Mslexia - Issue 49
LIFE IN THE MID-LIST
industry is in crisis, and we are all having to deal with a skewed market.’
So what has happened? Many point a finger at the demise of the Net Book Agreement, which allowed publishers to set a sacrosanct cover price for their titles. This prevented retailers from competing against one another by discounting, and kept a degree of power in the hands of the publishers. When it was ruled illegal in 1995, the big retailers gained the upper hand. This ushered in what Mslexia dubbed the ‘Age of the Bestseller’, with aggressive discounting of leading titles and the ubiquitous threefor-two and BOGOF (buy-one-get-one-free) offers that are now such a familiar feature of leading bookstores.
Double whammy Independent booksellers and nonbestselling authors were doomed. Over 500 independent bookshops have closed down since 1995. Then came the Richard & Judy Book Club, which added sales of hundreds of thousands to their Chosen Few titles – at the expense of those that were not selected. The Sales Director of a leading independent publishing house told me: ‘Of course the Richard & Judy Book Club was a Very Good Thing, but we found that a non-selected summer book we would normally expect to sell around 5,000 copies of was selling 500. People were choosing the whole of their holiday reading from the Richard & Judy list.’
‘Thirty years ago,’ she added, ‘if you published a new novel in hardback, the libraries would automatically take 4,000 copies. Marketing in those days consisted of taking the libraries out to lunch, then maybe wandering over to Hatchards on Piccadilly in the hope they might take a few as well.’
That’s all changed. Nowadays, many publishing imprints are in the hands of big conglomerates with shareholders who are investing in Penguin or HarperCollins as part of a portfolio that might also include BP or the Bank of Scotland. They are not, by and large, interested in the future of literature or the well-being of authors; they expect a return on their investment.
Aggressive marketing of books is, of course, extremely good news for the few authors who benefit from it and for the trade as a whole, which has flourished since the demise of the NBA – apart from a few recent hiccoughs, people are buying more books than ever. But it is not so good for plurality – or, arguably, quality – within the marketplace. The focus on bestsellers naturally leads to conservatism and timidity in publishers, who tend to promote an
'I'm using a pseudonym to write this story, but here's a clue: my Amazon sales ranking for my latest novel is 40,137. Not nearly good enough. Sadly, this is also how I rate myself. Nothing makes me happier than writing, but nothing I've ever done for a living – housecleaning, data entry, creating ad campaigns – has been as hard on me. This is my publishing history to date. ■ Book 1: Published 1996; advance £92,000. Publishers vying for book means big advance, which means big publicity budget, which means reviews in top newspapers, excerpts in top magazines, TV and radio appearances. Sales: 10,000. ■ Book 2: Editor enthuses, but Sales Director rejects book, citing losses incurred by Book 1. Agent advises me to “pursue other genres”. ■ Book 3: I write web copy for dot-coms and a collection of short stories. Collection rejected by 10 editors. Agent suggests I “take a break”. ■ Book 4: I ghost-write a celebrity memoir, which becomes a bestseller. It doesn't go on my record, though, since it doesn't have my name on the cover. ■ Book 5: Published 2001; advance £6,100.
author who has already succeeded, just as film executives would rather invest in Toy Story 3 than a new independent movie. Nothing succeeds like success.
For the mid-list author sitting on the sidelines, this can be galling. Amanda Craig has written six novels, the most recent of which is Hearts and Minds (Abacus), longlisted
‘when a book "fails to meet expectations" there are many candidates for blame, but only the author is punished'
for last year’s Orange Prize. ‘One of the most maddening questions I get asked when I go to festivals or talk to book groups is “I absolutely love your book. Why have I never heard of you?” to which the answer is, “You haven’t heard of me because you haven’t heard of me”.’
Craig believes that women authors are particularly vulnerable to being underpromoted if they haven’t won a big prize. ‘There are plenty of women writers like Pat Ferguson, Liz Jensen, Jill Dawson, Deborah Moggach and Lisa Appignanesi, who are very good, but overlooked. And the older women become, the less marketable we become – unless, like Susan Hill and Edna O’Brien, we are belatedly taken up as National Treasures.’
It’s a jungle out there Is she right? Are women particularly
Book rejected by 10 publishers. Minuscule advance means no publicity budget. I hire freelance publicist who books me on 55 radio shows, some local and B-list national TV. Book wins awards. Sales: 25,000. ■ Book 6: Published 2004; advance £49,000. Medium advance means medium publicity budget. Book assigned to sharp young publicist, who resigns one month before publication date. Book wins awards, but sales projections not pretty. ■ Book 7: Proposal written overnight. Editor and Sales Director agree to make offer, certain Book 7 will be my “biggest book yet”. Offer never materialises. I rewrite Book 7, which is then rejected by 10 editors. My conclusion: when a book “fails to meet expectations”, there are many candidates for blame – market conditions, sales force, publicist, moon in Mercury retrograde – but the consequences are the same. Those with jobs keep them. Only the author is punished.'
JANE AUSTEN DOE (excerpted from www.salon.com/books/ feature/2004/03/22/midlist)
susceptible to being dropped if they hit a mid-career dip? If women authors have always struggled for the same level of literary credibility as their male counterparts, does that mean we are more likely to be tossed on the scrapheap when sales falter?
