Given at the Geneva Writer's Conference 2014 by John Hunt
Alternative and self-publishing
I think the original title for this session was going to be something like “traditional publishing or self-publishing.” I’m not sure that there is such a thing as traditional publishing any more. A site like Preditors & Editors for instance characterizes any publishing company that charges authors for anything in any bit of its business as a vanity publisher. Penguin Random are the dominant players in the traditional publishing market, bigger than the next four put together. But they also own most of the vanity publishing market, since their purchase of AuthorHouse a couple of years ago.
Similarly with self-publishing. It’s a misnomer. No author edits, designs, prints and distributes their book themselves. Everyone pays for help somewhere along the line. And they’re usually working with the same individuals and companies that the big guys work with, just paying more for it.
So what are the alternatives? Over the last year I’ve heard of author publishing, indie publishing; self-publishing, assisted self-publishing, fully assisted self-publishing. Agency-assisted self-publishing is a new one for me today. Then there’s community publishing, partnership publishing, co-operative publishing. And so on. Even hybrid publishing, where you use a different model for successive books.
I do think there’s an identity crisis in publishing. I welcome that, I’ve never really thought of it as a proper job anyway. It’s not like writing for a living.
Let’s step back a bit. For a potted history of publishing; the first professionals in this area were the monks, the church. From Gutenberg onwards, the key players were the printers. They ruled for a few centuries, until with increasing literacy the market was big enough for people to make a living selling books, rather than just printing them. Bookshops became the main players. Printers were relegated to service providers. You even got to the point where intermediaries between author and bookseller and reader became a specialism in itself, and you get the rise of what’s now called the publishing industry.
Now, print technology, and the internet, have changed things all over again. I’d hazard a guess that in the 21st century, the winners will be the authors. And the current disposal of income, roughly 10% to the author and 90% to the publisher and trade, will be reversed. The author will start with 100%. If they decide to use a publisher, the publisher keeps, say, 10%. And then there’s a series of decisions to be jointly made about how much more the author is willing to give up for the services along the line that the publisher can arrange.
That’s going to be very different from book to book. Traditional publishing is a one-size fits-all solution, dating back from the days when the only possible sales were obtained through sales teams visiting shops to grab shelf-space. But the value that a publisher can bring to a good author today varies hugely. Some manuscripts for instance need rewriting. Others need virtually nothing done to them. Some authors are more clued up on their own market and can reach it more effectively through the internet than any publisher could. Others are appalled by the idea. The traditional one-route-only option, “get published properly, or never see the light of day,” has disappeared, and good riddance to it. But the other available option, of self-publishing, I think is really tough. I don’t honestly know, I’ve never done it. But I suspect there will be relatively few who can do it successfully.
So is there something in between?
I guess I’m probably on this panel because we’re a kind of hybrid, trying to do something different. We didn’t set out to do this, with some new kind of vision in our heads, it’s just developed as we’ve tried to make sense of the author/publisher relationship.
Basically, we’ve tried to reverse-engineer the publishing process. Rather than authors existing to support a publishing house, we’ve tried to create a system where the publishing house exists to support authors. We encourage authors to get involved. No author has to do anything, but if they want to, even start earning money by working on other authors’ books, they can.
We don’t have any full-time staff. There are about four dozen people involved with the business, freelance, mostly living in France, Ireland, USA, north England, working from home. They’re mostly authors. We work through a common database, and a forum. Everyone has the same access to every bit of information. Which means that we don’t meet, because it’s impractical for us all to collect in one place, and we don’t use email, because then there are things being said and agreed that not everyone else can see.
We work with authors on the same principle, though the information they can see is a little more restricted. So they can see their own sales figures for instance, every month as they come in, but not those of other authors. They can see where their books are on the production schedule, what has been done on the marketing. They have free use of the contacts database, and can add contacts. We have about 30,000 contacts in retail and media and online, mostly added by authors. We work with these authors through an Author Forum. Any author can see all the comments and queries that are raised.
The business grows and develops through authors getting more involved. Trevor is an example. We published a book of his nearly ten years ago, one of our first, an Introduction to Radical Theology. He enjoyed the process, and asked if we needed any proofreading or copyediting doing. So he started doing some of that, and moved on to some publicity as well. A couple of years ago he set up his own imprint within the business, Moon Books, for pagans. It’s worked, we published 40 titles there last year, set up a Facebook page there 18 months ago which grows by 1000 per month, we have an author’s group there which does much the same kind of thing as the Geneva Writers Group does, we have an online magazine coming for it, and so on.
Across the lists, we’re coming up to a couple of dozen different imprints and 300 new titles a year.
I think there are some advantages for authors working this way rather than self-publishing, or even traditional publishing.
We do have quality controls. We have a strict filtering system, we decline anything we do not think is worth publishing, and every publishable manuscript gets a minimum of three reader reports, which the author can see, and is copyedited and proofread by us.
Secondly, it’s usually quicker, and less trouble for the author. I used to reckon each new book took a few hundred emails from contract through to royalty payments, if you counted all those copied around and so on. We’ve broken down that process into 50 or so separate stages, notifications go out at each point to the relevant people to tell them what’s happening, what needs doing. Our average from submission of a proposal to a contract is 10 days, from submission to publication is 6 months.
Because we can publish more books, we can get our costs down. As we get our costs down, we can give more in author royalties. On all our books we pay 50% on the ebook sales. 10% on the print edition, going up to 25% after 5000 copies, with the exception of our top-level contract, where it’s 25% from the beginning.
As we improve our systems, we can offer more. For instance, last year we allocated a publicist to every new title, every title gets some initial publicity, which the author can see, and every time it sells another 500 copies a trigger goes to that publicist to put in some more work. So the better a title does, the more promotion it gets, rather than being forgotten about.
Most of all, I think, as we publish more authors, we can build in more support structures. For instance, we have a bookshop signing session somewhere in the world about once every working day. The chances are that there’s another of ours in the same subject area within an hour’s drive.
On the downside:
We can only work with authors and publishers who can function happily with forums and databases, and don’t need to have conversations over the phone or by email, let alone the traditional publisher lunch. It’s a self-determining kind of process. People feel comfortable with it, or they don’t.
Where the consensus of the readers is that they like the book, but we’ll lose money on it, we’ll ask for a subsidy from the author. The average is around £1000. That happens currently on about one in four new titles. Across the list, it amounts to one in ten. It varies around the different imprints, and between fiction and non-fiction. But having any subsidized titles on the list at all gets us characterized as a vanity press on some author internet forums. Though every title gets treated the same. No bookshop or reviewer is going to know if one title or another has had a subsidy.
The way we work doesn’t suit everybody. And it hasn’t been easy to set up. But we learn from the authors. It’s down to them to find the balance of what works best, and fix the identity crisis in publishing, because they, in this case, are running the business, and they have a foot in both camps.