Carl Shuker is a novelist; a good one, too, an award-winning one. His fifth novel, A Mistake, went on sale in March this year and is doing damn well, thank you very much.
How well? I tried to buy a copy at Unity Books in Wellington but I couldn’t. It had sold out.
"I know," laughs Unity’s Tilly Lloyd. "I’m really disturbed to have to tell you that."
Lloyd might be disturbed but she’s also delighted by the book’s success.
"On Saturday we sold a gazillion."
A previous version of this audio contained a factual error relating to the value of the shares in the Talbot insider trading case. The error has been corrected.
Reviewers have called A Mistake 'masterful', 'stunning' and 'a slam-dunk' and the book is on its way to best-seller status in New Zealand. Shuker should be able to enjoy the accolades and bank enough money to get cracking full-time on his next novel, right?
Wrong. Because when Tilly Lloyd says she’s sold gazillions…
"Hundreds. We’ve sold hundreds."
Carl Shuker has a day job for the Health Quality and Safety Commission. He likes it and fits in his writing where he can. Shuker says any money he makes from writing novels is a bonus.
"Yeah. It’s a really, really nice coat now and again."
So if a really good writer like Carl Shuker can’t make a living, you have to ask; who can who can afford to write a book these days?
It’s a miserable, rainy autumn day in Wellington - the kind of day you need a nice coat - but Unity Books on Willis Street is buzzing. Tilly Lloyd’s eyes behind her big black glasses crinkle with pride as she shows me around. Her customers are everywhere, gently interrogating the staff, reading in comfy chairs and, crucially, buying books.
Unity’s niche is at the literary end of the market and books published in New Zealand make up 20% of their offering. Lloyd says business has been good this financial year and Unity is doing fine.
"When these surveys come out saying that people aren’t reading fiction so much, we’re thinking 'no evidence of that here'."
If it hadn’t sold out, I could have bought Carl Shuker’s new novel here for $30. But Shuker himself is unlikely to see much of that.
Copyright Licensing New Zealand issued a report in March this year that confirmed how few authors make a living from their writing. On average, writing made up just 31% or $15,200 of their annual income. Slightly more than half relied on partner’s incomes or a separate job to make a living. 42% said their employment was unrelated to their work as a writer.
The truth is that almost any junior shop assistant earns more selling books than the person who wrote them.
That’s not to bag bookstores. Tilly Lloyd cheerfully admits she will overstock on copies of certain books because she loves them, not because she expects to sell all of them. Nor am I negging on publishers. Peter Dowling, president of PANZ, the Publishers’ Association of New Zealand, says that while it’s true authors are poorly reimbursed for their work, no one in the book industry is getting rich.
"Bookselling and publishing remains a very low margin and risky business. In many instances both writing and publishing a book becomes a labour of love."
Love. I hear that a lot while writing this story.
Fergus Barrowman runs Victoria University Publishing (VUP) in Wellington, on the hill above the university of the same name. VUP, a medium to large publishing house, produces new fiction, poetry, history and academic works and is Carl Shuker’s New Zealand publisher. Barrowman makes me a cup of tea while talking quietly but passionately about writing as a life, rather than a career.
"These days, very few writers globally can live just on book sales."
Barrowman believes instead in writers having a diverse portfolio of work, with the "production of books as the utter foundation of it."
"That’s the model for most writers," he said.
The process for this book went something like this; Carl Shuker finds the time to write a novel - somehow - his agent approaches Barrowman, who makes a calculation based on how good the work is and how many copies he thinks he can sell. An agreement is reached and an advance payment is made of around 10% of expected sales.
It costs VUP approximately $8000 to produce an initial run of 1000 copies of a short novel. For every copy sold, 40% of its price goes to the retailer, 20% to sales and distribution and 30% to the publisher. If the advance is recouped, authors receive 10% in royalties on future sales. Often the advance is not recouped and VUP absorbs the cost.
"Authors are not asked to repay advances", says Barrowman. "Unearned advances aren’t set against future books. That’s a way of the publisher ponying-up for the risk of a book."