Intuitively, this seems likely. But, as I mentioned earlier, hard facts are well-nigh impossible to come by. But my – admittedly anecdotal – research suggests that it is every bit as windswept out there for male authors right now.
When his novel Chapman’s Odyssey (Bloomsbury) was published this January, former Booker-shortlistee Paul Bailey declared to the Observer that getting it published had been ‘absolute hell’. As far as he was concerned, the novel was ‘as good as anything I’ve done since Gabriel’s Lament’, but the manuscript spent a year doing the rounds before being picked up by Bloomsbury for a ‘four-figure sum’ – i.e. less than £10,000. In the meantime, Bailey subsisted on a handout from the Royal Literary Fund, which helps ‘authors who find themselves in financial difficulties’.
Michael Arditti’s recent novel Jubilate (Arcadia) is a love story set in Lourdes and currently receiving rave reviews. He used to be published by Chatto & Windus. ‘The marketing department prevented publication of my third novel, Easter, on the grounds that it wouldn’t sell. It was picked up by small independent publisher
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Arcadia, then in its infancy, and went on to sell 30,000 copies and win the inaugural Waterstone’s Mardi Gras Award.’ In terms of profile and critical reception, Arditti is doing well, but Arcadia offered a tiny advance of ‘barely four figures’. Some small publishing houses offer no advance at all.
Novelist Maggie Gee chronicled her mid-career crisis recently with startling and laudable honesty in her memoir My Animal Life (Telegram Books). Her chapter entitled ‘The Literary Jungle’ should be required reading for anyone wanting to enter the game. In 1995, Gee was a highly-praised writer from the first ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ generation that included Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro. But when she submitted her sixth novel to HarperCollins, the editor there – who had inherited her from another editor, always a worrying development for any author – turned it down, even though it was the second book in a two-book contract. It went on to be turned down by almost every mainstream literary publisher in London. Like all good, tough writers, she sat down and wrote another novel, but that too ‘reran, the disaster movie of rejection’. To add insult to injury, the Big Famous Agent who was supposed to be minding her career duly gave her the push too.
Salvation for Gee came, as it is now doing for many others, in the form of a small independent. The book that had been rejected by HarperCollins, The White Family,
went on to be published by valiant Saqi Books and was shortlisted for the Orange and the IMPAC prizes. Gee was vindicated, and successful again, but has the frankness to admit, ‘it turned out to be my middle but it could have been my end’.
'Serious novels by women can triumph in the marketplace, and many authors who persist do come back from the wilderness'
How many authors in her position have been dropped completely? We may never know. An author may disappear for several years for many reasons – research, writer’s block, motherhood, illness – and it can be a decade before anyone starts to remark, ‘I wonder what happened to so-and-so’. The good news is that a pattern appears to be emerging of established literary authors being scooped up by independent publishers who punch above their weight in the marketplace. They may fear being ghettoised but, to be realistic for a moment, an author writing literary fiction is already in a ghetto as far as the market is concerned. The publicity given to the big prizes and a few literary bestsellers masks the ineluctable truth that the vast majority of novelists have never, and will never, make a living from their fiction alone.
Surviving the cull It’s a great mistake to confuse commercial publishing with the Arts Council or the Royal Literary Fund. A publisher’s remit is not the furthering of our literary heritage. (Poets and short story writers have no difficulty understanding this.) It’s also worth remembering that many unpublished authors would snap up the opportunity of being published by any of the small but respectable houses mentioned above, tiny advance notwithstanding.
Like many novelists, I subsidise my writing with teaching – in my case for the Faber Academy – and am fond of lecturing students about how they must write for the love of it, and regard any rewards, financial or otherwise, as extra. Perhaps we published authors need to remind ourselves what we tell the newbies: that writing a novel and trying to get it published is just ‘posh bingo’, as Julian Barnes once called the Man Booker Prize. Getting that phrase tattooed on our foreheads might be a good start.
A good follow-up would be to remember that the vast majority of novelists have always survived by having a wide portfolio of related activities that not only provide financial support but also keep their profiles high. In 2004, Maggie Gee became the first woman Chair of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. Amanda Craig is chief children’s book reviewer for the Times. Joan Smith is columnist and blogger. These writers, and many like them, are professionals who take responsibility for keeping their morale and their profiles intact – which, in turn, enables them to keep living (and writing) in hope of the one big piece of luck that can transform a literary career at any stage.
Somehow, amongst all the earning-aliving and keeping-up-a-profile (and let’s not get started on family commitments), we are also supposed to find time to write the damn books. But writing the damn books is why we got into the game in the first place and, after all, no one ever promised us a rose garden. The Orange Prize has proved that serious novels by women can triumph in the marketplace, and many authors who persist do come back from the wilderness in one way or another. The climate is difficult for everyone right now, but women writers stand as good a chance as men of surviving and bouncing back triumphantly. ■
LOUISE DOUGHTY is the author of six novels, including Whatever You Love (Faber), shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Novel Prize. She writes radio plays and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio 4 and is a tutor on Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. She is also author of A Novel in a Year, a how-to-write book based on her newspaper column. www.louisedoughty.com
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