The poaching game

Last night, I posted a cri de coeur on Facebook. I pulled out my soapbox and, quite uncharacteristically, let rip. The reason for this? My complete frustration and distress that I may end up losing another author to one of the big five. Earlier this year, the rights to one of my bestselling authors were sold to a major publisher for a figure I could never dream of matching. I was devastated. Yesterday, an approach was made for yet another author, and I fear that this is just the beginning.

It’s just business, I hear you say. Well, to me, it’s not. The truth is that many of the books I have chosen to publish have been on submission for long periods of time. I saw the potential, took the risks, produced beautiful, high-quality products and then promoted and marketed them until they began to soar. For big companies to come in and cherry pick, scoop the cream from my list, without having to do any of the hard work to establish an author, feels wrong. It is wrong. There is a sameness to much of the big-company output; a risk-averse culture that permeates the industry. Small independents are often the ones who are willing to take the risks, and yet making a success of a book seems to backfire.

Let me make one thing clear. I do not blame my or any other author for being drawn to bigger houses. The advances can change their lives; give them freedom to write. Perhaps more marketing spend can lift them onto the bestseller list. What I do object to is a culture of poaching, which can undermine and even completely destabilise a small independent, who relies on success stories to continue publishing. I did not set out to provide a farm team or a feeder school for the big companies. I set out to grow my company with my authors. With every success, more and more is possible, and yes, I firmly believe that it is possible to compete with conglomerates. I don’t see and never have seen barriers. Sometimes agents and authors need to look to the long-term, the potential. After all, that’s what I did with them.

I don’t think I work harder than anyone else in this industry; what I want to illustrate is what it has taken me, personally, to get this company off the ground, and to make a success of my authors and their stunning books. I imagine that I am speaking for independents everywhere.

The Facebook post has had a level of response that was completely unexpected, with support and a genuine desire to understand the situation, from other independents, major publishers, authors and booksellers. My cri de coeur seems to have struck a chord. And what’s the point of it all?

Independent publishers have a massive place in publishing. We are important members of a wonderful and hugely supportive community, but, without support, without ethics, we cannot survive. And, big publishers, that will most certainly be the case if you steal our authors.

Karen Sullivan is founder and publisher of independent Orenda Books.