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Michael Faulkner

Thanks for highlighting the issue Cornflower - apart from anything else it's nice to know we authors are not whistling in the wind on this! M

Linda Gillard

I don't think authors have ever felt so undervalued or underpaid as they do now. (Average income according to the Society of Authors is now £4000. Pre-recession it was a magnificent £8000.) And we've never had to work so hard for so little, since it's now expected an author does her own PR.

Mid-list authors have been dropped in droves and there has been an undignified post-cull scramble to find another publisher. Advances have been reduced, even those offered to big names. Some publishers are offering no advance but share of profits only!

Authors other than mega-earners have no power now, not since everyone agreed that books should cost about the same as a bottle of supermarket wine. And that is the cause of all our ills - not, as is widely assumed, too many books, but too cheap books. The punitive discounts demanded by booksellers, especially supermarkets, have made it impossible for publishers to make a profit without selling large quantities of a book. That has made them cautious. Caution has made them study what has sold. That study has produced cloned bestsellers, many with a celeb name tag because then the publicity comes free.

As for covers: a lot of authors - me included - would be glad to have a cover to argue about! But in happier times, STAR GAZING was re-designed at the request of WHS who said they wouldn't stock it otherwise. Publisher re-designed, I hated it, said so and was ignored. Fair enough. The cover is a marketing issue and not in the author's province. (Hate to dissillusion you, but publishers are pitching to booksellers not readers!) Despite the re-designed cover, WHS still declined to stock STAR GAZING.

Booksellers have publishers over a barrel and publishers have authors over a barrel. So as a dropped, mid-list, respectable-selling, non-commercial, award-winning author, I see myself as the literary equivalent of plankton. The whole publishing food chain stands or falls on me and my kind writing stories for the big boys to publish. But hey, I'm still just plankton! And there's a lot more where I came from.

I'm sure you all want to change this state of affairs. Here's how... Buy more books. Buy books that aren't already bestsellers. Now here's the painful part: pay more for them. And if you can't afford to buy, order from the library. 10 library loans pays me what I'll get from the sale of a paperback in Waterstones. (Approx 60p. Wheeeee!)

adele geras

What Linda says! Bring back the Net Book Agreement....I've been quite lucky with my covers on the whole with a few exceptions and have been consulted and listened to, mostly. BUT my beef is different. There is an awful lot of pressure on new writers especially writers who are published by small presses with no money, to do EVERYTHING themselves: sell the books, create a blog, make yourself known on social networking sites etc. The big publishers sometimes make a huge effort with publicity and the like and sometimes don't....depends I suppose on the size of the advance, but in any case there's an onus on the writer to promote herself too. This is fine if you're garrulous and sociable and energetic but what if you're a quiet shrinking violet type who wants nothing more than to write in a silent room? Hard times for writers as for everyone else but yes, part of the answer is to buy books at a good price. As I said at the beginning. Bring back the Net Book agreement and leave PLR in place! And do not cut library funding....I could go on.

Harriet Smart

I had managed to not see that latest Society of Author average income figure. Very depressing.
However, I do think indy publishing, the internet, the arrival of ebooks and cheap pod does offer authors some hope and a possiblity of real control over their careers. The death of the midlist was a horrible thing - it stalled my career after five books, and damaged my confidence and self belief for many years. Only now am I beginning to feel that there is a possiblity of making my writing viable and that is by ripping up the existing business model and going it alone. It is going to be a long slog - there is no profit in sight yet - but in the end I think it is the right choice for me. I don't want to be plankton any more.

Rosy Thornton

It is very strange, as a first-time novelist, to discover how little say the author has in how the book will look. All that time we have spent carefully choosing every word which goes inside the covers - and then the words on the outside, and the appearance of the book, are decided by other people.

As a reader, I suppose I'd fondly imagined that authors chose their own titles, and had a hand in the look of their dust jacket, and what went on the back cover. The reality is, at least at the big publishing houses, that the whole process has been 'professionalised'; the writing of cover blurbs, the designing of covers, even the choosing of a title and 'shout line' are expert tasks, undertaken by the publisher's editorial and marketing team in consultation with the buyers from the supermarkets and major book chains. Positioning in the market is a finely tuned business, and not one over which authors have much influence.

At first, as I say, it is difficult. Nobody feels closer to, or more strongly about, the nature of his or her book than the author. Seeing our story through someone else's eyes can come as quite a shock. But maybe the author is too close, sometimes, to see the matter clearly. Novelists can write, but they may not be experts on the book trade. And even if we could have a stab at positioning someone else's book in the market place, it is notoriously difficult to be objective about our own.

I have stopped coming up even with working title for my novels. I no longer allow myself to daydream about what the cover might look like. I write them, and let go. It is the way of least pain!

Linda Gillard

Hear, hear to bringing back the Net Book Agreement. When did it all start to go wrong for everyone, incuding readers? When that was scrapped. Perhaps we thought (as readers) that cheaper books were a great idea, but little did we know that cheaper books would actually mean less variety in the shops, not to mention authors working for sweatshop wages.

Linda Gillard

Agree with Rosy about the pain of new titles. Imagine, if you will, being asked to re-name your two year-old so that he'll be more popular at nursery, or to avoid confusion with another child who has a similar name...!


I am an award-winning children's writer who has published 13 books in 10 years with translation rights sold to 14 countries, yet for the past three years I have been (barely) surviving off working tax credits and am feeling desperately depressed about my career.

