This past week has seen the good and bad of the book trade writ large. The good was manifest in The London Book Fair, a return to a “proper” event packed full of agents meetings, seminars, parties and general all-round buzz. There was plenty of good humour too, and one or two decent rumours. We are an industry that wants to meet, and mischief make.
But we are also less than perfect. That is a polite reference to The Bookseller’s survey of author welfare that has rightly been the most read news piece across our website this week and sparked a robust online conversation.
The results were stark and, at times, depressing. More than half of authors (54%) responding to the survey on their experiences of publishing their début book have said the process negatively affected their mental health. Authors talked of a lack of attention from their publisher, and a lack of preparedness. In fact, just 22% of the 108 respondents to the survey described a positive experience overall with their first publication. As one author said: “It has taken me a long time to reconcile the train wreck of my début.”
Some hardened souls might shrug their shoulders at all this. The sample size is small, and no doubt skewed by those whose experiences prompt them to fill in such surveys. Besides, publishing is a tough business. A bad launch need not dictate a book’s fortunes in the same way that a great launch doesn’t guarantee success. I once went to a party at the Groucho Club for a book by a relatively well-known journalist and spent most of the evening talking to the author’s immediate family, the relations making up the bulk of the attendees. The book? Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’ve been to huge events for books long since forgotten, written by authors whose follow-ups were silently sidelined. Publication day—launch or not—tells us very little about future prospects.
At least that’s half-true. In reality trade book publishing works on a momentum model—titles build as word-of-mouth does its thing, with those books that bulk-up during the publication process likely to land with a greater thud at launch. This is as true for débuts such as Lessons in Chemistry as it was for Spare; quiet books can do well but their need for a slice of good fortune will be greater.
For authors, and particularly for début writers, this can be a chastening experience, and one that can feel increasingly futile as they see an arcane world united only by indifference. My concern reading the survey and the many other comments not reported is that as a sector we are doing too poor a job managing expectations; we focus too much attention on the race and not enough on the athlete.
Link to the rest at The Bookseller
PG says that traditional publishers regard authors as content providers, nothing more. And if an author gets uppity and forgets her/his place, there are always lots of other content providers banging on the door, begging to enter.