Writing books gives only backhanded returns

Lincoln Allison may have lived through the glory days of academic publishing, but he still wonders whether the countless hours he spent writing his 14 moderately successful tomes would have been better spent on the tennis court

May 30, 2019
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Source: Getty/iStock montage

In the tennis player André Agassi’s autobiography, Open (definitely among the best of sporting autobiographies), our hero describes the scene when he finally finds himself walking on a beach with his fellow 1992 Wimbledon champion, Steffi Graf, just the two of them. He feels the need to start what he hopes will be a relationship with complete honesty and informs her that there is something about him she must know.

“I hate tennis,” he says.

The goddess is surprised – but not at what he says: only that he has bothered to tell her.

“Doesn’t everyone?” she replies.

As an amateur, I love tennis. But, for the professionals, the game means pain, fear, pressure and, above all, the denial of an infinite number of hypothetical other life chances. And if it’s like that for Agassi and Graf (winners of eight and 22 grand slams respectively), what’s it like for the world number 753 travelling alone to the “Challenger” event in Shymkent, Kazakhstan? (It’s awful: I’ve played the guy and he told me.)

I have always argued that it is entirely natural for academics and many other kinds of writers to hate books. The reasons are similar. The vast majority of us sweat and strain, mind all a’weary and a’racked with pain, for very little reward and a great deal of disappointment. We walk into bookshops and our works are not there, even though there are stacks of volumes by people a great deal less interesting than ourselves. We look at our royalty statements and our minds boggle at how few people have taken the trouble even to buy the paperback, which was almost reasonably priced. We think of how much time was spent writing that extra chapter the publisher wanted when we could have been playing with the children.

Let’s consider the fairy-tale version of what it is to write a book. You have a good idea (fiction or non-fiction for the moment), so you do the necessary background work and begin writing. As the chapters mount up, you are increasingly convinced that this is good stuff. When you have a manuscript, there are perhaps a couple of disappointments but soon enough an agent or publisher responds with enthusiasm. You’re paid an advance, a publication date is set, proofs are read and a launch party is organised, attended by your friends and relatives and a few minor celebrities who snap up signed copies with enthusiasm. Then the book appears in shop windows, reviews are dotted all over newspapers and magazines, and interview requests clutter up your inbox and answer machine. Shortly afterwards, very useful royalty cheques start flowing in.

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But, of course, most contemporary academic experience of publishing differs markedly from this story, from start to finish. You don’t have an agent and you don’t approach them: they approach you. That sounds good, but once they’ve signed you there are no frills: no launch, no advance, little or no effort with reviews.

The basic economics of publishing are that technological advances have forced down the fixed costs while unit costs have continued to go up. Publishers, therefore, strive to remain profitable by targeting particular known markets with large numbers of books in short but flexible runs. Five times as many new titles are produced as when I started. A leading academic publisher can publish more than 5,000 titles a year, as well as running a backlist of 120,000, with a personnel-to-book ratio that would have been inconceivably low in earlier periods.

This is sometimes called “privishing”. The word has not really caught on and it is used in several slightly different senses, but it is actually older than current technology. I first heard it in 1971. In that year, Macmillan published a book I needed to read for my research; it was in hardback only and was £8.50, three times the price of most books of its length and the equivalent of well over £100 at today’s prices. The publisher’s strategy was clearly based on the assumption that while no individual would buy it, enough libraries would feel obliged to do so that it would show a profit. Equally obviously, my strategy should therefore be to use my annual acquisitions allocation to order it for my university library and to be the sole borrower. But it is fair to say that a policy that makes the book available to so few people – and not to the indefinite number of people that would constitute a “public” – hardly counts as genuine publication. And, for better or worse, it undermines the distinction between a “published author” and anyone else.

In the contemporary world, people can have far more readers of a website or followers on many kinds of social media than most authors have readers. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society calculates that the average income from writing of its members, all of whom are “published authors” by definition, is now less than £4,000 per annum. It is worth remembering that this average includes the likes of J.K. Rowling. About a thousand new titles published in the UK every month are never on offer in any of the major outlets; a tiny fraction get the space in Waterstones and the airports.

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I shall now offer a personal history since we are all different and aggregates contain diversity. In order to do this, I have had to ask myself how many books I've written. The answer to this question – or should I say the problems in answering it – turns out to be revealing. Whenever I have been asked (a rare event in the circles in which I move), I have replied, with spurious vagueness, “about 17”. I must have been including translations or revisions or even substantial contributions because, when I thought about it properly, I could only specify 12. Then, the following day, I remembered another, and the day after that another, making 14 in total. You’d think a person would know how many books they’d written, but mine, if I have copies at all, languish in boxes in the cellar, rather than being displayed in my study alongside my cheap plastic statuettes won on the playing fields of Warwickshire.

