The author paradox

For the first time this year, our Digital Census survey asked specific questions of authors. Yes, authors, like they’re important. Huh?

Of course, I could easily argue the digital transformation of our industry has reinstated the author at the very centre again and given them a stronger hand than ever. 

So, I thought I'd pull out a few findings from this research that I think worthy of note.

The survey separated self-published and traditionally published authors, which increasingly makes less and less sense, but still gave us a few useful comparisons.

Traditionally-published authors

We asked traditionally-published authors* on a scale from 1 – 10 how satisfied they are with what their publisher achieves (1 – very unsatisfied and 10 – very satisfied). Their* average rating is 6.2, which suggests that publishers serve them reasonably well but hardly a glowing endorsement.

When questioned deeper, these authors gave some interesting views on their publishers’ ebook pricing and marketing strategies;

  • I don’t know their rationale.
  • Their ebooks are overpriced and they do very little differently in promoting them.
  • They have discounted the first book in the series to $2.99 which has boosted sales, but the remainder are at $9.99 which is not an attractive price point.
  • I am not convinced that they have any strategy
  • They've been very slow to respond to the changes in the marketplace and are just now considering e-book price reductions, which I think has been detrimental to my sales.
  • Overpricing, meaning they are unable to compete. 
  • An overly blinkered approach imposed by the parent company's board, allows no flexibility or common sense and my e-sales are about 2% of total.
  • Marketing not great.

These responses reflect at least 80% of author answers. I’m sure not music to publishers’ ears, but rather fundamental questions scream out from this:

  • Are publishers communicating their marketing and pricing strategies with their authors?
  • Can publishers implement a nimble and responsive pricing strategy across their vast numbers of books?
  • Are publishers working closely enough with their authors who understand their market, competitors so well?

Perhaps critically for publishers, when we asked their authors to rate their agreement with the following statement: ‘I have contemplated switching to self-publishing’ 48% agreed with varying passion and 37% disagreed (see pie chart)

Of the self-published authors

Self-published authors seem fairly content with their experiences. Asked about their satisfaction with what they have achieved publishing their own books, their* average rating is 7.0. That compares favorably to a rating of 6.2 among traditionally published authors.

So self published authors enjoy a relatively high level of satisfaction which one would expect based on being in control and having a direct hand in one’s own success. Perhaps surprisingly given this broad satisfaction level we found that 43.3% of self-published authors would ultimately like to get a trade book deal, with 44.3% expressing ambivalence at the idea and only 12.4 % set firmly against.

When asked what advantages they foresaw in a traditional book deal, they gave many answers ranging from validation, distribution, translation rights all the way to increased financial security (which may raise some eyebrows among many traditionally published authors).

However the vast majority cited marketing and publicity as the main area they’d like to access the support from a traditional publisher –  the very same area that had authors railing against their publishers.

So what does all this tell us?

The obvious conclusion seems to be that we are at a significant moment when many authors are weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a self-publishing or traditional publishing route for their work.

A lot of self-published authors, even those who have experienced significant financial success, still seek the kudos of being published traditionally and seeing their work appear in print on the shelves of book stores. The most successful self-published authors are all very quick to point out the amount of effort and hard work it took to market their books. At the same time, they recognise the skills, resources and opportunities of scale and IP exploitation that traditional publishers can help them with. And when offered the opportunity most (but by no means all) have opted for traditionally structured publishing deals.

However, ‘can help them with’ seems to be the key point above. As many traditionally published authors express fairly low levels of satisfaction with their hard-earned trade deals; poor communication, disappointing outcomes and a lack of control. 

This paradox indicates that we are at a crucial moment for publishers to rebalance the bargain struck with authors.

Obviously there will be many differing views on exactly how this rebalancing should play out but there are a few obvious areas that are highlighted by our survey. 

  • Publishers should seek to tap into the huge wealth of enthusiasm and drive present in their roster of authors, not every author wants to become a marketing guru but many would be happy to be much more involved if they were encouraged (and provided the resources) to do so.
  • Where a publisher can’t provide the marketing support that a title requires they should be straightforward about this and seek to facilitate solutions that will help their authors to take a stake in their own success. 
  • The contract between authors and publishers will probably have to evolve to become more of a partnership agreement with more evenly distributed rights & responsibilities on both sides. At last week’s Futurebook conference we heard from several agents who are already seeking to stake out this ground for themselves.

I assume some of this rebalancing is happening and would happily hear from authors and publishers on their experiences and views, as always. 

* Answers from 220 traditionally published authors and 125 self-published authors

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