Sam Edenborough, president of the Association of Authors’ Agents and literary agent at ILA Ltd, tells Tom Tivnan about the next big thing in fiction, the inherent difficulties of subscription services, and the territories that are showing green shoots of recovery.
Tom Tivnan: Last year, one of the main talking points at FBF was subscriptions. How do you think the model is holding up?
Sam Edenborough: It depends on which territory you are talking about - even the story in the US is slightly different to the story in the UK. The fall of Oyster is a significant event, but as [Ideal Logical c.e.o.] Mike Shatzkin pointed out, all it proves is a standalone model which aims to deliver an equivalent amount of money to the publisher and author that a regular download would have delivered won’t work. In other words, subscription is more likely to work in the context of something like Kindle Unlimited, as it is part of Amazon’s larger suite of consumer experience.
Scribd’s removal of certain content is significant because it perhaps shows that very heavy readers in certain genres can bankrupt the model. [Subscription services] have to balance offering rights-holders proper payment with a sane financial model. I’m not convinced anyone has really made the model work unless its heavily subsidised by other things, as is the case with Kindle Unlimited.
TT: The Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA) has called for more information and detail with author digital earning statements. Why?
SE: We are very aware that publishers have real challenges in terms of unifying data they get from e-retailers for e-books and also subscription revenue, library lending revenue, etc. All of that stuff has to be synthesised into their systems and somehow presented to an author. It is understandable that the system has grown up as it has, essentially a top-line aggregate figure against which the prevailing royalty is applied.
Of course, that presents an author and an agent with very little information about what actually happened. We know that publishers are actively interrogating all the relevant parameters around digital sales. There’s a lot of interesting data there around consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns, even the way people are reading. We believe the best relationship between author and agent and publisher is when everyone is thinking strategically about the process. In order to be really involved with that, authors need to know more about what’s happening out there in the retail environment.
There are questions about timing, promotion giveaways . . . if publishers were able to provide more information on a regular basis, it would help us be better partners. I’m very pleased to say that in the conversations we have had with publishers, they share this view. Highlighting this issue at a trade body level should help us clear away the theoretical arguments we might have and get down brass tacks about how we can work together to improve things for authors.
TT: What do you think the trends will be at FBF this year?
SE: [Laughs] I’ve never seen anyone successfully predict the trends before FBF. Agents in particular are only going to blow their own trumpet. I’m certainly hoping people are going to be looking for high-quality memoirs, a few big ideas books and excellent commercial fiction.That said, I think there will be many discussions about the next big trend for fiction: is this the final stage of the boom in crime fiction from Scandinavia? What might replace it? I’ve been confidently predicting the rise of sci-fi for the past few years with a spectacular lack of success, so that just goes to show you shouldn’t ask me.
TT: Are there any territories that are particularly strong this year?
SE: The story may be more about which territories are particularly weak. Brazil is a worry; its currency has collapsed against the dollar, so Brazilian publishers essentially have half the purchasing power they had a year ago. The other massive thing is the Brazilian government’s programme for purchasing books for schools is being switched off, so entire departments in publishing houses may be made redundant. It’s extremely bad; [the scheme] had the double effect of pouring money into the publishing industry but also hugely promoting literacy.
Germany and France are very steady for us. Encouragingly, I’m seeing slight green shoots in Sweden and Denmark - a very good sign because both territories have been flat for a long time. The Netherlands, which has also been flat, is seeing growth. Italy, however, is not, which is a concern as it’s traditionally been one of the three biggest markets for English-language books in translation. l