The Risky Business of Trade Publishing

When I look behind, I see how far I’ve come. When I look ahead, I see the finishing line on the horizon. It’s so close. So close. And yet, it feels so far away. 

And the scary part of it is that I have no idea how any of this is going to turn out. 

I spent a better part of the past two weeks reading Merchants of Culture by John B Thompson. It is the most comprehensive, detailed and informative book I’ve ever read on the business of trade publishing. I can’t believe this book isn’t more popular out there.

One of my main takeaways from attending the London Book Fair earlier this year was that: yes, we have to do all we can to ensure that the book gets out there, but at the end of the day, we have no idea if (or when!) the book will take off. Some books manage to fetch a hefty advance and end up tanking; whilst other books seem to succeed for unfathomable reasons; whereas other books lay dormant on the shelves till one day things suddenly take off. 

John B Thompson writes:

One of the key characteristics of trade publishing is that, for a large part of the frontlist (leaving aside the brand-name authors) no one really knows how well a book is going to do. It is a high risk business in which serendipity plays a large role. 

For many writers (myself included), it is not a linear path. It is more like a winding road with a gazillion detours and side roads and you really have no idea if the path you’ve chosen is going to lead to that ‘success’. 

And even ‘success’ itself isn’t exactly easy to measure – since books are not published for the purpose of profit alone.

For most trade publishers,  the ‘value’ of a particular book or book project is understood in one of two ways: its sales or sales potential, that is, its capacity to generate economic capital; and its quality, which can be understood in various forms of recognition such as prizes, glowing reviews, or in other words, it’s capacity to generate symbolic capital. 

Over the years, many people have asked me why I write. And my answer has always been the same. Because I must. I cannot imagine not being a writer. And I definitely cannot image not wanting to be a writer. Nevertheless, it is important for writers, musicians and artists to know walking in that the road ahead is a topsy turvy one. The ‘creative industries’ are unpredictable by nature. You can have success followed by failure. And then failure after failure followed by success. 

As to what ‘failure’ and ‘success’ mean, that is entirely up to you. I feel like every writer needs to ask themselves: is my book an artistic endeavour or a commercial venture? 

The answer to this question is vital.

One of my favourite books of all time is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I loved the movie, too, by the way. It’s an absolute masterpiece. But many people don’t feel the same way as me. There were some that found it tedious and difficult to understand – and I can see why. 

You have to know who your audience is. That, and that you can’t please everybody. You’re not meant to. 

Many books that are commercially successful are shunned by the literary and academic circles. But their appeal to a wider audience persists. 

As for me, my years as a teacher led me to look at books from a whole other perspective. Had I not been an educator, I never would have written the book that I’ve written now. First of all, I’ve written a young adult novel – which is an entirely different genre to the kind of stuff I was writing before I became a teacher. And secondly, I’ve come to understand that if a vast majority of people can’t understand what I’m trying to communicate, I’ve lost the plot entirely.

There’s nothing like a bunch of teenagers giving you their negative feedback in real time. And believe me, they’re not subtle.

So my manuscript is ready. The book cover’s been designed. My Instagram account is up. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are a sorry looking work in progress that I need to get around to once I figure out a strategy. 

Whatever it is – my book should be published in a couple of months. I can see the finishing line on the horizon. It’s so close, yet so far. 

I don’t know if my book will be a ‘success’. And the truth is, I don’t care if I sink or swim. I just want to enjoy the ride.

This has been my dream for as long as I can remember. 

And the rest, is up to God. Or serendipity. Or luck. Or timing or all those other unknowns that I have no choice but to embrace. 

Till next time 🙂


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