Questions about publishing (Updated)

Look at me! I have worked so hard that I’ve managed to get myself back on target for my Friday deadline! Yay me! And as a reward my tyrant husband is letting me have internet access this evening. How kind and good you are, dear sir.

There’s been some lively debate over this way. I confess that I was surprised by the force of Garth (author and ex agent), Patrick (editor) and Sharyn‘s (editor) response to what I thought was an innocuous post (stupid me). Fortunately Teresa (editor) explained the reaction (thank you).

In the end we all agreed: the writing is the most important part, as well as the second most important part, the third most, and so on. It is the day, the night, the morning, the evening; the dove, the crow, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, and every other bird in the sky, even the annoying myena bird.

It’s almost exactly three years since I became a full-time freelance writer. April Fool’s Day 2003 was the glorious first day of this new career. Ever since I’ve been trying to make sense of it and of the publishing industry generally. My post on a writer’s job was one such attempt. I’ve learned an awful lot in those three years. I’ve sold four books, published two, written four and a half, and edited one. I’ve found answers to many of my questions on various blogs around the interwebby. Patrick and Teresa’s Making Light is a fabulous resource (Slush Killer is probably my favourite post on any blog eva) and Anna Genoese‘s livejournal is fab as well. And there are many other excellent publishing blogs. And yet, I still have lots of questions about this industry:

  • Why is the returns system still in place?
  • Why does the wasteful stripping of paperbacks continue?
  • Is the fantasy middle grade market really about to implode?
  • Why is adult science fiction in such doldrums? Is it really?
  • Why don’t short story collections sell? (We learned that this is also true in Italy, Brazil, Sweden and France. Are short story collections hot anywhere in the world?)
  • Why do UK publishers consider it natural for Australian & New Zealand rights to be tucked in with UK rights? Are they unaware that the British Empire is over?
  • Do men really not read as much as women? Is this true everywhere? Or just in Australia and the USA?
  • Why do so many people who don’t actually read want to be writers?
  • Why does the best selling genre—romance—have the lowest average advances for its writers?

I could go on. If you have any questions of your own add them to the comments thread. And if you have any answers, please, please, please tell all!


  1. David Moles on #

    What’s with those “certified manuscript appraisers” they’ve got down where you come from? Why are they for real in Australia and a scam in the US?

  2. Pete on #

    Why do non-readers want to be writers? Maybe they think they would read what they right the same way those who do not listen to music in an avid fashion would like to be song writers or singers; or the way a non-musician will try to become a composer?

    I run into a lot of what we like to call wanna-be athletes also, but that’s another story.

  3. E. Lockhart on #

    I think short story collections DO sell. People just say they don’t as a way of maybe saying No to young writers coming out of grad school with a bunch of short stories? Or maybe they are just harder to market?
    David Sedaris sells plenty well. So does Melissa Bank. So does Jhumpa Lahiri. So does Chicken Soup for the Soul.

  4. Lawrence on #

    Sedaris’ collections are short prose, but not short stories.

    Likewise, the Chicken Soup books; they’re non-fiction and poetry, but for the most part, not fiction.

    (And, as anthologies, they’re a whole different kettle of fish from the question of single-author story collections not selling.)

  5. Rachel Brown on #

    I had missed that last post. I find it annoying (yet strangely consistent) that whenever writers post to ask about publicity and promotion, almost all the responses they get boil down to “Forget about that stuff, just write the best book that you can.”

    That does not actually answer the question, particularly if you’re already committed to writing the best you can. There is no reason why a writer can’t both write their best and also make intelligent decisions about publicity, any more than a writer can’t write their best and also hold down a day job. I too am puzzled by the dearth of solid advice and information on the subject.

    By the way, I too am boggled by the last remaining vestige of the British Empire in that rights get sold as a package to the UK and all former British colonies except the USA, which is sold separately.

  6. shana on #

    if you’re irked with NZ and Australia, don’t ever get me started about Singapore, Hong Kong and India.

    on the men vs. women thing – I think the conventional wisdom is that they don’t read as much fiction.

    and an another note – finally read All the Fishes Come Home to Roost — Rachel, you’re a superstar! i loved it!

  7. Patrick Nielsen Hayden on #

    “Why is the returns system still in place? Complete with the wasteful stripping of paperbacks?”

    You’re lumping together two different things with two different historical origins.

    Whole-copy returnability persists because the cost to any single publisher that disdained it would be too high, and any attempt by publishers to collectively change it all at once would be in instant violation of restraint-of-trade laws. Besides, be careful what you ask for. If you think new authors get a raw deal now, just imagine how many bookstores would stock their titles without the returns system to cover their bet.