The main problem is that I too appear to have been "dropped" for the crime of having midlist sales figures, only nobody will actually tell me so outright. I'm meant to get the hint from the fact my publisher has not contracted another book from me in past three years, despite repeated ideas and even a few completed manuscripts going his way... they can't ALL be unpublishable, surely? Publishing one book a year would enable me to pay the bills, it's the gaps that hurt when you haven't had a really big advance to fund them - also the endless silences when you ask any kind of awkward question these days.

I agree it's losing the Net Book Agreement that has killed off the midlist, making it unprofitable to publish a book at all unless it's going to be an instant best-seller... but who really knows that in advance? So much seems to be self-fulfilling prophecy. As a customer, I can't understand why books in supermarkets (3 for £5 !!!?) are so much cheaper than magazines... who is paying the author? The answer is no one, of course.

I don't want riches. I just want a fair wage for my work and - most of all - a chance to develop my career and maybe get better at writing books that do sell. There's an awful lot of talent being lost right now, and no long term strategy, at least not in my experience. I am posting this anonymously because I am still at the moment trying to get another publishing deal. But I don't see a future in it the way things stand.

The only answer is to bring back the NBA to stop supermarkets killing the book trade, but it might already be too late. It is for me.

Deborah Lawrenson

Couldn't agree more with everything that's been said. I'm sorry to say UK publishers have brought many of their ills on themselves by their absurd pricing strategy, to the extent that book buyers confidently expect discounts and resent paying £7.99 for a paperback. But look at how much seats at the theatre cost - or even at the cinema or football matches!

The only people who aren't hurt by this are the really big names and the celebs with their names on the covers who can sell enough to take huge discount hits and for the book still to make money (and even then, they don't always...). It's madness.

Then there's the effect of the huge power of the supermarkets now in the book world - the way they drive the choice of books published and cover design. Independent booksellers - people who really care about books - are going out of business because they just can't compete on price.

Finally, re cover design. My last book was designed for a supermarket (it looked just like 100 other summer read books). The supermarket never took it in the end, but the cover stood. I found a review on the internet a while ago stating that it was a terrible book because it wasn't really an easy summer read and it was too slow and complicated. No winners at all then.

David Nolan (dsc73277)

It would be a hard-hearted person who could not sympathise with anonymous when s/he says "I just want a fair wage for my work", or indeed with many of the comments here. I think part of the problem is that many non-writers perhaps take the view that writing is not really "work". Before anyone throws anything at me I should point out this is not a view I hold myself but, overpaid premiership footballers aside, I detect a growing mood, in Britain at least, which suggests that we should no longer expect to get paid for doing things we enjoy or give real meaning to our lives. Nor is it only creative people who seem to be regarded this way; public servants and students seem to be looked on the same way. I seem to find myself in a very angry and disillusioned country, populated by people who increasingly seek to pull the rug from any group of people they fear might be having a better time than they are. Then again, it may just seem like this because I work for an axed public sector body. Perhaps the people I spend my day with our more fed up than others? We know that we are losing our current jobs and many of us are very fearful about our prospects of replacing them in the short term.

Wasn't there a survey that not so long ago that suggested being a writer was most people's idea of the best sort of job? Again this may simply reflect our disillusionment with so much of the work that we do. Us readers perhaps have a romantic notion that writers are among the last who have the ability to be authentically themselves, unlike the rest of us who may feel as though we have to sell our souls to put a roof over our heads. We see your names on the covers and assume that you have had a high degree of control over what appears beneath and inside. Michael's post and the discussion that it has sparked here serves as a useful, if sad, corrective.

I doubt the internet will save writers from penury, just look at the devasting effect it has had on newspapers and the music industry. Indeed, the internet caused a lot of the trouble by creating a generation that believes it is entitled to receive creative goods for free.

To close on a more upbeat note, one of the things that is keeping me positive in these difficult times is the ability to escape with the help of a good book. I salute the writers who make this possible and give me such pleasure. Thank you. I'll do what I can to support you.

Gillian Philip

Thank you, David, for that. I for one really appreciate your last sentence! You hit the nail on the head when you say 'the internet ...[has created] a generation that believes it is entitled to receive creative goods for free.' My daughter gets so cross with me when I won't download pirated games and movies; it's enormously hard for me to say to her: 'Your friend A may well have Despicable Me on DVD. But your friend A, or her mother, is a thief.'

But I do say it.

Unfortunately, I see no way to combat that mindset. Depressing, eh? Yes, it's frustrating to have control of design taken out of your hands, and it takes a lot of work and time to market yourself, but I just can't blame publishers for their decisions made in good faith. They're as stuck as we are, and of course they want to make a profit. It will come down to what readers are prepared to pay. And for the moment, too many readers are prepared to pay nothing.

That's why I thank you again, David, from the bottom of my heart (and my overdraft).


Net Book Agreement? Its called protectionism and subsidy! Writers, I know its tough, but its tough too for vegetable shops, small holders, other artists of all kinds (composers, painyers, and performers, too).

Abolishing the NBA has resulted in cheaper, more accessible books, and I (and millions of other people) buy more books as a result. And there's masses of choice, the internet (through which I pay for books, by the way)has been a boon for the reader and the second hand bookseller.

Before you ask for a return to to the NBA, ask if you'd like a Net Restaurant Meal Agreement, or a minimum price for carrots or a phone. It's inefficient, schlerotic and a penalty on the consumer.

