Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Productivity Commission - part XXVI

It feels like part XXVI, even though I haven't made that many posts on the subject.

I believe there is some rallying of the pro-Productivity Commission troops going on. 'Cheaper books' is the cry. Yawn. YAWN. Since when did a public company give cheaper anything? Since when did you all start believing that Coles, Woolworths and Dymocks are going to do something that benefits their customers? How are those petrol prices working for ya? How's your toilet paper? How's your 'home brand' product range - about the same price as everything else, right? That's how they roll.

And since when have we forgotten that tried-and-true chestnut, that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Well, folks, those so-called cheaper books are the free lunch. Which means there's a price somewhere ... oh, wait, here it is: you can have cheaper books, sure, but just don't expect them to be Australian. Don't expect to get your Donna Hay cookbook or your Michael Clarke Captain's Diary or your Lote Tuqiri tell-all, because there won't be anyone around to produce them. Why not? Nope, not because publishers won't exist - because writers won't.

There is bugger-all money for writers as it is; if retailers like Dymocks pound the publishers for more and more discounts - they already pay less than half the recommended retail price for a book, which means that anything they charge above the discount is money straight to them - then the publishers have to squeeze it at the other end. The other end is the writer. If Dymocks will only pay $5 for a book that used to cost them $15, how much money do you think there is for the writer after the publisher has paid for production, distribution, sales, marketing and publicity?

Of course, I've heard that writers are all members of an 'elite' - thus, they must all be trustafarians who don't need the money. Yeah, right. The writers I know come from all sorts of backgrounds and live all sorts of lives. Some were cops; some were actors; some were journos; some work in bookshops. Most of them don't have anything approaching a Masters degree. Most of them work bloody hard for a living and then do their writing at 3 a.m. with a crying child, or late at night after a shift, or they sneak it into a lunch hour. They're not elite in anything other than talent. And since when did having talent make someone 'elite'? It just makes them talented.

So let's turn to those other so-called 'elites': people who work in publishing. Hmmm, let me see ... public high school, public high school, private school on a scholarship, public high school. I personally started working the day after I finished my HSC and kept working throughout university. Guess I wasn't elite enough to get by without the money. Maybe I should leave the industry. Except you know what I spent a lot of my money on back then? Books. I bought books because I couldn't breathe without them. I bought books because they were my whole world. They fired my imagination and made me laugh and cry and dream.

Writers wrote those books. It sounds facile to say it, but let's go over it again: writers wrote those books. Without writers, there are no books. There are no stories. So how dare anyone - ANYONE - imply that they are not worth every cent they are paid, and more. How dare anyone say that they should be paid less. How dare anyone - let alone the CEO of Dymocks, who makes his money off the products of writers - call Australian writers incompetent. I'd like to see him write a book. But, no, he can't - he's not elite enough. He's just the CEO.

There's a lot of misinformation going on in this debate, and it's centred on this mantra: 'cheaper books'. Australian books are not expensive compared to books in the rest of the world. And anyone crowing about the cost of books overseas and the price they'd fetch here under this new world order has failed to factor in the enormous cost of actually getting those books here. Who do you think is going to pay for that? Do you imagine that Dymocks will absorb the cost of freight so they can bring their customers cheaper books? If so, let me resurrect a phrase from the 1980s: that, my friends, is Voodoo Economics.

The Coalition for Cheaper Books has also managed to divert attention away from another truth about writers. agents and publishers: we are all book buyers too. But we are 'super-user' book buyers. We understand the economics behind the price of a book. Don't you think that, as folks with a heightened interest in buying books, we'd be the first to support the idea of 'cheaper books' if we actually believed they weren't as cheap as they could be? The Coalition members have not seen costings for books; I have. I can assure you that the profit margins aren't big. I can also assure you that most books never earn out their advance. Publishers take the risk that they won't. They take that risk on some books that they're fairly certain will never earn out - like first novels - because they believe in what they're doing. They believe in books. Yes, they're mostly public companies but there is this weird thing in the publishing industry: we believe we're all involved in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in the mission. And to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'the mission is what matters'. Why else would we put up with these woeful salaries?

