Decline and Fall… and Get Up Again, and Start All Over

Eight years ago, I got lucky. No, not George Clooney on my doorstep lucky, but three-book deal from a proper publisher lucky. It happened like this: I wrote three chapters for a children’s book and sent them off – without anything as professional as a synopsis (since I had no idea how the tale would end) – to 12 agents. I reckoned my little offering would sit in a dozen slush piles for months on end – time for me to dream up and write down the rest of my book. Two days later I had an email: ‘Love it so far – can I see the rest?’ How could I say there wasn’t any rest, without looking like an utter tool? I sent back an email saying I was giving my story a final tweak and then I dropped everything – work, children, husband, new-born puppy litter – sat down and bashed out another nine chapters, so fast I almost revealed my own Higgs Boson. The resulting manuscript generated offers from not one but two publishers – a bidding war! If I had realised at the time how ridiculously lucky this was I would have been swinging from the chandelier with my knickers on my head yodelling, but I thought this was how it always went. It was simply the inevitable result of my genius. Eight years on and my next book is going to be self-published. A fiver says the question now in your head is, ‘What went wrong?’ (Face to face, people tend instead to ask, ‘What happened?’ because it sounds more polite and because they’ve heard the rumour that the heavy implication of failure in ‘What went wrong?’ sends me rushing from the room, wailing. This rumour is an exaggeration: I don’t wail, I only sob.) Well, lots of things happened and in future blogs I may touch on as many of them as my therapist will permit, but the most important point is that it’s very, very difficult these days for the traditional publication of children’s books to be viable. Unless you’re an author who scaled the ladder before the Amazon/digital revolution, or a celeb, there is a strong likelihood that the remains of your book-sale pie after your publishers, and your agency, and your printer/distributor and the retailer have all had their share will not save you from the food bank. Here’s the maths. My first three books had a cover price of £4.99. My percentage was 7% (=34p) or, if the books were on special offer (and when aren’t they?) 5% (=25p). Out of that, 15% went to my agent. That left me between 29p and 21p per book. In Germany my books sell for €7.99 (£5.83), and in Italy for €8.50 (£6.20). How can European publishers ask for so much more? Because they have maintained a Net Book Agreement, which means there are no discounters or supermarkets undercutting bookshop prices. (There are additional reasons, such as a much stronger reading culture and a higher value placed on education and learning.) Now, I admit I wouldn’t mind being a millionaire but that’s not actually what I write for. (Sometimes I ask myself just exactly what I do write for, and then I go into a school and I remember.) But I do need to earn more than peanuts. Somewhere between a million pounds and peanuts – that’s where the problem lies. And the more children’s writers who face this problem, the more will have to stop writing and do something more sensible instead. And then who’ll miss out? The kids.