Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tanith Lee and the Perplexing Publishers

I mentioned last month that midlist authors sometimes struggle if they get 'disappointing sales'. It's worth mentioning that some great authors, too, occasionally get the cold shoulder from their publishing houses for reasons that seem less than clear. Tanith Lee is one such author.

It truly is perplexing. Tanith, who has sold consistently (one gathers) across the years, and who has a sizeable body of work behind her, can't work out why the major publishers no longer want to work with her.

In the comments section of the same interview at Lambda, someone also pointed out that it isn't as simple as bigger authors moving on to the small and indie presses. Naturally, these smaller publishers don't have the same economies of scale, and so their reach and the financial rewards involved can both be much smaller.

But it's not all doom and gloom. I do know writers who make a decent living from small press publications. You just have to work in a different way to make in the money, which is perhaps another challenge in itself, but one most creative individuals could overcome if they embrace it.

With the big publishers, you need a book a year, on cue, and you need to play ball. With the small publishers you need to be willing to put yourself out there and do, for example, festivals and workshops to supplement your book sales.

£300-£500 a day is relatively normal in these circles for festival and workshop appearances (at least here in the UK). An author might have to sell 500 copies of a book to make that same amount of money. If you can get one or two bookings a month, that may be enough with book sales and the sales of short pieces to magazines. It may make up for a lack of an advance and fewer sales.

Another option is writing residencies, fellowships and commissions, although these don’t allow as much time for working on one’s own projects and require some element of performance, teaching or ticking boxes.

It would, of course, be better if writers could just get a decent living wage for their work . . . but that’s not going to happen and isn’t feasible under current book trade and publishing models.

I’m curious to see how shifting/developing platforms for writing change things. Even novelists like Salman Rushdie are considering other options (such as writing for TV). Clive Barker has also, unless I’m mistaken, written for computer games. I once got commissioned to write SMS poetry to send to visitors at a local museum. It’s strange, really.

Are there any writers out there who'd care to share their own experience of the change from big to small press?

An excellent review of Tanith's collection Disturbed by Her Song is available to read here. Or, if you trust me, you can read my own review from last year here.

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