Mslexia - Issue 49
Louise Doughty charts the quiet catastrophe in the literary world as hundreds of respected authors are axed by publishers in pursuit of stellar sales
At a party not long ago, I was talking to a respected novelist who had just had her most recent book turned down by her own publisher. ‘They said, the reviews of the last were great, but your sales figures were poor. I replied, they’re not my sales figures, they are your sales figures. I did my job. I wrote the book.’
It’s an incredibly common story. Ever since Nielsen Bookscan has been electronically tracking authors’ sales figures, publishers have a gold-plated excuse for tossing them overboard when they want to cull their list. Mid-list authors who have neither the allure of a new face nor the solidity of a previous bestseller behind them have never been more vulnerable.
But what exactly is a ‘mid-list’ author? Let’s just say, it isn’t a compliment. In literary fiction, it seems to mean any author who has published several books but has neither trousered a fat cheque from the Man Group, Orange PLC or Costa Coffee nor been put out to grass. Unsurprisingly, this includes the vast majority of published authors. Ever since the demise of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, the publishing industry has been – from an author’s perspective at least – in a state of constant turmoil. And mid-list authors are the babies being thrown out with the bath water.
I M A G E S
C OR B I S
Nowadays it is common for publishers rejecting one of their authors to cite ‘a pattern of declining sales’ – at the same time as raving about the quality of her new manuscript. Poor sales are also the main reason given for offering a lower advance (i.e. money offered up-front for a manuscript, to be set against royalties on book sales). ‘Twenty is the new 70,’ one agent remarked laconically to a friend of mine, describing the 50K pay cut an established author must expect in return for the great good luck of being published at all.
Mind the gap Is this new? Surely it’s always been the case that authors who don’t generate sufficient sales are liable to get dumped sooner or later? Kate Pool of the Society of Authors says, ‘The gap between the advances for expected big money-spinners, and the rest, is as wide as it ever was. But I suspect that mainstream publishers are increasingly just not taking on the mid-list works any more.’ In other words, at either end of the business, not much has changed: celebrities still command six-figure sums for their memoirs while first-time literary novelists might only be offered a £5,000 advance. But between the two is a vast middle-ground of wellestablished authors who, if the rumours are true, are unable to get deals at all.
Information about this phenomenon is hard to come by. Authors who are dropped by their publishers – or, worse still, by their agents – feel hurt, shocked and humiliated. There are only a few brave souls willing to talk about the cold water that’s suddenly doused their careers. And who can blame them, in a world that runs on the ‘talking up’ of books and ‘voices’, where any doubt casts a long shadow over future book contracts?
Joan Smith is an acclaimed novelist and journalist whose most recent book, What Will Survive (Arcadia) got ‘the best reviews of my life’. Her new crime thriller is currently
'Authors who are dropped by their publishers – or, worse still, by their agents – feel hurt, shocked and humiliated'
doing the rounds of publishers. ‘It’s a terrible time to be a mid-list writer and what worries me is that so many authors are demoralised by it. Rejections can feel very personal and I think it’s easy to forget two things: the publishing
HOW TO SURVIVE THE CULL
■ However successful you are, plan to earn your main living at something other than writing novels ■ Accept badly-paid commissions (e.g. reviewing) if they raise your profile and keep your name current ■ Never express your doubts or disappointment to your agent, editor and publicist, or anyone else who needs to believe in your work. Save your tears for trusted friends ■ Write another book, as soon as you can. Who knows, it could be your ‘breakout novel’ ■ Consider changing genres ■ Consider writing under a pseudonym ■ Get a website, and keep it updated to ensure you seem busy ■ Tweet and blog if you can bear it ■ Go to literary festivals, events and parties – even if you find them excruciating. You never know who you might bump into
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