    Unsold mass-market paperbacks are stripped because unsold newspapers and periodicals are stripped. The crucial invention that defined the “mass-market paperback” revolution wasn’t pocket-sized softcover books; we had those already. The crucial invention was “Let’s stop waiting for bookstores to support these cheap softcovers; let’s push them out through the existing newspaper-and-periodical distribution system instead.” So the paperback pioneers made their books as much like periodicals as possible. Monthly release lists, rather than seasons. Strippability. And so forth.

    Again, be careful what you ask for. Even today, the mass-market, non-bookstore distribution system is one of the things that keeps books from being entirely a product made by and for a hypereducated upper crust. If you want social mobility, you want mass-market paperbacks in grocery stores. And strippability is critical to that.

    (Incidentally, I dunno if you’re still reading the thread, but I just now posted a comment trying to clarify some of our previous talking-past-one-another, here.)

  8. Little Willow on #

    Congrats on your 3 years!

  9. Gwenda on #

    I would add this to your list of q’s:

    Why do so many people who don’t actually READ want to be writers?

    This is something we’ve run into a few times lately.

  10. Rachel Brown on #

    Shana– thank you very much!

  11. Justine on #

    Very few answers here, people, come on pull your socks up!

    Gwenda: Have amended post to reflect the more-to-the-point question.

    David: Don’t look at me! I ain’t never heard of ’em. Anyone else know?

    Pete: Yup, it’s a mystery.

    E.: I believe those are known as the exceptions what prove the rule. But I’d be happy to hear I’m wrong. Me, I love a good single-author short story collection.

    Lawrence: Yup. Anthos are a whole of other question. There are so many best of the years surely they must actually sell?

    Rachel: I share your annoyance, but I’m starting to understand where it comes from. And I have come across wannabes who have yet to finish a book who only want to hear about getting an agent and how to get the best publicity, which is putting the cart a long, long, long way ahead of the horse.

    And yes the publishing vestiges of the British Empire drive me spare! Scott’s convinced it’s because they all have these columns on their spreadsheets marked “Australia” and “New Zealand” etc and they don’t know how to delete them. I think it’s because the Aust/NZ market is a pretty lucrative one. I just don’t understand how writers and agents continue to let them get away with it when they’ll get more money selling the rights separately. Of course, I haven’t actually sold in the UK and may never because the Aust/NZ rights to my books are long gone . . .. But Australia is my homeland so I care about being sold there more than I care about being sold anywhere else.

    Shana: Please do get started. Seriously I’d really really like to know about this from an agent’s pov. I’ll be your best friend.

    That book was fabulous, wasn’t it? Yay, Rachel! More please!

    Patrick: The questions have now been split into two. Thank you for combatting my ignorance! Now you know why I had to ask. The whole thing is a mystery to me.

    Do you think there’s a possible middle way that won’t destroy chances for new writers? Or are we just stuck with returns forever?

    Little Willow: Thank you. It’s hard to believe I haven’t yet been forced back to having a day job!

    Perry: I’m sure you’re right, but I just don’t get wanting to be famous just to be famous. I understand wanting to be the best writer/film director/high jumper/cricketer/musician/whatever that you possibly can be. That I understand, but I do not understand wanting fame in the abstract.

    I also don’t understand having ambitions in something you haven’t ever done and in which you have no interest. It’s just surreal.

    Tee hee on that Harry Potter woman and Dan Brown bloke. When will people understand they’re once in a lifetime flukes?

  12. marrije on #

    I don’t exactly have an answer, but I do have a datapoint (on the question of why so many people want to be writers): apparently, here in the netherlands there are one million people writing a novel or a memoir or what have you, something they’d like to publish. One million people! On a population of 16 million! (oh alright, 17, maybe). This statistic gets trotted out each book week for the covers of the opinion magazines – I think i don’t quite believe in it, but still it depresses the hell out of me. And they say that’s people actually writing, not just sitting around saying ‘one day, one day’.

    Oh, and the received wisdom around here is also that more women than men read fiction. And the heaviest readers are middle-aged ladies, judging from reports from writers doing talks at libraries etc.

