Must be a day with a Y in it. Yes, well-informed readers are pushing back against this particular dated, limited and male-dominated list, and no, I’m not going to link to it and argue the toss over every title. There’s a wider point to be made.
Women SF&F writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns that erase us ‘personally’. We object because they damage us professionally. The same is true for every under-represented group excluded from these lists. And yes, the male authors writing the progressive, informed and thought-provoking SF&F which is being ignored have a right to feel aggrieved as well.
When newcomers to fantasy fiction see the most easily-found review coverage and online discussion is all about grimdark books from big publishers, with stories about blokes in cloaks, written by authors like Macho McHackenslay, that’s what they will buy. Or they will be completely put off and go elsewhere in search of fiction where they see themselves and their concerns represented. They will never know what they’re looking for can be found in SF&F.
Either way, six months down the line, the big publisher’s accountants at head office look at the sales figures and see Macho McHackenslay is one of their bestsellers. The order goes out to ask literary agents for more of the same. Because big publishing is a numbers game, and it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation.
Meantime, an editor will be arguing the case to give another contract to P.D.Kickassgrrl. He insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent work will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans, as well as whole lot of other readers. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her books get far fewer reviews and other mentions. Genre magazines and blogs can have a similar skew towards established successes, arguing they have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the writers readers are clearly interested in. The self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete.
It is absolutely no answer to say ‘but there are plenty of women, writers of colour, non-binary, gay, disabled authors (etc.) coming into the genre with debut novels. We just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ We have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring. If it did, you would see far more female and other routinely excluded authors enjoying the same sustained writing careers as their male peers.
More than that, erasing women and other excluded authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today, and by discouraging potential future writers.
Which is why this matters. Every single time.
If that’s the problem, what’s the solution? What can we do to push back more generally? We can boost the signal on our social media for those smaller presses who are publishing innovative books. We can do the same for the websites, podcasts, reviewers and blogs which offer a balanced and nuanced view of the amazing breadth and depth of current SF&F. There are so many wonderful books out there to be read!
My last post highlighted the biggest misconception I see about being a author these days. Feedback has included people asking perfectly reasonably and politely what I might have to say about the reality of being a writer in 2023. Fair enough. Here are some of the things that come up most often in conversations about this.
A lot depends on what you’re looking for as an author starting out these days. Do you have to pay the rent/mortgage/bills? Are you looking for a secondary income? Most authors start out part-time. A few go full-time later.
Authors supporting themselves through writing alone work extremely hard – and I mean flat out – at some combination of writing for multiple publishers, in multiple genres/media i.e. comics, film, TV, audio drama, computer games, franchise and tie-in work, ghost writing and more besides.
They often also write e.g. general or specialist non-fiction, newspaper features, articles for trade press and corporate in-house publications, advertising copy, greetings cards – anything that involves communicating with words basically. The list is endless.
Writing alongside a day job is absolutely valid. There’s a good chance your writing will be better for that lack of pressure. ‘Succeed or starve!’ is not a good motivator. Where access to healthcare depends on employment, you need a job. One day you will need a pension.
I know writers with just about every conceivable day job, including being house spouse/duty parent/carer. Writing around other responsibilities does not make your writing a hobby. Nor does having a supportive partner. Professional is a state of mind. It is not defined by earnings.
By all means submit to the big lists, but also look beyond the lure of the mass-market, global publisher deal. Find out about smaller presses publishing books like yours. Their deals may well offer better returns for the writer per copy sold and more regular payments, as well as more personal and committed working relationships. Initial publication with a reputable, professional small press is a well established and respected route to a deal with a big publisher. Writers can learn a lot and hone their skills. Look at recent literary and genre prize short lists and those authors’ subsequent careers.
Always do your research and never sign a contract without getting professional advice. Always remember if a deal looks too good to be true, then something somewhere is wrong. Beware of sharks and charlatans and just plain incompetence.
Print on demand and ebooks have changed the business models on backlist income and shorter form fiction. Digital audiobooks have changed that market. Digital-first publishing is another innovation. The pace of change is rapid, which is why you need to keep up to date.
Retain as many rights as you possibly can, grant rights for a defined number of years and make sure all rights have a clearly set-out reversion clause. If none of that means anything to you, or if contract negotiation really isn’t your thing, get professional advice. Talk to the Society of Authors or your local equivalent writers’ organisation. Contact some literary agents. Yes, having a agent will cost you, but having 75% of a decent chunk of change is better than getting 100% of a pittance.
By all means consider self-publishing, in this age of ebooks and print on demand. Be aware that success defined as making a living doing this means non-writing tasks will demand minimum 50% of your available time. Offering a quality product is crucial. You must pay for professional editing. Unless you have the skills, you’ll need to pay for layout, cover art, design. Discoverability is a massive hurdle. Marketing is hard.
