession etc has forced you to diversify, I hope it leaves you in a much better position when the upturn eventually happens - you'll be producing work for markets you never tapped into before, and your fans will be happier :)

Lisa Schroeder published this great list last December - how to support writers when you're skint:

It has a permanent sidebar link on my blog. Just because times are tough doesn't mean we can't find ways to keep our favourite industry going.

catdownunder said...

Now Cat, ignore the doom and gloom...just keep writing...keep writing...keep writing...arrange your cat hairs neatly and carefully on the page...polish them...package them...ignore the doom and gloom...ignore the doom and them....ignore further doom and them again...and again...and again..purrhaps one day a purr instead of a plaintive miaou? Oh, I don't know...just keep your paws on the keys! You know you have to write!

Jaleh D said...

I wandered over here, via Juliette Wade's blog. This was a great article. It's shame that fewer people are seeking out books. But then I'm a die-hard reader whose book collection is on par with my sewing/crafts collection. I can only hope that when I finish writing my own stories, they will be good enough to entice other fellow readers.

sheilamcperry said...

I think this is one of the most interesting posts I've read. It has seemed to me for a while that fiction publishing is in a state of transition, and that an 'mp3 moment' is either about to happen or has already happened, ie the balance between the printed word and the electronic word has changed. As a long-term computer professional (and someone whose deteriorating eyesight now seems to make it easier to read on screen than in print) I have an open mind about whether this is a good thing or not.
Personally I don't have any pessimism about whether people are still reading, since in my experience people are reading as much as ever, just not necessarily in the same form.
It seems like a great idea to diversify into as many areas as is feasible. Good luck with all of it, Nicola!

DJ Kirkby said...

Very inspiring. Not bad for an old crabbit... Thank you.

Dan Holloway said...

You know, for a minute, just after diversify, I though you were going to use the word portfolio!

This is a fascinating post, and one that's very welcome (I'll come round to that at the end), because I DO do depressed, but I'm actually upbeat as hell about the writing business (and not just, before you say, because the particular flavour of depression I do is bipolar and I'm in an up).

I'm going to start out with all the differences, and teh things I know upset your readers about the likes of me. I'm a self-publisher with no interest in securing a contract; I give my work away for free; I don't believethat having talent or years of experience or any amount of backlist gives anyone (me included) any right whatsoever to make a single penny in the future. I just don't buy the "people should be paid for their work" approach to writing - and if people who use the argument believed it - really - they wouldn't also believe in gatekeepers (if it was about effort alone, then quality would be irrelevant, right?).

We (by which, in a sweeping generalisation that actually holds true of no two actual individuals, I mean those seeking publication the traditional way, and those doing it the alternative way) tend to look evry suspiciously at each other in these hard times - The "mainstream" wing sees my likes as sour grapes spitting, upstart lazy oiks undermining the fabric of a tried and tested business model, ruining ceturies of craft and diluting the pool of quality, turning the public off reading and ruining everyone's livelihood for good; on the other hand the "alternative" wing see their likes as lazy protectionist oiks who think the world owes them a living and resent any entrepreneurial spirit, and will use any amount of reinforcement to keep a glass ceilig in place that weeds out genuine talent for the sake of blandness and safety, thus keeping the reading pubilc drugged up on a sop of anodyne pap.

Both positions are, of course, caricatures and contain only the smallest grain of truth, but there is a real common ground there, underneath it all, and you've nailed it beautifully.

The common ground is that wherever we're coming from, we need to get out and DO, and not expect anyone to do for us. And maybe - this is the conciliatory, synthesisy bit - each of our two tribes can learn something in this from the other - the alternatives from the way the traditionalists really look at what readers want before writing; the traditionalists from the way alternatives will try anything just to see if it might work. Because at the end of the day, we're all witers, and what matters is ensuring that people care about stories, and that's a common ground we can work on together that will benefit all of us.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - that does indeed cheer me up! Thank you!

