Big Publishing and Me (16): Some further 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.

Kirkus loved it, but so do readers . . . and you’re only $3 from happiness.

This is the second post reflecting on all that’s gone before. If you’ve not read the previous posts, you might want to backtrack a little first. [<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]

Publishers need to change the way they treat authors
This isn’t another sermon arguing that It Is Not OK for Multibillion Dollar Media Companies To Steal From Authors. Rather, it’s picking up from the idea in my last post that publishers will need to do more if they’re to learn how to keep their best talent onside.

But what will that ‘do more’ involve? What’s on the to do list?

Some parts are obvious: information on sales, for example. It is, for example, ridiculous, that authors have to wait till March to find out what their sales were in July of the previous year. You, for example, almost certainly have no significant financial relationship in which you cannot easily find where things stand at any point in time. You want to check your phone bill or your utility account? So make a call or go online. You want to review your payslip or check your pension deductions? The information is a click or a call away.

For authors – and forgive my stating the obvious – our sales are our income. The current regime of six monthly statements delivered three months in arrears made perfect sense in an era when those things were compiled by Bob Cratchit types with pen and ink. But in the age of the computer? When any numpty programmer could develop a system in a few weeks flat? It says something about the way that the publishing industry wishes to exclude authors from adult participation in their own affairs that monthly, or even real time, sales data is not already the norm. (Some publishers have now introduced this. Many others have projects underway.)

But author relationships aren’t going to be fixed by a fancy data portal or two. There’s the whole matter of commnication too. In all my years of writing, I have only ever once been asked for feedback by a publisher – and then only because the poor old editor in question had been forced to listen to me ranting on about the issue. That’s not good enough. Not remotely. In an age when every damn coffee shop has a feedback box in the corner, when we get sent texts and emails asking us to evaluate packaging, or rate a customer services experience, it is simply extraordinary that publishers do not routinely ask authors, ‘How did you find us? What did you like? What could we have done better?’

And that question has to not come from an author’s editor. That would be like your boss at work saying, ‘So, feedback. How exactly do you rate me?’ You might want to give an honest answer to that question, but you probably won’t.

And phone calls. Good God! There should, I swear it, be a refresher course for publishers about the wondrous usefulness of that buttony, handsetty thing on their desk. If Bantam Dell had editorial concerns about my book, or commercial concerns about my performance in print, what on earth stopped them from picking up the phone and talking to me about them? If the American slice of my earnings was about to disappear, or was at risk of disappearing, shouldn’t someone tell me? Isn’t that basic good manners? Or if WH Smiths had suddenly decided to order exactly zero copies of The Sons of Adam, should somebody not have called to let me know? I am able to count on the fingers of one foot the number of times a publisher has picked up the phone to me to break a significant piece of bad news. That’s cowardice. A cowardice which presumes to infantalise the author by denying him the information he needs to make rational decisions.

If there’s a theme here, it’s that authors need to be included in, not excluded out. One editor of mine, over a long, pleasant and discursive lunch, checked herself at one point, and said, ‘I wouldn’t normally talk to an author like this, but [because of the Writers’ Workshop] it’s almost like you’re an insider.’ That way of thinking – one that places the author outside the industry, not within it – has to be extirpated completely. Has to be extirpated, that is, if the industry is not to watch some of its best genre writers simply step over to some version of hybrid/indie authorhood.

Indeed, you may have been struck by how revealing this series of blogs has been: every advance listed, every sales disaster remorselessly analysed. That’s been intentional. Authors haven’t usually disclosed these things because we’ve not felt able to. The risk of ostracisation from the industry was too great. But to hell with it. Authors tell stories, so I’ve told mine. I hope it’s the first of many.

Yes, some authors are rich and some authors are morons
Some readers will have felt uneasy at my tale. Over the years, you may have noted, I have done a lot better from publishing than publishing has ever done from me. My history with HarperCollins was written in tubfuls of red ink, but I never felt obliged to hand back my advances – and those advances were always handsome, always paid on time. Publishers don’t earn a lot, and isn’t it a bit rich for an author to moan about not earning more money? After all, I could have left the industry at any point and chose not to because I liked the lifestyle it gave me.

All true, and I have sympathy. But my experience is, in one important way, atypical. It’s hard to measure what the average author earns, but it’s terribly little. In 2005, the ALCS, a British author’s body, estimated that the median professional novelist (one who derived 70% or more of his or her income from writing) earned about £13,000 ($21,500) a year. The same outfit’s most recent estimate places that same figure at just £11,000, or a little over half what big publishers pay their graduate recruits.

Those are average figures, of course, but my own history tells a similar tale. My first advance, secured in 1998, was for £80,000 ($130,000) per book. My most recent UK advance has been for £47,000 ($77,000) per book – and the stuff I’m writing now is better than the stuff I was writing then. As income trajectories go, it ain’t pretty.

