genre stuff writing & publishing

More Things I Didn’t Know About Being A Writer

The last post proved popular. Here are a few other things I didn’t quite know about being a writer. Perhaps I’ll be a little more open. You might not like what’s said.

1) Spin matters more than you think. Sometimes it matters which major magazine or newspaper reviewer is given your book. Like a lot in life, these things can be about who you (or your publisher) know. Getting the right people to say the right things about your book can really help new writers out, and the general public sees only the results. But it’s an often-undeclared fact that many book reviewers might know an author well. Some of these prominent reviewers are even friends with authors, and then review their books. Is that wrong or right? That’s not for me to say – I would hope when it happens to me the reviewer, even if a friend, is honest, even if they don’t like the book. But of course, in an industry where everyone mixes freely, this situation is difficult to avoid, and not necessarily a bad thing. We are a close family after all.

In fact, this is why I love the blogosphere – the classes of blog reviewers have risen, taken much of the power and diluted it amongst the many, and the industry has been forced to react accordingly. Publishers begin treating bloggers with as much respect as old-school reviewers, inviting them to parties or being rather lovely to them – all in the name of good networking, and maybe a better review or two.

The paradigm is shifting.

2) Money matters more than you think. The books which often do really well are those which receive advertising spend – and more importantly are those which get submitted for in-store promotions.

It costs publishers a lot of money in merely presenting the consumer with the opportunity to buy the book – to have that book on offer, or on tables, or front of store. What, did you think they got put there for nothing? Some stores charge a lot of money for that to happen, just for the book to be there. (Here, having a good cover can help, as can deep discounting – the amount of money that’s taken of the RRP of a book.) I’ve been lucky to be with a big publisher like Tor UK, who put effort behind my book (in many ways), got it discounted on Amazon and in bookstores, and I’m ever-thankful for all they do.

There might be some literary gems which never sell well because they’re not considered/put into promotions. Publishing is, of course, a business, and we’ll miss out on these examples of high art. No matter what developments there are digitally, nothing much beats putting money behind a book to make it succeed.

3) Cover art matters more than you think. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s in a book to make it sell. It’ll help, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the cover is commercial. And I’m not talking about the buying habits of genre fans online, but the massive casual readership that strolls into the store on a wet weekend to pick up something that looks interesting. This can be hugely significant. Sometimes it’s the most significant thing about establishing a career. This realisation frightened me at first.

Notice that none of the things I’ve talked about reflect the content of the book. I don’t want to be misleading at all – of course having a great book helps. Having talent and time and charm and luck helps.

But in 2009, in the land of commercial publishing and establishing careers, it’s the bare minimum a writer needs to get by. Things are only going to get tougher – the writers of the future will be defined by those who can still afford to have careers.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

9 replies on “More Things I Didn’t Know About Being A Writer”

Given that his new book is out today, I was wondering, what do you think happens when something like The Da Vinci Code breaks out and sells 81.5m copies worldwide? I mean it’s not a bad book but it’s not exactly an all-time-great either.

Similarly, how come he manages to maintain that momentum when he’s an averagely good writer, not any kind of genius. I’m just always fascinated by that “lightning in a bottle” phenomenon, but as another writer I’m sure you’d like to know.

Hi Rob – Dan B is something different entirely. There’s little benefit to the industry – bookstores certainly don’t make much money, many of them being undercut by supermarkets who price them as loss-leaders. I think it’s best not to worry about authors like him, or JK Rowling – they’re once in a generation phenomena, propelled vastly by other media. They obey only their own rules.

Hey Mark, very interesting post there.

I have to be honest – it sounds more and more as if SA is in the dark ages or something, and I can’t decide whether its a good or a bad thing. Things like shelf-space versus sales and charged-for spots in the display window just don’t happen here – one rule of thumb is that if the title comes in at 10 or more copies, it goes into the display space, no arguments. Although I may just bring up the charge-for-space issue… Nah, scratch that – I love building displays, and that would take the wind out of my sales. 🙂

But you have a good point – Beat the Reaper, a title that took the blogosphere by storm some months ago? Well, we got a whole 2 copies because the Reps couldn’t really explain the book to the buyer. 🙁 And then they got returned, too. Even bigger 🙁 If we’d had more copies, it would have been a word-of-mouth bestseller, no doubt about it.