Writers have a horrible time of it because they've found it so difficult to disintermediate in the past - but that could, if writers really want it, change with the internet. If writers are producing saleable product, they could get together and net publish, or privately publish in traditional formats and promote thought the net etc (Cornflower and other blogs are part of that process). And the average earnings for authors no doubt include many no longer productive, or the very unsuccessful (sorry, but success should not be guaranteed), as well as part timers.

This is a sentimental argument which is almost as irrelevant as the continual praising of "independent" booksellers and the disparaging of anyone with more than one shop. Its foklsy, ill conceived and irrelevant: the chains (which are independent in any meaningful sense) have positively transformed the world for the book buyer. The message for the one shop business is the same as for the writer - if your product has value, and you deliver it with skill to the right market, you will survive.

Sorry to be blunt, but readers seemed to have been forgotten, and there's too much special pleading for my taste in this. For me, reader and book buyer, the world has never been so rich or rewarding - that's progress!

Michael Faulkner

I must say I've taken a lot from all these very considered comments, not least from Rosy Thornton's closing thought - I think I'll try going to sleep tonight saying, 'I write them and let go, I write them and let go, I write them..' Seriously, sometimes we do need a reality check, it's just that I feel strongly enough about a writer's potential to improve a book's performance, even if it's just by exercising quality control, that I intend to work away at the issue as opportunities present. I just won't get so hot under the collar, maybe..

Lindsay, I agree that the demise of the NBA was great for readers, and although I would defend the principle of it in the same way that I would defend the principle of the BBC licence fee,I'm happy to work with the market as it exists - it's just that there is so much more we could do to achieve sales if we all worked together. It's fine that authors have to do their own PR, in fact they're letting down the rest of the team (publisher, reps, bookstores etc) if they don't learn how to do it, and fast, but it's only fair that they should be considered an equal member of the team in return, and to me that means consultation on things like title, cover and blurb. Funnily enough, my own publishers were very good about these areas pre-publication; my complaint is that I'm being ignored on issues like reprint quality, and rather half-heartedly supported on ongoing PR. As I say, it's meant to be a team effort.

My own means of coping with brick walls on a particular title (I sound as if I've been published a dozen times - it's twice) is to try avenues other than books. I freelance as much as possible for newspapers and magazines, and as I enjoy the whole editing business I am about to start a course in copy editing and proofreading, and see where that leads. Not being a natural multi-tasker, it will be a challenge!

Linda Gillard

Can we assume that, applying the same principles, you don't drink Fair Trade coffee? And are you a stranger to libraries, where books are free? (We don't need dirt cheap books if we have adequately funded & stocked libaries.)

And can you please explain to me why the latest CDs aren't 3 for £5 in supermarkets, because we all want cheap CDs, don't we?...

Deborah Lawrenson

I agree, it is a golden time for book buyers and readers and that has to be good, but authors are paying the price.

Unlike restaurant meals, books can be bought, consumed and resold - as many times as they will stand before disintegration. Author and publisher get nothing each time the book is resold or passed on.

And there are ever more ways to pass on books, with the internet and dedicated charity bookshops (again, on one level, great, but nothing for the author).

It's not sentimentality authors have for independent booksellers, it's gratitude. There are fewer opportunities for getting the mid-list any shelf space in the big chains between the books with the big marketing spends. Independents are the only ones who have the autonomy to promote authors and books they like, and recommend to their customers. You can't turn up at your local Tesco and persuade the manager to stock your book - they've been sent what's been decided at head office along with the fish and loo rolls, and that's that.

Susie Vereker

I had a wry smile at Michael's complaint about his cover being too dark, as it seemed a minor error compared to, say, an LP publisher who designed a jungle cover for a book of mine set in Geneva and then spelled my name wrong. They were charmingly apologetic but didn't reprint.
But I've become accustomed to the strange ways of the book world now. At the moment I'm thrilled with my covers and only sorry that the novels are relatively expensive as my publisher obviously can't afford to give big discounts.(I've noted, by the way, that a supermarket book can cost as little as £3.50 whereas a birthday card costs over £2.)

It's fun being a published author but hard work for not much dosh.
On the whole though, I think it's good that books are so much more widely available nowadays and that reading groups are fashionable. I'm even pro the dread celeb memoirs if they draw young people into reading.

helen black

I've really really enjoyed this discussion. So thanks all.

I must say I am completely torn.
As an author, I do despair at the types of discounts being offered to the book sellers. We have to sell so damn many to make any sort of profit.

On the other hand, I have a natural aversion to protectionism...which, lets' be frank, is exactly what the NBA was.
Readers have never had it so good. Cheap books in an endless selection.
And I really don't buy the suggestion that this results in only 'bad' books getting an airing. I am constantly reading fabulous books of all genres and type.
HB x


I hate to depress people still more, but I think those Society of Authors figures are for TOTAL income, not income from writing. I seem to remember somewhere that the latter averaged about GBP300 a year.

Calling for the return of the NBA is pie in the sky. It was doomed anyway, since (rightly or wrongly) it was seen as monopolistic in an inreasingly competition minded world, and in any event could not have withstood the global force that is the internet. Like it or not, we must face reality as it is, not as we would like it to be.

As well as writing books, I teach in a business school, and I believe very strongly that, while publishers have recognised that the world has changed, they have taken some very bad strategic decisions. What they HAVE done is to go down the route that others have already described: dropping mid-list authors, clinging to a few so-called celebrities, peddling commercial tat, pandering to the supermarkets and WHS, etc.

