What do authors want from their publisher? In my experience it is two things:
1. Their book to get to as many people as possible in the most agreeable form and manner possible.
2. See Point 1.
What authors and agents also want these days is for publishers not to get in the way of success.
Why on earth would a publisher want anything other than success for its books and authors? After all, who buys a car, expecting it will break down 10 miles from the showroom?
Publishers do not intend to get in the way, but this is how they can get in the way:
- By putting a cover on a book that they think the retailer wants (not the same thing as what the reader or author will like, by the way
- By pushing the book out too early when it is not properly cooked yet.
- By concentrating on too many other projects. Promiscuous publishing is an addiction.
We all know that when publishers shine, it is when they beam the full force of their smile at a book. Witness Headline’s recent bombardment of proofs and plugs for Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave or Transworld’s campaign for Rachel Joyce’s . . . Harold Fry, or Penguin’s persistence with Jojo Moyes or Sue Townsend or Fourth Estate’s Mantelmania . . . happily the list can go on. But not far enough.
Recently, Canongate announced a multi-format simultaneous release of Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being. I think this is a significant move, albeit with perhaps not a major title for the publisher. It seems to be saying that a publisher should not control how a reader comes upon a new book—they should be able to buy it in any format they want when they want. Quite a radical idea. And an example of a publisher getting out of the way to help the book reach the reader.
The 90/10 (or is it 95/5 these days?) ratio of how many hits pay for all the misses is a model that cannot sustain itself. Smaller publishers should not compete with this model anyway. If you are small, revel in your size, focus on it and don’t rest until the book you believed in and acquired all those months/years ago has found its deserved readership. If you are big, silo out your imprints and give them character and panache and force in the market. In other words, convert the 90/10 to, say, 60/40: let 60% of your business subsidise 40% of the ones that got away.
If you believe in the editors you have hired, the marketers and publicists you have engaged and, most importantly, the books you have acquired, how could you not succeed?
We also need to look at the notion of publisher and agent as gatekeeper—in the new world of self-publishing gatekeeping is not keeping people out, but guiding people in.
So, don’t get in the way by doing the following things:
- Place the author central to your strategy
- Wean yourselves off the addiction of Promiscuous Publishing
- Publish the book beyond the first month—surely e-books allow you this strategy more than ever?
- Communication is good, but collaboration is better
- In a world where retailers are narrowing their range, fight harder to find new routes to the book buyer
- Look again at every element of the way you interact with authors in terms of royalties, licences, partnerships. Are you offering a dynamic package?
I suspect there are many things agents could do to improve the chances of their authors succeeding and I’ll happily read your suggestions.
Jonny Geller is joint c.e.o. of Curtis Brown and m.d. of its books division.