Sunday, 8 August 2010


I've always known that if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, rather than a critically acclaimed one, I would have two choices:
  1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
  2. Hope for the Unpredictable Fairy to bless my book.
Now, however, there is something so rotten in the state of book-buying that the same applies even if you don't want to write a best-selling novel but just one that earns enough to stay in print for a reasonable amount of time and keep your publisher happy. Being critically acclaimed used to do that for an author, whereas now, volume of sales is far, far more important to most publishers - understandably, in many ways - and therefore to writers if we want to stay published, let alone survive financially.

This is not about the recession. It's not about ebooks. It's much more because of price-cutting over the last seven years. This means that publishers have to sell more books - shift more units, as they charmingly put it. They can do this either by working harder to sell more of the full range, or by choosing to publish only books which will sell in large numbers.

Overwhelmingly, they are choosing the latter. This leaves writers with two choices:
  1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
  2. Um.
This applies equally to those deciding to self-publish. You will be equally dominated by the fact that readers nowadays won't pay enough for a book to keep its writer in food and clothing.

But, in fact, we do have more choices, if we open our eyes a bit wider:
  1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
  2. Decide that writing what we want to write won't sell or let us be/stay published but do it anyway because we love it.
  3. Do 2, and also find other ways to earn money - diversify, building a portfolio of writing-related or other activities to support our writing.
Why am I saying this now? Because it has become the case this year, for me and very many writers, that my "core" business - writing full-length books - no longer earns me anything more than derisory money. 90% of my income this year has not come through a publisher. (A terrible truth for agents, too.)

So, as well as diversifying, which I'm already doing successfully, I'm now also going to be compromising. Specifically, I am now using a machete while redrafting my work in progress, leaving behind what I hope is a great commercial idea written in a stripped back, fast style, subsuming many of my favourite bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description. And then I hope - and my agent firmly believes - it will be ready to sell, and we hope lots and lots of lovely readers will want to buy it. Suprisingly, with my reader's hat on, I rather like what I'm left with... It's fast-paced, exciting and fun. If I was a young reader, I hope I'd like it. After all, I want my readers to enjoy themselves above all. So, maybe there's no compromise - it's just a different way of writing. It might even be better.

Selling out? Personally, I call it selling. I call it doing a job of work and doing it as well as I can. If people don't want to read something else, who am I to say they must?
Edited to insert my subsequent comment from the conversation that follows, because I need you to know this: "Thanks for all your comments, people. However, I've not made myself clear. This is not some theoretical whinge; this is not about a definition of commercial; and any comment about books that are being published now or recently has no impact on my point. This is about one thing: what publishers are saying yes to NOW and what authors are earning now and in the next round of royalty cheques. (Books that have been published are not books that publishers are saying yes to NOW.)

I have been talking to a lot of agents over the last few weeks, as well as authors who have been dropped or whose advances have been slashed. Here's the situation: books which would have been accepted 18 months ago are now not being; publishers are pulling the plug or threatening to pull the plug on commissioned books if sales of the first ones are not doing well enough; and the next round of royalty cheques are going to be seriously down for most writers.

Yes, writers have never been able to earn decently from many sorts of writing but now those sorts of writing are fewer and the amounts being earned on all but the most "commercial" books are slashed.

Definition of commercial - simple: sells a lot. It doesn't mean bad: it means popular. End of.

Sorry to sound so dogmatic, so pessimistic and so harsh. We will find a way through this but you need to know that the situation for most writers and would-be writers is very very difficult if what we want to do is earn directly from book sales."
It's worth also adding that Allan Guthrie, who is not only a successful author but also an agent with Jenny Brown Associates, mentioned this post on Twitter, calling it "despressing but stunningly accurate." He sees this as an agent, and they are at the front line. They see it shortly before authors do.

(I will be talking about this in Glasgow on Wednesday 11th August - upstairs at the Universal Bar, in Sauchiehall Lane, just behind the Waterstone's store on Sauchiehall Street. This is an informal gathering, free to enter, and happens every month, with two speakers each time. My fellow speaker is Linda Strachan. DO COME! Doors open 7.30.)


Sulci Collective said...

Nicola I don't doubt for one second that your analysis is right, but I was under the impression many middle list authors always had to supplement royalty income through reviewing, teaching or other journalism.

I do wonder if there won't still be a niche for demanding writing, the opposite of the stripped back, commercial approach. One where the writer obdurately refuses to do anything but take their time and bask in ideas and language. In the record business, for all the downloads and CD technology, there is still a tranche of people who want 7" vinyl singles and no matter how economic these are to produce, DIY bands still produce them. I think and pray seeing as it's what I write, that the same holds true within literature. Though of course I'm never going to make any money from it but I kind of knew that some time ago.

