Publishers need to communicate better with authors, pay them more and utilise writers’ skills to market books, but most writers would still choose to be published traditionally, a survey has found.
The Do You Love Your Publisher? survey, co-produced by authors Harry Bingham (in the UK) and Jane Friedman (in the US), questioned 812 writers with experience of being traditionally published on areas including publisher satisfaction, agenting and self-publishing; 310 of those questioned were authors based in the UK and Ireland.
Key findings include the fact that 75% of authors say they have never been asked for feedback from their publisher and that just 7% felt that publishers paid writers well. Despite the negatives highlighted in the survey, 32% of respondents said the prestige of having a deal with a traditional publisher was important to them, while a further 54% said it was one of the appealing aspects of a traditional publishing deal.
Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said it was “particularly gratifying, given the current debate around self-publishing, to see such strong positive responses to the value of, and role provided, by publishers”. He continued: “We are sure the concerns raised about feedback will be well noted by publishers . . . Overall, the survey provides a strong, if not unmitigated, statement of support and satisfaction for the role of publishers and some good tips on areas where improvement could be made.”
But Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said: “If I were a publisher reading this survey I would be very concerned”.
“Although on first glance there appears to be broad satisfaction with publishers, deeper drilling reveals some interesting pointers,” she continued, adding that publishers were “falling down” on author care, and highlighting author pay, saying the “time has come to give authors a greater share of publishing profits, particularly on digital exploitation”.
Around 28% of authors felt communication from their publisher before, during and after publication was inconsistent, confusing or always poor, with 26% rating it as excellent, 24% as good and 22% as average.
Author Harriet Evans, who used to be editorial director at Headline, said there was a “culture of passive-aggression in publishers’ dealings with authors, like authors are exotic, crazy creatures who can’t possibly be listened to”. She advised publishers to communicate regularly with writers: “Be quick to respond, be honest but be kind and consistent. Publishers need to stop seeing the email in the inbox from the author as a stinkbomb and more as a part of the process—the most important part, after all.”
Author Tracy Chevalier said she would “love a publisher to ask me how I think they are doing, but it seems unlikely”. “I have had good and bad relationships with publishers—mostly good,” she said, referring to her worldwide publishers. “But I have never, ever had a publisher say ‘sorry’. They have never said: ‘You know, we didn’t do such a great job publishing that. We could have gotten more coverage, more reviews, more sales. Yeah, that cover didn’t work.’ They are like politicians—when do you ever hear a politician say: ‘I screwed up?’”
Around 37% of respondents said they would move publisher if another reputable publisher offered the same advance as their current one for their next book; 33% said they would stay and 30% were unsure. UK and Irish authors were more loyal, with 31% saying they would move publisher and 39% saying they would stay.
Respondents were also more loyal to their agents, with just 20% saying they would move to another agency. Authors also said they trusted their agent more than their editor when it came to career advice.
Author C J Daugherty said it was “logical and unsurprising” that writers trusted their agents more. “I’ve been with the same excellent UK publisher for four years, and I have had three different editors during that time,” she said. “They have all been wonderful and talented, but that level of change can still be a little disorientating. By contrast, one agent has shepherded me through that process.”
Authors were generally impressed with their publishers’ editorial input, with around 43% rating it as excellent and 27% saying it was good, but 57% agreed with the statement that “publishers have been lazy and uninnovative when it comes to matters digital”, and 47% agreed that “publishers have ever less to offer” and “don’t know how to market books anymore”. A quarter of respondents said they did not receive systematic guidance from their publisher about how they could add value to the publishing process, leaving them feeling “somewhat excluded or marginalised as a result”.
Writer Sara Sheridan said authors are “100% invested in the book [they have] written”, while an “editor has a stable of books coming out in the same month or season and the reality is that they only need one or two of those books to make it big”. She added: “Corporate publishers are engaged in a kind of intellectual property gambling. In this environment, your precious book is less important to them than it is to you.”
On self-publishing, 24% of authors said they would be excited by the prospect of having control, while 37% said they would be “horrified”.
Respondents’ thoughts on Amazon were mixed. When asked to choose from a series of statements, 68% said that Amazon was killing bookshops, 44% said it evades taxes it ought to pay, and 31% said Amazon would like to destroy publishers. However, 65% said it was a boon to readers, with a similar percentage (66%) saying it was a “superbly efficient retail machine”.
The full results of the survey can be viewed online.