Goodbye and good riddance to the hardback ‘literary’ novel?

The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.hardback book

I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.

The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example –  whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?bella-literary-fiction

 

And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of  publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.

 

Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances.  So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?

My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’

 

 

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Does it matter that a title’s been used before?

There’s no copyright on book titles. I didn’t realise that to start with and fretted that I couldn’t ever use a title that had been used before, but I can, although it’s still needs thinking about.

The easiest way to check is to do what I did yesterday – draw up a shortlist and then look each title up on the Amazon data base. I know it’s lazy, but it’s quick. Looking carefully at what comes up helps me to decide whether a previously used title could be used again. If the title has been used before, which almost all titles have, I look for various criteria:

  1. Was the previous book the same genre? I want a title for my novel: if the previous title was for non-fiction, it’s unlikely that someone looking it up would be confused.
  2. Has the title been used in the UK, or just in North America or elsewhere around the world? If it’s just in the US, for example, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the title again.
  3. Was the title previously used for a paperback, or just for an ebook? I publish in both formats, and I might still choose to use the title again, although I might slip down the priority order
  4. How long ago was the title I want used previouslyFALLOUT_Ruth Sutton-1? If it’s within the past year or two, that could be a problem. In 2014, when I was looking for a title for my novel set in and around the Windscale reactor fire in Cumbria in 1957, the title ‘Fallout’ was an obvious choice, and I really wanted it. Just three months before we went to print another novel appeared with that title, published in the UK, and I had to make the choice. In the end I decided to go ahead, but I’ve noticed that since publication we’ve had two copies returned – which I guess arose from the confusion over the title. I still think I made the right decision, though, and the cover is pretty special too. ‘Garish’ someone called it, but at least it gets noticed.

When I’ve checked all these criteria, I find that some titles don’t feel so appealing, as they have been used before many times, and quite recently. The exercise yesterday brought the list of eight possible titles down to two or three, which was helpful. Once my trusty editor returns from her hols the fateful decision will be made and possible covers will then be designed. Still on schedule for publication in November 2016.

 

Can you make money self-publishing?

There was some very interesting discussion of this question at a workshop on self-publishing I led recently. Sixteen or so people round the table all had different goals, starting points, skills, strategies and experiences. Some did everything themselves, and used time and perseverance rather than money for the project. Others – me included -needed professional help with all or part of the process, and were able and prepared to pay for it. Others spent all their money on producing the book, but then found themselves with nothing left over to use for promotion, without which their beautiful books were still in their boxes cluttering up the house. Some just about covered their costs; some were nowhere near doing so; one or two had lost more than they could afford. I’d expected at least some stories of financial success, but heard none. Maybe the quiet ones at the table were doing better than they wanted to share.

There’s no question that almost all self-publishing projects will cost you something, either money or time, and probably both. There’s also no doubt that producing an ebook is much easier and cheaper than any other format, and you can sell heaps if you put a ludicrously low price on it, but the effect on sales is ephemeral. Publishing a paperback is a more difficult, but carries with it many more opportunities for promotion and direct sales.

I’m often surprised that many aspiring self-publishers don’t appear to have thought the process through, although that’s understandable given its complexity. If you truly understood the whole process it might be so daunting that you would never even start. One of the more unfortunate of the workshop participants regretted that she hadn’t attended a workshop like this two years before, and we realised why when she recounted – very bravely I thought – the series of mistakes she had made and the loss she’d incurred.

I may have had some advantage in this ‘business project’ game having been self-employed for many years, and having some idea of how to think ahead financially. Before I took the decision to self-publish I knew enough to calculate how many books I would need to sell, at what price, to retrieve the money I had shelled out at the start on the costs of ensuring a high quality paperback. The costs were for critique, editing, design and printing, and came to around £5000 for a 1500 print run. I also knew that bulk printing is cheaper than ‘print on demand’ (POD), and that unit costs are a function of quantity. How did I know that? I did enough initial research to think through some of the details and their implications. I was then able to work out how long it might take to recoup the money, and an approximate ‘rate of sale’. I reckoned it might take two years to recoup the outlay on the 1500 print run, and that turned out to be about right, although the necessary promotion strategy developed very slowly. I should have thought longer and harder about ‘How will people know about your book and why should they want to buy it?’