Great post

Marc Nash

ohthatanya said...

Excellent post, Nicola. Breathtakingly honest, as always, but so useful.

From what I've read here and from other authors I follow on Twitter, I've always suspected this is the case. And I keep telling myself that as I write and edit and re-edit and write some more. And I know that I'm doing all of this work on a novel that isn't likely to sell but I don't know how else to tell this story, or the other one I've just started. I don't write like Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult because I can't. Perhaps it's because I don't read books like that and with time and practise, I could. But right now, as someone writing her first novel, I keep going back to the one piece of advice people give me time and time again: write the novel you can't wait to read. And if you've managed to do that with your latest WIP, Nicola, while still writing something you think will sell, then I applaud you and wish you every success with it.

Elen Caldecott said...

Well, it's not news to me, but that doesn't stop it being depressing!
However, I think about books that I've read recently that have been both critically acclaimed and successful - in children's, books like Holes; in adult's books like Half Of A Yellow Sun.
I think these books are full of the lyrical descriptive bits, but also have some powerful and striking idea at their core that makes them commercial.
I'm still aspiring to do that (though, of course, I'll not give up the day job anytime soon!)

Dan Holloway said...

2 sounds like our guiding principle at Year Zero, and 3 sounds like my rationale - I, like Marc, had always assumed that whatever I did in writing terms I'd have t stick with a day job - which made me wonder what the point would be in not writing what I wanted to write.

The truth is here IS a very healthy underground scene in literature that doesn't manifest in more than pocket money sales but is nonetheless devoetd, enthusiastic, and looking for something less commercial. It's there in the like of Literary Death Match (ahem, I do hope I'll see some of your readers in October when I'll be representing Year Zero at the London shindig), Bookslam, and a fanatical set of zine devotees. And that, because it's visible at all, is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. I've been struck, as I've got involved with local arts projects, just how willing the art and music community are to get inolved in crossover and multimedia events - how much appetite there is for something different.

Of course, none of us writing for this market will ever make more than tuppence ha'penny, but like Marc said most of us realised a long time ago that we wouldn't even if we went the commercial way (which, I will confess, I tried - the result, I just wasn't good enough at writing that kind of prose - something all the literary snobs who deride the Dan Browns of the world should bear in mind - it's every bit as hard writing like that as it is attempting to be the next Herta Muella).

The answer for the likes of Marc and me if we want to cut down our (well mine is anyway) frankly awful dayjobs is to try to make money around the business of writing. It's easier than it seems to get the odd bit of work writing articles, and I've no doubt thare are those in the alternative scene who'd pay us for editing and mentoring. The only problem I have with that (and it's my problem, and I know it's nuts) is that I really wouldn't feel happy. I want to be part of a grassroots movement devoted to quality and artistic freedom, but without making money from it - my sense is that money spoils things. So when I set up eight cuts gallery press earlier this month as a vehicle to enable extraordinary self-published works to sidestep the exclusionary clauses of major literary awards by producing a book edition of their zine/ebook/whatever, I deliberately set it up so as not to take a single penny of commission.

graywave said...

Nicola, you've always been hard-headed and realistic about writing and that's why your blog is worth reading.

"Selling out? Personally, I call it selling." Would make a terrific T-shirt slogan.

What the public wants, what the publishing industry can sell it, have always been subject to fashions in writing and shifting economic conditions. Today, I doubt that Chekhov could sell a short story, or Jane Austen a novel - not unless they wrote in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what we all think are the truly valuable bits.

I like to read science fiction, where meaningful ideas are still in vogue, but even there, the pressure for frenetic action and lean, mean writing is pushing the ideas out. I have to go read Hardy or Edna O'Brien now and then to give my jangling nerves a rest and my brain some exercise.

Dan Holloway said...

Fascinated by what Elen says, because it reminds me of a discussion on the Guardian Books Blog about modern "literary" fiction. There was a consensus that we have moved very much towards the lyrical, almost prose-poemesque in our literary tastes, and that the tide has turned against minimalism.

It's an interesting observation, and I wonder whether it is purely cyclical or reflcctive of some other trend. My works alternate between this kind of lyricism that I guess was brought into vogue by the likes of Ondaatje, and the transgressive, which is characterised by a very staccato sentence structure, and almost complete lack of desriptive text. I can never make up my mind which I prefer - either writing or reading.

I think actually these style cycles have deeper roots than we imagine. Whilst it isn't hard to root Ondaatje in the troubadour tradiation, what is often missed is the importance of the ecstatic/mystic tradition in feeding into much of today's writing.

