A visit to a local art gallery this week got me thinking again about the worth placed on the art of writing. We don’t have a lot of art galleries down my way and it was a breath of fresh air. There was also some truly excellent pieces on display. The cheapest bit of artwork I saw was around £400. The most expensive was about £14,000. I had a chat with the guy running the gallery and invariably I pitched Bleeker Hill to him after he asked me what I did for a living. It was only really after I spoke to him that it occurred to me how utterly ridiculous the situation was – there was a curator talking to me about £14,000 artwork and there was me, pushing my 77p artwork. Now, I’m not being naive enough to suggest there should, or could ever be, financial comparisons between the two. But in that extreme there shows up another huge gulf that has nothing to do with money.
I’m not sure just exactly when the novel was deemed so utterly worthless to people on a financial level. Was it just the ebook explosion and the subsequent flooding of the market? Maybe. It still amazes me how many book reviews I read that base a negative rating on the price of the ebook rather than the actual content. This is invariably towards well established authors as it is only the writers that have a large readership that really dare charge something obscene for an ebook like, say £5. A fiver for a complete novel by my favourite author? I’m not paying that! So where does that leave the rest of us? Yep, offering out a year of work on your ‘art’ for 99p. Or free. All in the hope that you may get away with charging something exorbitant like a fiver for, maybe, your tenth novel, once you have a lot of readers, a large publisher, and a heck of a lot of marketing behind you. Of course when you get to that level you can afford to swallow up a few dickheads slagging off your book because they had to break into a note for it. The rest of us have to decide if being read for peanuts is preferable to offering your art for something nearer its worth but not being read at all. Of course, there is no real option there. I take my hat off to the indies that manage to bang out books left, right and centre, maintain quality and also find something approaching a sustainable career from it. Far too many people think it is a quick route to fame and fortune. It really isn’t. It’s a damn hard slog, it’s dispiriting, frustrating, slow and badly paid for the most part. Also, if that is the reason you are doing it in the first place, you aren’t a writer. Go on reality TV instead if you want that. Chances are, if you do well you will get a book deal from it anyway.
And there is another issue. A publishing industry that has bought into the celebrity culture that has been infesting society for years now. It may be true that the mass influx of cheap garbage that has flooded the book market since the indie revolution is helping to devalue the actual worth of the novel, but I would argue that so to is the constant line of celebrity penned books. I don’t mean autobiographies here, but the famous people who agents and publishers go cap in hand to, asking if they want a fat chunk of change and a three book publishing deal because, you know, they’ve been on telly. Writing is a strange beast. There can’t be many jobs where you can be utterly untrained or untried, or even, quite possibly not very good, and yet still find yourself being offered a deal to work in the industry. I think of the footballers, TV presenters and even politicians, that have been handed book deals and a nice fat advance and then I debate about my chances of playing professional football, being offered a gig fronting a TV show or getting a job in politics. None is likely. I am untried in those areas and unless I put the work in, unless I proved I could do the job, I wouldn’t get in the door. And quite right too. So why must my industry be treated like the default, fallback career for famous people looking for a new direction or something to do now they aren’t on TV so much anymore?
A publishing deal, a lit agent, these are things that pretty much every writer (as in someone who has chosen it as their career) strives for, craves and works towards (there are some indies that neither want nor need either, and all power to them, but they are very much the exception rather than the rule) and to secure either or both should be something that is earned and worked for. We all read the books and websites that advise on how to get an agent or a publishing deal. We all read the tips and tricks and spend months tweaking and fiddling with those magic first ten pages, knowing that that is probably all an agent is going to read of your book. We get rejected, if we are lucky we get feedback, then we go away and rework, resubmit, reevaluate, write another book and keep on kicking at the door, because that is what experts and agents and wise heads and publishers all tell you to do. Fine. It shouldn’t be easy to get a publishing deal or a lit agent. But let’s have a level playing field, please. I want my industry to be discerning, picky, and a champion of the best. But it should be hard for everyone. Wouldn’t it be harder for a non-plumber to get a job as a plumber? Now, when I am looking for the right agent, not only do I look to see who they represent so I can see whether my work would be a decent fit with their list, I also look to see if they represent any celebrities, and if they do, I don’t approach them as I know they won’t fit with me.
Every industry wants to make money and clearly there is sufficient readers out there for this sort of sham as to make it worthwhile, so maybe the blame is on us, the book buying public and not the agents and publishers? Maybe. Maybe we as readers are devaluing the industry. Maybe we wouldn’t read books at all unless the author was famous? Sure.
A good novel is a wondrous thing. To true book lovers a paperback or hardback that they have fallen in love with is every bit as precious a piece of art as something you would hang on a wall. There are still plenty of people that take pride in what is on their bookshelves, still plenty that shout and rave and extoll the magic of a story they found and just had to tell the world about. But are there any people left willing to pay even a nominal price for it? I don’t know. I remember a couple of people who after I handed them over copies of my first book, fondled it lovingly, caressed it and even hugged it to them (not for what was in it I should add, merely because it was a book) and I know there are people out there that value books above any other sort of art or entertainment. Yet still, here we are, the publishing industry following the music industry, the novel becoming the new CD, downloads, free or illegal, overtaking even a modestly priced album. Musicians make their money from touring, or from merchandise. But what of the indie author? The author needs advances to make a living from writing. The writer needs publishers and therefore they usually need lit agents. That application for the next series of Big Brother is starting to look appealing.