Posts Tagged ‘publishers’

tennerIt’s no secret trying to become a professional author is one of the toughest trials of mental endurance ever invented. You need levels of self belief verging on megalomania, and a determination greater than Hercules in order to pass all the trials you’ll be set before a publisher will shake your hand. This has nothing to do with the actual gut-wrenching business of writing a publishable manuscript of course, which, since you call yourself a writer we must take as for granted. It’s what comes afterwards that will really test you. It’s no exaggeration to say an aspiring author will submit a manuscript ten or fifteen times and it will be returned, each time probably unread, and certainly with no helpful indication why it was rejected. We might persevere at this game for decades, but most will give up. The more dogged will die trying, while a few, just a few, of those left standing,… will make it through.

An aspiring author should be under no illusions how difficult it is to break into traditional print and I’ll advise anyone to get a proper job first because they also need to be under no illusions how much money they’re going to make if they defy the odds and succeed in eventually going pro. Headline celebrity authors have distorted our expectations. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is worth a phenomenal £570 million, but this is an exception. A study just published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS) reveals your typical professional author earns more like £11,000 a year. It doesn’t sound a lot does it? That’s because it isn’t.

Let’s put this into perspective. If you worked in a shop, or a fast food emporium for a really stingy employer – which is about everyone these days – you’d get the legal minimum wage, and not a penny more, which amounts to £12,300 a year. That’s right, you’re likely to earn more flipping burgers than publishing novels. But it’s worse than that: there’s a big debate at the moment how much you actually need to live on to meet the basic minimum standards of life in western society. The absolute minimum you actually need, the so called a “living wage”, is currently about £14,700 a year, so you can forget luxury; your earnings as a professional author are going to be well below what’s even considered decent for any human being to live on. You’re probably in breach of your own human rights by persisting. It’s perhaps not surprising then the ALCS study also tells us the number of professional writers has fallen from 40% in 2005, to just 11.5% now. This isn’t saying writing is in decline, but that writing as a profession clearly is. There’s something weird going on. We’re all becoming hobby writers.

As a professional, the writer clearly isn’t valued much by society and if they want to earn the basic minimum standards for living a normal, happy life, they need another job, preferably one that still leaves them time to write. A doctor working in private practice can charge you £200 an hour. A garage mechanic will charge you about £40 an hour. With an hourly rate below minimum wage of £6.31, dear writer, financially, you are the lowest of the low, which makes it even weirder that so many of us are still drawn to writing, and persist in holding to this fantasy image of writing for a living. It flies in the face of reality, to say nothing of common sense.

When stymied by perpetual rejection, the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens set up his own magazine, primarily as a vehicle for the serialised stories he couldn’t get published anywhere else. He was able to think outside of the box and to basically self publish, successfully, in a world where editors were telling him he’d not the talent to write at all. Yet the ALCS study tells us only a quarter of contemporary writers have even tried the online version of self publishing, though of those who have, the vast majority say they would do it again because the returns are now better than for many traditional paying markets like magazines, TV or Radio. Dickens would definitely have been in there. As for the three quarters of writers who won’t consider it, they must be getting far more from their writing than money can give them, and that’s fair enough – I know how they feel – but how they’re managing to keep body and soul together, I really don’t know.

Some might say this decline in professional authorship bodes ill for the creative arts, that the continual grooming of a top ten of glossy celebrity authors is a bit incestuous, that it suppresses the creative gene pool, stifling latent talent among the masses and preventing other great genre busting stories from reaching the audience they deserve. But the good stories will always find a way to their readers, regardless of how they’re published, or who by. There’s still plenty of paid talent out there, doing great things, though they might not be paid as much as we think they are. And then there’s always self publishing online for those who can no longer bear the grind, and are able to disabuse themselves of the supposed kudos of the “professional” author.

As for me, I’ll need to be safely retired before I consider going pro. In the mean time I’m happy to carry on giving my work away. £11,000 a year is better than a slap in the face, but that I could earn more flipping burgers is a real wake-up call. It’s not worth the hassle, or the postage, or the SAE envelopes, or the printer ink, or the double line spaced MS, or studying the market, or drafting the grovelling enquiry letter, or polishing the synopsis, time and time and time again.

There has to be another way; and there is: self publish. But most of all, if you want to write, stop talking about it and…

Just write.

