Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Telling it Like it Isn’t

Sharon Wildwind

Right off—this is not a whine about other writers making more money than I do. Nor is it gender bashing about the guys getting all the breaks. What it is, is a comment on the discrepancy between how popular culture presents mystery publishing and what I see from my own back yard.

In the past week, I read two articles in national publications: Biggest Mystery: How a Book Becomes a Bestseller—New York Times/2007 May 13 and Maiden Mysteries: nine first-timers vie for the attention of whodunit fans—Publishers Weekly/2007 April 23.

The articles were interesting, in some places true, and in other places so far from the reality that mystery writers confront every day, that they appeared to have been written by a visiting alien species from another planet.

Visiting Alien Myth #1: writers get rich.

Taking the New York Times article first, the part about lack of market research was true. Also true was the small profit margins, the incredibly long publishing cycles—the average mystery takes between 18 months and 3 years from the day of sale to the day the book hits the market—, and the tingly feeling in the back of your spine about whether a book will sell.

After that, the article degenerated into a never-never land of multiple zeros. $40,000 advance. Sold more than 133,000 copies. Paperback selling 329,000 copies to date. Four million copies. Bought for less than $250,000. Sold only 240,000 copies so far. Publishing houses are paying high six and even seven figures.

The reality is less generous. I have three published books (one non-fiction and two mysteries), with a third mystery due out in October 2007. My advances for all four books, spread out over a seven-year period, equal roughly what I made working six weeks at my part-time day job. Combined royalties added an another five weeks pay. In seven years, my total writing income averaged 1.5 weeks of part-time pay per year. There are tons more writers in my situation than the ones who make high six or seven figures.

The Times article goes on to say that 70% of book titles published each year end up in the red, and most large publishing houses depend on that one multi-million dollar success to keep their business afloat. That’s why they’re willing to gamble big bucks on potential big winners.

Visiting Alien Myth #2: publishers make decisions based on a good grasp of the market.

Auto manufacturers know their customer profile. MacDonalds publishes, literally, shelves of binders about the MacCustomer. Ask publishers about who the reading public is and why people buy the books they do and you’re likely to get a shrug of the shoulders.

Quoted from the Times article: “Information about readers is often anecdotal because publishers argue that market research would be too expensive, or too difficult to pull off because one book is so different from the next.”


A further quote: “An exception is the consumer research gathered by the Romance Writers of America, a writers’ association that publishes a regular market study of romance readers. It reports survey information on, for example, demographics, what respondents are reading, where they are getting the books and how often, and what kind of covers attract them. Romance authors and publicists use the information to create promotional campaigns.”

Sisters in Crime recently published its 2006 survey of the gender of mystery authors whose books were reviewed by 53 national and local newspapers and national magazines. This survey was done by volunteers reading their local newspapers or other publications to which they had access and counting the numbers of reviews. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was well done and incredibly helpful. If you’re interested, you can find the results at http://www.sistersincrime.org/monitor/2006.html.

Bottom line: it’s writers who ferret out the down-and-dirty market research.
How many books sold make a good personal appearance?—10, with 30 sales for one appearance being close to phenomenal.
How many personal appearances and books signings should you do for each book?—At least 40. What’s the absolutely worst time to schedule a signing?—Sunday afternoon, when it’s raining, and/or when professional sports teams are playing in the same city.

That the mystery community shares such information among writers makes it one of the nicest places to be as a writer.

Visiting Alien Myth #3: men and women are equally represented in the market place.

The Publishers’ Weekly article was a “let’s celebrate nine hot new writers” piece. Despite the title of Maiden Mysteries, seven of the nine writers featured were male, two were female. Okay, okay, so they were using Maiden to refer to being new, not to being female, but that ratio was still a disappointment.

In an accompanying article, mention was made of The Class of 2007, thirteen authors, all being published in 2007, who banded together, to help each other make it through the first year as published authors. Again, ten of those authors were men and three were women. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Class of 2008 is going to be any different.

Yes, there are sub-genres, hard-boiled noir being one, where more men than women write, and sub-genres, such as young adult mysteries, where women outnumber men. I spend so much time in the Sisters in Crime on-line community—yes, SinC has both female and male members— that it comes as a real shock to go through any compiled mystery list, count the number of men versus women represented, and see men come out on top almost every time. The discrepancy is often two-to-one or three-to-one. My first reaction is inevitably that I must have counted wrong. Unfortunately, I haven’t.

But, we say by way of apology, women will read male authors, but most men won’t read a female author. Why the heck not? We're playing way beyond the women-write-cats-and-tea-parties mythology at one end of the scale and women-should-write-like-men at the other end. Besides 70% of all books are purchased by women and that figure reaches close to 100% when you're talking about the books-as-gifts frenzy that strikes booksellers just before Christmas. I'm looking forward to parity, a 50% equal share of shelf space, reviews, and interviews. Until then, I guess I'll just continue to follow the popular media and compare it to my real life. You know what, I'm betting my real life view makes more sense, every time.

Writing quote for the week:

I wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.
~Elwood P. Dowd from the movie “Harvey”

1 comment:

Mark Terry said...

What’s the absolutely worst time to schedule a signing?

You said Sunday on a rainy day. Close, but no cigar. I can positively assert with 100% anecdotal experience that the ABSOLUTE WORST time to have a book signing is a university bookstore on a Friday afternoon in July. My publicist set it up and I wish I'd through it through before accepting.

Sales? Big Fat 0!

The only booksigning I've ever done where I sold nothing. 30 would be outstanding. 10 probably is average. I think the most I've sold at a signing is 15.

And an interesting sidebar to that 15. There's no predictability. I did a mystery book fair and sold 14, which is to say, to most of the people who showed up, maybd 30 or 40 people, most of them couples.

I did a Rotary Club talk with 60 or 70 people and sold 6.

I did a Rotary Club talk with about 20 to 25 people and sold 15.

The important thing is the crowd is interested in: 1. Books, and 2. Your kind of books.

I've also hawked my books at a local art fair and that was a major waste of time. They're there to look at art, crafts, and eat hotdogs and head to the beer tent. You're kind of in the way.