One thing leads to another, they say, and this week one thought has certainly led to a whole train of the things.
I touched last week on one of my favourite gripes about the book trade: marketing fees paid by publishers to booksellers, to ensure that certain titles are placed right under customers’ noses and therefore by all the best principles of marketing will become bestsellers regardless of whether or not they deserve it.
Then this week, wearing a different professional hat, I found myself asking why certain books never actually become books, even though they certainly do deserve it because their authors have that special something that makes them stand out from the crowd.
When I’m not editing for publishers (which of course means the books are already accepted), I appraise and edit work from unknown writers. I’ve been doing this for more years than I care to admit to; there seems to be a demand among aspiring writers for unbiased feedback from someone who has a little more knowledge about the book trade.
Most of the projects I’m asked to advise on are pretty run of the mill if I’m being honest. But occasionally something that makes me ask that big question: why is this not already in print? I can point to half a dozen published authors, some of them doing very well indeed, with whom I’ve dealt over the years; it doesn’t sound like many, but taken as a proportion, and bearing in mind that publishers take on maybe one unsolicited manuscript from two thousand submissions, it’s probably about average.
When people used to ask me why I decided to dip a toe into the murky pool of publishing back when the 21st century was still young, my answer was that for every half-dozen debuts that made it into print, there were six more, equally special, who didn’t – and I wanted to help give them a chance as well. I’d still like to, though I no longer have the wherewithal. All I can do now is encourage the ones who really ought to make it, if the world was a just place, not to give up. Perseverance is as vital a quality as writing talent.
As I said, though, most of the projects I’m sent are perfectly competent, but lacking in that essential spark which makes them shine out. For months there’s nothing out of the ordinary – and then, like buses, two come along at once which, if they don’t make it, prove that there really isn’t any justice.
But of course we know there isn’t, don’t we? Publishers pay out huge advances for celebrity biogs that lots of people buy as gifts for other people but no one actually reads; or worse, even bigger advances for novels by celebrities which somebody must buy. This has two unfortunate effects: one, it leaves a lot of people thinking that’s normal, that’s the way publishing works: write book, collect obscene amount of money, write another book, repeat the process. And two, paying out those advances plus the equally huge marketing budgets for a couple of these self-fulfilling bestsellers leaves nothing left in the pot to give two or three, or nine or ten, talented new authors the opportunity they would give their eye teeth for.
Having lived in the publishing world for a while, I’m still at a loss to see how on earth how the celebrity thing can be cost-effective. An awful lot of copies need to sell to cover the silly-money outlay. Just one example: the autobiography of the UK’s erstwhile prime minister had a cover price of £25, but sold for much less in a lot of shops; the reported advance (that’s shorthand for advance on royalties, remember, and hardback royalties are usually 10% of cover price) was £4 million. Yes, that’s four million pounds. I leave the maths to you, but remember there were a lot of other costs as well, including that marketing budget, and not forgetting rather large discounts to booksellers.
My personal agenda in all this is simple: I don’t like the way the system works against talented but unknown authors. But after all these years I still don’t see how that system can possibly work. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that whatever my intentions, I must have been stark staring mad to go into it at all.