Wednesday 30 December 2009

Writing the recession (3): Some numbers

There's plenty of mumbling about the recession hitting publishing - publishing houses cutting staff, cutting advances, cutting lists, trying to rejuvenate the backlist (do kids really want to read Enid Blyton?), bookshops closing, liquidating or just selling crap. There have been a few stories about 'poor' authors having their advances cut from £120,000 to only £30,000, intended to make people scoff at authors (while ignoring the vast majority of authors whose advances are often well under £3,000, and first-time novelists for which they may be only £500). But largely authors are ignored in coverage of the industry's 'crisis' — which is a little odd, as without us there would be no publishing industry.

So, is there a crisis? There is certainly a crisis in confidence. But: The value of book sales in the UK has risen by £0.5 billion over the last 10 years (representing an increase of 40%). Fiction sales in the last months of 2009 were 14% up on the same period last year (up 3.3% excluding Dan Brown). The value of children's book sales in the year is between 3% down and 5% up depending on the source you look at.

But income is unevenly distributed in publishing. Some publishers are struggling, at least in some areas of their business. They are not very good at recognising that it's vital to subsidise some under-performing areas with income from over-performing areas in order to keep the whole organism healthy. Pouring all the money into celebrity crap or a few over-hyped books will not sustain the industry in the long-term as it neglects the need to nurture a new readership. It's easy to say 'oh, this will make lots of money now, we don't need to bother with that' - but then you're left madly chasing the next 'this' with nothing steady to fall back on, and have to scrabble around making cuts if 'this' doesn't turn up or doesn't deliver.

For most of the authors I know, 2009 has been a disastrous year. Although I do my accounts April-April, I track commissions Jan-Jan, so assuming I'm not about to get lots of commissions tomorrow, I can say that commissions are, for me, a long way down. They've fallen from £53,000 in 2008 to less than £12,000 in 2009 - that's a drop of nearly 75%. (This is new commissions - it doesn't include royalties, PLR and ALCS payments which are all income on old books and so don't reflect much.) Even removing the one unusually high-value commission in 2008, this year is still 60% down. (I would have done other work in that time, so excluding it is not really fair - but it is in keeping with the industry practice of giving figures including and excluding JKR, DB, SM, etc.) The number of commissions is is down only 25%. The average value of each commission is down 50%.

Well, those are my figures. I know it's not really done to reveal this info in public, but personally I'm in favour of openness. If the problem isn't talked about, no-one will make a move towards solving it, or even just sharing the burden. So - how do we fix this broken model of publishing for writers? Any ideas?

Wednesday 23 December 2009

The wayward muse

We've all been there. Deadline looming, book not finished (or not even started) and somehow that spark of creativity that you depend on to make the words glow and catch light cannot be kindled. The sentences - if you've written them at all - lie lumpen and cold on the page. The words sprawl lazily, dull adjectives sticking out like elbows. The book is an early-morning teenager, unwilling to rouse itself at all. Where is the muse when you need her? It's Christmas, there's snow outside - she's probably gone to make snow-hippos and sledge down ancient burial mounds. She may be waiting in A&E with a sledging accident at this very moment. She certainly doesn't want to hang around in here to help me build a dragon for an end-of-year picture-book deadline. I'm sure I heard her, on the way out, kicking a troll out of the way and falling over that cat with the bifurcated tail, grumbling that I don't use half the things she drags in.

The popular conception of a writer is of someone who writes when imagination strikes. The Writer of Popular Imagination (WPI) is a delicate flower, wracked by emotion and impelled to pour his or her heart out. He or she wears elegant clothes and writes in a beautiful room, which may be crammed with interesting
objets d'art. The muse sits obediently at the WPI's side, adding an eloquent line here or there and sipping a martini. The WPI does not sit on the floor in pyjamas with a laptop precariously balanced and keep checking Facebook and Twitter for some crucial debate that must be entered into - more crucial than writing about the damn dragon. The WPI's muse does not drink absinthe all night and then go awol for days.

Some books don't need much help from the muse. Then she gets impatient and starts kicking ideas around in a distracting way. 'Look at me,' she says, ' Look what I've found. Don't you want to come and play with this were-flamingo? What can we do with this witch-infested igloo built of icing sugar? Would you like some of this mandrake goulash?' It's Not Now, Bernard all over again. Maybe the muse is called Bernard. She gets petulant and stroppy and goes off in a sulk when I won't play with her.

Other books really should have the muse's name on the title page. OK, Bernard, you can have a credit. You can have half the PLR- please just come and tell me how to put these bits together.
How do you cope when the muse won't come in and the deadline is creeping closer? Write anyway. Write and just accept whatever garbage comes out, and keep going. That way you will have something to correct. At the very least, you will have something to srew up and throw at the damn muse when she deigns to show her face.

When she finally comes back in, the muse can look over what you've written and jeer at you. If you're lucky, she will want to prove her worth by fixing it quickly. If she still won't play, but acts like a cat you've left in the cattery for a fortnight, you'll just have to prove you can do it on your own. And you can - which is what really annoys her. You know how language works, you know how to put a book together - it might take longer and you might feel grumpier, but you
can do it without her. The child created by IVF is indistinguishable from the child begotten joyfully between Parisian sheets or the child conceived in a car park. No-one else will know. Lock the muse-flap, leave her out in the snow and prove you can do it anway.

Friday 4 December 2009

How short books have got shorter

You would think a book of 48 pages would always have the same number of pages, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong...

Books always have multiples of eight pages, because of the way paper is folded to make a book. So short books for short children generally have 24, 32, 48, 56 or 64 pages. A lot of schools and libraries books have 48 pages. It's long enough to get some decent content in, but short enough to be unintimidating to novice readers.

Traditionally, the main text of a 48-page book starts on page 4 and continues until page 45. The prelims come before page 4, and the end matter (glossary, further info, index) comes on pages 46 to 48. But 48-page books have got shorter. More and more often, they are self-ended. This means the first and last pages are stuck down, becoming the endpapers. The main text then starts on page 6 and ends on page 43. The reasons are economic. The publisher can pay you less to write it (typically £100 less), they have to pay less for layout, editing, proof-reading and licences for pictures from picture libraries. It costs less to print and bind. But the cover price remains the same.

It is, literally, money for nothing (on those stuck down pages) for the publisher.