This publishing world is full of bullets and as I gain more knowledge of the world I see more of them, some dodged by sheer luck, some by good advice, and some by research.
That research is something I’m knee deep in. I’m taking a new course about approaching writing as a business, about things a million miles from your muse, like percentages and contracts and sales bases.
One thing that this week’s research threw up was just how much debut authors are struggling in the market – especially debut authors under the traditional publishing houses. Their share of the debut authors’ market has dropped from 22% to 9% over 2014-16 (authorearnings.com).
Just stop for one minute and think about that. You go to the trouble of finding an agent, of getting a big publisher, and then you find out that you’re getting such a low share of the market (and, let’s be honest, debut author income is small anyway…)
Many moons ago (it feels that way, anyhow) I got a response from a big 5 house who considered Inish Carraig, had gone back and forth with it, and regretfully passed. This publisher was my dream, the lottery win I was shooting for and, all through the time of publishing Inish Carraig, I’ve had a little voice at the back of my head wondering, ‘what if….?’
Now, it occurs to me that I might have been asking the wrong question. Instead, I wonder – what if I dodged another bullet, one I would never have known could have been a bullet? What if, in being offered a dream contract, I might have set my career back? (Because when you are with a trad publisher and you lose ground on book one, it is incredibly hard to gain that ground back.)
So, why is this happening? The answer lies in a quick Amazon search of the price of ebooks. Trad publishers charge an awful lot more – and for established authors that’s okay. They have a fan base, some of whom are waiting for the next book (although as a casual follower of a writer a high price still puts me off buying.)
But what about the writer who doesn’t have a fan base? What would you gamble on a new writer? I have to be honest, once it goes over a fiver, I’m wondering if I’ll really love the book enough. (But I could be stingy – or I could buy enough books that a few quid saved here and there adds up). The drop in figures seems to indicate that, for many of us, faced with an eight pound debut or a three pound one (which is a pretty common sort of indie-price-tag) we’re going for the cheaper ones.
What happens, then, to that trad debut? Make no mistake, publishing is a business. If you fail to meet your sales expectation, you can be – and some are – dropped. No matter that it’s not your fault, that you didn’t set the price. No matter that the publisher has made you uncompetitive.
Now, it could be argued what a writer loses in online sales, they’ll make up in print. That doesn’t seem to be panning out, either. Bookstores stock a narrower range of titles and carry less stock on the shopfloor. If I went into Belfast, right now, I think I’d be lucky to be able to fill half a carrier bag with the total number of Pat Rothfuss books on the shelves. As a debut author, unless you are being marketed to hell, you’ll be lucky to get a big display in bookstores – or across the sort of range of bookstores that you need to mitigate low online sales.
This is all open to dispute, of course. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on why there has been such a change in percentages. I’d love to believe I’m wrong, that a debut author can still nail the dream: get an agent, get a Big 5 publisher, and become a household name. But I’m struggling.
The more I see, and the more I research the market, the more I’m becoming convinced that I dodged a bullet. That, instead of breaking me as a writer, going with a Big 5 publisher might have hurt my writing career in the worst possible way – at the beginning, when I had the most ground to make up.