How would you cope?
Having completed my first novel and taken some time to enjoy the achievement, I soon found that having undertaken a huge amount of training to learn the skills involved in writing, now I’d have to learn a whole new industry – Publishing.
And what an eye opener that has been.
Now let me be clear. I sit very firmly on one side of a large fence, I’m in the camp of the author and my subjective view of the Publishing industry is perhaps jaundiced by my experiences so feel free to apply the “Well he would say that wouldn’t he” maxim to my comments.
As I began my research it became evident that demand, (of authors trying to get their work published,) far outweighed the publishers ability to meet that demand. In their world, understandably, it’s about selling as many books as possible so a new author presents a risk whereas a celebrity author or proven writer are a much safer bet and will generate the most revenues. So, who needs to be bogged down wading through manuscripts from hopeful authors? Certainly not the Publisher and thus a second industry has evolved that reduces the risk and workload for the publisher. Introducing the Literary Agent.
These are the gatekeepers of the Publishers, the self-appointed X-Factor judges who determine whether your novel is commercial enough to put before one of the publishing houses for whom they act. Debutant authors are sold on the premise that once the agent gives your book the seal of approval then publishers will fall over themselves to get it onto the shelves of Waterstones. They’ll cross your palm with a two or three book deal and you’re on the road to becoming a bestseller. Okay, let’s find an agent, how hard can that be?
I was introduced to a platform called Query tracker, a site on which each agent is listed by name, the Agency they work for and what genres they work in. The site is designed to help the author see which agents are best suited to their work and whether they are currently accepting submissions. (A submission being the author’s cherished work.) The site also provides some basic data to show the response times of the agents to authors’ submissions.
Now call me old fashioned, but in my experience the speed of my response to customers was a critical determinant of whether that customer stayed with me or went elsewhere. What I found on Query tracker, therefore, was an alien planet to me. Here was an upside-down world in which as I trawled through the statistics provided, agents boasted yes boasted of turnaround times of three months. The data on one agent showed he never responded to submissions. But he only has one job: to assess submissions! How does this work? Or in other words WT actual F?
At which point we come to the barriers to entry put up by Literary Agencies. As a rule of thumb, most want the author to submit the first three chapters of their manuscript, a synopsis, and a short biography. But then each agent, to differentiate themselves, makes demands on the way the submission is formatted, what needs to be in the email, how to send it, what they will and won’t accept etc. For the author this means separate submissions on each occasion and woe betide if you don’t exactly follow an Agents Guidelines. There are endless You Tube videos from smug agents telling you what you need to avoid doing and what you should be doing to make the life of the Agent simple. The basic thrust of these is ‘it’s your own fault if you don’t get picked.’
So, by now a big red light in my business brain started flashing. I had always worked on the maxim that the numbers don’t lie. This was particularly important because the industry I’d operated in and in which I’d run some of the biggest players across four continents is absolutely rammed with…
Key Performance Indicators, had been my means of understanding how my businesses were doing without me physically being there. I applied this logic to the world of Literary Agents and decided to see what the numbers were telling me about an industry in which turnaround times of three months were deemed worthy of merit.
Let me cut a long piece of research short and cut to the chase. Forgive me here for rounding the numbers but you’ll get the gist. In the UK there are some 625 agents who each receive on average 5800 submissions from authors each year. That is 3.6 million submissions per annum. Out of those, the data shows that circa 600 new authors per year will be chosen. Yes, that’s correct. 600. The chances of my submission being picked by an agent is 1:6000.
The obvious question arising was what chance did my novel have of being one of those picked? But as I thought about that with an increasing sense of despondency, another more pertinent question arose. Given that each agent receives 5800 submissions per annum, roughly 125 submissions per week, will my submission be read at all?
The answer is: No.
An example of a response from a literary agent is:
‘Regrettably, we do not have the time to respond individually to each submission due to the sheer volume that the agency receives and the necessity of fulfilling our obligations to our existing clients. Please do not call the agency.’
So that’s that then? Two year’s work to get a ‘don’t call us we’ll call you.’
I can’t blame the Agents or the publishers. Demand, it’s clear, far outweighs the ability to supply. From discussions amongst the crime writing fraternity, it’s clear that agents receive recommendations and pick their new authors from those. Who you know rather than what you know. J.K.Rowling was rejected by numerous literary agents before someone she knew decided to publish the Harry Potter books.
But this becomes a world of diminishing returns. The pool in which the publishers swim will constrict. It’s the law of the market. If you cannot supply a customer’s needs, someone else will. Look at the effect lockdown had on high street shops compared to the online retailers. One could not supply which was to the benefit of the other.
Question: How do authors not picked by an agent take their book to market?
Self-publication is the digital, online retail environment for authors. It also has barriers to entry. Money being the biggest. But on the upside the author earns greater royalties, controls their own destiny and once the rules of engagement have been learned it becomes a business enterprise. How to market the book? Which ads work which don’t? How to use social media? SEO, Website development. Understanding Amazon. Break-even sales numbers etc. etc. The scale of the self-publication market is enormous. In 2011 in the USA 200,000 books were self-published. In 2019 the number was 1.68 million a rise of 700%. Highlighting more powerfully than words, how the world of traditional publishers is diminishing. There are a plethora of people, schools and on-line platforms waiting to take your money and to show the author how to differentiate their book. Traditional publishers use the ‘Quality’ argument and to be fair they have a point. There are thousands of awful books that are self-published. But…There are also thousands of published books that are awful.
Where does that all leave me? Having learned how to self-publish this is the route I will take for all my books but in a saturated market I’m looking at what the next changes will be and how I might capitalise. Just when I thought I was becoming an author I’ve found I’m back in the world of business. A different one from the one I left, but a business nonetheless. I’ve come full circle.