Friday 3 May 2013
Market envy - quit whingeing and write something
Whenever you get two or more writers together, there's bound to be grumbling about some new writer being given a good deal, or about the sales of some perceived-to-be-not-very-good book, or the marketing spend behind a perceived-to-be-not-very-good book. The subtext is 'why didn't I get a good deal/high sales/decent marketing spend?' And the tacitly agreed conclusion is: because people buy what is marketed at them; publishers only like books that will become bestsellers; and publishers choose the books to turn into bestsellers on some odd basis that seems to be centred on the criterion 'not written by the authors who are grumbling'.
Let's take a look at this. Market envy is based on assuming publishers are stupid/evil and book-buyers are gullible. Or that publishers want to make money. Well, wow. It's a business - of course they do. Now, I am not defending the current market practices in publishing - but we aren't going to change them by whingeing.
Do the data support the popular view? The top 10 bestsellers (children/YA) in UK in 2012 were, in order:
1,2,3 - The Hunger Games trilogy
4 - War Horse
5 - A Diary of a Wimpy Kid title
6 - The Hobbit
7 - Another Wimpy Kid title
8 - Billionaire Boy (David Walliams)
9 - Ratburger (David Walliams)
10 - Mr Stink (David Walliams)
I've only read the first Hunger Games book, but it's well written and there's no reason teens shouldn't like it. It has plot, it has characters, it's a perfectly respectable mass-market read. It's not 50 Shades.
Wimpy Kid - these get young kids, especially boys, reading. They speak directly to the insecurity in kids and provide something they need. A good thing. They have spawned a bunch of spin-offs, some of which might not be very good, but that in itself shows they do something that kids like.
The Hobbit - well, obviously there's a film. But the book is a classic. We aren't going to complain about kids reading Tolkien, are we? It's not exactly manufactured pap produced in a cynical marketing move.
I don't know the David Walliams books, but they look decent enough. Billionaire Boy has 224 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.5 which suggests firstly that people like it and secondly that it appeals to people who will write reviews. They're not Rainbow Fairies, are they? In fact, you have to get as far as number 15 in the bestsellers list before finding anything that could be considered manufactured, and that's the One Direction 2013 Annual. The Beano Annual is the only other non-fiction title in the top 20, and I suspect there are a lot of people who will defend the Beano.
Which of these ten books initially had a massive marketing spend? Only the Hunger Games titles. Collins got a six-figure deal for three books and a first print-run of 50,000 (hardback). That's a good deal, but it was in the US where there is a larger book-buying public, and before the recession. It was perceived as cross-over, so the deal was closer to book deals for adults. ('Six figures' is anything between $100,000 and $999,999. It is not, as many people imagine, an advance of a $1m, which would be seven figures.) The big break for Hunger Games was the sale of foreign rights into 38 territories. That isn't part of a secret publishing cabal - foreign rights sell if foreign publishers think they can make money from the book.
Wimpy Kid is the only other series represented in the list. The first title, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, emerged as popular and big spends followed on subsequent titles. And, er, isn't that what we are all hoping for? That kids will like our books and so we will get a better deal next time?
If a writer chooses to write niche literary fiction, they are not likely to get mega-sales., though they just might if they strike a chord. If a writer wants to make money, or (less cynically) if what they happen to want to write is something that's more likely to make money - a series about a dyslexic fairy, dinosaur pirates, whatever - they will (if they do it well) command a larger market. It's not rocket science.
It's a normal distribution curve. Write for the ends - the very reluctant readers, or the very sophisticated readers - and you're likely to have fewer sales. Write for the big bulge of kids who just want an exciting adventure or some funny, familiar stuff and you stand a chance of making more money if you do it well. And well doesn't mean all the best metaphors, it means what people want to buy.
The thing is, you aren't going to change what people want to read so that it matches what you want to write. And that list of bestsellers doesn't suggest people want to read crap. They want to read decent books. Just maybe not yours. Or mine.