Fergus O'Connell Novelist & Writer

The Business of Being a Novelist

Recently a friend of mine asked me if I’d be giving them a free copy of my novel, The Paradise Ghetto when it comes out in August.  My reply turned out to be anything but simple.

‘Not necessarily’, it began.  And then continued like this:

As a writer I’m a company with one full time employee.  I work in one of the toughest industries there is.  

Product development times are long.  (The Paradise Ghetto took me a year and a half to write.)  During that time, the product delivers zero revenue.  It’s not like you can produce a minimal viable product, find some customers, make some money and then use it to finish the product.  You have to produce the complete, fully featured thing.  And there is no meaningful way to do market research, to find out what people might want to buy.  

There is also no guaranteed route to market.  Having spent the time developing the product you may not be able to find a publisher for it.  Even if you do, once it comes out, there are (literally) hundreds of thousands of competitors – possibly millions with the advent of self-publishing – other books that potential customers could spend their money on.  You’re no longer guaranteed to get your book onto a shelf in a bookstore, never mind promoted there.  Even if you do, books are sold to bookstores on a sale or return basis i.e. revenue you thought you had achieved suddenly becomes unachieved when the bookseller returns any unsold books.  

My company of one has only two revenue streams – (a) book sales and (b) sales of other rights – translation, internet, audio book, film, foreign etc.  The latter are far from guaranteed and some, such as film rights are incredibly difficult to achieve.  

So the earliest and, in many cases only, revenue stream is book sales.  

Commercially, every time I give away a book my company makes a loss.  It has to buy my book from the publisher and then give it away at no charge.  Any individual loss isn’t that great – TPG’s price on Amazon is only Sterling 7.99.  But make enough of these losses and my company commits the cardinal error in business –  running out of money.  

So I can / should only give away books to people who can help generate sales of my book.  These are people like literary critics in newspapers / magazines / arts shows, people who run books clubs, radio / TV personalities who might promote the book, possibly Amazon reviewers and so on.

If my friend falls into this category i.e. by giving him a free copy it will generate 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000 other sales, then I’ll send him a signed copy with a heart and a half.  But otherwise I’ll ask him to buy it and then I’ll be delighted / flattered to sign it.  

I’m thinking he’s sorry he asked!!!