Once printed, and before sale, the books have to be stored somewhere. I ended up paying for dry secure storage, although I could at a pinch have saved that money by persuading friends and family to store a few boxes each for me. When the first print run was all sold, at a profit of about £4 per book, and I could reprint, then the the unit production cost would go down by about 50% while the price would remain the same, which makes for more profit. I priced the ebooks so that they too would generate about £3-4 each, as the up front costs are minimal. I have used Kindle Direct Publishing, which seemed very complicated to start with and required patience to reach any level of confidence. It’s paying off though: ebooks sales are steadily increasing, and £80-£100 per month is quite a healthy return, in my terms at least. The more books you have to sell, the better, but the outlay of time and investment to produce one book each year, as I currently do, is very demanding for someone with a job or a family, or both.

None of this is rocket science. But listening to people’s experiences the other day I realised what a struggle some self-publishers have. One person had sent off their precious manuscript to an outfit who promised to publish and make her rich. She has not seen any money, as the company she’d trusted went bankrupt, having sold her work on to another bunch of charlatans who also went down. What a mess. Now she has no money left to find out what she may be entitled to, and is lost the commercial maze that she tried unsuccessfully to avoid in the first place.

There’s lots more to say about the financial aspects of self-publishing, and I’ll hold some of it for future posts. I hope my recent two-hour workshop was helpful, although it could have been longer, and pressure of time didn’t enable me to get detailed feedback. There are so many writers out there considering self-publishing, and so many unscrupulous people keen to exploit that interest, that I find myself wanting to help with the basic practical details. Will running workshops on self-publishing generate greater sales of my books? I doubt it, but it feels like something that needs doing.

Genre: what on earth is it?

I was half listening to Radio 4 the other morning and caught the end of a discussion with some literary worthies, about whether the prejudice (their word) against ‘genre fiction’ is relevant any longer, or has it become as superficial and snobbish as ‘designer labels’ in fashion? All agreed that ‘genre’ was a form of labelling for marketing purposes, and that some ‘genre fiction’ was actually pretty good even by (undefined) ‘literary’ standards, although yet again the example they cited was Patrick O’Brian with his wonderful naval saga set during the Napoleonic era. O’Brian tells great stories in an engaging style, and those characteristics seem to be define ‘genre fiction’. If that’s so, I wonder what are the defining characteristics of ‘literary fiction’? How different can they be?

Readers of this blog, a small but discerning group, have heard me bang on about this before, and other much more successful writers than me do the same. Why do I and other ‘story tellers’ feel that the ‘literary’ world seems bent on patronising and belittling us? What’s wrong with a classically good story, well told, which readers find accessible and compulsive reading? The analogy with the fashion industry is an obvious one. The high street stores sell some very good clothes, pitched at the average purse and taste. These clothes may not be unique to this season, or  easily dated, or made with exclusive materials, but they’re affordable, wearable, and occasionally really interesting and appealing too. Some high street clothes even appear on models in glossy magazines, alongside their more expensive and extraordinary counterparts from the big name designers. 

There’s no profit for producers in fashion that doesn’t date. The fashion industry relies for its survival on the view that last season’s version of clothing and accessories must be replaced, as a form of conspicuous consumption. Perhaps the book industry has the same aspiration. Publishers used to be content with ‘high class’ books that sold to only the most discerning buyers, but it couldn’t charge excessive prices – such as some would pay for a handbag – and when the profit margins shrank under competition from you know who and ebooks they found themselves in a pickle. They wanted to publish ‘quality’ but needed to make larger profits to survive, so they ended up publishing books by known names that would sell not because of their intrinsic quality but because of the name on the cover and sycophantic reviews commissioned from other big name authors from the same ‘stable’. Incidentally, the urge to ‘ghost write’ must be really strong: is it true that Jeffrey Archer’s best-sellers are actually written by other people? And the pressure on successful authors to publish more must also be acute: could their quality suffer as a result?

Obviously, one victim of this ambivalence within the book business is the novice author, apart from the infinitesimally small number in any year who fit the criteria to be hyped into success by massive marketing investment. The message from publisher to agent, and thence from agent to writer seems to be ‘Unless we can guarantee to sell millions of your book, thanks but no thanks.’ And what really are the criteria for this lottery-like selection? ‘I need to fall in love with your book,’ say the agents. And what exactly does that mean? Is it really as arbitrary as it sounds? We’re also told that agents and publishers are looking for ‘trends’ and would-be authors need to spot the rising wave and attach themselves to it. That’s not a very satisfying explanation either, and who determines which waves will burst into flood while others web quietly away?

