By Caitlin Kelly
Here’s a wise/sorrowful reflection on publishing, by former lecturer in French at Cambridge, blogger Victoria Best:
Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out…And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?
It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near…Many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomena – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.
Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting….
To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.
The entire blog post is a must-read for anyone who really wants to hear what goes in inside publishers’ hallowed halls. Not for the naive or foolish. It’s funny, sad, bitter — and true!
the work of writers is traded in three currencies: money, meaning book sales and author advances; status, meaning reviews, awards, fellowships and general cachet, which are not strictly quantifiable but pay dividends nonetheless; and a third, which I can only describe as the actual life of a book, which is its movement through the world after it is published. Sales do contribute to this third currency, but only so much, because it is intangible, uncountable and ultimately unknowable, and yet still entirely, wonderfully real.
What do authors hope for with publication of their work?
Defined how? Ten people beyond your immediate family? A cover story in People magazine?
Most writers receive an advance, from a commercial publisher, of $5,000 to $50,000 for their first book — maybe even their seventh or twelfth. The advance is typically paid out in thirds, at best, more often in quarterly payments: upon signing of the contract; upon delivery of the first few chapters or full manuscript; upon publication, (typically at least a year after signing), and — yes, really! — a year after publication.
Which somewhat re-defines the word “advance.”
Every payment is sent through your agent who claims their 15 percent fee for representing you before they forward the rest to you. Most mid-list authors, (i.e. not best-sellers), will never “earn out”, i.e. repay the publisher their advance and thereby receive any additional payment for their work. This is because we receive a tiny fraction of the cover price and because publishers make sure to claim their profits before we see ours.
Pleasant, but rarely lucrative. Citic Press bought the rights to publish my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” in China, paying $3,000. It simply went to pay down my advance. They re-named the book for their market, (“The Greatest Saleswoman in the World” — hardly!) and gave it a crisp new cover, with a photo wholly different from the American version. I’ve received no reply from them to my repeated emails asking for information about how it’s doing there.
Thousands of passionate readers
Many books find fewer than 1,000 buyers, in any format. Ever. A book selling 10,000 or more copies has done well. (My second book, “Malled”, did. Whew!)
A movie deal
I know someone whose book — published in 2001 — is now in production as a major motion picture. Many books are optioned, (which usually means you get a nice five-figure check), but few make it through the process to become a finished film. Here’s an interview with Orson Scott Card in the current issue of Wired magazine, author of the award-winning 1985 book Ender’s Game — now in theaters after more than a dozen scripts were rejected over the decades.
A television series (with residuals!)
Sweet! My book Malled was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and I was swooning with excitement. I was paid $5,000 — but lost $1,000 to the two agents who repped it. Many emails went back and forth between me and the script-writer, a Hollywood veteran. But CBS’ top executive said no to the final version and CBS now owns the script.
A job offer
Maybe. Certainly not a sure thing.
OK, these days, any reviews! While many online sites review books, and you can read dozens on amazon.com, it’s difficult to win an inch of serious reviewers’ space. The competition is ferocious.
Oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments! We’d all like that “XYZ-award-winner” on the cover of our book, but only a tiny fraction of us will ever get it. I was really honored when Malled was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given to “those who pursue deep storytelling and investigative reporting in the service of the common good.” (A professor won it.)
So…why the desperate compulsion to publish a book?
For some people, it’s the pure satisfaction of having done it, knowing they can.
For others, it’s a strategic move, to build or bolster their brand or authority.
For academics, it’s a must, without which they can’t win tenure.
And yet, despite all of the above, I’m glad I’ve done my two books, and am now working on a proposal for another, fully aware of the pitfalls (and pleasures) if someone does make an offer on it.
I enjoy writing non-fiction books because journalism today offers few places in which to deeply explore serious ideas at length. A book gives you 80,000-100,000 words to plumb the depths of a complicated story. For me, that’s the draw.
Will anyone review it or buy it after a year or more of consistent effort to produce it? No idea!
Here’s a brilliant bit of writing advice, (there’s more if you follow the link, from Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction Paul Harding, in the one publication every ambitious writer must read, Publisher’s Weekly:
Get your art written any way you can. It’s tempting as a teacher to present your own method as normative. It’s maybe even more tempting as a student to look for a method that sounds good and austere and disciplined, with a dash of charming self-deprecation thrown in, and conform to it in the hopes that it will work for you, because writing is hard, after all, and it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it.
But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page. The musician Tom Petty tells a great anecdote about working with the producer Jeff Lynne. Petty was in the studio making an album and being very doctrinaire about some recording method or another, much to Lynne’s exasperation, and so Lynne finally said to him, “Tom, no one gives a shit about how you make your records. They only care if the record sounds good.”
Outside of writing workshops and seminars, no one cares if you sit facing the blank page for six hours every day beginning at sunrise, or if you loaf around frittering away most days like a bum, or if you write your book one line at a time on the sly in between typing your boss’s business letters at the office. What’s important is that your reader holds a thrilling, amazing work of art in her hands.
How about you?
What would it mean to you to finally publish your book?
Those who have self-published, is it what you hoped for or expected?
THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR IS “CRAFTING THE PERSONAL ESSAY”; 4:00 p.m. EST Nov. 30. I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!