Do you love your publisher? The results of our survey

A few weeks ago, The Writers’ Workshop launched a survey, open only to professional authors, entitled Do You Love Your Publisher? We launched this survey because we felt authors were too seldom asked directly for feedback by the industry that’s founded on their passion, knowledge and creativity. And it’s a good job we did ask: the picture that emerges contains some sharp lessons for the industry we all love.

First things first, however. We’ve had 321 responses. Respondents were typically experienced writers – that is, with multiple books published, with an agent, and boasting both overseas and domestic sales. About two-thirds of respondents were either with a ‘Big 6’ publisher or a major independent. In effect therefore, the survey stands as a realistic appraisal of the British industry by the authors who know it best – and know it well: our group has written and published more than 1000 books. We are aware of no other survey that has gathered more detail or has more authority.

We gratefully acknowledge the help of the Society of Authors, The Crime Writers Association, The Romantic Novelists Association, our own editorial team at The Writers’ Workshop, and numerous author-tweeters and author-bloggers. We could not have gathered the requisite data without their help. The views that follow, however, belong not to any particular organisation, but to the authors who answered our questions. We thank them most of all.

If you want the full dataset, you will find it here.

The Survey

The first finding to emerge from the data is one that stands in stark contrast to the various ‘death of the editor’ stories that have kicked around for the last decade or so. (Stories like this or this.) The simple fact is that our authors continue to have the greatest respect for the editing they receive. Around 75% of authors rated their editorial input as having been good or (more commonly) excellent. Just 14% of authors thought their editing was poor or dismal. While there’s no doubt that modern publishing methods have squeezed the time available for old-fashioned editing, editorial standards clearly remain strong. It’s a huge, impressive – and perhaps unexpected – endorsement of the skill that, in some ways, sits at the industry’s very heart.

Similarly – and again contrary to many stories about declining standards – authors rate their publishers extremely highly on copy-editing, proof-reading, page design and so forth. More than 80% of authors regarded their publishers as being good-to-excellent in these areas. Little more than 5% of authors saw them as being poor-to-awful.

On the matters of cover design and jacket copy, authors remained broadly positive. About three-fifths of authors were highly satisfied with the way these things turned out. The remainder were, on the whole, ‘somewhat’ satisfied.

So far, these survey results will have cheered the heart of any anxious industry executive, and quite right too. But all good editorial reports remember to start with the positives before turning to the ‘could-do-betters’ and, as if following this time-honoured strategem, our respondents’ early enthusiasm started to cool the further into the survey they progressed.

Our Question 13 asked, ‘Were you closely consulted on your publisher’s marketing plans?’ Here was the response:

These are extraordinary results. For all that editorial work may lie at the spiritual heart of publishing, it does not lie at its commercial heart. Editorial skills are easily outsourced – indeed, I run a company that offers a full suite of editorial and copyediting services. We don’t normally solicit business from publishers or pro authors, but we’ve done a fair bit of such work nevertheless. Something similar is true about jacket design and cover copy. Although you do need a specialist cover designer to work on a project, there are plenty of talented and experienced freelancers available. As for cover copy, plenty of authors write this themselves. I personally have often done so.

The commercial heart of publishing, therefore, lies not in editing and production, but in sales and marketing. A publisher isn’t there to print books, it’s there to sell ’em. And Question 13 is the first sign that authors have some serious misgivings.

The responses to question 14 were more brutal still:

Some 14% of authors were very happy with their marketing (38% if you add the ‘overall we did a good job’ response.) But almost 40% were appalled by the lack of marketing. Nearly two-thirds of authors felt there were, at the very least, significant holes in what was done.

Faced with grumbles along these lines, publishers have tended to point to budget constraints. Yes, of course authors would like more advertising for their books. They’d probably like advertising zeppelins over London and the loan of Buckingham Palace for a launch party. Yet it’s important to note that our question carefully steered authors away from such thoughts. An author’s ‘skills, knowledge, passion, contacts and digital presence’ are all available for free. We asked only about significant gaps that did not entail ‘huge cost outlays’. And our authors, remember, are an experienced bunch. They know they don’t get the zeppelins.

