Where has all the money gone?

Even Booker Prize-winning novelists struggle to make a living from writing


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of first acts of the Irish novelist Paul Lynch in scooping last year’s Booker Prize and a cheque for £50,000 was to observe that now at least his mortgage was safe.

Two questions prompted by this admission are: what sort of state is the literary world in, if the winner of one of our major literary awards has financial problems; and, in these circumstances, what hope is there for the rest of us? Why, to put the matter bluntly, do so many people at large in the world of books have such trouble earning a living?

Reason number one is that there is too much of everything: too many writers, too many agents, too many creative writing courses, too many books chasing the one part of the literary economy that needs serious expansion — readers. The book-world cake is cut up into ever more slices (unless, of course, you happen to be Richard Osman or Richard Coles).

The Booker Prize ceremony

If we could somehow cull the numbers of those practising the trade, then all those left behind would be better off. Yet, in an age of self-publishing, e-books and ever-proliferating outlets, this is clearly not going to happen.

Reason number two, of particular concern to writers in the Paul Lynch category and the rungs below, is that “serious” literature is simply a drag upon the market. In the week before the Booker Prize ceremony, for example, it was revealed that the six shortlisted titles, extensively publicised and reviewed all over the place, had sold a collective 19,000 copies.

Granted, it was (apparently) a poor list, but set against the totals of even a decade ago, this was a spectacularly feeble performance, leading one to conclude that the general reader simply isn’t interested in this kind of novel any more. Oddly enough, there are household name novelists out there whose books, in the current climate, are lucky to sell a few hundred units.

Reason number three is that in the last ten years the average trade publisher has grown prudent, resolved to pay advances for books that have at least some vestigial connection to what they might be worth. The days when an optimistic sponsor would be prepared to shell out, say, £50,000 for a literary biography that might achieve sales of 2,000 to 3,000 copies are long gone.

If you sell 800 copies and make £1,000 out of the deal, you are doing exceptionally well

Down at the sharper end of independent publishing this frugality is yet more noticeable. Let us say that you are about to publish a “literary” novel with one of the smaller firms, in paperback format and retailing at £9.99. Well, if you sell 800 copies and make £1,000 out of the deal you are doing exceptionally well.

Reason number four has to do with one of the modern publishing industry’s greatest structural faults, which is the book publisher’s lack of power when compared to the rest of the business’s component parts. Thirty years ago, people used to complain that agents called the shots, charged too much money for their wares and thereby impoverished everyone but agent and author.

Here in 2023 the power lies with the distributor — Amazon, naturally, at the mega-level, but also Waterstones and WHSmith and even the supply chains that stock the independent bookshops (whose continued renaissance is one of the few really positive book-trade stories of the past few years).

Let us say that you are a small bookshop in a market town that wishes to purchase a single copy of David Kynaston’s A Northern Wind: Britain 1962–1965, to which its sponsors, messrs Bloomsbury, have affixed a retail price of £30.

Well, Gardners, the book wholesalers, will let you have it for £16.40, meaning that Bloomsbury will have had to supply it to Gardners for well under 50 per cent of the selling price. Once Bloomsbury has covered its costs, including Dr Kynaston’s advance, editorial and production and other overheads, the margin is frighteningly thin.

The above figures, by the way, don’t mean that the independent bookseller is the chief beneficiary, what with the rental, heating, lighting and salary costs that have to be factored in before he or she can make a profit. But they do show that the distribution tail is wagging the publishing dog.

What is the publisher to do?

The time-honoured method of enhancing your profits is to cut out the middle man. If publishers meant business they would create their own distribution systems, whose fiscal basis they could control.

But this would require cooperation and long-term planning, which, aside from predatory agents, are the two things the industry hates most.

None of this, naturally, will mean very much to the average novelist struggling to make a living. And here we have another reason for those dwindling incomes: the journalism on which so many writers used to rely is disappearing fast. In fact, about the only place of safety left for those “serious” but cash-strapped novelists is a university creative writing department — and how long will they last?

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