What they SHOULD have done is to recongise that a new reality calls for a new model. For example, what about partnership publishing? Rather than paying an advance, agree that the author will have a specified prcentage of the profits, and use the money instead for promotion - and incidentally, a lot of that promotion these days could be online and thus free. (I am a book-blogger, yet only a few publishers routinely send me review copies.) Why do publishing companies need offices? Why not become a virtual business, with staff working from home and holding meetings in coffee bars? What is wrong with print on demand? Or with selling only online and ignoring the supermarkets? Or with ignoring so-called celebrities (who demand big advances) and instead promoting talented but little-known writers (who don't)?

If there is any sense to this (and I think there is) then we will see a few new and totally different publishing companies emerging. They will survive, albeit with a completely different cost structure and business model, whereas I suspect many of the traditional ones will not. The market dynamics seem increasingly hostile to them, and I believe that most of these factors are beyond their control. One already hears rumours of some pubishers no longer accepting new submissions.

But this means that writers have to change their way of thinking as well. Why this obssession with advances, for example? One of my books has been a consistent Amazon best-seller for 4 years, so I could easily negotiate an advance if I wanted one (at least for my "commercial" books) but I prefer to forego this and instead try to agree a specific promotional plan and budget with the publisher. And what is wrong with an author promoting their own works? I try to find at least one way every day of promoting at least one of my books, for example with a potentially friendly blog or website. In my view, that is part and parcel of being a writer.

We haven't even mentioned bookshops, but don't get me started on that. Nobody could believe more than I do that it would be a tragedy for civilisation of the first magnitude if independent bookshops were to disappear, but they too need to re-think their approach. When I wrote my first work of fiction, I was staggered to find that my local bookshop (Daunt's in Belsize Park) refused to stock it, despite me being not only a local author but one of their best customers. Waterstone's Hampstead, on the other hand, did. Guess where I now buy my books?

And what about the idea of authors' co-operatives coming togeher to set up bookshops, or even a publishing company ...?

Times change, and we change with them - or should. Sad, but true. Adapt, or die.


I'm posting this anonymously for obvious reasons.

When I was first taken on by my publisher (at the beginning of 2006), my editor said that with low-advance authors, their practice was to keep on plugging away: signing repeated two-books deals at low advances, not putting a large budget into marketing but simply getting books distributed, watching the readership (they hoped) slowly grow and hoping for the breakthrough, that 'break-out book' which would get the author into the big time. She explicitly said, 'That often doesn't happen until book six, or book eight, but we keep on renewing as long as we believe in the quality of the product.'

That was 2006, and it was what all the big UK publishers were doing, by and large, in terms of their midlist. In 2010 it's not happening any more. Two books, and if the sales don't measure up, you're shown the door. Result: less choice and variety for the consumer, at least in terms of the traditional market (the trade publishers, bookshops). Yes, there will still be a small steady stream of first-time novelists who get a shot - but it will be a shortlived shot unless the book kicks off enough commercial fireworks to be an immediate top seller.

And the knock-on is, why would editors take a risk in the first place (even with first-timers) and sign quirky books, or quietly thoughtful books, or genre-bending books, or books which might appeal only to a smaller, albeit devoted, readership - or even, perhaps, achieve cult classic status by a slow-build route? It's much safer to buy the potential blockbusters only, to play it safe with same-old celeb biogs and books that tick all the easy market boxes.

I don't have any answers, but I do think it is very dispiriting.


Wow what an interesting discussion. I would certainly encourage those who cannot afford to buy more books to use libraries. I think libraries are also missing out because of this concept of picking up a cheap paperback with the shopping! Which by the way is something I cannot do here in Italy,


As a reader of books I both buy and borrow from the library, I find the comments both informative and chastening.
I don't buy books from the supermarkets no matter how attractive the prices because I know how little they pay suppliers of all kinds while making vast profits, but I do tend to use Amazon for book purchases simply because online is frequently the only place I can find the sort of books that I want to read.

I live in a fairly affluent, reasonably large town but our only bookshops are WH Smith and Waterstones both of whom have most of their stock chosen by head office.
While I know little about the latter, a recent experience of dealing with WHS head office for work on behalf of a client, did not fill me with any confidence - you would have thought that I was trying to cause them a problem rather than offering a real boost to the takings of one of their stores because a very well known writer had agreed to do a signing in the shopping centre we work with, in conjunction with their store!
The lack of co-operation with both myself and the high powered PR from a major publishing house who was accompanying the author, was startling and the fact that the signing was a success was mostly because of our hard work. According to the PR, she had faced the same situation all around the country.
If the booksellers are in the driving seat of our publishing industry, it is no wonder that things are in the current parlous situation.


Totally agree with what Linda and Adele say. I'm another mid-list, award-winning, respectable selling author looking for a UK contract. Luckily for me I've got a savvy US publisher and a day job - but smugness is the very last thing on my mind. UK publishing is in disarray right now and I bhlame it on the Cheap as Chips mentality too.


