This summer, I attended two launches in one week at the same London bookshop. One for an author published by a prestigious independent. One self-published, with some help from whitefox. Both good books, both non-fiction. They were well-attended launches, in part to celebrate with friends and family books a long time in the writing, and in part to seed each publication within their respective author’s networks. For my sins, I think I uttered the phrase "Don’t forget, it’s a marathon, not a sprint" at both events.
In fact, I’d go as far to say that the books in question shared many more similarities than differences. They were proofread, copyedited and had covers designed by talented freelances. They had been printed in one of the two main UK-based black-and-white book printers. OK, so they had different logos on the spine, one with years of back catalogue and cultural history. But even with some insider knowledge, you can scour the bestselling titles on Amazon and still find it a challenge to tell which imprints have been created by an author or brand themselves, and which belong to a recently launched list within one of the major publishing conglomerates.
The main difference for those two particular publications was the business model. In one instance, a rights-owning publisher had paid a (small) advance set against future royalty earnings. For that freelance journalist author, they were the bank, enabling him time to write. In the other, an IP-owning author had invested in their own book upfront, with a view to seeing a return coming once sales, driven by their own network, started accumulating over the coming months—but they also saw their book as a way of marketing themselves and their business.
whitefox started out in 2012. It was living then in a publishing world preoccupied by the recent Department of Justice ruling about e-book price-fixing. Pearson had acquired Author Solutions for $116m. The debates swirling in and around the FutureBook conference of the day were all about discoverability and disintermediation. Would the next Fifty Shades or Hunger Games creators be taking their books directly to market via Amazon, or even Pottermore? Would writers still need agents and publishers in the traditional sense? It was going to be an interesting few years to come. And indeed, they have been. Although not necessarily in ways that anyone imagined.
We always tend to see the choices lying ahead of us as binary, whereas the reality, to use a word favoured by Barack Obama recently, is more "muddy". J K Rowling, James Patterson or Jamie Oliver are happy to continue to do multi-book deals with their publishers. Publishers are not missing those potential bestsellers that data shows have risen to the surface commercially. Those successful growing outlier brands—take a bow, Pinch of Nom and Mrs Hinch—can always eventually be brought in to be amplified by their sales and distribution machines. So there’s not a huge amount of evidence to suggest anyone is eating anyone else’s lunch, then.
A long tail
And yet, and yet. At whitefox, we’ve experienced a growing raft of opportunities for individuals or businesses who want to take their own content to market directly, crucially maintaining control creatively and of their own timeline, format and pricing. Books which might not be essential for all stock-holding high-street chains, but which can sell in "e", print-on-demand and in physical format online forever. Books which are not just about generating revenue but created for marketing and winning business, for events and specifically targeted sales opportunities. Books which mainstream publishers just don’t have the capacity for any more, such as niche fiction and particularly non-fiction, some of which has been born from any manner of existing sources, such as blogs, newsletters or archives. As Joanna Penn foresaw at FutureBook in 2012, the future would be about authors as micro-publishers, with their mailing lists.
Of course, some things are still hard to replicate outside traditional publishing structures. Rights networks, to name one. But in truth, not much. And organisations such as the Alliance of Independent Authors, under founder Orna Ross, continue to lift the lid on the most mysterious elements of the process for budding indie writers.
At whitefox, we think of ourselves as operating in the cracks between publishers, agents, writers and brands. We are not a gatekeeper but a creative collaborator, a facilitator, leveraging professional publishing expertise and empowering writers with speed and agility. Writers who know so much more about publishing than they once did. Who understand that launching a new book is like launching a small business, that access to worldwide distribution has never been simpler; and that going DIY is no signal of a lack of ambition.
The old paradigm of legacy publishers versus self-publishing, of either/or, feels outmoded now. Publishers are really good at many things. But maybe publishers cannot be good at everything for everybody.