From journos to ad execs and PRs, these days everyone seems to have a book in them. But what does it take to get published and will you actually make any money? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Brooke Hemphill finds out.
Attention wannabe authors. Forget big fat advance cheques and living off royalties. The reality of having a book published today is another story altogether. There are only two reasons you should even consider sitting down at your computer to bash out a manuscript – passion or profile.
Benython Oldfield, a literary agent with Zeitgeist Media Group, says: “If you are interested in writing a non-fiction book, you do it for credibility reasons or for passion because the amount of money that’s possible is negligible in an Australian context.”
Oldfield, who works with published authors including John Barron and Benjamin Law, is keen to lay out the bare facts about financial gains from publishing. He explains that writers make 10 per cent of the retail sale of their books, so if the cover price is $34.95, you’ll pocket less than $3.50 per sale. If you consider that successful Australian non-fiction titles sell 10,000 copies at most, the year you’re likely to spend slaving over your keyboard is going to net you an entry-level salary – if you’re lucky. And don’t think the rise of ebooks will save you. Oldfield says you’re even worse off financially from digital sales with authors taking home 25 per cent of the cover price, which in most cases is significantly lower than the cost of a hardcover book – think somewhere in the vicinity of $2.50 per sale.
Paul Merrill, the English and Australian launch editor of men’s magazine Zoo, knows first hand what books can do for your bank balance. Last year his first book, A Polar Bear Ate My Head, a non-fiction account of his time working on men’s magazines, hit the shelves.
“According to Random House, it sold okay. It was within their projections. But if I work out how much money I earned per hour spent writing it, I probably would have earned a lot more behind the wet fish counter in Coles,” he says.
But like many authors, Merrill’s motivation wasn’t money and in his case, writing the book came after his departure from publisher ACP, now Bauer Media, when he had time and money to spare.
“I had decided to leave ACP so I was on gardening leave and had some time on my hands. I’d always thought there’d been enough bizarre, horrific and shocking incidents during the years so I started writing not thinking it would get published. After I was about halfway through, I sent it off to some agents and they replied overnight. So I finished it and got it out there. It was fun to do. I absolutely enjoyed doing it,” he says.
Virginia Lloyd, an author and agent, says: “I would not advise anyone with a mortgage to take a year off to write a book because you’re not going to see the sort of financial returns that you’re likely to get from just picking up your regular pay cheque. But the thing a book can give you that almost nothing else can is enduring credibility.”
Fellow agent Oldfield agrees. “It’s amazing what doors will open for people who have written books,” he says. He cites the example of John Barron whose book about the American presidential race, Vote For Me! The Long Road to the White House, led to a host of other opportunities. “After that he got the gig at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney lecturing there. He now has a program on ABC News 24 called Planet America. All these things might have happened without a book but it really put him in the place of being a specialist about American politics and put it in people’s minds,” says Oldfield.
Barron, a journalist who has been covering US politics for many years, says that while it has given him credentials, there is another benefit to writing a book.
“Unlike doing a story for radio or TV there is a particular thrill in seeing a pile of your books sitting in the window of your favourite bookshop; seeing people on the bus reading your book and laughing out loud; having it assigned to students to read at universities in Australia and in the United States, as has happened with my book,” he says.
Ex-Zoo editor Merrill was already well known before writing his book and says this was not why he wanted to get published. “Being the editor of Zoo, I had a profile and in fact I was trying to reduce the profile as it was usually negative,” he says.
Both Merrill and Barron are in the fortunate position of having books with international appeal which is rare for Australian-based authors. Oldfield says: “Every country has its own specialists and to break through you really have to be saying something new.”
Barron has found being an Aussie with vast knowledge of US politics has made him something of a novelty in America leading to further publicity while Merrill’s book, which covers his time with Zoo in the UK, is about to be released in the United Kingdom.
Another author who comes from the magazine industry is Benjamin Law, a freelance writer who had been writing for various publications before he wrote his first book, A Family Law, in 2010. “It definitely built up a public presence and a lot of that has to do with the publicity that happens around the book, especially if you’re writing a non-fiction title,” says Law. “I remember a few key publicity interviews that I did. One was for Sunrise. I didn’t expect that to happen but I was on Sunrise and I thought, ‘yeah, something’s changed’. Another interview I did was for Richard Fidler’s Conversations and that has such a huge listenership that I found a lot of people were contacting me.” Law went on to write a second book, Gaysia, which was published last year. He is also working on a television adaptation of A Family Law with Matchbox Pictures.
If you’ve come this far and you’re still not deterred from writing a book, Lloyd says the first step is to take a “helicopter” view of the topic you want to write about. She says: “A lot of the time people who come from advertising or media backgrounds need to have a broader view of their topic area in order to think about how to pitch their idea in a way that’s going to appeal to a commercial trade publisher. Publishers, generally, are not big fans of books about advertising. They don’t seem to sell outside people who are already working in the industry so there’s not enough of a market in the eyes of most of the big publishers for those books.”
With the idea nailed down from a commercial perspective, Oldfield says it’s time to get writing. “You can pretty much get it up on the first 10,000 words,” he says. A synopsis and chapter breakdown will also be required before you can approach agents like Oldfield and Lloyd who will then negotiate with publishers on your behalf if they like what they see.
“That 10,000 words really has to be pretty stellar and it can’t be different sections of the book. It has to be the first 10,000 words so we know exactly what we’re getting,” says Oldfield. He also urges potential authors to think about whether they can go the extra distance to finish a full manuscript.
“A lot of the time people can write a great 10,000 words but you have to ask yourself, ‘can I write 80 to 100,000 words on this topic?’ because a lot of good non-fiction ideas that people think should be made into a book really should be turned into articles.”
When it comes to writing non fiction, Oldfield adds: “A writer has to find their voice and it has to be a lively voice as well. It’s all very well giving facts and figures but you have to be able to express these things in a lively and accessible way.”
And while writing a book will help to boost your profile, it helps to have one in the first place in order to get published. Lloyd says: “Publishers are going to be more interested in a non-fiction writer that has some kind of established platform and that could be anything from a strong Twitter following to being published in mainstream journals.”
While Oldfield says it is impossible to specify particular genres and topics publishers are currently interested in, late last year Lloyd posted a list on her blog that has seen her inundated by budding writers. Non fiction is in huge demand, she says, as is “farm lit” and memoirs with a strong hook.
The industry boasts numerous authors. From the PR world Roxy Jacenko made the move into chick lit putting her name to Strictly Confidential as did ex-Cleo editor Gemma Crisp who launched Be Careful What You Wish For last year. The Newspaper Works’ Mark Hollands recently penned a thriller, one time adman Nigel Marsh’s book Fat Forty Fired is being adapted for a US TV series, while John Steele’s The Art of the Pitch is a title of enduring authority.
As for the authors Encore spoke to, there are more books in the offing. Barron would like to write another book but says: “Because it is something of a labour of love, you need to have the passion and the interest and the opportunity and the offer of somebody to say ‘this is something we think would be worth writing a book about’.”
Merrill’s second book, Muddle Your Way Through Fatherhood, goes on sale next month while Law says he has at least three more books up his sleeve.
“Writing a book is deeply, deeply rewarding,” he says.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve produced this book-length work. It’s coupled with such anxiety and horror as well and most of the writers I know, they receive their book in the mail all bound and it’s not that ‘pop open the champagne’ moment. It’s just like ‘oh my god, what have I done?’ It’s like giving birth.”
Clearly book writing is not for the faint hearted and agent Lloyd says: “You’ve got to be a little bit mad because there are plenty of other things you can do with your time that are going to generate more revenue.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.