The Cosy Book Club, or How I Became a Literary Pariah
There are no two ways about it. I am a pariah, a literary pariah. An outcast.
For what sin have I been cast out? Well, I made a contribution towards the publication costs of my novel. If you think that’s odd or unfair, then there’s the curious fact that I wouldn’t be quite so much of an outcast if I had paid the full cost of publishing my novel. I wouldn’t be an outcast at all if I had paid nothing and allowed somebody else to pay the full publishing cost, somebody who almost certainly would have bunged me some cash upfront.
Ask an author, ‘Why did you write the book?’ and you get a variety of worthy, high minded and sometimes grandiose replies. It’s the wrong question. At school we are taught, or at least they try to teach us, the cultural value of great literature. They fail. Worse than that, we then associate books with literature, literature with culture, and, therefore, books with culture. Culture may own literature, but books are a business and a big business at that. If you ask an author, ‘Why did you publish that book?’, it comes down to two simple answers; recognition and reward.
Book publishing, as opposed to book writing, is a peculiar world. Recently I took a look at the Richard and Judy Bookclub. It’s hosted by the W.H. Smith website. I analysed the top 20 thriller titles. The list represented books by 14 imprints. These imprints belonged to 13 publishers, but those publishers belonged to only 6 larger publishing conglomerates. In fact 80% of the top 20, were from only 2 publishing houses. Are some simply better talent spotters than others?
I ought to point out that I did not secure a publishing deal with one of the big name, traditional publishing houses. Not that you can approach the traditional publishers directly, you need to engage the services of a literary agent. They are a rum lot. Most list worthy and worthwhile reasons why they have chosen that profession, but they too are in business. A business that feeds the publishers in what is quite a sizeable market. Currently around 200,000 titles are published each year in the UK. That translates into about 212 million books sold, generating an income of about £470,000 million, or £470 billion in modern parlance. Not all these titles are new, not all are novels, and, even allowing for a great diversity in taste, not all can be great literature. Publishing is a business, a business that is looking for saleable books. Literary agents, whom I see as arbiters of saleable books rather than would-be arbiters of great literature, feed that business for about a 15% stake in the royalties.
Why do publishers publish books? Well it’s a business, so the answer is simple, reward. Or as our politicians might say these days, Reward, Reward, Reward. In other words, money. Not that there is anything wrong with that, businesses exist to make money. Ten years ago, having been made redundant for the third time, I started my own small business. I needed the money to pay my mortgage.
The Death of a Smoker was written with the intention of publishing it. I may be a pariah, but I am an honest pariah, and I admit that recognition and reward were the two reasons why I wanted to publish the book. The more I learned about the publishing business, the more realistic, and more limited, my expectations became.
Before I get too disparaging about the book business, I should add that it may be big business but it is also a risky business. Not all of the books, published each year, can be best sellers even allowing for Amazon’s intricate division and subdivision of categories. Any prospective author who does his, or her, homework will soon dispel any notion of great riches. The realistic full, professional cost of getting a raw manuscript into printed book form and out for sale is in the region of £10,000. An article in ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2021’ on the mathematics of publishing, by Scott Pack, suggests many, if not most, books make a financial loss. Average success could well be a print run of 3,000 copies yielding a less than magnificent £1,800 in royalties for the author. Not to be sniffed at, and with traditional publishers there is usually an upfront payment to secure the rights, but it isn’t going to change your life. That doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel, though success may be more of a lottery than you bargained for.
That’s assuming they will sell you a ticket for the lottery. Note, I did not say ‘assuming you can buy a ticket for the lottery’. Literary agents will be a good subject for a future blog, but, for the moment, let’s just accept that these self-appointed arbiters of saleable books were not impressed with my manuscript, or at least the first three chapters, which is all they ask for. It didn’t cut the mustard with them. Which left me with two choices – self publish, or pay to have the book published.
