The Modern Market in Wales
Is there a market?
The life of a writer can seem very glamorous - from the outside looking in. This would perhaps in no small part account for the sheer number of people who harbor determined literary aspirations. Despite the much more prosaic reality, many people do assume that becoming a writer will necessarily entail fortune, fame and universal admiration. But the serious practitioner, working within whichever genre, would do well to resist this easy illusion, however tempting and attractive it may be – and early on at that. Fortune and fame belong, alas, to the gilded few – and even then not necessarily at the same time. Universal admiration is something that not even the most acclaimed writers can enjoy. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of getting published in the first place. It cannot be overstated: the road to getting published is for most writers long and hard. There are many who would argue that this is just as it should be. Only the most committed have the appetite, patience and sheer endurance to become published writers. And if getting published were so easy, there would be little or no achievement or distinction in it.
The truth is that there has never been a ‘writers’ market’ as such. The market belongs to those who are selling an end product at some financial investment and risk to themselves (i.e. the publishers and booksellers, and, by proxy, agents) and those who are the ‘buyers’, parting with their hard earned cash for that product (i.e. the reading public). The commercially successful writer is, of course, one who can consistently attract the substantial interest and investment of both parties. And though handsome column inches may well be devoted in the Arts pages of the broadsheets to bestselling stars such as Zadie Smith, simultaneous commercial and critical success is a very rare feat in literary publishing – the exception and certainly not the rule.
Those seeking to become published poets would do well to note that there is no real career in writing poetry, since there is no real commercial market for contemporary work, with only a handful of luminaries such as Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy able to make a living directly from their creative output. Most very good UK poets sell books in the low hundreds, with some tipping a few thousand. Almost all have a full-time job. But poets can and do indeed make money from their talents, principally through readings and teaching in both schools and in higher education. And however modest their audience may be, it is one generally characterised by engagement and great enthusiasm. For more information on publishing poetry and an overview of what the life of a poet entails click here.
For novelists and short story writers and writers of creative non-fiction, with the book market dominated by mainstream general fiction and non-fiction such as Crime, Romance/Chick-Lit, Fantasy, Real Life stories, celebrity autobiographies, Cookbooks and TV Tie-ins, times remain tough. Nonetheless, both commercial and independent publishers, and agents dealing in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, are inundated with talent (and, indeed, lack of). Much more than they could or, indeed, ever wish to publish. Openings are few. Risk is high. Agents and publishers can pick and choose from the very best of the best. Once they have established that the writing is of a high quality, with a compelling plot or theme, the agent or publisher will have to go further still. They will have to consider its marketability. They may well have confidence in a work’s literary merits but here’s the sticking point: can it be sold to bookshops and a public faced with a surfeit of material to select from? Publishers do not simply publish for the love of it (though even in the hard-nosed times of corporate publishing, despite what some may say, there is still plenty of love around). They need to make money, too. The major publishing house has its profit margins to consider. The independent publisher – generally characterised by a greater appetite for risk - is faced with the perennial problem of simply staying afloat. And, of course, booksellers need to actually be able to sell the books - and they will only stock them if they think that they can. Sadly, it is not enough for the contemporary author to have something to say and to say it with originality and brilliance. There simply has to be an audience out there that both publisher and bookseller can convince. A great many new writers tend to overlook this most crucial aspect. Professional, published writing is not simply about art – it is part of a business.
Fashions and trends exert influence - and then just as soon as they’ve come, they’ve gone. They impact upon all writers - sometimes in their favour, but very often not. The new writer seeking to publish their work through the mainstream avenues must be prepared for the fact that their work may not have an obvious place – now and/or in the foreseeable future. Both commercial and independent publishers decline to publish a considerable amount of writers for this key reason. This may seem discouraging. But it is very important to protect yourself from the entirely false but widely held belief that publishers – whether the larger commercial outfits or the independents – actually lack writers and are actively seeking them. You should be extremely wary of advertisements in the classified pages of the national press inviting unpublished authors to submit work. In fact, don’t be wary - just simply steer completely clear of responding to them. These are not recognised publishers with genuine distribution and marketing operations, and critical credibility, but vanity presses. They will almost always turn out to prove extremely costly and are distinguished only by their appalling production values. They play on the two most common weaknesses of any writer when they’re starting out – naiveté and premature ambition - and thoroughly exploit them. Most depressingly, their victims are often the most vulnerable: the young and the elderly. When you see their advertisements you can be certain of only one thing: they do not want your books – they want your money, and plenty of it, at that. And, most of the time, what they are doing is, strictly speaking, completely legal. It is vital as a new writer to be educated and aware. For more information on reading between the frequently misleading lines and identifying potential scams and cons in vanity publishing click here. For further information on Self-publishing, whether in print or online click here.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Awards such as the Man Booker, Whitbread and Orange Prizes mean that literary fiction and non-fiction experience seasonal peaks in the public consciousness, which are fairly reliably translated into sales. Those fortunate enough to win or be shortlisted for one of these major prizes can anticipate an upturn in their fortunes – sometimes even reaching that of bestseller status. So crucial are awards to sales and consolidating or even creating reputations, and so eager are publishers to see their titles and authors favoured, that publishing schedules are actually arranged with the awards calendar specifically in mind. The growth of book clubs in the UK has equally seen a perceptible rise in interest and sales in contemporary literary fiction and non-fiction. And the Richard and Judy Book Club - following on from the phenomenal success of the Oprah Book Club in the US - has achieved a genuinely ‘popular’ profile for authors featured on its lists, taking high brow titles such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas into, most improbably, supermarkets – and with considerable success.
