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.
- 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.
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you should care, too, because the good books that you might have read in the future (or that you might be writing) may not be published.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."
- Publishers are taking fewer risks and taking longer to make decisions.
- It is ever more important that you are prepared to help promote a book by doing events and being creative with promotional opportunities.
- Your book and its hook have to be stronger than ever. The selling potential must shine.
- You need an even greater understanding of the market than would have been necessary five years ago.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.)
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...