Monday 16 December 2019

Books: The risky business of being a modern author

Irish novelists are finding different ways of coping with the new realities of publishing today

Liz Nugent
Liz Nugent
Roisin Meaney
John Connolly

Alison Walsh

EVERYWHERE you look nowadays you stumble across another article proclaiming the death of the novel and the extinction of the writer. With the double whammy of the recession and technological change, we are told, it's never been a worse time to be in the writing business. But are the rumours of imminent destruction all they seem?

John Connolly considers himself lucky to have written his first novel, Every Dead Thing, published to huge acclaim in 1999, during a golden era for Irish writing.

"Maeve Binchy was the first Irish writer of genre fiction to make her mark outside the country and there was a steady trickle down from that. For a long time, Irish writers had been more admired than read... after Maeve, British publishers looked at us in a different way," John said.

The next almost 30 years were a happy time of big advances and bigger Irish names: Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly, Joseph O'Connor, Roddy Doyle – it seemed that the Irish were suddenly a real commercial prospect.

Now that era seems well and truly at an end. There's a new caution about in publishing, a lack of confidence in what the future holds. Nonetheless, when Liz Nugent, whose debut novel Unravelling Oliver is currently riding high in the bestseller charts, was taken on by a top agent, she felt optimistic about her prospects.

"I knew when I got taken on by Marianne [Gunn O'Connor] that it was going to be published. Now, that may be absolute hubris on my part, but she had such a good reputation... I had absolute confidence in her," she said.

However, the path to publication wasn't quite as straightforward as she'd have liked. "Marianne said she'd never had as many near hits. It came down to the wire with several publishers, but at the last fence it fell, because the marketing people said it didn't fit genre-wise."

As Liz would discover, the days when an editor could insist that the sales team went out to the bookshops and flogged some unlikely book on the drains of Venice are long gone. Now, it's a team effort, with the emphasis on the sales and marketing potential of the book.

For John Connolly, that caution is also down to mathematics. He said: "That era of getting a big advance is probably at an end, because publishers aren't making enough money to be able to do that any more.

"The future is probably a smaller advance and a slightly higher royalty rate – writers are going to be taking some of the risk along with publishers."

And the elephant in the room? The e-book, specifically the royalties that authors can expect to earn from sales. You'll need to sell a lot more copies of an e-book priced at €4.99 than a €12.99 trade paperback to make the same money.

And with e-book retailers offering the carrot of 50 per cent to 75 per cent royalties to authors for e-book sales against the 25 per cent that publishers offer, it will be interesting to see how long some writers will hold out before going straight to the horse's mouth.

Indeed, American writer Michael Chabon granted e-book rights to his stellar backlist directly to a digital media company Open Road, citing their "generous 50 per cent royalty terms."

One author who has comfortably bucked that trend is Roisin Meaney. On her tenth novel, After the Wedding, she says cheerfully, "I'm not making a fortune, but I'm doing fine." Even though each of her novels has charted well and she's grown her readership, her third novel, The Last Week of May, was the only one of her books to hit the number one spot. However, she's managed to maintain a steady growth in part by selling an increasing number of e-books on the international market.

"I was very scared about the prospect of e-books when I first heard tell of them. I thought, they're going to be cheaper and I'm going to get less for every book. And then it was pointed out to me that my books are up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and they are available to all the English-speaking world. And my e-book sales are far surpassing my 'tree book' sales, as I call them, with the result that I'm making as much, if not more, on e-book sales. They are making my books available to a much wider audience."

But is it actually possible for writers to earn a living from their work? For Liz Nugent, financial anxiety has certainly been part of her writing landscape. She received a sensible, but fairly modest advance for Unravelling Oliver, which "could not be doing better... but before translation rights were sold [in Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal], I was in a bit of a panic, because I had just given up my job to be a full-time writer. It was something I needed to do."

Not that she is contemplating making her career break from script editing at RTE permanent: "I don't think realistically that it's possible to be a full-time writer."

Certainly, John Connolly can see a future where, "You'll see writers taking on ancillary sources of income."

For Roisin Meaney, however, being able to commit to writing fully is worth any financial sacrifice. A former primary school teacher, she said: "I loved being with children, but I never really felt that it was the proper fit for me. It's too hard... you can't do everything that's expected of you in terms of class sizes and curriculum demands, parent demands and everything – I felt I was never getting there... with writing, that's all gone. I know that when I sit down in the morning to write, I'll write whatever's in me and I'll be happy to do that."

Being a 'successful' writer, in any era, it seems, has never been about simple economics and Roisin Meaney, for one, is happy to accept the risks: "There's always going to be an element of uncertainty in the career I've chosen. I'm happy to have that, because it keeps me on my toes and it makes me do the best work I can."

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