In conclusion, bearing in mind I signed my first publishing contract is 1997? Write because you want to write. Write because you enjoy it. Write because other folk enjoy reading your stories, however long or short they may be. Write to make money on the terms that work for you personally. You don’t have to justify those choices to anyone. Good luck!
The publishing trade press has been discussing the stresses and disappointments felt by debut novelists these days. The response on social media from established authors has been … not unsympathetic but it has certainly been bracing in offering a reality check. This article from David Barnett is a good reflection, and contains much good sense.
There’s one aspect I’m not seeing mentioned though, and this is important.
My greatest concern is the new writers I meet who have been taught by magazines, books and creative writing courses, to believe that the old business model of advances plus royalties from backlist will equal a modest living after a few years – as long as your well-written and edited book finds a readership and nothing disastrous happens.
That business model is dead as the dodo and has been for years. It relied on an ecosystem of multiple mass-market book shops in the high streets which has disappeared, and the book sellers we still have don’t carry backlist because well over a decade ago, publishers decided (for good reasons for their business model) to make titles over 18 months old firm-sale only. I frequently have to explain what that means. That came as a huge relief to one several-books published writer baffled by the lack of sales for her earlier books because no one had ever told her this.
The book trade has always relied on the 5-12 books a year reader, and a great many of those readers now make their choices from the limited selection of perfectly good books they are offered in the supermarkets. So the old rule of thumb that 20% of titles make 80% of a mass market publisher’s profits no longer applies. It’s more like 5% of titles bring in 95% of the revenue these days, and mass market publishers focus their efforts accordingly. They’re in business to make money.
Yes, this is a highly simplified view, and there are a whole lot of other factors at play, as I’m sure many of you reading this will be very well aware. The thing is though, I meet far too many new writers who don’t even know this much. Would-be authors have a responsibility to educate themselves about the realities of the book trade, from publishing to retail – but agents and editors could do more to check what misconceptions debut novelists have brought with them, and to make sure they’re up to date.
So that’s how the book trade doesn’t work these days. How can authors hope to make a living then? That’s a perfectly reasonable question, so I’ll consider that in my next post. After all, I’m still writing after all these years. Here’s my latest book for your consideration.
The book-trade press is reporting that hardback celebrity biographies aren’t selling at all well this year. Folk with long experience in the writing and retail bits of the book trade will read this with a massive sense of deja vu. Such books are highly discretionary purchases mainly aimed at people who rarely buy books. They might buy five books in a good year, often as gifts, and who won’t buy any at all when times are tough. And times are very tough, as we all know far too well. Even with these titles heavily discounted in the supermarkets, potential purchasers may well be opting for a box of chocolates or a favourite drink as a cheaper and more immediately cheering present.
Has high staff turnover in publishing seen this sort of institutional knowledge lost? Along with other information which surely could prove useful for boosting sales in the short as well as the longer term?
Far too few titles are now offered to the 5-12 books a year readers of mass market fiction whose major contribution to the publishing bottom line used to keep the midlist viable. Here’s an idea for the Big Five. Why not try offering a choice of fiction for all tastes across all genres, varying authors month by month, in WHS and supermarkets? Start building readerships again. That’s where future best-sellers with sustained sales will come from, not the latest pop-culture trend/personality.
Meantime, let’s raise a cheer for the smaller presses who are working so hard and publishing great books. Don’t forget them when you’re doing your seasonal shopping.
Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.
I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.
What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.
This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.
Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.
I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)
The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.
‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.
Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.
Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.
Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
Books on the Hill is a dyslexic friendly, independent bookshop in Clevedon, North Somerset, run by Alistair and Chloe. They are both passionate about books of all genres, and about getting as many people as possible reading. Alistair is dyslexic himself and so is always on the look out for ways to help people who have dyslexia, or any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. For instance, he advised me and Cheryl on fonts that would suit dyslexic readers better in the Green Man books – I had no idea that something so simple could make such a difference!
As a bookseller, Alistair has long been aware of the Barrington Stoke books for dyslexic kids, but hasn’t found any equivalent for adults. So he’s decided to do something about that, and has recruited a group of very fine writers specifically to write stories for a new publishing project, funded by Kickstarter. As of this morning, the first funding goal has been reached inside the project’s first week. So the first three books will definitely be happening. Now let’s see the stretch goals reached, so more books will be available. This should be the start of a long term initiative.
Do take a look, and definitely spread the word to whoever you know who’ll be interested. Given up to 10% of the population is dyslexic, there’s sure to be someone.
