25 Jul

I was recently perusing ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook Guide to Getting Published’, which to be frank is not very helpful in the manner advertised by its own title unless you’re such a massive dumbarse that you can’t work out or research for yourself basic facts about the publishing industry. The book’s author is totally correct that approaches to fellow professionals should be courteous, concise and not make one come across like a raving mental patient. He’s also right that there are differences between the roles and agendas of an agent, an editor and other people with whom a writer collaborates in order to get a book published commercially, differences that a writer needs to understand and respect. Don’t fret about designing the cover of your book before you’ve written it, unless you’re eight years old or something. Don’t send your Glee slash fiction to the agent who represents Margaret Atwood, JK Rowling or Dan Brown.

This last is a boobytrapped piece of advice actually, because you shouldn’t send anything to do with Glee anywhere. The point is that anyone who doesn’t already know these things should never be seen or heard in any professional and/or public context anyway because they’re obviously imbeciles.

One thing, however, was very striking. It’s on page 5 as well, which is very convenient given that I don’t particularly recommend slogging through the rest of the book unless you’re masochistically ignorant. This one small chart tabulating “normal” UK book sales and advances circa 2010 is like a stick of cartoon dynamite with a comically long and visible fuse, because you read and absorb it… you think, OK, OK… then, BOOM.

People of a certain kind have been chasing the idea of “being published” for decades, and I mean “being published” as in having the official imprimatur of a mainstream national or international publisher. Although the chart is presented with the wise caveat that the numbers can vary considerably based on the specific qualities of the book and the circumstances in which it is published, the conclusion is inescapable: commercially published books sell shockingly few copies.

I am a published author by this old school, pre digital definition. I don’t think that means as much as it used to. Even being a so-called “bestselling” author doesn’t mean very much at all now, if it ever did. As we shall see, that overused term is usually a misnomer at best, knowingly misleading at worst.

The audiences for the average book pale into insignificance beside those of a fairly average blog or a YouTube video. A deliberately irritating and simplistic animation of a cat-headed Pop Tart flying through space while shitting rainbows to a J-Pop soundtrack (Nyan Cat), to pick a hyperbolic example, has had over 27 million views as of July 2011. The upshot of all this is that the industry is driving itself into its own early grave by not keeping up with what people actually want to learn, read and write. They’re still trying to operate by their historical, patrician model of just telling everybody what they wanted, or were supposed to want, and the public could like it or lump it.

Speaking from experience of both “proper” [sic] publishing and print on demand self-publishing, the most interesting thing of all is that what’s called here a “good self-published book” in any genre easily sells as many copies and reaches as many readers as a book in the much more prestigious genre of literary fiction. Poetry is the most niche, unpopular, unprofitable and almost entirely unread genre of all… but probably everyone already knew that.


The format is: [1] market [2] typical advance (i.e. what the author gets before the book is published, and the amount of money their book needs to make for him or her to receive royalties on sales) [3] typical sales in paperback.

Poetry, £0-£100, 50-500 copies.

Good self-published book, £0, 10-500 copies.

Children’s novel, £1000-£15,000, 2000-25,000 copies.

Literary fiction, £0-£3000, 500-3000 copies. Yes, that’s right, confirmation of what I’d already been told repeatedly many years ago by people in the publishing industry. Highbrow literary novels are mostly published at a loss to the company and rarely sell more than a few hundred copies. This very much includes the kind that pop up on the Orange or Booker shortlists every year. Rather than looking to YouTube or a blog, I should perhaps compare apples to apples; despite all the logistical and marketing weight behind them and their validation as a “real” writer by their agent and publisher, the author of a literary novel generally reaches far fewer punters than even an obscure, experimental and unsuccessful unsigned band, or a middling visual artist’s gallery exhibition.

Niche commercial fiction, £0-£3000, 500-3000 copies. NB: no explanation of what exactly this is. Sounds like it could be a euphemism for porn, but it probably isn’t.

Mainstream non-fiction, £10,000-£50,000, 10,000-50,000 copies.

Mainstream literary fiction, £5000-£25,000, 5,000-30,000 copies. Again, note that a “mainstream” literary novel might only sell 5000 copies, but even the figure of 30,000 is stretching the definition of “mainstream” to breaking point.

Mainstream commercial fiction, £20,000-£60,000, 10,000-100,000 copies.

(Adapted from a chart in the aforementioned book by Harry Bingham)

Career Suicide, the book from which this blog originates, is selling very well both in terms of my own expectations and in the context of these figures. Thanks for asking. However, there are still obviously a great number of people who should have bought it but haven’t. You know who you are, own up and do the right thing now so I’m not forced to give the whole class detention. Wanting to sell more POD books than a Booker nominee isn’t too much to ask, is it? It’s certainly not very difficult, anyway. Help me out here.




  1. Alistair 26/07/2011 at 1:06 PM #

    Even better (although for UK buyers only, I’m afraid) get 25% off until 23.59 on 29th July 2011 by using the code TIMEUK305 at checkout.

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