Tuesday, 21 October 2008

What New Writers Need to Know - Part 2

Have you ever wondered how a book or writer gets a publishing deal?

How many times have you picked up a book and thought - How the heck did that ever get in print?

Not all literature out there is good unfortunately. And the discerning reader will know when they've been had. But for writers who have genuine talent and original ideas, then this is a real bug bear.

Writing is very hard work. And the pay is poor unless you are one of the lucky few - for example J K Rowling or Stephen King. I was once told that 90% of the money paid by publishers to authors in the UK goes to 10% of said authors ... leaving just 10% of the money to be shared among 90% of the authors!

But success in the writing world is not determined soley by talent. What? You look surprised. It's partly about what and who you know. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Ms Rowling had to attend conventions and network like crazy, working her way up the ladder with each book forming part of a long rise to success - she's quite the exception. But its an open secret in the industry that often books listed in the 'Best Sellers' are not in fact that at all. It often just means that the publishing house has bought the placement from the bookshop as part of a marketing deal.

I often ponder on this. How the small presses are struggling to even get one of their very high quality fiction novels into the shops when the shelves are crammed with so-called 'celebrity' books of all shapes. It's a real dilemma. The top stores and online book sales sites are writing their own paychecks. All publishers are held over a barrel. Amazon, Waterstones, Borders - you name it - all the big boys these days expect to be paid for everything. You want a book in a 3 for 2 promotion, then that apparently costs the publisher around £1000 per week per book. You want your book in the window of the shop, then that costs. You want it up front in the store, on a table near the door, then pay up please. You want it face out on the shelf? Pay please. You want it in the 'Bookshop Recommends' catalogue, then send your money here ... Heck, they can even demand a 60% or more reduction on the rrp of a book, with full sale or return. When you consider the costs of producing the book and promoting it, there isn't a lot left in the pot for the author, especially when you then factor high volume discount clauses into their contracts (which basically say that the bigger the discount the publisher gives on the book, the less of a percentage of the money received the author gets).

Don't get me wrong, the top publishers are being stiffed too. I heard it said that for any book to make any sort of impact in the bookshops these days, the publisher must be prepared to spend £50,000 on marketing to back it up. But ... what if they stopped pandering to the bookshops? Refused the demands and took a stand - were united for once, then would the stores have to back off and revert to publishing based on quality and true saleability rather than the depth of the publishers' pockets? Of course that will never happen. Simply because there will always be one publishing house who will pay to ensure that their latest writer is a best seller. Given that the bookshops only tend to stock and promote a limited range, then what is available in them is all that the general public can therefore buy, hence it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that what is on the shelves and is promoted by them sells, and therefore becomes a bestseller, whether that be top-notch fiction or celebrity endorsed, ghost-written pap.

These days the industry is about publicity and manufacturing success and not quality. Celebrity sells and so those are the books which cram the shelves. As they are the only ones there, then the public buy them, perhaps thinking that they are in some way good because lots of other people have bought them ... and so the cycle continues.

Of course there are some publishers who constantly champion new talent, bring new names to the fore in the hope that they might be tomorrows best-seller. These are the books which really deserve support and acclaim, which should be reviewed and promoted in the newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately I feel that so long as the bookshops have this commercial stranglehold, and the publishers feel there is no choice but to pay for the success of their titles, then we will continue to see a steady stream of books by the likes of Jordan, Jade Goodie and Geri Halliwell stacking the shelves for some time to come.

As a final coda, it occurs to me that of course some of these celebrity tomes do sell very well indeed, and make a lot of money for the publishers, money that they can then use to publish - if they so wish - original fiction from original voices.

So if you are reading this and are a published writer, then your next book may just have been funded by Jade! What a thought.

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