THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS
Posted by James Dawson on August 4, 2014
How is 2009? Have you dumped that guy yet? Get on with it. Oh, and drug dealers are about to move in next door. Good luck with that. I’m writing from 2014 cos there’s some stuff you should know if you’re serious about this book-writing thing.
Remember when Megan Fox called out Michael Bay on being a tyrant? Did that happen yet? Just because she was biting the hand that fed her didn’t make it any less true. There are things an author probably isn’t meant to say because we, especially as unfailingly polite Brits, must remain grateful at all times.
You are going to be very grateful to get where you’re at. You’ll feel very lucky, and that isn’t self-depreciating BS – there is so much TIMING involved with being an author. You’re about to meet an agent who’s just come off a career break and is actively looking to build her list. Timing. At the same time, your future editor believes thrillers will be the Next Big Thing. Timing again.
Looking back, I was so, so green. As naive as any YA heroine on her first day at a high school filled with vampires. I want you to listen up. Publishing is a business, and not always a very nice one. It doesn’t have to be – everyone wants to get their books published – authors need publishers if they are to be traditionally published (more on that later) and publishers will always have a willing, eager pool of talent to draw from.
Listen up. Publishing is alchemy. There is no maths, only magic, and magic that no human is able to master. There are no rules and there is no formula for making a book work.
Let’s start by taking a look at where it DID work. First up: Harry Potter. Harry Potter so nearly didn’t happen. Considered too long and too slow for a children’s book it was rejected pretty much everywhere until it sold at Bloomsbury for a very low advance. The first print run was just 500 copies.
Let’s also look at John Green. You don’t know who he is yet, but you will. Looking For Alaska was acquired for $8000 and his editor left the firm before it came out. Neither Green, nor Rowling were meant to do so well. There were no tube posters, no moving billboards outside Westfield, no movie adaptations on the horizon. These were just good books that sold well because people loved them and told more people who also loved them. I still believe that: if you write the best books you can, eventually people will find them.
The trick is in trying to manufacture this glory and this is where publishing can get murky. To say that The Hunger Games was Suzanne Collins’s SIXTH yes SIXTH title, publishers are unhealthily obsessed with debuts. I can only think of Holly Smale’s debut Geek Girl as an example of a debut that instantly hit in the UK. Perhaps Derek Landy too. Love for debuts is shown in £££. Publishers dig deep to secure what they feel could be the next best-seller – on any given week we’ll read about a SIX FIGURE ADVANCE going to a debut in The Bookseller.
Of course, this is lovely for you because you’re about to be a debut. Or is it? Well, duh, of course it it, but it’s important to look at the long and short game. Short game, get yo ass down to Selfridges and buy something nice. Long game, however, is trickier. The bigger the advance, the less likely a title is to earn out. You’re not exactly in debt to the publisher as you don’t have to pay it back, but you do become a walking, talking, writing money pit. Remember the film of the same name? At what point do you stop spending money on a bad investment? More and more, it seems that if the debut doesn’t do well, the temptation is to cut losses and run. Every finish on a cover, every inch of shop shelving, every advert is money tumbling into the well that is YOU, the author.
I personally know three authors (who I won’t name, because that’s not cool) who fell victim to this BIG MONEY/LOW RETURN problem. It happens in both the UK and the US. It’s stressful and heartbreaking – for both author and the editors who I feel truly believe they’ve struck gold with a manuscript.
I just asked an editor why debuts often get such sweet deals. He said, ‘in all honesty, sometimes you just get caught up in a bidding war. It becomes about winning.’
I find this baffling. Why would an unknown debut (unless they happen to be David Walliams) sell a truck load of books? There’s no fandom there. It takes time to build a following, but time is also costly. Once a book’s been out for a month, a new title, also hungrily snapping up budget will swoop in to take your place.
At this year’s Imagine Festival (yeah, you’ll get invited to stuff like that and it’s COOL), Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon pleaded with the great and good of children’s publishing to give authors TIME. She stated that Waterstones wouldn’t even stock Horrid Henry until the fifth title and she suggested that in 2014, it’s unlikely her publisher would have stayed by her side for that long.
