A few weeks ago I attended a conference called The Space Between Us, which was about the intersection between literature and technology. The exceptionally interesting James Bridle gave the keynote. I was especially curious, though, to hear Sophie Rochester of The Literary Platform speak about ‘Ethical reading’. Her provocation, so to speak, was that the publishing industry – buffeted by technological change, price wars, and myriad Intellectual Property issues – might learn something from the Fair Trade movement. She suggested there might be an ethical way to buy books; that by paying a little more, book buyers can guarantee a decent return to both the author and the publisher, and by doing so help to sustain the publishing ‘ecosystem’. (You can read Sophie’s and Ewan Morrison’s takes here.)
I have been pondering whether to write about this issue of ethical reading. I run a small, independent publishing company, with about 25 titles currently in print. Mostly poetry. A niche within a niche. I am also a “commercial” publisher: I receive no funding from the Arts Council or anyone else, but must make a profit on every book I sell. This is obviously difficult, especially when I am in direct competition (both for readers and authors) with subsidised presses.
Now, I am pretty well-off compared to, say, a factory worker in China or coffee bean picker in Colombia – so I’m hesitant to make the direct leap to the Fair Trade movement. I’m also in charge of my own business and have no employees (though I do have responsibilities towards my twenty or so authors). I am also very uncomfortable with making any kind of moral or ethical call to my readers or potential readers. I would like people to buy my books because they want to read great literature, not because they feel obliged to contribute towards my electricity bill. Neither my company nor my authors are charity cases.
But operating as an unsubsidised small press is becoming increasingly untenable in a world in which Amazon achieves such huge discounts and is able to undercut most other retailers, thereby reducing publishers’ margins to negligible amounts. Where is the fairness in that? How does a small press continue to create space for risky literature? I think the case can now be made, directly to readers. This is not about hectoring, but educating book buyers so that they can make an informed choice.
So let’s talk figures
Say I publish a book and decide on a retail price (RRP) of £10, where it costs £3 to print. The author receives a royalty of 10% of the book’s net price – that’s what I receive for selling each copy, after discounts to retailers and/or wholesalers. If I sell directly into a bookshop, the bookshop will normally pay 65% of the RRP, so in this case £6.50. The author would then receive 65p, and once printing costs are taken into account, my profit would be £2.85.
If a bookshop orders through my wholesaler (the marvellous Central Books) a further cut will be taken of around 25%. This reduces the author’s royalty to about 50p and my profit to£2 or so. Not great, but still in profit.
Amazon, however, undercut everyone else by offering huge discounts, and those discounts have to be paid for – by the publisher. My latest book, an anthology called Adventures in Form, is currently being sold for £6.93 on Amazon, despite retailing at £9.99. You can imagine how little I make from each sale.
Now a couple of other things.
1. These figures do not include postage and packing, which normally is paid by the publisher.
2. Booksellers usually buy from wholesalers on a sale-or-return basis, which effectively means they can take copies of your book, sling ’em on shelves, and if they don’t sell, return them to your wholesaler and get their money back.
3. The ‘profit’ I receive for each book must cover my time commissioning, editing, typesetting, proofing, liaising with printers and designers, design itself, marketing, press, everything.
So what is the ethical alternative to Amazon?
Well, for a small press like mine, you could – as many do – order through my website (I use Paypal, which is a very effective and widely-used online shopping tool). This is the best way to support the press, because the entire cover price comes to me. If this seems like a lot of profit, you’re right – because sales through my website are effectively subsidising sales through Amazon. But buying through my website comes with other benefits. It’s the quickest option, as I tend to do three or four post runs every week. And your book won’t have been slung around a giant warehouse, or gathering dust on a shelf. And it won’t get lost. It might even come with a personalised note of thanks from me. Most importantly I will pay the highest royalty to the author (£1 on a £10 book).
Even better, attend one of our numerous events and pick up a book there.
One way in which some publishers get round the problem of discounting is to increase the RRP of their books accordingly. So, to continue with my example, I would increase the £10 book to £13, thus achieving more favourable margins when selling to Amazon. This is something I have considered. Discounts could be offered on my own website too, so that direct buyers are not unfairly discriminated against. But I am loathe to do this. It feels somehow like a dishonest practice. It would also hurt trade sales (to bookshops). Like it or not, the RRP still says something about a book, and the value you put on it. It helps to generate and shape a possible readership. This is one of the ways Amazon has changed the game, and raising my RRPs may be the only option if I want to sustain my business in the long-term.
I want to end by stressing that this is not a desperate plea, but an articulation of some concerns I have. By making transparent some of my publishing methods, I hope that informed readers might think twice before going to Amazon when looking to purchase a book which could otherwise be acquired through a more direct route. But I hold no grudge against those who do not. Amazon remains incredibly convenient and reliable, and I continue to use them myself (though infrequently). Mainly, I just want to produce and market great books that people want to read – and to sell them through any and all avenues.
Please let me know if you have any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or have spotted any factual errors. Just leave a comment underneath.
There’s got to be room for someone to set up a Fairtrade-style books website which guarantees author and publisher a fair portion of the income. Once it’s up and running, how long before most small publishers – perhaps even some majors – take the risk of withdrawing completely from Amazon?
Thanks Jon. It’s an interesting question. I may start withdrawing some of my titles from my distributor altogether (limited edition things), though I am hesitant about responding to the situation by withdrawing into the arthouse/micro-press model.
Didn’t people used to see The Book Depository as a more ethical alternative to Amazon? I’m not sure why, I just remember it being voiced more than once.
Inpress is a good alternative (www.inpressbooks.co.uk) though of course they are a sales agency for a roster of publishers (of which I’m one) so are in that respect exclusive.
I agree with Jon – a fair trade-minded website would make sense – but it’s worth noting that that’s the sort of competition Amazon would gleefully gobble up if they could (I believe that’s what happened to the Book Depisitory). Also, companies like ABE books, which started out as an excellent way of putting all the secondhand bookshop databases in easy reach of customers, have fallen out of favour in some quarters for happily swimming towards the Amazon business model once they had all the businesses where they wanted them. The bookshop I used to work for will certainly have no truck with them.
If a happy medium, run by people who won’t sell out at the first, second, third or fourth sniff of money pots, can be reached, then all the better. The sad part is that it’s likely that this would have an even more deleterious effect on bookshops…
Thanks Adam. I have this image of Amazon as Pacman. Gobble gobble gobble.
Yes, but a Pacman that only gets to eat the power pills and is permanently chasing ever more alarmed-looking ghostly minnows.
