Publishers should embrace entrepreneurial authors

‘Authors should become more involved in the industry and take greater responsibility as part of a wider ecosystem,’ Ann Patchett told The Bookseller recently. ‘“If you had asked me two years ago, I would not have thought it was my responsibility. But I do think authors need to get involved with all sort of aspects of publishing and health of the publishing industry,” she said.’

Patchett also took a swipe at self-publishers, but I’ll leave it to Porter Anderson, the Passive Voice and Mick Rooney to deftly pick apart her arguments on those points. 

But what about those authors who ought to be doing more for the trade? Should they take more responsibility? And responsibility for what? Patchett doesn’t elucidate, she just says that she thinks that authors “need to think and work as a business. Authors have been protected for a long time, we are very well cared for, but we need to think about our other partners, from bookshops to publishing and self-publishing.”

Despite the pressures on their time, many authors take on a good portion of promotional work for their books, plying social and traditional media, even organising their own events. They have, obviously, a vested interest in seeing their book do well and that means getting out there and talking to people. Beyond that, what else does Patchett want authors to do? Practically speaking, what else can authors do? 

I presume Patchett doesn’t mean that every author should open a bookshop, as she has. It takes capital, passion, time, business nouse and contacts to open a bookshop, and running such a business could easily take over your every waking hour. I can’t imagine many authors feeling that opening a bookshop is the best way for them to further their careers. 

Writing isn’t the primary source of income for most authors, so they have to get a job or find freelance work and write in their spare time. Perhaps their next advance might pay for a new car or a holiday, but it’s certainly not going to allow them to write full time. Nor is it going to give them time enough to ‘get involved’ more deeply with the industry. 

I think Patchett is looking at the author-publisher relationship from the wrong angle. It is publishers who need to get more involved with authors. It’s publishers who need to compete with self-publishing platforms and who must revolutionise their own business before it’s disrupted away from underneath them. There’s no point wagging fingers at self-publishers and telling them they need to take better care of the industry; it’s the industry that needs to understand why talented authors might choose to self-publish, and then come up with something better to lure them back. 

So where might publishers start?  

Communications: I’ve heard many a traditionally published author complain that once their manuscript was edited, they heard very little from their publisher. There’s no good reason for going quiet on an author. Every publisher should be using internal social media to facilitate quick and easy communication between the publishing team and the author and to share updates, documents, schedules and files. Keeping your authors in the loop is trivially easy and improving communications with them will also improve communications within your team. 

Payment and accounting: One huge advantage to self-publishing is the regular payments and easy access to basic sales data. Whether I sell £2.50 worth of books per month or £25,000, I know how many of which books have been sold, how many returned, and how much I’m going to get. What’s more, I’m paid monthly. Publishers need to get on top of their accounts and start providing on-demand sales data from day one and paying royalties monthly once/if the advance earns out. 

Supporting entrepreneurialism: There are many entrepreneurial authors around, attracted by the freedom that self-publishing gives them. We are not only open to experimentation, we thrive on it. We want to find a reliable business model that can evolve with the changes that technology has wrought upon the industry. What’s not clear to us, however, is how we would fit into the traditional publishing landscape. When I decide to produce a hand-bound hardback and then use the same design on merchandise such as bookmarks and jewellery, then I can just talk to my cover designer about how we achieve that. In a traditional deal, how would that work? How would a publisher support my need to keep innovating, keep taking risks and keep finding ways to recover when my experiments fail, as is inevitable?

Publishers should be bending over backwards to find and work with entrepreneurial authors, because they are the ones willing to experiment and innovate, the ones willing to take a risk with their own work, their reputation, their livelihoods. They are the pathfinders, the bellwethers, and they turn to self-publishing because it gives them the freedom a traditional deal would deny them. 

But whilst entrepreneurial authors could get more involved in the business of publishing, the onus certainly isn’t on them to fix the industry’s business problems. I fully respect any author who doesn’t wish to get more deeply involved — it’s not their job and there should be no expectation that they should ‘do something’. 

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologistjournalist and booklover