(I should perhaps also mention that our survey did not ask separately about publicity or sales. That’s surprised – and perhaps relieved – one or two publicists I’ve spoken to, but authors don’t care how publishers do what they do. To an author, any activity involved in selling books counts as marketing, no matter what the name on the departmental door. So, um, sorry, publicists and salespeople. You’re all in this together.)

The survey turned next to matters of communication, where authors divided fairly evenly. About half our respondents reckoned communication was good to excellent. About half thought it was ‘always poor’ or ‘tailed off abruptly on publication.’

If you’re not an author, you won’t quite know why that last response was offered as a choice, but if you are – well, you quite likely know the feeling. I know one author who published a book with a major publisher who had bought the manuscript in question for an excellent five-figure sum. The author’s last communication with his editor was about 6 weeks prior to publication. And after that: nothing. Not a call. Not an email. No report of sales. No report on the progress or failure of any marketing or publicity initiatives. Not even a call to say, ‘sales have been disappointing and we’re going to have to cut you from our Christmas card list. Sorry.’ In my view, such treatment is inexcusable. It’s also, as our survey shows, common.

The next question is also interesting. We asked, ‘Did you receive any formal guidance in the ways of publishing or guidance on how you as an author could add most value to the process?’  The purpose here was to find out whether publishers actually want authors to play an engaged and important part in the publishing process. After all, publishers are professional producers-of-books. An individual editor will publish, typically, two dozen books a year. Authors – particularly newer ones – simply can’t match that depth of experience. If you’re a debutant novelist taken on by a major publisher, you have already (presumably) got the writing skills you need to succeed but you know (again, presumably) nothing at all about how most effectively to engage with the publication process. Should you tweet and blog? Go to festivals? Seek out opportunities on local or national radio? Or in the press? Should you solicit puffs? Exploit contacts? Are there mailing lists, specialist media outlets or professional organisations that are relevant? What the heck should you be doing?

These things matter. The old industry structures are weaker now than ever. Bookstores are under pressure, book reviews scarce, and digital marketing is becoming absolutely crucial. Yet since readers don’t give a damn about what publishers think or what brand values publishers supposedly embody, the profile of the author him or herself matters more than it has ever done before. You’d think then that publishers would want to train authors in the commercial aspects of being an author.

But do they? Do they, phooey. Just 18% of authors report that they received systematic guidance in the ways of the industry. Since our author sample was generally an experienced one, you could argue that publishers simply didn’t want to waste their time educating authors in stuff they already knew. So we filtered our results to focus only on the most inexperienced authors (those with just a book or two behind to their credit), only to find that the results looked essentially identical. Just 18% of debutant authors felt they had enjoyed a systematic introduction to their new industry. 7% were referred to some online or printed material. A staggering 33% said ‘no, I received no guidance’. The balance (some 43%) said ‘I gleaned a certain amount from my publishers, who were always happy to answer a question.’

If you believe authors play a key part in effective publishing, that lack of training is scandalous. If you believe authors have no part to play in effective publishing, you should be in a different industry. Nor would the necessary training need to be costly or time-consuming: an author could learn the crucial elements of the trade in a day or two. They don’t even get that much instruction.

Next, the issue which, to my mind, is almost the most shocking of all. All publishers say they honour and depend on authors. HarperCollins recently won the Bookseller’s prestigious Publisher of the Year award for, among other things, ‘its sharp focus on authors from big-name brands down to debutants.’ Tom Weldon’s appointment as CEO of Penguin was hailed by no less than United Agents’ Simon Trewin, who commented, ‘[Tom] will be a sensational c.e.o. … because he knows all about the authors.’ Tim Hely-Hutchison, CEO of the Hachette Group, recently wrote to all his authors (including me) saying, among other things, ‘I hope … that you know your value to us and that we are regularly able to demonstrate our value to you; that you feel supported by your editor and others in your publishing company and that communication is open and transparent.’