Oh noes, how did I miss this conference? Both Sophie and James (and of course, you Tom) are doing some very interesting stuff. Clearly my carefully honed twitter and RSS algorithms
What a fascinating discussion. I’m not quite sure the poetry (or any book) market equates quite with fair trade policies, though? If I want bananas I can buy supermarket bananas or fair trade bananas. Ditto coffee. The bananas will be pretty much identical. The coffee may taste a bit different because coffees do differ but they are basically the same thing. But if I buy a book it’s because I want that particular book by that particular poet; if s/he’s available on several sites I might chose the “fair” one but would that be the business model?
Thanks Myfanwy. Interesting question. My short answer would be: yes. Although a fair trade banana may be different in quality to a non-fair trade banana, is it not also true to say that one fair trade banana may be different (in quality, texture, colour, etc) from another fair trade banana? Such is the nature of bananas.
What the fair trade label does is not primarily differentiate quality or style, but indicate the application of a particular business model – in this case, one which strives to fairly reward all participants in the production of said banana/coffee/book. It is in that sense an ‘ethical’ decision, rather than one merely based on whether you like your banana ripe, overripe or covered in caramel.
When I opened up this discussion, I didn’t imagine it would lead to me writing the line, ‘Such is the nature of bananas’.
If you already post out book orders from your website could you not list your books as an amazon trader and set your own prices for them? Or is that not allowed?
Just seems like a solution for small presses to get around the discounts.
I get annoyed about Fair Trade always being about bananas and coffee – it doesn’t have to be foreign for it to be fair trade. I understand the poverty situation having been in places like Kenya working for charities but I see no reason it shouldn’t be applied to everything including home grown (think farms starting farm shops to get out of the super markets grip). I also think it is basically only ever going to be something that middle class and higher are going to really worry about – mainly as there is that spare cash capacity or perceived capacity there (poorer people want to be fair but will opt for pound stretchers).
I think if something like an ethical book store was to be made it would need to go along the lines of the Open Source software communities.
Amazon has the lure of being easy as well – if your getting one thing you might as well get it all there etc…
Which brings us back to Amazon, by way of Ian Hislop: if this [Amazon’s business model] is fair trading, then I am a banana…
Many thanks Sarah, that’s a thought-provoking comment. I’m not sure about the Amazon trader thing. Part of me worries about doing any kind of official link-up with Amazon, given their track record for unscrupulous behaviour. Any other publishers care to comment about this?
I agree with what you say about Fair Trade, but I don’t believe it necessarily always has to be a ‘middle class’ concern. Of course it’s likely those with higher disposable income will lead the way in terms of being able to make that decision, but I think it would only be a matter of time until a wider demographic had access to that option. Also, in my experience of selling books, I have plenty of working class readers/buyers and they are no less loyal or willing to pay a fair amount for a good book.
NB: the Rochester/Morrison piece on the Literary Platform (linked at top of article) looks at this issue too.
Seems as if my blog is rather timely.
“Big Six publishers decline to renew contract with Amazon over unfavorable terms”
I will check the links out
It’s good to see these articles as authors and readers need to see the figures. It’s worth mentioning that some publishers (including Ward Wood) always pay the author 10% of cover price royalties, cutting into the income even more. We don’t lose out by the discounts on Amazon and Book Depository, so I don’t mind people buying there, as they all pay Central Books the same price. Like you, we’re with Central Books and they always charge the same price to retailers like Amazon, bookshops etc, so discounted prices, 3 for 2 offers on the Waterstones website etc, make no difference to us. My main problem with Amazon is that they are unreliable at supplying the books but take orders from customers and hold on to them indefinitely. Perhaps you’re just one step ahead of me and they only supply the books if we make this heavily discounted arrangement. Book Depository has been very good for us, gives buyers a low price, pays the full Central Books price, delivers quickly around the world with free delivery. We can’t beat them on price and postage and they replace the many books that seem to go missing in the post around the world. I do agree that it seems the only way forward is to let readers know how important it is for them to support small presses.
I’m against Amazon for other reasons. The way they don’t supply many or most of the books they display is one. By accepting orders for our books and not supplying them they lose us a large number of orders. Publishers have been arguing with them about this for years and nobody knows why they do it. The other is the way they’re monopolising ebooks. We’re about to put our books with Kobo too, and have to opt out of some of the main marketing methods on Kindle because they demand exclusivity – we wouldn’t be allowed to sell with any other ebook retailer. They can also pay us little or nothing if they price match our ebooks and take a 65% commission for sales to some countries. The fact that Amazon have lower VAT on Kindle books because they’re registered in Luxembourg means that other retailers, like Kobo, have to put much higher VAT on the price. It’s really important to build up the competition for Amazon, particularly with ebooks. Amazon won’t allow public libraries in the UK to lend out Kindle books, even though they will in the US, but libraries can lend out books on Kobo. We’re working hard at our ePub ebooks for the Kobo and other devices including the Nook from Barnes and Noble which should be the Waterstones ereader soon. The expansion of the ebook market could really help small publishers, but Amazon is making that difficult with some of the problems outlined above, and also because their focus is on ebooks as a huge self publishing market with loads of freebies and cheapies and readers unable to find the good books in the heap. Despite this I’ve been surprised to find it’s often easier to sell ebooks than print books even at a decent price.
Very interesting, Tom. I’m a huge fan of Penned in the Margins. One of the things we were seen as cutting off our noses to spite our faces for doing when I started eight cuts gallery press was not making our books available through Amazon or major retail chains that would want to take a massive whack. We publish hard to place books (I don’t know if you’d call them edgy or risky but we have lyric, unpunctuated novellas and collections that mix poetry and prose so hard to place for sure) and have had some nice press for our very few titles. We took the no Amazon decision on ethical grounds for exactly the “pay the authors” reason (there’s some interviews about the strategy linked at http://eightcuts.com/submissions/what-people-say-about-us/ ) and also because we want to create very close bonds with great independent stores. But mainly so we can pay our authors a decent amount (about £2 a book for an £8 paperback) because we sell most of our copies direct – either online or at shows. We were roundly accused of cheating our authors for not making books available on Amazon or through the chains but even if the (excellent) ethical case were ignored, I don’t follow the logic of that. Tiny niches that carve out reputations and nurture authors both online and through live shows will create a dedicated fanbase who will not only be prepared but would like to go direct. You also have an instant point of differentiation. And I’ve seen the Amazon ranks of books similar to ours that sell paperbacks through Amazon and no one can say that we have denied authors thousands of sales!
I’d add the importance (something I’ve discussed with Ewan after one of his fascinating pieces) of limited edition high production value runs for both creating publicity and making money. And also a subscription model – like Peirene or And Other Stories have – not like Unbound’s pay for a product that doesn’t exist yet model, but ordering the year’s releases in advance direct from the publisher.
Bring back the NBA (according to which publishers set book prices, not retailers? This isn’t going to happen. But if France and Germany can have laws restricting discounting (in France to around a max of 5%, I believe), thereby enabling far more independent bookshops – and presses too – to thrive than in the UK, why not here?
