Saturday, 25 June 2022

An author's lot...

... a bit like a policeman's, is seldom a happy one. 

But being asked to add my bit to a discussion on publishing on BBC Radio 4's Money Box this week set me thinking. As the host, Felicity Hannah said (channelling her inner Steve Harley!) I've "done it all" - trad. publishing, self publishing and crowdfunded publishing. The only thing I haven't done - and which the programme was actually examining - was hybrid or paid-for or 'vanity' publishing. I've not had to pay, directly, to have anything published. Mostly, I've been paid, sometimes up-front. But there was that time I decided to try crowdfunding, and spent a lot of hard yakka trying to raise the upfront costs to have my novel, The Glorious Dead, published. And that, I think, was why I was invited to take part.

But the discussion itself was quite wide-ranging and set me thinking about why, in the broadest sense, I do what I do, which is write. It certainly isn't for the money. As the Society of Authors (whose Chief Exec was also on the programme) points out, 90% of book earnings are earned by the top 10% of authors. I'm definitely in the majority, being one of the 90% who have to fight over the remaining scraps. 

Which always seems unfair. There are, after all, plenty of people making money out of authors: agents, publishers, booksellers to name just three. When I successfully crowdfunded The Glorious Dead it ensured that Unbound could pay its staff, maintain its website and cover its many costs, most of which seem stacked up in the debit column of my twice-yearly "royalties" statements! 

As yet, I haven't made a penny. But not only did I write the book, I (and it was largely down to me) crowdfunded it, covering all Unbound's production costs and thereby absolving them of the risk normally borne by the publisher. And therein, maybe, lies the rub. Because, having already covered its costs, and without any further vested financial interest, has Unbound really got the incentive to do what traditional publishers (who have taken a financial risk) do, and promote and sell the book?

Don't get me wrong, I don't regret it. As a relative late-starter I was keen to get as much experience of as many different publishing deals as I could, and Unbound has a well-deserved reputation for producing great books. And The Glorious Dead had garnered little interest from mainstream publishers (no surprise, a work of literary fiction by an unknown author) so I knew at the time of writing that the window of opportunity for a book set in the aftermath of World War One was small as the centenary of the Armistice approached. Ideally, it would be published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of when the guns fell silent. Because this is when the work of the novel's characters began.

I decided to crowdfund with Unbound having already supported several of their books. I knew the editorial process was rigorous and that the books they produced were good - both as physical objects and as examples of their craft. I knew next-to-nothing about crowdfunding but reckoned with a bit of hard work (which turned out to be a year of a LOT of very hard work) I stood a pretty decent chance of raising the ten grand that a hardback took to produce. I was also genuinely supportive of a model that took the financial risk out of the publication process, allowing greater editorial (and authorial) freedom by the simple expedient of covering costs in advance. And after that, of course, it was an industry-busting 50-50 profit share of sales.

Or so I thought. 

I should explain I've not gone back over my contract with a fine toothed comb or had it scrutinised by the legal department at the Society of Authors. I ought to have done that at the time. But apart from a few typos and the odd grammatical infelicity it read pretty much like the other contracts I had signed. Except, of course, that in this case publication was contingent upon raising upfront the cost of the book's production.

I should point out that it doesn't have to cost ten grand to produce a book. It can be done well for far less. But Unbound weren't cutting any corners and the product would be given lavish amounts of attention for the money I was raising. I should also point out I was delighted with the book. It came out on November 1st 2019, the near-perfect time, and received some praise and a modicum of attention. It appeared in bookshops. It was spotted! Friends kept sending me photos of it on the shelves. One of my own proudest moments was seeing it displayed on the 'Books for Christmas' table in Heffer's, rubbing shoulders with Sally Rooney and Joyce Carol Oates...oh, and Anton du Beke, too (but you can't have everything!). 

Sales seemed to be going well, I was told. If it wasn't flying off the shelves it was certainly moving, if slowly. I expected nothing from the first statement, but was confident by the second I might have made enough to celebrate with a decent bottle of wine. Since then I've had several more statements. And I'm still waiting for the money to buy a packet of biscuits, let alone a bottle of wine. Because, in spite of raising enough to cover the publication costs, costs keep being added and money earned from sales held back against future loses (such as trade returns). At my lowest ebb it seemed that everything short of the office tea money was being added to the debit column of my statement. 

I'm no accountant, obviously. Neither am I a businessman.  I might be naive but still, the question nags me: how can a model where the upfront costs are covered in advance produce so little from subsequent sales? Surely each and every sale should, technically, yield a profit? I've gone from being an eager enthusiast for a new model, to a rather impoverished critic. Cynicism has now set and hardened like cement. But it’s not difficult to feel bitter when everyone else, or so it seems, has been paid.

Except me.

Which is why, as the programme seemed to hint, as and Adam Croft - author of the  Rutland Crime series confirmed - self-publishing is becoming increasingly popular with authors. Because the antiquated so-called 'industry' that is publishing and selling seems geared up to make money for everyone except the one person without whom it wouldn't exist... unless you happen to be in that happy 10% of authors mentioned earlier. 

But things are changing. 

And it's refreshing to hear how on programmes like this, which you can do (should you wish) all year!

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