Monday, 19 September 2011

The Last Gasp of the Mid Lister Catherine Johnson




I love being a writer. I have been a mid list writer, writing books that get lovely reviews, that get chosen in 'best of' round ups, and put on shortlists (not winning though and sadly not selling that much), for longer than is technically possible. In fact, last week at a swanky private view in town, I talked to a literary scout. When she asked me what I did she said, "Mid list? I didn't think the mid list existed anymore,"
I know, from talking to friends that I am not alone. And of course I'm not about to jack it in. I know I live a charmed live, with plenty of everything except money. But things have changed. This time a year ago I had bookings that began in September, packed out October, trailed off in November, but filled my next years diary as far as next May. This year, apart from two visits to the wonderful Discovery Centre in Stratford I have none. Nil. Zero. Nothing.
I know I haven't had a 'big' book out for a year or two, and I am doing a couple of free events in local schools in November when the next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL, since you ask, comes out.
But this is the first year in, oooh, ten, years, when I have hadn't gone into a school and been paid to do workshops or booktalks or anything.
I remember telling some adult would-be children's writers that yes, we do get smaller advances than adults, but that's ok because we have another revenue stream; school visits. Well it looks like that one just dried up.
Of course I am not suggesting there will suddenly be a drought of children's books. There are always new writers and there are always people (me! here I am!) who want to write. But advances are going down, and I do worry children's writing might become something that only the people who sell shedloads or who are lucky enough to do because they are already wealthy are able to do.....

Actually that is never going to happen. Writing books reminds me of suburban riding schools. There are a few lucky ones who actually own ponies, and there's the rest of us; hundreds of eager, keen as mustard kids who would do anything, mucking out, cleaning tack, running errands, licking the salt lick or abasing ourselves in any possible way, just to have a go at brushing the pony let alone sitting on it and having a ride.

By the way, the picture is of me at the Mudchute Riding School on the Isle of Dogs in about 1985.

My next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL is out on November 3rd published by Frances Lincoln. It's funny and warm. Honest.

17 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

It's a lovely picture, Catherine. Good luck with the new book, and with everything!

Penny Dolan said...

Good luck with the new book - and if a writer as at ease and excellent with kids as you are is struggling to get paid bookings, it's no wonder the gigs feel thin on the ground here.

Okay, back to the muck heap. Great phot and analogy.

Joan Lennon said...

You are not alone!!!!!!!!!!!!

adele said...

I too haven't been into a school for ages. I am keeping on with my head in the sand assuming it's them and not me. Ie. not enough money etc. Also moving to Cambridge. But it is disheartening. I have a festival booking and an invitation for next March which was sent and then not followed up....I too haven't had a big book lately but that can't be entirely it. Glad to hear I'm not alone!

Stephen said...

Ahhh....the life of a midlister. The comment 'I didn't think those still existed' is a chilling one and, sadly, all to reflective of the general attitude in the book business these days. What can we do except continue to write? I know I will. I don't know how to do anything else.

Annie said...

'What can we do except continue to write? I know I will. I don't know how to do anything else.' Me neither, Stephen and Catherine, me neither. Wishing us all well in this most testing and bewildering of times.

Faye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine Johnson said...

Dear Faye, sorry to hear of your impoverishment, most of us have to do something, I've worked in bookshops, in lit dev, as writer in residence, done screen writing, taught at Universities, been an RLF fellow, done manuscript reading, worked as a mentor, but schools visits were a nice chunk of income. I know schools don't have the budgets they used to and am always trying to look a year ahead to keep myself going. It's famine and feast I think. Good luck to us all!

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh and Faye! Welcome, we're not scary at all, and the more the merrier, x

Faye said...

Haha! Thankyou, you do all seem lovely. And yes, good luck to us all! xx

hilary said...

Please can I join the mid lister club? (80% drop in income surely qualifies me!) I find I am particularly hit by lack of foreign sales- nothing anything but the most minor, the sort that paid for a round of school shoes, but they added up and are now all but gone. I always loathed school visits - not the children- but the begrudging payment process and the permanent slight astonishment that I wasn't prepared to do it for the honour of the thing.
However, cheer up, the supply of children is still flourishing, and they still need stories. I am thinking of adding a recommended reading list to my website- perhaps we could all list each other? New books and back lists and encouragements to get along to the library and ask for them. So if any of you would like to go on my list, please let me know.

Philip S said...

Thanks for sharing. There hasn't been much good news around for writers in a long while. The deregulated market was against them (as it was against the independent book shop, and most of the industry); public sector budget cuts mean closing libraries and the curtailing of school visits; fragmentation of the advertising market has led to the disappearance of review sections in newspapers; and now e-book technology threatens to rob authors of royalties altogether.
On the other hand, you can get the latest teen vampire novel for £3.99 at Tesco.
Of course, if we had followed the German example, and continued to regulate book prices, our market might be as healthy as theirs. But in the UK we're not very good at learning from our neighbours (and in the US they might as well not have any...). Maybe one day that will change.

Savita Kalhan said...

Having not had a book out for a few years myself, I know how it feels and congratulate you even more for perservering! Good luck with it!

Cindy Jefferies said...

I was one of those independent booksellers who fought for the retention of the net book agreement and still mourn its demise. It still looks a daft decision, seen now from the writers side of the business. As a child I remember greeting the brief, annual, book sale with glee, stocking up on books I otherwise wouldn't have bought. The rest of the year it didn't seem wrong to pay the cover price. That attitude seems a world away now.

The only thing I'm sure about is that the world's children will always want stories, and that it's our job to provide them. I don't know where our income will come from, but I do know that we spinners of stories are worth far more than our current incomes dictate. Hang in there Catherine, and everyone else. And thank goodness for ABBA, the Scattered Authors Society, the Society of Authors and every other group that exists to help and raise our spirits.

adele said...

If the Hilary who left a comment here is the one and only Hilary McKay, then her drop in income is nothing short of a scandal. She is one of the very best writers around and her books do so much deserve commercial as well as artistic success. Mind you, I can think of LOTS of Sassies whose income is no reflection of their talent but won't list them here to spare their blushes.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

I too am midlististified and it hurts. If I could stop I would but it is the stories that keep nagging away at me to be written in between the need to keep a roof over my head.Don't those literary scouts know - as they say in the music hall, it takes about ten years to become an overnight success!

Wendy Hue said...

Oh what a sad blog (but true). I'm a non-lister and look up to mid-listers! Brave New Girl please don't lose heart for your creativity, passion, and what you love doing despite the odds. Now I must find out what a pony is? Let me go and stroke Tiptoes as I can hear loud meowing!