As well as being a debut it’s also increasingly important to have a HOOK. Talent, I’m afraid, isn’t nearly enough. It will help if you’re already famous – either ‘actually’ or ‘internet’. This isn’t a bad thing at all. I was once told how many unknown authors Katie Price had paid for with her successes. Again, a business can only work if it’s profitable. It doesn’t matter where that profit comes from. So we’ll see more YouTube people, more models, more singers, more TV Presenters and more actual animals ‘penning’ novels. Find your angle (I’m not even gay, it’s just my ‘thing’. I’m happily married to Julie and have three kids).
Also, as children’s or YA authors, you need to possess the qualities of a TV personality. Sorry, but to do well you will need to read, speak, lecture, dance, act, sing, tell jokes and perform to audiences of up to 1000 people as we recently did at YALC. The cooler, hipper and more versatile you are, the more ‘gigs’ you’ll book. This is how it is.
More troubling perhaps is the youth fixation that seems to be plaguing publishing at the moment. Although fashion has had this affliction for years, it’s only in the last couple of years (or perhaps since Christopher Paolini) than an author’s age has become a key PR angle. I find this murky. For one thing, we have child labour laws, for two, I was naive about publishing at twenty-eight so one can only wonder how I’d have felt if I’d written Hollow Pike at fifteen. People promise you a lot of things only to later tell you there are no guarantees. People tell you you’ll be the next XY or Z only to later call you ‘disappointing’. Tough, but especially tough for a teenager.
If it’s so tough, why aren’t I self-publishing? Well because it’s still not quite there yet is it. Let’s be brutally honest – people are snobby. People like books that have been curated by publishers as it’s a mark of quality. We all KNOW there are excellent self-published books out there, but who can be arsed trawling the internet for the good ones? As with traditionally published books, if word of mouth is good, it’ll reach you eventually anyway. The reason I don’t self-publish is because I would never switch off, I’d be promoting and marketing and selling twenty-four hours a day and I think it’d kill me. What’s more, I really LOVE working with a team. Amber Caraveo and Emma Matthewson and Tori Kosara have made my books BETTER for editing them. Anyone who sees your Queen of Teen Conchita video (just you wait) will see how much fun you’ve had working with Rosi and Livs and the team.
Here’s another thing you haven’t thought of. It’s fine, you were excited! Foreign deals. This is where your books are likely to succeed. Learn about this shit. Do you sell world rights to your UK publisher or do you trust your agent to sell them overseas? It’s these details, the things people don’t really talk about, that will be the difference. This is why I believe every author needs an agent. You won’t believe this, but your books have now sold in Spain, Germany, Turkey, Poland, France and the United States. Work.
What’s the answer? I don’t think there is one. It would make sense to offer fair advances to all debuts and pay more to the ones with a sales track-record, right? Or to reduce advances but boost royalties? Acquiring fewer titles so each had a larger marketing spend doesn’t sound like a terrible idea.
I certainly think there is a real power in BUILDING A FANBASE. That’s what John Green, JK Rowling and Malorie Blackman were allowed to do. I feel hugely, hugely lucky in that I’m with a publisher (Hot Key Books) who’s standing by me at the start of my career, helping me to build a fan base. You won’t believe this, but you recently won Queen of Teen! I know! That was a real sign that your readers are getting behind me (yeah, I know, timey-wimey). You’ll be beyond thrilled. I’ve now been building my career (as that’s what this is, James) for four years and I still feel like a relative newcomer – most people still don’t know who I am after five titles. These things clearly take time.
This is not a whinge. I am still grateful. While writing this very post, my box of paperback editions of Cruel Summer arrived and my lounge smells of freshly baked murder mystery. If I could go back, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing, but I do wish I’d always looked upon publishing as a business, as that is what it is. As much as I wish authors could purely focus on their ‘art’ we must also come into the game with our business heads ON.
Lots of love
PS – enjoy it all, it’s going to be amazing.
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