Sunday, 2 March 2014

What price words?

The other day I was lamenting the poor sales of a relatively recent publication of mine. I openly invited people to have their say as to why they thought the book hadn't sold and the overwhelming response - in many cases voiced by exactly the people you might have expected to have bought the book themselves - was the price.

Now I agree that £13 is a lot for a gamebook, except that I don't think it is. Yes, it costs more than other similar books, but why should £13 for a book be seen as a lot of money? I know we are living in the Age of Austerity, but one adult ticket to see the latest 3D blockbuster release costs almost as much and if you take the family it's a lot more. If we continue with the movie ticket comparison, say you go to see a 2D movie, off peak, and pick up a snack at the same time. You're probably looking at spending somewhere in the region of £13 anyway, and that doesn't include transportation to and from the cinema. And you're paying this for an experience that lasts a couple of hours, if that.

Now I'm not bashing cinemas or movie makers. I love cinema, and happily shell out that sort of money to see a film that's been hyped to death for a year or more. But I will also happily shell out £13 or more for a book that will give me pleasure for more than just a couple of fleeting hours. When it comes to gamebooks in particular - and even more so in the case of Shadows Over Sylvania - you can re-read the book over and over again and experience a different story every time. And then in years to come you can pick up the book and enjoy the adventure it contains once more, enjoying it again almost as if for the first time, or recommend it to a friend, or pass it on to your children. And all for £13 (which is less than one round of drinks costs down at my local on Quiz night).

I was reading a sobering piece about the current climate in the world of literary fiction earlier today. That painted an even darker picture. The trouble, it seems, is that many people just don't appear to be prepared to pay a fair price for fiction. The fact that it only takes you a weekend to read a book should not detract from the fact that it might have taken the author a year to write it.

A writer friend of mine recently told me he'd been asked to write a book based on a popular IP but not through a conventional publishing house. As a result, those commissioning the story didn't know the going rate for such work and paid him a small fortune (in writing terms). Except that why shouldn't he be paid that amount? The company clearly thought it was worth it and were willing to pay that amount, and obviously had the money.

Or look at it this way. When I was commissioned to write my first ever book Spellbreaker, I was paid an advance. It wasn't a record-breaking amount, but it was very gratefully received. The book went on to earn back my advance and more money in royalties too, so clearly this was a fair amount. However, the problem is that over 20 years later, books that are twice the length come with an advance that it only slightly more, if they come with an advance at all. Prices have continued to rise, along with the cost of living, and yet advances on books haven't.

There seems to be an attitude among some that writers should just be grateful for being published at all, as if that is some worthy goal deserving of all manner of sacrifices to be achieved. And yet, if someone thinks your book is good enough to be published, then why isn't the author considered deserving of being paid a decent wage to write it in the first place?

I realise there are writers out there who are still paid healthy advances, thanks to the input of agents and the like, but why should us mid-listers - without whom many publishers would struggle to put enough books on shelves to keep themselves in business - be paid a pittance when it takes the same amount of time and effort to produce a book in the first place. Also, of all the amazing debut two-book deals you hear of in the publishing press, how many do you hear of signing another, equally impressive deal a few years down the line? There are some, I know some of them, but there aren't many. And then there are those of us who keep plugging away, writing book after book, who never reach the heady heights of literary stardom and yet who keep getting published and in the process hope to earn enough to be able to keep doing the same thing.

Is self-publishing in part to blame for this? Or is it the Age of Austerity I spoke of earlier, which has seen writers' earnings from schemes such as the Public Lending Right system threatened in recent years? At this point I'm minded of the occasion when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort and he replied, "Then what are we fighting for?"

So where am I going with this? I realise that I'm very fortunate to be published*, that I continue to be published, and that people seem to enjoy reading what I write. But is it too much to be asked that writers are paid a decent wage at the same time as entertaining thousands of readers the world over, helping them to escape the miseries of modern life through their writing? Well, is it?

* But I also believe in making your own luck.


Anonymous said...

No idea about the machinations of book sales but when I was a lad a fighting fantasy book in 1988 would equate to a weeks pocket money. (£3 per week) I had a poor upbringing.
What's the poorkids going rate for pockets money these days ? If we could find out, maybe we could discover a good all round price for that demographic.

Jonathan Green said...

That is a very sensible suggestion.

Nimue Brown said...

We are up against cinema, TV, internet, computer games, music, and going out for people's leisure budgets and time. Films have vast marketing budgets. Huge advert campaigns. I think a bit part of the problem is that the industry as a whole has imagined the book is somehow sacrosanct, innately desirable, and therefore that books do not need the kind of aggressive marketing other forms of popular entertainment get. And so most books are released with no publicity worth mentioning, and then do not go on to attract the same interest as a film that has spent the last six months being promoted. Consider what a film does for book sales - people would buy books, if only they knew about them.

jam hirons said...

Yea online poll perhaps. Maybe on itself.

Joseph Kelly said...

Surely internet downloading must have had a pretty brutal affect on publishing too? I'm actually pretty much alone amongst my friends in buying books anymore. I read lots, and buys lots (2-3 per week - and I own everything you've published, apart from a possible random White Dwarf article or two) of books. But no shit, everyone I know either a)doesn't read, or b) downloads books illegally. We roleplay weekly, and they won't even pay for that; again, everything is downloaded. It's not about price, it's about instant gratification and about a sense of entitlement to art (I could write the the same comment above, replace 'books' with 'music' and it would be the true. Except I don't own any of your music...). That said Jon, I am going, right this minute, to buy another copy of 'Shadows' as a gift to my godson.

Jonathan Green said...

Thank you, Joseph. You are a gent, sir!

A writer friend of mine regularly falls out with a friend of his who feels that a book shouldn't cost him more than £2, while he will happily spend £3 on a coffee.

And you own everything I've written? That's pretty impressive. :-)

Joseph Kelly said...

It's not hyperbole, as far as I know... Maybe there's something missing, possibly a short story or two. I actually have a few double-ups of the FFs. And probably brought a few more of the FFs and given them away as gifts. I'm not really into steampunk but still enjoy your stuff in that genre. It's the gamebooks I come back to though.