If like me you read the book trade news you could be forgiven for falling into a bleak writerly trench. The Author, a quarterly magazine for members of the Society of Authors, aired on the side of gloomy in its Spring 2011 edition (their statistics - sourced from The Bookseller) ‘overall book sales fell 4% by volume’… and…’as we go to press 11 Waterstone’s stores are being closed in the UK, while in the US the retail chain Borders inches ever closer to bankruptcy.’
So far, so depressing. And don’t look for the upbeat in the spring edition of Mslexia, where the well respected author Louise Doughty charts ‘the quiet catastrophe of the mid-list author,’ describing it as a ‘cull’. In ALCS News, the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society magazine, Mal Peet, a children’s author, conducted a straw poll amongst teenagers of his acquaintance, he found that a large proportion did not understand the meaning of the copyright symbol and a staggering 70% believed from a book priced £10 the author would receive all of it, other guesses were £7.50 and £5.00 – I wish!
I have looked at various statistics regarding how the cover price of a paper book is divided and it comes to something like this. Manufacturing 15%; Royalties 8-15%; Distribution and marketing 8%;Overheads 9%; Trade discount 45-55%; Publishers profit 5%. On a book with a £10 cover price the author gets between £0.80 and £1.50.
When publishing e-books there are savings made in distribution and manufacturing.
Alison Pressley, ex-publisher, tells me ‘even more gloomily (for authors), the bookseller discount is now considerably higher for a lot of the print run. The independent bookshops, who order a single copy or maybe three or four copies of any one book, could get 40%, maybe 45%, discount. But they are closing by the minute, being overtaken by big chains who demand 60%-plus discounts, and even worse, the supermarkets, who often get 70%. Publishers don't get a bean until a certain percentage of the print run has been sold - and even then, with the sale-or-return system, they can find that what they thought was a profit turns into a loss when the unsold books are returned. And of course with the high discounts, authors receive not a percentage of recommended retail price but a percentage of price received, a very different animal. I've spoken to many authors who've never had a royalty cheque, having only ever received the advance which has not earned out. Mind you, sometimes advances can be high. Which is why I'm so keen on the e-book model, provided the elimination of the middle man results in more for the authors, not Amazon or whoever.’
The value of the UK book market in 2010, is estimated to be worth £3.4bn 1.6% lower than 2009. Digital products in 2010 were estimated between £170-180m representing 5-6% combined. (Statistics courtesy of The Publishers’ Association.)
So just where are those reasons to be cheerful?
A delightful day spent at the first Voewood Literary Festival in North Norfolk. I heard Diana Athill expertly interviewed by her friend Damian Barr, and Mark Logue and Peter Conradi discussing their book The Kings Speech. A welcome local addition to the literary festival scene Voewood was eclectic, if a little disordered, in the nicest possible sense. Simon Finch and Clare Conville put together an immensely enjoyable three day event combining literature, art and music. I participated in two master classes and enjoyed sauntering through the beautiful gardens. Best of all I ran into a number of former writing students and friends. One, Amanda Addison, has secured a book deal with Little Brown for her novel Laura’s Handmade Life.
And the French have reversed the termination of the net book agreement, stating it was damaging to their culture. Where the French go we do not necessarily follow, but you have to admire their stance.
And finally, a friend of my nineteen year old son came to discuss writing; this young man has thirty thousand words of a novel and wants some advice. I am cheered by the fact that however gloomy the world of publishing maybe about its future, promising young writers remain passionate about literature and writing. In the end we all love a good story.