Everyone - thanks for your kind comments and good wishes. I hope you are all finding a way to make your own writing work, too.

Emma - indeed, and it is indeed easier for children's authors to earn through speaking; but children's authors are paid much less than many others. I think we all need to keep shouting about needing to be paid if we're speaking - otherwise we end up being more out of pocket than our audience.

Dan - now, first, thank you for your comments as ever, and of course I agree with bits of what you say - especially where you agree with me!! But, I so absolutely disagree about this bit (having agreed with everything up to this point):

You said: "I just don't buy the "people should be paid for their work" approach to writing - and if people who use the argument believed it - really - they wouldn't also believe in gatekeepers (if it was about effort alone, then quality would be irrelevant, right?"

I absolutely believe that people who write something that others want to read, and who prove that by producing it and having enough people read it, SHOULD be paid for it. They should because a) they have done something clever and something which is work, and which contributes to society b) they have satisfied the age-old premise of trading skills and possessions and c) when people want something of mine I have every right to ask them to pay for it. (As I have to give it away for free if I wish to. And you have every right to do that.)

Your conclusion within that quote is also, in my view, wrong. You have leapt from one point (whether people should be paid to work) to a totally different one (whether people should be paid simply for trying, for making an effort.) No, I agree, we shouldn't be paid for trying, for making an effort. We should be paid for producing something which someone else wants, in other words for succeeding. And the person who should pay us is the person who wants our "product". (And no, I don't really want to talk about what we do in those terms, but on one level, it is a product.)

I agree (if this is also what you are saying) that value does not equal money / price, and the best writers are not the same as the richest, but I asbolutely believe that what I do - the writing and the speaking - should be paid for by the people who want it.

I believe this fundamentally. The fact that this is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights helps me maintain that belief in the face of those who think I shouldn't be paid for what I create.

Anonymous said...

For published authors:

6. Go back to grad school.

That's my plan, anyway.

Dan Holloway said...

That was my point entirely, and a deliberate conflation of those two points - I have heard so many times the argument put in the way I put it (where value is equated with effort and training alone), that it's really worthwhile restating that actually what SHOULD be paid is the production of something others are happy to pay for. But of course, once put this way it becomes ever so slightly empty content-wise, because the argument tends to be put by those who are defending what they perceive as an end to being paid for their labour - and the way for them to "win" that argument isn't to argue the point but to produce something that people will pay for, and if those people's anxieties come to pass and their income dries up, they are kind of hoist with their own pet toad in a QED way.

Of course I agree that anyone has the right to ask to be paid (I also thibnk they have the right to fix a price at the top end as well asthe free end- I'm a huge fan of Damien Hirst, and have nothig but admiration for what he can make for painting dots on things [although I shared everyone else's good giggle whenno one coughed up for the skull]) My real point is similar to yours and centred on the fact that writers who want to make a living in these straightened times need to get it right with what they're doing now and next rather than relying on the past (unless, of course, they can turn that into a business model in which case of course fair play). We all need to smarten up - and I think we could all do better if we learn form each other in the various sectros we operate in rather than being suspicious. One of the very first bloggy things I wrote was called "Writing is Not a Zero Sum Game" and its point was that one person's success does not come at the detriment of another's - rather anythingthat gets people excited about stories benefits us all - we need to band together at this time (gawd, I sound like David Cameron!)

Delia Lloyd said...

Thanks for this, Nicola. It was a breath of fresh air (and I *do* do depressed, at times.) Nice to hear that everyone needs to re-invent themselves and to be reminded that we call can. And best of all, I must now run out and locate *chicken friend.*

Delia Lloyd

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Nicola, for putting into words what so many authors are experiencing. It's such a strange, contradictory business: I was thrilled beyond measure when my first book was published a few years ago, and am still thrilled when I see a new book cover for the first time. But in between, it is hard! - and you've explained exactly why. Will order Wasted forthwith.

Flowerpot said...