(This would not necessarily mean higher prices for buyers. At present, large-scale discounting actually forces the cover ‘recommended retail price’ price up: if a large proportion of a publisher’s sales are going to be through the places that discount heavily, that publisher raises the cover price to protect its own margins.)
This is hardly an obvious vote-winner, hardly top of the politicians’ to-do list. But the present system is a mess (see also, in parallel to Tom’s piece above, another recent piece by Sharon Blackie of Two Ravens: http://www.tworavenspress.com/TRP%20Publishing,%20four%20and%20a%20half%20years%20on.html). The cultural arguments would surely support legislation restricting discounts, and I think many relevant organisations, such as the Society of Authors, might also support this. Is there not some form of trade ombudsman to whom the arguments could be put?
Charles – Agreed! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Dan – Thank you. It’s very interesting to hear about different models. So many new ways of generating readerships in the ‘digital age’.
Adele – Thanks for your very honest contribution… and especially to hear that Amazon’s strong-arm tactics extend to e-books too. What many publishers are fighting isn’t new technology / the future, but specific corporate business models that destroy margins and exclude the marginal.
There’s something I’m not understanding here. You can have books listed on Amazon, Book Depository, Waterstones etc without discounting them. They offer large discounts and 3 for 2 offers but they still all pay us exactly the same amount. We don’t have to give that discount – they do.
We do have one set price which our distributor Central Books charges all of them. I’m sure the retailers must be running at a loss on some books, especially with the free international postage, but that’s not a loss to us. The question of whether or not retailers should legally be allowed to have ‘loss leaders’ is another one.
We register our books with Nielsen, have the set price with our distributor, and for me it’s important to give our authors this wide showcase with all online retailers. I don’t like Amazon but didn’t have to make a decision to go with them or not. As with all the online retailers our books appear automatically.
Book Depository have never asked us for an additional discount. The majority of our sales probably go through Book Depository, although we try hard and do get our books into shops too, including some wonderful independent bookshops, but Waterstones is also very supportive.
I hope Book Depository doesnt change too much after the Amazon takeover goes through, but I suppose they will. At the moment they are the best method for getting our books out to our international following. It’s hard to cost justify international sales with the price of postage, but they clearly do it at a bit of a loss.
With Amazon, as the listing goes up automatically, but they don’t supply the books (sometimes they decide to supply a book and sometimes they don’t) so we use that listing to add ourselves as resellers. We get quite a few sales direct to our website from that listing.
I don’t completely understand what Tom said about Amazon selling the books for a 60% commission. Is this because you have decided to list your books with Amazon Advantage? We haven’t done that and I’m not sure if we should. If publishers do that, then presumably that’s why Amazon choose not to supply books for small publishers as we get pushed into that option.
Tom – the ebook situation is much more serious. Amazon are monopolising the ebook market and it’s hard to see a way out of it that will let others compete. They were way ahead of the others with the Kindle, which is good in one way as it developed the ebook market. But they crush everybody else out by demanding exclusivity if we use their promotional schemes (like KDP Select which lets us lend out our books in the Kindle Lending Library in the US). We have to agree to put our ebooks with no other retailer, so we experimented with it before realising and are now opting out as we want to be with Kobo and Nook (Waterstones) too.
One problem is that Kindle ebooks have become part of a huge self publishing business for Amazon – in fact, to me, they have become the largest and most successful self publishing business we have ever seen. The self published authors on Kindle see Amazon as their saviour, able to free them from the ‘tyranny of publishers’ who they often speak about in hostile terms if we try to do anything to get better conditions from Amazon.
The self publishing side of the business keeps ebook prices extremely low or free, while giving little rewards to the self published authors for taking part, and is very damaging to the expansion of the ebook market for publishers, who really need it. We do manage to sell ebooks at just a few pounds lower than the print book price, but Amazon is putting obstacles in the way.
I’m hoping they have shot themselves in the foot by demanding exclusivity from publishers with ebooks, and by the price matching that means they can even pay nothing at times. They even make it look as if they are the publisher, paying us what they call ‘royalties’ for the books rather than commission. The self published authors regard Amazon as their publisher and find the ‘royalties’ they get for selling on Kindle fair when compared to the royalties traditional publishers pay. So publishers find themselves mixed up in what feels like a self publishing operation where the books are demeaned and devalued.
By not letting Kindle books be loaned out in public libraries in the UK they have infuriated the many people who bought Kindles precisely to borrow books, and people who bought Kindles for elderly relatives to use in the library. Of course they direct this anger at the libraries as everybody thinks Amazon wants to sell all books, and loan all books. Their marketing has made the public trust them so completely.
Hopefully this will lead to publishers turning away from the huge self publishing operation that Amazon has become and put their ebooks on Kobo and Nook and others too. The competition should build this year and I’m curious to see how it ends.
In what sense is your ability to compete in the marketplace an issue of “fairness”? In what sense is the survival of your business model, or not, a question of ethics?
If the price Amazon (or any other retailer) is willing to pay for your products is unacceptable to you, are you not entitled to stop selling to Amazon?
@Greg – Listings on Amazon are automatic when we register our books with Nielsen Bookscan, and we need to do that in order to have our books displayed on all online retail sites, and so that bookshops can order. They all use Nielsen Bookscan to order from our distributor. So it’s not really a question of choosing to sell or not sell on Amazon. It’s automatic.
As for choosing to accept the prices they pay publishers, we don’t really have that problem as we don’t have any deals with them. They sell our books or they don’t, and Amazon Resellers automatically list themselves as sellers of our books. So Amazon make money out of our books in one way or another and it is out of our control. We can’t completely cut them out unless we cut ourselves out of Nielsen Bookscan.
We don’t choose to use Amazon Advantage which would let us supply books ordered from Amazon with them taking a 60% discount. I think that’s the discount people must be talking about. I’m not sure if that kind of discount is viable and it’s certainly not fair. If we did it I’d also be worried that they might leave us stuck in that position and wouldn’t supply any of our books. Amazon Advantage would be much more profitable for them so why would they?
Choosing not to have books displayed on Amazon would be a problem. Unfortunately most buyers see Amazon as a one stop source of information about books including availability and price. Even if they don’t buy there it’s important to be listed. We publish novels and it’s more important for fiction I think. Poetry mainly sells in other ways perhaps, although it does sell online. Amazon rarely supplies poetry. Book Depository has been great for increasing our poetry sales and doesn’t ask us for a discount.
The price Amazon will pay publishers and authors, if they’re using the Amazon Advantage scheme, makes it impossible to sell to them so I’m sure many don’t. You can look up the discounts they ask for (I believe it’s 60% plus they can discount the book so the price they pay could end up lower than the price we pay to print the books).
