Sunday 24 February 2019

Can we expect bestsellers from the SPFBO?

To contrast the level of attention this year's 300 authors are getting compared to what they might expect from a real agent ... I questioned two such a beasts. Successful ones.

One of them was my own illustrious agent, Ian Drury!

(seen here attacking the editor of a fantasy magazine with my Gemmell Legend Award)

Both typically spend 5 to 10 minutes with a manuscript and given a pile of 30, such as the SPFBO blogs are allocated, both would expect to be mailing out 30 "no thank you's" after a day's work. The reason you might have to wait for that "no" is that they have many other things to do and may not get around to looking a manuscripts for some time.

The 5+ months that the blogs take to consider their 30 books now looks pretty damn good! Some of them review EVERY book too!

Anyway, that's how tough it is and that's how quickly they go through the slush making decisions. The rest of their time is spent pitching the work of and dealing with the needs of existing clients.

One of them gets 30 submissions a week (cover letter, synopsis, first few chapters) and the other 50-60. They call for around 6 full manuscripts a year. That's <0.4% of submissions leading to a full read. In those cases they will typically get back to the author within a week. Most of those guys they still don't take onto their books.

So that's >52 SPFBO blogs' worth of books seen each year (let's call it five SPFBOs) leading to maybe 1 or 2 new clients.

Ian gets a publishing deal for at least half his new clients, so lets say 5xSPFBO = 1 publishing deal.

And we are only on our 4th SPFBO!

And most traditionally published books don't earn out their advance (which averages around £5,000).

So, the strong implication (but this is not necessarily true) is that with 10 weeks' worth of what passes over an agent's table we cannot reasonably expect to find a best seller in any given SPFBO - though we can definitely hope - and that with 1 week's worth of an agent's inbox no blog can expect their finalist to fly - but again, it can happen.

The other interpretation is that the process the agents use to filter books is very flawed. But even if their inboxes are crammed with books that could sell 100,000+ the fact seems to be that there is simply no room for such numbers in the market.

The question is does the market hyper inflate books that are only slightly better (or no better at all) than others (which sell very poorly?) And my own opinion is that it definitely does to a significant extent.

Or are the vast majority of books incapable of sustaining a large readership no matter what breaks they are given. And my own opinion is that this is also true to a significant extent.

I.e. I feel that many great books definitely fail because the winds of chance don't blow favourably for them. And simultaneously that only a small % of books out there would sell in huge numbers even with those winds filling their sails.

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  1. Given the difficulty of getting published, and then of being successful, plus the undoubted quantity of creative talent involved at any one time in writing draft novels, I wonder, as someone with no gift for writing imaginatively, what the motivation is for persevering? I don’t want to stop people trying of course as I enjoy the fruits of their labour.

    But I’ve seen for a while an analogy between the large pool of currently unrecognised writers and the tremendously gifted amateur musicians I see in local pubs and clubs. I see local talented amateur musicians that beat, hands down, the manufactured ‘talent’ on TV shows. Some can seem at least as good as established professional musicians too. And in most cases they’ve given up on a professional career, if they’ve ever had that ambition. The toss of the coin didn’t go there way either.

    However, the amateur musician has one advantage over the new writer. They can get an audience for their talent with only a little effort, if they are decent, at these same local clubs. I know a couple of local pubs where you’ll easily get a gig if you’re playing for free! Failing even that you have your family and friends to appreciate, or otherwise, your musical abilities......
    At least the amateur musician can get the benefit of an audience if they really want one. The danger for a new writer must be that, in the worse case (maybe even the typical case?), no one will ever know of their talent. It will sit eventually in a dusty drawer.

    Sorry, if that’s a downer. But I’d still like to know what drives a new aspiring writer given the low probability of success.

    1. If you're writing with the sole intention of being published and making money, you're in the game for the wrong reasons.

      To make money is not the sole objective. The primary driving factor (at least for me) is to tell a story because it's bursting out of you and needs to be told. To be able to craft words on paper that makes someone forget about the real world, to help them laugh, cry, be amazed (or repulsed), feel goosebumps all over your skin because of something so wonderfully amazing that comes from words on paper!

      That is the drive :)

  2. I think the SPFBO is a great thing. But are you saying that getting a traditional deal = bestseller? Because I know a lot of traditionally published authors who would disagree with that statement. Likewise, I know a good number of self-published authors that are greatly outselling their traditional peers. I think this post would be better stated.

