‘Do It For The Publicity’

There’s been a lot of talk online about authors being asked or expected to do events for free, or virtually for free. So I figured I’d stick my oar in on this.

When I started out as an illustrator, I took crap jobs for crap money, because I figured it was the price of getting established. And it was. There was no back-up or support for illustrators, particularly in Ireland. You were on your own. I sometimes took even crapper money for good jobs, just to get those jobs to have in the portfolio. I don’t do that any more, because I’ve been at this malarky for a long time now, and I expect to be treated like a professional.

But one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I had to sell myself as a tradesman. If you wanted my work, you had to pay me an hourly rate. If you wanted ideas, I would charge you for the amount of time I figured I could put into coming up with that idea, and what it was worth to you.

When I was first published as a writer, I had the good fortune to have a novel and a couple of young kids’ books come out in the same year, which gave me a very wide potential audience – something scGriffeen Valleyhools and libraries really appreciate. I had never done an event for children, but a few months after getting published, I knew for certain that if I didn’t push my books out there, they weren’t going to sell.

So I picked up a few tips and I started doing events. I didn’t know anything about doing an author session, so it was a steep learning curve. But I took a lot on – basically, I said yes to anyone who asked, for sessions for any age group – so I gained experience fast. And the more events you do, and if you do a half-decent job of them, the more you’ll get asked to do. I was working freelance as an illustrator, so I was able to fit my work around the events for the most part; something that’s very difficult to do if you’re employed.

As I did when I was an illustrator, I took on a lot of badly paid events, and free stuff and daft stuff, because I considered these the price of learning the ropes, getting established and getting publicity for my books. Most authors – particularly children’s authors – start off the same way.

I learned a lot. I learned how to manage a session, how to hold the attention of young kids for an hour or keep surly teenagers engaged for a two-hour workshop, how to handle the hecklers and attention-seekers and domineering teachers and adults talking at the back and people coming in late, the awkward questions and the librarian telling me the session was actually going to be half the time I thought it was. I learned how to talk while I drew a picture and I learned that audiences want to laugh, that they’re waiting to laugh.

I learned very quickly, the difference between a good events organizer and a bad one, and how often that can make a difference to who ends up in your audience.

The investment of time and effort was HUGE, but after ten years of this, I can now walk into a room and start talking from cold, and walk out an hour later leaving an audience – children or adults – smiling, stimulated, satisfied and curious about my books.

That’s not bragging. Any children’s author who’s done a lot of sessions can make the same claim. Part of my training was going and watching other authors whenever I could. Because being an entertaining speaker has become just another part of our job. I can assure you that it was never part of my plan, but it’s a fact of life if you want your books to sell.

If you’ve never done a session from scratch with a bunch of kids you’ve never met, try it and see how hard it is. And I don’t mean just reading them some well-known author’s story, because that’s somebody else’s work you’re reading, not yours, and if you think that’s all authors or illustrators do with their work, you’ve never been to a good session.

And while events are an essential part of getting publicity, if we were to do it for just the publicity, there would be almost no full-time writers, and therefore no one available to do these events, and certainly to do them to the standard that people can expect today.

Let’s say you run a festival, and you want a writer to do it for free – for the publicity. Let’s say they’re a typical mid-level, full-time author, so you’re confident you can get an audience for them: maybe fifty people. You could maybe get more in than that, but you don’t want to hire a bigger hall, in case you can’t fill it. Let’s be really generous – to keep the numbers simple – and say that the author gets one euro for every book that sells for ten euros (they often don’t) as a result of that session. If every single person in that audience bought a book, that author would get fifty quid for travelling to your event, and performing for an hour with skills and experience that take years to develop. Does that sound reasonable to you?

But of course, it’s rare for an entire audience to buy a copy of a book, and nowadays, authors are getting shafted by discounting along with most of the publishing industry. And because of the way royalties are paid in publishing, your author won’t see that fifty quid for about eighteen months. Yes, that’s the business they’re in, and they accept that. But you are in the festival business, and they are what your audiences are coming to see. The income for your festival depends on their delivery of an entertaining and stimulating session.