So: good sentiments all round. But how do those noble intentions work out in practice?

In practice, we come to our Question 17: Did your publisher ever solicit feedback from you? Here are the answers:

And there it is. The commonest outcome for our authors – experienced, international, agented – is that no one ever asks them what they think. A slim 22% of authors were asked, properly, for feedback. (An experience which, by the way, I have yet to enjoy and my tenth book comes out this June.) Pace Mssrs Trewin and Weldon, you don’t know ‘all about the authors’ via some mysterious process of spiritual communion. You know what they think by asking them. And asking them in a way that will not imperil their key professional relationships.

This blog post is already too long, so here’s one final stat and two final thoughts. We asked, ‘With your next book, if some other reputable publisher offered you the same advance as your current one, would you move to the new house or stay where you are?’ Here’s what we learned:

Only a shade over one-third of authors would be confident of staying put. The rest would either want to move or would think hard about doing so. And this from an industry whose leading lights boast a ‘sharp focus on authors’.

Those two last thoughts.

One, authors actually love publishing. It’s clear from much of the commentary we received that authors know publishers do a hard, essential and wonderful job. They respect those old values of passion, editorial excellence and personal warmth. But that’s not enough. In truth, it never was, but the world of today is changing fast and authors can glimpse a new mobility just round the corner.  As one author commented, it’s ‘Look after your authors, or die.’ Quite so.

Two, these things are simple. Breathtakingly so. I’ve written most of this post while sitting in one of the unrenovated parts of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Unlike the gleaming buildings around it, this part had paint peeling from the walls, curtains that looked to be left over from the 1970s, and a toilet with a high and dripping cistern. Yet in the corner of the unit, someone had put a big cardboard box, above which there was taped a sign: ‘PATIENT FEEDBACK AND SUGGESTIONS PLEASE!’

Publishers have better paintwork, cleaner curtains and only ever the most delightful of toilets. But no box. And it’s the box which matters.

About me: I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve written popular fiction for HarperCollins, non-fiction for 4th Estate, how-to books for Bloomsbury, and (currently) crime fiction for Orion. I also do a significant amount of editorial work, such as helping with Barbara Tate’s bestselling West End Girls (Orion) and Mitch Feierstein’s remarkable Planet Ponzi (Transworld). I have been involved in still other major projects where my role remains discreet, but that role has brought me into significant contact with other major publishers beyond the ones named here. As boss of the Writers’ Workshop, I also witness the publication of numerous books across the industry and speak constantly to working writers.

I say all this to make it clear that I’ve dealt with so many publishers that nothing in the above should be taken as a specific comment on any particular one of them. This just isn’t that sort of piece. But I will say that the best publisher I’ve ever worked with is Orion. I think they’re fab.

You can get more about me here. And here. And if you want to read the best book I’ve ever written then you can pre-order TALKING TO THE DEAD by clicking this link and making my day. You’d win two ways round: you’ll enjoy a little glow of righteousness now and in three weeks time, you’ll get a lovely surprise popping through your letterbox. Think of it like an 8-week-old puppy, only easier to look after.

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  • I will read this at my leisure when I get a chance but just wanted to say that the link to the full data set doesn’t work – is it just me?

  • Harry

    Whoops – it does now, Secret.

  • That was quick, thanks…right…off to read it now!

  • Well done, Harry, for organising this. Everyone needs feedback and appraisal, not least – it seems – the industry professionals. It’ll be interesting to see what comments come from publishers and/or marketing depts.

  • Fascinating stuff – as a small-press published author, I have probably been a lot more involved with the cover design, copy and marketing than with a big mainstream publisher. One thing that this survey highlights is that a publisher is not a publisher: the two main factions (editorial and sales/marketing) have different agendas and evidently different relationships with their authors.

    The question is: who calls the tune?

    A reciprocal survey on what publishers think of their authors would be interesting.

