Saturday, 19 December 2009

Another major revision

At last, or maybe at least, I’ve finished another major revision of the book. All the comments people have made, all the post-it notes, and the reminders written to myself in the middle of the night, or on trains, are all dealt with; the chapters are all in the right order, the pages are numbered, and I’ve mailed a copy to myself, so there is a back up in the sky wherever Google keeps such things.

And I feel sick. Is this a migraine, or some new anxiety syndrome, or just another phase in the life of a novel? Of course it’s not finished, I know only too well that I’ll read it again in a day or so and have to correct some clunky phrase, or typo that has been hiding in plain sight since the first draft, or maybe worse still a character referring to something that doesn’t happen until two more chapters. After that I have to find an agent or a publisher, or preferably both - maybe that’s why I feel sick.

I am getting to the point where I simply don’t understand the book trade. I listened to Mariella Fostrup on the radio and she had the usual mix of writers and publishers expressing various forms of optimism. Why does she never have an agent on her programme, or at least not when I listen?

Part of the discussion covered the issue of advances; apparently they are getting smaller and smaller, the smallest being zero. Sums of five hundred or a thousand were suggested as increasingly common. Where will that lead? Publishers started economising years back by shedding editorial staff who then became agents. Back in those days when advances were in the thousands and agents got a percentage of those advances you can see how it worked.

After that publishers further reduced their risks by saying that they would only take submissions from agents (see their web sites if you don’t believe me). Now they are economising even further by cutting down on advances. That presumably will make agents more risk averse, so they will only take clients that can still secure an advance that keeps the agent in business. That in turn will reduce the number of writers who can do it for a living.

In one sense you could argue that in the long term it does nothing, roughly the same number of books will be sold, assuming that the population still wants to buy and read books (let’s not get into e-books and all that for the moment). So in the end writer’s income and agent’s fees will be the same, but the timing will be different. Writers will need other income to keep the wolf from the door until royalties eventually turn up and agents too will have to rely on long term sales to get their cut rather than a slice of the advance.

Selling a book and persuading the publisher to come up with a big advance is obviously one of the key tasks that an agent uniquely does. Writing a good book that sells well over a longer term is what the writer does. So we end up with a position where the role of the agent, is seriously undermined at the same time as publishers are saying that they are essential.

I really do think it is time that Mariella started interviewing agents on a regular basis so that we can see what they are making of this. We could be running towards a situation where the whole book trade is dependent upon an endangered species. Will agents start asking for up-front fees from writers I wonder? Maybe we could do it like book advances. If I fantasise for a moment that I might get £5000 as an advance for my book; I’d be happy to pay an agent £500 to represent me and have them earn out the advance, the same way an author earns out their advance.

I guess a more complete picture of the industry should look at the pre publication costs of the authors. They can be considerable, apart from keeping alive, paying mortgages and all that we should factor in the creative writing courses, the consultant’s reports and of course the funds that go to companies like Lulu or Authorhouse who make their money out of writers that can’t find agents or other publishers. I wonder which is the biggest market, selling to writers or selling to readers?

Perhaps it’s better not to speculate and just write another book – that’s where the fun lies, after all.

Oh - if anyone wants to read it drop me an email.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post.

    Don't worry, though: publishers and agents need writers, a fact it's easy to forget. They are actively on the lookout for saleable new books; after all, their livelihood depends on it.

    True, our books may not be saleable, and agents don't always get it right...