Granted, you might be a library running events, but you still need footfall. If you don’t get people through the door, that event is still a failure.

All the various people and organizations who build their businesses around books expect to get paid for the work they do, but it’s astonishing that writers, and to a lesser extent, illustrators, whose work is the foundation of these businesses, are expected to give their time for free, Reeve at Trinity–Me Drawingin return for royalties they may eventually earn after every other person involved in the sales chain – most of whom are employed full-time – has been paid first.

Do you work for a company or organization? Would you be willing to travel to another town or county to work for free, in the hope that you might get paid a little more somewhere down the line in return for this work . . . if you managed to excite your customers enough? Would you be happy to see someone else charge for your services, using your name and skills to attract people to your performance, but pocket the takings, telling you that you’ll get more business out of it? What? More of this kind of business?

Try taking that approach to payment with a builder, or a plumber or the washing-machine repair man next time you’re talking to them.

Yes, we are selling books, but our income is derived from that work in different ways. If you get a musician or comedian to put on a show, regardless of whether or not they have products of their own on sale, you pay them a performance fee, or a percentage of the admission fees. Because they are what people are coming to see.

If you run book events, and all you’re offering in payment is a bit of publicity, you may well get the people who are starting out, who are learning the ropes and still have to find their way. But if you want to draw audiences, you need professional authors who have proven they can deliver. And professionals get paid.

And if you’re running a big, prestigious festival that can draw audiences because it has a powerful brand, and you think you can offer little or no fee on the basis that an author should be grateful they’ve been invited, then bear in mind we’re all talking to each other a lot more these days. Word gets around fast. And the problem with brands is that once a company’s brand becomes tainted, everything they do and everything they’re associated with becomes tainted too. Negative values can become attached every bit as firmly as positive ones. There’s a lot more competition for festivals out there now, and more and more, popular authors are having to choose between events.

And those of us who’ve been around a long time, we’ve a funny attitude to all this. Because even though we came up having to do a lot of shit for free, it doesn’t mean we think others should too. Because we know what hard work it is, and we don’t like people taking liberties with other people like us.

Organizations like the Society of Authors, Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, Booktrust and the Scottish Book Trust all offer fees that could be used as a base for events organizers to work off, and we could really do with some kind of base standard.

If you want people to bring their time and expertise to events you intend to hold, and you are counting on those people to attract audiences and make your events a success, you can’t expect them to come for free. We’re professionals. And professionals get paid.

It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money

I read an article in ‘The Irish Times’ recently that told of the massive advance for a two-book deal for first-time novellist, Kathleen MacMahon. In the article, the deal – with its £600,000 advance – for This Is How It Ends and a follow-up book, is hailed as: ‘brilliant news for debut novelists. It’s proof that there’s an appetite for great first novels’. The book will be published some time next year by Little Brown on this side of the Atlantic and by Grand Central in the US.

It is good to hear that new names are still getting a look in, as the publishing world goes through a pretty rocky period, but I’d question the wisdom of advances like these or even, in some cases, how accurate the figures really are.

For anybody who doesn’t already know, writers normally get paid in two different ways for their books. First, there’s the advance, which is basically a non-refundable loan (though you may have to pay back some or all of it if you somehow breach the terms of your contract). This a lump of money up-front to recognize the work you’ve already put into the book, and to help pay your way through the work that will still have to be done to get it into production. The amount is based partly on how much money your publisher thinks your book is likely to make, and partly on how much they want it and whether they have to bid against other publishers to get it.

Secondly, there’s the royalties. This is the writer’s percentage of every book sold, which generally falls somewhere between about 8% and 15%, but there’s no ‘standard’ figure, and your cut can be affected by how the book is sold, and in what form. You don’t start receiving any money from your sales until the royalties have paid off your advance. So Ms. MacMahon will have to sell a lot of books before her advance has earned out. Until her advance has been paid off, her publishers will most likely be making a loss on her book.