The members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books do not believe in books. For them, books are a SKU like cat food and Wettex. They believe in maximising their profit. There is a price for this. You pay that price already - it's called a lack of competition in the marketplace. The Grocery Choice website didn't even get off the ground because the major retailers stopped it. This is not a different fight we have here, for books. We want book choice. Currently we have it. And isn't it nice? This is not a fight of 'elites and elitists' versus everyone else. No one is more elite than a member of a board. What's going on now is pure greed. Dymocks et al can charge less for books any time they want - they pay less than half the RRP of the book, so they can just charge that if they want. But they don't want. They want to pay even less than they already do, and then charge the same. It's called making a profit. Making a profit is something most publishing companies hope to do and often don't. It's something most writers will never have the luxury of doing. And they're the elite? Pah. There are about five authors in this country who earn an hourly rate commensurate with their skill.

I could go on and on about this. I already have. But if you're sitting on the fence, let me break it down in non-book, cold economic terms. Whenever you pay less for something than it is worth, someone loses. The loser is NOT going to be the public company that sells you the product; it is going to be the primary producer. This is the lesson our farmers have learnt. This is the lesson Australian writers are about to learn. If you value your Australian stories and the films and TV shows that are made from them - such as Underbelly - you will value the writers who created those stories. They are irreplaceable.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Turning water into wine

For the past four years I've been writing my own humour column for a street magazine with a monthly readership of around 70,000. I've also contributed similar writing to other magazines with a weekly readership of around 90,000. Within those numbers, the readership of the column has to be worth taking notice of.

The column was said by one of my editors to be 'like a less gay version of David Sedaris', which sparked the idea of compiling the columns into book form.

I put together some samples and a proposal which outlined prospective, established readership, my previous writing achievements in both short fiction and national magazines. Promotional editorial would be dead easy to organise given my contacts.

I felt the proposal was solid and I have received much feedback from readers over the years, so I know the writing is popular with a specific audience and could be popular with a wider one, given the chance.

In spite of this the first two standard rejections have come in, and it's a little disheartening. I understand that humour is subjective and I accept that the David Sedaris comment could have been misguided, but I also can't help thinking that publishers and agents might be simply going to dismiss this idea because it doen't fit easily into the norm. It's non-fiction, it's humour, it's a collection of short pieces.

My question is: do I knuckle down and keep trying agents and publishers or do I look into self-publishing and books on demand? I'm not sure how to go about these last two but I have been hearing more and more mention of them.

It's pretty clear to me why you haven't been picked up by agents or publishers.

1. Everyone who knows who you are has already read your columns.

2. You have no means of establishing a readership outside of this without a publicity hook - or, as the Americans call it, 'platform'.

3. A collection of columns is difficult to publish even when you have a public profile - can you think of any Australian writers who have successfully published books of columns in the last few years? And by 'successfully' I mean 'sold more than 2000 copies'.

Before you consider self-publishing or books on demand - before you submit your manuscript to anyone else - ask yourself this one, very important, question which all writers (whether they're on book one or book ten) should ask themselves: who is my reader? You say the manuscript could be popular with a wider readership - why? What's it got that is going to catch the eye of the radio and print journos/producers who will need to notice it in order to give it the publicity it will require to get some new readers? True, some books succeed through word of mouth - but you still need some publicity. What's your hook? Funny writing alone won't cut it. Being 'less gay than David Sedaris' won't cut it either - women are the biggest book buyers in this country and, as un-PC as it is to say it, they don't tend to buy stories about the gays, or the less-gays. They want stories - and columns are little stories - that relate to them somehow or are so out-of-the-box unrelatable - like fantasy - that they can escape.

So, yeah, maybe self-publishing is for you - but again, who is your reader? Who's going to buy it? And, in this age of blogs, why do you want a book so badly? Sometimes I ask authors what they want: do they fundamentally want their writing 'out there' or are they really attached to the book? Neither answer is incorrect; it just helps me work out how they see themselves. If what you want is to get your writing 'out there', there's this great new-fangled invention called Teh Internets that can help you. If, however, you're attached to the artefact of the book, that's fine too - but it may not be the right medium for this particular project.

Travel all over the countryside, ask the ...

I have a travel book currently under contract with a publisher, due out at the end of 2009. It was a contract I negotiated myself, but I would now like an agent in order to grow my career.

I have booked my next adventure and started researching, and could pitch the idea of it, but obviously I cannot start on the manuscript until I've done the travel. Should I wait until I have written the manuscript before submitting to an agent, or can I pitch my idea based on the fact that I have a book in the same genre?

You can pitch the idea, but don't get your hopes up for representation based on your pitch and your past book alone. It's not impossible - not many things are impossible - but your first book would need to have sold fairly well in order for an agent to take you on for the second without seeing a manuscript.

