Thursday, June 30, 2005

Dragon Tamers -- part 93

In writing about Dragon Tamers yet again I recognise that I am in some danger of making a mountain out of a molehill. But there have been several readers of this blog who have not only shown an interest in past discussion of this book, but have followed up aspects of the story on their own. Furthermore, there is perhaps at least one point of principle buried beneath a pile of trivia, and I might be able to dig it out. So I think it is at least appropriate to discuss the matter one more time, and then perhaps we can leave it in peace.

The story so far is this. In December 2004, Aultbea Publishing, a Scottish firm which had previously specialised in publishing scientific and technical journals, published a book called Dragon Tamers by a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Emma Maree Urquhart.

In February, the Times published an article about this book in which various claims were made about sales, film rights et cetera. I wrote about the Times article on 7 February; I made the point that some of these claims seemed to me to be more likely to be publisher's hype than established fact, and I wondered aloud why a paper of the Times's standard should be publishing a press release apparently verbatim and without asking any obvious questions.

By the way, some of the links in my posts to old newspaper articles may no longer work.

Later in February, a similar article appeared in the Independent, repeating most of the earlier claims and carrying a headline to the effect that 'Schoolgirl's tale about dragons becomes hot stuff in Hollywood.' I wrote about this article on 18 February, saying, among other things, that, since there was no evidence that anyone had even bought an option on the film rights, this headline seemed, shall we say, a trifle premature.

The Independent published yet another piece (written, like the first, by the paper's Scotland correspondent, Paul Kelbie) on 21 June. This June piece offered nothing new. I commented on it in my post of 24 June.

By that time I was getting a little tired of what was, after all, a relatively trivial matter, but various readers pursued various aspects of the story (see the comments on my post of 21 June), so I decided to try to establish a few facts instead of groping in the dark.

Earlier this week, I sent an email to Charles Faulkner, who is the owner of Aultbea Publishing, and he has now replied. I shall reproduce my own email, and his reply, below, after which I shall make a few comments. And that, I hope, will be that.

I would like to say at the outset that I am grateful to Charles Faulkner for sending me a very civil and reasonable reply. In the circumstances he might have been forgiven for being a little testy. He could also have legitimately claimed that the questions that I asked were matters of commercial confidence and essentially none of my business. It is to his credit that he has replied as fully as he has.

Here then is what I wrote to Charles Faulkner of Aultbea on 27 June.

Dear Mr Faulkner

I run a daily book blog, the Grumpy Old Bookman (link below), which reports on and comments on the UK book business. Earlier this year, the GOB blog was listed by the Guardian as one of the top ten literary blogs worldwide.

The first press reports about Emma Maree Urquhart's Dragon Tamers appeared in February. On 7 February I wrote an article on my blog about the report in the Times.

I began by saying this: 'If Emma Maree and her publisher have managed to sell a decent number of copies of her book, congratulations to them. I am delighted. I am always pleased when anyone achieves even a modest degree of success in the book world, because God knows it doesn't happen very often.'

However, I noted that the Times report contained little in the way of hard fact, and I was sceptical that a publisher with virtually no previous experience in book publishing could have sold 50,000 copies in six weeks.

On 18 February I noted that a similar report had appeared in the Independent with a headline which was patently absurd.

Last week (24 June) I noted that there was a further lengthy report in the Independent which repeated some of the earlier claims but added nothing new.

It is not, of course, uncommon for publishers and commercial enterprises generally to sing the praises of their product, and to give optimistic assessments of how well those products are performing in the marketplace. However, in my blog reports I have expressed some dismay that newspapers of the quality and standing of the Times and the Independent should have accepted a publisher's publicity statements at face value, without asking some obvious questions.

That being the case, I would like to put to you some questions which would occur to anyone with a reasonable working knowledge of the UK book trade. I hope you will feel able to reply, and if you do the answers will be reported on my blog.

I would like to address three issues: sales of Dragon Tamers in the home market; sale of film rights; translation deals.

1. Sales of Dragon Tamers in the home market

Were sales and distribution of the book handled entirely by Aultbea, or did you use the services of some other organisation?

Was the quoted sales figure of 50,000 made up of many individual orders from high-street booksellers, Amazon etc., or was it, in part or in full, a bulk purchase by one company?

Can you give an indication of total sales to date? By 'sales' I mean the number of copies actually bought by readers, and recorded independently by Nielsen Bookscan; I do not mean the number held in stock by booksellers or in your warehouse.

2. Film rights

Have you succeeded in selling the film rights of Dragon Tamers outright?

Or have you sold on option on the film rights?

In either case, can you name the purchaser, and the price paid? A broad indication would suffice: e.g. a four figure sum (i.e. £1000 to £9,999 range), five-figure sum, etc.

3. Translation deals

Have you succeeded in selling any foreign rights in Dragon Tamers? If so, can you name the companies, languages, and give a broad indication of the price paid?

As one who has had practical experience of publishing in the past (and I still run a small press today), I am well aware of how difficult it is to sell books. To repeat: I admire anyone who can achieve even a modest degree of success in today's market. And I understand full well that, in order to attract attention to a book, it is necessary to plug it hard. However,unless you can provide me with more evidence than has been made public so far, I shall remain of the view that the success of Dragon Tamers has been overstated.

Michael Allen

As noted above, Charles Faulkner has now replied to my email, and here is what he had to say:

Dear Michael

Re: Dragon Tamers

Thank you for your interest in our young authoress Emma Marie Urquhart and her book Dragon Tamers.

I note from your letter that you are listed by the Guardian as 'one of the top ten literary blogs worldwide.' I am sure that you have worked hard to achieve this accolade with 'Grumpy Old Bookman' which I really enjoyed reading.

I thought that it might be a good idea for me to set the record straight and answer your questions as there has been a lot written about Aultbea and our young authors. To some extent I think that you are right in pointing out that the hard questions have not been asked yet.

The main thrusts of your various articles were, I think based on the quoted 'sales' figure of 50,000 copies. What I said at the time was that we had printed 50,000 copies and that I expected to have them sold quickly as the sales trend was encouraging. The press have used that figure and connotation since.

I will briefly cover your other points. There was a film contract that was at final stages of negotiation for a US Corp. to take an option. We pulled out. There is another multimedia deal that is in late stages of negotiation but I cannot give details until it is signed.

We have succeeded in selling the foreign rights to Dragon Tamers and again, once the deals have been signed, this information will be made public.

I want to hear what people think of our young author's tales and stories. Once we have read all of the critics, once we have given these young people a fair chance, then maybe we can look at the commercial aspects of this. The time for talking about numbers is not now; it is confusing the issue as was evident by the graphic definitions and explanations in your questionnaire.

[Paragraph omitted in which he gives me his private phone number.]

Do call me if you have any questions whatsoever.

Once again, thank you for your interest in Aultbea Publishing and our authors.

Kind regards

Charles Faulkner, Aultbea Publishing, Inverness

In addition to writing to Charles Faulkner, I also sent an email to Paul Kelbie, Scotland correspondent of the Independent, with the following covering note:

Dear Mr Kelbie

Set out below is the text of an email that I have today sent to Charles Faulkner, owner of Aultbea Publishing Company, about the novel Dragon Tamers. If you have any comment to make I shall be pleased to hear from you.

So far I have had no reply from Mr Kelbie. Well, he's probably on holiday. It's that time of year.

Finally (at last! I hear you sigh; if you have read this far), let us make a few concluding comments.

What we have here, not unexpectedly, is a publisher banging the drum for his book. Why not? It's what he's supposed to do. Authors complain loud enough when their publishers don't do it. And, OK, so he exaggerated a little here and there. It is hard to complain about that, when we have a Government that does the self-same thing.

What irked me originally, and irks me now, is that two newspapers (at least) should have printed what was clearly an overly rosy version of the facts. What, I think it is reasonable to ask, did they think they were up to?

Either the reporters who wrote these stories weren't doing a very good job, or else they knew full well that they were printing unsubstantiated claims, and were just desperate for something to fill up the white space. Which, in a quality newspaper, is deplorable.

Well, as I say, it's all essentially trivial, apart from the point of principle about what appears in the press. I do hope that Emma Maree Urquhart, and the other young writers who are now published by Aultbea, have been told that you shouldn't believe everything that the newspapers tell you.

Perhaps now we can all turn to something else.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Doctorow system

Cory Doctorow is a high-tech sort of guy and I have sung his praises more than once on this blog. See, for instance, his brilliant analysis of why digital-rights management systems don't work.

Doctorow is also a novelist, and as such he puts, so to speak, his money where his mouth is. On 19 June, he announced on his blog ( that his third novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, had just been published by Tor Books.

More to the point, perhaps, than this 'so what?' news, is the fact that the text of this book, like the text of his two previous novels, is available for free online under copyright terms that allow the 'unlimited, noncommercial redistribution of the text.'

