'Do You Love Your Publisher?': A new survey of authors in digital times

'Do You Love Your Publisher?': A new survey of authors in digital times

Update: The Bookseller will publish results of the "Do You Love Your Publisher" survey for traditionally published authors in April.

Survey closes 30th March. Traditionally published authors can find and take the survey here.  

The "Do You Love Your Publisher" survey is co-produced by Jane Friedman in the States and Harry Bingham in the UK. It will be available to traditionally published authors for four weeks. The hashtag #authorsay is being used on Twitter in relation to the survey.

Jane Friedman is the former Writer's Digest publisher who now teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is a former faculty member of the University of Cincinnati, and co-founded with Manjula Martin the quarterly magazine about the business of writing, Scratch. You can find the survey at her site here.

Harry Bingham is an author based in Chipping Norton near Oxford. His output of more than a dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction, has included, he tells me, "five six-figure book deals with Big Five publishers." You can find the survey at his popular AgentHunter site here

The survey can also be accessed directly here

Together, Bingham and Friedman are hoping to fill in some gaps in authors' observations and opinions about publishing today. Friedman tells me:

Our goal is to see how traditionally published authors are feeling about the choices now available, how they're leaning. We aim to be unbiased: that is, we're not looking for strongly positive or strongly negative responses. As far as possible, we want to get responses from those who have been recently published by big publishers and derive a truthful impression of what authors think.

What Friedman and Bingham are addressing is something I call "the silence of the trads." 

From the survey: 'Were your royalty statements clear and easy to understand?'

In recent years, as self-publishing developed, we've heard a great deal from some independent authors, of course. And this is not surprising. Many of them see their community as forming a digitally enabled revolt against a publishing establishment that once controlled the only way to publish a book.

As many have remarked, that establishment has, by comparison, seemed sometimes very quiet, slow to defend itself. And many of its authors have appeared hesitant or unwilling to counter advocates of self-publishing with pro-traditional commentary of their own.

Amid so many assertions of choice from the independent wing of the author corps, it definitely could be interesting to hear more viewpoints from the traditionally published sector. To date, after all, no blockbuster-class authors have "crossed the street," exchanging traditional publishing for self-publishing.

This makes Bingham an especially good example of a "hybrid" author -- both traditionally and self-published -- in some new choices for his own career. And that's what brought him and Friedman together on this project.

From the survey: 'Were you consulted and involved in your publisher's marketing plans?'

In early February, Bingham's article Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big Five Publishers, appeared as a guest post on Friedman's site. Although well known in UK circles -- for his books and for the Writers' Workshop and Agent Hunter programmes he runs -- Bingham is a new player in the US market.

By any standards a highly successful traditionally published author, Bingham encountered a new digital-publishing challenge with Penguin Random House in the United States. His first book, Talking to the Dead, with PRH's Delacorte/Bantam Dell sold so well as an ebook, he wrote, that "I'd earned out my author advance before the book had even come out in paperback." But as it turned out, that success wasn't matched in print sales. At Friedman's site he writes:

Because the two books I did with Random sold well as ebooks, they pretty much failed in print. The $27 hardback isn’t an obviously desirable product for today’s crime/mystery reader—certainly not when debuts are concerned—and the book basically flunked. Because retailers couldn’t shift the hardback, they didn’t want to be burned twice, so they ordered the paperback only in very limited numbers. That too sold horribly.

What we had was a paradox...where a book could have (a) great reviews, (b) a good author-publisher relationship, (c) excellent production quality, (d) strong ebook sales, yet (e) be a print failure. What were we to do?

Self-publishing proved to be the answer, at least for the third book in that series. Bingham self-published that title, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, in the US in late January.

And while some cheerleaders of self-publishing might assume that Bingham now is defecting entirely to the wiles of indie freedom, that is not the case. In response to my question, he makes it clear that the Fiona Griffiths series' situation in the States is a one-off occasion. He goes on:

But then, I AM still traditionally published, not just in the UK but all over Europe too. It's only in the US where I've gone indie and my motives there are specific to that market and the situation I found myself in. I think the mature end of the indie community should regard hybrid authors as a fairly logical evolution. After all Hugh Howey is hybrid not indie - he has a print deal in the US and a conventional arrangement in the UK. That's a sign of his seriousness, not a signal of betrayal.

Those comments to me -- along with his assurances that he's "very happy" with Orion, his current UK publisher -- "they've been great for me and have been a pleasure to work with" -- reflect the ultimate thesis of Bingham's earlier article at Friedman's site. It's not a competition between publishing modes, in his view. As emotionalised as the question of how to publish seems to become for many who may see self-publishing as a crusade, it is, in fact, Bingham is saying, simply a new option: useful when circumstances make it so. 

In his article, he refers to the present as a "fourth era" in his own 15-year experience of the industry's development:

The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big Five Oligopoly, or vice-versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice. What that choice is will depend on the author, the territory, the genre, and multiple other issues which will vary across every different situation.

From the survey: "If you could send a Tweet direct to your publisher's executive board, what would you want to tell them?"

Thirty-two questions long, the survey draws its "Do You Love Your Publisher?" title from a poll Bingham made of some 300 professional UK authors in 2012. (Results of that survey can be seen here.)

In the new evocation of the survey, Friedman tells me:

Harry and I revised the list of questions/answers together. With a bit of my own experience in media research methodologies -- [Writer's Digest parent] F+W Media actually was quite good at this, and I taught media research at the University of Cincinnati -- I think the questions are tighter and more focused.

Her and Bingham's plan, she says, is to "release the results simultaneously, shortly after the survey closes" in early April "and we've had time to analyze the results."

Friedman is one of the States' most prominent observers and commentators on the author's position in digital publishing's evolution. She is a regular panelist, moderator, and keynote speaker at writers' conferences, and she offers, as Bingham's Writer's Workshop does, guidance and editorial services.

"Some of the most popular articles at my site," she tells me, "are by traditionally published authors who have decided to self-publish. These authors speak openly and frankly about their experiences, both good and bad—and without fear.

"I hope this survey will give us better insight into how professionally published authors feel about the traditional publishing experience."

Her own background as a publisher might have prompted the inclusion of this question: 

From the survey: 'Did your publisher ever solicit feedback from you? E.g., did they ask you how you felt about their overall performance?'

A consistent, no-nonsense advocate for transparency and fact, Friedman looks to this new exercise as one that might be of value to publishing companies as well as to authors:

I'd love for the results to be useful to traditional publishers, who rarely if ever ask for feedback from their authors. But I'd also like to encourage more professional authors to speak out and be transparent about how they feel the system is working—or not—for them.

And for his part, Bingham assures me that while he likes his experience in self-publishing in the States, he nevertheless has "no plans to self-publish in any other territory."

Bingham sees the issue reflected in a question from the 2012 survey -- a question that traditionally publishing authors will find on the new survey.

He recalls:

Authors were asked, "With your next book, if some other reputable publisher offered you the same advance as your current one, would you move to the new house or stay where you are?" answers broke down 40 percent Move /37 percent Stay /23 percent Don't know. To me that said that 40 to 60 percent of authors were not all that impressed by their specific publishing experience, but they clearly haven't deserted the industry in droves. I'd suggest those authors have probably been right to grumble AND right not to leave.

Main image - Shutterstock: hxdbzxy