Monday, 11 May 2015

Buy books. Use real money.

The harsh realities of publishing economics have led to a lot of angst and breast-beating amongst writers lately. Last month, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society claimed that the median income of professional writers was £11,000. Cue howls of anguish from would-be novelists complaining that the world was unfair to their creative genius.

I think I might be forgiven for joining in. Burke at Waterloo will be available on Amazon from Thursday. I started writing it just over a year ago and, during that year, I’ve read a lot of modern and 19th century accounts of the battle and books and papers about the background to it. I’ve visited military museums in Winchester and Paris and been to a two-day conference on Waterloo at Sandhurst. I’ve corresponded with an expert on 19th-century firearms and had long discussions about the speed of travel by horse in this period. I've worked with two editors and a proofer. A cover designer has put on a beautiful cover and the whole thing has been set so that it can be enjoyed electronically or as a paperback book. I don't know exactly how much the book will be selling for, but the two previous Burke books cost less than £2 each on Kindle. I’ll leave it to you to work out how much of that comes to me and what that equates to per hour of work.

So, yes, I agree that the world is unfair. On the other hand, it's probably rather more unfair to a lot of other people than to the essentially comfortably middle-class educated types who are ever going to see their words in print. And nobody, after all, was ever chained to a word processor and told that they couldn't work in a hospital or factory but they must, instead, suffer the indignity of writing for a living. It's a sobering thought, nonetheless, that you can go online and buy the result of a year’s worth of my effort for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Of course, even a small payment per book sold will give me a decent income (though probably not £11,000) if I sell quite a lot of them. But in this incredibly crowded marketplace, how do I do that? One option that many writers take is to promote their books by giving them away either free or at artificially low prices (yes, apparently, £1.99 isn't artificially low). This has led to further cries of pain, partly because you don't make any money out of a book that is given away for nothing, but also because many writers feel that this devalues the worth of their novels and hence, by extension, their writing and themselves.

I think the first thing to do is to separate out two different aspects of the question. The first is: does it make economic sense to give books away? The answer here is that it’s a commercial decision. I am published by one of the UK’s larger independent publishers (Accent Press) and they decide on how to price and promote my books. One reason I don’t self-publish is that I suspect that they know more about the commercial realities of publishing than I do, so I leave it to them. I don’t like seeing my hard work given away for nothing, but if they think that they’re setting a sprat to catch a mackerel (gosh, I haven’t heard anyone say that in a while) then I’m happy to sacrifice the odd sprat.

The second question is: are writers undervaluing themselves by pricing their books cheaply? This isn’t just a problem for writers. Musician friends are always posting on Facebook to complain that they are asked to play gigs for ludicrously low fees or even for no money at all. Unfortunately, in a capitalist free market things are worth what people are prepared to pay for them and, alas, people are not prepared to pay sensible amounts of money for books. I have a friend who has said that she is happy to read my books and happy to buy me a drink when she sees me, but she's not prepared to pay the price of a drink to buy her own copy of the book. Electronic publishing and piracy have made books into something that many people simply think should come without a price tag. Paying for books (like paying for music) has become something that a lot of people nowadays just don't do.

It seems that if writers want to feel valued, they are going to have to measure their worth in terms other than cold hard cash. Which, in many ways, is fair enough. Writers get fan letters (yes, even me). They get to read reviews where people publicly praise their work to the world at large and how many other jobs is that true of? They do something that they chose to do, which is personally fulfilling and which still commands a degree of respect from people at parties. Do they really need money too?

Well, for many people, the answer is clearly, ‘Yes.’ As Shakespeare asked, in another context: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? … If you poison us, do we not die?’ And, more to the point, if you neglect to feed us, do we not starve to death? For most people, earning a living is something they just have to do. This means that writing is increasingly the preserve of the old (living off their life savings) and the privileged (living off the backs of the poor – or a loving spouse). There are, of course, dedicated souls who do all their writing after an honest day’s work, but they don’t tend to have fulfilling full-time jobs, or families, or, indeed, lives.

Does it matter if writers are drawn from a small section of society? Does it matter if the young and the poor don’t get to write? Given that writers are all slightly mad anyway, is it a concern that most people with a family and a full-time job wouldn’t be able to write, even if they wanted to?

Perhaps it should. Perhaps a vibrant culture should represent everyone, not just those privileged to be in a position to put in the hours it takes to produce a decent book.

So what should we do? We could give state subsidies to writers, but in countries where this happens, the State almost inevitably ends up telling writers what they should write.

One approach used in the UK in the past was the Net Book Agreement. This was essentially a price-fixing agreement so that you just weren’t able to buy cheap books. If you wanted a book, you had to pay what the publishers had agreed was a reasonable price – an amount that authors could live on.

I think life has moved on since those days. Such an assault on the values of the free market would not be tolerated in 2015. Nor was it without its problems in the days when it operated. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement led to a collapse in book prices which has meant far more reading. More people buying more books is surely a good thing and I think it's sad when authors, desperate for some way to keep a reasonable income stream, espouse a cause which will reduce the amount of reading happening in the country.

I’m assuming that if you’ve got this far you think that reading is a good thing. You probably think that the government should support the arts more. You like public libraries. You agree that something should be done! But what?

Here’s an idea. Remember way back at the beginning of this post, when I said that if I sold a lot of books, even at a low cover price, I’d make enough money to make it worthwhile? That goes for other writers too. So if you care about the future of writing in the UK, next week (and every week thereafter) just forgo one cup of coffee (or one pint of beer, or one jumbo chocolate bar) and spend the money on a book. Think of it as your contribution to culture.

It doesn’t have to be my book – but make it something that isn’t a best seller (that charmed circle are the only authors who don’t need the money). You don’t even have to read it, though you may be pleasantly surprised if you do.

Burke at Waterloo will be published on Thursday.


  1. Aha! I claim inspiration for some of this!! hahahaha. Good post.

  2. UPDATE: Accent Press no longer put books free on Amazon as they no longer see a commercial benefit.

  3. I've just RT'd this. Still some very relevant points, three years later!