Publish and be Damned...
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
...OR Damned if you do, Damned if you don't (What Publishers Want from Writers)
I was present recently at a writer’s workshop where one of the speakers, a publisher from a small, reputable, New Zealand publishing house, spoke on the subject of what Publishers want from writers. It turned out the talk focused on what Publishers don’t want from writers: Don’t expect to hear back if you send us a letter pitching your work; don’t send in an unsolicited manuscript; don’t follow up with us by phone, email or text. If you’re lucky enough for your work to be picked up by us, then just sign the contract. Further contact or discussion is unnecessary. If we require more material or amendments, you will be contacted, in which case produce this work in a timeframe to suit the publisher. In essence the message was ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” It was a Walking with Dinosaurs moment. Who knew that sixteen years into the 21st Century there were still businesses operating with this creakingly antiquated mind-set? I was in equal parts fascinated, amused and appalled by the implied casual disdain for the writer whose productivity underpins the publisher’s business. It’s not rocket science to understand that with no writers, there would be no publishers. The arrangement between these two is, at its best, symbiotic. But the original question this speaker set out to address tugged at a distant memory.
I was young when I read John Fowles’ The Magus, but a quote he used in the text of that novel resonated. “I didn’t know at that time Emily Dickinson’s great definition, her 'Publication is not the business of poets.’” You may agree or disagree with Ms Dickinson’s austere statement regarding the role of a poet, but a hundred years later, and sixteen years into our current century, the relationship between creative writer, publisher and the reader has changed irrevocably. Today, publication is very much the business of a working writer, whether using a conventional publishing house or working as a self-published ‘Indie’ author. Until five years or so ago, the only route by which a writer could reach their readers led through the doors of a publishing house. Writers sold the rights to their manuscript and the publisher took care of the process that turned that script into a book available for sale to the public. The stringent competition for acceptance by a publisher had a self-regulating effect. Only the most determined writer persisted in the attempt to be published, and this in turn had the pleasing result of raising the quality of published work. Publishers could, and did, claim to be ‘gatekeepers’ for quality within the industry and their choices determined many a writer’s future. Publishers however are in business and while their decision to accept or reject a manuscript might be a reflection of the work’s quality; it was just as likely dependent on whether it met the production and marketing plans for the year. Many articles and Blogs deal with the effect digital technology has had on the business of publishing, the quality of work, and the unprecedented volume of writing flooding cyber space. Love it or hate it, by allowing anyone to upload a file to Kindle Direct Publishing and launch it on the market, Amazon has changed the balance of power between publisher and writer. The writer now has instant access to readers, and it is reader choices, rather than publisher decisions, which determine a book’s success. Publishers are not, and never have been, the end market for a writer’s book; the reader is. Authors have been slow to grasp this truth, accustomed as they have been to the notion that first and foremost they have to please a publisher. Writers of the digital age though, newly come to the industry, have a very different view of what they want from a publishing house. If we strip away the halo of creative mystique, a writer is essentially the producer of a primary product. We can use the analogy of a farmer whose job is to create a raw product, of the highest possible quality, which meets current market requirements. The raw product however, be it a tanker of milk, or a bale of shorn wool, isn’t worth much until processed and converted into the milk powder, carpet, or merino jumper that a consumer wants to buy. The business of processing adds commercial value to raw primary produce. So, let’s flip the original question and ask, “What does a Writer want from a Publisher?” the answer is that the writer needs a process that adds value to their manuscript and results in a book accessible to a potential reader. Self-publishing has provided new opportunities for writers to get their works in front of readers, but it doesn’t take long for a newbie author to realise that the services traditionally available from a publisher will still be required before this manuscript can be launched. Fortunately, there are a large number of professionally skilled people available for contracted work, and using their skills, it is perfectly possible to put together a creditable looking book and launch it as an eBook on Kindle or Smashwords. Similarly, companies like Createspace and Lulu enable a writer to create ‘print on demand’ paperback versions of their works. There are arguments which claim, with some justification, that the quality of these Indie books isn’t quite up to that a large publishing house could achieve. It is also true the majority of readers don’t care, as long as the story is compelling; the spelling and grammar correct, and the cover attractive. Paperbacks are not high value consumer items, and there are many writers who have gone down this track and done very well by it. So far, so good. But now the indie writer faces the biggest hurdle of all. For a writer, in possession of a box full of self-published paperbacks, the problem is how to sell and distribute them. The eBook market looks after itself through Kindle and Smashwords. Readers buy eBooks in an international market, and I’ve found my own books being read in Brazil, Mexico, India and Germany as well as the obvious US, UK and Australian markets. The issue facing indie writers is the distribution of their hard copy books. Privately owned local bookshops are generous in their support of local writers, but they only represent a fraction of the market. To be successful and financially viable, a writer has to crack the large book retailers, who will only deal with established publishers. To get your novel on the shelves of an airport bookstore, (and don’t we all dream of that?) you need to be published by one of the big names in publishing. Which brings us back to our question. What do writers chiefly need from publishers? They need access to distribution channels. Yes, there are many other benefits a good publisher can add to enhance a writer’s work, but their single greatest use to a working writer is they have access to parts of the market place currently off limits to indie publishers. Clearly there are two solutions to this problem.
Some enterprising person will set up a company specifically targeted at getting indie publishers into mainstream bookstores. I am aware of small organisations attempting this, but really writers need a company with sufficient organisational clout to achieve success in this field.
Fall back on the traditional model of working with an established publisher, but with the clear understanding by both parties that the relationship is that of equals.
A good publisher/author relationship, with mutual benefits for both parties, will always have a place. Publishers, by dint of experience and available resources, can offer writers the most efficient way of ‘adding value’ to their work. Authors, in general, want to spend their time writing. Self-publishing and promotion involves investing time and effort in tasks peripheral to the core activity of being a writer. On that basis, a contract with a reputable publishing house can be very attractive, as long as the parameters of that contract are transparent and work as much in the writer’s favour as in that of the publishers. Publishers are slow to admit it, but the new market model has given them business opportunities as well. There will always be a demand for cooking and gardening books and publishers know this. It’s a much harder decision to invest money in a new fiction author, because there is no certainty the published work will break even, let alone return a profit. In recent years we have seen several instances of indie authors being picked up by mainstream publishers. The benefits to the publisher are obvious. Rather than taking a punt on an unknown author or genre, they can choose writers who have demonstrated success in the market place with no upfront risk or cost to the publisher. Until E.L.James showed that readers were ready for ‘mummy porn’ and earned herself a fortune publishing the Shades of Grey eBooks, no respectable, serious minded publisher would have considered publishing erotica. It was eBook readers who proved there was a vast, untapped market for this material, and it became a worldwide phenomenon. Hugh Howey, Amazon’s poster boy for digital publication, has followed a similar trajectory. Like a traditional marriage, the well-established relationship between writer and publisher may still exist as an ideal, but where that is unattainable, writers in this post-Amazon digital age at least now have alternatives which are viable and professionally respectable. At a push, writers can manage without publishers. It’s much harder to see how publishing companies can manage without writers.