My first doubt regarding this and other massive advances is this: Who’s making the figure known to the media? In general, publishers don’t like saying how much they’ve paid for a book, because they don’t want all of their authors thinking they can get the same generous sum. Agents don’t blab about figures for the same reason; they don’t want their clients asking: ‘Why didn’t you get me that kind of money?’. Which leaves the authors themselves, and in most cases, you’d think people wouldn’t want the world to know what they’re earning.

The only reason I can think of that any of the parties involved in the negotiation would want the figure known, would be to create hype over the book. As is admitted in the ‘Irish Times’ article, that tactic can backfire, leading to people talking about the money, rather than the book (like I’m doing), or causing expectations of the book to reach silly levels.

My other misgiving is that money spent on advances is not getting spent on the promoting of the book – or on other books. You would naturally think that if a publisher pays a fortune for a book, that they will give it a hefty marketing push – they’ll be keen to make that money back, right? But this isn’t always the case. In fact, the publishing industry’s approach to marketing is hit-and-miss at best. If you’re looking to make a career out of writing, and you get a big advance for your first book, you really better hope it sells, because you could end up being regarded as toxic by your publisher if you become a big red debt on their accounts. A sure way to get dropped, particularly in today’s climate.

I can’t help feeling that the culture of trying to create hype for a book based a big-figure advance is really short-sighted. With the fast turnover of stock on the shop shelves, a book tends to get one big shove – it’s lucky if it even gets that – and then the marketing people lose interest. But this just doesn’t reflect the way books sell. This is not the music or film industry. We have no broadcast medium spreading the word quickly, so for the most part, word about a book spreads slowly. ‘Harry Potter’ did not become a phenomenon because of marketing – it was first and foremost because of word-of-mouth. The marketing just jumped on the band-wagon of what even the publisher admits was a surprise success.

With the publishing industry in a state of near-paralysis for the last couple of years, resulting often in fearful and conservative decision-making, you would have thought we’d be leaning back to taking a more long-term view. There are so many people being given a start and then being dropped when it doesn’t work out, it must be incredibly disheartening. I’d hate to be starting out now. It’s not all on the publishers, though they really do need to give up on this big-bang theory of selling books. They will always need the ‘tent-pole’ books, to stay in business, but it’s never a good idea to put up a tent in a hurry. It takes time for a lot of people to read a book. And in most cases, it takes time for a writer to establish themselves.

New writers need to be realistic too. Anybody working in publishing will tell you not to hang all your hopes on one book. The most successful writers, the ones who have careers that span decades (the ones I most want to emulate) have built their audience up over time. Once you’ve got your first book published, get the next one lined up, and the next one. And try to have a good time doing it, so you keep doing it, even when you can’t make a living from it.

I’ve met a lot of writers, and I have one of the best agents in the business, and I can assure any budding authors out there that in the children’s book industry, advances just don’t reach into the six-figure range, especially not for first-time authors – not unless  you achieve overnight, worldwide success and can lump together the sale of rights in thirty countries and a lucrative film deal all in one pot. For a publishing contract in the UK, anything over ten grand would have been considered doing pretty well for yourself, even back in the boom, and the US publishers don’t tend to be that much more generous.

Instead of huge advances, I’d like to see the industry being a bit more practical, and showing more vision: tackling the challenge of engaging people who don’t read books – actually enlarging the market; coming up with a coherent strategy with a view to digital media. I want to see us coming up with an alternative to the savage discounting that has resulted in the fact that, despite selling more books, we’re making less money off them. I’d like to see how we can help bookshops adapt to a new market, rather than seeing them closing down.

Yes, you’ll still have to pay me a reasonable advance if you want me to sign a publishing contract – but if you want to buy my book, what I really want to see, is how you’re going to sell it.