Monday, August 20, 2012

Writers are not happy with their publishers

From the UK last week: a survey of published authors. Two-thirds of respondents have published three or more books. And nearly three-quarters were published by a Big Six UK publisher (Random House, HarperCollins, etc.), a serious independent press (Faber, Canongate, etc.), or academic/educational/professional outfit (such as a university press). In other words, not amateurs.

In my thoughts below I'm paraphrasing the results and so, no doubt, taking liberties of interpretation. But, hey, the data's there for all to see. Go look for yourself.

First of all, and no surprise: the money is pitiful. Around 59% of the writers surveyed got an advance of less than ₤5,000 for their most recent book. (Remember, the majority of these writers have published three or more books with big, serious publishers. And given that most books take at least a year to write--it takes me longer--this is abysmally far from a living wage.) Despite that, during the  first few questions the publishers seem to be coming out well: nearly three-quarters of respondents found the editorial input from their publishers good or excellent, and more than 80% thought the production values to be so. When it comes to feeling paid promptly--which, for this author at least, is one of the prime indicators of satisfaction--this sinks a bit to about two-thirds.

But then everything goes to hell.

Marketing and communications is clearly a big problem: well over three-quarters felt unguided by the publisher. About half felt that communication after publication was poor. As a result, nearly three-quarters of these professional writers are seriously considering self-publishing in the future.

I haven't seen data like these from North America or Australia or India, never mind other-language markets, so it's difficult to extrapolate to literature in general. But I feel it safe to say that a substantial number of writers in the UK are less than happy with the way things currently work in publishing.

In most professions, this level of unhappiness would lead to change: industrial action, radical reform, or mass exodus. But (and I speak from personal experience) writers are lazy people, and publishing as a field has a history of whingeing.

Nonetheless, if were to extrapolate from this survey to the future of publishing in this country, I'd predict divergence of the writing ecosystem into at least three layers:

  • The Ivy League of writers who attend the best MFA courses and sell their literary fiction or creative non-fiction to the top tier old-school presses (FSG, Knopf, etc). These presses, in turn, sell their books via all the usual online retailers; through carefully curated reading series; and in the few remaining, powerful indie bookstores. The books will be reviewed on NPR, in the NYTRB, and on the biggest book websites.
  • Young, fiery self-pubbed phenoms who will be astoundingly creative at raising money, crowd-sourcing skills and resources, and finding new ways to sell.
  • A colourful variety of nimble hybrid presses who fill the in-between space, recruiting from both proven self-pubbers and litfic grandees who fancy changing their game. Some will be d-only, some p-only, some p-o-d, some bundling all of the above with performance or education; some paying advances, some profit-sharing. Etc. That is, every permutation you can think of, and no doubt many we can't yet.
In other words--and no surprises here, either--the changes we've already seen will accelerate. In the way of all change it will happen a little bit at a time and then all at once.

I'd love to see a similar survey of editors, and independent booksellers, and literary marketing professionals, and from more than one country. Then we'd start to really get a picture of what's going on. But this I'm sure of: change is. We are in it. Enjoy the ride.
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