Major publishing houses, as we have noted before, are sweating bullets over the danger of having their stuff ripped off digitally, but Doctorow has managed to persuade his publishers that they can relax.

This particular writer invites his readers to send his digital book file to their friends, paste it into a chat, beam it to a friend's PDA, or print out a chapter to hand out in the university common room. What is more, through the terms of Doctorow’s Creative Commons licence, people in developing nations are free to sell print versions of the book for their own profit! As long as they sell them only in developing nations.

Now here is some original thinking. I was going to say at last; but it isn't at last at all, because Cory Doctorow has been preaching this gospel for a while now.

The story comes (via from the Book Standard, where you can read more about it and follow various links to a lot more good stuff as well.

There is much in this story to digest and think about. But one does wonder somehow whether anyone in the big-time publishers is really prepared to do any original thinking. Or at any rate to act upon such thoughts. It's a bit like politicians and the reform of the welfare state. It is, after all, so much safer to go on doing the same old thing. Trying something new could go horribly wrong. A chap might end up out of a job! Oh, calamity!

The Old Pals Act of 1898

This is a piece about doing favours for your friends. In other words, it's about operating under the terms of the Old Pals Act of 1898.

In fact, the relevant legislation goes back far further than 1898. There was a medieval statute, which was based on Roman law; and before that there were cavemen who had the stone-age equivalent. But it is recent manifestations of this ancient piece of legislation which will concern us today.

Back in 1962, the UK Sunday Times stopped being just a black and white newspaper and introduced a magazine-style colour supplement. The main purpose of this supplement was to enable advertisers to place full-colour glossy ads, for which the ST could charge oodles of money.

In journalistic terms, the colour supplement was a pretty high-class publication, with some good reporting and excellent photography. It seldom published fiction. But one day, in the mid 1970s, I opened the ST supplement and found that it was serialising a novel. It was a novel about the mafia by one Norman Lewis. (You can read an enormous article about Norman Lewis if you wish, and it is certainly interesting, but let us not get distracted.)

In the 1970s I will still a relatively young man, and still very naive and ignorant about the UK book trade. And so when I saw that the ST was serialising a thriller about the mafia -- and remember please that they seldom published any fiction at all -- I thought to myself Wow! This must be one hell of a book.

So I sat down to read the extracts. And you know what? I didn't think it was a very good book at all. Rather boring in fact. Run of the mill.

I puzzled over this phenomenon for some time. It worried me. Other people obviously thought that the book was brilliant, otherwise it wouldn't have been picked out from a thousand others. What was there in the book that I was missing?

The answer, as you will have guessed, is that I was missing nothing. The novel was indeed a pretty run of the mill thriller. What I had overlooked was the previously existing relationship between the author and the Sunday Times.

About ten years later, I read a reference in Private Eye, to the effect that Norman Lewis was a long-standing member of the ST staff; and it was then that the penny finally dropped. (I know, I know, I'm slow.)

In order get his novel serialised in the ST colour supplement, Norman didn't have to write the thriller of the century. All he had to do was wander down the corridor to see his friend the editor and say, 'By the way, George, I've written this novel that's coming out in a couple of months. Any chance of running a couple of extracts in the old ST?'

And George would have said, 'Certainly, old boy. No problem. How much do you want?'

And that, you see, is a deal done under the terms of the Old Pals Act of 1898.

Furthermore, as you may already have observed, the UK Act has its counterparts in almost every other part of the world which is known to man. And recent press reports suggest that there is a particularly powerful form of it in the state of Florida. Where it was probably enacted by that bloke Bush.

The story is told (link provided by in the Miami New Times, which revels in the problems experienced by its (presumed) rival, the Miami Herald.

What happened was this: the management of the Herald decided to serialise, and plug hard, a book written by six local women, at least one of whom was connected with the paper. So far so normal. But some of the staff took a dim view. The Herald's internal computer bulletin board lit up with staff demanding to know 'Why are we publishing this absolute drivel?'

Well, the bosses could hardly say, 'We're doing it under the terms of the latest Florida mutual back-scratching enactment, with which you all ought to be thoroughly familiar.' No. They wriggled and squirmed and talked about policy.

What is more, they pointed out that 'newspapers using material written by their staffers that is also a book is common.' Which indeed it is. The Act requires it.

And so on. Like many blazing rows, this one is terrific fun to read about, so long as you aren't in the middle of it. The Miami New Times enjoyed it immensely. The headline was 'The Miami Herald's shamelessly extravagant promotion of a lousy book sets the newsroom aflame.'

Meanwhile, there is a similar sort of ding-dong afoot in France (reported in the Guardian). The French government's anti-corruption squad has looked at the way in which big literary prizes are awarded and has found that it is all very incestuous, with a complete lack of transparency, extensive interlocking membership between jury members, literary critics, novelists, mistresses, catamites, hangers-on, brothel-keepers, fancy restaurant owners, et cetera. And really, in the eyes of said government watchdog, it is not good enough.

One small French publisher is quoted as saying, 'French publishing, and particularly the whole prize charade, is all about mutual back-scratching. It's scandalous really, and if it gets cleaned up that can only be a good thing.'

But just a minute. It was only at the end of March that we reported that, more than 150 years ago, Honore de Balzac was clearly stating that the French literary scene was corrupt. It was, according to Balzac, a world in which talent counted for nothing, and bribery, intrigue and unscrupulousness were the key factors in success.

So, if anyone is looking forward to the French version of the Old Pals Act being repealed, I fear they are in for a long wait. And ditto for everywhere else.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Authors' money

Last week I suggested that the supermarkets, among other market forces, would gradually bring about a reduction in the overall remuneration of writers -- however that remuneration was calculated, whether on a royalty basis or as a percentage of net receipts.

Well, some writers, pointing to their scars and bruises, would ruefully argue that such reductions have already been made, and I would not disagree. What I would say is that there is probably more to come.

Joel Rickett's latest missive on the current news from the publishing world (in the Guardian, via, reports that Tesco is running an ad campaign boasting about how it has driven book prices steadily downwards. (Tesco is, I think, the biggest UK supermarket chain and certainly makes massive profits.)

Tesco will runs ads in women's magazines saying the following: 'Books. Once upon a time they seemed pricey. So we decided to sell them cheaply. Er - the end.'

Lovely, isn't it? So short. So to the point. So, no doubt, effective.

The remaining small independent booksellers will not be pleased. In the UK (unlike the USA, I believe), publishers can give different discount deals to different customers. Thus the supermarkets are able to negotiate massive discounts on the retail price in return for massive purchases. Small bookshops, which buy perhaps six copies, can't get anything like as good a deal.

What this means is that it is sometimes cheaper (and quicker) for a small bookseller to buy stock from the local supermarket than it is for him to go through the usual trade channels.

Isn't the book trade fun? Who would want to work anywhere else?

Digital prisoners

Giles Foden is deputy literary editor of the Guardian and also a novelist. His book The Last King of Scotland is being filmed in Uganda. (Which makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Obvious place for it.)

Anyway, Giles is as well placed as anyone, one would think, to spot trends in such matters as copyright, film contracts, digitalisation, and all like that. And Giles's view, expressed in an article on Friday last, is that things are changing, rapidly; and not to the writer's advantage.

His view, generally, is gloomy. He tells us the he has 'a vague presentiment of doom, a feeling that new technologies and those who control the information they carry are in danger of making prisoners of us [i.e. creative people such as writers]. Some time in the future, there could even be revolutions about such things.'

Well, I'm not sure that I'm as gloomy as all that. As I have remarked before, it is often a grossly optimistic error on the part of writers to assume that their work has any serious commercial value at all. Hence, it may not be a disaster if, on those rare occasions when someone actually offers to pay for your stuff, you sign one of those contracts which Giles thinks are objectionable and much too far-reaching.

According to Giles, typical media contracts now give the purchaser the right to publish your work, sell it, et cetera, 'in any and all media and by any and all means now known or hereafter invented, throughout the world and all parts of the universe, in any and all languages.' Without any payment beyond the original fee.

Well, in my opinion the loss that you suffer will often be theoretical rather than actual.

But we can all dream.

Michael Cunningham: Specimen Days

A while back I had an email from the internet marketing co-ordinator of Holtzbrinck Publishers in New York. She said that she had been checking out the GOB and thought that Michael Cunningham's new novel might be of interest to me.

Well, if she had checked out the GOB in much depth, she would have discovered that might is very definitely the word, because I don't usually enjoy literary fiction. And boy is Cunningham literary.

You can find lots of info about him on his own web site, but briefly his last novel, The Hours, won both the Pulitzer prize and the PEN/Faulkner award. His new book is entitled Specimen Days.