Sorry, that is completely off topic - but it sort of leads into something that's sort of on topic - which is that if you look on the 3 for 2s, you'll see a much larger proportion of "literary" works than you'd imagine. My feeling is that what's happened is that this is down to them being ever so slightly more "commercial" than they would have been, but this being the "price" the authors and publishers paid to introduce bigger audiences to a kind of work they wouldn't otherwise have touched.

Michael Malone said...

Fascinating stuff, Nicola as per and some great comments. (I take it you're going to Weegie Wednesday then?)

Spider Griffin said...

Interesting point made by Dan, particularly the last paragraph; implying perhaps that "even" literary novels can be commercial. I guess it comes down to the old saying: "it's not what you write about, it's how you write it". Which leads me to think, after reading your posting Nicola, what Is a commercial book, anyway? I mean to say, a literary novel that sells bucketloads could be deemed as being commercial (after the event).

It's so true that trying to be commercial in the way of pared-down description and short, snappy sentences is one way to try (I guess modern films have a lot to answer for this); but that's not everyone's style; and thankfully, not every reader's wanted style. And I know you know, but thought it worth saying again: even if a commercial style is found by the author, focusing on what a particular section of readers wants to read, there should still be 50% of the process being what the author wants to write.

Personally, if I started writing solely for a projected audience without any thought of what I want to write, writing instead what I think I should write for an invisible reader, I think I'd give up writing completely. It would feel like a day job.

Back to the term "commercial"; I think it only makes true sense when talking about books when it has a noun after it, i.e a commercial book might not be the same as a commercial style.

Definitely not selling out, but selling as you say, Nicola, but still I guess it's more amending and adjusting your themes/style/genre more than total ship-jumping (or band-wagon jumping, although I know you didn't mean that).

Spider Griffin said...

Sorry, forgot to mention, a thought-provoking and interesting post, Nicola!


Thomas Taylor said...

Or how about:

Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a vivid, engaging and fast style, grounded in what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.


Penny Dolan said...

Interesting post especially as just now the WIP is half full of descriptions, character creation and scene setting but has suddenly veered off into fast paced action and mini-scenes. Some rebalancing called for, I suspect.

Part of the general problem may be that journalists love the rags to riches/alone in a garret or cafe stuff, so we rarely hear (in Richard Scarry's words) "What People Do All Day" unless their work is directly linked to their books eg forensic scientist. So a realistic picture of the life rarely appears.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments, people. However, I've not made myself clear. This is not some theoretical whinge; this is not about a definition of commercial; and any comment about books that are being published now or recently has no impact on my point. This is about one thing: what publishers are saying yes to NOW and what authors are earning now and in the next round of royalty cheques. (Books that have been published are not books that publishers are saying yes to NOW.)

I have been talking to a lot of agents over the last few weeks, as well as authors who have been dropped or whose advances have been slashed. Here's the situation: books which would have been accepted 18 months ago are now not being; publishers are pulling the plug or threatening to pull the plug on commissioned books if sales of the first ones are not doing well enough; and the next round of royalty cheques are going to be seriously down for most writers.

Yes, writers have never been able to earn decently from many sorts of writing but now those sorts of writing are fewer and the amounts being earned on all but the most "commercial" books are slashed.

Definition of commercial - simple: sells a lot. It doesn't mean bad: it means popular. End of.

Sorry to sound so dogmatic, so pessimisitc and so harsh. We will find a way through this but you need to know that the situation for most writers and would-be writers is very very difficult if what we want to do is earn directly from book sales.

Bacchus said...

So long as you still enjoy what your doing, and you enjoy the other things (well, so long as it doesn't stop you getting out of bed) your now having to do to supplement your income, I'd never consider it selling out.

I think it's only selling out when you can no longer enjoy what your doing. Giving up your joy in a task is like giving up your very essence.

It's tougher to publish. Doesn't matter if you like it or not, the publishers have control and if you want to survive you have to go along with it.

Makes me wonder though, is this just in publishing books writers are struggling, or is this affecting writers in other areas, such as scripts/plotlines for video games, comics etc? How it's written and what for is different, sure, but since they're 'published' to entertain, are they facing the same squeeze? Heck maybe they're part of the reason...

*makes a mental note to look into that*

Nicola Morgan said...

To add a little - and excuse any typos - am in huge hurry:

Marc - to your first point: yep, but midlist now means nearly everybody, many more and to a greater extent. To your second point: yep again, but I'm talking about the number of books one needs to sell to earn x amount of money; things is niche is now even less viable, so niche with a publisher is barely possible, and niche will now have to go to self-publishing even more than before.

Tanya - breathtakingly honest would be if I told you what i'm actually earning ;((! But you have got my point. I also applaude you for what you're doing.

Elen - I agree, but remember that Holes was published a number of years ago. There will always be room for really individual books with original voices, such as Holes. But also remember that Holes is a genuinely commercial book, too, a rattling and compelling story. It's brilliant but doesn't hang around for the author. And this is what i'm getting at - pared back writing sells. Always has, but is now more necessary than ever.