And it’s not just that most authors don’t earn much, they also live precariously. Contracts are short. Careers end abruptly. The self-employed get no sickness pay, or paid holidays, or pension contributions. When an author gets to the end of one book-deal they have to write their next novel on spec, hoping they can persuade a publisher to take it. I fully recognise that I am insulated from the harsher realities of the author’s life, but the harsh realities are much more common than not.

Secondly, I also recognise that I’m more hard-headed than most authors. I studied economics at Oxford, worked as an investment banker, created my own business and have seen it flourish. It comes naturally to me to think in commercial terms and, as one former publisher commented to me, ‘Yes, but Harry, some authors really don’t care about the money. They just want us to bake them cakes in the shape of their head.’

Well, OK. Point taken. But as a business model, how much mileage does that really have? Publishing those authors who prefer flattering baked goods to an equitable distribution of inputs and outputs? I don’t, as it happens, think there will be any authorial landslide away from regular publishing. There’s too much invested on both sides, too much goodwill, too much basic liking for anything to happen with great swiftness. But a gentle erosion can be as lethal as a sudden landslip. The best publishers will adapt before the ground gives way.

We’re all just trying to earn a buck
There’s a fierce debate between the indie camp and the publishing one as to whether agents and publishers should best be regarded as Curators of Culture or snobby elitists who prevent the dissemination of work they don’t like.

In truth, neither side has a particularly watertight argument. Random House did not bid to acquire more books in what was becoming my critically acclaimed crime series, but they did bid, boldly and big, for the rights to Fifty Shades of Grey, a stunningly successful move which made the firm, at least temporarily, the world’s biggest pornographer. Does that make them snobby elitists, or Curators of Culture? I think neither. The firm’s job is to make money, and it’ll grab the retail dollar where it can, be that from Mount Parnassus or the gutter.

Indie publishers are no different. The Amazon Kindle store and other ventures has demonstrated that there is a market for $8 ebooks, a market for $5 ones, a market for $2 and $3 ones, and a ‘market’ for ones that are completely free. Writers like John Locke or Joe Konrath have made a fine living by selling at prices below anything that could feed a big publisher. Good for them. That’s clever entrepreneurship and their style of writing plainly suits a commercial need. If any traditional publisher wants to be snobby about such work, they should call to mind Anastasia Steele’s inner goddess – then give themselves a damn good spanking.

Snobby curators of culture

Snobby curators of culture

Discoverability is hard and getting harder
A million years ago, when The Money Makers first came out, publishers could pretty much tell retailers what to sell. They didn’t issue orders exactly, but they did set out what their lead titles were, what their next main titles were, and so on. Retailers were mostly content to follow suit.

Then the logic of the industry meant that all that old-style consumer advertising fell away, retailers came to have the upper hand in determining their book selections, and publishers were obliged to purchase retail space. That wasn’t fun for publishers, but at least their marketing departments still had something to do, even if that thing was simply writing out cheques.

These days, many key store promotions are selected on pure editorial grounds. Orion, for example, did not pay Waterstones a single penny for Talking to the Dead to be included in that store’s huge Book Club promotion. That’s good for Waterstones (and what excellent taste they have), but tough for publishers. How on earth do you market a book in today’s conditions? The old ad budgets are gone. The buying-store-space strategy has dwindled in effectiveness. Newspapers review far fewer books than they used to – and far, far fewer non-obvious ones. There’s less scope for traditional publicity. One publicist told me that she looks after a #1 internationally bestselling author and can’t get a single British paper to do an interview with him. She’s a fine publicist, but she can’t alter the basic reality of today’s media. No one can.

These things would be enough to cause a crisis of faith in even the most battle-hardened publisher – but when you add in the possibility that authors might start to bypass the industry altogether, you have the conditions for a perfect storm of anxiety.

There are those who revel in that anxiety. I don’t. I like – no, I love – the fact that the ebook revolution might shift the author-publisher balance of power somewhat in favour of the former. It has been the other way round for much too long. But authors are readers too. The old channels of discoverability – thriving bookshops, buoyant publishers, generous review coverage and ancillary publicity – made it relatively easy to find new, interesting books.

Amazon and its peers have done wonderful things for humanity. Anyone with a phone, tablet or laptop can now buy any book in the world, and at astonishing prices. It’s been a revolutionary achievement, an astonishing leap forward for the dissemination of knowledge, art and beauty. (OK, pornography and and trash detective novels too, but in this new world, there’s room for everyone.)

