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Mon, 22 Mar 2004

My Brilliant Career (not)

In today, there's a feature by a pseudonymous writer lamenting the death of the midlist novel. "I've published several books, won adoring reviews, and even sold a few copies. But I've made almost no money and had my heart broken. Here's everything you don't want to know about how publishing really works," she begins.

Really? I'm tempted to say, "my heart bleeds", but that would be both understating it a bit and over-egging the pudding. There's quite a lot of truth in her complaint -- nevertheless, I don't believe Jane Austen Doe's writing career is a typical one, and in particular she made one key mistake, right at the outset of her career, the consequences of which have haunted her for a decade. She's got my sympathy, and my understanding -- but I wouldn't want anyone else to think her experience was typical.

This particular dead horse needs to be flogged publicly, lest it gives aspiring writers the wrong idea, but I suspect I'm not the ideal guy to do the job. So in the interests of a full declaration, here are my reservations about my own competence to write this dissection.

For starters, I don't have a huge statistical base of information about advances and print runs to fall back on: all I could discuss with authority would be my own experience, which may well not be typical. (And besides, I prefer not to bare the full details of my own income stream in public.)

For seconds, things are different outside of the genre boundaries I curently work in. I've sold SF, fantasy, and horror novels -- if Jane Doe is writing in, say, Romance or Detective fiction, much less the literary mainstream, then I could blow figures out of my ass until the cows come home and it wouldn't be relevant. It's a truism that fantasy typically has larger print runs than SF; and where print runs are larger, advances follow. Finally and thirdly, I hesitate to criticize another author's misfortunes -- whether they appear well-deserved or not -- on the sole basis of a magazine article. Magazine articles are prone to partial or inaccurate representations, special pleading, editorializing, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and exaggeration of the facts of the matter. So let's just say that what I'm going to say here isn't meant as a personal criticism, merely as my own subjective response to her essay in Salon magazine.

Jane Austen Doe's story starts when, in 1994, she signed a book contract for a novel -- with an advance of $150,000. The novel was published in 1996, and sold a whopping 10,000 copies in hardcover and paperback (combined). Oops.

Somewhat taken aback, Doe found her next novel bounced. So she ghost-wrote a celeb autobiography to keep the wolf from the door. In 1998 she got a new agent and a new contract for one under her own name -- this time with a $10,000 advance. The book came out in 2001 and sold a combined tally of 25,000 copies, with total author earnings (after hiring an agent and publicist) of $21,000.

The next book, signed for in 2002 and published in 2004, got an advance of $80,000; a print run of 10,000, and sales figures not yet in. Finally, her fifth book is still doing the rounds.

Now, what's wrong with this picture?

Let's look at a typical US book sale -- a novel. Due to the vagaries of bookselling, most novels these days sell for under US $24 (because the big bookstores don't like being overstocked on overpriced tomes by authors who aren't selling). A typical contract pays a royalty of 10% of net to the author, rising to 12.5% or even 15% if it sells over a threshold (say, 10,000 hardcovers). The magic number for mid-list hardcover sales that I was given -- we're talking real books, not the extruded fantasy epics the publishers announce to the trade rags -- is 5000 hardbacks. Less than 5000 actual sales, result: misery. More than 10,000 sales, result: happiness. We can then add paperbacks. A typical midlist novel will ship 25-40,000 paperbacks to bookstores. There's then a big gap to print runs over 60,000 -- which ship to the mass market outlets as well as bookstores. Typical cover prices are in the range $6-$8, with royalties of 7.5% to 10% if the book sells some outrageous number. Actual sales will always be less than the print run, because books are sold to stores on a sale-or-return basis; a sell-through of over 70% is expected in hardcover, but it may be less in paperback.

Now. Jane Austen Doe's first novel got an advance of $150,000. Ignoring inflation, if we factor in a $24 cover price and a 10% royalty figure, the publisher would have had to sell 62,500 hardcovers. At a 12.5% rate that's still upwards of 50,000 sales. In hardcover. That isn't midlist, that isn't even close -- the publisher would be announcing a quarter million print run to the press and hyping it for all they were worth. Jane Austen Doe was destined for the national best-seller list on the basis of that advance. So what went wrong?

Let's be fair. Jane Austen Doe wasn't a total ditz: she did ask the right question. Question to agent: "Is there a downside to an unknown author getting such a big advance for a first book?" Unfortunately she got the wrong answer. Agent's answer: "What are you gonna do, turn it down?"

Idiot. (The agent, I mean. The author was merely naive and inexperienced. The agent's answer, in contrast, has haunted her, blighting her subsequent career for a decade. At least, that's my impression ...)

The 10,000 total sales of hardcover and paperback that she reports isn't even solid mid-list territory. A solid midlist novel would reap on the order of 3,500-7,000 hardcover sales and 10,000-25,000 paperbacks in the US, plus quite possibly the same again in other world markets. (I'm probably not giving anything away if I say that my first-equal/second novel, "Singularity Sky", is currently being translated into Spanish and Czech, with German and other language editions to follow, and a handsome UK hardcover outing due this summer. In fact, aggressive pursuit of foreign (non-US) sales is probably the key to a successful midlist career. The combined advances for non-US editions of "Singularity Sky" are already within spitting distance of the US advance, while my second/first-equal novel "The Atrocity Archive" has secured significantly bigger advances outside the USA.)

