Sunday, 24 March 2013

The undead book

I've just had a royalty statement for a book I wrote some years ago.  It is called Witch Hunt and was published by Hodder.  It is a piece of narrative non-fiction about the Salem witch trials.  It is, I firmly believe, a very good book.  It is also out of print.

Royalty statements are a bit of a mystery to everyone outside the publishing industry and, to be honest, they can be pretty confusing even if you see them every six months.  They are the kind of documents that seems designed to make the information they contain as hard to ingest as possible.

The writer of a book receives a share of the sale price, agreed on contract.  Royalty statements are sent to writers from their publisher and detail the sales of books and the money due - if any - to the writer.

I say 'if any' because royalty statements can just as easily show a negative figure as a positive one.  This is because when the writer signs a contract with their publisher, they will almost certainly be paid an 'advance'.  This advance - the amount of which varies from publisher to publisher, writer to writer - will have to be 'earned out' before the writer will receive any royalties.

The bigger the advance, the harder it is to pay off.  But because a writer cannot control the sales of a book - although they can obviously help, by attending events, promoting themselves online an so on - most writers (and their agents) will want to try and get the best advance they can.

However, most writers will also want to 'earn out' their advance.  Not just because they want to earn royalties, but because if you don't pay off that advance, you will be in a weaker position the next time you negotiate with your publisher.  But more than that - books that don't earn out their advance drag behind you like the links on Jacob Marley's chains.

Good writers don't just churn books out (and yes I am saying I am a good writer).  We have to balance our artistic needs with the requirement to pay bills, but mostly, I have a real emotional commitment to anything I write.

When a book does not sell it hurts.  I mean it really hurts.  It may be a disappointment to your publisher, but it is often far more than just a financial disappointment to the author.  When a book that you put your heart and soul into does not sell, it can be really upsetting - and unsettling.

A book generally has a limited window of opportunity to sell - or two, if it has a hardback release initially.  In a perfect world, there will be a sales and marketing budget behind your hardback book and it will appear on tabletops in Waterstones and get reviewed in a couple of national papers and those (hopefully positive) reviews will decorate the jacket of your paperback.  Maybe you'll be nominated for an award.  Or even win one.

Your book needs to sell whilst this wind is in its sails.  It needs your other books to sell too.  You need to elbow yourself some room on the shelves.  The book's life - or half-life - will be extended on Amazon, and maybe it will get another chance if your next book sells well.  But maybe it will - gulp - go out of print.

Meanwhile those royalty statements keep coming, reminding you of that failure, telling you exactly how little a dent you have made in that advance.  Its a pain that cannot be cured, because the book, if it out of print, cannot sell any more copies.  I think many writers feel guilty about this.  They feel as though they have let the publisher down.  They feel they've let themselves down.  But that's not necessarily the case.

We all want to believe that quality will out, but experience tells us this is not the case.  We see it in our own work, and we see it in the work of others.  Good books (movies, plays, whatever) do not always do well.  Bad books (movies, plays, whatever) often do very well indeed.  Part of this is explained by the subjectivity of the term 'good', I should add.

So what do I think went wrong with Witch Hunt?  I'll start with what I think is right with it.  I think it's well written (well I would say that., wouldn't I) and was well edited by Anne Clark (who is now an agent).  The subject matter is a strong one - there is a perennial interest in witches and in the Salem witch trial.  It also links to the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s and to Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

What, in retrospect, may not have worked was the idea of narrative non-fiction.  It is a very successful genre in books for adults, but is perhaps confusing for children's booksellers.  The cover - which I actually quite like - is designed to look like fiction, I think, but the girl's face effectively rules out boy readers.  It could have been a bit less tasteful too.

Add to that the fact that the budgets for educational books are relatively small, and it becomes harder to promote the book.  It did get reviewed and had a couple of really nice ones as I remember.  But the fact remains that a book like this has a very small chance to get noticed before it sinks - as this one sadly did.  I remember seeing it in only one bookshop - and when I did, it was in the fiction section.

It is humbling to accept, that the success of your book may have as much, if not more, to do with the quality of the cover, the publicity, or of the sales or marketing budget, than about the quality of the prose.  But unless the audience know its there, the book cannot sell.  It is really as simple as that.  And so the writer can feel the book did not sell because the publisher did not back it with sufficient zeal.  The writer can grow bitter.  But who is to tell where the blame - if that's even the right word - lays.  There is always the possibility - however unlikely it seems - that the book you wrote, the book you loved and devoted so many hours to, was actually a bit dull, a bit derivative - not very good.

These undead books that come back to haunt us are reminders of something that went wrong in the mix of writing, editing, design, sales, marketing, publicity, but unfortunately they don't tell us which specific aspect failed.  As dispiriting as it may be to have a book that refused to sell, as a writer all you can really do is put it down to experience and go on and write the very best book you can - every time.

Crying over unsold books is the silliest of all writerly self-indulgences.  Let it go.

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