  13. Perry Middlemiss on #

    —why do so many people who don’t actually write want to be writers?

    the same reason why so many people want to be on television—fame and celebrity, or, at least, their view of it.

    and it’s easy isn’t it? only takes me a week to read it so it can’t take too long to write, and think of how much that harry potter woman is worth and that dan brown bloke has made a fortune and he can’t write and …

  14. Chris S. on #

    Some scattered answers, in no particular order:

    – According to an ABA study I read in 2003ish, women buy 75% of all books (that’s ‘buy’ not ‘read’). Having worked in both general and sff specific bookstores, that seems observably true.

    – stripping paperbacks, ugh. We make it a policy at our store to order less rather than strip (too many writers have worked here: we hate to see them cry)

    – Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something brilliant about people who want to write (which I will now mangle): that by a certain point in our lives, a person knows she cannot write a symphony, or win an Olympic medal, but it never occurs to her that she might not have an intimate relationship with language, and that intimacy is necessary in order to write. Teresa says it better, and makes further conclusions.

    – Commonwealth rights: I hear you. Is it Commonwealth? Commonwealth-except-Canada? North-American? North-American-except-
    Canada? Gah. Have to say though, it often works in our favour. We get a number of UK titles before the US and most US titles before the UK (ie: can I brag that I finished Naomi Novik’s Throne of jade last week? gloat, gloat)

    – It’s long been puzzling that romance writers get notably lower advances. Romance isn’t, as it is often treated, the ugly stepsister of the publishing world; rather, it’s the 900 pound gorilla. My head tells me the inequity can’t possibly be because the writers are, overwhelmingly, women, but my gut worries at the notion.

  15. John Klima on #

    I’ve often wondered why short-story collections don’t sell as well as novels from the same author. I think short-story consumers and novel consumers are different people. And people who buy novels do so because they like getting invested in a story and don’t want it to end too quickly. You can look at fans of epic fantasy who re-read long books (each one only part of a much longer story!) and see people who want to be able to immerse themselves in another world.

    True, there are many people (particularly in SF) who like both short stories and novels. However, it is painfully clear that the genre’s short fiction magazine’s have drastically dropping subscription rates. Whether that truly reflects a change in reading tastes is unknown.

    Could it be that people just don’t like short stories?

    I love short stories (duh) and often prefer reading short fiction over novels. I live on the other side. I don’t want to have to invest myself too long into something. When I do read a novel, I race through it to get it done quickly. (this is why I couldn’t read the GORMENGHAST books of THE RULE OF FOUR) Slow-paced novels drive me nuts.

    But I think I’m the exception.

    BTW, I should note that the slow sales of short-story collections and the reluctance of major publishers to invest in them is a major factor in creating the burgeoning, exciting small press environment that exists today.


  16. Garth Nix on #

    “Britcom” rights (or the “British Commonwealth” territorial bloc) are an historical hangover from the empire, even in the name, since the actual Commonwealth isn’t “British” it is simply called the Commonwealth of Nations. It harks back to when pretty much all publishing in the British Empire came out of London, a situation which persisted up until at least the 1970s. If you look back at where Australian or New Zealand (or other “Commonwealth”) authors were published before about 1975 it’s usually from London, with the books distributed outside of the UK by subsidiary companies of the British parent.

    It persists basically because publishers quite naturally always want to buy the biggest possible territory. They try to get world and then will fall back on whatever they can get. (Though this is often less the case with US publishers, who have a nice big market and thus usually only want to add Canada into the “North American” rights bloc.)

    It is particularly important for British publishers for several reasons. One is that the ANZ (Australia and NZ) territory often provides as much as 25-30% of their initial print run (reducing unit cost) and a similar proportion of eventual sales. Secondly, and most infamously for authors, they also try to pay an “export” royalty on sales outside the “home” territory of the UK. This means that they pay a royalty based on a percentage of net price received rather than on cover price, and as they are usually selling through a subsidiary of their own company, the net price can be very low indeed.

    If you have sold all of Britcom to a UK publisher, check your contract and royalty statements — it’s likely that you get a lot less from each book sold in Australia, NZ, South Africa etc. than you do from ones sold in the UK. This can even be the case for an Australian author — if published out of the Uk they might find they get a smaller share of the revenue from their book in their own country than they do elsewhere.

    Finally, in addition to the business reasons (which are perfectly valid), I suspect there is a little psychological stuff going on to. The only place the British Empire still exists is in publishing, in Schedule A with its long list of countries that once were pink on the map. I think some British publishers still feel that is worth defending at all costs.