Here is the publisher's description of the book:

In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. 'In the Machine' is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. 'The Children's Crusade', set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, 'Like Beauty', evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.
I was invited to download a pdf version of the text, which I did, but I was warned that I must not, under any circumstances, post the URL where any ordinary folk might notice it, and I must certainly not pass on the file to any other Tom Dick or Harry when I was done with it. We wouldn't want anyone reading the pdf and going Wow! and passing it on to a friend, now would we? Actually there isn't much likelihood of that, but more on that topic in a moment.

Well, I did read Specimen Days, and, as expected, I really didn't like it at all. It is not a book that I could recommend to anyone -- unless, of course, they happen to be keen fans of literary fiction.

In the first section, the writing struck me as self-consciously stylish. And if it is indeed true, as the Comte de Buffon said, that le style est l'homme meme, then I suspect that Cunningham is a bit of a poser.

The second and third sections of the book were much better, in my opinion, because to a large extent the narrative is conveyed to us through dialogue, a technique which I do endorse.

Part two is also an improvement in that it reads rather more like a regular non-literary techno-thriller, which seems to me to be an advantage. But then, as you will recall, the author is here 'playing with the conventions of the noir thriller'.

The poet Walt Whitman is in some way or other a common theme in each of the three sections of the novel.

As for the stories which these three sections of the novel relate: well, I'm sorry to say that they seemed to me to be incomplete. Each section had the glimmerings of a good plot, but they all petered out into nothing very much. Only the third had anything approaching what I would call a proper ending.

Overall, I'm sorry to say that the novel seemed to me to be rather an ordinary piece of whimsical fantasy rather than scifi, and fantasy of a kind that I don't like very much at that.

But can we say anything more useful than that? After all, what I have said so far merely reflects my own rather peculiar tastes in fiction.

Well, let's try this. Adherents of 'serious literature' as the fans of that genre like to call it, would insist, to a man and a woman, that serious literature is somehow inherently superior to crime fiction or science fiction. So how, I ask myself, could this book conceivably be regarded as superior to good work (not even the best) in either of those genres?

I am unable to come up with an answer. It isn't better plotted. It isn't better written (despite the fancypants flourishes). It isn't better in any way at all. From many technical points of view it's no sort of improvement on Tess Gerritsen's The Sinner, a flat-out commercial novel which, if you remember, I didn't like either.

That said, Specimen Days does seem to me to have a great deal in common with genres that are generally thought of as 'commercial'. It is carefully constructed to achieve a particular purpose.

I am quite sure that every literary writer lies awake at night dreaming of prizes, front-page reviews in the New York Times thingie, and all like that. To achieve such eminence, there are doubtless various devices and elements in a novel which are more or less compulsory: crime fiction has to have a crime, for example. And literary fiction has to have something that the present or prospective PhD students can get their teeth into. Which in this instance is the Walt Whitman theme and the 'same group of characters' as the publisher calls them, running through each of the separate parts of the book. And there is probably a deeper metaphor in the thing somewhere, because the lit lot absolutely orgasm over metaphors writ large.

Don't ask me to explain what the Whitman thing is all about, or what the metaphor stroke deeper theme is, because it's beyond me. But that, of course, is the whole point. You're supposed to sit around in the coffee shop or the senior common room, arguing long into the night about the significance of these devices.

Cunningham's publisher says that he is one of the most original and daring writers at work today, but I'm afraid I couldn't find anything to justify either adjective.

But hey, you know what? On reflection, I do feel that Cunningham may secretly be the most ruthlessly scheming novelist that I've come across since, oooh, Alexander McCall Smith. In Cunningham's case, his aim is to achieve lengthy, thoughtful reviews, bestseller lists, and literary prizes. What he wants, in short, is to outsell the crude commercial fiction and, at the same time, to be thought intellectually superior to it. And, in his cold-blooded calculating way, plus his previous track record, he may just have put together the right package.

Monday, June 27, 2005


A couple of commenters have recently pointed me in the direction of web sites which have proved to be more than usually interesting (to me, at any rate).

'Interesting', by the way, is a word that I seem to be typing more and more often these days. I suppose it is redundant. If a topic wasn't interesting (to me) I wouldn't be mentioning it. However, the word will probably continue to appear from time to time.

And, also by the way, one should not, I suppose, be worried about repeating a word if it is in fact the most appropriate word for one's purpose. It was the great Fowler who, in a famous essay of 1926, deplored attempts on the part of 'second-rate writers' to avoid using the same word twice in the same sentence. Fowler referred to this as the 'elegant variation' error. (And there is a rather good book blog named after the essay.) Given what Fowler says, I probably shouldn't worry about using 'interesting' in more than one post.

But I digress. As usual. Back to the follow-ups.

I was advised by a commenter to have a look at a relatively new blog, Short Term Memory Loss, and indeed it is worth a look. It will probably get added to the blogroll (on the right) shortly, but the roll is beginning to look mighty long and I don't suppose one can list every book blog in the known universe. Never mind.

If the author of Short Term Memory Loss has given his name, it has escaped my notice. But one of the books that he mentions is John Preston's Hustling: a Gentleman's Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution. Which is, at the very least, an intriguing title.

So I followed it up. And Google led me to a site called Topman. This is dedicated to the life and work of John Preston, who, as you would expect, was a writer. He was also, by sexual inclination, a homosexual sadist (hence Topman, in the jargon of that world), and he died of AIDS complications in 1994.

During his lifetime, in fact during a period of fifteen years, Preston authored or edited some 49 books. A short introduction to the man, on the Topman site, says that he 'brought pornography to the literary world, [and] he also fought over the years to bring literature to the world of pornography.'

Now that is interesting. It may not be too everyone's taste -- won't be, in fact -- but once again I have come across a writer that I've never heard of before but who clearly had some talent, a great deal of determination, and some success.

In particular, Preston was the author of an essay called 'The right to write', which I would like to read but I have not yet been able to locate an online copy. The Topman site/archive evidently has a scanned copy, but if it's accessible I ain't found it yet. (Note the elegant variation.)

Another commenter made reference to fan fiction, and this led me to a truly astonishing site: the home of Harry Potter fan fiction.

Fan fiction is a phenomenon that I had kind of heard of before but never really come across, much less studied. As its name suggests, fan fiction is fiction written by those who are great enthusiasts for a particular writer's work, and have borrowed his or her characters and contexts to write fiction of their own.

The Harry Potter fan fiction site has no less than 14714 stories, 68032 chapters, and 7482 authors. Now that is serious productivity.

The issue which immediately came to my mind, on encountering this site, was that of copyright. If there are 7482 writers (so far) cheerfully and passionately churning out stories featuring Harry and his friends, what is the copyright position?

I used the site's search facility to see what the organisers/owners have to say about copyright. The answer is nothing much. But there is a short statement at the foot of the search page:

All stories remain the property of their authors and must not be copied in any form without their consent. This is an unofficial, non profit site, and is in no way connected with J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Books or Bloomsbury Publishing or Warner Bros. It is not endorsed by any of the aforementioned parties. Rights to characters and their images is neither claimed nor implied. Although we provide links to other websites, we are not responsible for any material at these sites. You acknowledge that you link to these other websites at your own risk. All original administrative content is copyright of the site owner and must not be copied in any form (electronic or otherwise) without the prior consent of the owner.
In other words, the issue of whether or not these fans, and the site, are systematically breaching J.K. Rowling's copyright on a substantial scale is neatly sidestepped. But the owners of the site make it clear that they will sure as hell defend their own copyright! Mess with them and the heavy mob will call round and break both your legs.

The technical term for this kind of thing is naughty.

Should you be intrigued by the fan-fiction phenomenon, there is an interesting starting point for further investigation on the wikipedia site (a site which, incidentally, is become not merely useful but almost the first port of call for reliable and extensive information). And it is here that you will find a most valuable discussion of the legal aspects of the practice.

In the wikipedia article you will find it stated that writers and copyright holders vary greatly in their attitude towards this stuff. Some take a firm stand against it: Lucasfilm (Star Wars) and Anne Rice, for example. Others tolerate it, in order to avoid alienating their most frequent buyers of product; and some even encourage it. J.K. Rowling is said to be relaxed about the matter, though she is troubled by 'adult-themed' Harry Potter stories. Whatever they are. Harry Gets Laid?

In order to shed some light on the position under UK law, I went poking through various archive boxes in my study. I was, as usual when I do this exercise, somewhat appalled to note the amazing amount of work that I did in the past, much of it abortive, but I eventually found what I was looking for.

The item in question was a 1994 article by Nicola Solomon, entitled 'Sequel Opportunities'. And, very much to my surprise, it turns out to be available online. It is posted (as one might have guessed) by the indefatigable Andrew Malcolm on his AKME site. (Andrew Malcolm's online law library, by the way, is a massive resource, and not just for UK writers; he offer it for free.)

Nicola Solomon is described by Malcolm as a leading literary lawyer, a Deputy District Judge and Partner of Finers Stephens Innocent. Her article makes startling reading, and I remember being taken aback by some of the statements which appeared in it when I first read it; they are still pretty jaw-dropping today.

