Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Highs and Lows of Publishing

It’s interesting for an author to see the extreme ends of the publishing business. On one hand you have tales of million dollar advances, on the other you have an author who might only sell a handful of copies. But remember always, it is a business, and the publishing business is governed by numbers as well as words.

Firstly in the UK Times, Sathnam Sanghera investigates the business of publishing. In so doing he grounds most author’s aspirations of riches:
Most author advances are small. Newspapers like running stories about mammoth book deals, but the numbers are often exaggerations, designed to make agents look like superheroes and debut authors newsworthy and, besides, such authors are in the minority. The brutal reality is that most first-time novelists rarely get more than £12,000 for a two-book deal. Accounts vary, but it is said that JK Rowling got an advance in the region of £2,000 to £10,000 for her first Harry Potter title. Moreover, according to the Society of Authors, the average author earns less than £7,000 a year.

Even large advances don’t go far. Say you hit the jackpot and get a £100,000 deal, it’s still unlikely you’ll be putting in an order for an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Typically, the sum is spread over a two-book deal, and given in stages -- a chunk when you sign, another portion as you hand in a manuscript, another when a book is published and so on. This could mean you get the money over several years and £25,000 a year isn’t really
comparable to winning the lottery. Especially when 15 per cent will typically go to your agent -- and you’ll be paying tax as well. This is one of the reasons why even very successful authors have other jobs: Philip Larkin was a librarian; Mohsin Hamid, whose brilliant novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is head of consulting at Wolff Olins; and many others are journalists.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to earn out an advance. It’s called “an advance” because it’s a pre-payment of royalties you will earn when the book is sold. But such is the extent of discounting now -- supermarkets can demand up to 6
5 per cent off the cover price -- that it’s getting harder to earn anything above that sum. If a £20 hardback sells for £8, the author’s royalties will also reduce substantially.
Sanghera goes on to depress us further with some startling numbers proving how tough it is to make a primary living from being an author alone:
Most books disappear without a trace. Last month The Times published statistics from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks book sales nationwide, showing that, of 200,000 books on sale last year, 190,000 titles sold fewer than 3,500 copies. More devastating still, of 85,933 new books, as many as 58,325 sold an average of just 18 copies. And things aren't much better over the pond: I read recently that, of the 1.2million titles sold in the United States in 2004, only 2 per cent sold more than 5,000 copies.
You can read Sanghera’s Times Online piece here.

However, before you hit the delete button on the masterwork sitting on your hard drive, let’s look at the opposite extreme.

I have been writing recently about the work super bestseller James Patterson, following the announcement that Patterson is now the most borrowed author in the British Library system. Because of this accolade, the British Press have been focusing heavily on the work of Patterson, and The Guardian has produced a lengthy and informative article by Oliver Burkeman called “Inside the Fiction Factory.” This lengthy piece is the prefect antidote to Sanghera’s business section piece on the bottom end of the market. It seems that Patterson’s success is due in part to sheer hard work and determination:
He works on them from around 5:30 am, seven days a week, in longhand. Something about him seems at odds with his surroundings: he is a compulsive worker in a playground of the wealthy, gazing at the sparkling Atlantic Ocean as he concocts sordid storylines about dismembered bodies wrapped in bin-liners. On the wall, there is a photo of Bill Clinton disembarking from Air Force One with a copy of When The Wind Blows, a Patterson novel, tucked under his arm.

Patterson’s books are designed to be addictive in an almost physiological way, cycling rapidly between tension and resolution. Sentences are short. Chapters are rarely more than three pages long, and usually end on cliffhangers. His titles are completely unimaginative, but they dangle the promise that the next fix is imminent. His most famous series, featuring the African-American pathologist Alex Cross, are called Jack and Jill, Cat and Mouse, Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, etc; the Women’s Murder Club series, starring the hard-bitten detective Lindsay Boxer, are called 1st To Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree, and so on. (Patterson deals with the challenges of writing in the first person as a black man and a woman mainly by ignoring the matter.) His latest, 7th Heaven, is loaded with crime-fiction cliches: “I stared at the fire-ravaged body of Patty Malone .... Who had committed these brutal murders -- and why?” (But you read all the way to the end, despite yourself.)

Patterson has no pretensions to highbrow literature. “Look, I’m good at parts of this,” he says, in his strong New York accent. “I’m certainly not a world-class stylist. But the storytelling is pretty cool, and the narrative power of the stuff is usually pretty strong.” He writes ceaselessly, he explains, because it doesn’t exhaust him. “These books are entertainments,” he says. “It’s a very different process than if you’re trying to write Moby-Dick, or The Corrections. That’s painful. That’s different from very simple, plot-oriented storytelling. If I was writing serious fiction, I’d want more rest time.”

Patterson is open about using collaborators, though he insists his plot outlines are much more than a rough sketch of an idea. “As one of my agents said: ‘If you gave me this outline, I could write the book.’”
Apart from the sheer hard graft of his craft -- Patterson has an eye on the marketing of his work and holds little pretensions about his writing which has now allowed him to devote his full energies to his authorship:

Patterson finally gave up the day job a decade ago, but the adman’s sensibility remains fundamental to the thriller production system over which he presides. His focus is on building the “James Patterson” brand, and so it makes perfect commercial sense to find a reliable subcontractor for the manufacturing part of the operation -- the writing -- while he concentrates on product design -- the plot outlines -- and on promotion. When his first Alex Cross novel, Along Came A Spider, was published in 1992, Patterson’s publisher declined to fund TV advertisements, so the author produced one himself. (It was one of two Alex Cross books later made into films starring Morgan Freeman.)

Unlike many authors, he relishes the business of marketing. In the UK, Random House has just wooed him away from its rival publisher Headline, and what seems to have impressed Patterson most was that Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House UK, had conducted research showing that only 50 per cent of British thriller readers had heard of him so far: she spoke the language of audience share, in which he is fluent.

You can read The Guardian interview with Patterson here.

Photo credit: James Patterson is given The Thrillermaster Award by Clive Cussler at Thrillerfest 2007 in New York. Photo (c) Ali Karim.



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