I say it's not impossible because I've taken on authors on the strength of their first book and their ideas for a second. But travel writing is a tricky genre (in Australia, at least - and I'm presuming you're Australian). I don't take it on because I've found it too hard to place in the past. Of course, if the writing were amazing, I would reconsider. But it would need to be amazing. You'd also need to have a great idea for the second book - something that's sufficiently different to other books on the market to make the agent (and, then, publisher) think it's worth taking on.

The sky is probably falling

Well, the Productivity Commission, in its wisdom, has decided to kill the Australian publishing industry. Okay, that's being dramatic - they've decided to cut off its legs and not cauterise the wounds.

A publisher I spoke to yesterday remarked that, between the changes to publishing due to the digital world and the PC's recommendations, we'll all be lucky to have jobs within five years. My attempt at putting a positive spin on it all is to say that at least I've been given three years' notice to find a new career.

This may all sound a bit Chicken Little-y to those who are on the outside of the industry, but the potential consequences of the PC's recommendations - that parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) are removed and that Australian territorial copyright be worthless - are far reaching and devastating. The PC may feel that PIRs are restrictionist and anti-free market (Yay, free market! Free market that allowed subprime mortgages to flourish!) but the fact remains that their removal will benefit only UK and US publishers and will probably mark the end of the Australian publishing industry as any real force. The threat is THAT real and THAT upsetting.

The federal government can do one very simple thing to make books 'cheaper', if that is the real intention of the PC: Mr Rudd could remove the GST on books and anything to do with books. No GST on the book designer's fee; no GST on the printing company's fee; no GST on the freight charges; no GST on the purchase price. That would immediately bring about a drastic reduction in the price of books. But it's not really about that, is it? I wouldn't be the first person to point out that it's a bit iffy that ALP stalwart Bob Carr, the former premier of NSW (that gloriously functioning free-market economy), is on the board of Dymocks. Dymocks were the main driver behind the PC conducting this review, a review which was also pushed for under the previous government but which was mysteriously left alone by those renowned free marketeers John Howard and Peter Costello.

Some people I know are suggesting that the recommendations are actually a form of 'anti-elitist' strike - a 'let's take down those snobby publishing people a peg' thing. Maybe. Human motives are always complex, but I know this for sure: no company (private or public) with shareholders - such as Dymocks, Coles or Woolworths - is going to do anything that saves their customers money. They are businesses. They want to make money for themselves. And that's fine - that's what they are charged to do under the Corporations Act. However, they have been allowed to get away with the argument that evil publishers and greedy authors are just taking customers' money and only they - publically listed companies - are putting the customers' interests first. What I find even more remarkable is that the real media story has not been this landmark event - public companies as charities.

It's been good spin. It's worked - on the Productivity Commission. But don't let it work on you. If the PIRs are lifted, the members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books (Dymocks et al) will pay less for the books they sell, but they'd be in defiance of their duties under the Corporations Act if they didn't try to maximise returns for their shareholders - and that means charging customers whatever they think they can get away with. By that time, it will be too late for anyone to protest that this is not what was supposed to happen. By that time, our industry will be on its knees and the number of Australian stories finding their way into the world will be greatly reduced. And that affects our film and TV industries - who often draw material from books; it affects our radio, TV and print media who rely on authors for stories; it affects our culture, quite apart from the economic ramifications.

There has been some hand-wringing in the industry about digital publishing and the wave of imminent change that faces us. I'm not worried about that - I think it's exciting, and if we could all get on board and embrace the change, there's no telling what innovation may be found. No, digital publishing is not the enemy. Frighteningly - heart-sickeningly - the enemy has come from within. We are all now holding our breath to see whether our federal government - our arts-loving, job-saving government - is going to ensure that we are all out of jobs within five years; whether they are willing to see the immense talent and passion in the publishing industry just bleed into the ground.

I'm not being dramatic, I promise - my mother beat it out of me (not literally) quite young. I was even, initially, trying to be pragmatic about this whole thing. We'll be right etc etc. But we won't be right. We will be far from right. And we will certainly not have cheaper books.

If you feel like you want to do something but aren't sure what, now is the time to write to your local federal MP - particularly if they are in the ALP - and lobby them to not allow these recommendations to go ahead. And if you want to engage in mindful protest, you can join me - and others in the industry - in personally boycotting Dymocks. I'm also boycotting Coles and Woolworths, because of this and their petrol shenanigans. If we all think 'one person can't make a difference' there will be no difference. I'm also going to ask the Empire Gods to give us Barack Obama. Since the PC wants to send the industry back into the arms of empire - they want things to work they way they used to in the 1950s - at least let us get Barack. Because the UK sure as hell doesn't care about us any more. And there's no way Barack would let anyone do parallel imports in his country: he knows it's bad for business.

In closing, I am publishing, with permission, a letter that one of this blog's readers sent to the ABC:

RE: Cheaper Books, Don't Count on it.

Promising something that can't be proven is an old trick.

On the other hand, in government-speak, what can be examined is "demonstrated ability" to deliver. Pray, what precisely is Bob Carr's demonstrated ability? After what he did to NSW, who in their right mind, would let him even preside over a chook raffle?

The Australian Publishing Industry is only asking to keep the same protections that its US and UK counterparts enjoy. Nothing more. New Zealand's abolition of territorial copyright protections and opening up to parallel importation has done nothing good for its industry. Their people are now here, or anywhere, but in NZ.

Mr Rudd, knowing that the Productivity Commission Recommendations will cost many jobs, proposes simply to put more people on the public purse with "subsidies". Why not just leave them alone to keep earning a living and contributing to general revenue instead of drawing from it?

Anyone who believes the Coalition for Cheaper Books really intends books to be cheaper for consumers (particularly after their competition is decimated) is in for a double-take. Cheap, de-regulated milk? Cheaper fuel? Cheaper groceries? Surely, this trick has been done to death.

Theresa Lauf, Brisbane Fri 17 July 09

Friday, July 3, 2009

Courses, credits and colons

I have been a 'closet writer' and have only stepped out recently and began the journey. Having read most the answers to my question on your blog, a few still elude me.

Question One and Two: To be a writer (or published writer) would it be benefical to undertake some sort of study in this area? E.g. Bachelor Degree or other writing course? Also, by doing these course/qualifications, does it add more credit to you as a new writer? I have completed a few writers' workshops and online courses. The advantages of participating in a writer's camps etc are geographically difficult. Though not an impossibility.

I know that I need to improve on my grammar and puncuation (however, I can only assume that, to a certain point, that this is what editors do well and get paid for). Which brings me to my third question: I am wondering if I should hone these skills, before I continue my writing or just continue with the flow of words?

Answer One: Courses are beneficial for some writers because the writers then have enforced deadlines and structures, and that can help them get into a writing rhythm or finish a manuscript that they've otherwise left alone for too long. I do not believe that courses can 'make' a writer if they don't inherently have a talent for it, much the same way I do not believe that taking singing lessons every weekend for the rest of my life will make me Ella Fitzgerald Mark II. I also don't believe that courses/diplomas can give you the storytelling spark if you don't naturally have it. It's a bit like trying to be a professional ballet dancer with short hamstrings - it ain't gonna happen. That should not stop anyone from doing a course, though, if the experience gives them pleasure. And you won't know if you have that storytelling spark unless you give the writing thing a go - if you choose to do that within the structure of a course, then that's great. However, a lot of writers I represent have never been within sight of professional writing credentials.

Answer Two: No, it doesn't add credit - at least, not for me. Your writing has to speak for itself. If you've done ten years of courses and your writing is still no good, that's going to make me (a) think the courses don't work and (b) wonder why ten years of adult education didn't help you, personally, improve.

Answer Three: Anyone who has read Lynne Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves will know that she believes that punctuation is simply good manners, and I agree. Punctuation provides a road map for your reader and if it's absent or misused then the reader is likely to get lost. Grammar, on the other hand, is a murkier subject. A lot of modern English usage is not grammatically correct. That's probably because a lot of us weren't taught grammar in school - I had an English teacher who wistfully told us that she'd love to teach us grammar but she wasn't allowed. In fact, the first real experience I had with the rules of grammar was when I learnt foreign languages. Thus, the Queen's English has been on a slippery slope to Bedlam. And that's quite all right, because while grammar is like punctuation in its road-map qualities, it's also there to say, 'Psst - there's a short cut.' Colloquial grammar is quite acceptable and accepted. BUT if your grammar AND your punctuation aren't all correct and present, that's a problem, because then how do you keep your reader on the road and heading for the right destination? Can your writing really flow if it is, in fact, off-road racing? Don't you hit trees and rocks?