    Can we expect traditional publishing contracts from the SPFBO?

    1. I'm not sure where you got that impression from.

      And ... the general definition of peers means you can't really outsell them by definition.

    2. By peer I mean people who have write in the same genre and have been publishing for the same amount of time. I would think those are peers.

      I guess I wasn't clear in my post. Let me try again.

      1. Some of the books that enter into the SPFBO are ALREADY bestsellers. So to answer the question of the post...."Can we expect bestsellers from the SPFBO?" the answer is yes and it has nothing to do with agents.

      2. Will some of the SPFBO entrants get traditional deals? - Yes, as we've seen several that have. But will what does getting a traditional deal have to do with bestseller status? You mentioned that most don't even earn out even a modest advance, so I'd say for those folks the answer is no.

      3. Will a SPFBO entrant who IS offered a traditional deal do better than when self? Impossible to say. But I will mention that with some recent changes in the industry, it's going to be a whole lot harder than it once was.

    3. Peers are generally taken to be those in a similar position. So Matt Damon's peers would be other A list film stars, not other people who have described their employment as "actor" for a similar length of time.

    4. We are in agreement with the definition of "peers" but I guess where we depart I group on # of copies sold not "traditional" vs "self" - so a traditional author that sells 5,000 copies is, at least in my mind, equivalent to a self-published author that sells the same number of copies.

      That said, I could also make a case to classify "peers" as those with a certain income from their writing. So, any book that earns, say $100,000 in income to the author would put them in the $100K club and again it doesn't matter to my "groupings" whether that book was self-published or traditionally published.

      It's almost looking like you first group peers into "self" and "traditional" - which is certainly your prerogative, and knowing that would make your post make more sense.

      Again, when you use the term "Bestseller" I don't think the "path to publication" is the important me it is the number of books sold.

  3. Interesting blog post. What is a 'bestseller' I guess should be clarified - is it a book that sells 100k copies its first year out? There aren't too many of those, even among trad, except from authors that are already bestselling. It's pretty hard to find debuts in epic fantasy that move 100k copies quickly.

    A while back you listed the Goodreads ratings of debut epic fantasies by year. For 2016, the two books with the most Goodreads ratings (and it was a down year, admittedly) were (and are, I think) my book The Crimson Queen (which was already popular before I entered into the SPFBO, and ended up in a tie for second last year) and AC Cobble's Benjamin Ashwood, which was also entered into the SPFBO. I haven't sold a 100k copies, but I've moved about 40k in two years, which I think most publishers would be happy with.

    Other major indie writers who might be considered 'bestellers' who have entered into the SPFBO include Rachel Aaron, Andrew Rowe (an actual NYT audio book bestseller) and Harry Connolly.

  4. "does the market hyper inflate books that are only slightly better (or no better at all) than others?"
    I'm not sure about the market, but publishers and bookshops, definitely!

    There's a trilogy, published almost 10 years ago, that is awful. I don't mean 'awful' as in 'I didn't like it', I mean that it's very badly written and totally derivative (I never abandon books in principle, but I read one page from book 3 of the trilogy - at the library - and threw it away in disgust). Yet, book 1 is almost always on the tables at Waterstone's.
    I really don't understand why except for money, I'm almost sure that if anyone ever attempted to read it, it would go back to the warehouse.
    And I'm going to admit that I always hide it with another book: yes, I go to the shelves, pick up a book I've loved by a less known author (Mark, yours are usually already on the table ;)) and put it there on top of the bad one. And once I actually prevented a person from buying it, they had picked it up and were reading the blurb - at the time I think I did lead them to Mark's books, hehe

    That's why I trust other fantasy fans' recommendations over bookshops at any time.

    1. A few things. (1) books on "special tables" at Waterstone's (or other bookstores) are generally being paid a co-op fee by the publisher. In other words, it's not because the book is "good", it's because the publisher is expending marketing dollars to sell more books (2) putting Mark's book on top of the other book is a nice thing to do for an author you like, but it will be removed and put back "where it belongs" because the bookstore employees know which books are being featured and which aren't and they'll adjust the shelving appropriately. This also goes for putting a book that was "spine out" and turning it so the cover shows.