Read Full Post »

dickens2One of our primary objectives as human beings is to prove, if only to ourselves, we’re actually alive. We do this by attempting to influence outcomes, by making sure others notice us and by feeling we are somehow in control, at least of those forces we perceive to be responsible for shaping our personal future. By this standard some of us clearly lead much bigger lives than others, but we all know bigger lives do not necessarily result in happiness nor insightfulness. Indeed the biographies of those who have lived the biggest lives more often read like a litany of blind disaster, lives overshadowed by clouds of profound dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and a permanent craving to be something or someone even bigger than the gargantuan mess they already are.

The shocking truth is it turns out there’s no difference at all between big people and small people. We all crave the same thing, and it’s always bigger, always “more” than the thing we’ve already got.

If I’m honest with  myself, in the early days of my writing “career”, it was not the writing so much as the desire to be published that motivated me. To be published, I thought, would be a powerful affirmation of self-worth. To have my thoughts accepted and digested and beautifully packaged by the most enlightened gurus of the publishing industry would have planted the crown of greatness squarely upon my head. It would have transformed the nervous, reticent, lovelorn teenager that I was into a demi-god, bursting with self confidence, oozing grace and charm,… and more, I would have been able to quit the day job, and attract beautiful women merely by virtue of the fact that I was a “writer” and – regarding the women – if that didn’t work I would simply buy myself a Porsche which, as everyone knows, come already fitted with beautiful women as passenger seat adornments!

Dogged persistence over many years of the dark pre-internet era did eventually result in the  publication of some words in small-press magazines but alas my earnings rarely amounted to anything more than a free copy of the magazine itself. There was always the chance it might lead on to bigger things, but it never did. I discovered this was all right though, because something had changed. Disappointment at my apparent worthlessness has shape-shifted into something else.

I had grown up.

I look back upon that period now merely as an affirmation I was capable of stringing sentences together. I also learned I did not have to work for the words to come; the words came of their own accord. I simply sat before the typewriter, opened that valve in my mind, and out they poured. Ergo, I could write, of a fashion, write for ever it seemed, but it was never going to make me any bigger than I was. But it didn’t seem to matter any more.

Reconciliation of one’s smallness, one’s insignificance, is perhaps the greatest open secret – that we miss so much of life when we turn our backs on what we are and what we have and for ever seek instead what we have not. In the great rush to become big and to disprove all the evidence of our insignificance it seems peculiar to turn against the tide and seek meaning instead in one’s apparent meaninglessness. But I think that is exactly what each of us in our own ways must learn to do.

In the great outback of Australia there stands a lone roadside shack in which there lives a man who has never, in eighty five years,  known any more of the world than what he has seen within a twenty mile radius of that sun baked, dusty spot. Question: is his life any smaller than that of the globe trotting business man, who at that moment is flying at thirty thousand feet above the toothless old man’s head?

I might have said yes, once, long ago – unequivocally yes – but I recognise this now as an immature and rather unenlightened view. It’s more a question of insight and self-awareness, and how we attain that state is more a letting go than a mastery of events. To answer for sure we would have to know what was in the heart of each of those men. Only then would it be revealed how truly big a life each had lived – because a big man with a small heart is still a small man.

It’s a mystery how and why life pops up to bear witness to itself from all these different perspectives. Nor at first glance does it seem necessary to Life that every detail of it be recorded for posterity. It will, for example,  be no great loss to the world when these words sink to that great sedimentary mire that is the resting place of even the most prolific bloggers’ pontifications. Yet those of us who can write, should, because only by writing do we broaden the vision of life, not just for others but perhaps more importantly for ourselves.

So, think you’re big enough to be a writer? Answer: anyone is big enough to be a writer. Just don’t set out with the view that by writing you shall ever amount to anything more than what you are right now, at least when judged by the usual worldly measure of these things. That’s not the deal. You write because you write. You reflect life back upon itself, without judgment or expectation, and let life itself, in all its variety, decide through your words the measure of its own greatness.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure why I’m putting this up because it’s something I’ve not been interested in for a long time now, and every time I research it, I’m reminded why. But if you’re interested in writing fiction, traditional publishing is still the only way of attaining any significant “financial” reward for your work. In order to achieve this you need a publisher and an agent, but you should be realistic about your chances of securing either. As I’m fond of saying: someone always wins the lottery, even though the odds are vanishingly small, but for every person who wins, there are millions of others tearing up their tickets (or manuscripts) wondering why they ever bothered.

