I heard yesterday that my novel The Witness has finally earned out its advance, nearly four years after publication. Jenny Brown, my agent, tells me that a cheque for about £20 is on its way to my account. Champagne all round, then.
The economics of writing novels have never really made much sense for me. I started this book, my fourth, in around 2001, as an adult novel, and finished the first draft about three years later. It did the rounds of a dozen major fiction publishers and was turned down by all of them, though one or two said they thought it might work as a young adult title. So we took it to Macmillan Children’s Books who agreed to give it serious consideration if I was prepared to re-write it. I eventually did, once I’d realised that almost the only thing I needed do was re-cast the main character, making him an 18- rather than 45-year-old; everything else stayed much the same. It took me six months and I was rewarded by a contract with Young Picador and a £5000 advance.
The Witness was eventually published in August 2007, about a month after my father died. I think he always found it difficult to engage with this part of my life; he hardly read any fiction and the literary world was one he seemed to find hard to relate to. Yet the very last words he said to me, a couple of days before he died, were: “good luck with the book, old boy.” I would have liked him to see it in print; better still read it since there was much in it – the Highland landscape and way of life, issues of land-ownership, traditional music – that he would have enjoyed. But he’d suffered a severe stroke two years previously and wouldn’t have been able to read it, even if he had lived.
Today, it’s nearly ten years since I started work on the book. That means its earnings average £500 per annum. Its successor, The Reckoning, fares better because I wrote it much more quickly. I started work on it in January 2008 and it was published in November 2009. I also received a bigger advance, £6000. So The Reckoning has averaged slightly under £2000 a year so far, though that figure will decrease because the book isn’t yet close to earning out its advance. In total, including lending royalties but excluding appearance fees, writing fiction has brought me around £30,000 since my first novel was published in 1990. Call that £1500 per annum. Hah!
Yesterday – by coincidence, or perhaps not – just before I heard the extravagant news from Jenny, I had started work again on the last in this series of three young adult novels. I have been stalled at page 200 for over a year, mainly, though not wholly, through pressure of work. The other reason for the hiatus is that despite The Witness and The Reckoning being shortlisted for successive Royal Mail Scottish Children’s Book of the Year Awards, despite my going into something close to fifty secondary schools over a two-year period and promoting the books as hard as I possibly could, Macmillan deemed me not to be selling enough and sacked me in summer 2009. So there’s no contract and no advance for The Artefact, as it’s provisionally titled.
Why on earth am I bothering, then? It will be another six months’ hard graft, squeezed in between everything else, with the very real possibility of the book never seeing the light of day. Should a publisher materialise the advance will be nugatory, such is the current state of publishing, and I will almost certainly have to commit to a follow-up. Why bother? I’ve been asking myself this question for some months. I continued to ask it when we were at Merton last week, where I finally came to the simple conclusion that the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.