  • An excellent survey, thank you. I did fill it in, and I’m glad you excluded experienced authors from the bit about whether publishing was explained as I felt at the time that it would be unfair to penalise publishers for not explaining to authors who already know.

    I think the last point, though, about whether we would change publisher, could do with further exploration. In my experience, big houses are good on editorial work but exclude you from marketing; small houses are sometimes shakier on editorial, more likely to include authors in marketing, but have a smaller marketing budget anyway. I swing between the two: get pissed off with one approach, go back to the other, miss the first one, switch back… A publisher who involved authors and dealt competently in both editorial and marketing would triumph (in terms of authorly bliss).

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  • J

    “An author’s ‘skills, knowledge, passion, contacts and digital presence’ are all available for free.”

    Really? Plenty of them get pretty enraged when asked to help out with this stuff. It’s ‘not their job’ to help.

  • Harry

    I’m not sure you’re correct there. Obviously it depends on the author and the book, but if the marketing is designed collaboratively and in full consultation with the author, and if the financial arrangements are fair to both parties, I think only a very small minority of authors would refuse to play ball.

  • Mr E

    Thanks for blog post, Harry. This had to be said, and I hope it is noted by many publishers. I wish I’d had sight of this survey as I would’ve responded, especially as a published author under the Macmillan New Writing initiative. The MNW thang was pretty transparent and guidance was given by the publisher and experience shared between the authors over at the blog. But once I moved from MNW into the corporate arms of my publisher things went awry. For example, when I confronted the publisher over e-book prices (£14 for an e-book of an out-of-print title ?!!) I was given a sympathetic but apathetic reslonse.
    I still believe Macmillan New Writing was a great thing and worked well (just look at the number of award nominated authors it discovered), but this hid the painfully poor business acumen of the publisher as a whole. There is much to be proud of in traditional publishing (my editor and copy-editor were brilliant with me) but as a business their decisions have been surprising and sometimes dissapointing.

  • Much food for thought for those who like me are poised with finished manuscripts. We need to decide whether to go down the traditional route or simply set ourselves up as a small independent publisher. Yes we’ll need to do a lot of diy marketing and learn how to create a buzz around the launch of our eboo, but that will be time well spent. Much as I’d love the might of a publisher behind me, I’m becoming increasingly aware that many authors are dissatisfied with the deals they get… I think I’m going to dip my toes into self-publishing and see how I get on!

  • I love my publisher. They are a very small house, but I was involved in every step of the publishing process. They also offered support and advice to me, a total newbie, during the launch of my first book. I didn’t have to think for a moment before signing two new deals with them. The big houses may be able to pay more, and promote more efficiently, but I prefer the personal and close contact I’m getting.

  • Yes I’ve heard smaller publishers have a much closer relationship with authors, will look into that option too. Keep hearing about Orion for one…

  • Skylark

    I find that the more I learn about the traditional publishing route, the more intimidated I get. Mind you I have the same opinion about self-publishing so maybe it’s just publishing in general that intimidates me! I think my view of publishing was quite naive – I just assumed that authors would be consulted on decisions because it’s their book and their livelihood. I’m not sure I know which way to turn – I’m trying out the traditional route at the moment because it makes sense to try it before investigating other options but I am relying heavily on more experienced others to guide me through the pitfalls.

  • Excellent survey, Harry, and one to which I’ve linked members of the Association of Christian Writers in my new appointment as Chair. Sadly, my writing career was curtailed for many years (had to earn a living) but in the days when I was published regularly (by Hodder & Stoughton among others) I have to say that Lion Publishing (now Lion Hudson) couldn’t be beaten when it came to involving me in marketing aspects. In fact my book, Stepfamilies, is still securing me radio slots on chat shows nearly twenty years after it was first published.
    Merrilyn Williams, writing as Mel Menzies

  • Harry Bingham

    Trad route is still the best for most authors. But publishers ought to do better at working with authors. Their record at the moment is too patchy.

  • edward t-shirt

    cant wait!!!

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