I’m a traditionally published author, with a dozen or more books released over fifteen years. At one time or another, I’ve published with three of the current big 5 publishers, and also with Bloomsbury, a large British independent. If you count projects where I’ve had a major behind-the-scenes editorial/ghost-writing role, then you can add another three titles with three more major publishers.
My work has sold in every major market in the world. I’ve acquired a little spatter of literary short- and long-list mentions. My work has been televised. I have, now and again, crept into the lower reaches of bestseller lists. I have excellent literary agents on both sides of the Atlantic, and a dedicated and productive film agent too.
What’s more, my career is actually going well. Few authors last as long as I do. Most crash and burn fairly early. Those that don’t are usually either established bestsellers (lucky them) or they churn out a small but stable income from books that receive ever less love and attention from their publishers. I’m in neither of those camps. When I rebranded myself as a crime author a few years back, I found myself in the happy situation of writing something that continues to thrive in the UK, my home market, and that sells well overseas. Because readers seem to like what I write, the first book in the series is still going through multiple reprintings, even long after its first release.
In short, I love what I write. I’m making money. My career is thriving.
But clearly there’s a little more to the story, because this piece is called “Going Hybrid” and appears on a site dedicated to self-publishing.
That ‘little more’ is simply this. My crime series features a strange, tough, vulnerable Welsh detective, DC Fiona Griffiths. The first two books were bought up by the renowned Kate Miciak of Ballantine/Bantam Dell – the same wonderful editor who looks after Lee Child, amongst many other starry names. I couldn’t have asked for a better editor or a stronger publisher.
Those first two books have been published, and they were published very well. I’ve never encountered higher production standards. The book covers were thoughtful and well-designed. Both hardbacks and trade paperbacks were lovely and buyable. And that first book in particular drew extraordinary reviews. Starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. A crime book of the year, according to the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. What more could an author want?
Well, sales would be nice, and the sales picture was curious. Kate told me that the US crime market was about 75% digital. (The equivalent figure in the UK would be a good bit lower.) Given that the likes of Lee Child and Karin Slaughter are known to shift a hardback or two, the figure for debut, European crime must be much higher – more like 85% or upwards, I’d guess.
Nevertheless, the launch plan was fixedly traditional in approach. There would be a $27 hardback, followed in due course by a lower-priced trade paperback. The e-book price would start a little higher, to avoid undercutting the hardback, then drift lower to pick up more price conscious shoppers.
The strategy failed. Or half-failed. E-sales were perfectly fine, but the hardback sold horribly, and the paperback still worse: retailers, having been burned by the hardback, didn’t want to risk stocking the paperback. The print outcome was, to be blunt, a disaster.
What were we to do?
The obvious strategy – in my eyes; I can’t speak for Random House – was to ignore print. A $27 hardback is a ridiculous discovery-type product for a debut author; the cheap e-book is a fabulous one. Why not go all out for e-sales and bring the print market in, if and when my name was more established?
I think Random were enthused by that idea. Enthused and surprised. They hadn’t quite expected an author of my pedigree to be OK with dropping print altogether – but then in my experience, most authors aren’t particularly obsessed by format. We like sales and any strategy that promises sales. If that means quill-pens and papyrus, then roll out the papyrus.
But Random didn’t want to offer more than 25% net royalties on an e-only deal and I couldn’t understand that – and certainly didn’t feel inclined to accept it. I said as much.
After all, I already had editorial support from my publisher in the UK. I already had free copyediting. In effect, I’d have a text edited to Big-5 standards, and for free. As a self-publisher, I’d still need to pay a few hundred bucks for cover design, and there’d be a few other costs too. But for (a very generously estimated) $1500, I could have an e-product that would be right up to Big-5 standards. The actual distribution of the product would be free. I’d need to spend some time on mailing lists and BookBub style promotions, but those things would hardly be all-consuming. I just didn’t understand where Random thought they were going to add so much value that it made sense for them to retain three-quarters of all the money we might make together.
I didn’t get it, and still don’t. I assumed Random would come back to me with a pitch along the lines of, “Yep, 75% sounds like a lot, but we’ve got amazing promotional tools at our disposal and we’re going to blow you away with how much we can do for you. You’ll only get a quarter, that’s true, but our sales volumes are going to be stratospherically better than you could achieve on your own.”