    Why do American agents not sort out the different bits of the commonwealth (or at least the sizeable ANZ market) and sell them separately? Well, they do sometimes. But british publishers are understandably very aggressive in trying to keep an entire Britcom, and will often say that if they don’t get ANZ at least, “we can’t afford to publish as the market will be too small”. This is nonsense, of course, but it is true that if they don’t get Britcom then they might not meet corporate P&L requirements. So they will offer a smaller advance or just stonewall so the UK deal may be put in jeopardy, and an ANZ deal will rarely make up for a lost UK one.

    So for US agents it is generally easier just to sell Britcom (often minus Canada, as I mentioned.)

    British agents have a similar situation, where they often find it quicker and easier to take a Britcom deal, and also more comfortable as they are assisting in the preservation of a rights empire at least, even if the real empire is long gone.

    Things have changed a little over the last decade by the way, with more British publishers amenable to a smaller slice of the world, particularly if a book is successful in the USA and ANZ and they think they’re missing out. But it can be a long, hard road. The British desire to get the whole Commonwealth and my refusal to sell them is the reason why SABRIEL was not published there till 2002, many years after its 1995 appearance in Australia and 1996 in the USA.

    And since this is publishing, the situation may not always be as straightforward as I’ve indicated above. For example, for some genre fiction in particular, it is very difficult to get an Australian publisher. So you may end up having to sell Britcom to a UK publisher. Just try to get proper royalties in the bigger parts of the Commonwealth, and always in Australia and NZ if you actually live there.

  17. Little Willow on #

    Justine: You are welcome.

    Sometimes, I just want to give my friends and favorite authors (note that those who are both of those things further ROCK MY WORLD) notebooks and pens, urge them to write the story, and worry about publishing rights/contracts/editors later. Just write the book and I’ll put it on WINDSHIELDS if I have to.

  18. Patrick Nielsen Hayden on #

    john klima writes:

    “BTW, I should note that the slow sales of short-story collections and the reluctance of major publishers to invest in them is a major factor in creating the burgeoning, exciting small press environment that exists today.”

    –and he’s dead right.

  19. claire on #

    justine: an article from the guardian about men and women’s reading habits.,,1748085,00.html

    and i think the commenter above was right when he said that novel readers get invested in a world/story and don’t want it to end too soon. i don’t hate short stories — in fact i love a good short story and go back to them in fits and starts, just to see … but i end up feeling so bleak at the end of a story (short or long) that i can’t take reading too many short stories. it takes almost the same amount of commitment to start a short story as it does a novel, and with the ss i’m done in half an hour or less.

  20. Justine on #

    Marrije: I just heard in Bologna that the Netherlands has one of the most vibrant publishing cultures in Europe and that you’re a nation of readers. So that stat does not surprise me. I’m not at all dismayed by lots of people actively writing. The more the merrier, I say. What bums me is people who don’t read and have no interest in books deciding they can write . . .

    Chris S.: I remember the TNH thing you’re referring to—twas brilliant. What she said!

    John: Yup, what you said!

    Wow, Garth, that’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t know how to thank you. I really really really get it now. Thank you!

    And yeah, Patrick, Mr Klima is dead on.

    Claire: I found the Guardian thing very dodgy. Just didn’t jibe. Prolly cause English people are all insane.

    I guess. I love short stories and find the experience of reading a really good single-author collection—like Margo Lanagan’s—infinitely pleasurable and satisfying and just as long as a novel.

  21. shana on #

    Garth: that’s a fantastic description. From the US agent’s side, I’d only add that judging a foreign market from the other side of the ocean is tricky at best —

    For a US agent, selling UK rights to a US book can be tough to start, but at least we can go visit london and get a sense of the british publishers. i know nothing about ANZ publishers, and i’d have to learn an entirely separate network of publishers and editors … which might or might not result in being able to sell my books in ANZ, based on talent, timing, networks, and luck, just like in the uk or us. More, i don’t have any sense of what books are successful in ANZ or why, and what differentiates a book that travels well from one that won’t.

    so the goal – of being able to get my authors published in more countries and earn more income for them – would require an awful lot of groundwork for an unpredictable outcome. as a us agent, my time might be better spent working in the us market for my clients, where i do know the business people and the market.

  22. Christopher on #

    I think Gwenda might be asking a slightly more pointed question than the one y’all are answering, but I probably only think that because I’ve been sitting in the same rooms and participating in the same conversations as her and have the “advantage” (sigh) of context.

    What we’ve been seeing is people who are making active efforts at writing: taking classes, spending money, surfing–God help me–“how to get published” websites. And these same folks are often non-readers.

