Thursday 27 June 2013

To e or not to e

If you're a regular here, you'll know that I'm pretty committed to traditional publishing.

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
(Ooh, don't think we've had Elizabeth Barrett Browing here before!)

I like traditional publishers because:
  • I get to write books rather than do marketing. I hate selling, and I hate selling my own books more than anything. I will be rubbish at marketing. I say things like 'Don't buy this book unless...' rather than 'Buy this book because...'
  • They do all the faffing about with proofreaders and cover designers and illustrators and permissions and all that, so I can just do some writing, which I like better than faffing about.
  • They give me an editor. An editor I am not paying, who will be as rude or ruthless as necessary to make a good book (rather than to make a happy author who will pay again).Or that's how it should work.
  • I know pretty much what I'm earning - they promise me some money if I write a book; I write the book; they give me the money. Then later I might get some more money. Great! This is all very straightforward and I can plan things like buying some food or going to Italy. Occasionally, a publisher goes bust and I don't get the money. But, to be fair, I've probably lost only about £5000 like that over the last fifteen years. Painful at the time, but not a bad average. 
  • This will cause howls of disagreement from the self-publishing lobby, but I genuinely think the endorsement of a traditional publisher counts for something in the eyes of the buying public - and with good reason. Anyone and his dog can put out a book on Kindle. While there are some very good ones, there is also a lot of total shite out there. If I am looking for a book of a specific type and I see it's only available as an e-book I check out the publisher. If it looks as if it's self-published, I don't buy it. I want publishers doing quality control - I don't have time to do it myself. I expect other readers are the same. And yes, of course some traditionally published books are bad. But a higher proportion of self-published books are bad.
But recently some traditional publishers have been getting very difficult to work with. (No names, for obvious reasons.) I'm talking here about non-fiction and fiction that it is commissioned for a specific list, not one-off stories or non-fiction titles. Here's how:
  • Their projects are increasingly urgent. I used to have a deadline three months from the point the project was suggested. Now it's more often six weeks. Then the publisher eats into those six weeks in the following ways:
  • They don't send the brief immediately, or when they say they will. It's as though they consider their job done when they've found an author. Ahem - we have to do the book, yet. Not sending the brief means I can't even start the outline. This summer's record for this one: not sending a brief for three weeks on a project that had six weeks to start with. And I've still not got it. They have failed to send a brief for three weeks, because they are 'very busy'. But their project is very urgent. Of course. Just not urgent enough to devote any time to.
  • They sit on outlines or synopses for weeks - sometimes until after the delivery date for the manuscript. Record on this one: until after the final delivery date of the manuscript.
  • They take ages to respond to questions - that is, questions about the book they have commissioned and that has a deadline that isn't going to move just because they haven't answered crucial questions about content or format.
It's impossible to work like this. I had an editor last year who sat on things from Monday morning until Friday afternoon and then sent their responses, to be turned around and back on their desk by Monday. Do they think I don't have a life? What do they think the working week is for? How would they respond if I worked like they do? (Arguably, not at all because they never respond to anything.)

Danger for planet complacency
And the money. I get less for a book now than I got for a comparable book 15 years ago. Royalties, advances and fees are all down. One has even just tried to change the fee after the event.  But this post isn't about money, it's about behaviour. That last point is relevant though, changing the fee after the event. It's as if I went to Pizza Express, ate a pizza, and then refused to pay the advertised price. They'd call the police!

I have to say that I also work with some wonderful professional, capable, efficient and hard-working editors. I love them to bits. They are the reason I put up with the others - every time I hope I will have a good experience. I know which publishers I can trust and I work with them repeatedly. They know who they are because I tell them that I appreciate them. I am working with three of them at the moment. But some others - what planet are they on? Planet complacency. And planet complacency is about to be hit by a meteor (otherwise known as 'the changing face of publishing').

So - should I give up on these unprofessional people? There are plenty of authors out there saying 'why should the publisher get 90% of the income from a book?' But this isn't about the money. It's about the attitude. It's about not being able to write a book of 128 pages over three successive weekends in August, spending the weekdays waiting on the editor's response. It's about needing a brief before starting a project (of the type that needs a brief). It's about working with professionals.

Last year, I had an argument with a publisher who said that now is the best time to be an author. It so isn't. Now is the worst time to be an author. You earn less than ten years ago for the same work. Many - not all - publishers have a ridiculously unprofessional attitude, short deadlines and no budget. They don't value authors, but at the same time they depend on authors to sort out all their scheduling screw-ups. Perhaps it's a good time to be starting out as an author. You can stick all your books on Kindle and take a chance on them being discovered. Do lots of promotion. Alienate all your Facebook friends. I don't want to do that. I want to do what I'm good at and leave publishers to do what they're good at. Only problem is, some of them don't seem to be good at it any more.

