From David Maughan Brown in York: Copyright

September 13th

I’ve been asked in response to my remarks about proof-reading in my last entry why I’m doing my own proof-reading, which is notoriously difficult for writers who know what they wrote and accordingly ‘read’ it as they intended to write it, even if they happen in the process to have inadvertently left out the odd punctuation mark, or little words like ‘to’ or ‘the’.  Don’t the publishers see to the proof reading? Not if one is self-publishing – on which hangs a very long tale.  I’ll try to truncate it.

In South Africa, and no doubt many other countries, aspirant authors can send manuscripts directly to publishers; in the UK, one almost invariably has to acquire a literary agent to do that on one’s behalf, as very few publishers ever invite or accept direct submissions.  There are hundreds of literary agencies, all of which have agents with more or less specialist interests.  So one has to go through the lists and try to identify likely sounding agents and then tailor one’s submissions according to their varying requirements.  Some want the first chapter; some want a fixed number of pages; some want particular fonts in particular sizes; most, but not all, want double-spacing.  They all have differing demands in relation to covering letters, plot summaries, CVs, ‘elevator pitches’ (how you would sell your novel to a stranger during the time it takes the lift to get you both to the 15th floor of a building), and so on.  So each submission has to be individually crafted.   Part of the crafting, the advice goes, is to try not to let the agents know how old you are if you are over 35-40: agents and publishers are interested in investing in careers that they can shape and make money from, not in individual novels.  I ignored that bit.  Knowing that only around three in every thousand novel manuscripts are ever taken on by agents doesn’t make for much in the way of optimism.

Once you have spent hours, sometimes days, tailoring your submission, you then send it off and have to wait a minimum of six weeks, usually much longer, to get a response, if the agents bother to respond at all.   Over 50% of the agents I submitted to didn’t – and the rejections are usually curt, formulaic ‘regrets’.  Some try to be vaguely encouraging; some are simply stupid.  On what possible basis, for example, can an agent, having read four pages of a manuscript, tell an author that his 140k-word novel is ‘too long’?   Provided it is tightly written, a novel is as long as it takes.  Ask the Booker Prize judges.

Having started out on the traditional publishing route, I decided to stick with it, in spite of having been advised from the outset to self-publish.   Being retired, my livelihood doesn’t (fortunately) depend on book sales.  Some 55 submissions to agents later, I finally hit on a very enthusiastic agent whose readers provided some helpful advice for relatively minor revisions, and I sat back to await the responses he received from publishers, in the knowledge that between 20% and 25% of novels still don’t find publishers even after being submitted by recognised agents.  To cut a very long story short, my agent was busy moving from London to Edinburgh where he was setting up his own agency, didn’t sell the manuscript to the first ten major publishers he tried, and lost interest.  So I eventually rescinded my contract with him and, deciding that life was too short to bother with trying for another agent, self-published after all.  I could have had the manuscript proof read professionally, but that would have cost an extra £600, so I did it myself. 

It is a good thing not to be reliant on book sales for income.   Amazon, which inevitably becomes the main outlet these days, creams off 65% of the cover price of paperbacks (whereas Troubador, the publisher’s bookshop, only takes 15%) and Amazon graciously allows the author roughly £1.00 per copy for an Ebook priced at £3.99.  For doing precisely what?  One might well ask.  That level of exploitation, which one only discovers once one embarks on the publishing process, pales into insignificance beside the copyright costs I have learnt about via the novel whose manuscript I am currently proof reading.   Having photocopied poems, and quoted extracts from books in critical articles, all my academic life, as permitted for educational purposes, it didn’t occur to me until it came to the publishing part of the exercise that I would need to obtain copyright for my main characters to quote a total of 13 lines from an e.e.cummings poem at the culmination of the novel.  It took two months to get a response from the US company who are the copyright holders. They eventually got back to me and agreed that it would be permissible for me to quote the lines at the cost of a mere $130.00 – $10.00 a line for 100 copies – regardless of whether they are paperback or Ebook copies.   $1.00 a copy for doing precisely nothing, beyond belatedly sending a letter quoting the price.

e.e. cummings (he didn’t do capital letters) died in 1962.   The poem quoted in the novel, ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’, was published in 1931.  The poem was originally published under a Faber and Faber imprint, but the copyright has been sold on, so neither cummings himself, nor his estate, are benefitting in any way from his creativity.  As debt can be packaged up and sold on, so, apparently, can the proceeds of creative writing. An American company stands to make £1.00 from every copy of a novel I manage to sell around the world, 90 years after cummings first published the poem.  Readers who have been paying arithmetical attention, will have noticed that this effectively wipes out any income whatever from the Amazon Ebook sales, which, given that Troubador doesn’t have a distributor in South Africa, is a large segment of my very limited potential market.  Had the copyright ‘permissions’ come through before the initial printing of the novel, I could, at least in theory, have considered altering the ending. But I like the ending (pretty obviously), as (much less obviously) do the readers I have run it past, so I wouldn’t have rewritten  it.   And now I need to watch sales of paperbacks and Ebooks alike like a hawk to ensure that I seek further permission to transfer some more money to the copyright owners’ bank account in New York at the point at which combined paperback and Ebook sales (over which I have no direct control) look like exceeding the permitted 100 copies.  It is, it bears repeating, a good thing I am not reliant on book sales for income – but spare a though for those who are.