I was talking to one of my sons, and I commented that life felt stuck in an endless holding pattern these days. He likened it to treading water, and the more I think about that, the more apt it feels. Repetitive activity that gets tiring without actually moving on, and no sense of solid ground under your feet.
Thank goodness for things to break up the monotony!
First up, the Irish National SF Convention Octocon is happening online this weekend. Participation is free and should be a lot of fun! At 1pm on Saturday, you can join me and other writers discussing the uses of myth in our work and I’ll also be doing a reading at 4.30 pm on Saturday. You can see how much longer my hair is now…
Next week, the 15th October, sees the publication of my alter-ego’s third murder mystery set in classical Athens. Philocles is looking forward to the Great Panathenaia – until one of the poets due to take part in the dramatic performance of Homer’s Iliad is brutally murdered. The authorities want this cleared up quickly and quietly. Philocles finds himself on the trail of a killer once more…
You can find out more here, including preorder links. If you do NetGalley, you can find it there.
In other unsurprising news, publication dates and acquisitions continue to be delayed and pushed back as the book trade continues to try to navigate the current chaos with varying consequences for writers. Those books that do reach the shops – bricks and mortar or online – have to compete in a scrum where the big names and lead titles are getting pretty much all the promotion and shelf space. I think we’re going to see the shift to independent and smaller press publishing accelerate, with greater online engagement direct between writers and readers. I’m seeing more Patreons and Kickstarters appear, alongside a growing realisation from fans that these are an increasingly good way to get the books they want.
As for my own work, The Green Man’s Silence is selling well, and gathering very good ratings and reviews. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who is sharing their enthusiasm for this, and the previous books. Thank you all. I am getting some ideas together for Dan’s next adventure… and I have a couple of short fiction pieces to write, as well as a few other things to do. Then there’s the shared world novella I wrote earlier this year – as soon as I have a release date, I’ll share it.
I’m also amused by a recent review of The Green Man’s Foe, where the reader includes the very minor spoiler that THE DOG DOESN’T DIE. To be clear here, I’m not making fun – when these things matter to a reader, they matter, and it’s not for anyone else to say they should feel different. Thankfully, this reader enjoyed the book, even though they found their concern over the dog’s fate distracting. All I can say is, hand on heart, it never occurred to me to put the dog in danger!
Whatever social media you use, you doubtless see regular polite/pleading reminders from your favourite authors about how important online reviews are these days, and reviews on Amazon most of all.
This isn’t just needy writers looking for some ego boost. Publishers tell us authors time and again how reviews drive vital visibility when their numbers reach the ever-shifting tipping points that trigger different promotional algorithms. How even readers who don’t shop at Amazon use the site to see what other people think of books that interest them, as they decide to buy. How publishers can even use a title’s level of reviews as one measure of a writer’s popularity and a possible predictor (among others) of interest in a possible future project.
So please support your favourite authors with Amazon reviews. As long as you are allowed to. This is where all this starts to get problematic. A pal thought to do me a favour by leaving a genuinely favourable review on Amazon only to have it rejected because their spend on the site over the last six months didn’t reach the required threshold. I went to see what was what and found this on Amazon UK –
“To contribute to Community Features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers), you must have spent at least £40 on Amazon.co.uk using a valid payment card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the £40 minimum.”
Since I remarked on this on social media, various other people have confirmed that the same thing had happened to them. Though what that qualifying spend might be clearly varies from time to time and place to place. That doesn’t surprise me. We already know that Amazon regularly tweaks their algorithms’ review number trigger points as they look for the best way to maximise their revenue. Other things also became apparent. You don’t have to be buying books to qualify, just stuff, because this isn’t about books, it’s about Amazon making money. Indeed, when some people found they were unable to post reviews they were told that their Kindle purchases didn’t count because the spend had to be on physical goods. Whether or not an Amazon Prime subscription counts seems to vary as well.
Why are Amazon doing this? The obvious answer is it’s a countermeasure against bots and review spam. That’s fair enough, but it’s a very, very blunt instrument. It does nothing to stop astroturfing (faking ‘grassroots’ support) by someone with a lot of pals who buy sufficient stuff online. But that’s not Amazon’s concern. They’re in business to make money, first last and always.
So what can we do? Well, the reason that reviews matter is what sells books is word of mouth recommendation. That’s been the case for ever. All the Internet has done has enabled us to tell each other about a good new book in a whole lot of new ways. So carry on doing that – but now, please try to remember to look beyond Amazon when you want to support an author by boosting a book and when you’re looking for recommendations. If you have the time and inclination, check out Goodreads maybe, and/or look for the bookbloggers that share your particular interests.
Whatever social media you use, whenever you can spare the time for a quick mention, even just a line or so, it all adds up and it all helps to boost the signal, and that’ll help keep your favourite authors writing. Thanks.