Dan and Marc - re Year Zero, absolutely. You are doing exactly the right thing with the sort of writing you do. I need to sell books though, because I've backed myself into that corner. It's what I want to do and what i insist on continuing to do.

graywave - good points.

Michael - Weegie Weds, yes! You'll be there?

Spider - a commercial book is a book that sells. Since fewer things sell and in fewer quantities nowadays, there are fewer risks that publishers can take. They have to be more certain.

Penny - yup!

Thomas - I'd like to think so. But they have to be hidden.

Spider Griffin said...

Thanks Nicola, I understand now (definition of commercial + the state of publishing/agents today; how perhaps it has never been such brutal competition).

One thing I'd like to say: if my novella or novels every get "professionally" published, sell even 500 copies only and I earn tuppence ha'penny, I'd still skip down the road, grinning foolishly for months. (I'd probably get reported eventually ;-] (PS: not that my experimental novella or literary novel will ever get published, I know).

But then for me, writing doesn't (and won't ever) buy the daily bread...

I wonder what the percentage of fiction writers there are whereby writing is their only source of income? Not many at all, I'm certain.

Back to publishing: am I right in saying that there's a recognisable cycle within the publishing industry (as well as literary agents). That every fifteen to twenty years, smaller publishers/agents get eaten (bought/merged) with bigger fish, then some go to the wall, and a new lot of small, independent firms/agencies spring up, ready to start the cycle over again?

steeleweed said...

Interesting and honest post. Any significant technology is disruptive and although the Internet has been around a while, it has only recently become embedded in great depth.

For now, the publishing paradigm is broken and we're all stumbling toward a new one. Meanwhile, there will be some tough times. Good Luck.

Hart Johnson said...

I would go along with depressing but accurate. I blame the short-attention-span public. I think many more people want a quick easy read, than one that makes them work and think to engage with the text. We want books like TV. But I completely agree that to succeed, we probably need to play the game.

Dan Holloway said...

Sorry, Nicola, i realise the theoretical stuff was off topic. If I may stay off-topic one moment before returning, it's worth noting that 30 years ago short, stripped bare WAS the uncommercial literary thing. Then along came Doug Coupland and Brett Easton Ellis and that changed, and became the commercial (but literarily acceptable) way to write, and the lyric was out of fashion and a bit esoteric, and then The English Patient happened, and it became the commercial face of literary. The kind of literary that sells is cyclical and is driven by the last breakout success (youonly have to look how many covers are ripping off Hosseini to see that).

But yes, Nicola, I realise your post is about what publishers are buying now. So a very on-topic question for you - you have explained what you are doing to fit the market. Do you think what currently unpublished writers (ones who don't have a fab track record and fanbase and great agent to call on) should be simply doing what you're doing only more so, or should they be doing something qualitatively different? In other words, it would be incredibly helpful if, after you're back from Edinburgh you could be armed with answers from teh people you speak to there not about what already published writers need to do to ride the storm, but about what the unpublished need to consider to get their ms noticed - and it would be great to have actual, honest answers from insiders about how they would balance the same ms from an unpublished writer with one from someone with a track record. :)

DOT said...

The problem with this split, artifical as it may be, is the so called critically acclaimed books are the ones that push the envelope of writing.

I have read so many books that have sold well and, though individually excellent efforts, you can see the author/agent/publisher checking that all the boxes have been ticked, with the result they are formulaic, derivitive and as exciting to read as an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Writing is an art and, being severely reductive, there are those who just wish to write the pastel landscapes we've all seen before and those who try to do things differently.

If publishers abandon the latter, they will find themselves in the same cul-de-sac that Hollywood has, and we can all look forward to endless remakes of the A Team.

Lynn Price said...

This is the glory of being a wee indie publisher. Our size allows us to be successful with fewer sales on fabulous books that the large presses won't touch for the very reason that they can't sell enough to keep their big machine running. In short, we have to work harder and smarter.

Anne R. Allen said...

A great, honest post. I think most aspiring writers don't know how much things have changed in Recession-era publishing--and how they may never change back. Writing literary fiction is probably going the way of writing poetry--creating art for art's sake alone. Only a few bits will trickle into the mass consciousness.

The huge bomb Dorchester dropped on the publishing industry this weekend shows that these things are happening faster than most of us imagined. All their authors have gone out of print overnight and they're going to ebooks only--for a tiny royalty compared to what they could have been paid if they'd self-published.

We may all be self-publishing soon. And in the end, that may be a good thing. We will need to establish hubs where readers of like minds can gather to find the books we like.

