Thursday, 1 December 2011

Occupy Books. Celebrity Authors or Real Books?

OK, I know some celebrity authors can write and some of their books are good. But after yesterday’s post people complained at the way the market this season is dominated by highly publicised books that will probably never be read – not even by the ‘authors’ as so many are ghostwritten. These books are just bought as easy and lazy gifts at the last minute. I thought I’d add some statistics to this about how publishing and bookselling trends affect authors and what we can do about it.

I admit these statistics were gleaned from the One Show (a popular evening chat show on BBC One, if you’re not familiar with UK television). This made it more comical for me, because Gyles Brandreth revealed some figures about aspiring authors, rejection figures, and who gets published and paid for books. He did all of this with celebrity author Celia Imrie beside him, just about to plug her book.

Gyles answered the question many people ask me – which is ‘How many people can actually make a living out of writing books?’ I’ve always made my living out of writing as a journalist and nonfiction book author, as well as working in publishing as an editor and now a publisher. But they mean books of fiction or poetry.

He revealed that 95% of books submitted to publishers are rejected. Of the 5% that get accepted, 75% of the authors will earn less than £20,000 per year for their book (and most books only sell well in the first year). £20,000 might still sound reasonable, but really the vast majority of these authors will be doing well if they sell between 1,000-3,000 books per year. That’s the usual figure, and I’ve heard that even with a major publisher, the debut novel can be expected to sell about 500 copies.

So, about 5% of authors who submit to publishers will be accepted, and they are most likely going to sell fewer than 3,000 books. Even if they get royalties of 10% of the cover price and the book sells for £10, this would be less than £3,000 income. But most contracts with major publishers aren’t based on 10% of the cover price. All costs are taken off first and you get a percentage of the profit.

A while ago I posted about literary agents and the kind of advance they told me they go for. The agent I spoke to is very good and aims for a £25,000 advance for authors as her income comes purely from a percentage of what the author is paid by the publisher, if she succeeds in getting authors signed. This is standard – if you get an agent they manage your income by receiving it from the publisher, taking off their commission, and paying you.

But usually an advance is £5,000 or less. The book sales have to pay back the advance to the publisher before any additional income is paid, and you can see by the average sales figures that this is quite hard to achieve.

Gyles finished off by saying what happens to so many of the books that are published but don’t sell in large enough quantities. They are used in the construction of motorways and he said how many miles they were supporting, but sadly I can’t remember. Apparently they form a good, shock absorbent type of support.

I do hear people saying they think much of this is new, but I first worked as a fiction reviewer and an editor in the early 1980s and I was told even then about the massive quantities of books that were published only to be pulped. Authors are just becoming more aware of the facts nowadays, probably due to more information being available online.

At the end of his commentary, Gyles pointed out that publishers were more likely to take on authors who were already celebrities. They’re easier to sell. It was quite a comical introduction to Celia Imrie talking about her new book and her mouth was in a very uncomfortable attempt at a polite smile. I must confess, I've read some of her book and she's very good.

I’m not against celebrity authors, because publishers and bookshops say they provide enough finance for a lot of their other work. Celebrity authors could help support the publishing of less commercial books, and could also help publishers take a risk on authors.

Bookshops do have limits due to shelf space – a problem I’ve only realised to be significant over the past year. They can’t just take a risk on a book that’s good even if it’s sale or return. They always want sale or return, and they don’t have space.

The figures shouldn’t be depressing. When rejection slips come in, they need to be cast aside quickly and not be offputting. It’s hard to get published, and it’s even harder for those published books to sell in order to stay on a publisher’s list. We all keep writing anyway.

We shouldn’t see publishers as the judges of whether or not our writing is good, but we often do. We certainly shouldn’t judge by how much our book sells either, or all poets would stop writing.

All of this does mean that independent publishers and truly independent bookshops need to be supported if we want publishing outlets for debut novelists, poets, and risk-taking authors. The only way this can happen is if they’re supported by buyers.

Major publishers poach safe bet authors from each other – or so the literary agent told me – and they also poach from independent publishers. To keep opportunities open for authors I suggest looking at the good independent publishers and bookshops this season.

Sorry to repeat this bit, but I’m not saying this to promote my company or any specific company. In fact suggestions for good listings of independents and good review sites would be welcome.

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