Just in

Publishing is a world of its own

Sandra McDonnell is not surprised

Half an age ago, I wrote and self-published a book about an English rugby hero who lived in the early 20th Century. The experience gave me a brief and ultimately disappointing insight into the world of publishing.

I guess there’s an extent to which every industry known to man is – or regards itself – as unique.

Take commercial television, for example, in which I also once worked, on the programme-making side.

We, the programme-makers, fondly (and erroneously?) imagined that programmes was what made our world tick. Advertisements were simply the annoying interludes between our creative offerings, during which we – and the viewers – went to the bathroom and/or brewed cups of tea.

However, meeting, and then working with, our airtime sales team introduced me to an entirely different world.

To them, the reverse applied. Programmes were simply a means of filling the airtime between commercial breaks. Their justification for this outrageous calumny was purely financial. They would point out that the revenues necessary to fund all our programme budgets – and indeed our very healthy salaries, luxurious offices, cavernous studios, high-tech equipment, extensive outside broadcasts, high-profile programme-selling teams, and indeed corporate profits – came entirely (well, to the tune of about 95%) from selling airtime to advertisers.

In effect, any commercial broadcaster (e.g. ITV) consists of two contradictory and conflicting businesses. One – programme making – was a ‘money going out’ operation; the other – airtime sales – was a ‘money coming in’ equivalent. The irony was that the one could not exist without the other.

To put in another way, quality programmes – which, in general terms, require considerable investment of time and money and tend to get big ratings and win creative awards – help to maximise revenue from airtime sales. But sometimes cheap programming also attracts good ratings, which in turn attract large airtime sales revenues. Ergo (the airtime sales people sometimes argued) why were we bothering to make expensive popular programmes, when we could get similar ratings with cheap popular programmes? In ultimate terms, cheap popular programmes resulted in greater profits.

The answer was the way the industry operated.

Every so often, franchises came up for renewal. The criteria for deciding between an incumbent company and any of its challengers for the new franchise boiled down to a combination of commercial viability and quality of programming. The incumbent had a slight advantage because, for good or ill, their proposition was ‘real’ – it was there to be seen from their performance during the franchise now ending. The challengers’ bids were all on paper. Of course, if de facto the incumbent has produced rubbish programming, and/or had won no awards with it, that might count against them.  And therein lay the contradiction in the world of commercial television – it was in an incumbent’s interests to make at least some expensive quality programmes, as much for prestige reasons as anything else because, if as an alternative, they simply ‘piled ‘em high and sold ‘em cheap’, that might tend to count against them when franchise-time came around.

But I digress.

To get back to my book. When I was part-way through writing it, I began doing the rounds of sports publishers, seeking one that might take it on. Without exception, they rejected it and explained to me the same home truths.

Sports books were a small sub-set of publishing overall. To be frank, the best chance of a sports book making money was if the author had a brand, or was a celebrity. For example, anything with David Beckham’s photograph on the front cover might sell a quarter of a million, minimum. But if a sports book was standing purely on its merits, the chances of it becoming a best-seller, or even commercially viable, was small.

In which context, books on rugby were but a small sub-set of sports book. And books on rugby before the First World War were but a small sub-set of books on rugby. In other words, in commercial terms, they were practically guaranteed to fail. Mine might sell 300 to 400, tops … which made it a complete non-starter for them.

I could see where they were coming from, but at the same time I was determined to press on and complete my project. Which is why in the end I went down the self-publishing route.

As it turned out, the honours have emerged about even. On the one hand, at the last count, I have sold just under 780 copies of my book – i.e. more than any of the established publishers predicted – but, on the other, I haven’t made a single penny of profit from it. In fact, I now accept, I have no chance of ever recovering my costs.

I found the bulk of my dealings in the world of publishing unsatisfactory, not to say puzzling. Concepts such as general administrative efficiency and deadlines seemed to count for nothing. Whenever I pointed this out to those involved, I received a mildly-condescending “You don’t understand, this is the world of publishing’ type response.

This morning, on the website of the Daily Telegraph, I saw this article criticising the phenomenon of ‘celebrity’ authors and felt – from personal experience – some sympathy at its thrust.





About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts