Saturday, January 07, 2006

On balderdash, really...

Hi Neil,

I was reading an article in the paper this morning illustrating the changing face of publishing. The article detailed how Sir V.S. Naipaul's Booker prize winning masterpiece "In a Free State," when submitted to over a dozen different publishing houses under an assumed name, was rejected by each and every one.

Further in the article it explains that "according to [David Taylor], no more than 20 writers of literary novels earn enough to survive on without another source of income."

I was curious about your opinion on how the publishing game has changed, and (not to prod too much) if you personally earn enough off writing to support your family without an exterior source of income.

Thanks a lot,

Well, yes, the people the first chapters were sent said no. But we will never know how many of the editors looked at it and thought "Some berk's sent me the first chapters of In a Free State. What an idiot. That's one for the bin," nor how many thought "I'm an editor for a popular paperback fiction house looking for big budget bestsellers, what do I need with a fine literary short story?" (It's been a long time since I read "In a Free State", but I remember it as a set of short stories and novellas, and articles I've seen so far suggest that it was just the opening chapters that went out.)

I was amused by Naipaul's reaction, implying that the modern world is too degraded to recognise his genius, and I would respectfully suggest that if you sent out the first few chapters of a Dan Brown book, a J. K. Rowling, a Jane Austen, an Ian Fleming or a Clive Cussler book -- or a Neil Gaiman -- to 20 random publishers you'd probably get a rejection too, and not just from the ones who recognised the book and weren't going to embarass the loony who sent it in, but also from the ones who don't currently want or need a book or author like that on their list. Publishers reject things all the time. They have a limited number of slots open for a certain number of types of book. You need to find the right publisher, to find an editor or someone who will get behind the book in the right way, and then it's still a matter of luck. Many award-winning bestselling books get rejected by publishers before they find the one that's ready to take them (I remember Frank Herbert telling me that over twenty publishers rejected Dune) and they may have made the right decision for them on that book. (Just as authors sometimes find more than one publisher competing for their work, and have to decide which the best publisher for them will be.)

As for "no more than 20 writers of literary novels earn enough to survive on without another source of income." I think that's technically what statisticians call a "made-up number".

Most of the estimates I've seen from places like The Society of Authors suggest that between 2 and 6 percent of writers make a living such that they don't need another source of income. (And I'm fortunate enough to be one of them, yes.) That's a lot more than twenty people.

But you also have to think about the definition of "writers of literary novels" in that quote -- if you define "literary novels" as the opposite to "popular fiction" and then define "popular fiction" as anything that sells, then you could probably prove that no living "writers of literary fiction" earn enough from their books to survive on.

(On a thought I just went and checked Making Light, and found that Jim and Teresa and Patrick and the commenters have already said everything I've said, and better and at more length, so you should also go and read And while you're there, read, which isn't about writing at all.)

Neil - In your response to the recent question about Ms. Mirrlees, you noted that Swanwick's essay does not appear to be online. I thought I would let you know that the Wikipedia entry you linked to contains a link to this: which appears to be the essay in question.Regards - Kristin Necessary

No, that's Michael's introduction to, I think, the UK edition of Lud-in-the-Mist. The biographical essay I was talking about was about 20,000 words long.

Right. Goodnight.