Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Big Slices of the Literary Tart

Neither Bournemouth Runner at the Art of Fiction nor Roger Morris are as pleased with the McCrum article as I was (see previous post), and both take him as attacking the first-time novelists who receive big advances.

I don't think that's what McCrum was doing. He wasn't as clear he should have been (he didn't exactly explain the processes at work), but I think he was attacking rather the way that big advances operate in the present literary climate, and the bad effect they can have on some novelists who receive them, a problem discussed in the latest issue of the lit mag Mslexia.

First let me say that I know from bitter experience how bad it can be to get a small advance. The publisher has invested so little in you that they have nothing to lose in not bothering to market and publicise your novel properly, so in the small advance there can be an inbuilt failure. This was the point pressed home by the late agent Giles Gordon, and why he was the pioneer of Big Advances. (If McCrum seemed to be denying the potential evils of the small advance, it was perhaps out of an elitist naivity: he was once fiction editor at Faber which at the time, unlike my own publisher, respected and nurtured the careers of their literary authors even if they didn't pay them big advances at the start. )

However, it no longer works that a big advance is proof of a publisher's commitment to an author, and it's the big advance that can now bring inbuilt failure, just as it has for Gautam Malkani, the author of Londonstani, whom McCrum cites. All advances have to be earned back via sales, and if they don't do so - since nowadays the only thing publishers are interested in is money - you are by definition a Failure. This is what I think McCrum is referring to when he says that publishing today can't brook failure - it was a comment on PUBLISHERS' PERCEPTION of books, which is always determined by the immediate return on any advance. It doesn't take much calculating to work out that the bigger the advance, the closer you're sailing to the wind in this respect: whatever great reviews you get, however many thousands you sell, if you don't sell a zillion, the publisher will look on you askance next novel round, cos last time they LOST MONEY ON YOU. (Don't forget it's the financiers who rule the publishing houses nowadays, not the editors.) And they have ways of knowing, too: nowadays they can press a button and up comes your incriminating point-of-sale record: Look, only fifty-thousand copies sold, when we paid the bastard half a million!!!! (Hand across the throat).

The worst aspect of this scenario is that in order to try to make sure they recoup a big advance publishers are tempted into over-hyping books and tempting fate. The reviewers had it in for Londonstani: instead of praising it as a 'promising debut' as McCrum thinks they should have done, their main interest was the fact that the hype and the ridiculous advance were misplaced, the bad reviews affected sales and as McCrum points out, Londonstani is now being airbrushed from the bookshops and literary records (except that we guys are banging on about it!)

In other words, an author's welfare and literary development are the last thing publishing houses are concerned with nowadays. Big advances are all about making money for the publishing houses, and authors' careers can be and are sacrificed on this altar. I think this is what McCrum is saying. He's also saying something even more important in the longer and less author-centric term: that publishers are not interested in literature, in the actual writing, and that we've consequently ended up in a culture of trashy books, but even here by implication he's championing overlooked writers of decent stuff.

For the reasons above, as I have pointed out before, publishers are always nowadays on the lookout for the Next New Thing, ie first-time authors: virginal first-timers don't have any incriminating sales record cos they don't have any at all, and still therefore have the theoretical potential to be bestsellers. It's why I'm always saying that every new literary sensation nowadays is, through no fault of his or her own, a has-been in the making.


Roger Morris said...

Hi FB, thanks for putting a link to my little piece and thanks for doing such a good job of deconstructing McCrum's article.

My own publisher, Macmillan believes that it's the agents who are to blame for the culture of inflated advances. That's why they set up Macmillan New Writing, an imprint to which writers submit directly without the intervention of agents. The MNW model may not be perfect, but it is a genuine attempt to give some new writers the chance to build a readership over time. It certainly didn't deserve the severe and rather sneering attack that it received from, guess who, his royal McCrumness.

Oh, of course I don't mind you linking to my plog from your blog. I've already put a link the other way! (That's the way I operate, link first, ask questions later.)

Sorry you had a bad experience with your publisher. To be honest, I'm not sure what the answer is to this whole conundrum.

Elizabeth Baines said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan Hill said...

As a small publisher - Long Barn Books - as well as an author, please let me comment on the 'small/large advances' topic. When I started publishing 9 years ago I knew I would not be able to pay large advances. So I devised a contract which is universal for every book we publish. Every author gets an advance of £1,000.

Susan Hill said...