Nicola begins by saying this: 'One might assume that it would be an infringement of copyright to use characters and style developed by another person. Not so; copyright protects the words and form in which ideas are expressed, not the ideas or characters themselves. The type of copying envisaged by the law, taking large chunks of original text, is unlikely in the case of sequels which aim to develop an original story, not replicate it.'

Well bugger me, I thought. And still I do think. I find that legal advice very surprising.

Nicola suggests various precautions for the writer of a sequel, such getting an endorsement from the original author or making it absolutely clear that the sequel is not endorsed by the original author; and also ensuring that your publisher does not land you in hot water by suggesting (falsely) that there is a connection with the original author. But apart from that, open house seems to be the order of the day.

At least, it is under English law. As for elsewhere, Nicola says: 'In the US, copyright in characters is far more established and the rules preventing unauthorised use may be more restrictive.' So writers would be well advised to take separate advice on the legal position there.

As ever, it is staggering to be be given proof of what a vast resource the internet is. And virtually none of it was available ten years ago.

William Donaldson

The Times seems to be back online. And although I have the impression that Times obituaries are not often made available online, or at any rate not for long, you can today find an obituary of William Donaldson; which I read over breakfast.

It's an entertaining reminder of a man whose work is familiar to me although I've never read it.

Donaldson was educated at Winchester and Magdalene College Cambridge, and you will not convince me that a man can get a better education anywhere in the world -- either in Donaldson's day or now.

Born into a privileged background, he proceeded to lose several fortunes (inherited), and went through whatever he managed to earn (considerable at times) at a rapid rate of knots.

He went through women at a rapid rate of knots too, blaming his sexual immaturity on the single-sex culture of Winchester. On the whole he seems to have preferred call-girls, but he had a couple of marriages (at least) and numerous affairs, including Sarah Miles and Carly Simon.

He dumped the lovely Carly while she was in the US arranging for their wedding. But years later she described him, nevertheless, as 'a wonderful, wonderful person: the funniest man I have ever met.' Not everyone, the Times notes, held him in such high regard.

Donaldson was also an enthusiastic user of illegal drugs, first cannabis and then crack cocaine. This habit seems to have bankrupted him fairly regularly, and on one occasion he found a temporary home with an old girlfriend who had taken to running a brothel on the Fulham Road.

From our point of view, the thing to note is that Donaldson was the writer who produced the Root letters. Posing as 'Henry Root', wet-fish merchant and eccentric right-wing bigot, Donaldson 'wrote to prominent public figures offering comment, advice and support -- often in the form of a one pound note. His outrageous yet deadpan missives succeeded in provoking a range of often embarrassingly positive responses from the likes of Esther Rantzen, Larry Lamb, Lord Grade, Sir David McNee (the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police), and Root’s personal and political heroine, Margaret Thatcher. The resulting book, The Henry Root Letters (1980), was a bestseller for months.'

I didn't read the Root output when it first appeared, and I suspect it may have dated horribly. It is certainly unlikely to be of interest to US readers. However, Donaldson wrote other stuff too, including a novel: Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, 1975. And an autobiography, of which he remarked that the lawyer's libel report was longer than the book.

Donaldson's obituary makes one thing absolutely clear. He followed the first rule for writers, and one which, as I remarked the other day, is often broken by the young. First, get a life.

Dragon Tamers revisited

Many thanks to those who read my Roundup post from last Friday and did some detective work thereafter (see the comments on the post). If and when I can find the time and energy this week, I will Make Further Enquiries about Dragon Tamers and its publisher, Aultbea, and report back.

Friday, June 24, 2005


Here are a few bits and pieces that have accumulated during the week.

For those who are interested in reading more about what the Archbishop of Canterbury had to say, Dylan Kinnett has a longish comment on his No Categories blog. Yes, I probably was a bit quick to criticise, as Dylan says, but I do think the Archbishop has enough to deal with without antagonising the media as well.

Cathy Wald, author of The Resilient Writer, was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate (radio) Show on 17 June. You can, if you wish, download an MP3 recording of this conversation, which included the novelist Edmund White.

The recording runs for about 16 minutes. If you have broadband this should be no problem, but at 6.3 MB it will take a while to download on steam radio so to speak. The conversation will tell you nothing startlingly new, but it is, I believe, what is known as a podcast, so you will be able to boast to your friends about being at the absolute cutting edge of technology. Or some such.

For those who care, and I hope I am not being too ungracious when I say that I am not one of them, there was a further instalment this week of the Aultbea publishing saga, about which I have already written twice, on 7 February and 18 February. When I say another instalment, what I mean is that the firm have issued another press release, which has been reprinted without any serious questioning by another newspaper, this time the Independent.

I repeat -- if Aultbea and their young authors can make any serious money or build a reputation out of all this, then good luck to them. But the newspaper stories about Aultbea and their various young authors are quite remarkable for a complete absence of verifiable facts. This latest one refers (again) to 'overseas print runs' (whatever they are) and translation deals (which languages, and which firms? No one says.). Dragon Tamers is referred to, on the basis of no information whatever, as an 'international bestseller'. What does that mean? Amazon sold three copies in the Isle of Man?

'Talks on a Hollywood film are in the pipeline,' we are told. But have they even sold an option? To whom? Or are these 'talks' just the publisher chatting to his wife about it over breakfast?

This is the second time that the Independent's Scottish correspondent, Paul Kelbie, has dealt with this matter, and he hasn't added any more facts than he had the first time.

Oh, I beg Kelbie's pardon. First time around, 18 February, Kelbie quoted the publisher as being confident that 'more than one million copies of the book will be sold worldwide before the end of the year.' Now, 21 June, the publisher is predicting that 'by the end of the year the number of copies sold will be well into six figures.'

I remain sceptical. And I am not the only one. See what the Alien Online has to say about it (both on 21 June, and in his February post, which he links to).

Now if you want to read an article which actually contains some useful information, nip over to the (US) Book Standard and read what the publisher Doug Seibold has to say about trade paperbacks. If you were exceptionally fussy you might say that the article is just a tad short on hard numbers. But hey -- let us not complain about finding, at last, a piece of writing which, if printed out, you could do more with than just wipe your bum.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Advances -- part 3

If you have been paying really close attention to our discussion of advances (parts 1 and 2, not unnaturally, preceded this one), then you will know that the analysis is largely based on UK data which were published in 1995 and 1999. And, you may reasonably be asking yourself, is the situation in UK publishing still the same today as it was then? In other words, are publishers still paying advances at the same kind of level as they were in the 1990s?

The answer is that we don't know. Well I don't, anyway. And I take leave to doubt that anyone else does.

Within a given firm I would expect there to be a handful of people who know how the average advance, in their company, compares with the figure that would be due if the advance were calculated on the basis of 100% of the royalty income from a sellout of the first print run. I would expect this group of people to include the chief executive/managing director and the finance director. But how much lower the knowledge goes I have no idea.

As for what the picture is in the industry overall -- well, to find that out you would have to do an up-to-date analysis based on data assembled for that purpose. And no one, to my knowledge, has done that research. There is gossip, and rumour, but facts, as usual in the publishing industry, are in short supply.

If you have been keeping your eyes open, you will know that the Bookseller is shortly to publish a report entitled The Consumer Book Report UK -- UK publisher trends, growth and analysis. This is due out in October this year, and it will cost you £249. So far the advance publicity for the book makes absolutely no mention of authors or writers, so an analysis of payments by way of royalties and/or advances may or may not figure very highly in it.

For what it is worth, one well-connected consultant who spoke to me five years ago suggested that 1995 was perhaps the peak date for payments to authors. Since then, he said, advances had fallen somewhat. This was due to a number of factors.

Chief among these was a reduction in the amount of competition for good stuff. As the years go by, more and more publishing companies seem to merge into the big ones. The result is that, depending on how you count them, there are really no more than half a dozen or so really big players in UK publishing.

In the past it was not unknown, I understand, for imprints within the same big company to compete against each other in the market place, but it's hard to believe that they are still allowed to do so.

So that's one factor. Another big influence is the fact that the actual sales levels of books of any consequence is now tracked very closely by Bookscan. This is a service which actually counts the number of books for which money is received, from the customer, in the bookseller's (electronic) till. It does not depend on a publisher telling us that they have sold 50,000 copies when all that means is that there are 50,000 copies on booksellers' shelves, and that half or more of them may bounce back in due course.

Those who subscribe to Bookscan, which includes everyone of any note in publishing, can see at a glance how the latest book by Miss Smith or Miss Jones has done. As a result it is no longer possible for an agent to exaggerate, or be vague, about how wonderfully well her client has done for Clapham & Irons, and thus obtain a massive advance for Miss Jones's move to a new firm. A new firm may well be interested in Miss Jones, but they will know fairly accurately what she is worth to them.

