Monday, May 4, 2009

Financial Wizards and Fantasy Governments

Malcolm Gladwell’s just published a new article in The New Yorker on the theme of David and Goliath, which I think is worth a read. Especially so for Ireland, due to what it has to say about how you succeed when the odds are stacked against you, which no-one can deny is the case for us at the moment.

Gladwell uses two key models to illustrate his points: basketball, specifically the unlikely success of a teenage girls team in California, and the equally unexpected victories of T. E. Lawrence and his Bedouins in 1917. In both cases his examples should have lost – the basketball team were less skilled than almost all their opponents and the Bedouins were much fewer in number and untrained in comparison to the Turks. But they didn’t lose, because they did something that should be obvious, yet isn’t: they chose not to play by the accepted rules of the day. Now, that sounds both obvious and a preamble to another terrible U2 profile, but it doesn’t seem to have been so.

I’m going to use another model, writing and writers, to help me explain what I think is interesting about it. When we think of underdogs, we fundamentally misunderstand what the term means, romanticising the wrong things and downplaying more relevant information. J. K. Rowling is one of the most noted ‘overnight successes’ of the last 10 years, but every profile and interview misconstrues what she represents. The standard narrative runs thus: single mum in Edinburgh has eureka moment when she invents an orphaned wizard called Harry on a train journey, then writes the manuscript over cold tea in local coffee shop. A few foolish publishers had their Decca (the label that famously turned down The Beatles) moment, until the agent Christopher Little plucked it our of the slush pile, sold it to Bloomsbury and the rest is muti-million pound royalties and castles in Scotland.

This is fine as far as it goes, and has galvanized many hopeful writers of future bestsellers, but it’s not, strictly speaking, the whole truth. The reality for novelists, whether for adults or children, crime, fantasy, SF, literary, romance or thriller, is that there is no money in it. A typical advance for a first-time novelist is €3000. An advance is all you will have until you ‘earn out’ meaning the royalties that you have notionally accumulated rise above the advance amount. Essentially, an advance is like being handed half of your monthly salary before you do your work with the other half dependent on whether or not your job is still there four weeks later. You may be able to sell foreign rights to your work, or movie rights, but there’s no guarantee that they will be even close to that advance. And that’s it. There’s no more.

Let’s say you took a year to write your novel – it took Rowling five years to produce the first Harry Potter, during which time she plotted the series in general terms and nailed all the odd details that captured the imagination. The average novel is 75,000 words long, so you wrote just under 1500 words a week. Perfectly do-able. That’s still €57.69 per week. You couldn’t get a mortgage in a war zone for that these days. If you earn out, you may start seeing a good return. Rowling did, after all – why not you too? But if you don’t, you may not even get another chance at the windmill. The publishing world is littered with the cautionary tales of mid-list novelists whose efforts went without promotion and sank without trace. A great number of big deals were announced during the boom years, but few ever made good on their financial promise. This is largely because most of those six-figure advances were given to books that, well-written or not, were sold on the basis that they were thematically as close as possible to Rowling or other bestselling authors.

If you go to any bookshop and look at the children’s section, you will see walls of books all aiming for the Potter market. Every second children’s book grabs for that elusive magic in the hope that the author will break out and become another Rowling. But when Harry Potter came out the landscape was very different. Apart from the acknowledged classics from Dahl, Tolkien, Blume, Lewis and Blyton, most fiction aimed at Rowling’s 10-14 (the initial presumptive range) was what we might call ‘issue-based’. If you are under 40, you will remember very clearly what this means: stories about real issues (teen pregnancy, abuse, homosexuality, divorce, coping with disability, etc), all rendered so real that you could feel the driving rain and itchy polyester school uniforms through the pages.

It was a worthy idea, borne of a desire to render the reality of a world in a way that would be acceptable to children and teenagers – or the idea of them that held sway in the minds of parents and social workers of the time – and blast the stereotypes of Blyton and the like out of the water. The only problem was that children didn’t actually want to read them. If only the authors had aimed older: the confessional stories of magazines like Now and Women’s Way show there is a frighteningly huge market for misery-lit. So Harry Potter arrived in a world where his only competition was twelve-year-olds coping with their parents divorce and where no-one had any financial expectations of success. Hindsight is handy for these sorts of things, but it was a no-brainer.

But this is not the same world that the descendants of Potter arrived in. Children’s books were hot properties, expected to do big business and now there was enormous competition for the same prize. Yet both the publishers and the authors expected that the rewards would grow exponentially. They didn’t.

In Ireland – and the world – we thought we could lend and borrow ever-increasing amounts of money. We assumed that because a house on street A sold for €1 million that (a) €1 million was the base value, which could only rise and (b), if we knocked down another house on that street and built a terrace of four townhouses in its place we could make €4 million. It didn’t work that way.

This is the essential point. We allow outliers like Rowling to distort (massively) our perception of the day-to-day reality of an entire industry. The average children’s writer earns the same as they did when Harry Potter first came on the scene, which is to say: not much, But because the story of her success is so compelling, the outsize nature of it is distorted and we see it as more logical and achievable than it really is. In drawing that analogy with Ireland, we can see two things. First, that for Rowling, substitute the big winners of the boom – developers like McNamara and Dunne. They made it big, so we thought we could, Every chancer building a townhouse in their back yard or grabbing a buy-to-let in Bulgaria was traveling the same journey to fame and fortune as the Ballsbridge barons, as far as they were concerned. They were only a couple of well-timed deals away from their own glowing profiles in the Irish press. So the likelihood of success was amped up in people’s minds at the expense of understanding the irrationality of the whole enterprise.

All the emphasis was placed on the success of these guys, but little on long-term considerations. It was endemic. This is why we have a beautiful road from here to Galway, but no train line from Cork to Mayo. Or why we had a ‘socialist’ taoiseach but couldn’t manage to address the educational needs of the poorest amongst us. Like the starry-eyed writer of the 500th Harry Potter knockoff, we reached out for our philosopher’s stone (a detached Georgian with a sea view, thanks for asking) while all around us the floor collapsed.

If you want to succeed at anything, two things will be helpful: talent and luck. If you have those, life can be much easier. But there is one thing that no amount of wish-fulfilling will avoid. There is no success without hard work. It doesn’t happen. The problem with our government’s response (and indeed the banks) to the crash since the beginning is that they got lucky on the basis of hard work done by others, over many years and in many countries. They didn’t make it happen and had no idea what to do when it stopped, so we have been like the long-suffering wife of a gambling addict who swears blind that everything is fine and bills are paid, etc, until it’s far too late and now even the family silver has to be sold to pay the debts. I’m not convinced that any of the opposition currently sharpening their stand-up skills on the benches have any real strategies for the future, but at least they haven’t spent the last six months pretending that they can turn the tide with a fork.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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