The Things Publishing People Say

A few things caught my eye while reading today’s publishing news and a lot of it has to do with how some people view authors and publishers when peering over the garden wall. Sometimes what we see or believe is based more on what we want or wish to see than what is actually in before our very eyes.
Novelist, journalist and editor, Roz Morris, pointed me in the direction of this article on Bloomsbury’s Writers’ & Artists’ website, written by Cressida Downing. The article was first posted to the W&A website on May 22nd. Downing interviews hybrid author (an author who self and traditionally publishes books) Mel Sherratt and her literary agent Madeleine Milburn. It sounded like an interesting and generated quite a discussion on the ALLi Facebook group page, but for all the wrong reasons.
Firstly, Roz Morris posted in the ALLi FB group when she read the article by Cressida Downing on author Mel Sherratt.

“Do any indie authors here publish professional-quality print editions as well as in ebook formats? If so, go and tell Bloomsbury’s Writers & Artists website. They ran a piece where they professed amazement that Mel Sherratt had managed to self-publish paperbacks, so I took them to task on Twitter, telling them that many other indies also publish successfully and creditably in print.”

The piece in Downing’s interview, which Morris refers to, is quoted below (my bold):

I’ve got to know quite a few authors who have put an e-book out there, but there are a lot fewer that have taken the plunge into actual hard-copy print – Mel’s done both.
Interested to assess the look and feel of a self-published novel ahead of speaking to Mel, I ordered a copy of Somewhere To Hide – the first of her three ‘Estate’ novels.  These are available through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which prints paper copies on demand.
It arrived within a couple of days, coming through the door when I had a few friends around, one of whom has worked as a bookseller for many years.  Without telling them why I was asking, I passed it around.
‘What’s different about this book?’
It was weighed up, sniffed, examined.  The verdict eventually was that maybe it was an especially ecologically sound paperback?
The quality was very good with heavy slightly creamy paper.  The only clues that it’s not a traditionally published book are that the cover is a little thinner than normal and there are no imprint or publisher details.
In short, this paperback stood up well to the other ‘properly published’ books on the shelf, and didn’t carry any sense of being a cheap or rushed job.
Mel said she liked having paper copies for books signings, although the margins are much slenderer.  As an author, she can buy them at trade price and they get sent over from the States, with postage costs varying depending on how fast she needs them.”

While I appreciate the efforts Bloomsbury is taking to both educate and guide new authors on whatever publishing path they choose to take via its excellent publication the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – its accompanying website which is packed with details of writing courses and resources – there is a shocking naivety about Downing’s piece. I could almost here an echo of Father Dougal from the TV sitcom, Father Ted.

“Jaysus, self-published authors publishing real printed books. That’s mad – whatever next, Ted!”

Downing, to set the record straight, has worked in the bookselling and publishing business for more than two decades, including a period of seven years for Weidenfeld and Nicolson, so I would have expected an article from her to be a little more plugged-in about the self-publishing community if that is what she is going to write about.
There is a wider and more general opinion – often propagated by mass media news outlets looking for a ‘cool’ story  –  that self-publishing is some new-fangled phenomenon piggy-backing on the advancements in print technology and, in particular, the fact that the Internet is now an integral part of all our lives. Self-publishing is as old as the print press itself and just as the publishing industry is coming to terms with digital technology, so too are self-published authors. In fact, self-published authors and academic presses were the first real experimenters with print-on-demand and short-digital print runs over the past fifteen years.
Just like the publishing industry, the migration of self-published authors is to digital from print, not the other way around! Yes, sharp intake of breath… self-published authors can and do use the same printers, editors, publicists and distributors that the trade houses use. Certainly the Internet and ease of communication has aided the path to professional tools for some self-published authors. And just like in any field of endeavour that allows an entrepreneurial spirit and access to DIY tools – from Silicon Valley to Tokyo – quacks and geniuses abound creating remarkable things and unremarkable things.
The beauty is that we live in a world where something wonderful can be created and shared just as easily as something crap. Whether it is books, inventions or medicine – someone out there amid the din is doing something remarkable worth sharing and the challenge will always be how best to discover it.

Amazon and Publishers

On a day when Amazon were, as usual, getting on with it and building their place in the future with the announcement of a proper home for its publishing platform, old-fashioned publishing folk were doing what they always do best – fighting battles that seem only to exist in their own minds. Brian Napack, a senior advisor at Providence Equity and a former CEO of Macmillan, drew his sword at the Publishers Launch conference at BookExpo America in New York (via Laura Hazard Owen).

“We have Amazon as an example, and certainly not the only example, of someone who’s coming at this business from a completely different angle. Amazon, at its heart, is a customer relationship management company. [Book] publishers, at their heart, are author relationship management companies.
“Those two worlds could coexist nicely for awhile. The problem is, in Amazon’s search to grow and enhance its customer relationships…they are going headlong after what we think is book publishing, and what they think is an expansion of their customer relationship.
“[Publishers] have to do a great job of customer relationship management as well. [That means] we are going after [Amazon’s] business…not Amazon’s e-commerce, but Amazon’s customer relationships. That’s where these two are going to clash.”

I loved and hated this because the story of Amazon and the publishing industry always creates sparks. I loved it because while Napack was drawing his sword, talking about coexistence, Amazon was quietly getting on with business, curating new avenues and platforms for books in a new age, and above all, focusing on its customer base. Talk about going to the public swimming pool and having your clothes stolen while you are there! I hated this because it is what is so utterly wrong with the publishing establishment.
“…publishers, at their heart, are author relationship management companies.”

What a load of utter bollox! I get so tired of established big publishers trying to occupy the moral middle-ground when faced with change and adversity. It’s always someone else’s fault. So if publishers are ‘author relationship management companies,’ then what role do literary agents play in the new world of publishing? These are the same agents that publishers happily shirked so much of their curatory role out to over the past couple of decades. The only relationship big publishing has tried to forge is with booksellers, and it has made a complete balls of that by shirking so much control to retailers and new online distribution platforms that there is very little left of a relationship to cultivate now.
I do believe that traditional publishers have a rightful and valid place in the future of publishing 2020, but there is a lot to be done to earn that place back, and it should start now. And that can and will only start when the current cartel of ivory-tower CEO’s, take their business MA’s and BA’s, and go plough a field somewhere else. What the publishing industry needs now is real book people at the helm directing business and understanding the CONNECT between authors and readers, not the relationship between publishers and booksellers to the detriment of everyone else involved.

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