The Future of the Author-Publisher Relationship

Jane Friedman Foto: Joachim Loch / Kulturstiftung des Bundes

Until the late 1990s, only one viable option existed for 99 percent of authors seeking publication: to gain acceptance from a traditional publisher. While it’s popular to say that authors have been self-publishing since the time of Walt Whitman (if not earlier), the chances of gaining credibility and respect without a publisher’s stamp of approval were slim to none until books started going digital. “Vanity publishing” has been the frequent and derogatory term for just about any self-publishing effort, a term that is still in use today, though now it reveals old-school thinking. As Clay Shirky has said, it is no great or important thing to “publish” something in a digital era. You can publish at the click of a button. The difficult work lies in getting attention in a world of cognitive surplus. Accordingly, more and more, respect tends to go toward those who earn the attention of readers, not those who pass muster with the gatekeepers.

Most authors—before realizing that discoverability is the big problem today—first face the difficulty of choosing how to publish and distribute. Should the author seek a traditional deal? Should they attempt self-publishing, and if so, should it include a print component? Should they partner with one of the growing number of literary agencies offering support services for self-publishing? Should they affiliate themselves exclusively with Amazon for greater promotional opportunities? A small book could be written describing the possibilities now available, then be out of date in a month.

Some authors see opportunity amidst the confusion and change, but many more are paralyzed, worried they will make the wrong choice and damage their careers. In the mean time, publishers have had to defend their value to authors, an inconceivable idea just a few years ago, as a number of successful e-book authors (e.g., J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, Bob Mayer) aggressively speak out against the “legacy publishers,” whom they portray as slow moving, low paying, and generally working against authors’ interests.

I spent more than a decade working at Writer’s Digest, where my job was to understand the problems of writers and give them information and instruction to help them make educated career choices. What is happening today in the publishing industry is confusing to authors as well as hugely divisive. Authors are separating into camps: those who defend traditional publishing and those who defend self-publishing (or the often preferred term, indie publishing). Very few clearly or objectively understand the changes in the industry, which can result in the kind of destructive behavior that we saw when a mob of authors brought down a legitimate e-book lending service, LendInk. If anyone doubted the power of authors working together through online communities, this was a wake-up call. The beliefs and attitudes of authors will in part dictate what the future of publishing looks like. And for many decades now, authors have felt underserved and unsupported by their publishers. Yes, it’s an old cliché—the love/hate relationship between author and publisher—but the authors have reason to be unhappy, and the publishers know it. It’s unnecessary to detail all the ways that authors have become dissatisfied with publishers; anyone working in the industry is familiar with the complaints. We all acknowledge that most books and authors receive limited support and attention, and, for too many authors, this is not what they expect or want from their publisher relationship. Now that many alternative and better-paying publishing paths have opened up, authors are asking publishers “What have you done for me lately?”, and too frequently the answer is “Not enough for the royalty percentage and marketing support you offer.”

Publishers should be worried, but making YouTube videos in response is not the answer. Anyone in publishing who doesn’t see this as a growing problem might reflect on (1) the number of authors who’ve made exclusive deals with Amazon (2) the growing footprint of Amazon’s U.S. publishing program—and don’t forget singles and serials (3) the growing number of agency-based publishing programs and (4) the announcement of high-powered digitally enabled publishing enterprises such as Brightline.

Plenty of start-ups (and industry insiders) think they can beat the Big Six, and it’s not hard for a start-up to offer an author contract that’s better than what the Big Six typically offers. If the Big Six agree that authors are their biggest and most important asset to hold onto, then what are they doing to attract and keep important authors in the future? It certainly hasn’t been an offer of better royalties, even though publishing analyst Mike Shatzkin has suggested that would be wise in the long run.

Fortunately, the Big Six can bank on the ego boost and recognition that most new, unproven authors continue to crave. Most writers also recognize the need for some type of guidance and expertise from industry professionals. And so every major conglomerate publisher is now emphasizing this value they bring to the table—and they are right to do so—but after an author gets his feet under him, gains credibility, and builds a direct relationship with his audience (a requirement for many authors to get published in the first place), of what use is the traditional publisher to an established author?

I’ve already mentioned that publishing—the act itself—is no difficult matter. There are more than 32 million books in print according to Bowker. In September 2012, Thad McIlroy estimated more than 56,000 ebooks were released for the U.S. Kindle in a matter of 30 days. What overwhelms every author of every stripe is how to create sustained and meaningful word of mouth about her book, and how to build a network of people she can call on to assist in the varied marketing and promotion effort it takes to equal one sale—not to mention keeping current with the digital and technical advancements (and the shifting demands of social media) that change what buttons we all press to make a book appear on the radar of interested readers.

Let’s assume corporate publishers have both experience and expertise in dealing with these matters on a mass scale, giving them more knowledge and ability than a single author working alone, or even in a small collective. How much are publishers empowering their authors—regardless of how “important” that author is to their season—so the authors know how to effectively support their own book? The kind of advice I’m seeing and hearing is confusing and limited: “Make sure you have a website.” “Get on Twitter.” “Build a relationship with your audience.” “Start a blog.” All utterly useless advice and frustrating for the author to hear—because they’ve seen other authors do these things and fail at selling their book even with a recognized publisher’s imprint.

At this point, publishers might advise authors: Go hire someone to help you. Invest your advance in hiring a marketing person. This brings us to yet another problem that has yet to be effectively solved for authors. Finding reliable help that is worth the investment has become a matter of luck—especially when authors aren’t educated in what services should cost, or what results they can expect. Because of the increasing need for every author to amplify their own marketing efforts, a thousand and one new offerings have cropped up, most of them from people who have no industry experience and would fail at marketing their own book. (We’ve all seen social media or SEO experts whose knowledge probably extends no further than the last Dummies guide.)