Serious readers will always want serious books. And some of us will always want to read them on paper. The market is in upheaval, but I believe real literature isn't going away.

Michael Malone said...

There's more the the Dorchester story than first thought. This isi copied from another blog:

UPDATE: Author Robert J. Randisi points out in the Comments section of this post something that has not been made clear in most of the reporting on Dorchester’s decision: that while the company will stop producing mass-market paperbacks (presently more than 80 percent of its business), it will continue to publish trade-size paperbacks, along with e-books.

Melinda Szymanik said...

ah, the magic of having something unaccepted. This has happened to me twice over the last 18 months. I am now fighting for something that a publishing house loves but won't commit to. I sigh a lot these days...but I'm still writing

Anne R. Allen said...

I've just blogged about the Dorchester announcement and linked to this post. Thanks for all the info here.

Michael, yes, Dorchester will be publishing a few trade paperbacks--POD--only for their book club and only their best selling titles. Everybody else will be dumped into e-books--at a mass market paperback royalty.

Jill said...

I'm a reader. I read multiple books per week. And I won't read books with a stripped-back, fast style. Sorry, I just won't. They leave me feeling unsatisfied, empty. I'm sure I'm not the only reader out there who feels that way. So it's kind of sad, really, but a good thing that I haven't read all there is to read from decades past.

Dave Morris said...

Some seem to be interpreting this as a criticism of the short attention span and vapid tastes of today's typical reader. However, I note that in stripping the text of your current book right back you say that you actually rather like the result. That seems to be the fluttering hope from the bottom of this particular Pandora's box - maybe novels have got a bit flabby in the years of plenty, and when readers demand streamlined prose they are demanding a return to good prose. The economy with which Sally Prue opened Wheels of War, for example - the style there is stripped back yet very effective because it is not (as so many novels are these days) prose trying to replicate the experience of watching a movie.

Linda Strachan said...

Interesting post, Nicola

It will be fascinating to see, as it unfolds, whether you are right that this is not because of the recession or the new technological changes in publishing. Also whether writers can manage to survive it all.

I agree a writer does need to be able to do more than write a successful book (by that I mean one that people want to read, not necessarily a mass market, ultra commercial book.)
Being able to promote your book, and yourself as a writer is becoming more and more important.
I also believe that there is a wide range of people with very varied tastes in books in the dedicated book-buying public, and also a number of small publishers who are publishing books they 'love' rather than looking only at the number-crunching accountants.
So perhaps there is hope for all of us, and all kinds of books somewhere in there.

I firmly believe it is a time when writers will have to become more entrepreneurial in their approach to making a living and not wait to have everything done for them by the publishers or agents or booksellers.
I imagine that this won't suit everyone and will probably apply less to the big name writers.

I'm looking forward to sharing the spotlight with you, Nicola, at the 'Weegie Wednesday' on 11th in Glasgow.
Do come along - we won't speak for long so there is plenty of time to chat. Nicola will be fascinating to listen to, as always,
and I will be speaking about writing for young children but also for teenagers, and the challenges of moving between the two.

catdownunder said...

Miaou!!!!!!!!! Why do I even bother to try? Why do I have that 'you know you need to write' bad fairy following me everywhere?
Sigh...sorry about the cat hairs!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Another great post Nicola.

There is nothing wrong with commercial fiction. It's hugely entertaining and enlightening. But don't for a minute think that it's easy.

I write commerical fiction, and I pour my heart and soul into the books. I take my fun seriously. I want to entertain people. I want them to enjoy the book and that means I work very, very hard to make it easy to read. (Says the girl who put footnotes in her fiction, so there goes that theory!)

I love Nicola's books because she too pours her heart and soul into them. They are gripping and challenging, but I view them more as a crossover - they are literary but they are also strong stories that really grip me. I'm devastated that they are not taking the market by storm. Or at least getting picked up for school reading lists. That's really unfair.

There have never been more books published - either traditionally or self-pubbed or print on demand. There will always be a huge band of hungry readers, but more and more the books that 'break out' are the ones that also attract low-volume readers. The people that read maybe one book a year. Or the people who haven't read a thing since high school. (*sarcasm mode* what a sad interior life they must lead!!)

The supply of books is enormous, the demand from readers, not so much. Your book has to stand out - you have to write a book people will tell their friends about and get that fabulous word of mouth going.

And no matter what genre you're writing, you have to write with honesty and love for it. Agents, editors and readers can spot a phony a mile away.

Summer Ross said...

I want to publish my work, but I've never thought really that I could support myself and family on a writers income, so I am going for editing others as a career choice. :) Thanks for posting

Anna Bowles said...

Slightly late to the party, but wow this one hits home for me in a personal way at the moment. I’ve followed on from it on my blog
and would be interested to hear from anyone else on the subject. (I can't do a direct link because for some reason the comment box is garbling my html today; you can just click on my username to get there.)