I have always had a strong say in my covers no matter which publisher, right of veto and all. Always consultation on PR. But speaking with my small publisher's hat on, perhaps authors do not entirely understand how much it costs to publish a book properly. My firm recently published a non-f book by an author with previous track record. Cost of printing, (figures rounded up) 1,500, of design/freelance copy ed/proof reading/ and other production costs, 1,500.Employment of freelance publicist for campaign, 3,000. Add to that 6K warehousing and distribution costs per book, bookshop discount etc.and aUTHOR advance of course, and we make around 60P a book profit on initial print run. One hopes to reprint and sell well enough to cover start-up costs and make eventually £1.30 per copy. In this instance and in spite of pushing everything we have at it, we have sold 600 copies. You do the sums.
Authors whinge but I see it from both sides.
The Net Book Agreement will never ever come back, any more than pre-decimal coinage will, no matter what your point of view, so forget that one.
I sound harsh but unless a book sells 1,500 copies or more it makes a loss. To get a book into ANY promotion at Waterstones costs money. To get it onto the front tables ditto. Even if they give a good price to a small indie publisher it costs around 5K. That is why your first novel or mid-list by little-known writer isn`t in the window.
It's tough. I have been a professional writer for 50 years and never known it tougher in general.
Few writers make a living out of their writing alone. I think the figure is around 1.5% of published authors, and excluding academic and text books.
In the end it amounts to the public wanting to bu y your book or not. Horse to water and all that.


I think this is a very complicated subject - and because it involves money, very personal. So I want to make it clear that my comment is not directed at any of the individuals who have already posted here, but it comes from more general observations about writers and the publishing industry. I am writing from the position of a reader.

The first thing I want to say is that writing novels is obviously hard work. I know that authors spend long hours and much emotional energy invested in their books. But I also want to point out that, just like all craftsmen and women, the consumer does not owe you a living. If your work can't be sold in the open market in sufficient quantity at a price which generates a living wage for the number of hours work you put into it, then you will, like the rest of us, have to find another way of paying the bills. I am a reader, but I am also a full-time student with a very limited income. I am going to buy books as cheaply as I can find them. And, to be honest, even if I had much more disposable income, I would still buy books as cheaply as I could find them. Because I am a customer and I don't owe you a living.


I do think that publishers are not doing the best for authors in the current market. In particular, I think that the attitude of most mainstream publishers towards ebooks is utterly absurd and reactionary in the most blinkered way imaginable. I am still waiting for the first publisher who realises that investing properly in producing good quality, well-edited ebooks (of current and backlist authors) will be the nearest thing to a license to print money. I'd like to see publishers get to grips with issues like DRM and geographical restrictions on ebooks so that either they, or a middle man online bookseller, can sell books to people who want to buy and read them. At the moment it is often easier and quicker to download and read the pirated versions than the legal ones (which often aren't available at all). That's not helping authors.

Brian Clegg

I think much of it has been said above. I'm a non-fiction author with around 35 books published. I have sometimes been consulted over a cover ('which of these do you think is better?'), but only once had a suggestion for a cover design used. It was a for a US edition of a UK book - and when it came to the finished result, I have to confess the UK version looks better. (Having said that I have had a few covers that were obviously going to be terrible.)

Blurbs are rather different - I often write my own blurbs (or improve on the publishers), but I hear from publishers that a lot of authors really can't do a good pitch, and I that seems fair enough - it's a very different style of writing.

I think we have grounds for complaint if a publisher doesn't try their best on sales and marketing, but I don't think authors can sit on their laurels and say 'it's not my job.' Surely, with a vested interested in selling copies, we should be expected to do the best we can to publicize the book, whether through electronic means like blogs and websites, through giving talks (or whatever fits with the type of book) and generally making ourselves as visible as possible?

It seems a rather Victorian view to think that we do the 'arty' work, and leave the plebs at the publishers to deal with trade issues like publicity.

Emma Darwin

The demise of the NBA was the price of putting books under the noses of the 70% of the population which never sets foot in a bookshop. As Susan Hill says, there's no going back, and I'm not sure I'd want to, anyway. The discounting is painful, but if there has to be a choice, I'd opt for the latter, on the grounds that people who grow a taste for reading are more likely to then find their way to the books section of Smiths, then Waterstones or Amazon.

Harry Bingham's new Getting Published dissects the shape of the market very clearly and interestingly, and also wittily. The supermarkets are still only 10% of the market by value and 14% by volume, so you can't blame it all on them. And Waterstones has just discovered that they can't beat them at their game, and is u-turning back towards being a proper bookseller.

As Susan also says, the costs of launching ANY novel are not inconsiderable (and the problem with PoD is that yes, you don't need to invest in a proper print run, but the unit price of the books is painfully high compared to print-run books, and therefore so is the cover price ditto). But people are astonished at just how little we make from each copy of our book: that's a place where a bit more noise from the authors would be good.

We don't have veto over covers though we do have the right to be consulted (and I've had great covers). But I think Rosy Thornton makes a very good point that we should at least consider the possibility that we're too close to our own work to see it as others see it. When it comes to how to sell our work, we are not always right... though it's also heartbreaking to have clear evidence that the gap between what your book looks like and what it actually is, is so big that those who will buy it won't like it, and those who might like it won't buy it. But I'm not sure I'm any better equipped to make the right call about the size of that gap, than a publisher is.

But we should also remember that it's NEVER been possible for more than a handful of authors to earn a living solely from writing exactly what they want to write, and nothing else. Dickens and Defoe were journalists (and Dickens made far more from his tours of the USA than he ever did from his novels), Trollope worked for the Post Office, Fielding was a magistrate, Austen had a scrap of inherited money, Woolf had a husband, Henry James was subsidised by Edith Wharton, and so on and so on. That £500 a year has always been necessary. These days we scrape it together with teaching, journalism, marrying/inheriting, or sticking to the career we've always had. Just make sure the room of your own has a toddler-proof lock on the door...