But if you’re deadly serious and determined to scale the edifice of the traditional publishing world, and become a successful author you need to narrow the odds a bit. This starts before you ever put pen to paper. Published books fall into a number of genres. Each one has a specific heading which can neatly pigeon hole a story, and if your book doesn’t fit clearly into one of them you’re off to a bad start already. It’s no use writing to a publisher or an agent and saying your book is likely to appeal to a wide audience. That’s really not good enough. You must be specific. Say it’s like one of those Twilight books, or a Light Romance, or Crime, or Historical Aventure. And there’s nothing to be gained from inventing your own weird crossover genre because publishers have figures that show how much a book in a particular “official” genre is likely to generate. No use twisting one of your own stories to fit a recognisable genre either. You start with the genre and you write something specifically to fit it, after overdosing on reading other books in that genre until they’re coming out of your ears and you can barely bring yourself to contemplate writing something similar. This is otherwise known as studying the “market”. However, be aware that the “top” genre you identify at the time you begin writing is likely to be at the bottom by the time you “finish”, because tastes are so fickle, darling!

Want to carry on?


So, you hack away for a couple of years and produce your novel. What then? Do you seek a publisher or an agent? Well this is where your Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook comes in. I’ve not bought one for a decade or more, but I presume they still publish the damned thing. What is it? It’s about two inches thick and it makes you feel like an important writer simply by handing it over to the check-out girl in Smiths or Waterstones.  In there, along with a lot of other guff, the nature of which I can’t recall now, you’ll find the listings of Publishers and Agents. Read them carefully. There’s no point sending a light romance to a sci-fi publisher eh? That’s what all those trite self help “how to get published” books will tell you. But there’s more. Indeed the “how tos” are endless, mysterious and constantly changing. You may find for example that that the publisher suddenly decides they don’t read unsolicited manuscripts any more. What are are unsolicited manuscripts? Well, they are you, my friend. That’s what they are. Unsolicited equates to: un-asked for and translates as: you’re wasting your time sending your story in. This publisher only reads stuff sent to them by agents – and the last time I passed this way it seemed to be all of them. Even if you find a publisher who will sully themselves by actually reading your unsolicited manuscript, don’t expect them to give it any priority. It’ll land in a pile of other unsolicited material to be picked up and flicked through when editors and their readers have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. But don’t blame them. They didn’t ask for it. It’s like junk mail to them. What would you do? Put it in the bin? Or would you read it on the off chance it might be to your advantage? Whatever, expect to wait six months for a reply, longer for the return of your manuscript, with a standard rejection letter.

Not sounding so glamorous now, is it?

Want to carry on?


I think the advice these days is for the newbie writer to steer clear of publishers, and to seek an agent instead from the outset. But don’t waste your postage on sending in the full manuscript. Send a few chapters, a synopsis and a snappy introductory letter that tells the agent how brilliant you are, and why you stand out from the hum-drum cloud of losers, but without sounding sick-makingly and pretentiously juvenile, nor grovellingly desperate. Tricky, I know,… and humiliating for you, I can assure you, but it’s what you want, so go ahead.

The agents’ listings in Writer and Artist’s Year Book will probably also suggest you don’t send your synopsis off to more than one agent at a time, but since you’re unlikely to see it again for six months you should ignore this rather archaic advice and send it off simultaneously to as many as you like. I mean life’s too short, isn’t it? And you may have to write to twenty agents in order to score with just one.

What I’m trying to say is the odds of attracting an agent’s attention are small – even if your work is reasonably literate and yew can spel. Trust your uncle Michael: there are thousands of writers just like you: unknown, ambitious, filled with a sense of the vital importance of their own work. A few will make it and get a fabled life-changing acceptance letter. The rest are also-rans whom no godlike reader will ever know. Celebrities? You say they’re off to a head start? Well of course they are, but there’s no use crying over it.  Publishing’s a business, and celebrities sell. Does that surprise you? I know, terrible isn’t it.

But it’s worse than that. Given a hundred unknown writers, all of them with a readable story and a punchy query letter, the one who’ll get their work taken on is the one who knows the agent personally, bumped into them at a literary do and made friends with them, or got themselves introduced to that agent by another writer the agent already represents and whose opinion they value. This isn’t Michael Graeme being a cynical old git. It’s human nature. It’s how deals are made in the real world. Don’t live in the big city where those literary parties are thrown? Don’t know any agents or other suited literary types? Don’t even know any other writers, published or unpublished? Live out in the countryside in some remote village no one’s ever heard of, but like to write? Don’t let me put you off, it’s still possible to get yourself published, but you need to understand the obstacles in your path.

