‘To Encourage More Professional Authors To Speak Out’
Update: The results of the “Do You Love Your Publisher?” survey of traditionally publishing authors will be published in April by The Bookseller. We expect the survey to close around the 30th of March. Traditionally publishing authors are most welcome to respond to the survey, which is available here.
Originating with our report at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook in London, the news of a new online survey could mean a better understanding of authors’ experiences in what is sometimes called “legacy” publishing.
A US-UK effort is gathering fresh perspectives on the “quiet side” of publishing’s creative force.
‘Do You Love Your Publisher?’ is a new online survey — just 32 questions — specifically asking traditionally publishing authors for some input on their mode of doing business. The survey, which opened at noon London time, is available to traditionally publishing authors worldwide for four weeks.
You can follow news and commentary about the effort on Twitter at hashtag #authorsay.
Publishing industry specialist Jane Friedman — half the team behind “Do You Love Your Publisher?” — isn’t alone in noticing that we’ve heard a lot more from self-publishing authors in recent years than from their traditionally published counterparts.
To the consternation of some, I’ve called this “the silence of the trads”: that reticence to engage with criticism (or so it appears) on the parts of some publishing corporations and their authors.
And to be clear, when it comes to the comparative cacophony on the self-publishing side, we can’t entirely blame indie writers. Today, there are new self-publishing services outfits getting into your face almost daily. Those start-ups — frequently with obnoxious “wordsy,” “booksy,” cutesy names — need to persuade you that the indie way is the best way so they can sell you their wares.
Self-publishing author-service start-ups are cranking the indie fight song, even when the authors aren’t.
What we don’t hear nearly as much is the voice, the viewpoint, of the traditionally publishing author.
Several times, in fact, I’ve asked major publishing executives to find us a “trad Hugh Howey” on their lists. Howey’s support for the independent-author cause has been unwavering, and has included his and “Data Guy’s” ongoing AuthorEarnings.com research, meant to define for authors how viable an option self-publishing might be. But we have yet to see such a rallying figure among the traditionally publishing authors.
While not the seafaring hybrid icon that Howey has become, Friedman’s partner in creating the new survey does know his way around traditional publishing.
The English author Harry Bingham has been published by 4th Estate, HarperCollins, Hachette’s Orion, and Penguin Random House’s Delacorte / Bantam Dell. As he has written, “I’ve already had two literary agents, four publishers, seven editors, and 13 books — even more if you include things I’ve worked on as editor or ghost.”
It’s with that last imprint group that he started his Fiona Griffiths series of books in the States, only to find that while ebook sales were robust, the hardback and paperback numbers weren’t materializing.
“Random House and I couldn’t find a way to continue working together in the US,” he says in an interview with Thought Catalog, “so I’m self-publishing my Fiona Griffiths series there” in the States, starting with the third installment, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths. He wrote about this in an essay as a guest at Friedman’s much-read site: Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big Five Publishers.
Of special interest here: Bingham is not making a major break with traditional publishing. The Fiona Griffiths instance in the States is the only case in which he expects to self-publish. He continues, and happily, he says, to publish in the UK with the Hachette imprint Orion. And he tells me that, if anything:
I go on thinking that self-pub will not be the right solution for most authors most of the time — it’s just great that the option exists.
It’s in that concept of an unprecedented option, a choice, that Bingham says he thinks many traditionally published authors may find the most value.
For most of publishing history, the traditional route was the only pathway to publication, unless you were willing to pay large sums of money to vanity publishers to get a book out. The digital dynamic has put publishing tools into the hands of authors, themselves, if they choose to take on the task of self-publishing — which is not easy or inexpensive to do well.
What’s more, it’s interesting to note that Bingham and Friedman are both engaged in author-services work, themselves.
As a faculty member first at the University of Cincinnati and now at the University of Virginia — and as the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and the co-founder with Manjula Martin of Scratch magazine for writers — Friedman offers expert guidance and editorial assistance to authors on a consulting basis.
Neither of these industry players, then, is a stranger to the pitch and pull of the role of author today, so highly emotionalized at times by partisan self-publishing community members.
And when Friedman let me know about the new international survey that she and Bingham have opened today for input (based on one he conducted three years ago in the UK), I took the opportunity to ask Bingham to give us some insight into how it is that he is speaking so frankly about his own experiences in traditional publishing.
Friedman, in talking about the survey, said this:
Some of the most popular articles at my site are by traditionally published authors who have decided to self-publish. These authors speak openly and frankly about their experiences, both good and bad—and without fear.
That’s where I decided to start, in talking with Bingham about the candor with which he has described his own experience and perspective on traditional publishing.
‘Reluctant To Create Waves’
I asked Bingham if there is a “fear factor” that inhibits some traditionally published authors who would like to speak out more than they do about their experiences? He told me:
“Fear factor” is probably too strong, but it’s true that traditional publishers don’t really create any route by which authors can express dissatisfaction except via their editor, who will almost certainly be involved in whatever is causing that dissatisfaction. You can grumble to your agent of course, but the basic problem remains the same. That does therefore mean that a lot of authors are reluctant to create waves.
Publishing is a comparatively small industry, after all. And Bingham concedes that he at times has had doubts about being as forthright as he is.
Authors are aware that publishing is a clubbable industry and there aren’t many players able to pay big advances. Most authors will therefore still feel unable to make public criticisms of Publisher X, even if they’ve now moved on to Publisher Y.
Bingham credits his ability to speak his mind to his own standing in the business.
I was only able to be quite so candid because I have a great relationship with my current publisher, I get income from sources other than just writing, and perhaps I’m well-connected enough and enough of an insider that I can make sharp comments without quite bringing the walls down on my head.
I ask Bingham about the idea, popular with some independent authors, that traditional authors are — in the language of the indie street — “clawing to get out”?
Oh, it’s nonsense to suggest that trad authors are “clawing to get out”. Traditional publishing gives us a ton of stuff that is hard to achieve via self-pub. Print distribution isn’t just important for sales, it’s the thing which opens up all those channels of acclaim (reviews, prizes, publicity), which are still vital, even in a world of blogs and tweets. A traditional deal also strongly increases our chances of securing overseas sales, film/TV deals, audio deals and the rest.
So that, I think, says that we’re happy to be traditionally published…You can get a lot from working in an industry, but still feel aggrieved at aspects of how it operates.
Still, Bingham says, being largely glad to be traditionally published doesn’t always mean that he and his colleagues are (or need to be) unified, as many independent authors have found themselves brought together for their “cause” of self-publishing. And that may be another reason that we hear less from “the inside” than from the self-publishing sector.
I think it’s true, the traditional side is less well-organized, less vocal. Then again, a traditional author has the informed support of an agent and, unless the author-editor relationship is in a very poor way, the editor, too. So trad authors have a ready-made support network of their own.
That said, it’s also true that trad authors love talking to each other, and there are innumerable lunch clubs, Facebook groups, and the like, which connect us. Authors will always compare notes on agents, publishing experience, and the rest, and these days it’s common enough for authors to discuss self-pub options too. Though since plenty of people have had disappointing self-pub experiences, the fact that authors are talking about self-pub doesn’t mean they’re all preparing to do it.
Friedman, for her part, sums up the intent of the survey exercise:
I hope this survey will give us better insight into how professionally published authors feel about the traditional publishing experience. I’d love for the results to be useful to traditional publishers, who rarely if ever ask for feedback from their authors. But I’d also like to encourage more professional authors to speak out and be transparent about how they feel the system is working—or not—for them.