Two days ago I spoke at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (get me!), on the subject of The Writing Business. I’d never done anything like this before, so I was very lucky to share the stage with Keith Charters of Strident Publishing and to have the event chaired by the writer Eric Swanepoel, who was very capable and kind.
After our talk was finished I spent a lovely hour in the company of friends, old and new, some of whom had been kind enough to pay to come and listen to me. It was sunny, there was wine, and I laughed my geography-teacher shoes off. But I discovered that our event been sold out, and that there had been a queue waiting for returns which sadly didn’t materialise. So I decided to put my notes for the event here, so that those of you who couldn’t get tickets would be able to join in at least virtually.
As usual, though, I’m not doing this to be kind: I’m the biggest beneficiary. Because of time contraints I had to cut my notes by more than two thirds, and this gives me a chance to say all I wanted, without the risk of being driven off the stage by a bored audience who only really came to see Keith. Brilliant!
So here we go. Enjoy the first part of my talk: part two will appear tomorrow, and part three on Sunday. I hope it’s useful, and that it makes sense, and am, as ever, looking forward to your questions.
The Writing Business
1) This session is all about making the most of your writing: so I’m going to focus on getting published as well as you can, and earning the most from your work.
2) Let’s consider one of my favourite things: money.
3) QUESTION would anyone like to suggest how much most writers earn?
4) In 2000, the Society of Authors surveyed its members’ earnings. At that time, the national average annual wage was just under £21,000.
a) 61% of the writers who responded to the survey earned under £10,000 a year.
b) 46% earned under £5,000, of whom 123 said that writing was their main source of income. 14 writers in this group had no other source of income at all.
5) In 2005 the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society carried out a similar survey. The mean average reported annual income for writers was £16,531; the median average was just £4,000.
6) So, how can we, as writers, do better than that? There’s a simple trick. Write a good book; publish it well; sell lots of copies; and do that once or twice a year.
7) This session isn’t about “writing well”, so let’s think about publishing well.
8) QUESTION: Publishing badly: what’s so bad?
a) writers can lose money instead of making it;
b) bad books lurk forever, ready to put readers off other, better titles.
c) low sales prevent future contracts, because the first thing a publisher will do when considering a new writer is look his previous books up on Nielson Bookscan: if sales were poor, that’s a negative mark against the writer.
9) QUESTION: what do you think “publishing well” involves?
a) Your book must be of the highest quality in all ways: not just the writing, but also the typesetting, the design, the jacket, and the production.
b) And it must get in front of your potential readers otherwise they won’t know it’s there. And if they don’t know it’s there, they won’t buy it.
10) Both those points—high quality and reaching your readers—are very difficult to achieve if you decide to self-publish.
a) writers very rarely have the knowledge or expertise to produce a beautiful book;
b) self-publishers don’t have access to the same distribution channels that mainstream, commercial publishers have.
11) In commercial publishing, distribution is focussed on getting books into as many retail outlets as possible.
12) QUESTION: Why is distribution so important?
a) Because most books are sold from physical bookshops.
13) The Bookseller published some research last year which confirmed that most books—about 68% of commercial titles—are sold from real, physical, bookshops, and not online. Of the remaining 32%, a portion are sold from supermarkets and so on, and the rest are sold online—but nearly half of those online sales are only made after selection in a physical shop. [This report is not available online: I'll provide a proper citation for it as soon as possible.]
14) Very few self-publishers get their books into bookshops nationally and so miss out on at least 68% of their market.
15) So self-publishers need to find different ways to sell their books. Which is why self-publishing can be an excellent option for good niche titles which have an easily-identifiable and reachable market. This almost always means non-fiction in an area the writer has some expertise and reputation in.
16) Consequently, self-published fiction very rarely sells in high quantity because fiction is not usually a niche product.
17) So, if you want your books to sell well your best bet is to get a commercial publisher interested.
18) If you want to get the bigger publishers interested in your work, you need an agent.
19) Not only will an agent get your work looked at by the bigger publishing houses, he or she will improve your income.
20) How much better off are agented writers compared to non-agented ones? They get better contracts and higher advances and these sums almost always outweigh the agents’ fees. These figures from 2005:
a) The range in unagented advances is from $0 to $15,000
b) The median unagented advance is $3500 (the average is $4051)
c) The range in agented advances is from $1500 to $40,000
d) The median agented advance is $6000 (the average is $7500)
21) And that’s not all: agents are far better-placed to make foreign sales and sell your subsidiary rights than you are.
22) QUESTION: what are subsidiary rights?
a) Large print, audio books, e-books, serial rights (newspaper and magazine serialisations) etc.
23) All foreign sales have subsidiary rights, so this is a rich seam of potential income.
a) Subsidiary rights sales are lovely. In her talk at this year’s Romantic Novelists Association summer conference, literary agent Carole Blake explained: “You’ve got it; you sell it; you’ve still got it; you sell it again; you’ve still got it; you sell it again!”
24) I’ve heard of agents making 30 or more deals per title when all foreign and subsidiary rights are counted.
a) This is exceptional: 5-20 is more usual.
b) But writers are rarely placed to make those 5-20 sales themselves.
c) Rights should rest with whoever has the best chance of selling them well—there’s no point hanging onto foreign rights if you can’t sell them and your publisher can.
Apologies for the rogue smiley who keeps on popping up. I could probably evict him if I took a little more time, but this post is already way too late, and he is rather funny.