Thanks for the post!

Kay Richardson said...

I've decided to write a book called READ THIS NOVEL. Every chapter would be entitled READ THIS CHAPTER. And whenever there's an exciting bit, I'd put READ THIS EXCITING BIT.

There's NO WAY it could fail.

Stuart Aken said...

Ouch! Nicola, the truth hurts. Of course, this is what has been coming for a long time, if it hasn't already arrived. I fear for the creative future and wonder if young people will lose the ability to understand complex and rich language. Perhaps, in a few decades, readers will look at Shakespeare, Huxley, Fowles et al with utter incomprehension. That, I think, would be sad.

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

Depressing. But true.

However, I still refuse to "sell out" and write bubblegum crap the stupid tweens are buying nowadays.

I realize I won't get rich off of my work--but I don't write for money. I write to communicate a message. To share a little about myself with like-minded thinkers. The day I stop keeping true to myself is the day I give up writing entirely. I can't compromise my point of view and so I will not sell my soul for sales.

However, a writer has to eat, so I don't blame or pass judgement on anyone.

mindmap1 said...

Hello Nicola Morgan,

Brilliant, brilliant post Nicola.

In my previous life I was in marketing. The customer is king and you give them what they want. You also give them what they don't yet know they want. Strange, but true.

I love to listen to Chopin or Dvorak. Some days I'll bop along to Scissor Sisters and if I'm jogging I'll listen to Marc Bolan as he tells me he's Born to Boogie. Same with reading fiction.

Nicola, Dan, Lynn, Anne R A and Ebony are at the sharp end of what's happening NOW. The first people affected by the Tsunami of change in our industry which is pushing all before it. And it's being CUSTOMER driven. Therefore you need to know your customer's needs and desires. And give them what they don't yet know they want (tricky yes, impossible no.) Dan and Lynne are leading the charge in my opinion. Big is not always beautiful. A niche market can and will grow.

Nicola is nimble footed, prepared to compromise and keeps a beady eye open for new opportunities. (If you're not looking for them they'll pass you by.) Of course, it also helps that she's a bloody good published writer and knower of all things. Which, God Bless her, she shares with us. She's done her homework and knows her stuff as do the others mentioned above. Therefore I listen to what she says and take notice.

I would go further however. Ereaders are here to stay. Sales to children and YA are set to go through the roof over Christmas. Parents, siblings, aunties, godparents and friends will give them download vouchers for books for their Ereaders for birthdays, Christmas and special events. They can even buy the vouchers in Tesco. Trend Makers and Think Tanks are predicting a phenomenal increase in these groups reading every day. Fiction, flash fiction, poetry and – particularly for YA - category romance (It's a hormone thing crossing gender and cultures.) Sales of e readers are also set to rise among the general public, particularly in the retiring baby boomers. The point is – these new CUSTOMERS need wonderful new writing to read. Some of them will adore the literary equivalent of Lady Gaga, jazz or Dvorak.

What about existing CUSTOMERS? They are a pretty eclectic bunch, a bit like us who follow this blog. Publishers dumping successful authors are not thinking ahead or thinking of the buying public who will wonder what’s happened to their favourite authors. This is a knee-jerk reaction from certain large players in the industry who are running like lemmings off the edge of the cliff. Instead of dumping authors, why not offer a straight to ebook deal with 50% royalties? If I were one of those published authors I would seriously be investigating self publishing e books. Or go to a smaller press who may welcome you with open arms, eh Lynn? Now there's an idea! Self publishing for previously published authors - they can keep ALL their royalties – and go direct to readers they've already hooked. And published authors need look no further than Nicola on how to market and reach the public via blog tours etc. Sounds like another string to your bow NM.

As for those of us not quite up to speed, especially me, hang on in there. Keep a hold of the dream. Work hard at improving tool usage in your toolbox. Worry not. If you're good enough and dream of being another Ayn Rand, speak to like minded people and find your readers. If you write to entertain and LOL with Janet Evanovich, do the same. If you love Flash Fiction speak to Nik Perring, he’s lovely btw.

Good Luck Nicola, with your writing style and superb use of language it sounds a winner to me.

Christine Carmichael

Nicola Morgan said...

Vegetarian Cannibal - just to clarify, I also don't write "bubblegum crap the stupid tweens are buying nowadays." I know you don't think I do (well, I hope so, anyway!) but I do want to say that there are many many levels of wonderfully readable (another word for commercial, because if it's readable people will want to read it...) stuff for all ages. The fact that I've decided to sell some more copies by widening my readership won't mean I won't be proud of what i write, trust me.

