During a recent conference I attended on Publishing Futures, the discussion touched on the global political views of the “abolish copyright” movement. This political lobby group asserts that copyright and the publishers battling to uphold it are getting in the way of a pure flow of creativity from writer to reader on the internet. I heard several worried publishers around me calling out the question “so what is our value as publishers?” Unfortunately the discussion swirled away without these voices being heard or answered.
I have been thinking a lot about the answers. It matters, because I am worried we will lose the publishing mechanism that allowed writers to become a professional group in the first place.
The first publishers were essentially patrons – people who sponsored a writer they liked. They had the money and influence to publish the writer’s work and could discuss it with influential people who might buy a copy of the book for their personal library. Creative people (sculptors, painters, writers) were completely at the mercy of their noble patrons. Being noble, these patrons were not “investing” in a creative person – they were so rich they did not need to generate income. They were simply showing off their superior discernment by surrounding themselves with artists and artwork unique to their house.
Very occasionally a publisher was a printer or other middle-class champion who believed a writer’s work was so valuable it should be published for posterity. They then started a campaign to raise funds to publish a writer’s work (Shakespeare’s works were brought to the world this way – after his death).
Fast forward a few hundred years and we can see the legacy of this patronage model in our publishing industry. Publishing houses pay advances to writing talent identified by their editors or agents. The publisher receives manuscripts, polishes them, designs and prints them as books, and then pours money into advertising and sales promotion to generate maximum sales. Publishers need to generate a profit to be able to invest in new titles, but publishing is a hit or miss business – many titles make a loss, with just a few good ones contributing the majority of income for re-investment.
The curious feature of this legacy investment model is that publishers get the most limited share options seen in the business world. Unlike an angel investor, who will demand voting rights and a significant percentage of shares in the brand being built, a publisher usually obtains just the license to the current work and sometimes a handful of future works. When a writer becomes a bestselling brand, and decides to swap publishing houses or sell direct through Amazon or iTunes, the original publisher who championed the writer is entitled to nothing except the residual income from older works.
Globally, publishers pour billions of dollars every year into the pockets of writers and their agents in the form of advances and royalties. If total royalties make up 10% of a publisher’s costs, then editing, production, marketing and distribution make up the rest. The problem is that when a writer self-publishes, all they see is the percentage of royalty they will make. This might be 70-85% of net sale price via a self-publishing platform – compared to 6-25% for a traditional publisher. However 70% of zero is still zero – and that is close to the number of copies many self-published titles sell. The value of traditional publishers is easy to under-rate. Even if distribution costs become lower as books are distributed digitally, the other costs of editing and promotion do not go away. Nor does a simple comparison of percentages take into account the original investment by publishers.
Given the number of public attacks on the value of publishers (I counted six before breakfast this morning), I find it interesting that so few writers choose to abandon their existing publishers. The big names we do hear about (Stephen King and a handful of others) are notable because they are so rare. I believe the reason lies in a hidden but highly valued service that traditional publishers provide – recognition.
Every writer has a list of “dream publishers” who would provide them with recognition (and status). The majority are forced to set their sights a little lower and are usually delighted to have a niche publisher accept their work. Being published by a small publishing house is kind of cool. Since less than 1 in 200 manuscripts submitted are ever accepted for publication, it is a mark of status to be accepted by any publisher.
The very small percentage of manuscripts accepted for publication leaves a roiling wake of frustrated writers who are adding their voices to the anti-publisher lobby. The good news about the socially networked world into which we are hurtling is that it will become easier to identify talent that might have been overlooked. The frustrated (but excellent) writers who self-publish ebooks are more likely to be discovered by people on social media. Some recent examples are Kerry Wilkinson and the up and coming Anthony Karakai.
A secondary reason for loyalty to publishers (and agents) is the emotional support and feedback that writers need. Writing – although wonderfully fulfilling – can create a confidence crisis in even the chirpiest of souls. Nearly every publisher and agent (and producer who has involved writers) has a story to tell of the extraordinary support they have provided to a writer in crisis. On a daily basis, a writer’s editor or agent may be the only people who care enough to read and respond to a writer’s concerns, thoughts and wild creative ideas.
This provides a partial answer for publishers worried about whether their value proposition is strong enough to survive into the future. Writers really do need the support publishers provide – creatively as much as financially, and a publisher’s brand status is an important source of recognition for writers, especially amongst the community that the writer identifies with.
The key to future success is to ensure your publishing house remains relevant to your community, that you are associated with integrity, open to original thought, and supportive of your writers (awards wouldn’t hurt either).
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