It’s known that Amazon can make or break a book because it’s the one-stop place buyers go to. We have continually directed people to Book Depository instead, if they want to buy from an online retailer other than us, but still the majority insist they’ll go on the waiting list with Amazon. They are held on that waiting list forever, or until they give up. Book Depository has now been bought by Amazon and the takeover has been given the go-ahead, so we’ll have to see which other online retailers provide competition for Amazon.
Some authors I know go with the Amazon Advantage scheme, even at a loss, and even though they sell a lot of books at a loss, because they feel it’s important for their following to find them on Amazon. Hopefully another competitor will develop online to replace Book Depository. Presumably Waterstones and W H Smith. Greg, you’re quite right to say we don’t have to sell to any of these places if they demand such a high commission. In general they will sell our books anyway. Amazon won’t. They display all books but there’s a huge percentage of books on their website that they have no intention of supplying – but they take the orders and hold on to the customers.
Sorry I double posted. One of my replies wasn’t accepted yesterday so I posted another today and it seems to have bumped the other into place too!
Greg, many thanks for your questions, which are rightly challenging. One answer would be that I don’t believe that ethics and the free market are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the free market is entirely dependent on a set of agreed rules and mutual trust. Competition without some rules and regulations of trust and fairness would produce the starkest form of Darwinian, dog-eat-dog capitalism. Of course, many believe that’s what we currently have in place!
There is a reason that most countries have in place substantial protections for / limits on the market, for example laws against fraud or monopolies. I think there is a growing sense in the publishing industry that Amazon’s busines practice constitutes a monopoly of (online) book-selling. As they move into e-books and self-publishing, this dominance is now pretty concerning.
As for your second question – shouldn’t I just stop selling to Amazon – camdenlumen & Adele have answered it better than I could. Obviously the news from the ‘Big Six’ publishers that they have rejected Amazon’s new deal is very significant, and may encourage a wider shift in the publishing industry.
Finally, if we’re speaking of fairness and the free market, is it fair that the government subsidises my competition? (via the Arts Council.) We operate in a complicated and mixed economy.
Hi Tom, thanks for the response. For the record, I’m not a libertarian — I’m fine with government intervention in and regulation of markets, in principle. At that point, it just becomes a question of policy: Is such-and-such case a good time and place to intervene, what is the benefit, who receives the benefit, etc.
My point was, I think, more broad. Your sense of “fairness” seems to be whatever allows your business to earn the kinds of margins you feel you deserve — and that probably sounds more harsh than I intend! But your argument seems to be, “The prices at which Amazon sells books are too low for me to earn the margins I need, and that’s not fair.”
Well, I’m truly sorry, but it doesn’t strike me as the least bit “unfair.” And to the point, I don’t see the social injustice (child labor, unsafe working conditions, mass environmental degradation, conflict exploitation) that drives “fair trade” movements here. I see a niche business in a field being rocked by transformative technology struggling to compete, and that’s rough. (I owned and operated a small press in a niche-of-a-niche — roleplaying games that aren’t D&D. I’m feeling you.)
By all means, encourage your customers to buy direct rather than from Amazon so you can make better margins. I have no problem with that. But if it turns out you can’t compete, if it turns out the old model doesn’t work in a world of Amazons and zero-marginal-cost digital distribution…if it turns out your business as currently constituted can’t survive…that’s not “unfair” and no one who chose to do business with Amazon has done anything “unethical.”
BTW, regarding Amazon’s “monopoly” (monopsony?) in online bookselling, their market share has gone from 90%+ to 60% in the past couple years. That’s not a monopoly, and the way to prevent them from gaining one is for other companies (Apple, B&N, Sony, etc.) to effectively compete with them for market share.
Greg, many thanks. I didn’t know about Amazon’s declining market share, so thanks for – erm – ‘sharing’ that. Very interesting, and quite positive I suppose. Amazon is still of course a huge player and the market-leader. I agree with you that the fair trade movement is not an exact fit with what’s going on in publishing (and as I hope came across in my original post I don’t see myself as some kind of embattled coffee-grower crushed by the corporate behemoth of Amazon – I really don’t!). I suppose my way of ‘competing’ is just this – to inform my readers in an honest but non-moralising way about the options they have as consumers.
I do think the Arts Council could spread the funding out a little to help more publishers. I haven’t actually applied and started Ward Wood imagining funding would be unlikely, but in fact ACE do seem to be funding some excellent new ventures like the Poetry Book Fair and Loose Muse. It may be naive of me but it strikes me they could fund something specific for each publisher which has a definite cost that can be demonstrated. For example, a certain amount towards printing costs for a number of publishers. I did fill in a funding form for something else once and saw how publishers fill in these forms as an example of what to do. The amount of funding a publisher can get per book is quite high and also quite vague and unspecific. Various people can be added with the cost of their work as editors, promoters etc. I would be happy to give ACE proof of the cost of a print run and they could finance a certain number of them per publisher. Perhaps a silly idea but it would help.
Hi Adele, I’ve had tons of experience fundraising from the Arts Council – but all for live projects, tours, etc… never for publishing/books. It was pointed out some years ago that new publishing technologies (eg. digital/short-run printing) has made it a lot more affordable for small publishers to produce books. What (still) costs money is editing and marketing. I would like to see some publishers’ grants reflect this new reality. Public money not for producing lots of paper-bound books that just sit in warehouses, but money for finding and developing (sorry I know it’s an overused word) sustainable audiences for poetry and other niche literary forms.
Yes, good about Poetry Book Fair being funded, but it’s pretty small news compared to the big thumbs up ACE gave to the Faber New Poets Scheme, which I disagreed with on a number of levels (whilst still liking and respecting Faber’s editor and most of the poets involved).
Interesting read! I remember talking about this during my internship 🙂 I thought I’d pick up on some other points rather than repeat what other people have written. I think one comment you made about loyalty is key, and having events as well obviously helps this area. If readers are more knowledgeable about the publishers (rather than just simply buying a specific author) then they will get a feel for the taste of that press. Although it means keeping up appearances by various marketing techniques, it also means that those that know about the press will be more likely to return to buy new titles.
It has drawn my attention to Amazon’s monopoly of publishing and induced a bit of guilt in my recent venture into self-publishing. However, I did it as an experiment (having been very adverse to all that) and believe that I have proven myself right in the need for a publisher. Although I’m yet to follow the marketing plans of past eBook success stories, I doubt my attempt will even lead me in being able to say “look at me, I’m popular, give me a book deal!”
Anyway, in terms of finding better ways of economizing as a sole trader, I’ve been learning about “live-work” spaces. They may not be for everyone but I recently saw a great one that a visual artist has just bought – they live in it but also will be installing a special spray room for the chemicals they use and it will double up as an exhibition space. That’s a whole other story though!