It's actually  much harder for someone who makes a living from books to switch to e-self-publishing than it is for someone who still hopes to find a publisher. The unpubilshed are not giving anything up (except perhaps a dream of being published by Penguin, or whoever). I'd be risking my whole family income, and certainly swappping a model on which I can plan a budget for one on which I can't.

This would be less tricky if I wrote more for adults. Of course, there are lots of people writing for adults who make a good living from well-written self-e-published books. Children's books are a different matter. And I love my adult publisher, so I don't want to self-publish instead of working with them.

So I'm not *quite* ready to jack it all in and start poking the HTML, but I can see it's not far off. Publishers were always vulnerable to people wanting to keep more of the money, but that won't be my motivation. When they lose the battle to keep the people who would rather work with them than not, they've really, really lost.

And finally... even if you think you can work out which publishers I'm talking about, you can't. I have books at various stages with eight different publishers and none of you knows who all of them are.


  1. FWIW, I am more likely to buy a self published book by someone with a track record in real publishing(please!Traditional and indie are terms that started with vanity presses!) than someone without.

    I only have ten books to my name and articles as well. I don't make a living from it, alas! So my own experience has been generally good, except one beginning publisher, very small press, who commissioned a set of books and then couldn't even pay the tiny advance she had promised and had to cancel. I have that unsold book still sitting on my computer.

    One thing I've found, though, is that no matter who has bought my books, I've had to promote it and market it, because the publishers will only do that until about a month after it comes out, if that.

  2. What an indictment of traditional publishing - makes me glad I went down the self-published route. But - before you dismiss my efforts - I won a place on a mentoring scheme at Exeter Uni, and my mentor nagged me into rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. After another 5 drafts he said that, 10 years ago, I'd have found a traditional publisher. But since I'm not young, not famous, nor did I cross the Saraha on a skateboard, no one will be interested. Do it yourself, he said. So I did.

    The sad thing about your post is that it makes me even more reluctant to take subsequent books to a traditional publisher.

  3. Publishers are strapped. With the bookstores closing, they can't afford to support midlist authors any more, and their big names are leaving them to set up on their own, like JK Rowling has done.
    So they're looking for new authors, preferably brand new, that they can give an obscene sum to and then they can sell millions of books to the supermarkets, which is their main customer these days.
    Midlist is now self pubbed or small press pubbed.

  4. Nothing wrong with small press as long as you don't expect massive international sales. I have had better experience and more support from small press than big, because they have to sell if they want to publish more. Quite a few well known writers in Australia are being published by small press which will take risks large ones won't.

  5. Sue, I agree. I work with some very good small presses, but have also had bad experiences with others. A copule I work with now has decent international sales. Some small presses have distribution deals with larger companies and do well enough on that.

    JO - why on earth would I 'dismiss your efforts'? I said there were many good self-published books. or course, I said I'd be less likely to buy a self-published book if I was looking for something specific. But because I am not the market for a particular book doesn't mean I dismiss those books/authors wholesale. I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing, it's just not the best option for me and the type of books I write at the moment. If I were to write a different type of book, it might be the best option.

    Lynne, I agree that publishers are strapped - but they shouldn't take on books they can't deal with! This isn't really about the problems of the mid-list author and the pubishers' marketing budget. It's about everyone working together to meet the schedule the publisher has set to get the book to press. If they aren't going to do that, they shouldn't commissin it in the first place.

  6. Missed this post before - I wonder if you will see this six months on!

    I don't believe I could make a living from journalism any more, either. It was always very tough but the rewards were worth it 15 or 20 years ago. That's no longer true.

    Things are feeling a bit too thumb-prickly for my taste with publishing too, even though thoroughly well established authors like you are keeping afloat. Something radical has changed, the traditional skills are dying. Are we the equivalent of Edwardian farriers and harness makers, realising that people actually prefer cars? I'm starting to wonder what I'd have aimed for if I was starting on my career now.

  7. I do see it, Jenny - I have it set up to send me an alert if there is a comment :-)

    To be honest, the only reason I am still afloat is because I do such a wide variety of books. But I don't think we are the equivalent of farriers and harness makers - even though some other people in the industry might be. There will always be a need for well-written words of various kinds. The methods of delivery are up for grabs, and there are still difficult times ahead.