Thursday, 28 April 2011

Is writing a meritocracy?

It's something I've been thinking of a lot recently.

As I continue to plough through my own work, reading and re-reading aloud I realise that, hopefully, by year's end I'll be sending these books out into the world. Though I can't remember a precise date, I think I've been working on these books for the past 5 years (end of 2006), which is a long time I think you'll agree. So it'll be closer to 6 years when I think I'll be finished finished.

But does all this hard work guarantee that I'll be published?

The answer is no, because in the end, writing, like all the arts, isn't a meritocracy. It isn't all the best or hardest working writers at the top and the 'ok' writers in the midlist. It isn't only good writers who get published. There are some writers who are at the top even though their stuff isn't that well written and there are authors out there who are very good but no one reads them.

Now, in no way am I saying that I deserve to be at the top, or even published at all. People seem to have enjoyed the short stories I've managed to get published but there are other stories I've written that aren't published at all and I think they're very good. (But what do I know? Of course I think they're good.) That means my stories have to be taken into account individually and not as part of my work as a whole. Just because some of my shorts are good that doesn't mean these novels are as well. They could be awful. I could have made terrible mistakes that I didn't make in my shorts and never even see them as mistakes!

So what makes the difference in selling / publishing books?

Skill is a factor, of course it is, you can't be published if you're simply terrible. I hope, and I stress the word hope, that I'm a good writer and that that will at least get me as far as turning a few heads. Maybe at least get me an agent even if he/she can't sell my novels to a publisher.

But it's not the only thing. There are few who will say J.K. Rowling is a great writer, or Meyer or Brown. They write entertaining stories, for sure, but are they really that much better then all the others? Probably not.

So what else is there?

Luck, of course, and in some ways this is a very big factor. The right book at the right time, what the audience wants, what the media latches on to, even being read when the agent / publisher is in a good mood. These all make a difference. Don't think luck is a factor in success in the creative arts? Tell The Candyskins. Tell Meyer. Tell Brown. Do you think the authors or the publishers knew what a hit they were getting when the manuscript landed on their desks? Probably not. These books touched something in people, the right thing at the right time.

And then there's the marketing and publicity.

I'm into books, as you might well have noticed. But I know very little about music. I like music, love it even, but I don't know the new bands any more, what's good or what's not. All I know are the ones advertised on TV and played on the radio. I'm not immersed in that world. And there are the few I'm still into from the days when I was really in that world; Interpol are a great band but they're not played on the radio so few hear of them. And I don't feel I have the time to go digging around to discover the new underground, less-well-known talents.

There are people out there who are the same with books. They don't want to spend time browsing, or wasting money trying things. They want to be told 'this is good, read this' which is how the Meyers and Browns of this world are born; a massive surge of word-of-mouth, 'read this because everyone else is reading it so it must be good'.

So that's where marketing and publicity comes in. All those people getting on with their lives not thinking about books are told what's good. They're told it on posters, radio interviews, magazine ads, reviews and in retailer offers and displays. They see the books that have had money spent on them by the publisher to get them pride of place. 'This must be good otherwise why would there be a poster saying so?' Money spent on a book to make it visible over others makes a difference and there are too many books for them all to get money. Some of those that do get money are those that have done well before and the rare few others are those the company truly believes in.

Publicity is a little different, it isn't paid for but effort is still made to make one title stand out over another in order to get a reviewer to pick it up out of the hundreds of titles they must get every week. Sometimes, that's more money spent but it's always a case of time and effort being taken to make the interesting, eye-catching covering letter or press release. And some books have more time spent on them than others. These are likely to be the books that are having money spent on them to ensure return on investment.

A degree of skill from the author is required here. Their books have to be good or topical or well talked up to gain publicity. The author also has to have a willingness to go that extra mile to do interviews, write articles and blogs etc. Again some are better than others. You might be a mediocre writer but good at publicity.

And then of course retailers buy on the strength of previous sales. If an author doesn't sell many of one book then the shops are going to buy less of the next one, or if it does really well, they may buy lots. Sales breed sales. This means more or less shelf space in the shops and determines how visible that author is among all the others, feeding back to that 'most visible' thing I was talking about earlier.

Believe me when I say that there are authors out there who are only as strong as the money spent on them. If the money wasn't spent their sales would disappear.

So, yeah.

In the end, though I have enjoyed writing these novels, there is simply no guarantee they will be published, just as my short stories have seen varying degrees of success. Some have been published but my favourite one has been to 15 magazines and has yet to find a home. There's just no saying for sure.

And at this stage of the game I'd be happy simply to be publish and to earn enough to do it for a living. Because it's what I love.

But anyway, the read-through is progressing. I'm currently 331 of 963 (34%) of the way there. So at the moment I'm sort of on track for this stage to be finished around August / September.

Of course, this page count isn't entirely accurate. I had to skip the end of Part One as it needed a rewrite far greater than my reading aloud process allows for and the same for part of chapter 26 in Part Two. And I have a list of changes I need to make so another sub-stage of editing is developing where I make all these changes. But I'm getting there, slowly but surely, I'm getting there.

And so to books I've read this month.

Monsters of Men was great. What a great trilogy. I've gone and bought his new one A Monster Calls which is a gorgeous looking book (but surprisingly heavy, physically).

The House on the Strand - the first book by Daphne Du Maurier I've ever read. And probably the last. I'm sure she was very good for her day but it was really just a story of a man reading a book about local history. And she labours points. A lot.

A Hero of our Time - This is quite an old Russian novel that I heard about last year on Radio 4. It was quite interesting with a few neat observations on humanity and the male ego. It was also short, which helped.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - apparently the author is huge in other countries but not in the UK. I can kind of see why. The writing is great, the story is fine but perhaps it's the setting that puts the people of the UK off. It's sort of an English non-time, in the same sort of world as A Series of Unfortunate Events. It's England-the-Foreign-Country, an idealised place of hazy summers and postmen on bikes that us natives might find difficult to swallow.

The Templar Salvation - not my usual cup of tea but I enjoyed it for the most part. A balls out action piece. It's nice to sometimes have your balls out.

I'm currently reading The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss but as it's too heavy to carry on the tube in the mornings, I'm also reading The Guardians, which is a story about a haunted house, which I will form an opinion on for next time.

And now it's time for the bank holiday. I hope you all enjoy it.

Message ends.

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