The future I would like to propose is one in which the publisher truly serves as a partner that seeks to empower its authors, and freely shares as much knowledge and information as it has available. Those of us who have worked in publishing know that publishers are rarely forthcoming with authors about marketing plans or sales data, and we hold back information—we don’t want to open up “a can of worms.” But this mindset can’t survive in a future where each author expects full transparency and up-to-date information from business partners, not to mention trust and respect. Authors shouldn’t be told they are responsible for marketing and promotion while not be given all the tools needed to be successful at the task, but that is exactly what is happening today. Authors will have too many options to accept such a situation in the future.

Information sharing by publishers is merely the first step. Education (especially for first-time authors) and ongoing networking and advancement (for established authors) must be provided if authors agree to sign contracts that pay them less than a direct-to-consumer retailer like Amazon. Publishers, for the first time, have to earn their keep by providing a value that extends beyond production and distribution—and possibly even editorial direction. The biggest problem that authors must solve for themselves, year after year, is (1) staying competitive, current, and discoverable in a shifting digital landscape (2) having the right tools to be effective and in touch with their readers, and (3) having a strong network of connections that helps them better market and promote. All of these things are well within a publisher’s ability to assist with, only they haven’t been putting any resource into providing such assistance. They have been focused on their own corporate problems of shifting to a digitally enabled business, and squeezing as many sales as possible out of their mastery of print book sales and distribution. Most of the thinking is centered on self-preservation. But I’d like to suggest that the best self-preservation measure of all is becoming a house that’s known and respected for—in the eyes of its authors—being an active, long-term partner and resource. By empowering each author to do better, the publisher is ensuring more sales over the long term. Here are 3 key ways in which such a strategy pays off.

Reaching more readers directly

For years, publishers have known that they need to build more relationships directly with readers, rather than relying on the bookstore or e-retailer relationship to service readers. The latter approach has led to an industry that has very limited ability to market direct to consumer, which is where a huge part of Amazon’s power lies. Authors are in a key position to reach readers directly, but most are ignorant of its importance, and of how to turn reader contact today into revenue tomorrow. Publishers by now understand how to do this, and can assist authors with a direct marketing strategy—while also collecting names to benefit the entire house.

More meaningful online touchpoints

A surprising number of authors have ineffective websites, even harmful to business in some cases. A publisher’s development of their own unique website content is mostly a waste; efforts should be put into the authors’ online presence, where readers are more likely to stick and engage for the long term. (There are a handful of publishers that have websites with truly meaningful content and online community because of readers’ relationship with an imprint, e.g., Tor, Harlequin, and my former employer, Writer’s Digest. But most Big Six publishing “brands”—Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, etc—are not in that position.) If authors can be made more effective online—not just at their own website, but across a variety of social media and retailer sites—over time that will result in more touchpoints and opportunities to reach readers, more points of sale, and more meaningful discussion of a publisher’s titles wherever that author is active.

Better cross-promoting, marketing, and networking

Most publishers already consider cross-promotion of titles when possible, but how many are connecting authors with each other because of similarities in readership? Aside from facilitating more across-house author communication and knowledge sharing, a publisher is in the best position to help individual authors understand when they can increase the size of their audience by partnering with one or more of the house’s authors. This model has been perfected by Hay House, which specializes in the New Age vertical. Publishers can be so focused on marketing specific titles that they ignore the longer term marketing and sales opportunity of helping its authors network and share contacts and strategies in targeting a shared audience.

The list of benefits could easily double the length of this article, not to mention that putting authors in communication with each other creates snowballing knowledge of what buttons to push in order to sell more books. But there are several tactics that are essential to delivering the benefits above:

  1. The idea of an author collective—where authors assist each other in branding, marketing, and promotion—isn’t something publishers should leave to happen outside their doors, or leave to chance; it should be facilitated and nurtured by someone inside the publishing house.
  2. An author education program is essential: a mix of 101/evergreen education (in the form of white papers, webinars, tutorials, screencasts, and Q&As), and one-off events on advanced and emerging topics. No publisher should assume an author knows anything about how to run her career as a business. They need to be instructed, and they should receive instruction narrowly focused on their needs as an author.
  3. No publisher can be considered serious about author partnership unless they have at least one position (if not a small division) devoted to author development and community. Education and online community doesn’t happen through volunteer work or off-hours efforts. It must be baked into the company’s mission and strategy.

The ideas suggested here are but a start, and should be taken in ever-more innovative directions. What if publishers allowed their own authors to help direct what future books or authors were invested in? What if authors became writers-in-residence at publishing houses? What if publishers held annual events to gather all its authors—both for internal education and communication, as well as for readers/consumers?

Publishers of the future, regardless of how books develop in digital form, will always have relationships with authors. Publishers can distinguish themselves with authors not necessarily by being the most technically advanced, or the most innovative in media creation and distribution, but by being an empowering partner.

But will this strategy truly work to recruit and retain the most valuable authors? What if authors suck up a publisher’s resources, then jump ship? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about authors, it’s that they do not want to be alone in their efforts; they want partners. They want a community of people they can trust. They want reliable resources and ongoing education—and this is without even considering how the digitization of literature and reading affects authorship and storytelling, and how the responsibilities and vision of an author need to evolve. The job of an author—the business of being a successful author—never ends. It is a lifelong commitment and journey. If publishers invested in the most important marketing tool of all—the author—the rewards will secure them a place in whatever future awaits us all.

 

Here you can listen to Jane Friedmans talk at the LitFlow-Thinktank.