My informant was of the view that unearned advances are now found chiefly in relation to new names who have been thought to be worth a major punt (as we say in the UK; it means a gamble or bet). And, as we all know, these hot new names who are going to set the world on fire sometimes turn out to be damp squibs. So it may be the case that a writer gets one big advance, which is not earned out, and then -- turn out the light.

Having said that, it is certainly true that really big names can pull down enormous sums by way of advances. If you have been following publishing for even six months, you will already have come across stories about X or Y being offered contracts worth millions (of dollars, usually). Even if you divide these hyperbolic figures by 2, 3, or even 10, they amount to a lot of money.

At the top end, in other words, the standard industry royalty levels are almost irrelevant. When you know, in advance, that the mass-market paperback of a particular writer is going to sell a million copies plus, the cost savings in ordering huge numbers of books from the printer are so enormous that all normal calculations cease to apply.

Which brings me back to the 'special deals' done on behalf of writers who are not household names.

It is standard practice for a contract with a publisher to include provision for the publisher to make 'special deals'. These often involve printing a substantial number of copies, say 20,000, for an entrepreneur who will then sell them in various cut-price arenas. The author's share of such deals is often 10% of the sum received by the publisher.

The 'sum received', by the way, is usually described as 'net receipts'. This is a wonderfully vague term, seldom defined, and capable of providing infinite hours of harmless amusement. In an ideal contract the term 'net receipts' would be very tightly defined. I gather that it is so defined in film contracts.

Amanda Mann, whom we have mentioned before, describes on her blog how her publisher sold a special print run of 20,000 copies, which yielded, for Amanda, the magnificent sum of £440. This works out at roughly 2p a copy, as opposed to the 45p or so that a writer would be entitled to as a royalty on a full-price copy sold in the home market.

It is interesting to speculate as to how such a deal might work out. I emphasise speculate because I have never personally commissioned a print run of 20,000 from a printer, so I am groping in the dark a bit.

If the writer is entitled to 10% of the publisher's income, then the publisher would have been paid £4,400 by the entrepreneur. So the entrepreneur is getting the books at, say, 22p each. He will sell them for, say, £1 each; and the market stalls and 'remainder dealers' will sell them for, say £2. Everyone gets a bargain. Except, of course, the writer. But hey -- she only does it for fun, right? The other guys have to earn a living.

The publisher will have had to pay the printer's bill. You can make your own guess as to what that is, but my guess is that the publisher took the printer's estimate and doubled it when he was asked for a price by the entrepreneur. Thus the publisher makes close to £2,000 for doing nothing very much.

Ah, but, you see, he took the risk on doing the book in the first place. And the £2,000 is his reward.

Bear in mind also that writers whose books are sold in supermarkets are never in a thousand years going to see a normal royalty for those sales. Supermarket sales are all going to be dealt with under some clause or other which provides the writer with a much reduced sum of money per book. (For my further thoughts on the joys of supermarkets see my post of 21 September last.)

My final conclusions from this consideration of royalties and authors' advances are as follows:

In many areas of publishing, the old-fashioned royalty scales, based on a percentage of the nominal retail price of the book, are looking increasingly under threat.

It is argued in some quarters that the price-royalty system only really made sense in the days of the Net Book Agreement, when all books had to be sold at the price determined by the publisher. Today, agents and authors are increasingly under pressure to do deals based on the author receiving stated percentages of the sums of money actually received by the publisher (net receipts).

If you seek an example, visit the Blackwell site, where you will find a statement that 'A royalty rate of 10% [of] net receipts (money received by the publisher) is standard.' Not, you will note, a royalty of 10% of the nominal retail price. There is a considerable difference, because the latter might be double the former.

Oxford University Press, which is a massive publisher of non-fiction, takes the same position. The OUP glossary defines net receipts as follows: 'The revenue that the publisher receives from the sale of the book, less any deductions for discounts offered to customers.' Which is a bloody awful definition in my opinion. The OUP goes on to say that 'Net receipts form the most common basis of royalty payments to authors.'

My own guess is that, as the years go by, the remuneration levels of authors will fall. There are more and more ways for the consumer to spend their money. The bookselling chains and the supermarkets are determined to buy product cheaply, and they have the muscle to bully and harass the publishers.

As a result, publishers will try to cut costs in order to maintain profit levels. They will try to find cheaper typesetters and cheaper printers -- in India and Thailand, if necessary. Just recently, for instance, Penguin laid off seven salespeople and HarperCollins are shedding the same number. Why? Because they figure that in today's market they can maintain profits without them, and they want to save money.

Of all the potential areas for cost-cutting, it seems to me that writers are the most attractive target. Even with an agent. Most writers are, after all, romantic fools who are desperate to get into print. Not only would many of them do it for nothing, but they would gladly pay. Furthermore, if they don't have an agent, they are blissfully ignorant of publishing economics and can easily be blinded with science.

Publishers will attack the remuneration levels of writers not because they are villains, but because they are businessmen. They are seldom good businessmen, and that's the problem. Consider the choice: either you can tell a writer, over lunch, that times are hard and she is going to have to take a little less; or you can go to war with that hard-nosed son of a bitch who buys paperbacks for Tescos. Which would you prefer?

So, if and when you finally hold a publisher's contract in your trembling little mitt, take a good look at what it says. You probably won't be able to change anything -- let's face it, most of us don't have four or five firms competing for our book -- but it would as well to understand what you are signing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Advances -- part 2

If you haven't yet read Advances -- part 1, which appeared yesterday, perhaps I might suggest that you do so as a preliminary to today's discussion.

OK, now that you're back, let's see what else we can profitably learn from the available facts.

I referred last week to Amanda Mann, who a while back posted some interesting figures from her royalty statements on her blog. Today I want to use those figures as the starting point for some calculations.

Of course, I dare say that Amanda would tell us a good deal more about her advances if we asked her, but those things are really none of our business, and she has already been frank above and beyond the call of duty. So let us depersonalise the issue.

Let us suppose, for the purpose of this discussion, that we found ourselves in a restaurant, seated right behind an author and her friend. The author we will call Miss Smith. From shamelessly earwigging the author's conversation with her friend we learnt the following facts:

Miss Smith has had a novel published as a paperback original. The print run was 7,500 copies. So far, Miss Smith's royalty statement shows that 5,380 copies have been sold. And the royalty statement shows an unearned balance, when set against the advance, of £1069. Miss Smith, we gather, is a little worried that she has not earned out her advance. Her editor has not contacted her recently. Does Miss Smith have any genuine reason to worry?

Let us start by trying to establish what sort of sums of money are involved here, both for the publisher and the writer.

We will assume that Miss Smith's book was priced, officially, at £5.99, which we will call £6; this was a fairly typical price at about the time when Miss Smith's book was published. We will further assume, using Charles Clark's book of precedents, that Miss Smith's contract called for her to be paid a royalty of 7.5% of the retail price on each copy sold.

This means that, for each copy sold, Miss Smith was nominally entitled to a payment of 45 pence per copy (£6 x 7.5%). If the whole print run of 7,500 was sold, in the home market, without any special deals, Miss Smith would contractually be entitled to a total of £3375 (45p x 7,500).

You see how easy it is to get rich quick in this game. Publish ten novels a year at that rate and you might make a decent living.

Selling the whole print run, by the way, is an unusual circumstance; there are frequently a few hundred, or thousand, left hanging around in the warehouse.

For the publisher, using the same assumptions, the figures look like this. If we assume, very generously in today's market, that the publisher gets 50% of the official retail price for each copy sold, then the total income to the publisher is £22,500 (50% of £6 x 7,500).

Out of that sum, the publisher has to pay various costs, such as production, sales and distribution, overheads, and, not least, the author. The net profit will vary from publisher to publisher, and will depend on the efficiency of the firm. However, if the publisher was regularly generating a net profit which equated to 5% of retail price, or 10% of income, he would be happy. So in this case a net profit of £2250 (10% of £22,500) would be acceptable.

You begin to see why publishers have to publish a lot of books.

Now let's go back to Miss Smith. How big do you think her advance was?

Using the data which we scribbled down on a paper napkin, all the time pretending to discuss the weather with our own friend, we can make some informed guesses.

We noted yesterday that a publisher will use the projected royalty income from the first print run as the basis for calculating the advance.

We know that Miss Smith has sold 5,380 copies. And 5380 copies, at the royalty rate of 7.5%, yield £2,421. And Miss Smith's royalty statement shows an 'unearned balance' of £1069. If we add £2421 to £1069 we get £3,490. Which is, near as dammit, £3,500.

Furthermore, we have already calculated that, if all 7,500 copies of the book were sold in the home market, Miss smith's contract would require her to be paid £3,375. We can therefore reasonably assume that, in this case, Miss Smith's publisher gave her an advance of 100% of anticipated royalty income on the first print run. (The £3,375 would, I suggest, be rounded up to £3,500.)

How generous, you say.

