Saturday, December 22, 2007


Following is a list of statistics that a good friend of mine in California, William McCall, sent me:
1. Of the 200,000 books published worldwide each year only 2% become bestsellers.
2. 84% of the world's bestsellers are published by the 5 largest New York publishers.
3. Only 2 out of 10 books published make a profit for the publisher.
4. In 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies, which means that 1,150,000 books made an average of £10,000 for the publisher before any production, marketing, advertising and distribution costs were deducted. This translates to approximately £900 for the author.
5. Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
6. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. In the UK it is significantly less.
7. Only 10 books a year sell more than a million copies.
8. Fewer than 500 books sell more than 100,000 copies.
9. The magic number for a book to be considered successful is 10,000, which makes an average of £100,000 for the publisher before all production costs are deducted, and approximately £9,000 for the author.
10. The average income of a published author is in the region of £7,000 per year.
11. In excess of 90% of published authors do not make enough money to live on with this as their sole income.

You only have to sell 5,000 copies of your novel to be in the top 2% of bestselling books, but despite this statistic you'd still only be making something in the region of £4,500 per year.

Royalties on books usually start at 10% - and unless you have a major publisher, they are now based on wholesale price and not retail - and the reserve against returns is 15-25%. So the odds on making your fortune from a book alone are slim.
Somewhat sobering I thought, and in light of this I looked at my own experiences over the past five years, also some stories I'd heard of authors (who shall remain nameless) acting in a pedantic, difficult, self-important fashion, and I came to some conclusions about this business in general.

The book business is like every business. People who have made it usually build their readership slowly over time, and ultimately gain a wider following after years and years of hard work. It is necessary to continue to produce better and better books, to do whatever is necessary to stay in good favour with your publishing company, and do any and all promotion you can yourself. Go to libraries, do signings, readings, whatever you can, and in this way you will hopefully sell enough books to make enough money for the publishing company so they can continue to justify giving you further publishing contracts.

The harsh truth is that the publishing industry - just like the movies, just like the theatre, the opera, the ballet, the art gallery - is a business. If money is not made it will not survive, and as an author you have a responsibility to give your reader the very best work that you can, and at the same time work towards assisting your publisher in their very difficult task of making the world take notice of what you are doing. To take you on in the first place means that your publisher must have a very definite and passionate belief in what you are doing, and to do anything other than contribute in every way possible to what they are doing will only serve to let you down.

Being temperamental, over-demanding, acting like a prima donna, will accomplish worse than nothing. It will make your publisher unwilling to work with you. There is an abundance of talent in the world. Many, many tens of thousands of manuscripts are received by the main UK publishers every year, and this figure is growing. The bulk of them find their way into the slush pile, never to be seen again. To have located a publisher who believes in your work sufficiently to put many, many thousands of pounds behind all that it takes to bring a book to a store shelf is a miracle in itself. To then waste that serendipitous and tremendously fortunate opportunity - that chance of a lifetime - by being 'artistically difficult', is actually artistically suicidal.

The world needs great novels, and thus it needs great authors. Greatness possesses, inherent in its composition, not only skill and brilliance, but also compassion, empathy, patience, understanding, tolerance, and - above all - humility. Humility is the very essence of self-improvement, for without humility one considers one's own viewpoint important above all others, which is all very well and good until one considers the possibility of what it would take to publish your book alone.
And, for what it's worth, that's my take on it!


Ray-Anne said...

Thank you so much for this post.

I am a genre fiction writer in the UK who has taken a career break to write full time and learn my craft.

No income. No support structure.
And no illusions.

Perhaps because I come from a tough business background, I have never had any misconceptions that the publishing business is probably the toughest challenge any writer could face.
And yet I continue to meet other writers at conferences who firmly believe that they will be able to support themselves and their families on their first contracted book. Many of these same people tend to mock commercial genre fiction as 'rubbish' airport books.

I have a specialist technical knowledge which supports medical thrillers, I have been studying and reading crime and romance novels for as long as I care to recall, have probably written half a million words, and I still know I have a long way to go.
Yes, I shall probably target US agents and yes, I know it will be a long slog.
I am up for it. I believe passionately in my subject and only hope I can frame the work in a story worthy of the characters and their stories.

I shall take the liberty of linking to this post of my own blogs as a harsh reminder about the realities of this crazy game.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have another 1000 words to complete before cooking the Sunday lunch.

R J Ellory said...

You sound like me. I don't want to shatter anyone's illusions, or get into that 'it's all horrible and tough and you might as well not start because it's going to fail anyway' mentality, but I consider myself pragmatic and real, and I think you have precisely and exactly the correct viewpoint about this thing. And one other thing, once you have a completed work that you are happy with you should perhaps take a look at the article I wrote in Aug 2006 called 'How Do You Get Published?'
One small question...why target US agents, and not UK?

Ray-Anne said...

Oh. I have a reply. Thank you so much. And thanks for the link back to your earlier post which makes perfect sense.

As for agents?
I am still collating a target 'hit list' if you will, of lit agents in both the UK and the US who have authors/clients who I read, love and follow, and whose style and subject material/themes are similar to my own.
The majority of these are in the US.

Practically speaking, I know this makes the logistics far more tedious, but selling the US rights FIRST, with the size of the print-runs etc from US publishers is very attractive to an unknown debut author such as myself.

The list is still being developed, and I am probably deluding myself that a New York agent would be interested, but hey, think big.
I am re-writing a commercial medical thriller which could well appeal to that market and I want to give it my best shot.
Thanks again for taking the time to reply.

R J Ellory said...

You're very welcome, and if you want to stay in touch, or you have some more specific and direct questions I can answer, then you can always e-mail me through the website. I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
Take care, and best wishes.