Friday, 14 August 2009

Ten Commandments of Epos - Katherine Roberts

There is a secret weapon publishers, agents and booksellers can use to find out how good an author you are. It’s called Nielsen Book Scan, and it’s a computer record of the sales of your books through all outlets that use electronic point of sale (Epos). Sales figures are certainly one measure of a book’s success. But there is a dangerous tendency these days to use this weapon to commit mid-list murder on a scale that would shame Hitler. Don’t even get me started on the twisted logic of this, but apparently the sales of your last book can be used to predict the sales of your next one. Decent sales figures last time around… next book welcome. Embarrassing sales figures… next book not so welcome, maybe not welcome at all. Dump bins for a new title from a mid-list author? Get real.

It is tempting to mumble in your freezing garret about mass market sales being no measure of literary quality, or point to the thousands of books you have sold yourself in schools that never registered on Nielsen. But since sales mean royalties, and all authors need to eat, let’s assume for now that we all worship this new god of commerce. With obvious apologies to Moses and no insult intended to anyone’s religion or beliefs, here are the Ten Commandments of Epos that today’s career-minded author ignores at their peril:

1. Thou shalt not worship any other god but me.

2. Thou shalt not make any graven image of me. Moulding a little doll out of clay, calling it Epos, and sticking pins into it under a full moon while chanting from the pages of your latest novel is unlikely to help your sales very much – though you could try putting the video on Youtube and starting a cult, that might work.

3. Thou shalt not curse my name. No good using “**!&*! Epos” as an excuse for your less than marketable writing. Go away and write a better book or find another job.

4. Thou shalt observe my day. By all means have as much fun as you like creating your own little worlds in your books during the first six days, but do not neglect to worship me on the seventh. (What do you mean, you can’t create a book in six days? What do you do all day?)

5. Thou shalt honour with due respect all those who brought your book into the world – your long suffering family, your equally long suffering agent, your editor, your writing buddies, your sugar daddy, whoever gave you a grant to pay your bills while you were writing the thing, without whom etc, etc… it’s what the acknowledgements page is for.

6. Thou shalt not murder other authors (in print or otherwise). Even if you think killing off the competition might be a good idea as a last resort, don’t forget that nearly everybody else in the world is now writing a book of their own, which means you will simply be murdering most of your potential readers.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Sleeping with the head buyer of a large bookselling chain is only likely to help your sales figures if you are young, beautiful and preferably already a celebrity… in which case you don’t need to sleep with them, darling, believe me.

8. Thou shalt not steal your books. Terry Pratchett might have gained some publicity for being one of the UK’s most stolen authors, but stealing the only copy of your book from the shelves of your local bookstore will merely result in one less sale. (On the other hand it’s understandable if you steal Terry Pratchett’s latest, since on the average author’s earnings you probably can’t afford to pay for it.)

9. Thou shalt not accuse your rivals falsely. If you read in the press that a new author has just been given a six-figure advance for her first novel, it’s no good saying bitterly, “That’s only because she has no past sales record…” before you have even read her work. Her first book might be… (insert her advance divided by your advance)… times better than yours.

10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s talent – or their glamorous handbag, youth, Scottish castle, Swiss bank account, or whatever else they have that you don’t. Their sales figures are obviously significantly better than yours, but changing your name to JK Rowling is not going to fool anyone for very long. Especially if you are a man.

Now then, where did I put my chisel and those stone tablets...?


Anne Cassidy said...

Can writers themselves access these sales figures?
(not sure I particularly want to)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Anne I believe you have to pay fairly substantially for access. And as well as books authors sell themsleves, not being being part of these stats, many Independant Book Sellers' sales aren't registered by Nielsen either. So sales figures are somewhat skewed and ratings can look worse than they are. Good post Katherine!

Stroppy Author said...

You can see the figures for a single book (or ISBN, so one edition of a book) for a fee (I think it might be £10). Best to ask your friendly publisher - who probably has an account - to check for you. I am considering a legal bid to get figures released to writers under data protection legislation - I just need to sort out the best way to do it. Watch this (or some other) space.

Katherine Roberts said...

It does seem rather crazy that the first time we see these sales figures are in our royalty statements... since by this time they are up to nine months out of date (owing to the current publishing practice of six monthly accounting, plus three months to get the statements to us).

Of course your publisher usually tells you at once if sales are brilliant (and sends you flowers and immediately signs you up for ten more books), but it would be equally useful to know if our last book is not working in the marketplace, because this might help us choose which project to work on next. Nine months is plenty long enough for me to write an entire book, which might be a huge mistake simply because I am unaware of how the last one is actually doing.

So I hope you have some success, Stroppy Author! (And while you're at it, maybe also investigate why it takes three months for a publisher to get the statements/royalties to us in the first place in this electronic age..?)

Stroppy Author said...

Katherine, I quite agree about that three months! It's insane. However - 'Of course your publisher usually tells you at once if sales are brilliant (and sends you flowers and immediately signs you up for ten more books)'. You have a more efficient publisher than I do, then. I only found out on Friday that a book I wrote in 2006 or so is their best-selling title ever. And that was a throw-away comment by an editor I hadn't actually gone to see but was gossiping with. It really does seem as if once we have delivered the MS and corrected the proofs, we are out of the picture.