They didn’t say that. Or anything at all. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to hand over 75% of my e-royalties without a strong commercial reason to do so, our conversation simply petered to a close. My relationship with the firm ended without even a proper farewell, something I still regret.
I’m not fool enough to think there won’t be losses. There will. Reviews, for one thing. A book launched by Kate Miciak will acquire more review coverage than one launched by me. Indeed, it’s the success of Kate’s initial publication which most protects me: many of the most influential newspapers in America have already said lovely things about my writing. Are they going to ignore me just because I’m now self-publishing?
What’s more, print does confer a kind of glow. Maybe it shouldn’t, maybe the quality of the writing should be all, yet the glow is there, nevertheless. And not just glow, but readers. I myself seldom read anything on-screen. I just prefer paper. There are plenty like me.
And then too, there are promotional tools which large publishers can access and I can’t. They have big data on what works and what doesn’t. Quants who crunch the best-value path through this evolving maze.
But I have my advantages, too, and they’re not meagre.
Price, for one thing. I can halve the average price charged by Ballantine / Bantam Dell and still double my average royalty. That’s a pretty sweet edge to have – and it’s one that no big publisher can replicate without trashing their business model. Since there are still plenty of promotions available to self-pubished authors, it’s an edge which I may be able to parlay into something special.
What’s more, it’s me doing the selling. If you sign up to one of my mailing lists (and I’d love it if you did), you will get, a couple of times a year, an email from me telling you about a book release. That email won’t come from a corporation. Not some e-drone paid to liven things up on social media. But from me: direct from my laptop to yours. That’s a more attractive, more personal proposition than anything a corporation can offer.
And then too, I’m not still in mental thrall to print. We’ve all seen Big-5 type book covers that looked wonderful on the bookstore table but were illegible at thumbnail size. We’ve all seen “Look inside” sections on Amazon that were full of author’s notes and fancy title pages, yet somehow omitted to include actual pages of the book. My e-book will be designed as an e-book, not designed for print and then reconfigured.
You might expect me to add one more advantage too. I have a much stronger online platform than most novelists. My editorial consultancy, the Writers’ Workshop, boasts traffic of around 80,000 visits a month. I have a further website – Agent Hunter, a database of British literary agents and agencies; an equivalent, roughly, to the US site Agent Query – which boasts many thousands more. Both those things bring blog readers and mailing lists, and both things have Twitter accounts with thousands of combined followers.
But, I don’t think I’ll derive vast advantage from those things, nor even seek to. For one thing, I don’t think sites and blogs should be used to pitch products that aren’t of primary interest to their users. And if I did use them that way, I doubt if I’d derive huge sales in any event. For me at least, an online platform is not a great way to sell fiction.
How will all this turn out? I’ve no idea. I’ll launch The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in January 2015. If it bombs, I may yet regret that I’ve made the decisions I have. If it does well, I’ll be thrilled.
And one last thing. I am published by Hachette in the UK and will be published by Amazon in the US. With a stake in both warring camps, I simply find much of what is being written about the Amazon-Hachette dispute bizarre.
Amazon doesn’t care enough about books? But why should it? It’s a general purpose retailer. In the UK, supermarket chains sell one in every five books and publishers love them for the volumes they bring to bear.
Amazon shouldn’t make its own stock and promotional selections? But why not? It’s a retailer. When Barnes and Noble had a very similar fight with Simon & Schuster, no one outside the industry gave a damn – and B&N never offered to compensate authors, dollar for dollar, or even better.
Amazon is too big? Yes, and I don’t like that. But you didn’t get letters from Authors United complaining about the Penguin / Random House merger, no matter that that beast now accounts for between a fifth and quarter of the trade publishing market in the US and the UK. That’s a more direct threat to authors than the existence of a large retailer which, remember, is happy to pay authors an extraordinary 70% of net receipts.
Me, I like where I am at the moment. I love being published by Orion (a part of Hachette) in the UK. They’re wonderful people to work with. Our chemistry is excellent. They give me brilliant access to the print market. They are editorially superb. They provide that lustre which means I also have access to all those other goodies: foreign sales, TV interest, and the rest.
But I also love this self-publishing adventure I’m embarking on. I love the freedom. The sense that the rewards, if any, will be mine and mine alone. I love the fact that I can do what the hell I like without having to negotiate someone else’s approvals process. I like the creativity and look forward to the direct contact with my readers.
Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant
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