Thanks for your comment Carmina! Just on the point about events etc, the new landscape in which we all find ourselves might, I think, benefit those publishers who are able to engage with their readership/audiences through other avenues – for instance, through social networking or live events. In the same way that touring has once again become the biggest earner for most musicians post-mp3.
And as Adele has pointed out, poetry publishers have always sold well at events.
I completely agree with you about how funding is allocated, Tom. Especially when reading on The Bookseller website today that Faber has ‘record profits’ this year.
I also agree that the only way is to inform readers and encourage them to choose ways of buying that will help keep the smaller publishers going, because it is in their interest.
I welcomed Amazon at first because it had always been so hard for me to buy poetry. I used to travel from Canterbury to London to go to the Compendium Bookshop in Camden, as that was the nearest place with a good selection. Amazon seemed like a godsend – finally all publishers could have their books easily available to buyers, including people like me who wanted poetry and literary fiction.
But instead, the practices outlined in previous posts mean they are killing the small publishers as well as the bookshops. I still think other online book retail sites are an important answer to making poetry and literary fiction easily available, because buyers have some kind of reluctance to buying from the publisher or author website, and so I also direct buyers to other websites and keep driving the message home that Amazon do not supply our books even though they display them and take orders. They are not the one-stop place for book buyers people believe them to be.
The growing number of blogs on this subject will help inform buyers (and new publishers). Perception is everything, and Amazon have created a perception about their brand which is not true – that they are willing to sell all books easily. We have to buy into their agreements, and often can’t without running at a loss so many of the books they display are not going to be supplied if ordered.
Although Stride Books finished a few years ago now, I can only agree with some of the comments above, that any discount Amazon offered was not reflected in the wholesale price they bought books at – it’s their problem. And being slightly hypocritical, as I did receive arts council funding for many years previous, I can also say the final few years of Stride, when I didn’t get a grant, were the most enjoyable. The arts council specialises (or perhaps specialised? I don’t know their current strategies or ideas) in propogating ideas of trickle-down sales and preferred to spend money on marketing rather than producing books or paying publisher’s wages. I remember having to spend £2000 on publicity, most of which went on flyers, advertising and a British Library book launch: those specific actions resulting in about 20 copies sold, whereas the money could have paid for the production of the two books concerned outright.
There is no right or easy way to market, and I am not convinced that the traditional booktrade market is worth chasing any more. I would concentrate on word of mouth, building up a dedicated fanbase and sales via authors. It doesn’t cost a lot to get a paperback book out these days and once one accepts short runs of what is probably an outmoded method of delivery, then the pressure is off. For readers publish online, for book sales POD is the way to go. But unsubsidised poetry publishing is never going to pay a a living wage to anyone; it never has.
I quite like the fact that poetry has cultural worth but little financial worth. (Music appears to be going the same way.) Once I got my head round that fact, there’s a certain pressure off, a certain freedom to be had.
And, to actually respond to your fair trade question, the trouble is that ultimately capitalism – even the socialist end of it – is inherently not fair, but rather about profit, which tends to lead to, nay rely on, what we probably agree is unfair practice & exploitation.
That’s interesting, Rupert. Does everybody feel POD is the way to go? Presumably with LSI. Is it still easy and quick to get books ordered by bookshops and online retailers via a distributor? And is the quality now high enough and still at a competitive price? I think it’s what we’re also going to have to do if there are no problems. As we also publish fiction it’s important that bookshops and online retailers can order the books easily and quickly from our distributor. With poetry it does seem that most sales are at events.
It seems ridiculous ACE insisted on the money going towards marketing. One experiment I’ve tried this year was putting a large investment into a PR agency and we also put a phenomenal amount of work into promotional activities. It makes very little difference. This is also why I suggested the ACE funding should be directed at specific help, particularly towards printing costs, which have definite results and the expenditure and results can be checked. I do also feel the funding should be spread around more fairly.
I certainly never had any bother with Lightning Source providing bookshops with books, no. Are bookshops where your sales re though? Might it not be better to get sales sent to you directly, thus increasing your profit margins? I’m also reassured that using a PR agency made very little difference, which overall was my experience with marketing. [The £2000 i mention was used via an arts-council recommended PR person who organised the launch, the flyers etc.]
My experience over the 28 years I spent running Stride was that various regional and centralised arts bodies have various criteria for 3 or 4 years [e.g. audiences, gender, race, youth, new writing] and these are what you have to deal with when you fill in an application form. It’s very rarely about genuine business models or artistic criteria. If you have advance publicity, production and distribution/representation in place you can get on with it and think each time about the specific concerns being raised. [For instance, I showed a series of abstract stations of the cross in UK cathedrals, selling a catalogue, as ‘new audiences’. I didn’t invent the project specifically to get the grant, but I did think about what was already udnerway that might tick that box and get the cash.]
I’ve always found grant-giving bodies supportive and useful, but they are usually embroiled in politics and other issues which can get in the way of things. Not having to tick any boxes or explain myself, was what made the last few years of publishing Stride Books so enjoyable. I really didn’t find it hard to get the £200 or so back from each title – a day’s typesetting (which I did myself), proofing done by the author and myself & partner, a friendly cash-in-hand cover designer working with a cover template and provided images, and off to the P.O.D. people for a proof. Price books correctly and i think we usually had to sell 50 copies to cover author’s and review free copies and costs. That’s why I say POD is the way to go. That and low-fi pamphlets, which I love the return of
Rupert, many thanks for your comment. Rupert/Adele, I’d like to come back to the point on ACE funding and production vs marketing, as I have strong views (in disagreement with yours Rupert I’m afraid!) about it. Bit tied up over next few days, but hope to return soon. Thanks for making this such an interesting dialogue so far.
Rupert – we do encourage sales direct from us, but a good percentage of our sales are through shops and also online via Book Depository. Book Depository and the bookshops want the books to be with a distributor and some want a minimum stock level to be maintained. I’ve heard from a previous manager of Blackwells on another publishing forum (on Linkedin) that they do this in order to filter out the self published authors using POD. So it would be essential for POD to have no adverse effect on this.
I rep our books to shops, and it’s really important to authors to have their books in shops. I talk to bookshop managers and one of the surprises to me since I opened Ward Wood is they way tiny things can stop bookshops ordering. They tend to have a wholesaler they use, and when they hear our distributor isn’t their wholesaler it confuses them. I often have to assure them they can order from their wholesaler who will order from our distributor. It’s easy. I’ve only found these things out by phoning back many times when I know bookshops have shown interest in ordering stock.
We’re with Central Books, which suits some, but other say they use Gardners or Bertrams to order, or Easons or Argosy in Ireland. It’s surprising how bookshops can feel they’re tied into one wholesaler, when really it’s all on Nielsen Bookscan and the orders still come through to our distributor. It does slow the process down when it’s going through two wholesalers, though, and even that can put bookshops off. So I’ll get the exact details on how long it takes Lightning Source to get books to distributors and bookshops. We’re going to experiment with one book (which isn’t a Ward Wood one) and a journal, to see how it goes.