It is, as Christine says, about readers. A writer without readers is a flimsy thing. That doesn't mean that we measure our worth by the number of our readers, but if no one wants to read our stuff, that needs to tell us something. It either tells us that readers are stupid or that our writing is wrong. I wouldn't want to insult my readers by saying they are stupid. I need to find a happy compromise.

Does that make sense?

Nicola Morgan said...

By the way, I removed a comment which seemed simply to be plugging a completely irrelevant book. If I missed the point and it was relevant, I apologise. Please let me know! This blog isn't here to plug random work, though you know I'm more than happy for blog-readers to mention their work if it's relevant. It's my house - please don't drop litter!

Anna Bowles said...

if no one wants to read our stuff, that needs to tell us something. It either tells us that readers are stupid or that our writing is wrong.

I do think there's a third interpretation these days, though - it tells writers that the gatekeepers are too embattled and afraid to take any risks. And it's hard to know how to respond to that.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nicola - it was me with that post. It wasn't meant as a plug, it was just to show how far this trend could go - a sample from a book published by Orbit that was so incredibly pared down that it was ninety percent telling. A cautionary lesson maybe? Sorry if I broke the rules. I certainly didn't think anybody here would buy the book in question!

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

@ Nicola

I wasn't saying YOU (specifically) were writing "bubblegum crap" I was making a general statement. Besides, I don't know the sort of books you write as I've never read any of your stuff before! :D But if I insulted you inadvertently, I apologize.

Like you, I don't measure writers by the quantity of books they sell or the number of rabid fans they have. I'm not knocking authors who DO have a lot of sales or who write commercial fiction. Not all commercial fiction is bad...but at the same time, not all commercial fiction is GOOD either.

I only feel that my generation (I am 21) has lost sight of what "good writing" looks like. It's all about what's "trendy" what's "catchy" and not about well-written works of art. Most people my age just aren't interested in critical thought, anymore. And I'm afraid for writers everywhere if every single one of them forgoes the real stuff and just cranks out formulaic commercial work. I feel sad for the people in my school who don't even know who Oscar Wilde is or why authors like Sojouner Truth and George Orwell were so important. Books can be about entertainment, but I also believe books can change thought and influence social issues and government.

That's all. Again, not knocking authors who DO write commercial fiction (as not all commercial stuff is bad) but that's where I'm at. Writers have to make a living I understand and I don't pass harsh judgement on anyone trying to feed their kids and eke out a living.

Again, I apologize if I've offended you. And thanks for taking time to tackle my comment. :)

Nicola Morgan said...

Anon - arghh - I SO apologise! You didn't break a rule - I just misunderstood. To put it in context: I get quite a few comments which are along the lines of "Great post - take a look at this" and it's a kind of spam way of making me and my blog-readers go and look at a piece of writing. In my haste, I thought that was what you were doing. Sorry!!

Veg Cannibal - no probs. No need to apologise (lots of apologising going on today!!). I didn't think you were criticising me either, but I just wanted to clarify that I'm not really talking about dumbing-down when I say paring back. It's perhaps a fine line to tread, I agree, and not all authors find themselves on the same side of it.

You make some really important points and I agree with you. My older daughter is 23 and an Eng graduate who, like you, loves and appreciates deep, rishly-written stuff. Yes, it would be awful if that skill and pleasure were lost, but I don't think it will be. I'm going to say something heretical now: we don't need 100s of 1000s of new literary novels every year, as we have plenty to keep us going as it is. So it would be a very long time before any dirth took effect and I think the dirth will be temporary. These things go in cycles, somewhat, though never exactly the same each time.

Thank you for your comments and I'm sorry if I sounded offended. I wasn't, honestly! I hope you (and anon!) hang around the blog much longer and add your comments.

Anna Bowles said...

These things go in cycles, somewhat, though never exactly the same each time.

Well, if it's all a matter of timing, I just have to throw all my toys out of the pram and bawl lustily "IT'S NOT FAIR, WANNA WORK ON INTERESTING WRITING!"

@TheGirlPie said...

Refreshingly accurate post! Nicola doesn't sound at all "dogmatic, pessimistic and harsh" but rather deductive, passionate and helpful.

The best thing about this alert is the excellent flexibility Nicola displays in her very proactive plan.

Like the wisest skilled craftsmen, exercise your ability to tailor your talents to the changing tastes of the market. (Those who can't/won't have chosen to be a diarist/private writer, until the the market favors that work.)

WONDERFUL that Nicola likes the leaner version of her edit! Doesn't that make you all feel much better about her analysis?! Yes, I hope!

And might I suggest a trick my business uses with some success:

~ in the next comment ~

@TheGirlPie said...

That trick I mentioned we use:

1) Write the fullest, richest, most perfectly-satisfying clean & edited draft you could ever want to hit the big list.