Well, it is generous if we consider Charles Clark's statement, quoted yesterday, that most Minimum Terms Agreements call for an advance of perhaps two thirds of anticipated royalty income. (A Minimum Terms Agreement, by the way, is a contractual agreement negotiated between the Society of Authors and a number of publishers, laying down the minimum acceptable terms for individual book contracts. In practice, any halfway decent agent would expect to better these terms.)

But Miss Smith's advance is not remotely generous if we look at the facts as set out in yesterday's article. There we had it quite clearly demonstrated that, at least in the 1990s, publishers were regularly paying authors advances of substantially more than 100% of the anticipated royalty income. Not because they were feeling generous, but because, day in and day out, that is what it cost in the market place to obtain the material that they need in order to stay in business. That is how literary agents earn their keep and justify their existence.

A typical advance, at about the time when Miss Smith signed her contract, would have been a figure which was about 50% higher than anticipated royalty income on the first edition. In other words, the publisher could in this case have given Miss Smith an advance of £3,500 plus 50% = £5250. Which would probably have been rounded to £5,000.

Such an advance, I repeat, would not have been at all unusual, and would therefore not have placed the publisher in any difficulties. In Miss Smith's case, because the publisher had given her a less than typical advance, the publisher's net profit on the book would have risen to £3750 (£2250 plus the difference between £5,000 and £3,500).

In other words, by achieving an economy at the expense of the author (not, I have to say, a rare occurrence in publishing), the publisher has effected a 66% increase in his net profit on the book. Not bad, eh? And even if Miss Smith's agent was really on the ball, and asked what the print run would be, the publisher could always be less than honest and say 5,000 when he meant to do 7,500 all along.

No no. I withdraw that. That is less than kind. Let us say that the publisher first assessed the likely market for this book at 5,000 copies and later, in view of enthusiasm in the office, decided to increase the print run.

Miss Smith, of course, is young, beautiful, ambitious, and wildly talented. And so, when her editor doesn't ring her weekly, and buy her lunch at the Ivy, she worries.

Is she right to worry?

I suggest not.

First of all, Miss Smith's paperback original, brilliantly written though it is, is but a small fish in a very large pond. To Miss Smith, an advance of £3,500 (less agent's commission, less expenses, less tax) is a significant sum of money. But to a big-time publisher it is neither here nor there.

Miss Smith's editor is not going to worry about an unearned balance of just over a thousand quid. It is the unearned balance of £450,000 on a £500,000 advance which will ruin her career. So Miss Smith can rest easy.

But what of that other lady novelist, whom we mentioned yesterday. You remember? The distinguished lady novelist who boasted proudly that her books always earned out their advances. What of her?

Well, it has always been the practice on this blog to avoid ad hominem and ad feminam criticism, and I don't intend to start today. So let us summon up another imaginary lady called Miss Jones.

Miss Jones, we will say, once won the Booker. At least one of her many books has been a New York Times bestseller, and at least one has been filmed by Hollywood. How do you think Miss Jones's publisher feels when she announces how proud she is that she earns out her advance?

My guess is that the finance director of that firm would have had a hard time keeping a straight face. Because the truth is, Miss Jones is working for way below her market value. And is proud of it!

Of course, if Miss Jones's contract does not embody standard industry royalty rates, then Miss Jones's point is nonsense and she is just babbling.

Miss Jones's editor may, for all I know, be one of those intense literary types who thinks that a spreadsheet is something that you put on a table for a banquet. She may remain in blissful ignorance of the economics of publishing, and may believe, in all honesty, that the contract that she offers Miss Jones is a fair one.

But what of the lady's agent? Is it possible, even in today's world, that she doesn't have one?

You know what? I haven't finished. I think there will have to be a (shortish) Advances -- part 3 tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Uplifting Kevin

In response to my post about Bookmark Now, yesterday, Kevin Smokler says that he has a more cheerful c.v. in another place. He is right.

Advances -- part 1

Today and tomorrow I intend to write about advances. And, without insulting anyone’s intelligence, I shall try to make what I have to say as easy to understand as possible. However, I have to say from the outset that this is a fairly complicated issue and if you are to gain any benefit from the discussion you will have to concentrate.

In other words this isn’t your average blog post that you can digest in one quick glance. It needs a bit of thought. It may even require you to do some sums with a pencil and paper.

First, some basic information.

If and when you ever sign a contract with a publisher, you can usually expect to be paid a sum of money known as an advance. In fact, of course, this isn’t an advance payment at all; it’s a retrospective payment.

Very few publishers in this world will give you a contract for a novel unless you have written it in full; so you’ve already done 95% of the work before you see a penny.

The size of this advance is a matter of much interest to the average writer. And hence the basis on which it is calculated is also of some interest (or should be).

The basis on which advances are calculated was a topic that I discussed in an article that I wrote for a journal called The Author in the Spring of 2001. (The Author is the journal of the UK Society of Authors.) And I begin my discussion of advances on the GOB by reproducing that article in full. It is set out immediately below.

Please be aware that the article is written in a much more formal style than is usually the case with posts on this blog. That is because I was trying to treat the subject with as much academic rigour as the data would allow. In other words, I was trying to establish facts – as opposed to the rumour, gossip and hearsay which are so beloved of the publishing community – and, having established the facts, I was trying to draw some meaningful conclusions.

Immediately before publication, I showed the draft of the article to the consultant who had drafted the reports which I refer to in it. He was kind enough to confirm that I had not misrepresented the facts and that my conclusions were reasonable.

Whether or not the facts and conclusions in this article are of interest and value to you, only you can decide. But be aware, please, that part two of the present discussion, current thoughts based on the 2001 article, follows tomorrow.

Here is the full text of the 2001 article:

ADVANCES -- is your advance big enough?


Some writers want nothing more from their publisher than to be able to hold in their hands a printed copy of their very own book. Others care mostly about the size of their bank balance; it is to them that this article is addressed.

As most authors soon discover, the majority of books earn precious little. But how much can we reasonably expect to be paid? In particular, what is a fair advance?

This question is of special interest to those who negotiate their own contracts, and the latest Society of Authors earnings survey (published in the summer 2000 issue of The Author) shows that there are a surprisingly large number of unagented writers.

The traditional calculation for an advance

In the past, it was not uncommon to be told that a fair basis for the calculation of an author’s advance was for the publisher to work out the expected royalty income from sales of the first edition, and then to offer half, or two thirds, of that figure.

Take, for instance, Charles Clark’s classic guide to publishing agreements. In his 1993 edition he tells us that, for general books, ‘most Minimum Terms Agreements include a formula for calculating the minimum advance sum to be paid.... Where the publisher is to publish in hardcover only, 65 per cent is commonly specified; whereas for vertical contracts 55 per cent is the norm.’

Recent evidence suggests, however, that publishers regularly pay much larger advances than would be made on the basis of this calculation.

The BPIB reports

The evidence relating to advances is provided in two reports published by The Bookseller, one in 1995 and the other in 1999. Both were entitled Book Publishing in Britain (henceforth abbreviated to BPIB 1995 and BPIB 1999 respectively).

If you have not heard of these reports, or come across them on the shelves of your local library, it is probably because they are not cheap. The 1995 version was offered, I believe, at £395, while the 1999 version is currently available from Amazon at £545. (I understand that, even at these prices, the reports are not profit-making enterprises for either the author or publisher.)

These two Bookseller reports are the latest in a long line of surveys of the book trade which have been carried out by consultants of one kind or another. In 1976, for example, Euromonitor published a book-readership survey at £400. This was followed by other similarly high-priced publications. Among those which have passed across my desk are Jordan and Son’s report on Britain’s book-publishing industry (1991, £165) and the Key Note report (1993, £350). In 1996 Euromonitor produced a new survey, this time priced at £3,500. You can, apparently pay more for information if you wish: a subscription to Book Marketing Ltd’s survey of book purchases was priced in 1996 at £9,500.

In my experience, the content of these reports varies from the extremely valuable to the obvious. It is not particularly enlightening to be told, for instance, that female readers prefer romantic and historical novels, while male readers favour thrillers and war stories.

The two Bookseller reports are much the most valuable that I have come across. BPIB 1995 was based mainly on information derived from published accounts, supplemented by interviews and discussions with representatives of major firms. BPIB 1999 is similarly broadly based, and includes detailed financial profiles of over 70 firms; it runs to 484 pages. Both reports contain a great deal of information which is interesting and relevant to writers of all kinds, but this article will concentrate on the sections which deal with payments to the creators of books.

BPIB 1995 contains a series of pie charts showing how publishers’ revenues are spent. The expenditure headings shown are production, sales and distribution, other indirect costs, net profit, and payments to authors.

In the case of popular trade books, including mass-market paperbacks, BPIB 1995 reports that payments to authors took up 35% of publishers’ total revenues. For ‘minority interest trade books’ (a term not defined), payments to authors constituted 25%. (The sums going to authors in other fields, such as academic publishing, were much smaller.)