So I’m no Amazon-basher, but I do note that the promised ‘long tail’ retail revolution has had one paradoxical consequence. Yes, you can buy almost anything, but in practice the big bestsellers account for a larger share of the market they ever they used to. If you visit the page for Talking to the Dead on (US) Amazon, it will tell you that ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ books by Jo Nesbo, Laura Lippman, Kate Atkinson, and Jussi Adler-Olsen – that is, a selection of internationally best-selling authors. If you visit those authors’ book pages, you will not find anything redirecting them back to Harry Bingham. The signposts only ever point in one direction. The same phenomenon afflicts bookshops too. I spoke recently with the owner of an excellent independent bookshop in a prosperous and highly educated part of the UK. She carefully selects a diverse, exploratory and provocative range of books, yet told me that increasingly people want to buy the mainstream and the bestselling. The question she is most often asked by prospective buyers is, ‘So what is everyone reading?’

Of course, new paths to discoverability emerge all the time. Goodreads, LoveReading, blogs, festivals, a million other things. But which reading culture, the one we have now or the one we had twenty years ago, was more likely to advance the good, the new, the quirky, the wonderful? I may change my answer in a few years’ time, but for now I think the old culture did that better. Some campaigning indie publisher types like to talk about traditional publishing as ‘legacy publishing.’ The aim, I suppose, is to call to mind the Detroit rustbelt, decaying factories and bankrupt cities. Well, maybe. But the legacy in question ain’t too bad: Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway, John Le Carre and Donna Tartt and PD James and Gillian Flynn. A legacy that includes almost every writer worth reading. It’s not yet clear if indie publishing will perform as well.

I began this series of posts by talking about my early childhood excursions, deep in the bowels of Richard Booth’s Old Cinema. That bookshop must have been among the least ‘curated’ collections of books anywhere in the world, yet it honoured another deep tradition of the books industry: a belief in diversity, abundance, the importance of the random encounter. At its best, the publishing industry of yore combined a deep appreciation for good writing and interesting thought with a recognition that the world was a wide and wonderful place, that a raggedy garden with a thousand flowers was more interesting than a tidy one with only fifty. Readers were lucky. I was lucky. I lived at the right time and in the right place.

These days, the picture is all more uncertain. Are the big traditional houses going to retreat to a business model that is all about thumping out bestsellers? James Paterson, Fifty Shades, Lee Child, Suzanne Collins? Is the indie industry going to offer us new models of writing and discoverability, or will it offer only (as one literary agent described it to me) ‘the biggest slushpile in history?’ I incline towards optimism on both counts, but I always do: I’m that way inclined. The real truth is that nobody knows. ‘And don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.’

A conclusion
I’ll conclude this post and this series by expressing a hope. I like publishing. I like the people. I like many of its values. I like its respect for the beauty of good writing. However frustrated I’ve become at aspects of its behaviour, I’ve enjoyed the decade and a half I’ve spent in its embrace.

I hope the future is good to authors, readers and publishers. Authors can look forward to more autonomy, more choices, better treatment and more money. Readers can look forward to a greater variety of writing, encountered through ever more channels, and at, on average, lower prices than ever before. And publishers? The industry will, almost certainly, get smaller. There just hasn’t been an industry hit by the e-steamroller that hasn’t emerged a little slimmer from the experience. But a smaller, better industry would be no bad thing; a vanished industry would be a tragedy.

And for now, I‘m enjoying my dual status: an indie author in America, a traditionally published one in Britain. It’s an exciting experiment, interesting times.

I’ll be sure to let you know what happens. Oh, and if you’d like to buy the damn book – and I’d really, really like it if you did – you can get it

Here if you’re American

and here if you’re British.

Go on. You know you want to.

Thanks, very much, for reading.

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  • John Taylor

    A brilliant and brave series of blogs, Harry. Thank you for highlighting just how complex the situation can be. So many issues could be dealt with if publishers and agents included authors in discussions. There seems to be an assumption that we’re not quite grown-up enough to be consulted.

  • Harry, this series has been a real eye-opener. It does seem a bit ridiculous to exclude the author so much from the equation; lets hope things do start to change for the better where it needs to.

    Oh and finding new books to read? I love browsing in my local charity bookshop – cheap as chips, you never know what you might find, and there’s always the smell…

    Thanks for being so honest and for daring to share.

  • Pinkbelt75

    Loved this series. It has been a great journey. One, in truth, that I’m looking forward to, as a relative novice. You have opened our eyes, and whilst I am an eternal optimist, I will at least move forward with my pursuits with my eyes wide open.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Allan – Pinkbelt75

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  • Steve

    Wonderful series of revealing and honest pieces. My own ‘best seller’ may be published traditionally if someone recognises its brilliance. If not, I shall forge ahead with the self-pub model – and won’t those folk who turned me down be laughing on the other side of their faces? Well, they will… won’t they?