Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Deja read

The Publishers Lunch newsletter yesterday provided a fresh insight into an old story. It's the one about an author with a self-published book who hits the big time. I'm getting awfully bored with stories of this kind, because they ignore the fact that for every self-published book that sells a few copies, say 200, there are 10,000 self-published books which sell 3 copies. And if it's not done through a print-on-demand system, the authors have a lot of books in their garage.

Anyway, it seems there's a man in America, Michael Stadther, who has self-published A Treasure Trove and has sold, allegedly, 100,000 copies with 300,000 in print. The gimmick with this one is that the book provides clues to the whereabouts of 12 hidden gold tokens which entitle those who find them to 12 jewel-encrusted creatures (a tortoise with emeralds stuck on its back?).

Oh, and the key factor behind the book's success is that the author has invested $2 million in creating the jewels and producing the books.

So there you are. For a self-published author, achieving success is quite simple. All you have to do is invest $2 million. Can't imagine why I didn't think of that.

Publishers Lunch also gives a link to a profile of Dean Koontz in the Los Angeles Times. You have to register to read it so I didn't bother, because (judging by the Lunch summary) there is nothing in it that I don't know already. But the point I want to make here is that Koontz has achieved his massive success at a price.

His habits are said to verge on the obsessive-compulsive. He never flies anywhere and hardly ever takes a vacation. He doesn't use email or the internet because they might distract him from his work. He writes pretty much all day every day. He edits his work repeatedly.

And so on. Much as I love the writing world, this does seem to me to be a bit excessive. Should you be interested in the Koontz phenomenon (and for me the phenomenon is more interesting than his books), you can discover how he got to be where he is today by reading Katherine Ramsland's biography of him. It provides quite a few valuable insights into the workings of the publishing industry.

Finally, yet another story about a first-time author who hits it big. Yawn, yawn. This one is in the Daily Mail. It concerns a man who took 30 years to write his book, discovered that he had cancer, and decided that he had better get a move on. Apparently there was a 'frenzied telephone auction' for the rights -- these auctions always are frenzied, aren't they? -- and John Murray paid £500,000 for what is said to be 'an extraordinary first novel'. For £500,000 I would have thought it needed to be a bit more than extraordinary.

All these 'first-time author hits it big' stories are utterly ridiculous. In the first place, no publisher with any brain between his ears should pay big money for an untested talent. It just doesn't make any sense. And the fact that it happens merely demonstrates the fundamentally foolish nature of the decision-making in this great industry of ours. And in the second place, what sort of sense does it make to release details of the payment? Sensible industries boast about how much income is generated by their product; publishers boast about how much they've paid for it.

And by the way, if any of these stories inspires you to sit down and write a novel and then publish it yourself, just reflect on the fact that 54 people in the UK were struck by lightning last year (report in the Times a couple of days ago). It happens, but mercifully not very often. Similarly, some writers do occasionally, through an act of God, make more than tuppence-ha'penny out of something they've written. But it doesn't happen often, and you can be fairly certain it won't happen to you.


Constance said...

How uninspiring!
That pep talk I gave myself yesterday to get another blogpost in just evaporated. But too late - I've already done it.
Not that I'm in it for the money, but still your pessimism is pretty thick. Half the fun is thinking you might hit it big, probably more so than actually doing it.

Anonymous said...

"Sensible industries boast about how much income is generated by their product; publishers boast about how much they've paid for it."

Could it sometimes be sensible for publishers to do this? It generates interest and so on, but also, maybe, it helps to keep people buying those odd lottery tickets that are "literary" books, which are perhaps read mostly by people who harbour the secret ambition of writing one.

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