Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Publishers playing the Game of Thrones - Katherine Roberts


Yes, I know I'm about five years behind everyone else, but I've finally discovered the most addictive fantasy series to hit our screens this century - namely Game of Thrones, based on George R R Martin's series of best-selling fantasy novels "A Song of Ice and Fire".

Briefly, for those of you who haven't come across this series yet, there is a scary looking THRONE made from the swords of enemies of the state, which powerful families known as HOUSES are fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of sitting on to become supreme ruler of a fantasy kingdom named WESTEROS. Needless to say, those who succeed don't tend to stay sitting there very long, which makes me wonder why they are all fighting so hard to sit there in the first place? Though I must admit the throne room with its stained glass windows is magnificent, and there must be a certain satisfaction in being able to order your fiercest rivals' heads sliced from their bodies so you can add their swords to the throne at your back and breathe a little easier for... oh, about an episode or two, before someone turns the beer-stained tables and does the same to you.

There are seven seasons out already, with a final eighth season on its way next year, so I've still got some catching up to do... and for those fantasy-allergic people who are about to leave before the wizards arrive, did I mention the SEX? The DVDs are certificate 18, so this is not your typical elf-and-amusing-dwarf fantasy for the kids with wizards and dragons. There is an elvish-style family, certainly (House Targaryen), a dwarf (the far from funny Tyrion Lannister), and even a dragon or two, but so far little magic of the wand-waving variety... who needs wizards when you can have sex any way you want it? This all helps to make the Kingdom of Westeros a frighteningly real place, and while several of the families have children with major parts, you can expect them to get hurt in the same way as the adult characters. So don't let your nine-year-old watch it before bed, okay?

The books - for those who prefer words.

Which brings me to the 'publishing' part. Not for nothing do we call the bigger publishers PUBLISHING HOUSES. With all the takeovers going on recently apparently there are now only five or six... seven if you count Amazon. These are usually referred to in the business as "the Big Six". There are also many smaller independents, like Templar Books (now swallowed up by Bonnier), who published my Game of Thrones for 9 year olds about King Arthur's daughter as The Pendragon Legacy quartet between 2012 and 2014, just before they stopped doing fiction. Another UK independent Greystones Press is publishing my novel about the young Genghis Khan Bone Music in April 2018. And, of course, many authors now have their own publishing arms, doing it for themselves.

As far as the exalted Throne of Publishos goes, however, these smaller guys (and gals) can pretty much forget it. If they're lucky, they will be able to publish whatever they want in its shadow, or out in the misty isles for a while, and nobody will see them as enough of a rival to think it worth slicing their heads from their bodies. But make no mistake, the Big Six are still at it tooth and nail, all seeking to seat one of their authors on that powerful throne at the expense of their rivals.

The Iron Throne of Westeros

And what does this fantastic Throne of Publishos look like? It's probably not made of swords, like the Iron Throne of Westeros, because not all best-selling books are fantasy or historical. Is it made from the pulped books of their enemies? Maybe so... if you see other people's books as competition, which publishers do, of course. The only exception being books on their own list, in which case other writers published by that House are expected to support their publisher's chosen candidate for the throne (probably the book/author they have paid the most for and need to sell in the biggest quantities). In return, the writer finds shelter at the House in the form of a publishing contract and is, in the best cases, made to feel part of the family, sharing in the success of the other books on their list - maybe in the form of an bigger advance for their next book, paid for by the profits made from their current reigning writer. I think the Throne of Publishos is more likely to be made of the skulls of dead authors, or perhaps their twisted literary souls, wrenched from the husks of their bodies, which continue in the real world as half-alive zombies with a job that pays the bills, no longer even dreaming about sitting on that Throne, and maybe even secretly relieved to stop playing the Game.

