Thursday, 31 August 2017

Philip Pullman wants to make more money - at book buyers expense

Writing books is a competitive business. There are uncountable aspiring novelists scribbling away at their masterwork while scraping a living in some dead end job (or so it seems). Even people who have completed a book and got the precious thing published soon find out that, after the initial buzz of giving your mum a copy, the reality of book sales is that most't sell:
I went through the BookScan numbers for every fiction book listed on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. I used 2014 instead of 2015 to make sure each book had at least 12 months of sales. No list is perfect, but the NYT list includes story collections and small press books alongside the big name literary authors and award contenders. 2014’s list includes names like Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, Marlon James, and David Mitchell as well as small press debuts by Nell Zink and Eimear McBride. It’s a good sampling of the “books that people are talking about” in the literary world.

The BookScan sales of those books literally ranged from 1,000 to 1.5 million, with an average (mean) of just over 75,000 copies sold per book. That 75k number is pretty skewed by the existence of Anthony Doerr’s runaway literary hit, All the Light We Cannot See, which sold over 1.5 millions of copies. (The next highest book was about 270,000.) If we remove the best and worst selling books on the list, we get a mean of 46,550 copies and a median of 25,000 copies.
These are the big books, the ones raved over by critics, featured in brainy magazine 'what you should read this summer' lists and chewed over on late night TV shows. So what does all this mean? You've guessed it - authors can't earn a living:
According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.
The result is that even those acclaimed, much-feted writers we see talked about in The Guardian and TLS have to have some other form of income. Here's Neal Stephenson (who does make a living from writing) on the issue:
I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.
Now Stephenson was using this anecdote to explore the different way in which genre writers like him are treated compared to writers of literary fiction but it's a useful reminder that, without patronage, literature struggles. And for most writers - the ones like the writer Stephenson talked to - their income from writing is nice but not central to survival. Earning £11,000 is very nice bunce when you've £45,000 of tenured academic earnings.

All of which brings me to the Society of Authors - chaired by Philip Pullman (another successful genre writer) - and their complaining about discounting and bulk deals:
“I don’t like it when I see my books sold cheaply,” Pullman said. “But I’d like to think I’m speaking on behalf of all authors who are caught in this trap. It’s easy to think that readers gain a great deal by being able to buy books cheaply. But if a price is unrealistically cheap, it can damage the author’s reputation (or brand, as we say now), and lead to the impression that books are a cheap commodity and reading is an experience that’s not worth very much.”
This seems to me like a pretty crass argument designed entirely to protect the earnings of successful authors (and as an side effect the profits of publishers) rather than anything that will expand the market for literature. It essentially looks like people like Pullman - and Chocolat author, Joanne Harris (also quoted in the article) - are sticking two fingers up at book buyers in the interests of them making bigger royalties from their assured sales.

Going back to Neal Stephenson, we are reminded that it will still be patronage (in so far as a tenured academic position in creative writing or a writer in residence position can be called patronage) that drives literary fiction rather than gross sales. Cheaper books mean more people buy books, more people read books and the social value of literature is enhanced.

There's a sort of arrogance to Pullman's argument that something only has value if it is more expensive - for someone railing against 'market fundamentalism' it is doubly ridiculous as that 'price of everything, value of nothing' approach is usually directed at market fundamentalists! In the end the Society of Authors just want to fix the market for their members to make more money. And if books are more expensive we'll buy fewer of them - we'll buy Pullman's and Harris's latest but probably not the work of some new author we've not heard of.


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