Big Publishing and Me (15): Reflections, reflections

strange-death-cover-350pxI’m Harry Bingham. I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest.

These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here.

“Exceptional . . . absorbing . . . Fiona’s narrative sears the page”– Kirkus Reviews

[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
Time to conclude.

You’ll have your own views, thoughts and reflections, but here are some of mine – split over two blog posts, because otherwise this post would be cumbersomely long.

Cheating authors is bad
Let’s start with the obvious. HarperCollins should not have acquired a novel from me on the basis of (a) an advance and (b) an undertaking as to future marketing support, if they had no firm intention of delivering (b). That’s not commerce; it’s theft. I don’t mean that their behaviour falls under some legal definition of theft, but that it is its moral equivalent. It’s cheating. It’s fraud. It’s totally wrong.

The same thing when Fourth Estate asked me to write one book, allowed me to spend three long months writing it, then changed their mind without offering compensation for my wasted time. They would never treat their employees like that. What on earth makes them believe it’s OK to treat their authors that way? It’s not OK. It’s like theft, except they didn’t even end up with anything worth having. Dumb theft.

In the first case – the marketing commitments that weren’t – I should be clear that all big British publishers used to do the same thing. They realised the practice was inappropriate and they stopped doing it. So some credit to them for that.

In the second instance: well, the issue is more tricky. Fourth Estate is, as I hope I’ve said, a very good imprint, a leader in its niche. So the fact that their attention to an author was sometimes shoddy should really just remind us that publishers, too often, forget to think hard enough about the author’s interests, the author’s issues, the author’s financial position . . . an issue big enough that it deserves a header of its own.

Publishing is a competitive industry . . . except where it comes to authorial talent
If I’m right that most big publishers are sometimes guilty of neglecting to think about their authors’ legitimate interests, one has to ask why. Here are three possible explanations, each of which has some merit:

  • the conglomerate publishers went through a long period of rationalising and industrialising various back-office and retail-facing functions, and consequently lost focus on the author-facing side of things
  • editors have come under more pressure, so their relationships with authors simply aren’t what they were. There just isn’t the time in the day – and competitive pressures mean those good old days will never return. (Also, of course, the good old days were flawed in their way, maybe more flawed.)
  • Publishers have a relentless focus on the book, the product in hand. That’s good in some ways, but has its downsides.

I think most publishers would agree, to a greater or lesser extent, with all those three propositions. Yet I think those explanations miss the central issue, which is this.

Publishers are used to plenty of competitive pressure and they’re flexible and committed in responding. So, for example, the industry has adjusted to the rise of Amazon, the growth of ebooks, the importance of social media and very much else. But publishers are NOT used to the idea that authors themselves can be a source of competitive pressure. There just isn’t much authorial churn (that is, authors leaving one publisher for another). Most authorial careers are short, but those that endure tend to join an author to one, or at most two, publishers for a very long time. When John Le Carre upped sticks and left Hodder for Penguin, it made national news exactly because those things are rare and not routine: not part of the ordinary cycle of the book trade.

But why not? Why shouldn’t publishers poach authors the way football clubs poach strikers? Isn’t that the nature of competition? Why should it be considered ‘disreputable’ for agents to compete against each other for a particular author? Why did the Association for Authors Agents for a long time prohibit its members from just such competition? (A prohibition which, by the way, was almost certainly illegal.)

And although that kind of hustle is considered rather ungentlemanly in the industry – Andrew Wylie, who does compete, is nicknamed the Jackal – it’s important to note that the lack of competition benefits publishers not authors. Competition for a commodity in limited supply increases the price of that commodity. Which would be nice, if you happen to be the commodity in question.

In summary then, publishers aren’t used to competing for authors (except around the auction of debut books, where competition can certainly be fierce.) In consequence, publishers’ thought and attention tends to be on all those other good things – retailers, marketing channels, &c &c – where publishers are notably flexible, innovative and competitive. But that means once an author is signed to a firm, he or she can feel somewhat taken for granted. Most authors aren’t represented by Wylie-style agents. Very few big publishers will actively seek to poach another’s authors. If that’s not a recipe for neglect, I don’t know what is.