Coming to cover art, yè man, that’s a difficult one. Sometimes I couldn’t care less what the cover-art depicts, but I do get pissed when (especially in the US) major events, cities or characters are depicted wrongly – or there’s no consistency (sorry, Mr WoT Sweet). Sometimes a cover can spoil a book (I’m thinking along the lines of Urban Fantasy here) but you’re right; almost all of the time (and I see this every day, especially in the SFF section that I run) browsers give the cover a good long look before reading the blurb.

I’m in the really odd position by being outside the normal loop of book buying and outside the publishing industry but blogging has me crossing into both.

It would be strange that a reviewer, who are often writers (as they would be considered an expert in the subject), wouldn’t over time make some connection to the industry they are reporting or critiquing. It would also be very odd if that didn’t come across in their views but then they still have to keep their credibility, or at least I hope they do.

I had a really nervous time reviewing Nights for this reason. I will call them like I see them, you’re not doing anyone any favours by falsely portraying something – writers don’t improve, publishers think that a particular novel is the right level for readers, and readers get disappointed when a novel doesn’t live up to expectations.

Luckily Nights, bar a few understandable and probably expected wobbles hit the Mark (that’s a good pun that) but if it hadn’t it would have been an interesting conflict. Then again their is always the fluffy bunny problem with the next one…. 😉

For the most part getting a book seen in a shop has got to be the best way of getting sales, and it links in with the cover. A lot of books from the same genre/type copy each others covers – it’s a needed short hand. I see a chic lit cover I run a mile – I see a Di Vinci -esque cover and I know it’s a conspiricy thriller and I probably skip it. I see a Penguin Grey cover and think that’s too intelligent for me.

Writers can help by making sure they write something that is is enjoyed (be it entertaining, intellectually thrilling, controversial, and all the other ways that readers engage with a novel). Know that the competition isn’t competition – it’s what their readers have read or are going to read while they wait for your next book.

It is an overcrowded market. If possible I’d say to writers be realistic. They have to engage with their audience – if they write something amazing that job is so much easier but you’re write the content of the book is only the beginning and release day isn’t going to be like Dan Browns.

As an occasional reviewer, a lowly underpaid scribe, I really love the opportunity to review books. It’s a free book! Now the reviews editor knows who I like I frequently get first dibs on that author… but I can hardly say I’m particularly even handed, because I’m a fan. That said I do try and be even handed.

Unrelated to this post – If i paint your lounge, will you read my manuscript? Go on!


Dave: if it doesn’t happen now, it might do in the future! Books in the UK are charged to go into promotions (3 for 2 offers etc.) Does this happen in SA? But yeah, you work in a store – you know how these things go at the front line. Not everyone is a hardcore fan; they like pretty pictures to guide them.

Gav: well I’m glad you gave me a good review! But yes, it’s difficult these days to keep that separation. I think what most people often forget is big picture stuff. Online, we’re not the usual book buyers. We’re a minority – we pay attention to all the details. Casual customers (the majority) don’t – they’re led by positioning of books, the prices, the cover art etc.

But yeah – cover art is similar a lot of the time, and for good reason. It works! It persuades people to try a similar kind of book, purely because it looks similar…

LKWAB: Yeah, it’s hard when you’re a fan, isn’t it? But then again, I think it’s okay in genre – because it’s a unique, fan-filled community. It’s the way it’s always been.

Absolutely! You have to be a dab hand at skimming walls as well. 🙂

Nope, nothing like that here. The best that happens is, for example, what happened with The Lost Symbol – pre-order a copy & get entered into a competition. 🙁 No wonder I saw a grand total of 6 pre-orders. To put the price of books here in perspective – lets say in dollars (don’t have a clue what the pound-equiv will be be) a paperback is $10 & and a hardback $20, we will pay around $320 for a hardback. I’m not talking about conversion here, just how much more a hardback is compared to a softcover. 🙁 So the publishers have to try and sell expensive books so that they can keep going, and with a total of around 70000 people who read for pleasure, that’s a tall order. Unfortunately (taking into consideration the example in dollars I gave above), Nights is close to $400. 🙁 No bookshop in SA would stock your book. In the States they pay around $10 more for a hardback (or something close), but we pay 2 or 3 hundred Rand more. 🙁 So no, no 2 for 1 or 3 for 2 specials here. 🙁

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