There’s an interesting (if gloomy) article here in the Guardian about the increasingly unbalanced nature of publishing – a world in which the huge mega-sellers dominate and space for ‘midlist’ authors is ever thinner. The piece quotes agent Jonny Geller as saying that the old balance in the industry was a world where the top 20% of authors subsidised the remaining 80%, whereas the new balance is the top 4% and the remaining 96%.
I always read these things, thinking of how they must appear to the typical Writers’ Workshop client. The articles sound like they’re saying that, unless you’re the next Dan Brown / JK Rowling / Stephenie Meyer / Suzanne Collins, the publishing industry doesn’t really want you – or at least, it’ll publish you for no money, without marketing support and with every expectation of failure. It’s hardly a promising message.
But we need to retain some sense of proportion. First, marketing support of low-selling titles has always been meagre. If a book is expected to sell 5-10,000 copies in all formats, and those sales take place nationwide, there is almost no marketing campaign which can both be cost-effective and make a difference. A publisher’s job is to coax retailers to stock the book, to make the book look and feel like an appealing product, then to let the winds blow where they will. Those winds might blow you to the summit of a Rowlandian Olympus, but most authors will be perfectly content to be wafted to some decent sales, plenty of self-respect and an advance which, will not massive, is still a lot better than a smack in the face.
And agents still want books. So do publishers. Yes, leading publishers today will concentrate on relatively fewer titles, but in a way so they should. Too many mediocre books were published under the old dispensation and if standards have risen, then that’s a good challenge for us writers. You’ve written a slim literary novel, have you? You went to Oxbridge? You talk a good game? So what! Will anyone actually want to read the damn thing? (For more info on getting an agent, try this.)
All in all, I think the books industry feels much as it always did (and I’ve been kicking around in it for 15 years now.) Advances have come down, but it’s still possible to make a living. Agent are pickier abut books, but they still get excited by new authors and new stories. Publishers too. They buy fewer books but they treat each one with more care.
And, just to prove that the gloom can be overdone, here’s one positive snippet to cheer you up. When we first set up the Festival of Writing, we had to beg agents to come to York. (‘No, York isn’t a place in London. Yes, it’s in the north. No, there won’t be any ferrets, and you don’t need a cloth cap.’) They came, but they came with trepidation.
And now? Now far more agents want to come to York than we have room for. We have to turn them away. That’s partly because York is an amazing party and people like coming. But mostly, it’s because agents know that they meet good, serious and committed writers there – and they want your books. They are motivated by the joy of a good yarn, but also by the lure of a meaningful sale. This industry ain’t dead – and it ain’t even resting.