The age of the trade publisher is over.

So, hot on the news that 15% of the ebook bestseller lists are self published authors comes this piece about Touching the Void author Joe Simpson leaving his publisher (and agent) over the issue of e-book royalty rates.

I have spent years warning publishers that they are doing a brilliant job of conspiring with themselves to fail by pursuing the short term maintenance of margins in a period of transition over and above longer term repositioning of their business for the future.

Of course if publishers are in trouble then so are agents, or at least the ones that don’t adapt their business model.

I know an agent with a client who has written a novel in a highly commercial sector in the market which has been self published in the US and where it has established itself in the top five hundred kindle bestseller list and is in the top twenty of its genre – that’s in the region of one to two hundred copies a day and rising.

It is priced in the $3-4 dollar bracket. That means the author is earning rather more than a pound a book and has been doing so for several months. There will be a sequel shortly. And another after that. This is how publishers used to make money.

Not any more. Out of politeness the agent had discussions with the author’s UK publisher about a deal. It was a pointless discussion: the gulf between them was immeasurable and in the end it came down to this: why on earth should an author sacrifice a vast proportion of their earnings in order to have a publisher’s colophon on the spine of their books?

Not only were they not adding value,but it was impossible for the agent to make any kind of convincing case to his author that the publisher was not in fact removing value and yet they showed no awareness of this at all. Their attitude was essentially that author and agent should be grateful for having had an offer in the first place.

This isn’t about any particular publisher; it is about a seemingly endemic desire to alienate authors, damage the publishing brand and do as much as is possible to create the impression that they just don’t get it.

All of the predictions about further consolidation after last year’s news about the Random Penguin merger are confirmation of this.

On the face of it how do you fight a titanic enemy like Amazon? You mass your forces right? No, not if you are still heavily outnumbered, that way you merely present a bigger target. The classic answer is to take a leaf out of the Vietcong’s book – split into small units and snipe from the hills: tie the enemy down in a protracted battle they ultimately cannot win because it is not their territory and they do not understand it or care about it as much as you do.

The age of the general trade publisher is over. It made sense to publish into every area of a book shop when book shops were the only game in town and were the principle marketing tool: you only had to understand one thing, how bookshops worked, to be a master of the game.

For much of the market bookshops are now irrelevant – they will continue to exist and for the upper ends of the market will remain important, but they are no longer the commercial motor of publishing. Online is. And online is a marketing black hole: it will eat everything you throw at it and come back for more.

The only way to make that work in the resource shy cottage industry that is publishing is to be an expert. Know your market sector. And the simple fact of the matter is that publishers do not because publishers still expect to shift between celeb auto’s, swords and sandals, chick lit, reading group fiction etc. etc. in any given month. A few averagely paid marketing people cannot possibly make that work.

Publishers need to become experts again and to do that they need to specialise. That and to understand that if they want to be doing business with the most commercially minded authors, the one’s who make the serious money and who are not afraid to go it alone, then they need to offer deals that make sense to both parties.



The debate continues....

NickAtkinson7's picture


First I think it's worth acknowledging that the successful self-publishers are well and truly in the minority. If you looked at the amount of commercial success achieved relatively by books that are self-published and books that are published by publishing houses, there would be massive variance. The question is ultimately one of quality and the situation publishing is in mirrors that of film, music and games.

In each of those product categories 'self-publishing' exists. From amateur film-makers, amateur musicians and amateur game-developers. In each case you could list examples where people have achieved success, but it isn't the rule, it's the exception. For every successful amateur musician, there are 1000 who can't master their tracks properly, don't know how to distribute music or market themselves. For every successful amateur film, there are 1000 that never get seen, are poorly edited and have badly mixed soundtracks. For every successful amateur game, there are 1000 with bad collision detection, ropey music and crappy graphics. But in each of those fields, 'publishers' exist to add a level of quality assurance, professionalism, investment, marketing support and experience to ensure the consumer has an excellent experience and that the product is successful. They also act as gatekeepers with some degree of responsibility to the market, to ensure that the consumer is not overwhelmed with crap - failure to achieve this ultimately leads to consumer dissatisfaction with the entire market.

Yes, people like Joe Simpson could become a self-published author, but unless he decides to Touch the Void again, I'm not sure what the benefit is going to be. His book will definitely sell for a long time in small quantities and he might make a little bit extra per unit sold. BUT, he'll lose out on the opportunity to be included in range promotions, backlist promotions and other activity that the publisher gets exposed to.

The role of the publisher is important and only needs to be re-justified to people who don't understand that the collective efforts of groups of well-trained, professional people to deliver a quality customer experience are highly important to preserving the stature that books have always been held in. 

The discussion on royalty rates is valid and won't cease, but for every Joe Simpson that leaves a publisher, there are 10 more people with commercial stories to tell.

For anyone who doesn't agree with my points. Look at this link and tell me that there isn't a role for the publisher. This is what the majority of self-publishing is like:

My final comment is that as a digital native, I am all for innovation and I'd like to support this comment by adding that I also believe the publishing industry does need to keep innovating to grow and survive. BUT, whatever the delivery and marketing mechanisms of the present and future, the fundamental skills and QA that our industry provides, from the smallest publisher to the biggest, and the collective responsibility to publish quality that all industry professionals take very seriously, whether they are publishing a celeb bio or literary fiction, are important and of real value.

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