The reason is that the whole business of writing books is not something I normally want to think about. The sense of disappointment and anticlimax in which it is mired presents a stark contrast to the recollections of communal triumph evoked by the statuettes.

What does it all amount to? Of my 14 books, published over 43 years, eight were singly authored. Of those eight, four were in essence academic works and four were aimed primarily at a more general market. A “launch” was held on four occasions. Five books were widely reviewed (by which I mean in more than one newspaper or magazine that you could have bought in an ordinary shop). One was translated (into Japanese). One appeared in a "bestseller" list in a broadsheet. Two led to hour-length radio programmes replicating their content, and most generated some sort of media mention in later interviews or discussions.

I don’t know the exact bottom line, but I’d guess that a rough total of royalties, including those for copying and electronic reproduction, would be about £100,000 at current prices. Such an amount is not to be sneezed at, but whether it was worth all that time and opportunity cost is another matter. Many of my books derived from something else: mainly lecture courses and collections of already published essays. That means I was usually being paid twice. But getting the book out still required considerable work on top when I could have been enjoying myself on the tennis court.

Still, I certainly had it better than today’s academics. I have seen the good times and had some of the perks. I was offered an advance in every case except one: significantly, this was the most recent. Nor, on that occasion, did I meet anyone from the publisher (although I did, admittedly, receive some flattering emails). And all I received in relation to the book’s success (or otherwise) was an incomprehensible computer printout relating to sales. All this as a septuagenarian with some reputation in the field I was publishing in.

Contrast that with my experience with my first book, as an unknown academic author in his mid-twenties. I took two copies of the manuscript down to London myself and handed them across an impressive desk to a senior executive of a large publishing company. He politely pretended some enthusiasm and handed me the largest cheque I had ever received (equivalent to £2,000 at today's prices). Within months, I received a further cheque and an envelope containing reviews, which the publisher had collected for me.

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There are many benefits to writing books that do not appear on the royalty statement, of course. Although that first one, for example, received mixed reviews, it was praised by two fairly senior figures, and this was enough to win me a Harkness Fellowship tenable at Stanford University, which turned out to be financially life-changing.

Nothing since has been quite as dramatic, but two of my books, despite not exactly being bestsellers, have still commanded very generous fees for talking about them. One even got me a job (with the National Forest Company), which turned out to be one of the most interesting things I have been involved in.

The rewards have usually been accompanied by the unexpected and paradoxical. My most widely reviewed and publicised book sold relatively few copies because the small and enthusiastic publishing company wasn’t very good at distribution. The rewards for talking on radio or television can be small or non-existent, but those for talking to some small groups can be surprisingly large. That Japanese translation was commissioned despite the book's not doing particularly well in English. And my "bestseller" had had no reviews or publicity at the time, even though it was a sequel.

Of course, I was an odd, hybrid, case because I was writing more broadly than is the norm in academia. Purely academic publishing is not about revenues, but about “reputation” – and promotion. And the Harkness fellowship notwithstanding, much of what I wrote did me no good in this respect – and some even did me harm.

But as I got older, I experienced one of the benefits that can come with age: I began to enjoy writing. When one is young one only wants to have done something – like getting a book into print. At a greater age, the pleasure lies in the actual activity.

Speaking of which, I’ve done something really silly: I have written a novel. Minimal spoilers: an intellectual almost accidentally becomes an MP, then PM, then declares himself with deep constitutional ambiguity to be Lord Protector of the realm and to be the dictator the country desperately needs. There is no soppy liberalism in the telling: it is seen entirely from the dictator’s point of view. I sent it to an agent recommended to me by a magazine I write for. The lady said she’d “love” to read it.

Several months elapsed and I telephoned again. Ah, yes. Three hours later, I got an email saying it wasn’t really for them.

I read recently of a writer finding an agent at his 94th attempt, but I'm not really up for that. Anyone want to read a novel by a 72-year-old first time novelist? Thought not!

But I’m not necessarily done with writing yet. The nice thing about it is that, unlike tennis, you can continue doing it long after your knees give out.

Agassi and Graf actually had much longer careers than was financially necessary. I also watched the whole of Andy Murray’s career and was present at his greatest triumphs. He often seemed to resent the game, but when deprived of it by injury, he bust a gut to get back on court even when he was obviously in pain. This suggests to me that there is some need and maybe even love mixed in with the hate.

I would not be surprised if Agassi and Graf now play tennis when they’re on the beach.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Anyone for tennis?

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