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Saturday, 20 July 2013
A writer’s lot is not always a happy one.
On the other hand, most of the writers that I know are very happy to be writing and to be paid to be writing.
Publishing seems to have fallen on hard times, and I know that writers are taking smaller and smaller advances. I know, too that there is still decent money out there for the big hitters. I wonder, for example, what Robert Galbraith will earn on his next two or three thrillers. Thrillers sell well, and his first novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is set to be a big hit. Do you detect a hint of sarcasm in my tones? Of course you don’t. I’m a pragmatist. I have to be, after all, I’m a writer, too.
I believe it was Victor Gollancz who said,
Let’s publish it all and hope we’ll make enough money on the swings to pay for the rather more important roundabouts.
You see, I want the JK Rowlings of this World to sell well, because without them no one’s going to take a risk on my little novels.
The truth is, right now, no one is going to take a risk on my little novels, anyway, because publishing appears to be in trouble.
That’s why I’m not altogether impressed with Vikram Seth.
If I was Vikram Seth, I'd be looking
pretty worried too!
I ask you... How hard can it be?
The news, as I understand it, is that Mr Seth has been invited to hand back the 1.7 million pound advance that he was given to produce “The Suitable Girl”, a sort of sequel to his epic 1993 bestselling novel, “A Suitable Boy”.
One novel, twenty years, £1,700,000.00
How is that NOT a no-brainer?
As a writer, it’s hard to understand how Mr Seth has not met this obligation. He’s an intelligent man, he’s a writer, and he’s done this before. I’ve done this before, I’ve failed to sell my novels, and I’ve failed to raise an advance for my next novel, and I’ve still managed to sit myself down to write another book.
Perhaps he simply isn’t hungry, literally or intellectually. Perhaps Mr Seth is happy living off the royalties that his work has produced over the past quarter of a century. I don’t know. Perhaps he simply doesn’t have it in him.
He might have let someone know something about that before now, perhaps? If there is 1.7 million pounds in the kitty, perhaps that money might have been spent elsewhere.
The problem is, that was a sure fire investment. That was money that was going to make money. That was the swings money. If Mr Seth doesn’t deliver his novel, that 1.7m will go back in the pot, but what about earning out that advance what about royalties, what about seed money for new writers. The publisher might have reasonably expected to double or triple its investment on that advance.
Some would argue that 1.7m pays for a lot of first novels by a lot of first time writers. OK, say three thousand pounds per first novel, thats 566 new books by new writers. How many of them will earn back their advance? Even if its half, which is unlikely, and half of them make three thousand pounds worth of royalties in their first year of sale, which is also very unlikely, the publisher is still nowhere near making back its investment, let alone making any money.
If one of those 566 new writers has a huge hit on his hands and sells, say, the same number of books as The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling in its first year of sales, it’ll sell about 350,000 copies. That grosses about 2.8m. Sounds like break even point to me, more-or-less. What, though, do you suppose the chances are that one new novelist in 566 is going to be the next JK Rowling, or that he or she is going to do it with his or her first novel in its first year?
The last thing any publisher wants to do is take back a big advance from one of its top earners. These writers earn big money for themselves, because they earn big money for the publisher, and that’s what allows the publisher to speculate on the next big thing.
I believe that Vikram Seth has a responsibility to himself and his family, but also to his agent, his publisher and to all writers everywhere.
I also think that publishers have a responsibility to remember Victor Gollancz’s words. I realise that it’s tough, but the swings pay for the roundabouts, and speculation is part of this business. If no one speculates on new, exciting writers there’ll be no future for publishing at all, because the whole industry will stagnate under the weight of derivative pap that seems to be de rigueur right now. As readers, we want the next great story by the next great writer, not just poor imitations of things we enjoyed last year or the year before. Safe is not always sensible.
I don’t know what the outcome of this story will be. I suspect that negotiations will continue, but the bottom line is that Vikram Seth owes all of us a book, and there is no one who can fill his shoes. I do hope he doesn’t let us down, but I fear that he might.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask of one man, and perhaps the cult of celebrity is too much of a burden to put on a writer. Perhaps the publishing industry should look more closely at its reliable middle ranking writers and back them a little more, and perhaps it should do more to nurture its first time writers rather than let them sink or swim with their first two novels and whatever publicity they can self-generate via FaceBook and Twitter and blogs like this one. While I'm at it, perhaps first time writers shouldn't sign contracts that don't include royalties. Where did that trend come from? If a book earns out its advance, the publisher loses nothing by paying a royalty to the novelist. Everyone earns. That's how it has always been, and that's how it should continue to be.
I don’t know. I guess there are no right or wrong answers.
When my time comes, though, when I get my share of Mr Seth’s 1.7 million pound advance and my very first independent novel hits the bookshelves, I hope I can rely on you lot to, at least, ensure that I sell more than the average of 18 books... I’m banking on you.