Want to carry on?


So,… you’re a newbie writer. You’ve attained the impossible heights of success and by hook or by crook, you’ve secured an agent, and miracle of miracles, after a couple of years, your agent has even found you a publisher for this manuscript, the gist of which you can barely recall by now. But you’re not a name yet. What’s a name? A name is a label. A brand. It is a mythical symbol, a magical spell. Cast thine name upon the bookshelves of the hightstreet and the buyer knows instantly what to expect. A name sells books in large quantities. A name alone  attains that mythological status: the professional writer.

Praise be!

But you’re a newbie so don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of money on a big print run, nor a promotional tour allowing you to sample the high life: first class travel, top hotels, celebrity parties, millions of adoring fans. A thousand copies or so. That’s your limit. They’ve done the mathematics. They know the market. They know a thousand copies is what you’ll sell so they’re not going to print any spares. Think about this: I don’t know how big a cut the Publishers or the Agents take, but if you break even, you’ll be lucky. What does that mean? It means you can call yourself a published author, but you’re a long way from making your living at it. A thousand or so people have read your work! Is that good? Well, of course it is and considering the odds you were up against, well done to you.

But think about this:

I put my novel Push Hands online, about a year ago and it’s been downloaded about 7000 times, and rising. The Lavender and the Rose went up last month, and it’s already up to 1500. I’m an independent author, hacking stuff out in whatever spare moments the day or night allows. You can go into any bar in the world these days and ask who Michael Graeme is, and no one will know – but it’s the same for you. We are the same, you and I, dear wannabe writer, both of us obscure. You’ve “sold” more books than me, but more people are likely to have read one of my books than yours.

My message to the frustrated wannabe writer is this: does your dayjob pay the bills? Can you bear it? Then make your peace with it, and consider going independent. You’ll never make a fortune, but you’ll achieve a global readership almost by default.  Your words, your thoughts, your idiosyncrasies,.. they are important to us. Who are we? We are you. We are readers, writers, onliners, just like you. Upload them to the collective, to what in modern parlance is known as “the cloud”. Cool eh?  Don’t sniff at the online independent freebie ebook thing because you can shift a lot of copies that way. If it’s down to money for you and you’re determined to quit that boring dayjob, then so be it, go for paper, and good luck. Otherwise hang in there. You’re important. Traditionally published or not.

Relevant anecdote: Michael Graeme is a secret. I live and work under the name of my primary personality, and no one except my immediate family can link the two. I was listening to a conversation between a couple of colleagues in my day-job office, one who had just bought an Amazon Kindle and was amazed by the amount of  free original fiction available online, and wondered why he would ever want to pay for fiction again. Another colleague countered rather sniffily: okay, but is it any good? Colleague number one said: Who cares? Of course some of its  crap but its not cost me anything, so what’s the problem?  Have you never paid good money for a book, only to decide it was crap? And some of this free stuff’s okay.

Age-wise both colleagues were in the fifty plus bracket. But then a young lad,… seventeen or eighteen joined in, and said he liked blagging free fiction on his iPod touch of an evening from this site called Feedbooks. I concluded therefore the indy publishing scene was appealing to a very wide demographic. I smiled, kept my secret, pleased that people were still enjoying simply reading stuff.

Free? Why not? How weird is that? It makes a change when just about every other person in the real world is trying to sell you something you don’t want and making you feel like an idiot for not wanting it. The world of writing is changing, and traditional publishing is beginning to looking seriously dull – especially for the wannabe writer. Whether you are a reader, a writer, or  both, take a look at Feedbooks or Lulu or Smashwords. Seek out their free stuff. Give it the first paragraph test. I dare you. Some of it you’ll cringe at because it’s more idiosyncratic than legible. Some of it you’ll find a bit ragged around the edges, like reading your mate’s submission for his English creative writing homework. But some of it will grab you, suck you in and move you to tears. This is the work of ordinary people who like to write. This is the indy scene; anarchic, careless of spelling and grammar at times, but sincere, raw and thought provoking. Let those celebrities pen their sterile, expertly edited yarns, and their jolly autobiographies to adorn the highstreet bookshelves, but if you want truly sincere meat and drink, if you want it told the way it is, it’s now to be found exclusively in “the cloud” and its tagged “free”.

Read Full Post »