The brutal maths of the 40-something midlist author, part #73918167345

Posted on October 23, 2010


Now that we all have the word ‘recession’ firmly branded in our brains, is there any more to say about the difficult situation faced by authors these days? Does anyone really need another writer’s opinion on the world of book publishing today? Well, stuff it – here’s mine anyway. To those interested, it may serve as a brief distraction from all the articles about the cuts that have just hit the UK.

As the author of two novels and a memoir, all of which were well-received, albeit not massive sellers, I’m often asked by people, ‘When’s the next one, then?’ This is a delightful and flattering question, of course. It’s nice to think that people want to read more of you. And I continue to get touching and lovely letters from readers, telling me how my memoir has helped them. I really can’t complain about any of this. It’s what makes the occasional stress and frustration of the publishing process worth it.

But perhaps it’s crunch time. In the last few months my life has been quite interesting, and several people have suggested I write about it, and I’ve been doing some thinking. After all, it would give me an ounce more kudos on Twitter to be able to use the #amwriting tag every morning or evening, like so many writers I follow on there, and talk about daily wordages and agents and publishers, and talks and festivals and – ah… Even three-times published authors like me sometimes find ourselves flying before we can walk again.

As those not involved in writing and publishing perhaps don’t realise, finding an agent really isn’t a simple undertaking. It can take ages. And when you do find one, they need to be the right one, someone you can trust and work well with, and who isn’t afraid to kick ass. As someone who has represented myself on more than one occasion, I know what I’m talking about.

So, let’s say I finish a manuscript, and then manage to find an agent. This also assumes any agent wishes to talk to me in the first place, what with me being 40-something and damaged goods, at least in terms of being Published-Without-Selling-Millions.

This also assumes, and this is a bit key, that the manuscript I’m hawking around is of sufficiently high quality to be considered marketable, first by the agent, and then by the publishing people the agent will eventually send it to.

So, first of all, the agent and I will very likely discuss me returning under a pseudonym. This is happening a lot in publishing (I had a long chat with an agent about it at a London Book Fair event earlier this year), and has been for a while, and I would probably be open to it. So let’s say the agent really loves the book and we discuss my USP and pseudonym and everything, and then go to see a publisher, or twenty, and one of them likes it.

And let’s say that one of these publishers wants to offer me a deal. Great! \o/

Um, before we all get too excited, lets do some maths.

Being frank here, and taking into account the factors above, I reckon I would be lucky to get an advance of more than two grand. (Perhaps I underxagerate, but I doubt it. Someone from the industry is welcome to correct me, anonymously if you wish.) OK, let’s go totally mad and call it four. Four grand for let’s say, 80,000 words. Four grand for a year, two years’ work.

Conversely, if I took my 80,000 words elsewhere, and did, say, 80 features for, say, the Daily Mail, (and I’m not saying that’s a simple undertaking either), that would get me at least 40 grand, or actually more. What’s more, assuming each piece, or most of them, was used, my name would be guaranteed to appear in print, creating an instant rolling publicity machine for me that might, if I played my cards right, get me, um, a reasonably decent advance on top of my already decent earnings.

For someone like me, a book deal isn’t really the best way to make financial use of 80,000 words, is it?

And then I think about recent Booker winner Howard Jacobson‘s hugely entertaining talk for 26 on Thursday night, and how ebullient and hiliarious and, actually, among all the comic bluster, self-effacing he was. And he almost inspired me to write another book.


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