Publishing is not the same as printing
Bloomsbury was, I think, taken aback by my failure to appreciate its services. Their team printed up my book, made it available on Amazon, and (usually) handed it out to any booksellers who asked for it. The book sold whatever it sold and the firm handed me my stipulated royalties. What issue could I possibly have?

Yet any self-publishing company in the world can print a book and stick it on Amazon. There are some loathsome, dishonest, vanity-type presses that seek to inveigle authors into paying far more for those services than they should. But there are other companies that do an honest job, for an honest fee – and leave the author space to earn 100% of all ebook royalties (not 25%) and 100% of all print revenues, after production and other associated costs have been taken into account. Bloomsbury provided me with a service that delivered little more than that kind of self-publishing would have brought – yet they helped themselves to most of the money that my book created. When I raised legitimate concerns about their marketing performance, they didn’t even have the basic courtesy to respond. They didn’t alter our financial arrangements by a single penny. They have never meaningfully discussed the matter with me.

It’s not theft, that kind of behaviour, but it seems to me analogous to those dodgy double-glazing companies which pressure grannies into spending too much money on a whole set of new windows, when all that was really necessary was a little bit of draught-proofing. It may not be theft, but it’s a crummy way to make a buck.

There are some fabulous publishers who had a ton of value to their authors
It’s obvious, I hope, that Orion is one of the good guys in this story. Thanks to their anchoring role and constant support, I have:

  • A book which is sold in hardback, paperback and ebook right across Britain and Ireland
  • The committed support of Waterstones, Britain’s flagship bookseller
  • The committed support of numerous other retailers, for example David Headley’s excellent Goldsboro Books.
  • Foreign language book sales across Europe and beyond
  • That Random House book deal
  • All those lovely American reviews
  • All those lovely British ones too
  • A guaranteed income for this year and the two years thereafter (that is: spanning my current book deal with them.)
  • An expectation of continuing support even after that
  • Wonderful editorial acumen
  • And everything else. A whole team of people whom I like and respect and work very happily alongside. They’ve got my back and that’s a wonderful feeling.

Bantam’s role in this story feels a little more ambiguous because of its curious ending, but put all that to one side. The fact is that they acquired a strange and quirky book from an unknown writer, put some real weight behind it, produced beautiful books, sold them as hard as they could, and lent their weight and authority to a publicity campaign which resulted in terrific review coverage – coverage which would go on to ignite something similar in Britain.

And if that publication process failed (in print terms, that is) – well, so be it. Marketing books is hard. You can publish energetically and intelligently and well, and still fail. That’s just the way it is. The folks I engaged with at Random House are still on the side of angels. A single failure doesn’t signify. And by the same token, I should also be clear that though my career with HarperCollins never flourished, that doesn’t make them a terrible publisher. Failure is more common than success in this game, and HarperCollins score their full share of successes. They’re excellent publishers too.

I could go on. My Dutch publisher is awesome. My French publisher is wonderfully ambitious. I just don’t know enough about what’s happening in other territories to comment, but the idea put about by the angrier end of the indie publishing scene that publishers are only there to suck the blood from authors is simply nonsense. There are good publishers and there are bad ones – or, perhaps more accurately, good and parts to most publishing firms – but the good ’uns can be very good indeed. Career-altering. The air-ambulance that sweeps you up to Stieg Larsson Heaven. If you want to know why so many authors stick with their traditional publishers, the answer is simple: because there are some damn good publishers out there. And all power to them; they’re great.

The same, by the way, goes for agents. There are good agents and, erm, agents, but my own team at AM Heath and Inkwell has been phenomenal. Intelligent, wise, committed, diligent and on my side. Again, the suggestion which is sometimes made that agents cannot perform properly for authors because they are conflicted, is simply not true. Some agents, no doubt, perform poorly for their authors. The best ones are solid gold.

Authors have options
For a long time, the anxiety in publishing was that e-books would cause the collapse of bookstores, which would in turn cause the collapse of publishing itself. That concern was hardly fantastical. Barnes and Noble has made a net loss in each of the three financial years ending May 2014. Waterstones (now under excellent management, by the way) has yet to report its first year of solid profits and will need to string two or three good years together before it can be considered off the ‘at-risk’ list.