Also, the UK publishes the most books per head, by a mile, of any country in the world. You could argue - I do, sometimes - that too many books are published. The market for literary fiction, for example, is finite. Is it really better to divide it among so many authors, almost all of whom will get peanuts for their debut contract, sell in the hundreds or low thousands, and be unable to get another contract without changing their name or their literary spots? Might it not be better to publish less literary fiction? Yes, fewer writers would 'be published' in the basic sense, But those that are would have a standing chance of going on getting published, and actually making at least part of a decent living from it.

Yes, it's tough and it's getting tougher, but it was never as easy as it seems when you look back. There never was a golden age (the cry that books were too cheap was hurled at Allen Lane when he founded Penguin, which we now see as a huge moment of cultural enrichment, with sixpenny copies of the Aeneid designe - and bought - to fit into a battledress pocket). To be really, crudely brutal: at some point you have to get over it, and get yourself a day job. Always supposing you were rash enough to give it up in the first place. (Which you won't have been, if you've had the good sense to read Harry Bingham's book...)

Nick Green

Perhaps, indeed, we authors are like dinosaurs complaining that ever since the asteroid there just aren't enough plants to eat. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do about it. As Susan Hill says, ultimately it is all down to who is buying books and how much they are willing to pay for them.

Then again, I suppose some dinosaurs did go on and evolve into birds.

Emma Darwin

Crossed with all sorts of people.

Re my argument about there being too much literary fiction, that's only an example - there's a limit to the market for any kind of book, and what I'm arguing - sometimes - is that maybe there are too many marginal books published in each sector, if our concern is that writers should make a living wage by writing. Do we want lots of part-time writers or fewer full-time ones?

I'm absolutely not arguing that literary fiction is unwanted because it doesn't sell as commercial fiction does. It has a market, and that market will buy. And it's also what drives growth and change in the craft, and therefore in the tastes of the reading public at large. You'll find things in a bog-standard commercial thriller these days which would have only been found in uber-literary stuff thirty years ago.


As a reader of 10 new books recently for the Guardian First Book Awards we have consistently noticed the often excruciating errors that can only be the result of authors losing control of their books after they send in the MS.
Punctuation, spelling, grammar, factual errors and terrible covers are rife. It seems you have to be Jonathan Franzen before these things get corrected.

(In my lunchbreak, so sadly not enough time to read all comments and may be duplicating - if so sorry!)


Sadly, I'm not sure that for the many sacked midlist authors there is truth in Susan Hill's closing comment that "in the end it amounts to the public wanting to buy your book or not. Horse to water and all that."

The trouble may be that publishers (and here I suppose I am speaking of large publishers, not smaller indie houses like Long Barn Books) are channelling a greater share of a diminishing marketing budget into fewer and fewer of their authors, while midlisters are left to sink or swim (and usually sink!).

It may not be that "the public" didn't want to buy these authors' books: the public may not have had the chance, because the distribution may not have been there. It may be that the reality is that buyer from Tesco or Waterstone's or WH Smith didn't want to buy the book - because they, too, are feeling the economic squeeze and playing it ultra-cautious, purchasing only well known and established author 'brands'.

Sheila Norton

This is all fascinating stuff. As another 'currently out of contract mid-lister', I often give talks to reading/writing/U3A/WI groups etc, and always include a light-hearted bit of 'education' about the realities of a writer's life and potential earnings - and the expressions on faces, and gasps, from the audience speak for themselves.People have no idea.

Yes, we write because we love it, and no, I never expected to earn a living from it. My books have sold reasonably well and were translated into many languages. My PLR is very good and I get lovely fan mail from home and abroad. I also do as much self-promotion as I can, despite it not being my natural forte. But still, books will only sell if they are actually there, visible,in the shops - and we have no control over this.

Self-publishing, which I agree might be the future for many of us, doesn't make this problem any easier because retailers still tend to view self-published books with suspicion.

However - I'm doing something I love doing, in the comfort of my home. I work as and when I want, stop for drinks and meals whenever I like. If I'm published again, I'll be ecstatic, but if not, I'll still write anyway. I worked full-time while I wrote my first six novels(I'm now retired)so I know all about combining writing with a day job - and I know which I'd rather be doing.

Of course it's unfair that authors aren't paid more and can't seem to sell enough books or get more contracts. But we're not going to stop writing, are we! Perhaps that's the root of the problem.


I don't know if it's been mentioned already, but I see that Amazon is putting the squeeze on midlist authors so that publishers can still make money on recent releases by bestselling authors, so they can rake in some sort of profit to feed back down the line.

I don't think there's an easy answer other than You can't stop progress. Maybe authors should take a tip from the modern art industry, where the likes of Banksey & Damien Hirst set themselves up as a Brand and work hard on selling the brand, rather than the art.

In a recession it's difficult to find the money to support the arts - including the literary arts - so, unfortunately, midlist authors are going to feel the chill. You either hold on and wait for the thaw, or roll over and give up.


Just to add, a co-operative publishing venture by PUBLISHED mid-list authors, may be the way of the future.
Exclusivity will avoid the whiff of failure that inevitably accompanies self-publishing ventures of un-published writers. And if some of those authors can prove to the publishing houses they've still got a readership which is growing, then they're liable to be welcomed back into the fold.


I met a very honourable young man recently who wasn't terribly well-paid but told me that, unless it was a long-dead author, he refused to buy books secondhand or at discounted prices.
As a regular buyer from charity shops and Amazon marketplace, I admired his moral stance. (All I can plead in my own defence is that I'm a regular library borrower, too.)
I do sympathise with everything authors have said in these comments. But I wonder how many of them can put hand on heart and say that they always pay full cover price for other people's books?