The risk lies in the small size of the market. Just 5000 copies sold makes you a best seller in New Zealand and 3000 is the magic number for publishers. That’s when a book starts making money. Barrowman expects maybe one or two of the 30-35 titles he publishes annually will get there. He’s confident Carl Shuker’s new novel will do better than that.
So let’s do the maths. 3000 copies of A Mistake at $30 each is $90,000. Carl Shuker’s 10% of that is $9000, which is a really, really, nice coat - but it’s not a living.
"I make money from writing sporadically," says Shuker. "In your career, you might have one, two, maybe three breakthrough novels but you don’t get mortgages on the promise of those books."
"You do it for the passion and the vocation of it."
Or in other words, for the love of it.
As Peter Dowling said, books are a risky business for all involved. Fergus Barrowman describes VUP as ‘a lean, mean operation’. Their core market is about 800-1000 buyers and they run at a slight loss each year. Just five fulltime staff members huddle over heaters in VUP's office, a repurposed family home. Manuscripts on shelves occupy every wall and it's clear VUP aren't blowing authors' hard-earned money on making themselves comfy. Editor Ashleigh Young, a successful author in her own right does all her work from a desk in the corner of the kitchen.
Young's internationally-acclaimed book of essays Can You Tolerate This? was published in 2016 and to promote it, she hit the international book festival circuit, a mostly affirming experience.
"It’s one of the few places where you can circulate in the world as a writer, not as a barista or a teacher, a dog walker or whatever else you do in your life."
"There’s a sense of being part of a greater community and purpose as well, which is really lovely," she said.
But there’s also a cost; jetlag, isolation, interruptions to your writing schedule and being gently reminded of your place in the pecking order.
"You will always without fail be at the signing table next to someone very famous and the queue will snake around and around the building."
"You may have one person if you’re lucky."
Writers receiver a small fee for appearing but Young says she often ends up spending her own money to cover costs. She’s writing books for the love of it and it’s costing her money.
But Young thinks going to book festivals is worth it for the long-term development of a writers’ visibility, building a career and having a life rich in experiences. Festivals also offer an opportunity to feel some of the love out there for your work, the major currency of most writer’s careers.
So most writers make little money from writing books they love; some publishers make a loss each year to produce books they love and some booksellers stock books they can’t sell - because they love them.
But someone must be making money, or we wouldn’t have a book industry. PANZ commissions annual reports into the health of the book publishing. Peter Dowling says the direct economic contribution to GDP is $150 million but when you add in retailing, distribution, freight and payments to authors, the real figure is closer to $300 million. Surprisingly, most book buying in this country is still done in brick and mortar stores, not online and eBook purchases are only about small percentage of all sales.
The bestselling local books are what you’d expect; sports biographies and cookbooks. But every now and then there’s a circuit breaker among literary works. 20 years ago it was Elisabeth Knox’s novel The Vintner’s Luck; 60,000 copies sold here, 100,000 overseas and a movie adaptation. More recently, it was the Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; £50,000 prize money, half a million sold worldwide in its first year alone and a BBC TV series to come.
But for most writers, expectations most be more modest. So I ask again, who can afford to write a book these days?
Fergus Barrowman is certain. Lots of people can.
“People who have the energy of youth and can write on top of a fulltime job, get up at four in the morning and put in the hours. People who can live off the smell of an oily rag in the months or years it takes to write a book."
"It’s open to anyone to become a writer but it becomes much harder to use that model in midlife when people have families and responsibilities, other ties and burdens," he said.
Carl Shuker looks around him and sees exciting debut works by new young writers. But he wonders how many more books they can afford to produce.
"I get scared for them and I wonder what’s ten years in your career gonna look like?"
Ashleigh Young says with sacrifice and some luck, there are ways.
“If you’ve won a grant and you can knuckle down for six months or so, that’s often a really great way to do it."
"I think every writer needs a period of time to look forward to, where they can really stretch out and immerse themselves in their work."
So with talent, sacrifice, some time, space and a bit of love, you too could be a fiction writer and earn yourself a really, really nice coat.