Monday, 22 November 2010

The Competition

Lately, like a lot of other people, I've been thinking about taking my urge to write more seriously -- as seriously, say, as my urge to take photographs. Inevitably, this poses the question: write what, exactly, and for whom? And, how many other people are thinking the same thing?

Perhaps as a way of avoiding any actual writing, I decided to look at the figures on the latter question. It sometimes seems like every third literate person in the country is either writing, contemplating, or putting off writing a novel (first man at party, "I'm writing a novel"; second man, "Hey, neither am I"). So, what is the competition really like, statistically?

It's harder to get good figures than you might think, but estimates of how many books are published in the UK each year vary between 70,000 and 100,000, of which about one tenth would be regarded as proper "fiction". So, between 7 and 10 thousand British novels are published, every year. Say, 8500.

We can apply the sound general principle that "90% of anything is rubbish" in two directions. First, of those 8500 published novels, let's say only 850 are really worth reading. I don't know about you, but identifying, getting hold of, and then reading 15 or more brand new novels every week is a little beyond my capacity. I'm just not keeping up -- last week I only read three! And none of those was published this or even last year!! Let's face it, even if only 85 are really worth reading, I'm never going to get round to reading them all. I still haven't read any Jane Austen.*

But, going the other way, let's assume that only 10% of submitted manuscripts get published (that's probably wildly over-generous). That's 85000 completed and submitted manuscripts. We could probably go further, and say that only 10% of aspiring novelists manage to complete and submit a manuscript -- that means there are probably 850 thousand dreamers out there, who have actually put pen to paper, but so far failed to complete and submit. God knows how many there are who haven't, but they don't count.

So, good news! If we accept a literate population in the UK of 52 million (80% of 65 million) then my initial impression (that every third literate person was attempting a novel) was completely wrong: only every sixtieth literate person in the UK seriously hopes to publish a novel.

Now we've got that sorted, only one thing remains to be determined. Have I actually got anything to say? The numbers on that seem to be harder to calculate.

* Shocking, but true. Talking of Jane Austen, if you want to see how blog comments can take on a life of their own, check out these comments on a very brief post "The Austen Kerfuffle" on the Language Hat blog (no relation) 18/11/2010. I have rarely seen so many evidently intelligent people making utter arses of themselves. Brilliant!


Poetry24 said...

I've always had ideas about what to write, but I'm just too easily distracted to nail one. A friend of mine, who has just had her sixth novel published, is constantly encouraging me to carve out some serious writing time, and I am in the process right now.

After more than thirty years, flirting with 'the novel', I'm at a point where I know I will finish one. I'd have to advise anyone not to hold their breath for a sequel, though.

As for the stats, I never think about them. In so many ways, they're irrelevant. Keith Waterhouse once told me, "You write the book, you send it on its way, and hope that one of them (we were talking publishers) will take it – that's how it's done, and I don't know of any other way. And if they won't take it, you write another. Hard life, isn't it?" As far as I can see, nothing has changed.

Mike C. said...

Well, lots of luck, Martin, hope you manage to finish something -- an achievement in itself.

Have to disagree about the stats, though -- "writers without readers" really is the sound of one hand clapping... Easy for Keith Waterhouse to talk. And all the people who peddle that "follow your dream" BS should be drownded in a vat of kittens.

If you get yourself published -- self-publication doesn't count! -- I guarantee to buy two copies.


Poetry24 said...

If I get published, you can have two a gift!

Never bought into that 'follow your dream' thing. There's a book inside most of us, like wisdom teeth. In most cases, the teeth are far easier to extract.

A vat of kittens? A horrible way to go.

Jack said...


Judging by the blog you should be considering writing. And as for the statistics, the same ones can be applied to photography (What percentage take photos, show photo, sell photos) and that hasn't stopped you.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Jack -- to be honest, I've been considering writing since I was 16, that's 40 years of consideration. I'm quite good at it now (considering, that is). The problem, as for everyone, is cranking that into full-on production mode, where every day adds 1000 words to the pile...

The photography is different, in that I can't help myself. It just happens. I am a "photographer" in a much more profound sense than I am a "writer". But who knows? Marina Lewycka ("A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian", published at age 58 -- "Humorous but vindictive" as one of the Amazon reviewers says) is a model for us all!.


Martyn Cornell said...

I knew someone who interviewed Keith Waterhouse for a magazine feature, back in the days of typewriters: she visited him around lunchtime in his study, and said the wastebin was flowing over onto the floor with crumpled-up pieces of paper, as one typed paragraph after another had been discarded as not good enough. It's the knowing when it's not good enough that separates the best writers from the rest.

Jane Austen: she's a bit like JS Bach, or, perhaps more accurately, Django Reinhardt, the form is almost trite (cantatas, popular song, romantic fiction) but the attraction is in the perfection of the performance. Don't go to Austen, or Django, for heart-tearing emotion, but if you want to see a maestro in action, then read Pride and Prejudice. Or listen to Pêche à la mouche.

Mike C. said...


I am not quite telling the truth when I say I have read no Jane Austen novels -- it would be more accurate to say that I have never attempted to read more than two (can't remember which) and failed to finish either, by some margin.

As I have blogged before, I have a problem with "historical" fiction, as I can't get the nuances (e.g. of social class and aspiration), so important in a writer like Austen. I can't even properly imagine the costumes -- my readings tend to be like "modern dress" Shakespeare...

My problem, not Austen's or her admirers', of course. Maybe it's time to try again.


Dave Leeke said...

No, leave it Mike - life's too short.

And there's always the decorating . . .

Mike C. said...

So true, Dave... That's the kind of advice I need! Plenty of other people can be reading Jane Austen this evening, but only I can paint the bathroom ceiling!

Mind, funny how that thought has me half reaching for Pride & Prejudice... Nah, as you say, life is too short.


Martyn Cornell said...

Personally I've never been able to finish anything by Thomas Hardy: Mr Dull.

Mike C. said...


I am an all-comers champion at "Humilation" (the game in David Lodge's "Changing Places"), simply because -- despite holding a degree in English from a decent university -- I have read no 19th c. fiction to speak of. I have not read more than one novel each by Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, any Bronte(s), Austen, etc., and you can add to that Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Henry James, Melville, Flaubert, Zola...

Somehow, I manage to pass myself off as well read -- probably because I focused entirely on poetry and 20th c. and contemporary fiction.

As Dave says, life is too short to fill in the gaps now...