Emma Darwin

M, I buy books as much as possible from one of my five, excellent local indie bookshops (yes, I know that's about four-and-three-quarters more than most people have). If it's discounted, I enjoy it, but I don't go out of my way to seek discounts. And yes, I don't buy second-hand unless a book is out of print, nor from Amazon if my indie can get the book (which is almost always, tomorrow, unlike Amazon...) Libraries, yes. But then, there's PLR. I worked out recently that a library copy of my book only has to be lent out ten times, before I'm making more from that copy than I am from a sold copy...

It's not just moral: my local indies are terrific supporters of their local authors (including giving SoA members a 10% discount). I reckon I should return the support.

Michael Faulkner

Hmmm.. bearing in mind Susie Vereker's 'wry smile' at my book cover complaint (ref. Cornflower's original post), maybe I did overreact just a tad. But Hey! I got everybody talking!


I think the idea of a publishing co-operative by published authors would be a useful one to explore. Perhaps there might be someone out there with good publishing experience who has been taking time off for children, or has taken early retirement, and is looking for a new challenge ...?

By the way, something else which I have consistently advocated is that at the front of every book there should be a page which says "This book has been rejected (or ignored) by the following publishers:"

Lilian Nattel

I think a publishing cooperative makes sense. In the last couple of years I've often thought that writers need something like United Artists, a film studio started by actors. The main problem with self-publishing that I see isn't the attitude of booksellers but that there is no gate-keeping. The potential for self-publishing with ebooks is unlimited. There are millions of self-published books and no way to sift through them for good books. A cooperative could solve that problem. (BTW I came here from Tales of the Reading Room)

Elizabeth Ashworth

As a recent first time fiction author (I've previously published some non-fiction books) what I've learned from this discussion is how lucky I've been - not just to get a publishing contract but to have had input into the cover design and to have had my book in Waterstone's on a 3 for 2 offer and even in the window of one local store.

I doubt my publisher will make any money at all from this novel and because of that I feel that I have to give the book as much publicity as I can not only for my own benefit but because I owe it to the publisher to do my bit. I could never have afforded to spend the money on publishing that has been spent by the publisher to get it out there. So maybe writers need to consider what they can do to help their publisher rather than just asking what their publisher can do for them. I see it as a business partnership where publisher and author should be working together towards the same goal - selling as many copies as possible of the book.


Some years ago, when I was working as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in a Scottish University, a music student pointed out to me that she and her fellow musicians were 'doing it for themselves' and that writers would be advised to 'stop complaining and do the same thing.' Of course, it isn't quite the same, but some of the new opportunities apply right across the so called 'Creative Industries', and it does seem as though the bigger publishers have been slow to cotton on, just as the big recording companies dragged their feet and - ultimately - lost out. Books such as The Long Tail pointed out that, for example, the percentage of sales on sites such as I-Tunes originating from niche markets was infinitely greater than that for the few 'hits'. Once you eliminate the need for real shelf space and all its limitations (i.e. Supermarkets!) the possibility for the resurrection of the mid list and beyond becomes much more real - and lucrative. Of course, the problem then becomes one of aggregation - or as Lilian describes it 'gate keeping'. Anyone who has ever waded through an unrevised, unstructured, unedited, self published novel will know exactly what she means. We've all been there, I think. But perhaps the very idea of gate keeping is becoming outmoded. Sorting is the problem - finding some way of allowing people to find what they are looking for and then allowing the ever expanding market to decide whether something is dross or gold. I've no solutions - just flying kites here! But I sometimes think we are just a little more pessimistic than we need to be. My son works in the video games industry and the trend is the same there. There will always be the few huge 'Triple A' titles with millions of dollars riding on them (and the odd disaster!)whereas the future seems to lie with numerous smaller titles, where failure isn't such an issue - an endlessly expanding world of ever smaller niches. It's hard for the bigger corporations to come to terms with this because it is so counter intuitive to the way things have been until now. I also think that - in the same way that our 'outmoded' village shop, on the verge of closure only a year ago, is now a healthy community business stocking a combination of convenience items and niche local products - the time for small independent bookshops, perhaps specialising - and smaller publishers too - may well be coming. Whatever happens, I don't think it will be quite what we expect!

Catherine Czerkawska

Woops, sorry, that last comment was from me, but forgot said son was signed on!