Bluntly, Jane Austen Doe's first novel appears to have bombed after being mega-hyped in order to bring in an unrealistically high advance, by an agent who pocketed the advance (call it 15% of $150,000 -- or a handsome $22,500) then did unreasonably little to promote her subsequent career. Career? I don't know about the author, but the agent seems to have been running on a policy of "take no prisoners". Which is a bad idea in an industry where everyone knows everyone else, and if you burn a contact over breakfast the whole neighbourhood knows by lunchtime.

What followed was predictable, if a bit extreme. JAD's first agent had a huge millstone around their neck -- a flop that had cost the publisher a huge amount of money. If the publisher printed only 10,000 copies, then they probably made a profit roughly equal to the author's royalties -- or around $25,000 -- on a property they paid $150,000 for. That's a disaster in publishing terms, the kind of mess that people get blamed and fired for. It's probably not JAD's fault that the publisher screwed up so monumentally, but if her agent had negotiated a normal first midlist novel advance of $15,000 rather than going for broke the publisher would have hit break-even, Jane Austen Doe's name wouldn't have become synonymous with "commercial disaster area" around that particular water cooler, and she'd have been able to sell repeatedly to the same publisher (with increasing print runs and advances each time).

I'll skip over the work-for-hire; JAD's second novel sale, the one with the $10,000 advance, is much more typical of the midlist. So is the sales volume. The profit isn't great, and I'm inclined to wonder if she sold foreign language rights at all -- but if you can do two novels a year at that level, making $25,000 per book, you've got bread on the table. Alas, Jane Austen Doe isn't a fast writer, and typically takes 1-2 years per book. It's like the difference between a rock band with five members who sign to a major label, and one with three -- the one with five only has 60% of the money per person to live off, and probably flops.

Unfortunately with that fourth book, we're back to the stupid advances again. A $80,000 advance means you need to sell 33,000 hardcovers, or maybe 10,000 hardcovers and 70,000 paperbacks (on a 10% royalty level and a cover price of $8). This is right at the top end of midlist sales -- you've got to be hitting the mass market to shift that kind of volume. (I'm not there, nowhere near it in fact; chance would be a fine thing.) If you expect a profit of $25,000 on the basis of your last book, then is it reasonable to expect the publisher to more than triple that on the next? I don't think so ...

Despite the unrealistic advance, she might have managed to earn out if she hadn't been clobbered by a dose of severe bad luck -- the publicist from hell. Maybe the publisher could have made back the advance if the marketing guy hadn't cut and run: it's not unheard-of. However, I have to say I wouldn't be optimistic about it. I know solid professionals with ten to twenty novels under their belts who would be overjoyed to get that kind of advance (and a little bit worried on the side). It's hard to shift enough books to earn out a $80,000 advance: very few people succeed. And a second failure to earn out on that scale (after the $150,000 fiasco only five years earlier) would be enough to spell doom for any career.

I want to stress again the point that all I've got to go by is my own experience, plus what was laid out in the article, which may not be the whole picture. But what we have here looks, from where I'm standing, to be the result of a disastrous intersection between greedy, over-ambitious agents, editors who should have known better, and an author who wasn't cynical enough about what her agent was telling her -- and who didn't run the numbers with an eye to what could go wrong (as opposed to right).

Small advances do not automatically mean that the author makes less money. A book advance is merely a non-returnable loan against future profits. A $10,000 advance on a book that sells well enough to garner $50,000 in royalties means the publisher stakes the author $10K up front, then shells out another $40K over the next couple of years. In contrast, a $50,000 advance on a book that sells so badly it only earns $10,000 in royalties means the publisher forked out a non-returnable $40,000 over and above what they could afford. If you do that too many times, publishers will shiver and start to cross themselves and reach for the garlic whenever you cross their threshold. The option of a small advance and future royalties to pay is much more palatable to a publisher than the risk of an excessive advance and a loss on the balance sheet.

Of course, the down side to small advances is that you (the author) need to have a year or two of cash flow -- gross -- in the piggy bank, as a cash flow float. It's always nice to have the interest on someone else's money piling up, hence the enduring attraction of the big advance. But ... is it so nice you'd pawn your own future career against it?

I'd like to offer Jane Austen Doe my sincerest hopes that she gets it together to sell her fifth novel -- and that it earns out the advance, whether it is large or small. But, I'd like to observe that, of my first eight novels (yes, to my astonishment I've sold eight of the buggers), not one has gone for even half of the $50,000 advance she's hoping to land for her fifth novel. On the other hand, I can still go out in sunlight, eat garlic bread, and show a reflection in a publisher's mirror. Maybe one day I, too, will get a $150,000 advance for a novel. But I hope it doesn't happen too soon -- otherwise I'll have to regretfully ask my agent to negotiate it down a bit. Because Jane Austen Doe's got one thing right: if the book makes a loss, any number of factors may be responsible -- but the author is the person most likely to be blamed.

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posted at: 23:04 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

The quality of modern literary criticism

Reprinted in full, from my weblog feedback form:

Originally from: abbie whatmaore

i hate u ur not charlie simpson i wanted charlie simpson

(All exclamation marks and punctuation reproduced as seen, albeit with the addition of line breaks.)

As a miracle of accurate self-description I find this quite impressive. Meanwhile, please note: if you can't even spell your own name, you probably ought to stay out of my mailbox.

Teresa gets a better class of troll on her blog. Colour me envious.

(PS: Who the hell is Charlie Simpson? Anyone know?)

[Discuss Morons]

posted at: 16:59 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Recipes I don't want to know too much about

Here's a link (thank you, Zotz) to the Thorax Cake.

Yum yum (not) ...

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posted at: 14:40 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
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Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
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December 2005
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January 2004
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December 2002
November 2002
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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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