What do these figures mean for the average author? Well, to begin with, the payments are much higher than would be the case if no advances were paid and all authors were remunerated strictly according to the scale of royalties set out in each contract.

BPIB 1995 tells us that ‘there are no industry-wide rules on advances’, though they are usually related to ‘potential earnings from the first print run – in some cases 100% of this figure, in others a proportion varying between firms of from 50% to 75%.’

So far so orthodox, then (when compared with what Clark tells us about the usual practice). But BPIB 1995 goes on to say that ‘one comparatively small publisher reported that only one in five advances was “earned” in the sense that it was exceeded by accrued royalties. Large publishers reported that unearned advances represented between 8% and 10% of turnover.’

So, BPIB 1995 demonstrated that, on average, across all major British trade publishers, payments to authors of popular books were typically amounting to 35% of publishers’ revenues. Since the publishers were receiving, on average, 50% of the retail price, this meant that payments to authors were equivalent to a flat-rate royalty of some 17% or 18%.

No doubt a proportion of the so-called unearned advances were accounted for by the high sums paid to super-sellers. BPIB 1995 confirms this by stating that the normal formula for calculating the advance is ‘often waived in the case of expected bestsellers.’ Projected royalty rates are largely irrelevant for writers who can deliver the big sellers which publishers need, and advances in those cases are calculated on an acceptable division of the projected profits.

However, it is important to note that BPIB 1995 gives no indication that high payments to super-sellers are the sole reason (or even the main reason) for expenditure in excess of what the standard royalty rate would generate. Nor is there any suggestion that publishers are hopelessly inaccurate when estimating future sales. The impression conveyed is that making payments to authors of the order of 35% of revenues is a perfectly acceptable practice, year in and year out.

The phrase ‘perfectly acceptable’ needs some qualification. Of course publishers would much rather that payments to authors were zero. If every company could make satisfactory profits by reprinting out-of-copyright classics, and nothing else, then that is what they would do. But they can’t, and therefore they don’t. What they have to do is buy the best product, and in a competitive market at that. This forces them to pay a rate for the job which is higher than the normal scale of royalties would suggest. And, judging by the figures provided, they do it more often than not. Bear in mind the small publisher who reported that four out of five of his books did not earn out their advance. There is no suggestion in BPIB 1995 that such a case is untypical.

BPIB 1999

It is instructive to compare the data in BPIB 1995 with those in BPIB 1999. Such a comparison may enable us to see whether the trend is towards spending more or less on authors.

BPIB 1999 has comparatively little to say on the question of authors’ payments. Is it possible, perhaps, that some of those working at a high level in the finance offices of leading publishers felt that in 1995 they had been a little too generous with the truth? Did they decide, in 1999, that this time around they would be a bit more discreet?

In any event, in the 1999 report the section on ‘payments to authors’ has vanished and has been replaced by a mere two paragraphs on ‘royalty provisions’ in the section on adult consumer publishing. Here there is a discussion of advances paid in author-led areas of the market (which are defined as ‘fiction and certain areas of non-fiction where books are author-branded and author initiated’).

In theory, says the 1999 report, advances ‘should be in line with expected royalties. In practice advances are usually greater than the eventual royalty stream.’ (Note that word usually. Not sometimes, or occasionally. Usually.)

Advances exceed the sums due under royalty calculations ‘by 8% to 10% of total sales.... If the average author royalty is between 8% and 10% of the cover price of a book or between 16% and 20% of publisher income, then it is fair to say that most author-led publishers pay advances that are on average 50% greater than expected royalties.’

Again, there is no suggestion here that paying more than would be justified on a strict royalty calculation is an unusual or exceptional practice. The report states that if publishers are paying anything less than this sort of level of advance, they are likely to be under-investing in new authors.

Unfortunately, the 1999 report does not break down any data on payments to authors to show how the mass-market field varies from the minority-interest field, or any other. However, the 1999 figure for payments to authors, expressed as a percentage of publishers’ income, is 16% to 20%, plus 50% of that figure, which gives us a total figure in the 24% to 30% range.

Thus BPIB 1999 tells us that the average publisher in an author-led field is paying out to authors anything up to 30% of revenues.

The comparable figure provided in BPIB 1995 was 35% for popular trade books (including mass-market paperbacks). The latest BPIB report therefore suggests that there has been a slight drop in the level of so-called unearned advances since 1995.

This is probably the result of reduced competition; as more and more publishers merge, the number of competing firms inevitably diminishes, so publishers don’t have to pay as much as they once did. Another factor is the wider availability of accurate sales information, which makes it easier for publishers to find out how well a particular author has sold.

Nevertheless, the key point to note is that payments to authors in the more popular fields remained in 1999 at a substantially higher level than would be accounted for by a straightforward calculation on a royalty scale.


What conclusions can we draw from these data? Here are a few.

The BPIB data may or may not give a totally reliable picture of what is happening in British publishing, but they are the best information we have. The introductory essay to BPIB 1999 says that it is ‘the most comprehensive study yet undertaken.... The objective has been to create the most detailed overview of the industry possible by synthesising all the available sources.’

The figures show that, over a four-year period, British trade publishers were systematically paying advances to authors which exceeded, by a substantial amount, the sums which would have been due under a royalty calculation. These payments were not exceptional aberrations caused by hopeless optimism in isolated cases – they were the result of the state of the market.

This level of remuneration did not result in the collapse of the book trade as we know it. On the contrary, BPIB 1999 says that, ‘The big trade houses are making more money than they have made at any time in the last 20 years.’ (I understand that they have done less well in the past 12 months.)

The consequence of this situation is that any writer who has ever felt guilty because a book did not earn out its advance should cease and desist. ‘So what?’ is the more appropriate response. Happens all the time. Maybe, just for once, you got paid a fair rate for the job.

In 1995, a distinguished lady novelist made a statement to the press in which she objected to the high sums being paid to some writers, and declared with evident pride that her own books always earned out their advances. Some might consider that this attitude does her credit; but, in light of the BPIB figures, others might wonder whether her agent is getting her the right deal.

The data should be borne in mind when next you yourself next negotiate a contract. Of course, you will not necessarily be able to insist that you are paid, as an advance, a sum of money equal to, say, 150% of what would be due under a royalty calculation. But you might be able to squeeze out a bit more than was originally offered. In the Society’s recent survey of authors’ earnings, 14% of unagented respondents (and 30% of agented respondents) said that over half their books did not earn as much as the advance; so it can be done.

Finally, if you are the author of a mass-market book and you are faced with an editor who insists that the firm never, ever, pays an advance of more than 50% of expected royalties, then you will know that you are dealing with an editor who is young, inexperienced, and fiscally illiterate. The only other possibility (which is so remote as to be scarcely worth mentioning) is that you are dealing with someone who is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. And the people who work in British publishing are far too nice ever to do any such thing.

As you well know.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Charles McCarry: Old Boys

Charles McCarry's Old Boys is a very classy thriller indeed. And perhaps that is not altogether surprising, because McCarry has written several other good ones.

Chief among the others was perhaps The Tears of Autumn, which first appeared (in the UK) in 1975. I read it at about that time, and I remember it rather better than I do The Da Vinci Code. It offered, among other things, one of the more convincing explanations for the assassination of the two Kennedy brothers.

Neither am I the only one to rate Tears of Autumn highly: one recent reviewer suggests that it might be the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American.

McCarry is now a bit of an old boy himself: 75, to be precise. As a young man, 1957 to 1967, he served as a CIA agent, under 'deep cover'. This is not, apparently, quite as exciting or dangerous as it sounds. However, it certainly provided the man with some inside information, which he evidently puts to good use.

Prior to his CIA experience, by the way, McCarry was in Berlin in 1948, where he noted the contrast between the promises of wartime propaganda and the war's actual consequences. Funny how history repeats itself, isn't it? When asked now what he believes in, McCarry says that he believes in consequences. Which I do too; I just wish they were easier to predict.

The lead character in Old Boys is Paul Christopher, a character who has starred in McCarry's books before. Christopher, like his author, is now getting on in years, but fortunately he is able to call on the assistance of several other elderly gentlemen with past service in 'The Outfit'. These old men form the team who fight the baddies.

The plot, as usual in these things, involves a mad foreigner who has a dozen or so cobalt-tipped atomic bombs which he intends to use to blow up American cities. Unless stopped. There is also a two-thousand-year-old scroll floating around. And an elderly woman who was forced to be Heydrich's mistress. And lots of other good stuff.

Our hero spends a lot of time in parts of the world which end in -stan (Kyrgyzstan and so forth), and which are, even today, almost empty. The reader is expected to know all about these places. On page 401 the author says: 'If I tell you that this spot was approximately 250 miles northwest of Tashkent, not far from Uckuduk and fifty miles from the nearest unpaved road, you'll know precisely where we were.'