Michael Faulkner

I so agree with Elizabeth Ashworth's comment - partnership is crucial, and if possible should extend to teamwork, embracing everyone who can help a book sell - that includes the agent, if appropriate; publisher's reps; publicists (in-house or contracted out); even bookstore managers and staff. In many ways, with publication the author's work begins, but the publisher should be there in support, not necessarily by spending a lot of time or money (they did that when they published the book), but by facilitating.
Probably not much here that authors don't know but these are a few promotional ideas that may help keep a book in print (I'd love to hear more). I wish I could say I was selling bucketloads of books after years of experience, but this is from the very subjective standpoint of an almost first-time writer with modest, but ongoing sales:-
1. Be prepared to 'do' publicity and make sure the publishers are aware. If you're shy, as I am, get some advice from a friend who isn't, see your shyness as the asset it may well be, do whatever it takes - but it's something that just seems to go with the territory unless you're JD Salinger. If it seems awful or shambolic at first, try not to worry, you're in for the long haul and it's part of the learning curve - you're bound to get better at it and publicity is cumulative.
2. Provide your publishers with every hook or story angle you can think of that has any relevance to the book or to you. As far as I know most publishers are good about sending out press releases around publication time - mine certainly were. But they will only be able to use one or two of those angles, so keep the rest for later - hopefully you can find excuses to send out releases yourself for months or years after publication. I have a feeling releases are underused by authors and if you consider that local and regional papers, for example, are generally hungry for material, you're doing them a favour. Don't confine yourself to regionals though.
3. Send articles speculatively to newspapers and magazines; if this is too time-consuming, send ideas for pieces.
4. Make yourself available for talks etc to anyone (they're usually in the evening) - clubs, bookstores, WI, rotary & probus groups, anyone you think might be interested in you, your book, writing generally, whatever. This is for three reasons: first, you can sell books at the event; second, people tell people; and third (I find this very hard but you get better with practice), you can ask for a fee - if thirty or forty people attend an event, then you can make an OK return by charging the equivalent of a Sunday newspaper per person. It's not always possible or desirable, especially with charities, but it's an option. If it's a public event, send out a release.
5. Introduce yourself to bookstore managers and staff, and remember their names. This includes the chains - as a rule, they have as much autonomy as the independents, even if they order through a hub, at least that's what I've found. The first approach may be about a signing or event, but if that doesn't go anywhere the ice has been broken and it's a matter of following up by showing an interest, without actually asking for position or even shelf space. With the publishers' support you might end up getting in on a promotion, 3for2 or whatever, or you might get six books face-out rather that four spine-out. It's amazing how individual stores can generate sales because they get that bit more behind a book.
6. Getting a book stocked across a chain is the job of the reps, but if it doesn't happen there's no reason not to make your own approach at a high level. Requires ingenuity and tact, but like many things on the promotional checklist, most of the work is up front, and easier next time.
7. Establish a system with the publisher whereby you can find non-bookstore outlets who might be interested, and somehow get stock to them; they might open an account with the wholesaler, or buy direct from the publisher, or even from you. An enthusiastic café in my area has sold more of my books than most bookstores.
8. Build a website and optimise it for search engines - there are so many ways, but the most powerful are to encourage inward links from popular sites, and to update regularly. A blog is even better because blogs have built-in search engine friendliness.
9. For books you like, do online reviews and sign off with your writer's profile - it can lead back to your website or blog.
10. I'm terrible at this: make maximum use of social networking sites - update, tweet, befriend, follow, comment. For many people it's fun anyway, but it's certainly cumulatively powerful.
11. Contribute to online bookgroups and booky blogs - fascinating, and good networking.
12. Build a good email address book, perhaps with a 'books' group of contacts, and use it (sparingly) to keep people informed. Keep and exchange business cards, and ask for email addresses at events.
13. 13? No sense tempting fate and I seem to have gone on a bit..

Sara Sheridan

I have been a professional writer, full time, for over ten years and I sit on the Society of Authors Committee in Scotland, where I live. The situation for everyone involved in the publishing industry is changing so dramatically at present that it is difficult to see an overall picture of what is happening. However, there is no question that corporate interests like large publishing houses and distribution networks are seeking to get what they perceive as the best deal for themselves and that they do not consider it in their interests to 'look after' most of their authors (celebrity high-earners being the exception to this). This leaves most authors as individuals having to deal with powerful teams of highly specialised professionals and what ensues can feel like 'bullying'. One of the issues is that there are so many writers and aspiring writers that one is supposed to feel incredibly lucky to be published at all. The question of quality of writing or of creating a diverse and worthwhile written (as opposed to 'literary' culture) has fallen by the wayside. Most books are bought by committee and marketing teams have the veto. While I do believe that in the past 'literary' writers have been overvalued at the expense of more commercial writers (the profits of whose work were often used by publishers to underwrite their more 'literary' strands) I now worry that the pendulum has swung the other way. The democratic medium of the internet that allows blogs (like Cornflower) to build a dedicated following of enthusiasts or makes self-publishing a viable option for smaller print runs at least puts a little power back into the hands of those outside the large corporations and is, in my view vital. Also important are organisations like the Society of Authors which acts as a 'union' on writers' behalf. At an individual level, the professional team created by an author, agent and editor working in tandem, is more important than I have ever known it. These are, actually, exciting times, but many authors, and publishers for that matter, although excellent at their jobs, might not always have the skills required to survive and for that reason we will undoubtedly lose some talented people who might have made interesting contributions to our writing culture.


We have a friend who is a best-selling non-fiction author who does a lot of talks where he sells a lot of books. His publisher refused to reprint an award-winning book which he sold by the yard at his most popular talk. (Up to that point, he had been buying books in bulk/at a discount from his publisher and reselling them; in this way he made more per copy than through any other method of sales.)

So ... we formed an unofficial partnership which loaned him the money and took back most of the profit until the loan was repaid with a small dividend. He was then able to buy back the rights to the book from his publisher; find a printer; work out the most cost-effective print run; print; sell. This was some years ago, and he made enough money to fund other reprints himself, and now of more than one title. The biggest problem was storage.

Why do authors expect other people to sell their books (particularly at Susan Hill's eye-watering £3k)? These days there are more and more opportunities to find an audience: burgeoning literary festivals & lunches, adventurous independent bookshops seeking to forge their place in the market, not to mention social media. It's an exciting time

Deborah Lawrenson

A quick revision of this comment, clattered out in the heat of the moment: of course it's not only independent bookshops who can promote and support authors they choose. Waterstones are great at that, and it looks like they are going to get even better. I still miss Ottakar's - they had the perfect balance of a big chain with real booklovers on the staff.

The point about silly pricing stands, though.

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