The truth is that publishing and writing are two very different games. Back in the good old days, authors used to concentrate on the writing and leave the Game up to their publishers, who were on the whole pretty good at it, producing a chain of bestselling authors to sit on the Throne attended by a whole string of fairly happy midlist authors who felt protected and supported by them. Now authors need to play the Game too if they want to survive in the cut-throat world of publishing, and mostly they just get hurt. Rather than an experienced writer keeping the Throne warm for the length of their career and kindly handing it over to a new young debut when the time is right, we have an author-boom generation of new (not necessarily young, though it clearly helps) debuts all desperate to sit there - if only for a book or two.

For, despite all the doom and gloom about the end of publishing as we know it, there is still very much a Throne of Publishos, and a lot of celebrities seem to sit on it these days - presumably in a kind of second-throne way, since they also have other thrones elsewhere to keep warm so they can return there when their stint ruling Publishos is over. Until JK Rowling, I am not sure many children's authors actually sat on this throne, but they are obviously expected to do so now, which has snatched the comfortable world of children's books off its misty isle and thrown some of us to the sharks on the way. In future, maybe publishers will find a way to produce best-selling books by committee, or the press of a key, and find a way to sit on the throne themselves, leaving authors well out of the game? Or maybe every author will become their own publisher and start playing the Game armed with their publishers' old weapons, seeing other authors as rivals and slicing heads from bodies, until they are exhausted and blood-spattered and the only author left in the world? That would be a very lonely King or Queen of Publishos.

I don't know how the Game of Thrones ends - I am currently working my way through the boxed sets, so no spoilers, please! But I have a feeling it won't end well, at least not for most of the major characters. In this kind of game, where competition kills off the strongest rivals like gladiators slaughtering each other in the arena of Ancient Rome, nobody is ever happy or fulfilled except maybe the spectators who bet on the winning authors, so perhaps it's time to change the rules?

New rules for the Game of Publishos:

* Think not of the latest celebrity title as competition, but a book that can help you see what is good and bad about your own work.
* Think not of big publishers as the enemy, but as Houses struggling to survive in a hostile world, where you might find shelter and sustenance if you are willing to offer them your loyalty for a while.
* Think not of the Throne of Publishos as a place you want to sit at any cost, but as an uncomfortable over-sized chair to avoid being anywhere near at all costs.
* Think not of Amazon as an evil dragon to be slain, but as a powerful creature that you can ride if you want to fly.
* Think not of your fellow author as a rival, but as a friend or mentor who can help you on your own publishing journey.

And never let those who play the Game by their own rules tell you otherwise.

*
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.
Her Pendragon Legacy series about King Arthur's daughter is published by Templar Books in the UK and Hachette in France.




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5 comments:

Jan Needle said...

I'm still a Game of Thrones virgin, but I like the sound of it. An old friend of mine was a major character some series ago, then got the chop. But his son went for an audition, and is now a long-running character in his own right, and multo rich! (Altho he knows the blade is always hovering...)

But please, Katherine, explain these two sentences:

who needs wizards when you can have sex any way you want it? This all helps to make the Kingdom of Westeros a frighteningly real place,

Coffee, anyone? Your real place or mine...

Great piece, thanks.

Bill Kirton said...

A brilliant, if scary, analysis of how things are at the moment. Thanks both for the enlightenment and for saving me having to watch Game of Thrones.

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Katherine. I haven't seen the series and feel no need to watch it since the Publisho part of your fright fest strikes such a visceral chord.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ha Jan! Now you mention it, I don't think I've seen any of the Westeros characters drinking coffee...

And merely days after writing "the Big Six" (publishers, people, don't let your imagination run away with you), I took part in a panel alongside an editor from HarperCollins, who referred to "the Big Four" - so it seems we are heading even more in the direction of a single Throne of Publishos?

Umberto Tosi said...

Uneasy lie the heads that wear the crowns, you say? Wonderful! I enjoyed your analogies thoroughly! I've worked with all of these scheming characters - Big Six, indies, packagers, and online. Your advice is well taken all around. Me? I'm with Daenerys Targaryen, riding the 'Amazon dragon' thank you.