Friday 3 May 2013

Market envy - quit whingeing and write something

Can we trust readers to know what they like? Writers - at least children's writers - tend to think that we can't.

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.

War Horse. Well, that's by a former children's laureate deemed to be one of our best children's authors. At number 4. Don't make excuses about films and plays - it's at number 4.

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.


  1. Fabulous post Anne and so realistic. Well done and thank you

  2. Excellent post. But, *cough* - Walliams...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I haven't read them, Nicola. Are they rubbish?
      Oh, or did you just mean the typo? Will correct!

    3. The Walliams books are great. My 11yo and her contemporaries all love them. I was cynical at first, but they are funny and appeal to kids. End of. He deserves to be there.

    4. No, sorry, i just meant the typo! I haven't read them but loads of people I trust say they are really good.

  3. I've noticed that kind of grumpiness as well, especially with a lot of older authors. I wonder if it's also linked to the fact that if you can't relate *at all* to a book, you're bound to think it rubbish or commercial - because why else wouldn't you like it? So some authors might just not understand at all the appeal of HG or HP, while they love other types of fiction that are less popular at that particular time, and think that it must mean that the kids have been brainwashed to be addicted to the big books.

    In the case of Walliams, I personally think his books are pretty funny, but I do recognise that him being a celebrity before they were published probably contributed a lot to their success - and to getting them illustrated by Quentin Blake!

    great post as always

  4. WHat you are saying makes a lot of sense.
    I read the first Hunger Games book because I thought I should. I am glad I did - but I did not like it. I do wonder how many other people do what I did - read something because it is being talked about.

  5. Love this post.
    Regarding Walliams -he's a clever and versatile writer/thinker/comedian - so even if his literary success IS born of his celebrity status - that came about because of his talent. And comedians are writers - they turn themselves into a story every day. (True, his narrative style is a bit Roald Dahlesque - but most of us were brought up on a heavy diet of Dahl and turned out ok). Thanks Anne

  6. Great post. It's easy to dismiss the popular as obviously rubbish - a look at the popularity of reality TV certainly encourages this view! Nice to see the actual top 10 broken down like this (and Walliams' books do deserve the popularity. I must confess that, for me, his celebrity status made me assume the worst. It only recently occurred to me, that many writers have a day job - why couldn't that be one in the public eye for some?)

  7. You're right that the books on this list deserve to be there, glad to hear that they are. It makes me feel better. Sometimes books that deserve to succeed don't, for stupid reasons such as bring placed on the wrong part of the distributors' list and the wrong section of the bookshop where their potential readers won't find them. As for "celebrity writers" some of them are just plain GOOD! Like Charlie Higson, author of the wonderful Young James Bond series and an even better series of gruesome zombie stories about kids stuck in London after an apocalypse which zombiefied everyone over a certain age. He started off as an actor, comedian, singer. Not too stuck up to be interviewed by my students either! And Thomas Tryon, Hollywood actor, was writing Stephen King-style scary fiction before anyone had heard of Stephen King.

  8. I absolutely loved the Hunger Games trilogy! Not read War Horse, but probably would enjoy it since I've written a similar title. The other stuff... well, I'm not a kid any more.

    Hmm, grumpy authors are older authors? Maybe that's because the longer you work in the publishing business, the less it seems to make any sense. I was much less grumpy when I was a debut novelist. It's not the age, it's the mileage.