Chasing Ghosts

As I ponder ideas for my next book, it occurred to me that novelists rarely consider the topic of risk.  In other areas of life we pay constant heed to it – can I afford to take out a mortgage?  Should I look for a new job?  We weigh up the pros and cons, the trade-offs between taking a calculated gamble and playing it safe, and decide what’s best for us.

Do novelists ever sit down at the outset of a project and consider this trade-off?  Or do we just get seduced by the glimmer of an idea, and spend the next two or three years chasing that ghost?

As I wrestled with this question, I decided to adapt a classic risk matrix used in the business world to help me consider my next project.  Here’s what my Novelist Risk Matrix looks like:

NRM 1

The vertical axis considers originality and complexity, the horizontal the estimated time taken to write the novel and the physical size of it.  Once you assess your idea using these criteria, it lands in one of four boxes…

VANILLA: low on originality and complexity, and short to regular in size.  This is the lowest risk category – genre fiction following a fairly standard formula.  The easiest to write and read, the writer runs a lower risk of rejection or of not finding an audience.  Vanilla does not necessarily mean that the book is lower in quality (although of course many people are snobbish about genre fiction) but it does mean you are competing on a busy playing field.

PIONEER: a short to regular sized book which is original and complex enough to veer away from genre fiction.  Pioneer books can sometimes create new genres – think of Harry Potter, which took an old-fashioned genre, re-booted the storyline into something original, and created a sensation.  While anyone nowadays writing a book about boy wizards would be firmly in the Vanilla box, when Rowling wrote the first book it was something of a gamble.

EPIC: a hefty genre book – think of the fantasy or sci-fi section in any bookstore where a high percentage of those print books are over 400 pages long.  The size of the project makes it riskier than Vanilla books, but it should still be fairly easy to plot a course and follow a formula.

BEHEMOTH: an original and complex book that’s also huge in size.  This represents the biggest risk for a writer – undertaking a massive project which may take several years, has no real precursor and potentially has no clear audience at the finish line.

To make it a bit more concrete, here are four novels plotted onto the Novelist Risk Matrix:

NRM 2

I’ve not read ‘Personal’ by Lee Child but a glance at the Amazon best-seller chart made it an obvious candidate for an example of a Vanilla book.  The 17th book in his Jack Reacher series, Child is writing to an established formula in an established genre.  There is practically no risk for him in writing Jack Reacher books, unless you count the risk that readers may eventually get bored of the character.

Moving north, Simon Sylvester’s ‘The Visitors’ is a good example of a Pioneer.  Sylvester took elements of established genres (crime, Young Adult) and fused these familiar components with the ancient Scottish folk tale of the selkies (seal people) into something fresh, surprising and original.  Additionally, a strong sense of place and vivid characters make it stand out from the pack.  It was probably not an easy book to write, and an agent or editor might wonder how to pitch it, but Sylvester’s gamble paid off – the novel recently won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and is building a growing reputation as a cult book.

Bottom right, Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin took a risk when he sat down to write the first book in the series, which is over 800 pages long.  While the swords n’ sorcery themes has an established audience, his highly explicit content did make it riskier than other books in the genre.

Finally, top right, the riskiest of the lot.  Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ is a great example of a Behemoth.  A novel consisting of four books following two separate storylines, one set in Glasgow and the other in the surreal dystopian city of Unthank, it took Gray almost 30 years to write.  A blend of Scottish realist fiction, fantasy and science-fiction, it is a totally uncategorisable book.  Imagine the drive and passion it would take to work on the same novel for nearly thirty years.  Luckily for Gray, his genius was recognised, but any novelist setting out on such a project would be well-advised to take a step back for a moment and consider the impact of such a project on their life (and sanity, probably).

So did this process help me?  Well, I realised that I simply don’t have the heart for an Epic or a Behemoth.  Like most writers, I have a day job, and pint-sized Amsterdam Rampant took me around three years to write.  So by that logic my next book will either be Vanilla or a Pioneer.  But I know myself too well – I can never really stick to a formula when it comes to writing a novel, so that puts me in the Pioneer box.  The trick is for me not to go too far north, but keep within touching distance of Vanilla – a novel that has a recognisable target audience, that follows certain conventions, but is daring enough to surprise and challenge the reader.  In ice-cream speak… a small spoonful of vanilla with a fist-sized scoop of chocolate, whisky and chilli.

