Gimme A Good Discount or Be Damned

Author and Editor Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus, wrote a piece yesterday entitled, A quick little publishing rant.

“It makes no sense to discourage the one person most invested in finding readers for their work (which is why Steve Almond went ahead and self-published). Why would, for example, a predatory company, be given a better deal than the person who wrote the book? Why would you want an author to show up for an event without enough books because you’re charging them the maximum rate with no returns?”

Of course, Elliott’s self-proclaimed rant is directed succinctly at mainstream publishers, particularly the larger ones who can charge an author up to 60% of the retail price, and into the bargain, refuse to count author copies in royalty sales or make them returnable. Elliot believes they need to take a leaf—so to speak—from the business manual of small and independent publishers, who have at least cottoned on that they need all the sales outlets and help they can get. While Elliott cites poor author discounts as a reason why Steve Almond went the self-publishing route, it is no reason for author solutions services to rejoice and dance a merry dance in the streets. The poorer author solutions services often gouge huge profits out of the hands of their unsuspecting author every which way, and while they do provide author discounts on books – it can be on a product already expensively priced for the market. No, Elliott is rounding on the established guard of the publishing world.
Elliot is certainly right and he points out that many publishers offer their author’s a worst discount deal than even online retailers. Elliott and the people commenting on his piece offer many valid reasons why it would be advantageous for publishers to optimise an author’s social network and sales skills. Indeed, there are great ideas for authors to circumvent the practice, but it got me wondering why many publishers still give their authors such a raw deal.
One of the reasons is control. At a time when publishers are finally waking up to the idea that they need to be in control of the distribution and pricing of their wares through moves like the Agency Model of business for e-books—rather than allow all dictate slide to retail chains—there is a danger of publishers finding themselves in a state of siege within their own industry. It is not uncommon to find a clause in a publisher’s contract specifically prohibiting an author selling on books for profit procured directly from them. Certainly, if an author can find a sales avenue to shift their own book by the barrow-load, one could question why the author does not go for broke and just self-publish.
Equally, there are many authors who see their role as a writer—and only a writer—not a sales person. I believe all authors need to leave the garden shed and the ivory tower when they complete and submit their books for public consumption, and part of that is being involved in the marketing and promotion of their book so far as a publisher will allow. The truth is; an author has to do it the moment they submit to an agent or directly to a publisher. But the reality is that many authors remain uncomfortable with this aspect of the publishing world. For them, the hard-sell stops at the editor’s or agent’s desk. Author solutions services will often tell an author that they are the best ones to sell their books, and in the case of a reputable service and an author comfortable and familiar with social networking and a strong non-fiction book, that may very well be the case. For authors of fiction, I am less convinced this strategy alone is enough.
Of course, there will always be the conservative view of a publisher that they are professionals in a business world and they know best how to promote and market books and the retailers they deal with know best how to sell those books. In short, they simply want the author to concentrate on doing, for the most part, what the publisher pays them to do—write more good books.
Whatever the reasons, what we are quickly learning is that the smaller publishers are more flexible and adaptable to change and are willing to see the role of the author as more than just a writer.

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