We publish an equal amount of fiction and poetry, and many sales do go through retailers. We also have buyers from overseas, particularly the US, and it’s actually more convenient if they buy through Book Depository. That way they get a discount on the book, free international postage, and the books arrive within the week. It’s actually getting expensive to supply books to international buyers direct, and so many seem to go missing in the post and have to be replaced. It can be a loss maker.
With poetry I can see that it could make sense to focus on sales direct from website, as the sales are mainly at events, although I must say we’ve had quite good sales on Book Depository for our poetry too, and also international sales. So I do think it’s important to have a stock of books with the distributor for Book Depository to fulfil the orders, and also for the loyal bookshops (including Waterstones who have been great) to stock our poets as well as our fiction writers.
With PR it’s partly that I have a lot of experience as a journalist (and when freelancing had to supplement my income by doing occasional PR work) so I do know how it’s all done. The PR company we hired was one of the main ones, and one of our authors showed me her report from the other top one (she had hired them for her previous novel with another publisher). I’m absolutely shocked by how little they do for the £2,000, which is about standard for a campaign lasting about 6-8 weeks. They only write one press release, which they circulate to their own list and to anybody else I suggested. They then follow up on this with phone calls a few times and I think once they get you about one radio interview and an article somewhere they feel you should be satisfied.
I do far more than that. I write press releases each time something is newsworthy for each author and follow up on them – I wouldn’t do just one standard press release and circulate it. A press release has to be tweaked to appeal to each different editor and go with a personalised email or letter.
I get far better results than the PR agency did, even fitting PR in between editing, repping to bookshops, organising the events, finding new authors, and everything else that goes into setting up a company. They do get money for old rope I’m afraid but I thought it was worth an attempt as it would have been lovely to have been able to pass some of that work on to another.
Adverts don’t seem to help much either. The results I expected from the PR company were press and media coverage, which I do manage to get far more regularly than the agency did. It’s surprising how little this seems to help with sales, even if authors get on to BBC radio broadcasts.
But sales aren’t everything. The PR also helps to establish the names and reputations of authors which is equally important – probably more important to the authors.
Yes, this is the kind of PR I used to do. I often used to argue with our reps at the time regarding “inventive repping”, which meant getting into bookshops such as the Tate etc, not just the big chains. I’m pleased waterstones are supportive to you – but have to say my visit to London last week only confirmed my suspicion that certainly for poetry, the big chains’ stock is pants. And certainly down here in the West Country I pretty much always end up buying online these days, poetry presses and fiction presses such as Dalkey Archive simply can’t be found anywhere.. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes failing to find anything I wanted to read in Truro’s Waterstones. The last exciting bookshop I was in was the children’s bookshop in Richmond, otherwise I think it’s over just as it is for record shops. Unless you want to read Jeffrey Archer or mainstream stuff you have to order it in anyway, and you can do that online for next day delivery.
PR is certainly about getting names known etc, but do you not think this is more and more difficult in a fragmented marketplace? I’m, not being defeatist, I am actually quite excited by the idea of more writers and fewer “stars” or famous authors. It’s been that way in the independent publishing and small press world for a long time anyway. I do think filling warehouses with lots of stock and somehow hoping that there will be 1000s of sales is an outdated publishing model. Unfortunately, the new/current model may mean the demise of publishing business, just as in music many recod labels have gone under. But actually the fairest of fair trade is probably where authors and musicians do their own thing and take full responsibility for their creative output.
I remember one older, and possibly wider, author I published for many years saying to me that it was quite easy to get reviews and mentions in the national papers etc. “No conspiracy theory,” he said, “but you simply join whatever club necessary [at the time it was the Groucho], talk to lots of people and buy them drinks.” Personally, I never thought it was worth the hassle – tho it might have been fun – but I think he was probably right.
I wonder if real fair trade publishing might also include letting the work stand on its own? No bullshit, no PR exercises etc. Offer it to the world and see what happens…
for ‘wider author’ read ‘wiser author’!!
BTW, I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t sell stuff do what you like! But I can tell you running an online magazine and Smallminded Books [which we simply give away] is very liberating after 28 years of publishing hassle & hussle .
We don’t have to fill a warehouse and hope for thousands of sales. Some retailers ask for there to be a minimum stock of 50. What they really mean is that any order they place must be fulfilled or they will remove you. They have a commitment to their customers. So we only need to be sure each book has about 50 in the warehouse, unless we know it’s an author who sells well. Generally I can get a good idea about how many copies an author will sell. With poetry I think we all know the quantities. With fiction, some literary authors sell no more than a poet, some sell over 500 which is great, and some will go into the lower thousands. Print runs and stock with the distributor have to anticipate that.
I know what you mean about hard work. I also have to do another job to support my family as I’m a lone parent and the only wage earner, but it seemed important to me to open a publishing company to keep outlets open for authors. Like most people who start publishing companies, this does leave little time for my own writing.
Even in a market where much is given away – and I have been running voluntary project for writers both on and offline for years – I do think talent can rise. It’s maybe exciting that there are so many good writers and we can hear many of them now. Whether or not we believe there are some who are more exceptional I’ll leave for another discussion. I’m not completely sure.
Rupert – you say what about putting your books out there and seeing how they do. Well I have always done that. I don’t submit to competitions or magazines and I don’t promote my own books. They have to go out into the world and do what they can. It’s very hard to be noticed like that, but my first edition of my poetry collection sold out at 500 copies before the publisher closed, and most of those sales were overseas to the US and other places. So these things can happen. I have no idea why or how it happened.
Yes, sales can happen: we sold 30,000 of one anthology for children (big promo schools tour), we also sold 5,000 of several music titles (niche market) and many poetry titles hit 1000 copies+. Others (the majority), of course, didn’t! Sounds like you’re realistic and level-headed, which i’d rank highly a required skills. I get very sceptical when we’re reduced to new Gen, ‘poetry is the new rock & roll’ promotional nonsense though.
I’ll be interested to see what Tom has to say about this, when he gets back. Like you, I’m never sure how/why sales happen.
BTW re warehouse levels, with POD the onus remains on warehouse suppliers to keep the levels they require/order.
Thanks for that info about warehouses and POD. It sounds as if it could work and I hope it can. We needed very high quality because bookshops really study the books before ordering – again, this is incredibly important with novels. I imagine it’s also important when submitting poetry collections for awards.
