Garth Nix

Books, bookselling, publishing and writing are all close to my heart and pretty much always have been. My life is bound up with books. Not only have I been writing professionally for more than three decades I have in parallel to my writing career also worked as a bookseller, a book sales representative, a book publicist, a book editor and as a literary agent. I am also married to a publisher (not of my own books I hasten to add) and so I live and work and breathe books and the book business.

At this point in my writing career, I am rather surprised to discover that I have written a lot of books. These include The Ragwitch, Sabriel, Shade's Children, the six books of The Seventh Tower series, Lirael and Abhorsen, the seven books of The Keys to the Kingdom series, A Confusion of Princes, Newt's Emerald and the forthcoming Clariel. I've also co-written four books in the Troubletwisters series with my friend Sean Williams. And more than 50 short stories of mine have appeared in various publications.

Rather amazingly, more than five million copies of my books have been sold worldwide, and my books have been translated into 40 languages.

I say amazingly because I was anything but an overnight success, and I constantly look back and wonder how I got where I am today. My first novel, The Ragwitch, not only took more than five years to write, it also didn't sell particularly well and was out of print a year after its first publication in Australia. The book I wrote after The Ragwitch was never published, though I did take part of it and repurpose it as Newt's Emerald much later on. When Sabriel first came out in 1995 it was critically well received but it was not an immediate success. However it just kept on going and thanks to word of mouth from readers, it has sold more and more every year.

Given my attempt to work in every possible job in publishing and my experience as a writer over the last twenty years you might think that I could have something interesting to say about the book business. We shall see.

My first job in the book trade (though I had previously worked for the government and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve) came immediately after I left university. I became a junior bookseller, working in Margaret and Teki Dalton's Dalton's Bookshop in Canberra. I didn't know then how fortunate I was to be working in a very fine bookstore, or that I was laying a good foundation for a publishing career, but such proved to be the case. Dalton's was run very well, had a great breadth and depth of stock (including a complete Penguin bookshop, which back then was a sea of orange spines) and they trained their staff well.

Dalton's was a fun place to work. Badly paid, of course, like all bookselling jobs, the margins are very slight in nearly all parts of the book business. But it had a spiral staircase we could slide down and land in front of customers to ask "Can I help you?" and the staff could buy books on account at a healthy discount.

Looking back, I now realise that many of the things I have learned about books and the book business come from that time in the bookstore. In fact, I am firmly of the opinion that everyone in publishing should spend some time — several months at least — working in a bookstore. In fact, if I was a Rupert Murdoch-style tycoon I would make my publishing companies set up a head office model bookstore, managed by professional booksellers, and then have every one of the publishing staff rotate through it. I would also expect it to make a profit on the same terms the publisher offered its ordinary retail clients.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Working in the bookshop laid the foundation of much of my book business knowledge, but every job along the way has added to it.

As a sales representative for a small publisher, I learned how hard it is to get books into bookstores in the first place. I also learned that if you drive a company van that has no oil in the engine it will blow up halfway between Sydney and the back of beyond with the full load of books needed for a local author's launch that evening.

As a publicist I learned that even if the sales representative who was meant to deliver the books to an author's launch fails to do so because their van has blown up, it will still be your fault. Everything will be your fault. I also learned how books got to be featured on television or radio, connecting back to something I'd learned as a bookseller, that if a book or an author gets a big mention in a television or radio show then lots of people will ask for it in the next 24 hours but if you don't have it then there will be no interest in it later. This can be extrapolated now to the availability of ebooks: if there is a spike in online interest, it has to be easy to buy the electronic version of that book. Readers often won't wait for the paper version, even if it is only 2 days away. Attention spans have grown shorter and immediate gratification of curiosity or interest has got stronger.

As an editor, I learned about both the physical production of books, in terms of their design, typesetting and printing; and also about the editorial production of the actual text and other contents. I found out what it was like to work with authors on their text and how quite often the least talented writers were the most precious (though not always). I also discovered that not only did I like going through the unsolicited manuscripts — rudely termed the slush pile — I also had a nose for choosing publishable work.

After I left my last editorial job I also discovered not just how very badly paid most book industry jobs are (I already knew that) but how this is not known in the rest of the business world. At that point I had my first novel out, The Ragwitch, but as it had earned the princely sum of about $3000 over three years, I still badly needed a day job. I was tired of being poor, so I thought I would try and get a better-paying job out of publishing.