So here we are again. It is slowly occurring to me that the best way to avoid the frenetic pressure of literary fashion, or the pursuit of quantity over quality, is to avoid traditional routes to publication and do your own thing. The only exception would be the handful of published writers whose talent is so extraordinary that they can make their own rules and stick to them. There may be other extraordinary writers out there, but unless the quirky and  unspecified needs of the agent and publisher can be fathomed out, these writers will remain beyond the ‘literary Pale’. There may come a time when this ‘Pale’, ie. a constructed boundary, will cease to be important to the majority of us who remain outside it and become a self-regarding cage for those within. Maybe that’s why the literati I heard the other morning on the radio were admitting that the concept of ‘genre’ is increasingly outdated and needs to be ‘refreshed’. I agree. Let’s do it. 

Writing a novel: where to start?

I suppose I’ve learned quite a lot about writing a novel over the past few years. A long time before that I learned how to write sentences and string them together into paragraphs that followed each other and made sense. I can recall some quite good writing in my school years, and at university, but that was mainly explaining ideas, or recounting other people’s ideas. Writing a novel is different, as different as painting a full canvas is from doing a doodle in the corner of a page. I didn’t realise that at the beginning. I thought that writing full length fiction was not palpably different, just more of the same, and I was wrong.

Now I’m wondering if I can help others through some of the stages I have been through myself. Ideally, as many of the best writing courses do, you would take people through stage by stage, with time intervals in between for practice and reflection, watching the improvement as time goes by. But those courses are expensive, and require high levels of expertise and confidence from the ‘providers’ to reassure the clients they are not wasting their time or their money.

What would I have to offer, having written only three works of fiction so far, which I have published myself. The feedback has been good, and the sales tick along nicely, but do I really have something worth sharing? And given I’m a relative novice in this business, would anyone want to put themselves in my hands even for a little while, and pay for my help? The experience of writing may be slender, but there’s one thing in all this where my experience is deep and trustworthy: I know how to help adults learn. I’ve been in the adult learning business as a freelance education consultant for over twenty years, all round the world. Most of my clients have been educators, but very varied in style, age, nationality, motivation and potential. I’m pretty good at meeting these various needs, as I should be after all this time.

So, could the experience in adult learning make up for relative inexperience as a writer? I think it might just do so, and in a couple of months I’ll get the chance to find out. I’m planning a writing workshop, for a Saturday in January, at one of our local public libraries. ( For those of you who know Cumbria, it’s in Kendal.) I want to find twenty or so people and work with them for six hours, embarking on the very early stages of ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel.’ I’m not going to start with ‘how to write a good sentence’, heading instead straight for how to find a setting and some characters, give them life and write a story that readers will enjoy. Already ideas for useful activities that will meet this purpose are beginning to bubble up, drawing on many of the best activities I’ve experienced in my own learning so far. The starting points will be setting and characters: once we have those, things begin to take off. Tackling the thorny question of getting published may be a lot to take on in a shortish day, but I know it is of interest to most aspiring writers, and here again some practical advice may be helpful.

Now I need the publicity that will bring in enough people to make it work. We’re working on the website link, but it’s likely that most people will hear about the workshop through the local libraries and media. I do hope some people come: I really want to see whether the ideas in my head will stimulate potential writers to take the plunge as I did six years ago, and am so glad I did.

A sense of achievement – almost!

Everything’s coming to a head: final proofs, back matter, acknowledgements, they all have to be thought about, generated, discussed, revised and checked while the printer’s deadline looms closer. And still the iterations of the front cover continue, back and forth, as we consult about an image that will grab the readers’ attention, please the eye and intrigue the mind. John Aldridge my book designer visited West Cumbria while I was away in Canada and took some stunning pictures of beaches and sunsets, and this is the first chance I’ve had to see them. Then Kevin Ancient the cover designer got to work, aiming to combine beauty and message. ‘Don’t be too specific about the message,’ they say, but I want a sense of threat, because it pervades the book. Threat to the community, and then a different, more personal threat to one of my beloved characters. Beauty alone, however striking, will not be enough, hence the debate, and now I think we’ve finally found what I want.

Once all the bits and pieces are agreed, off it all goes to the printers in Cornwall and we wait. Only three weeks and then the pallet with its precious cargo, the outcome of countless hours of work, will be delivered and we start the distribution to bookshops and tackle the long list of pre-orders. The trilogy is almost done: I can’t quite believe it. When I thought about the possibility several years ago I had no idea whether I could pull it off, but here it is. Amazing. Quarter of a million words about a West Cumbrian family in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere, and it will still be there long after I’m gone, hopefully enjoyed by visitors and locals alike as a testament to this wonderful place and the people who live here.