2) Cut by 50% with the eye for fast, spare, entertaining, marketable, commercial writing that Nicola has applied to the work she references here.

3) Pitch & sell THAT ms...

Then -- when it's a hit, attach your "Author's Private Edition" (like a director's cut) to the MP/TV rights, and plot with your agent how to time that limited "juicier" version of your hit story to come out with the screen adaptation's release, (or video game/cooking show/cartoon/kid's series/board game/travel tours/opera/buzzy blog/musical -- whatever!), to send your fans back to the well (your fat version) for more.

Yes, it does happen.

Another way it happens:
Strip out that 3rd subplot - or that last quarter of the story -- or that detour back in time -- or that 4th POV -- or that extra genre -- and save it for the "commercialized" sequel.

Yes, it does happen. And it pays well for all of us. You know your agent only gets paid when your book makes money. Ditto your pubber. They WANT to sell your stuff, big time. But the market has changed, no surprise to anyone paying attention to social media, 20-somethings, 3rd screen appeal, cross-platform-ready hits, or any other printed matter that isn't handed out for free. (The pubbing industry has been nervous for years but has been slow to help their suppliers (you) do anything about it. The younger blood, and the tighter $$, MIA buyers, and dying old-school audience, is forcing their hand.)

People who are doing the tough business of treating writing as a business are out on the edge and helping, like Nicola here. Please, take it to heart. The 'demanding' works don't have to stop, you just need to have something else to SELL when those don't get repped/pubbed.

With my suggestion, which my clients kid is the "have/eat cake" approach, your fullest idea of your beloved book is just as demanding as you want it to be... the fuller, deeper, more mature, wise, richer version of your Muse. That doesn't have to change, just set it aside and save it as the "Author's Private Edition."

But for what to pitch? Open a copy of the ms file, re-title it, and exercise those pages, tone, trim, and freshen your work, and the youthful (marketable) version of your book -- same clever idea, compelling story, flawed characters, and pro skills -- can emerge. But much more "now" and lively and attractive to the agents, publishers (or the younger assistants/readers at the gate), and eventually to the book store buying managers who place the orders and decide the table/shelf placement.

And like young love: hook 'em now with your marketable material, and they'll come back to your name over and over... keep sharing what they love and they'll want to get to know you better... and those are the readers that will later pay double for your "Author's Private Edition." But you just might find yourself perfectly delighted with your newer, market-oriented approach...

Please take Nicola's swell proactive plan to heart and keyboard -- I could wish you no greater exemplar on this issue. Good luck guys. And keep up the good words,

(And yes, sorry, I didn't take the time to make my passion shorter.)

Leila R said...

Great post, Nicola. Really honest and thought-provoking. As for the stripped-back approach, I guess styles in writing do go in and out of fashion. I look now at some of the books I loved most as a child, and think: 'that would never get published today'. Yet their style was part of the reason I loved the books so much.
It is a depressing scenario, but if we want to write, we have to just go for it - nothing's changed there.

Nick Cross said...

This is a great, great post, Nicola, thank you. I was rather surprised to find myself willingly in writing category 1, so I've blogged not so much in riposte as from another perspective:

kathryn evans said...

Depressingly, bang on the nail Nicola. Am eternally grateful to my agent for all the work she puts in for me, even though, thus far, she's had no pay back. I don't know how lovely agent keeps smilingly getting on with it - thank god for other authors that do produce what the market wants - without them, agents wouldn't be able to take a punt on authors like me.

Victoria Mixon said...

Nicola, thank you for keeping the conversation about the current state of publishing honest. What depressing news about the past 18 months! This is the reality aspiring writers need to understand. You are absolutely right that in today's market, more than ever, we must write not for the money or hope of publication but simply for the joy of the work.

However, for those concerned about the distinction between "stripped-back" commercial fiction and traditionally fleshed-out fiction, I want to offer a little clarification and hope from the perspective of an independent editor.

The reason you're enjoying the stripped-back version of your novel is almost certainly because you've cleaned up your language, sharpened your details, dropped the exposition, and left only those words you absolutely need to tell your story. And that's not buckling to contemporary commercialism. (Not by a long shot.) That's just terrific writing!

A great deal of today's contemporary fiction is chock full of sloppy exposition, one-dimensional rehashes of TV and movie characters and scenes, and shock tactics to hide the lack of real tension.

Read pulp fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. As much as it was bemoaned as cheap commercialism in its time, that stuff is quick, lean, and clean. And, by today's standards, a great deal of it is freakishly well-written.

Learn from them. Let the publishing industry pretzel themselves up into a clique of 26 best-seller authors if they want. We can't stop them. Sit down and write what you really want to write according to the techniques of the original genre authors. Those guys knew how to write great commercial fiction.