One of the ads I answered was for a PR and marketing consultant, the major requirements being an understanding of technology, the ability to write about it and a capacity to talk to clients. I figured that I could do that and after writing some samples on the spot, the owner of the consultancy who was interviewing me agreed. Then the thorny subject of salary arose. He became a little hesitant. I was a published author, a novelist who'd been a senior editor with a major multinational publisher. The consultancy was fairly new, it only had a few clients. He could only offer me a paltry beginning salary, he said, before naming a figure that was just shy of double what I'd been paid as an editor.

I took the job, and I ended up working as a PR and marketing consultant to a wide range of IT companies, first for that consultancy and then in my own company, with two partners. That lasted for about five years, and I learned another important lesson. I didn't love that industry. I didn't love what we were selling or helping to sell, and the much greater amounts of money did not make up for being away from books. Also they didn't pay all that money for anything less than 24 hour, seven day a week availability, which rather cut into my writing time.

So I left to become a full-time writer and then when that proved to be a little precarious – more emotionally than financially -- I began to work as a part-time literary agent with Curtis Brown Australia. I loved working as an agent. It had elements of all my favourite book industry jobs. I got to read manuscripts and find the gems amongst the torrent of submissions . Sometimes I did a little editorial work on them. I worked with authors. I sold the manuscripts to publishers (and I like selling books, at any stage of their existence). I was involved in editorial, marketing and sales decisions, when my clients needed me to be involved.

But eventually I had to make a choice between agenting and writing, when the success of my books and the promotional requirements of American and British publishers meant that I couldn't continue as an agent. Agents need to be available to their clients, to explain the mysteries of royalty statements and bookselling terms, to read their work in progress, to strike when the iron is hot on a new book, or work out how to salvage a career when the books come streaming back to the warehouse. I couldn't be available when I was a guest at the Edinburgh Festival or on tour in San Francisco, and I suspect my clients, mature, patient and reasonable as they all were did not feel it was right for me to be off promoting my own books instead of theirs. I agreed with them. But it remains my favourite job in publishing.

Though I am a full-time writer and have been since 2001, much of what I do is not writing. In any given year, I will probably be on tour in the USA for two to three weeks and in the UK for a similar time. I will do shorter tours or one-off book festivals in Australia and here in New Zealand. Typically I think at least two months of my year is spent talking to people about my books rather than actually writing them. I will attend three or four festivals or conferences in places like Edinburgh or Vancouver or Adelaide or Chicago; I will do talks and signings in possibly 100 bookstores in several different countries; and as part of those tours, will visit numerous schools or libraries, and will be interviewed many times for different media. Incidentally the most insightful television interview I have ever experienced was done in Dublin for Irish television by two sock puppets.

This promotional schedule is by no means a lot compared to some authors. I have met writers on the road, who have been in constant motion for a year or more. They might be guests of fifty festivals in a dozen countries and do thousands of bookstore events, do hundreds of interviews and so on. Basically it seems that the more books you sell, the greater the demand for promotional work to help sell even more books, the cycle constantly increasing.

I am grateful for the attention, because it results in attention for the books, and I want them to have the best possible chance to get into the hands of readers. Once they are read, anything can happen, for good or ill.

I mention this promotional wandering about the globe because it has given me an additional perspective on the book trade, in addition to my own prior experience in the Australian business, an opportunity to see what is going on in the book trade in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the UK.

And now at last, I've got up to something I promised right at the beginning. From a list of potentially hundreds of things that I probably should have learned from my time as a bookseller, sales representative, publicist, editor, agent and author, I have distilled just five items of book trade wisdom. At least I hope that's what they are.

• It doesn't matter whether a book's cover is "bad" or "good" in artistic terms, as long as it is effective and accurately conveys the type and tone of the book.

• Publishing and bookselling is at its heart about the transfer of enthusiasm for a book. At every stage of a book's progress from manuscript to a finished book in the hands of a reader and then another reader and another reader and so on, it is people's enthusiasm that get it there. Agents transmit their enthusiasm to acquiring editors or publishers, who transmit it throughout their company, to the sales and marketing people who transmit it to the booksellers, who transmit it to their customers, who become readers and transmit it to other readers and so on. The more enthusiasm, the farther the book will go, at every stage of its life. Where does that enthusiasm come from? Bearing in mind that only the genuine article will work at every stage, it comes from a love of that particular book. Fortunately it is a love that does not require monobibliogamy (for want of a better term). We are allowed to love and be enthusiastic about many books.

• In fiction, a great story badly told can be a bestseller. A bad story brilliantly told probably won't be. The best of all worlds is a great story brilliantly told, but sadly the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird are all too rare.

• The most successful books are those that attract not just regular readers, but also occasional readers and the most successful of all will also bring in those who are usually not readers at all.

• And finally, whether writing or speaking, know when to stop.

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