Rules of attraction

The author survey that The Bookseller reports on this week makes good and bad reading for the book industry. Most of the traditionally published writers who were surveyed valued the job done by their publisher, and yet still they feel, well, unloved. They would like their publisher to communicate with them more, ask for their views (occasionally), admit when they’ve got it wrong, and (in the words of editor-turned-author Harriet Evans) not treat an email from an author as if it were a “stink bomb”.

Some publishers might shrug their shoulders. When has a survey of professional writers ever applauded publishers? As the polemicist Andrew Keen said in this magazine earlier this year, “I don’t think publishers realise how unpopular they are with writers.” I suspect they have an inkling.

Yet the survey also tells us what has become more and more obvious over the past few years: authors are only dimly interested in doing the publishing themselves. Of the authors surveyed, a third were “horrified” by the prospect of having control over the publication process—only a quarter were excited. Furthermore, 85% of respondents said that the “prestige” of having a traditional deal was important to them. Agents play a vital role here: authors are more loyal to their agent than their publisher, and value their agent’s careers advice over that of their editor. That agents are pro-publisher, should not be a given.

The survey also highlights authors’ mixed views of Amazon: it is described as both a leading innovator in the book space and a boon for readers, and yet also a business intent on destroying bookshops and killing off publishers. A third of authors thought it treated self-published writers well, but traditionally published writers less well. Amazon’s self-publishing platform has not stopped authors from wanting traditional deals, while its publishing business has yet to make a mark. 

Yet traditional publishers are deluding themselves if they think they hold the whip-hand over authors. The recent high-profile poaches (Kate Mosse, Danielle Steel, Allison Pearson, Trisha Ashley, with more announcements to come during LBF) show how far publishers will now go to get the right talent on their books, and how they are refining their offers to make themselves attractive, whether that is by promising to publish with global muscle or with boutique attention. But it also reveals how authors are willing to break even long-term publisher relationships for the chance of something new and refreshing, especially if it also comes with more money.

Publishers’ efforts to become “talent magnets” at a time when authors have growing options means writers should get more not less. Magnetism may be an invisible force, but for authors seeing will be believing.