Once a King or Queen of Narnia... - Katherine Roberts

It seems professional authors are an increasingly endangered species these days. The latest ALCS survey shows average incomes down by 42% in real terms since the first ALCS earnings survey in 2005. A writing income is never steady, which means these surveys can only provide a snapshot of authors' earnings, and for that reason I tend not to do them. It's like betting on the horses... you lose a bit, then you lose a bit more, and - goddammit - you lose again, and then you might win big-time, which makes it all worthwhile. Or I imagine it does. I don't squander my royalties on the horses these days (I stopped after my big win at Chepstow on a 40-1 long shot at £1 each way - no point tempting fate.)

Assuming you're all back by now from that rather depressing earnings survey, let's forget about money for a few paragraphs, shall we? Let's pretend we are all living in Elfland, or whatever fantasy world takes your fancy, where all authors - no matter how humble or how old - are paid a generous stipend by the elves, which enables them (the authors) to pay their bills, keep a roof over their heads, and feed themselves. Or they can eat elf-food, if they fancy staying forever.

Ok, so now we are in Elfland where we have no financial worries at all, and it's actually a wonderful time to be a writer. Let me tell you why.

Back in 2005, authors had very few options other than to write a book or a play or whatever, send it off to a publisher or agent, and cross their fingers for a publishing deal. Hopefully a good deal, but - let's face it - any deal was better than no deal. After that, the publisher worked their magic, and bookshops (remember those?) stocked the books and sold them, and a few months after that the royalties poured in... okay, more likely trickled in... but by then the author had been given an advance, maybe even a generous one, that enabled them to survive while writing the next book in their contract. I enjoyed those days, even if at times I felt rather like a kid being given treats in return for good work.

The 2005 method obviously still works for some, even with a 42% decline in income (sorry, not supposed to mention money in Elfland!). Sadly, that's not me at the moment. Yet, creatively, I feel liberated. Gaps in contracts mean the freedom to experiment, and I have experimented quite a bit over the past seven years - mostly with my backlist titles.

First they became ebooks (Kindle and then epub), next print-on-demand paperbacks, which look much like normal paperbacks these days, if not quite as cheap as the high-discount books out there. I've experimented with repackaging my projects, using various cover designs. Canva is a great tool for this if you're new to design, and several of us have written posts about cover design on this blog.

I've experimented with freebies to give readers who might not have come across my books a chance to sample my work... this was at its most effective in the early days, when there were fewer freebies around. Now it seems everyone is doing them, so you need to 'sell' your freebie. I wrote a free short story for my publisher Templar to help sell my Pendragon Legacy series about King Arthur's daughter. Templar sadly no longer publishes fiction, but my series is still in print, and so the free ebook is still available:

free for Kindle (age 8-11).

For older readers, I've republished one of my earliest short stories about Queen Boudicca's daughters as a freebie for epub readers (Amazon still has it at 99p for Kindle, but they might price match one day if you ask nicely.)

free for epub (Age 13+).

Most recently, I've repackaged the first three Hoofprints (chapters) of my epic novel I AM THE GREAT HORSE about Alexander the Great as a free ebook to give readers a taste of the full book.

free epub (age 10+)

Why not do an entire book indie? In 2016, I finally wrote the long-awaited sequel to my second book SPELLFALL, and self-published it as both ebook and print on demand paperback (this one's not free). It's out there if you want it, though I had no budget for publicity so not many people know about it yet. I'm also thinking of changing the rather girly cover, since the Earthaven books are enjoyed by both boys and girls.

sequel to Spellfall (age 10+)

Despite having limited video technology, I've even dabbled with book trailers. I made this one for the Pendragon Legacy using some video I shot walking along the local beach one day. My budget would not stretch to fairy horses and actors, so I used some photos I took at Caerleon while on a publicity tour for the books, together with parts of a collage I created in a session run by my friend Jenny Alexander. (If you live in Cornwall and can get along to one of her collage workshops, they are highly recommended!)

There are many other things attached to our creative content, for which publishers like to contract rights in the hope of selling these alongside the actual books. Audiobooks, for instance, have become quite hot recently. My books were published a bit too early to catch the audio wave, and I do not currently have an agent to sell my audio rights, but there are options out there for authors willing, and in a position to, take matters into their own hands (check your contracts). Amazon's ACX, for one... where you can make a royalty deal with a narrator, rather than pay upfront for the recording. Or Findaway Voices, which Draft2Digital have a deal with at the moment. I am dying to know what an audiobook of I AM THE GREAT HORSE might sound like! I'll need a strong male voice to be Bucephalas... any deep-voiced narrator out there fancy being an alpha stallion, the warhorse of Alexander the Great???

Moving on, there are many other exciting avenues to explore. Those elusive TV and movie deals, for example... so far, no such options have been taken up in any of my books, which means I still hold these rights. There was a small amount of interest in SONG QUEST (my award-winning debut) from Disney in the early years of its publication, but that was a flight of fancy too far even for Elfland. Since then, I have written other books and series that might work better for the screen. After attending one of Kelly McCain's inspiring workshops, I have started to turn my King Arthur's daughter books into a screenplay... think Game of Thrones for a younger audience, and you're halfway there. I'm not nearly halfway there yet, being a total novice, but it's a fascinating process - if nothing else, viewing my work as a screenplay might feed back into my writing, so that my next project might hook a movie deal at the outset, and then my next publisher will be pleased and maybe I won't have to do all the work myself.

Of course, with no contracts, I don't actually have to do any of these extra things. But strangely they don't feel like work. Not really. After all, work brings in an income, and all this extra stuff brings... well, just small amounts at present, maybe £6,000 or so spread over the seven years I've been experimenting, although I have hopes of scaling things up one day, in the same way I used to write short stories for small amounts in the hope of netting a book deal one day. Back then, you see, writing a novel did not feel like work...which brings me back to why this is a wonderful time to be a writer.

There are a lot of tools out there which, if we are prepared to put in a bit of time and energy, might help us get our creations out to our fans - possibly in a different format than we originally imagined. And even if this fantasy playtime in Elfland earns us nothing at all, some of these skills might one day be transferable to some other career that will not suffer from a 42% decline in income before we retire.

For now, though, I am still calling myself an author. As a wise author-friend reminded me at our summer retreat this year:

"Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia."


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers.

Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk


Umberto Tosi said…
A fine assessment, Katherine, and I salute your ingenuity as well as persistence and talent. 42 percent is a disastrous drop in income over so short a time, and normally would signal the collapse of a market, but where some doors close, others open, if you look for them. Thanks for your encouraging and informative post.
Jenny Alexander said…
Great post, Katherine - I really enjoyed it. And thank-you for the mention!
Damian Harvey said…
Just echoing Jenny here Katherine... a great post and good to read. Lots of ideas there too.

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