Friday, June 29, 2012

There's a reason why books in Australia cost more

It's called Perth. Also Darwin, Broome, Far North Queensland and Hobart.

Australia is a big country - as large in land mass as the continental USA. Our eastern seaboard is heavily populated and also the location of our major publishers and their warehouses. There are no warehouses in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania or Far North Queensland. Yet books that are released in Sydney and Melbourne on, say, 1 August still need to be available in these other places - and rural and regional centres - on that same publication day. Usually the only way to get the books to those places on time is by aeroplane. Aeroplanes, obviously, cost more than the trucks that are taking the books from the warehouses to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. The cost of those aeroplanes is factored into the recommended retail price of each book you buy.

When I mentioned this to someone recently she asked why people in Perth couldn't just pay more for their books - and it wasn't because this person presumed that everyone in Perth has Mining Money. It was her reaction to living in Sydney and having to pay what she considered to be too high a price for books. Well, yes, they do seem expensive. And it's not just because they have to get to Perth.

While we have the land mass of the USA we have, of course, a far smaller population than the USA. Therefore we don't enjoy the economies of scale that arise from shipping books to ten times as many people over the same area. We have a small population for such a big place. If we were shipping 10 000 copies of each book to Perth instead of 1000, economies of scale dictate that we'd be paying less for each copy of that book. But we're not.

Yes, the GST is a factor in the price of books. These freight costs are also a factor. And no doubt you're going to say, 'Well, then, ebooks can be so much cheaper!' Yes, they can be cheaper but publishers are still trying to work out how they can stomach dropping a book's price from $35 for a paper copy to something drastically less for an electronic copy and still keep their shareholders happy. It's a process. We're in the middle of it. Publishers shouldn't be shouted at, because from what I can tell they're genuinely trying to work out a way forwards. And we'll get there in the end - the market will force a solution if the industry can't come up with one on its own.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You're not all going to make it

At one point in 'The Gift', episode 100 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy turns to Spike and says, 'We're not all going to make it.' What she means by that is that some of her friends may die that night as they try to fend off an apocalypse. While those circumstances are dramatic, the line sometimes seems appropriate when I think about the legions of hopeful writers out there in the world.

So here's the blunt truth: you're not all going to make it. (And by 'make it' I mean 'get published', but you knew that.) The numbers alone suggest that, because there are arguably more writers than there are book-buyers in every single market around the world. And most book-buyers don't buy lots of books each year.

Does that mean you shouldn't try? Of course not. The trying is the thing. The trying is what makes you a better writer. In the great ever-shifting ratio of talent:application that is the difference between getting published and not, application is the more influential component. There are lots of talented writers out there. The ones who 'make it' are usually the ones who keep trying and learning as they go. But not everyone will. And nor should everyone expect to.

My example, for comparative purposes, is this: not all musicians expect to get a record deal, so why do all writers expect to get a publishing deal? I am yet to come across a writer who says they're doing it for their own enjoyment - they all seem to want to get published - but there are lots of musicians who do it just for the love of music (I'm speaking from personal experience). It could just be the circles I run in. But those circles are crowded with people who are constantly disappointed because they haven't been published. Some of those people - many, perhaps - will now self-publish a digital book. What's going to happen if they don't turn out to be self-publishing superstars? Statistically, most won't. So then there will be more disappointment. And this disappointment is completely preventable, because the sole cause of disappointment is expectation.

So here’s what I’d tell you if you were my friend and I was your bossy agenty friend:

Write without expectations.
Write because you love it.
Write because you have a story to tell.
Write because it makes you feel alive.
Write because that's where you're most present, in the moment, in the flow.
Don't write because you want to get published.
Don't write and then focus all of your energies on getting published. Just use some of your energies, if that’s what you want to do, and keep writing with the rest of your energies.

Getting published is a separate enterprise - it's a different undertaking altogether to writing. There are some authors who will get published because that's just where their writing falls: in the publishable stream. It doesn't make it better or worse than the writing that doesn't get published. Quite often it's just about the planets aligning for that writer at that time. When I take on an author, I have to love the writing, yes, but I also have to think hard about whether or not I can get the author published. I've rejected a lot of manuscripts that I loved, just because I didn't think I could get them published. In my ideal World of Me, where all the writing I love gets published, things would be different. But they're not. I have to live in this world. And, as Buffy also once said, this world is 'hard, and bright, and violent'.

Now, in the words of Dan Savage, 'I'm gonna get so many caaaallllls ...'

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Agents here, agents there, agents not exactly everywhere

Contrary to the literary scene in the US, many Australian writers still approach publishers directly. Why do you think this happens? Is there a paucity of literary agencies in Australia, or is it that this vocation still remains unexploited here?

I've kinda covered this territory already but what the hey, I'm looking for a distraction. So here's an answer.

Yes, there's a paucity of literary agencies, and that's because the business model of agenting makes it hard for people to start an agency and, these days, to stay in business. Agents work on commission, so unless an agent is independently wealthy, it's hard to start an agency from nothing knowing income won't flow, possibly, for several months, and even then it won't be much. Advances aren't that big, and agents only get a fraction of those advances. In Australia we need to take on quite a lot of clients just to break even. Moreover, those advances are getting smaller or disappearing altogether, but publishers still want agents to exist, because we do serve a role in the publishing food chain - we act as consultants, of a sort, to publishers in that we do a lot of the submission-filtering for them, and we often handle authors' concerns and queries, which means they're not calling their publishers and asking. 

Agents are also, often, the ones staying abreast of what's changing in the industry and we're able to disseminate information to authors and publishers alike (and, yes, this blog is one of the ways I do that). One of the reasons this blog hasn't been updated in a while is that I'm flat out trying to keep on top of everything - all agents now have to spend a proportion of their time each day reading about the latest developments on the industry. This isn't something that was in the job description five years ago. 

I can't actually imagine how we're going to get more agents in this country, although it would be great if we could. The difficulty of the business model is one reason; the fact that it requires a certain amount of experience to be an effective agent is another. It would be hard to parachute a university graduate into an agenting job if they had no prior experience of the industry.

One of the things that would be helpful is that publishers could realise that we'll all disappear if they keep squeezing the money the way they are. Yes, things are really, really difficult at the moment - more difficult than any of us can remember - but we should actually be trying to work out a way to fix it, not just all running to the corners of the ring and waiting to see who comes out fighting first. If publishers gave agents the benefit of the doubt - if their default answer to us wasn't always 'no', even if we have a lot of books with them - that would help. They want our expertise but then don't trust it enough to not make us jump through the same hoops every time (and by 'publishers' I mean the companies, not the individuals who are called publishers - the individuals usually trust us but their acquisitions meetings don't).

So that turned into a bit of a rant; it's been coming for a while (and I have more to come). And, no, it won't get more agents into the industry but right now we just need to focus on keeping the ones we have.