But maybe bookstores isn’t where the lethal blow will fall. What if authors simply get fed up with publishers and choose to walk away? My parting with Bantam Dell has as much to do with their choices as mine, but supposing more authors started to think, ‘You know what? To hell with this. I’ll collect 100% of royalties from ebooks and simply forget about print.’

I mentioned earlier that the market for adult fiction in America was split into broad thirds: hardback, paperback, ebook. At the moment, authors are collecting perhaps 10% of those hardback revenues, perhaps 6% of the paperback revenues, and around 17% of the ebook revenues. (These are percentages of the entire retail dollar in each case; the author gets 25% of the net receipts from ebooks, but Amazon, Apple and the others all take their share first.) If authors collectively ditched print publishing altogether, they’d lose 10% of the hardback dollar, 6% of the paperback dollar, but gain about 50% of the ebook dollar. In this thought experiment, authors as a whole don’t need print; they’d do better on their own.

Now, let me be clear, that’s a thought experiment I don’t take too seriously. Print matters, and I personally far prefer a book-book to anything I read on screen. There are genres – notably literary fiction – where print still dominates. And new technology seldom destroys its predecessors. The novel did not kill stage plays. Television did not kill radio. The download has not killed the CD. What’s more, the authority of print is likely to continue for a long time to come. Newspapers will still prefer to review books that come to them via publishers. The word of mouth effect that can be generated by book-buyers browsing in bookshops is different from, and at least as important as, the effect that happens through blogs, Twitter, Goodreads and the rest. And, indeed, the successes of the indie scene all congregate in the genre end of the market (crime thrillers, romance, sci-fi and fantasy, plus the whole world of teen and New Adult fiction.) We have yet to see the first major literary writer emerge entirely via indie publishing.

But still, publishing is entering a new era. One in which bookshops are fighting for their lives and where authors can choose to do without a publisher if they feel like it. In the old days, there wasn’t even a meaningful argument to be had about whether publishers added value. If you wanted to sell your book at all, you had to have a publisher. Add value? They gave you life.

These days, it’s all not so clear. My ability to launch my work on electronic platforms is almost exactly equal to Penguin Random House’s, the world’s biggest trade publisher. They can’t access more e-retailers than I can. They can’t reach more countries.

Which means that – in ebooks, not in print – the question of access is no longer important. What matters is value added, and authors are perfectly justified in asking exactly what they are getting in exchange for a given royalty split. If publishers don’t have a convincing answer to that question, they will simply be bypassed. In the world of the ebook, ‘publish’ doesn’t have to signify an industry. On Amazon Kindle, it’s a button.

I spoke a little earlier in this post about the industry’s reluctance to compete for authors (outside those crucial initial auctions.) We authors can’t change that and, more than fifteen years into my writing career, I see no real sign of it changing.

But Amazon and ebooks are – for genre authors at least – a potential game changer. We no longer have to accept the deal we’re given: the financial terms, the contractual ones, all the other things, good and bad, that these posts have talked about at some length. If we don’t like what we’re being offered, we do have an alternative. That’s a good thing. A really good thing. It doesn’t mean that we’ll just walk away from publishing, but it does mean that publishers face a new competitive front to which they will have to adjust. They’ll do it, I’m sure, but the path from here to there will be a hellishly interesting one.
[This series concludes here. Thank you for staying with me so long!]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.

If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.

 

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  • Lenore Buirgy

    i have greatly enjoyed your Fiona Griffiths novels. I’ve read the first two and my husband and I purchased the third from Amazon and felt very lucky to get it. I found your blogs on publishing to be fascinating. As an avid (and picky) reader, this is an area that I was happy to get some inside info on. Now, back to Fiona. What a great character! You must be very fond of her. All your characters are wonderful and I find your writing to be beautiful. Often I reread descriptive paragraphs because they are so delicious. I also love the humor. I could go on. Anyway, thank you for your novels and insider information.
    Lenore

  • Harry

    That’s so kind of you – many thanks! I do love writing the books, so there’ll be plenty more of them in the future. I’m putting the finishing touches to #5 at the moment!

  • Harry, I admit I’d never heard of you before. I just spent a good portion of my afternoon reading your entire journey and bought your book and will go away feeling like I’ve made excellent use of my day. Well played.

  • Harry

    Thanks, Rita!