To work together, not as antagonists
The Bookseller’s Author Day conference opened this year’s FutureBook Week on Monday (30th November). It was the inaugural staging of a conference expressly meant to bring together publishing professionals, traditionally publishing authors, and self-publishing authors. Our term for the conference's intent is "issues-driven," by which we meat that it was not the more commonly staged how-to conference or inspirational gathering for writers.
From the outset, we set Author Day on three premises:
- That these members of the community can work together, not as antagonists;
- That disagreement with respect is possible and desirable amid many contentious relationships today in publishing; and
- That by examining disagreements, we can learn and grow; we think better dialog is important.
The day was opened by “State of the Author” comments from the Society of Authors and the Alliance of Independent Authors, and we went on to try to raise and consider points of friction during the day with various standalone presentations and panel discussions.
A part of the concept of Author Day was that it would send some signal, a message or statement, to the FutureBook Conference five days later (4th December).
This commentary was divided into four key concepts we identified as high-level areas of concern from Author Day: values, communication, feedback, and trust. We presented each with a brief quote from the day. The commentary was not meant to be comprehensive in terms of the breadth of issues taken up by Author Day speakers and delegates, but to summarize several over-arching points of tone and tension in a speaking slot of about 10 minutes at The FutureBook.
Here is the text of the statement I presented to the publishing industry audience at FutureBook, at the beginning of a panel called "Writing the future: author-centric publishing."—Porter Anderson
Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line.
Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury Author
There is a predictable and deep sense among many writers at the Author Day conference that a commercial motive has vastly outweighed aesthetics and literary meaning in much of publishing. Interestingly, I think it’s safe to say that we may hear this more frequently from traditionally publishing authors than from independent authors, perhaps because so many successful indies work in entertainment genres.
But we heard that the question of values also pervades the author-publisher relationship. The highly regarded Bloomsbury author Kamila Shamsie made a ringing appeal for the sort of patience and nurturance of new talent that she feels she was lucky enough to experience early in her own career—and that she feels is not a value offered many authors today.
As an organizer of Monday’s conference, I will also suggest here that publishing people actively consider looking for opportunities like Author Day to engage with authors.
The creative corps is sharply concerned that publishers are not interested in their welfare nor their challenges. Participation in Author Day by publishers was quite light. Some publishers who did join us did so only for part of the day. We were glad to have their participation, mind you, even for part of the event. But is one day to show solidarity with writers too much to ask? When the industry fails to engage with even the most constructive and carefully designed chances to come together in dialog with these indispensable vendors of the product, it's perfectly understandable that the assumption by authors is that the business doesn't care.
I hope that you’ll watch for Author Day next year and consider joining in.
Understand the process—the what, when and how but most importantly the why. If we don’t explain, don’t be afraid to ask. What may seem like a silly question may highlight something really important.
Rebecca Smart, Managing Director
Ebury Publishing Group, Penguin Random House
Surely nothing is more immediately clarified by digital than the need for clear and full communication, and nothing is more opulently enabled by digital than instantaneous contact. And yet, delegates to Author Day complained of:
- Unintelligible accounting on their sales;
- Unexplained and antiquated timetables for payment;
- Inadequate dialog with editorial and design staff; and
- Misunderstood and poorly explained marketing efforts.
One result of such shortfalls in communication is a perception among many authors that publishers' assertions of author concern ring hollow—this is considered lip service by many in the creative community. Personally, I think that many publishers, if not most, are genuine in their regard for their authors but this is not necessarily what many writers believe.
"Indie is not an island." Orna Ross, the director of the Alliance of Independent Authors told us. But increasingly, publishers are seen by many authors as functioning in isolation. And this includes missing chances to demonstrate the good work and caring presentation they may provide to authors. As Ebury’s eloquent managing director Rebecca Smart told us, publishing is "not good at shouting it out from the rooftops” when it gets so many things right.
Did your publisher ever solicit feedback from you? Did they ask you how you felt about their overall performance?
(Close to 80% of respondents said: No.)
Harry Bingham, Jane Friedman
Trade Author Survey, 2015
Here is where we had the most direct request from writers attending Author Day to send a precise message to industry leaders at The FutureBook Conference today.
In a near unanimous vote, the Author Day delegates have asked that publishers seriously consider instituting feedback mechanisms that poll authors on their experiences as authors with their publishing houses.
Already, I’ve heard the considered opinion of one literary agent to the contrary, this agent saying that authors are not customers of publishers, per se, and that providing performance feedback, then, is a misplaced concept. I respectfully disagree, having spent Monday at Author Day, and would recommend that publishers consider instituting just such feedback as part of their work with authors in the spirit of partnership.
As I have written, however, I do think that this must go both ways. And if I were a publisher, I wouldn’t hesitate to provide corresponding feedback to authors about their own performance vis-à-vis the needs of the publishing house. In the correct spirit of collegial exchange, I think such give-and-take could prevent many misunderstandings and promote many forward steps in how authors and publishers work together.
Do you think publishers realise how much resentment authors have for the industry?
Delegate to Author Day 2015
I assured the delegate who asked this on Monday that I believe publishers are very keenly aware of resentment toward them from many authors. But my own message to this body from Author Day on Monday to FutureBook on Friday is that there are, in fact, days and days of mistrust between the author camp and publishing.
This is not limited to writerly mistrust of the system. Some writers mistrust other writers, for example, hence considerable negativity between some trade authors and some indies. Even author-advocacy groups like the Alliance and the Society are called out on a regular basis by their own members on points of emphasis and direction.
But in the main, Author Day demonstrated to me that one unpleasant result of the digital dynamic’s tumult is that it has left its writer corps perhaps feeling overly entitled—and its publishing officials under-informed about the needs and breadth of writerly interest.
Will publishing be satisfied when it produces only 10% of the market's books? That's the prediction of Andrew Lownie who is not only one of the highest volume literary agents in the UK but who also is an author with Hodder and a speaker at Author Day. What's more, he's a publisher: his agency houses Thistle Press. He, himself, can and does publish authors. He predicts only more of this ahead. And I think he may not be wrong if authors and publishers don’t begin to have more success in coming together.
I hope that you will consider participating in Author Day next time, and I thank you for your attention today.
A note to Author Day delegates and speakers: We will be contacting you with a request for feedback (speaking of), and will be pleased if you can spend a few minutes giving us your input so that we can learn as much as possible from this first doing of the event.