It has long seemed to me that my job would be less fun but by and large easier if, instead of pitching books to editors I went straight to the people who make the decisions – the marketing, sales and publicity teams. In place of the laborious and often grindingly slow process of sending out manuscripts to editors who are too overworked and demoralised to actually read anything unless they think other publishers are taking an interest in it, I could take my projects in quarterly and make a pitch to the business team.
That way I could sift through a whole slew of rejections quickly and (comparatively) painlessly and then I could send copies of the projects that they liked the sound of to their readers (i.e. the editors) who could check that the prose wasn’t wholly cack handed and the story delivered on its premise etc etc.
The major upside would be that I wouldn’t have to worry about an editor fluffing the pitch for one of my projects, whether through their own ineptitude or because they are, because of the occasionally arcane politics of publishing companies, no longer in favour.
Publishers like to think of themselves as being “experts at building author brands” (according to this perceptive piece by Mike Shatzkin). The trouble is that increasingly just isn’t true. Publishers can be terrific at exploiting brands – E.L. James sold vastly more books as a result of being published by Random House than she would have done otherwise. But she was a brand before they got their hands on her.
In the UK the depressing picture emerging from retail is that publishers are really struggling when it comes to publishing debut fiction or non fiction by an author without a brand platform. If a debut does not win a prize, get a reading group pick or is in some other way struck by lightning then sales are all too likely to be measured in the hundreds or very low thousands. Five thousand is the new forty thousand.
So bad has it become that one has to ask whether in fact the best thing for the major publishers to do is to give up publishing new authors altogether and simply focus on maximising existing brand authors. By offloading the 90% of their list that loses money, and a vast proportion of the infrastructure required to service that below the waterline product their profitability would go through the roof.
I’d love to be saying I’m only joking, but it does make worrying amounts of sense. There is the problem of new product, but with self publishing so vibrant publishers hardly need bother on the r&d side of the business – authors fund that themselves.
There would also be a bit of a loss of credibility – but ‘legacy’ publishers have been copping bad PR for years: and no one buys a book because of the colophon on the spine, so that’s hardly a great worry.
Of course the alternative is to realise that brand management and brand creation sides of the business are significantly unrelated and that they should quite probably operate far more separately than they are – and above all, be accounted differently. A debut author bears about as much resemblance to a brand author as a wolf does to a Pomeranian. The skill set required to maximise the potential of each is almost wholly different, but at the moment all authors are treated too much as if they are fundamentally the same – they are not. There are huge reserves of creativity that could be unleashed by recognising this fact more clearly.