Self publishing, with electronic file submission, ebooks, print on demand and the like is far more accessible then it has ever been. But, there are two problems, cost and promotion. I have mentioned the cost of publishing above, and you can always cut corners – dispensing with professional editing, minimal typesetting for ebooks, and DIY cover design. But you still have the cost of printing and distribution and the really big problem of promotion. How do you let people know your book is available? How do you persuade bookshops to stock your work?
Do not underestimate the value of promotion. This is a business, and unit sales are closely related to promotion, more vulgarly known as marketing and advertising budgets. No doubt, it helps if you know the business and the people in it. I am not an avid reader of book reviews, but I wonder if any national newspaper or magazine has published a review of a self published book? If such reviews exist, they must be as rare as hens’ teeth. The traditional publishers have the biggest budgets and the lion’s share of the market.
The alternative to self publishing is ‘paid for’ publishing. At the bottom end of this market are the vanity publishers who will take your money for doing remarkably little, sometimes not even covering the cost of printing your book, and certainly not doing any meaningful promotion. At the other end are the ‘hybrid’ publishers with whom you share the financial risk of publishing.
There are plenty of people who will tell you that hybrid publishers and vanity publishers are one and the same. Sadly this is often the case. Vanity publishers have a bad name, rightly so, and some simply rebrand themselves as ‘hybrid’, but the leopard hasn’t changed its spots. Even with those who make a reasonable case regarding cost sharing, there are plenty who are dubious. I turned down a contract with no performance clause, and no way of recovering the rights to my work even if the publisher failed to sell a single copy. There are always reservations with companies you have no real knowledge of, but I did find a hybrid publisher whom I felt was one of the good guys in this shark infested pool. Their limited portfolio suggested there were selective in what they chose to publish, and I was satisfied enough with their performance that I signed a contact for a second novel, Unsavoury Business to be published in 2023. Unfortunately regardless of whether or not your publishing partner is reputable, the very fact that you have parted with a penny towards the publication costs makes you a pariah.
Which brings me back to my reasons for publishing; reward and recognition.
My rewards goal is modest. Earn enough in royalties over 2-3 years to break even. My chances of doing that? Probably 50:50 at best, but I had worked that out before signing a contract. Is my book going to become a best seller? Will it be chosen by the Richard and Judy book club? Or the BBC’s ‘Between the Covers’ programme. Well, an unknown author, a small publisher, a hybrid one at that, all suggest the answer is ’no’.
What about recognition? The website of just about every online bookshop lists The Death of a Smoker, you can even buy it online in Peru for S/89.64 (that’s 89.64 Sol, almost £20 to you and me). Quite how Peruvian readers will know it is available is another matter. My local branch of Waterstones, who were kind enough to host a book signing event for me, almost certainly stock my book, but I doubt their branch in deepest Devon does. You just have to be realistic about these things.
Even so, great literature can win prizes. Right? Ah, sadly, life is not that simple. Prizes have to be paid for, organisation costs money, sponsors want their name associated with best sellers, with saleable books regardless of whether or not they are great literature. Some of the most disappointing books I have read had either won or been nominated for one of the major prizes. Undoubtedly, though, prize winning books become best sellers, so how do you get entered into the competition?
Here comes the rub! If you look at the rules regarding these competitions, you do tend to come across wording like ‘books by traditional publishers’. Some prizes are awarded by literary organisations, authors clubs and there is nothing wrong with members of those organisations being the only eligible authors for their prizes. How do you become a member? The eligibility criterion of ‘published by a traditional publisher’ or the synonymous ‘contract from a recognised publishing house’ is depressingly familiar. A few organisations do let self published authors join. You might say, why not, as long as they pay the membership fee? If you did, however, you would have to explain why authors with hybrid publishers are not allowed in.
All in all, much of the literary world is a rather cosy book club, but, strictly, members only. Paid a penny to a hybrid publisher? Even a reputable one? Forget it, you are like me, you are a pariah.