A classless community

For a long time I've wondered why trade publishers don't open up their lists to would-be self-published writers, bringing more of them into the publishing fold, and working with them to build writing careers.

The economics would have to be different of course, no publisher can invest in hundreds of new titles simply because they happen to have been written, but they could at least cut deals that offered writers some of the services of a publishing house, including digital publication, with the publisher gaining an incubator of new talent as a result.

The news that has been emerging around Random House US' Hydra imprint, reminds me why they are wise to have been hesitant.

First, self-published writers are not a different breed, and needn't be treated as such. Like all writers they simply want to get their work out there, most as widely as possible. This means that many will be pre-disposed to cutting a deal with a traditional publisher, but only if it's a decent deal. Thinking that any writer will cut a bad deal just because they want to be published (or traditionally published) make little sense in a world where authors are no-longer scared of saying no. In fact, it smacks of exploitation.

Second, self-published writers clearly have a working knowledge of how publishing works. It means publishers will need to work harder (not less hard) to convince them (especially successful self-published writers) to move over to a traditional publishing deal. As has happened with Hydra, there are also whole communities now online willing to advise authors and castigate publishers: this marks a shift in the landscape, perhaps an uncomfortable one for some publishers, but its exists nevertheless.

Third, despite the large number of entities out there that exist only to make money from self-published writers and do so with impunity, it is a different thing when a big publisher goes this route. The raison d'etre of traditional publishing is to take risks on talent, and back their editors to do so. When they get it right the rewards are huge, and will help to ameliorate the cost of the misses. Even with a list driven by would-be self-published writers the publisher should assume the risk. Telling an author that they must pay to be part of the list is vanity publishing; it reverses the traditional approach and undermines what a publisher does. A publisher looking to create such a list should look at ways of taking the cost out of the risk, not passing the costs of the risk on to the author. Hydra's initial problem was that it wanted to share the risk, but continue to take the rump of the reward (including life-of-copyright).

Last, publishers will need to learn how to balance the competing demands of the different types of authors they will have to manage. It is already the case that publishers have to manage their costs, with big-name authors getting more attention, time, and investment than mid-list or debut authors. In the past the size of the advance was a good way of measuring the investment and of managing expectations. In an advance-free world, we'll need to figure out another way of explaining why author A gets less than author B.

There's more to be written about the rise of self-publishing on the back of the digital revolution: how traditional publishers were caught napping by the talent out there; how Amazon is using this to undermine traditional publishing; and how we need a realistic assessment of the value of being 'traditionally' published.

But most important now is that traditional publishers recognise that there is a huge opportunity here, especially at a time when Amazon is falling out of favour with many self-published writers, and is failing to convert Kindle sales into physical sales. And actually because of the sheer fact that there are many services out there for would-be published writers, and many of them do want money upfront. Publishers have an opportunity to travel in a different direction: showcase their services, highlight their successes and exploit their added-value. Lower the draw-bridge and come up with a new way of publishing more authors more cheaply, but better than they could do if they did it themselves (I was always a big fan of the Macmillan New Writing list, once perjoratively dubbed the Ryanair of publishing, which sought to do just that).

But publishers won't do this if they give the impression of wanting to treat these authors as second-class citizens.

There are have been many good big-publisher intiatives in this area, including Penguin's BookCountry and HarperCollins' Authonomy, but these have been built on the back of curated author communties, rather than establishing a direct relationship with the publisher (though that has often been the result). Other digital-only lists, such as Little, Brown's Blackfriars are run along the same lines as print lists, with Hachette's standard royalty rates: a decent strategy but not one that opens itself up to lots of authors.

Random House US' new digital imprints Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, and Flirt, promised something different, with a 50:50 royalty split as well as access to the publishing process. As the company said: "Every book will be assigned to an accomplished Random House editor and a dedicated publicist. They will also have the invaluable support of Random House’s experienced marketing and digital sales teams, who know how to reach out to and expand each book’s dedicated readership."

Thanks to the criticism it has received it has now made "adjustments to [its] proposed terms for authors". The key changed is that it will now pay the royalty before it charges its own costs, perhaps having recognised that authors have costs too. The deal is now looking much more like the kind of package I'd already imagined.

How it got there though remains a lesson to other publishers.

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