    Actually, that doesn’t even capture it–they’re _belligerantly_ non-readers. They have no interest in reading either current or classic works, no shame in owning up to that fact, and no plans to change it. Those who do read a little bit (and this is the one that really sticks in _my_ craw) have zero, ZERO, interest in reading outside whatever genre/form/whatever they’ve self-assigned themselves to.

  23. Kevin Wignall on #

    Christopher, too right! Though I do think it arises out of the celeb/confessional culture others have mentioned – people are interested in talking, not listening. And like you, it infuriates me.

    Not sure I like the implication that we (the British) are desperately clinging on to last memories of Empire. I assume the British & Commonwealth rights are sold partly because of the historical and continuing connections, partly because of the common language (ie, British English, not US English, though I appreciate this is shifting a little). I was also told that the Australian market is particularly difficult and the difference in royalties is to allow for the deep discounting that’s commonplace. I think the UK market is easily big enough to sustain itself, but if this common link didn’t exist, I suspect the impact on ANZ authors and readers might actually be negative. Btw, for Australian authors, Curtis Brown (UK) has its own office there and its authors always feature heavily in the company’s rights catlogue.

  24. Justine on #

    Shana: And I would say unto you—get an Australian co-agent to work on Oz deals. In my experience most UK publishers have no greater clue than you do about what works in the Oz market and there is much dumping of books here that tends to piss off the natives . . . We’re a small market, yes, but we’re a market that has really expensive books and spends a disproportionate amount of money on ’em.

    Christopher: Oh, sigh and ugh and erk. I was just talking about the folks at parties who say, “You’re a writer! Wow, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” And then when you ask them what they like to write and who they read they look at you blankly. Yours sound much much worse.

    Kevin: But you’re English, Kevin, you would say that! Me, I defer to Garth’s wisdom above.

  25. Kevin Wignall on #

    true, justine, and now that I think of it, I actually have an anecdote that backs your case. when my last book, For the Dogs, went unpublished in the UK we asked my US publisher, Simon & Schuster, if they wanted to distribute in the Commonwealth. S&S couldn’t deal with it out of NYC so they sent the query to S&S UK, who couldn’t compute Commonwealth distribution if it didn’t include the UK. This does imply that ANZ and other territories are seen as a sideshow which is a real shame.

  26. Garth Nix on #

    Kevin: As I mentioned, there are sound and quite understandable business reasons for British publishers to want Britcom rights. The psychological aspects are just icing on the cake. If I was a publisher in the UK I would be trying to buy world rights, falling back on britcom and then settling for whatever I could get if I really wanted the book.

    For the record, Curtis Brown Australia is an independent company that was once part of the UK Curtis Brown agency, there was an MBO in 2002. There is still a close relationship, of course, but CB Australia also works in the UK with other agencies. I’m one of the partners in the Australian company, though I haven’t worked actively as an agent since 2001. (Curtis Brown US is also not part of the UK agency, though like Australia it once was, longer ago.)

    Also, with regard to Australia being a difficult market with ‘deep discounting’, the UK is actually a harsher retail book market. What they generally mean is that their Australian subsidiaries or sister companies who distribute the books get a high discount, often as much as 70-75% off the retail price, so the author gets 10% of 25% of the cover price. But this is actually transfer pricing. It comes off the UK companies P&L and goes on the ANZ company’s P&L but when both are part of the same group . . . only the author has lost money.

    However, it does get the books distributed in ANZ so, as with book club sales etc, it may be a case of better to have a small percentage of something than a larger percentage of nothing. Once again, it’s difficult in a short space here to cover all the complexities and possibilities of the various rights split-ups and arcane publishing arrangements

    Again, this is just business, arising out of historical market groupings and practices.

    And with the multitude of writers out there: most don’t actually want to write. They want to have written. With no effort, a smooth ride to the top of the bestseller charts and truckloads of regular royalty checks. (we all want that, but most working writers understand that you need to both read and write a lot in order to have a chance to get there.)

  27. Ted Lemon on #

    Hm. I can’t speak for people who don’t read but want to write. But I can speak for people who do read and want to write, but can’t plot or character develop their way out of a wet paper bag with tailwind.

    I read a lot of fiction, and frequently when I’m reading, ideas pop into my head for new stories that are riffs on what I’m reading, or smashups between what I’m reading and what I read last week. And I’d like to write them. When I actually put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking), they don’t come out that well They’d likely be painfully derivative. But that doesn’t stop the impulse.

    And anyway, I have a strong tendency to think that I have something useful to express (what, I’m not sure), which is probably shared with non-readers as well. Thus, the theoretical book that is never realized.

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