When i started my small publishing company Long Barn Books 9 years ago I knew I would not be able to pay large advances. So I devised a universal contract. Everyone gets the same advance of £1,000. This is non-negotiable. Everyone`s advance is against a royalty of 10% rising to 15% at 2,000 copies. For the first year I account monthly and pay a cheque monthly, where applicable - which it usually is as £1,000 earns out very quickly and nothing is more depressing than an unearned advance.
It is fair. It means I work to promote and sell every book. I have to anyway or where would be the point, but there is no question of 'smaller advance equals lack of promotion' Everyone is on the same footing in this company.
This year I decided that after 8 years of fiction, I would publish one first novel a year. After writing an article about it in The Guardian I had 3,741 submissions, from which I chose The Extra Large Medim by Helen Slavin - well, it chose itself really. It sold out its first printing before publication and is doing nicely, for a paperback original which many literary editors disdain to review. It makes no sense to publish a first novel as a hardback - it is simply too expensive now. Everyone knows this and accepts it - bar the literary editors. But word of mouth is a wonderful thing and thanks to that, to a wonderful endorsement from Beryl Bainbridge Helen`s first novel is selling well. The average sale for a first novel in the UK is 400 copies. We are getting to 1,200 so something must be right. I know what it is. It`s a good book.

Debi said...

Are you really me, Tart? Your post reflects my thoughts so exactly it's almost spooky. Must be cos you're RIGHT!
I had what I suppose you could call a middle-sized advance, which if the theory worked could be considered ideal ... but the publishing behemoth is now so massive, you either go nova or get lost ... middle advance but no middle ground ...
Still at least the books are out there - even if they take a bit of finding. And of course I did get the £££ - which, given our measly income, was a lot of money.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Susan, was not talking about the kind of dedicated, passionate publisher I know you to be. I have been involved in this kind of publishing myself, and I know that by definition its all about commitment,which writers want far more than money!!

Anonymous said...

I think this is well put, and has much truth in it. However I just wanted to add a couple of points, not in contradiction but hopefully showing other sides to the business of advances:

It's not necessarily true that authors who are left with unearned advances have lost money for their publishers. Until the advance is earned out, the publishers are taking 100% of the profit on every book sold, which, with decent sales figs, can amount to considerably more than the advance. Many authors never see another penny beyond their original advance, but the publishers still do nicely out of it. Once the advance is earned out, publishers continue to take about 80% of the profit on every copy sold. There are also often subrights which the publisher controls and can licence to bring in further revenue. So even massive advances can make perfectly good sense financially, although I am not sure if that will turn out to be true for LONDONSTANI.

On the other side of the coin, it is also undoubtedly true that authors on whom publishers *do* lose money will often continue to be published and receive generous advances, rather than getting kicked to the kerb for failing to deliver. I call this the 'family silver' factor. Some authors represent, for a multitude of different reasons, the kind of literature the publisher wishes to be associated with, and therefore have a value beyond their sales figures. I would say Lorrie Moore is a writer of this type. So, in different ways, are old stagers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie (neither of whom is exactly the toast of Borders these days) but who will never lack for a publisher or big bucks.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Rupert, if this is true, it makes me feel a whole lot less guilty, but I'm not sure... What do you mean by 'profit'? As far as I know, it's the bookseller who gets the lion's share of the cover price, and with the current trend for discounts this leaves less for the publisher, and therefore less guarantee of earning back the advance, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

By profit, I meant the wholesale price received by the publisher.

Like I said, the author's advance doesn't have to be earned back for the publisher to make a profit. However, the higher the advance, the higher the chance the book will not be profitable. That's a gamble offset by the expectation that the big advance has been paid for a likely bestseller. I wouldn't like to hazard what percentage of the time publishers get it right. It would be interesting to see a statistical breakdown of the size of the biggest advances in a given year, and how those books subsequently fared. But I don't think we'll ever see those figures: even if publishers were prepared to make all the accounting public, books sometimes continue to sell for many years, even decades, so their ultimate profitability isn't calculable in the short term.

Your point about booksellers' profits: you might be surprised at how few books, even those heavily discounted in the shops, are actually sold at an abnormally high discount rate by the publishers. Booksellers are still taking a lot of the hit of heavy discounting-to-the-public themselves. At normal rates, booksellers have to pay a wholesale price of about 55% of the cover price, the remaining 45% profit being very far from the lion's share, even assuming they're selling the book at full cover price. Even in high wholesale-discount situations, the cover price has been slashed so much that the bookseller is still not taking a large slice of the profits.

But booksellers are guaranteed sale-or-return for all their orders, and the place where the publisher takes the worst hit in the process is returns: booksellers can return all unsold stock for a full refund, and every publisher is familiar with the gloomy truth: 'gone today, here tomorrow'. Many overprinted, over-ordered books end up being pulped, sometimes in their hundreds of thousands.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank for elucidating, Rupert.