Oh, right, there. Right. My Auntie Jean had a holiday there once. Caught a nasty case of the trots.

And so on.

There are many, many virtues in this book, and a wannabe writer in this genre should study it closely. For instance, the book is divided into ten parts, and the chapters within each part are short. Which is as useful a page-turning device as I can recommend to you. What is more, the chapters are not numbered consecutively throughout the book, but start at 1 each time you begin a new part. Which is clever. Because instead of finding yourself at chapter 93, and saying to yourself God, when is this bugger going to end, you find, instead, that you are only on chapter 8. I may be old-fashioned but I like that kind of thing.

The ancient scroll, by the way, turns out to provide a subtle, amusing, and all too credible explanation of how Christianity came to be the force in the world that it is today. If the Pope and his merry men got all worked up about the Da Vinci thing, they were chasing the wrong animal. This one is much more subversive.

The book also contains some valuable tips for those of you who are in training for the SAS or some other elite force. When working close to the enemy, at night, it is not a good idea to take a pee standing up. If there is a sniper downwind of you, he will sniff the air, smell your urine, and loose off a whole clip at you, even though he can't see you. So it's best to pass your water in a lying-down position.

No, I don't know what to suggest to Mata Hari either.

As you would expect from such a literate, well travelled and much experienced man, the brief author's note at the end is full of good stuff.

McCarry reminds us that, thirty-five years ago, when he first wrote about his villain, Ibn Awad, the idea that Awad was sponsoring a wave of suicide bombers was thought to be absurdly far-fetched.

The author refers to a handful of books that he read for background information, but everything else, he says, came from thin air. In other words, he made it up.

Now I happen to think that that is a perfectly sensible and proper way for a novelist to proceed. But there are those whose enjoyment of a novel is spoilt if the author mentions anything which doesn't exactly chime with real life.

The English novelist P.D. James, for example, once described a character putting his motorcycle into reverse. And so far she has had approximately 3,472 letters telling her that motorbikes don't have a reverse.

To which my response would have been, Look, this guy had one specially made, OK? So fuck off.

Bookmark now

Kevin Smokler is a writer with an interesting, if slightly depressing, c.v. He is, it seems, the power behind Central Booking; but more to the point he is a blogger and the editor of a new collection of essays entitled Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. (Watch out for the dreaded Flash on Smokler's sites, by the way. Unless you have the latest version it may gum up your works.)

I haven't read Bookmark Now yet, but it looks as if I probably ought to. In the meantime you can read a useful review of it.

Like many a web-savvy author these days, Kevin undertook a Virtual Book Tour in the week before his book came out. This is a phenomenon which would repay study.

For my own part I took a look at some of the appearances that Kevin made on other blogs and found a particularly useful essay of his on M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype.

This essay includes the first description of RSS which has ever made any sense to me, and also led me to PubSub, which looks as if it might be worth using. You can, apparently, use PuSub to obtain notification of any time anyone in the entire universe uses a phrase online. So if, for instance, you have a book out called "Bookmark Now" you can make sure that whenever anyone mentions the book (as in this post, for instance), you get to know about it. Neat. If it works.


Here are a couple of things that I should have included in my end-of-week roundup last Friday, but didn't.

First, the novelist Jacqui Lofthouse has her own web site, which I should have linked to but forgot. Here you can find not only details of her books but also information about courses and other events that she is involved in. Jacqui works as a life coach for individuals and small businesses.

Next, Julie Hill wrote and asked me to link to her, and why not. Julie is a literary agent (Hill Media) in California, and she heads a team of eight, so she is not just a one-woman band. Her web site provides further information about the fields in which she specialises.

Julie also runs a blog, called Astrology for Writers, Editors and Filmakers. Well, I suppose astrology provides as good an explanation of how publishing operates as anything else does. My own current reading tells me that I am looking out for number one, but that money and publishing do not always go together. Which explains a great deal.

Friday, June 17, 2005

End of the week

The end of the week approacheth, and, as usual, I have failed to do those things which I ought to have done; and, yes, I have done those things which I ought not to have done. So, here's a quick roundup of stuff which is well worth looking at but which I have been unable to do full justice to -- in no particular order.

Debra Hamel writes to say that Gideon Defoe's book The Pirates! Et Cetera is very funny. She has written a review, and while there you will find that the rest of her site is worth reading too.

Archer points out that the Archie of Whatsit can rest easy: Archer's blog is a model of good taste and rectitude. And so it is: see for yourself.

Jacqui Lofthouse is a lady who has the good taste to read the GOB and she writes too. Her book The Temple of Hymen sounds to be like triple X certificate or something. Highly unsuitable for young ladies, apparently. So how come I never heard of the damn thing? I must put in an order immediately.

Visit also Jacqui's friend Amanda Mann, who writes Confessions of an Author. Amanda shocked the publishing world to the very soles of its clay feet a while back when she published some real live genuine figures from her royalty statements.

Now believe me, folks, real figures are pretty damn rare in this business. You just don't ask your friends to show you their actual royalty statements. You allow them, out of a desire to retain their friendship, to lie to you, just as you, glibly and without a trace of guilt, lie to them. So be deeply grateful when the likes of Amanda give you the truth.

Paul Vitols is an experienced writer who blogs about what he is up to, and once again there are experiences described that you can learn from.

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, who were mentioned a while back (8 June) tell me that they actually write under their joint names, but a lot of places have a habit of dropping the second author in listings. This upsets Eric's Mum, as well it might. Eric runs a Byzantine Blog, where you can find links to their various books.

Eric and Mary were also intrigued by my mention of the book by Kevin Brownlow. This is about his film, It Happened Here. They tell me that Kevin can be found describing how the film came to be made at the following link:

And there are also some reminiscences about the making of the film at Rob Hansen's site, including a story about how one actor managed to shoot himself (by playing two parts, you will be relieved to hear).

Finally, don't forget Cantara Christopher, over at Published in New York. Cantara read my piece about life in England in the 1950s and asked how people managed to rebel in those days.

Well, my initial reaction was to say that they didn't rebel. Because it was too dangerous. After all, we must remember that the fifties were only twenty years after the thirties. And in the thirties we had the Depression, when people damn near starved in both the US and the UK. Those memories died hard, and in England people tended to 'know their place'. In other words, however rebellious they felt, they often kept their mouths shut.

However, that is an oversimplification. Rebellion is as old as time. Young people have always found a way to irritate and worry the life out of their parents. You may remember, in that great and good nineteenth-century book The Diary of a Nobody (written by George and Weedon Grossmith), Mr Pooter's son Lupin found no end of ways to cause his father concern. Well, that's young men for you. And young women too.

The fifties, however, did see more than a hint of rebellion. This was expressed chiefly in that dreadful rock and roll business (really, what is the world coming to); and, on a slightly more elevated level, by John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger. And lots more, in cinema, literature, and all the arts.

Enough. Have a good weekend.

Gerard wins -- and speaks!

Gerard Jones, about whom we have written lo these many times -- most recently on 6 June -- continues with his marketing campaign for his book of memoirs, Ginny Good. And so he should because it's a very fine piece of work.

Thanks to Gerard's ceaseless efforts, Ginny Good is beginning to get the recognition it deserves. Here are the links to some recent honours:

Ginny Good was placed first in the autobiography/memoir class in the 2005 IPPY awards. The Ippies -- full title Independent Publishers Book Awards -- were launched in 1996 and are designed to recognise excellence as published by the smaller firms. Entries for the Ippies this year came from more than 1,500 publishers from all over the world: from all 50 U.S. states, nine Canadian provinces, and 18 foreign countries.

Next, Linda L. Richards, editor of January magazine, listed Ginny Good as her choice for the best non-fiction book of 2004. Linda had earlier written an excellent review of the book.

Should you wish to buy the book, which is well worth the money, you can find more details of where and how to buy it on Gerard's own web site. As a short cut, let me tell you that the book is available through Amazon both in the UK and the USA. Doubtless any other decent bookseller can get it for you too.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable author is proceeding to produce his own audio version of his memoir. Details are once again supplied on Gerard's own web site, but if you can't wait to hear the great man's voice here is a quick link to a sample:

Only one caveat: unless you have broadband, some of the audio files may prove to be too much for your machine. Mine complained a bit, but it was really very interesting to hear the author read his own stuff. With a little help, of course from Yma Sumac. Remember her? If you do, you're even older than me and Gerard.

Opinions will differ, but my own view is that Gerard's book will have a long life. Historians will be rambling on about the hippie movement and the summer of love and flower power, and all that stuff, for decades to come. And the smarter of them will very soon catch on to the fact that Gerard was there. And he put it all on paper.

In due course (and remember you read it here first) Gerard's book will become a set text on college courses. Thus disproving, just for once, my frequently repeated assertion that the people who teach those courses can't tell Stork from butter; or shit from shinola; or whatever they say in your part of the world.