Friday, 10 October 2008

Books up. Authors Down.

Credit crunch. Recession. Global Economic Collapse. What people need in times like this is good, cheap, entertainment. Don't go down the pub. Don't go to the cinema. Buy a book. It's cheaper and will give you hours more entertainment. If you're worried about becoming a loner start a bookclub - people may even bring you biscuits.

So is this going to be a boom time for the generally downtrodden profession of writers? (Bearing in mind most UK writers currently make around £5,000 a year) Even the publishers, generally the strictest of disciples of the doom and gloom philosophy, are being mildly hopeful. They predict a rise in sales for crime, thrillers and books that tell you how to do things more cheaply - this millennium's making do and mend. Who knows they may even be digging out those old hippy books from the 70s that told you have to grow cress on your windowsill and stressed the importance of sharing baths.  In fact books are so very much the next greatest thing they can even make obese children thin. Sure there's the odd shaky fear that EUK, the entertainment dominant wholesaler, parented by Woolworths might be on a bit of a sticky wicket and that might adversely affect Christmas stock. But then Sir Sugar's just stepped in and scooped up 4% of Woolworths and anyone who's seen the BBC's reality show The Apprentice won't be worrying. 

But if you look a little closer it's not such good news for writers.

Lulu one of the champions of the little people (I mean individual authors not fairies) despite protesting its future is bright has cut a quarter of its employees. Could it be co-incidence that at the same time that publishing giant Amazon launches POD (print on demand)? Now, we all love amazon. It lets us search inside books, offers package deals, gets stuff to us quickly (for a small fee) and while you can't buy milk at the website you can pretty much buy anything else. What most people who buy from Amazon don't realize is that they take a hearty whack of the sales price. Even in the little, growing, hopeful future of ebooks Sony are taking a huge 50% of the sale price of any book bought to download for their ereader. Publishers have no choice but to cut royalites accordingly or lose money on stock - and eventually go bust.

Much as happened in the music industry everyone is taking such a big slice of the pie that the people who actually created the material are seeing an increasing diminishing return for their efforts.

While it's a nice, radical idea to say let's cut out the middle man and (to misquote) self-publish and be damned, the sad fact is self-publication rarely leads to success. (Remember what I was saying about the good, the great, the worthy Lulu above?). But why doesn't it work? It doesn't work because when faced with several thousand single voices shouting for sales your average member of the buying British public (myself included) opts to spend our hard earned pennies with people with we think we can trust to provide the kind of goods we're looking for - in short we go with globally known distributors like Amazon and publishers whose names we learned in our cradles. Sure some independent stuff might be cheaper, but it might also be rubbish and we won't know until we've spent our cash.

What we need is for someone to come along and help with the overwhelming choice of available books - whether that's going to the 3 for 2 section at Borders (where your last free throw is a risk taker) or whether it's doing some radically different.

It would also be good if we could find something that let authors get a decent royalty and stand a chance of making the week's garret rent.

There was another industry that had much the same problem. The music industry. Apple's itunes have on a number of occasions preventing the major music labels from upping their share of the ante.

It's not a perfect answer for the book world, but we need something and we need it now or your average author is going to become the archetypal starving artist in the very near future.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Hannu - voice of the future

I'm very happy to inform you that yet another member of the East Coast Writers Group (to which I belong) has made it big.  Hannu Ranjaniemi has just had a major three book pre-empt offer made on the first chapter of his SF novel by Gollancz. That's a three book deal on just 24 pages, folks. Something tells me this is going to be an outstanding trilogy! Go Hannu!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Sometimes it feels as if the world has gone mad

I've been absent for a while and the world has gone crazy. As writers and readers we reflect this madness. Can authors save the world? Can I as an author help?

I'm reasonably good at maths, but no one has asked me to sort out the Wall Street fiasco nor have they called on my political skills to stand in the US election. It's true I'm not an American citizen, but I do frequently create both military and diplomatic dissension in my writing and then I resolve it, so I guess you could say I have a lot of foreign policy experience. After all what could be more foreign than a fictional reality? I could spin off here into comments about the media and fiction and how I view it all as an once-journalist. But, more importantly... 

Fiction cannot be other than a mirror to reality. As authors we write from our own experience however we clothe our tale. We aspire to touch our readers - in the most cases for the better. Publishers have to be concerned with what will sell - this may sound harsh, but they need to stay in business.

Let us consider the current craziness..

Beaufort books are speeding up their publication of The Jewel of Medina, a fictionalized tale of Aisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad. The novel had earlier been dropped by Random house because of threats of violence. Bearing in mind that last weekend three men were arrested for firebombing the Beaufort's London office, these threats don't appear to have been idle. Beaufort have said that they believe that once the book is out there any threat will be neutralized. While author Sherry Jones says she feels no threat to her personal safety. What do I think? I think she's a brave lady. I believe in free prose, but I don't believe in denigration of creeds or cultures. I don't have a clue if Ms Jones' work lampoons an old and noble religion - and at this point the only people who do know are Ms Jones and her publisher. 

As the world whirls readers need their escapism and they want it in particular, but unpredictable forms. At one of the Spectrum we have the happy world of  the once single mother on benefit JK Rowling, who wrote her way to fame and last year earned an estimated $300 million. Forbes reports that second on the list of best selling authors is James Paterson with $50million with Stephen King (didn't he retire?) earning a mere $45 million. The tales of magical boarding schools now outselling a master of horror? (The master of horror?) What is it the modern public wants?

While over here in the UK the majority of authors earn around £5,000 a year - which I guestimate comes out at $8,800. This and the never ending pantomime of is print publishing here to stay or will it be gone tomorrow means that with the average lead time of a year for a book to make it into print publishers now days need a crystal ball to predict success. Or they need something outrageous, contentious or celeb backed. 

Macmillian is happily reporting today that Gerri Halliwell's Ugenda Lavender's series is the 'most successful female celebrity children's author of 2008'.  I think I have must have been blinking too much because I certainly missed the whole 'celebrity children's author' becoming a category in its own right. Though I don't doubt we will soon be seeing this special book corner labelled in stores. 

Of course there is nothing preventing a celebrity from being a damn good author. There is also nothing preventing a non-celebrity from being one either, but I think we both know who publishers will forecast as a long shot.

Definitions on what actually constitutes a celebrity are invited.

(News of what I'm personally achieving must wait for future posts as contracts are signed and deals are done. However, I fear I shall continue to fail to be contentious or warm and fuzzy. Should I take singing lessons?)