I should say that I didn’t mean to plug my book, but just to say it can happen that you put a book out there and it succeeds on its own. I had terrible stage fright for many years which is the reason I didn’t take part in readings, didn’t submit to competitions etc. I have now cured it by giving readings online, which led to me being able to give readings face-to-face too. However, my experience is that if you aren’t promoting your work nobody knows you exist. My book sold overseas probably due to online projects I organise but I would say I was unknown in the UK, even though I’ve been writing and having some success in some competitions and publications all my adult life.
I do think poetry has never been as popular as it is now. I see that in the online projects I organise. It’s huge in the virtual world of Second Life and competes with the other major interest, which is live music. However, my feeling is that people love poetry at events, have never read more than they do now online, but it’s like pulling teeth trying to get them to buy books. They also ‘browse’ books on displays at events and put them back looking secondhand.
I’m also interested to hear Tom’s opinion as I realise I’m totally unsure about how funding should go. I’ve also seen how he can sell books at events, having shared a table with him at last year’s Poetry Book Fair!
This is interesting on the future of publishing generally:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.
Rupert – I think the piece you have quoted highlights the deliberate confusion over what ‘publishing’ means that Amazon are using to their advantage. ‘Publishing’ isn’t what happens when you press a button and a book is printed or an ebook is made available.That’s just printing. That’s just retailing. That’s what any author self publishing was always able to do by going to their local printer and listing their book on Amazon as a reseller or using Amazon Advantage.
Publishing is all the things this writer describes as being ‘professions around publishing’. No, they aren’t other professions. They are the real work in publishing.
Calling that ‘publish’ button the only part of the operation that means a book has been worked on by a publisher is a handy way to make the job seem defunct. In fact what they are doing is saying publishers just print, or make an ebook, and for that reason Amazon manage to make self published authors think they are the ‘publisher’ (go on any self published author forum and you will see that they are saying Amazon is their publisher and offering better ‘royalties’ than traditional publishers and not excluding anybody).
Amazon call their payments to us (publishers) ‘royalties’ too, whereas really they are retailers taking a minimum 30% mark-up on the price and giving us our commission. By calling it ‘publishing’ when you press a button to get a print run or an ebook, they are making it the author’s responsibility to pay for all of the work that is really involved in the publishing profession.
If the author wants an edit they will have to pay. If they want a professionally designed cover, marketing, and all the other tasks that are part of the publishing profession they will have to pay or form collaboratives to work with each other (which is tricky because how do you give the kind of critique that’s needed when it’s on an equal basis with somebody doing the same for your book?).
They are devaluing publishing by saying all we do is print and make the book available. That was never our primary job – it was always a button press away at the printers. They are just turning publishing into a process where the author will have to pay for various tasks, the publisher is removed as publishers are being crushed out, and the successful authors will be those with the money to do a good job of getting their books edited, designed and promoted.
Amazon is the biggest and most successful self publishing operation we have ever seen. The Kindle helped all the pieces slide into place so they could get into this position. The many self published authors using them call them their ‘publisher’ giving ‘better royalties than any other publisher at 70%’ when it’s only sales commission. They do none of the professional tasks a publisher does for an author, such as editing. They’re printers and retailers. If you look on various forums like Kindle Boards and Mobile Reads Forums you will see how hostility has been built up in self published authors against publishers and bookshops (they call us elitist and also greedy for not giving the same ‘royalties’ as Amazon).
If publishers and bookshops are killed off by this the authors will realise what they are left with – expensive self publishing. This is the important market for Amazon and for me it’s the main reason competitors may be able to make a huge difference to market share this year.
I do agree with you… except, people can (and I suspect will) learn to organise editing and marketing for themselves. You and I have said above PR and advertising often doesn’t work, and when it does we don’t know why. Musicians have learnt to organise themselves and organised recording engineers, producers and CD plants [or uploads] and in the process redefined the music industry, especially in terms of copyright and royalty/payment rates. I suspect book publishing will go the same way. One of my ex-students who I saw recently has done a couple of internships with major publishers since June last year . He says that at every meeting he was allowed to sit in on, the discussion turns to digital books and how publishers were going to keep going as publishers.
But then small/independent presses aren’t locked into the business infrastructures in quite the same way. And dealing with marketing and publicity has often been the stuff that small press publishers have hated engaging with! I learnt early on to give our repping company everything they asked for (advance publicity, covers etc) – not because it actually helped them sell anything, but because they didn’t have a leg to stand on when I asked them why their marketing etc didn’t work. Even then (15 years go) the book trade was changing beyond the comprehension of many people rooted in the same old model that they are still locked into.
This isn’t a matter of crowing about it, or whether we like it or not, it’s just that it’s already happened, just as it has in the music industry. Many academic publishers for instance have become one-person companies, like poetry small presses, and the contracts now include the author being responsible for editing and formatting. Of course, the same academic publishers till rely on overpriced very short runs sold to academic libraries; sooner or later those prices and the size of the audience will be questioned too. (People like me are already questioning it!)
We haven’t even touched upon the nature of the codex and why we still prize paper books so highly (and I do!). Sooner or later this whole idea of shelves of dead trees with calligraphic marks on them will become quaint and a thing of the past. It’s sad if you like books, but it will happen… Once books simply [?] become onscreen text then publishing pretty much is the press of a button.
I didn’t say that PR doesn’t work. In fact I feel a phenomenal PR effort is needed or we wouldn’t sell books. I felt that the two main PR agencies we have experience with didn’t work. The reason is clear to me – I do know what it is. They charge £50 per hour, and I would also guess that some PR companies (I won’t say it’s these two as people can guess who they are) do far less than the hours they charge for. Even if they do the number of hours they say they do, that isn’t enough to help a larger number of books to sell or to establish an author’s name.
The amount of work I do to help promote a book, get articles into the press and media, and to establish an author’s name, would cost many thousands of pounds. It couldn’t be cost justified against the income from a book and that’s why authors need publishers to do it.
If authors have to do this themselves there’s a problem. First of all, I can do this because my career has been in the press and media so I know how. Others can learn this, but then comes the other problem. You can’t promote your own books in the way somebody else can do it for you. I know this all too well as I have my own novel and the second edition of my poetry with our company and it’s not the same thing as promoting another author. I can do so much for other authors. I really can’t do that for myself. Self promotion is something we need authors to do, but they also need somebody to be promoting them. The authors also find it easier to get attention from publications, broadcasters and events if the organisers take a look and feel they are with a good publisher. I have to take a bit of a back seat with my own books as there can be a reaction of ‘Oh you started a publishing company to publish yourself.’
As soon as I get busy and I’m not promoting the authors the book sales do drop. They can stop almost completely. I am a firm believer in the importance of publishers to keep book sales going for an author. It may be hard to sell in volume, but authors who go it alone can find it hard to sell at all.
