…having insulted your dearly departed mother, and told everyone on Facebook that you love to torture dogs.
At least, I think those are her latest crimes. I can’t be sure. There are so many.
I love the Guardian. Don’t get me wrong. I embody many of the stereotypical attributes of a Guardian reader, except for maybe the sandals, the ethically-sourced attitudes to putting money in one’s pocket, and any aspiration to to make the world a better place (I rather enjoy having something to whinge about).
But in this article here, the Guardian says that blockbusters like James’ Grey not only destroy the earnings of other authors, but also ruin prospects for emerging authors.
Now. Far be it from me to defend EL James: what I read of hers, I found offensive, for at least 17 reasons I don’t need to go in to, here, because this post is not about her writing. (Although I still contend that if the millions of people out there buying her books had realised before the publication of Fifty Shades that the likes of Mills & Boon supplied all the Mommy Porn a girl could ever want, had she only known she wanted it, we wouldn’t be talking about EL James today at all.)
So, back to moaning about industry moaners. Back when I started this blog, I did some bloody great statistics on bestseller sales, if I do say so myself, which were highly illuminating [caveat lector, etcetera]. Unfortunately, none of you were reading this blog back then, so it’s high time they were rolled out again.
I touched on the blockbuster quandary before, when I asked what effect blockbuster releases had on book sales. And the conclusion I came to was: not much, really. There is no indication, from bestseller sales volumes at least, that people who buy the major blockbusters do so instead of other books. It’s more likely that people either buy them as well as all the other books they were going to buy anyway, or that blockbusters are simply the only books they ever buy.
EL James’ trilogy, when it appeared in 2012, caused a spike in UK bestseller sales of 9.7 million units over the prior year. What I mean is: 9.7 million more top 100 bestsellers sold in 2012 than in 2011. That’s a lot of extra unit sales.
Are you trying to tell me that the 10.5 million people who bought the paperback Fifty Shades trilogy in the UK in 2012 would otherwise have bought a self-published book, or a literary prizewinner which only shifted 5,000 units?
My arse. Seriously.
There is also no indication that just because Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling bring out a new bestseller, other book sales suffer in the long-term (unless, that is, they’re released at the same time, in which case publicity for the smaller launch probably will get lost in the noise). And less well-known authors are particularly unlikely to suffer. If I’m in the market for a Rowling, it’s because it’s created its own market: the J.K. Rowling market. The only person who is likely to suffer is Dan Brown, because if I’m reading Rowling, I’m unlikely to bother with him (which is exactly what happened with me regarding The Casual Vacancy Vs Inferno. However, many, many people read both).
Even Mills & Boon weren’t harmed in the making of the Fifty Shades self-perpetuating pornomenon (new word for the day). They were far more likely to gain customers than lose them, because the market for erotic romance exploded (sorry) once it emerged (oops) into the pumping, torrential (stop!) mainstream.
So Who Gets The Pie?
The Guardian article asks “when vast sales are accrued by single authors… what long-term impact does it have on the world of publishing and bookselling?”, finding that top-earning authors grab both headlines and money at the expense of emerging writers, thus hurting their careers.
I find this unintentionally funny. In these early posts about bestseller sales in the 1980s and 1990s, I spoke about the fact that it was just as difficult to get traditionally published then as it is today, but top authors were earning besquillions of megabucks back then, based on far less effort. In the 1980s in particular, there were significantly fewer bestselling authors than there are today: so few of them, in fact, that the ones who made it earned pretty much all the money, because it was almost impossible for a new author to break through. There were a few more emerging in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until more widespread self-publishing in the 2000s that we started to see more and more breakthroughs into the big leagues.
The table speaks for itself. A mere 34 authors hit the New York Times #1 Bestseller spot in the 1980s, compared to 78 in the 2000s; and having hit the #1 spot, they stayed there for longer in the ’80s than they do now. But for more lovely detail, see links to the posts on each decade above.
There is no question that authors are earning less nowadays. At the lower end of the scale, it means that lesser known authors can’t make a living from their writing. This is unfortunate, granted. But at the top end, though, are you really upset that EL James and Random House are probably making only half today of what they would have made thirty years ago?!
That Was Then, This Is Now
The solution to pitiful author earnings, quality control in self-publishing, and changes in book format and distribution is not blaming and giving out about bestselling authors. It is also not blaming and giving out about readers. Perhaps with a little more strategic thinking, and a little less moaning, traditional publishers could capitalise on the fact that not only do we now understand more about readers, but that completely new markets are being created – with the help of social media – all the time.