Excellent post, as ever, Nicola. Make us all sit up and do our best - and better than that. Best of luck with everything - you deserve it!

nigel p bird said...

I've just written a huge post and it's disappeared.
Summary: good on you, thanks, and don't forget libraries.

Lesley McDowell said...

This is a part-copy of an article I wrote for The Herald back in 2004about the problems of mid-list writers, when one writer, Dexter Petley, was brave enough to speak out about being dropped by Fourth Estate:

It’s an experience that happens to writers all the time and now it’s just happened to Dexter Petley. Don’t know the name? Well, here’s why - his is the sort of experience that is never reported by the media. The book-buying public only ever sees the success stories – who’s speaking at literary festivals, who’s getting a six figure advance, who’s won the Booker. They don’t see the writers that publishers fail to support, whose books fail to sell in spite of favourable reviews or even an award nomination or two.

It was in 1995 that Petley became a published author with Little Nineveh, bought by Edinburgh-based publishers Polygon. Four years later, London-based independents Fourth Estate bought Joyride; it was the moment Petley thought he’d made it: “I felt I’d found a home for my fiction,” he says from his home in Normandy, where he has eked out a typical author’s miniscule living for the past five years. The editors (at Fourth Estate) were “committed individuals”, excited at Joyride’s prospects. But the promised advance publicity never materialised, no-one reviewed it and his point of sales figures (the number of copies his book sold) were very low. Petley felt that his publishers “had given up on it. I was told it failed because they’d published it at the wrong time,” he says.

After Fourth Estate was taken over by publishing conglomerates Harpercollins, things went from bad to worse. Petley was paid just £10,000 for his second novel, White Lies, written over three years and published in 2003. Broadsheet newspapers reviewed it favourably and Dazed and Confused magazine short-listed him, along with Booker-winner DBC Pierre, for “most promising writer.” But according to Petley, his publishers said the prize “had zero recognition”. When White Lies came out in paperback in February, Petley was told not to come to London for the launch, that “his time could be more usefully spent elsewhere.” Again, there were no interviews or readings, and now, in spite of repeated calls and letters, he can’t get interest from Fourth Estate in his next book.

Nicholas Pearson, the editor who initially signed Petley to Fourth Estate, says he is surprised to hear this. “We put our heart and soul into Joyride but it just didn’t get the sales,” he says. “Dexter does have some gripes and they are probably justified but he’s not been dropped from our list and might never be. We do believe in Dexter and he is in discussion with us about his next book.”

This will be news to Petley who maintains, “I have no publisher for my next book” and to that effect is busy looking for one. Yet, two books and six years after he was told his life would change forever, Petley can’t get a new agent or a new publisher because he’s got a low sales record. “Once your point of sales figures are bad, orders for your next book go down and that messes up any publishing future you might have,” he says. “One agent even told me to change my name, say I’m 29 and move to London.”

Understandably, he’s aggrieved and dismayed to find himself in this position and unfortunately he’s not alone.

ohthatanya said...

Thank you for being so honest, Nicola. I'd heard that it was bad but... *chews fist*

But I wish you every success with this new direction you're headed in. I agree that writers, like most professionals, have to be adaptable, and as long as you continue to write what inspires you, which you seem to be with your new project, I'm sure your writing will keep you in lovely shoes for many years to come.

Sarah Duncan said...

I think anyone who is a mid-list author is depressed and anxious at the moment, so you're spot on there Nicola.

I write adult fiction and what depresses me the most is the supermarkets. If you're not taken on by them - in other words, your publisher is not prepared to PAY for a slot on their shelves - you can kiss goodbye to seeing your name on the best-seller lists. That means lower sales, which means the next book gets a smaller advance or gets turned down.

But there is a solution, and it's in our hands as readers. If you read a book you love, talk about it. Give copies to your friends, write glowing reviews on Amazon, tell your mates on Twitter and Facebook. Don't let the supermarkets win.

(Gosh, I feel a blog post coming on...)