I don’t think the comparison with music works in a number of ways, and I do work with musicians in other projects. It’s possible for musicians to work in a collaborative way to record etc as a lot of what’s needed is technical expertise for recording and broadcasting. With writing you need an editor to select, to tell you what isn’t working in your book, to suggest solutions, to do the various levels of editing from structural, to high level edits and right down to the low level edits such as proofreading. It may be possible to get a collaboration with other authors to proofread and give some critique on each other’s work, but the high level edits on fiction are a professionally learned skill.
Writers are also very sensitive about critique and suggested changes to their writing, and while they seem to really like it if an editor in a publishing company makes the effort, it’s much harder in a collaboration of peers reviewing each other’s work. I have interns who help at the final stages of the edit who have impressive qualifications and some expertise, but they really aren’t up to the standard of a professional editor and they want to work with a publishing company to be trained. Without publishers that training would no longer be available. I was trained by professional editors for many years and I pass that knowledge on.
Whether it’s poetry or fiction, the authors tell me I spot things nobody else has noticed. That’s normal. It comes with experience, training and perhaps a bit of a vocation to edit. It isn’t a skill all authors have, or would want to have.
The other difference between music and books is that musicians can mainly make their money from performance, which isn’t the same for authors. Authors and publishers generally have one product to sell – the book. Musicians have far more, so if the MP3 has to be given away, not all is lost. This is very long and sorry for that.
Interesting. I woukd say writers are very like musicians, they make far more money from readings, workshops and education work (i’m now a English & Creatiove Writing lecturer) than book sales; and these events are also where books get sold.
I don’t understand the sense of spending thousands of pounds in PR expenses if it doesn’t yield worthwhile financial sales. That was always one of my problems with marketing & PR expenses: it was often money thrown away. It is very rare that a publisher has a name where readers buy everything on the list (there have been times when this has ahppened – Picador, early 80s was pretty funky; 4AD Recordsfor a while) so it is always about individual titles. I remember Peter Jay at Anvil Books saying how little backlist for Carol Ann Duffy they sold on the back of things like New Gen and other promotions.
& sorry, but editing is technical expertise and can be bought in in just the same way (or provided fre by hard-headed colelagues etc). I simply think that in the future the onus will be on the author to prepare for publication – it will be one of the things that sorts out major/minor authors in the future. I quite agree editing, design and marketing are currently part of publishing, but they may not be in the future. Marketing has already changed beyond recognition [and my comprehension] – look at the way social media works; physical bookshops and record shops are certainly no longer where most book or CD sales occur.
And certainly part of my submission criteria at Stride was that a book should be shaped and organised before submission. That doesn’t mean we didn’t tweak it or give advice, buy in the main it was a yes/no decision, not a rummage through a vague manuscript with no rationale. Writers need to be told to be their own critics and editors; they’ll find ways. if they can’t be bothered then don’t bother with them.
Rupert – Authors make money from teaching and other activities if they are with a reputable publisher. Students of creative writing are incredibly demanding and one thing they look at is the publication record of the tutors they are given. They feel very hard done by if they don’t find their tutor’s publication record impressive.
One of our authors has been given a place as a creative writing tutor at the National University of Ireland specialising in fiction, and having her novel published by a reputable publisher is an important part of getting that post. Another is writer in residence at SOAS, University of London, and being published with us is an important part of getting that post.
Yes, authors can make most of their money in other ways. But they need to be published by a reputable publisher to achieve that. Musicians don’t really. They can generally get paid performances at venues. The equivalent for writers would be the readings they give and these aren’t usually paid for unless they’re one of the big names.
There’s a slight irony to telling me the current questioning of capitalism means publishing is dead. It’s people like me who are setting up publishing companies knowing that there’s little chance of income and without the hope of funding. We are the anti-capitalists. Knowing that part of my job is to draw attention to my authors doesn’t make me a capitalist. Far from it. There are always people who step forward to provide publishing outlets in poetry. Money isn’t the main motivation.
With the Amazon market share that was described as 60% rather than 90% as it was in the past. I wonder if this reflects their move to more resellers displaying and selling books on the website either as resellers, or using Amazon Advantage. This leads to easy income and might make it look like they have a lower market share, while really the other retailers are working via them.
With the production versus marketing question and in answer to Tom, I would like to see Arts Council funding spread out more in smaller amounts to a greater number of publishers for a specific cost like printing (which is easily checked for accuracy) and then followed up by a check to see how those books sold before paying for more.
This really about Adele’s ‘Authors make money’ post above, which doesnt seem to have a reply button…
I have to disgree I’m afraid. As someone who books guest lecturers at uni, has organised and promoted literature & music events [including the early Exeter Literature/Poetry Festivals], and has also been involved in schools work, readings, festivals etc as a writer, I can assure you any promoter/organization worth their salt goes on performance, not who publishes the writer concerned. Many excellent performance poets, for instance, prefer to self-publish, and can sell 1000s of books to their audiences. At university we choose speakers relevent to the subjects we teach or contemporary research topics: of course, publications record is to be taken into account, but a star novelist who is deadly dull in the flesh is no use to us. Our current series include the likes of Iain Sinclair, as well as small press authors, mainstream novelists, specialist researchers.
I think you’re overestimating the importance of publishers; we’re a dying breed IMHO, certainly a mutating/changing one – whether we like it or not!
Also, i was thinking, something about ethical and fair trade might lead me to question the very idea of marketing and hard sell. How far can we push marketing and PR before it becomes bullshit and mediaspeak? How can we justify money spent on marketing and PR as western capitalism slowly falls apart?
It depends what you call marketing. It doesn’t have to be hard sell and bullshit. I wonder what percentage of the guest speakers you book are self published if you are paying them. I wonder how many lecturers are given permanent jobs if they’re self published. Not all writers are performance poets.
I mean when you book someone for a reading or lecture [which are both types of performance], one needs to consider how something is delivered. Not someone’s publications record per se. In the current climate a publisher is a publisher; i’ve paid [not personally!] plenty of people without books out [but essays/articles/magazines] and plenty of great readers/performers who choose to self-publish. Just as many musicians now handle their own CD and internet releases. An audience is interested in the concert/reading, and the product; not who produces the product. In fact [e.g] being signed to a major label or a mainstream press might go against people in hipness terms.
Most of my students appear to be into live music, often in local pubs and clubs, but the go home to download the music. the live presence seems to be very important at the moment.
I’m from a musical family and sing myself. My brother plays in a band and so does my son. It’s not hard to get paid for music. Even the local pub will pay you. It would be lovely if the same could be true for writing, but it isn’t. Music has always been like this – we always went to live performances, paid to get in, and bought from unknown bands.
I work with students on two university anthologies now. I don’t think a top publisher is seen in any kind of negative way. If anything I think the younger writers want to aim as high as possible for the best known publishers. I’ve probably said as much as I can, though, and don’t want to be a blog hog.