If big authors do not need big publishers, then what are big publishers for?

If the rumours are true (and they would seem to be) and JK Rowling has sidelined the publishing industry to put the Harry Potter series into electronic formats under her own imprint then today marks the start of a new era in publishing.

I have been saying for more than two years that the fact that all the big publishers woke up one morning deciding that a flat 25% royalty was fair and reasonable for all authors – and that not to agree to it would be a deal breaker - may have made short term sense but was seriously risky in the long term.

If big authors do not need big publishers then what are big publishers for? An author’s ties of loyalty to publishers are, rightly, often enormous: most feel their success is shared with the team who have helped build it. Publishing is a deeply collaborative process and most publishers are passionate about what they do: there are many reasons for authors to want to be loyal to publishers.

However, the disparity between what the worlds biggest authors are capable of earning by publishing their own e-books and what their publishers are offering them has grown so enormous that that loyalty is being severely tested. We are talking about millions of pounds.

Brand authors will still need their paper books published, but there are plenty of extremely able mid sized houses fully capable of publishing bestsellers who would be only to happy to relinquish e-book rights in order to publish some of the worlds biggest authors.

The conglomerates have been playing it tough, but today’s news makes that look like a worryingly empty threat.

E-books are by no means as cheap to publish as some people on the blogosphere would have it. Apart from anything else the burden of the costs of the paper books should be born across all editions. But the simple fact is that once an e-book is selling in the hundreds of thousands it is capable of generating massive profits for remarkably little overhead and unless publishers share that revenue more fairly – and soon – there will be other global brands following suit.

I just wish I represented more of them.



Big publishers and big authors

Big authors and big publishers need each other. Small authors on the contrary, can print their own work in e-books formats.

You have to see this differently

Timo Boezeman's picture

I think you have to see this differently. If you look in the history of J.K. Rowling, you will learn that at first she was rejected by more than 10 publishers and her success wasn't instant. Of course, you still need to be a good writer to become successful in the end, but with that alone, the chance you make it is still very little. This is one of the key features a publishing house can support an author with. Make better what's good (the content), make it available where ever you can (brick stores, online, etc.) and support this with marketing. 

The point that is being made in this blog post, is: why would a successful author need a (big) publisher? If you see it like that, the answer is almost every time: he/she doesn't. Because once you get there, it is very easy to get your advantage out of it by doing it on your own. And you get top keep all the money yourself as well. Staying there on top (by doing it yourself) for a longer period is difficult, and there are already some examples of authors producing lower quality which resulted in lower sales for every new (self published) title. 

So, to answer your question in the perspective of the publishing house: (big) publishers are good in making small and unknown authors succesful. And if they choose to move along, which is sad of course, it is time to 'launch' the next succes author (and if you are smart, you were already busy doing this before your #1 decided to leave).

Making money

John Pettigrew's picture

The problem, I think, with big authors withdrawing is that publishers will have to stop hoping that they will make money off the authors over the long haul and all formats, and instead plan to make money straight away and in print only. And that will make the 'death of the mid-list' even worse and cause even more over-emphasis on bestsellers.

As, as a reader, I don't like the sound of that.

Of course, the silver lining might be the rise of smaller publishers who are willing to take the risk on the rest of the authors. But they still have the problem of making money from authors who become used to running off and going it alone as soon as they make a name for themselves.

The industry desperately needs better business models, and it needn't be hard. A simple rising royalty rate might solve the issue, with the author earning more once the publisher's investment has been paid off while tolerating less early on.

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