Does this healthy PR for the few amount to any tangible benefit for the many in the longer term, though? It’s difficult to say. But what is true is that while these interventions may prompt sneers of derision from certain corners, they do, at the very least, and if only subtly, broaden the palate of the reading public, encouraging them to approach work that they had previously felt was not for them. At the same time, the success of the Richard and Judy Book Club reveals perhaps a surprising truth: that wide audiences are, in fact, out there to be won for high quality and complex writers. It’s all in how you spin it. But, of course, nothing encourages publishers (or those crucial booksellers) quite like a consistent market. This is why it is crucial that if you’re hoping to be published you should make a point of buying books and supporting the culture that you seek to be a part of. Before you seek out an audience, make it your business to be one. In particular, do support independent publishers, as well as the larger commercials. The Indies play a key role in pushing boundaries, encouraging artistic freedom and taking risks with some of the most daring and surprising new voices around. Increasingly, their influence can be felt in the output of some of the larger houses. They create avenues for all writers, including you. Buy their books.
Given the difficult and competitive climate, what exactly are the implications for the writer in Wales? Following a period in which Wales seemed to have quite literally fallen off the map as far as many of the metropolitan agents and publishers were concerned, the outlook is actually very bright. The success of talents such as Niall Griffiths, Malcolm Pryce, Trezza Azzopardi and Stevie Davies, together with Picador’s recent acquisition of Tristan Hughes and Harper Collins’s signing of Rachel Trezise, means that Welsh writers or those who choose to set their books in Wales, such as rising star Susan Fletcher, are no longer considered unmarketable by the big hitters. This trend, taken together with the growth of, and critical acclaim for, a number of very exciting independent publishers in Wales such as Seren, Parthian, Gomer, the women’s publishing collective Honno, and poetry and fiction publisher Cinnamon Press, means that although competition to be published remains extremely high, the Welsh writer of promise and distinction can afford more optimism now than at any other time. The achievement of the independents in Wales makes clear that they should be by no means considered a ‘soft option’ for the Welsh writer (their showings in recent award shortlistings and wins are clear evidence that they maintain scrupulously high standards of quality control, and this is likely only to increase). But their track record reflects an openness to risk-taking and to handling unusual and less immediately commercial material, as well as a very evident dedication to publishing and promoting new talent, and with considerable success at that.
With so much press devoted to the latest Bright Young Things on the scene, with their seven book deals and their £300k advances, it’s unsurprising that many new writers may be surprised to discover that even if their book is published - through the commercials or independents - their advance on a two book deal will be south of £10k. Most often quite considerably so. Writers now, as always, are required to prove themselves. Of course, just because you start your career modestly – such is the fate for the overwhelming majority – it doesn’t mean that you will stay that way. The path to success is by degrees for the contemporary author. Many respected names in fiction began their career trajectory with a meagre advance only to be rewarded for their labours with a hit – landing them generous royalties and the bargaining power to cut more lucrative deals in the future. But if you’re in creative writing to make a fortune, you’re in the wrong business. Almost any career that comes with a solid pension plan is a better bet. A recent survey by Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) found that the typical UK professional writer’s annual income from their work is just £4k – that’s 33% below the average national UK wage. Most writers need to supplement their income with large amounts of freelance writing or editing or by simply maintaining the day job. But, nonetheless, ambition is absolutely crucial for any writer of talent – and few agents or publishers will be interested in you if you’re lacking it. They want authors who are hungry to promote themselves and their work, eager to establish a good profile and to make everyone involved some money. The challenge for the writer is, as ever, to be able to balance artistic and financial aspiration with a heavy dose of pragmatism.