 

Avocado Economics

Another month and another skyscraper on the sales chart…

OCT SALES

What’s really pleasing about the October sales is that they were achieved without any promotions.  Promo sales accounted for around 70 of September’s units, so to shift 147 ebooks without any Amazon-driven marketing activity is quite a leap forward.  In the spring it looked highly unlikely I would hit my target of selling 1,000 ebooks in one year – but now if I flog 145 per month in the time remaining then I will break the barrier.

Cutting the price has probably been one factor, with more readers willing to take a chance on Amsterdam Rampant now that it’s the price of an avocado (94p).  It’s an emotive subject – how much is my book worth? – but something I’ve become less precious about as the months go by.

It’s also a topic that causes a fair bit of bluster in the broadsheets.  Recently, there was lots of coverage on the fight between Amazon and Hachette on ebook pricing, with some media sources heralding Hachette as heroically battling on behalf of writers to get a fair price.  The top literary agent Andrew Wylie went one step further, describing Amazon as having an “Isis-like distribution channel.”  An obvious comparison, given that many of us are currently gearing up to do our Christmas shopping with Isis.

It always surprises me when people rail against Amazon’s cut-throat capitalism eating into the cuddly niceness of the book trade in pre-digital times.  Ah, those good old days!  When we would go shopping in quirky independent bookstores, sipping Colombian coffee while sitting in fireside armchairs and leafing through the latest sensibly-priced hardback.  Hugh Grant worked behind the till of every one of these stores and amused us so with his foppish good humour, while his zany assistant John Hannah hummed Monty Python tunes and occasionally rode through the shop on a unicycle to storms of applause.  It was nice capitalism, not like this nasty Amazon version.

What rubbish.  The dissolution of the price-fixing Net Book Agreement in 1994 had already removed the protectionism which had enabled the UK publishing industry to insulate itself against the market forces unleashed in the 1980s.  Following the repeal of the NBA, big bookstores and supermarkets aggressively took over the scene, bulk-discounting books, offering 3 for the price of 2, and effectively biting into the author’s share of the pie.  Anti-Amazon crusaders such as Hachette were actively responsible in the shift to pay authors a smaller cut.  In the same speech, Wylie of the Isis comparison praised Hachette for fighting for a world where authors could take a 40-50% royalty from book sales.  He clearly hadn’t done his homework, because Amazon offers a 70% author royalty for ebooks over the price of $2.99 (30% under this price).

The truth is there are no moral crusaders or do-gooders at the top end of this industry, much like in any business.  And another truth is that authors always got a raw deal, because there were always so many middlemen taking their cut.  Personally I have no problem with selling my book for the price of an avocado and finding an audience in a slow but steady manner.  Consider the reality of a traditional print deal with one of the big houses – if your novel doesn’t make an impact in the first few weeks on sale, it’s not uncommon for the book to be withdrawn from the publicity machine, remaindered into bargain bins, or even pulped.  And that would be it – your novel dead and buried.

The big publishing houses stand to lose the most from the ebook revolution because of the unwieldy ecosystem they have built up over the decades – editors, marketing departments, accountants, long liquid London lunches – all paid for by the creators of books, ie. the authors.  Small presses have been far more nimble in adapting to the 21st century publishing model.  New print-on-demand technologies – printing presses which can print a book in small runs, compared to a traditional printer demanding a minimum run of 2,000 or so – mean that indie presses can bash out a small run of 500 print books, launch an ebook simultaneously, and engage the author as chief marketer.

This is a model that’s currently thriving in my native Scotland, where creative writing graduates run the small presses and recruit authors from a pool of fellow creative writing graduates in their circle, then build up a scene around spoken word events and the like.  Depending on your view, this is either a literary ponzi scheme or a nurturing literary community which has sprung up to combat the giant London-based publishing houses and their dumbed down production line.  Scottish indie presses such as Freight, Cargo and Sandstone have all achieved remarkable things in their short lifetimes to date.  Interestingly, in each case their founders have published their own work (or at one time aspired to) on their own label, meaning that these presses partly grew out of a determination to self-publish.  This background means that the owners are distinctly sympathetic to the challenges facing authors – I came close to getting a deal with one of them for Amsterdam Rampant, and the dialogue and engagement was terrific.  Compare that to the dialogue with the big houses – long delays, then a few muttered platitudes via your agent.

Ironically, these days the big houses scout for talent in the Amazon ebook bestseller lists, looking for indie books which have built up a readership through word of mouth.  Selling our books for the price of an avocado is one of the few weapons indie authors have in the face of the goliaths, because we already have day jobs that pay the bills, and after years of rejection we have all the patience in the world.  The simple truth is that we have nothing left to lose, and this must scare anyone who works in publishing.