Jonny Geller has advised publishers to see lockdown as a time of change and "experiment".
Giving his views in The Bookseller's Twitter conversation #Booksellerchat yesterday afternoon (28th April), the literary agent and Curtis Brown chair was critical of publishers' "missed opportunties and passivity", and suggested they are "missing a moment to forge a relationship, directly with the reader" during the period of the pandemic lockdown.
He highlighted that, with demand for books strong, the public should be "besieged by publishers intiatives", and that "publishers should be leading not waiting".
At a time when publishers have focused on furloughing staff and decentralised working, Geller said: "Hunkering down to save jobs is admirable but the next stage is to be thinking of innovative ways to feed our hunger to read".
Commenting on purchasing trends, Geller said publishers were taking the safe option too often, and "buying only what they deem 'essential'. Must reads, if you like. This is of course what we all look for, but if you have that mindset as a commissioner it makes you very cautious. Our job is to risk everything each throw of the dice. Agents risk their time and... publishers risk their investments. Either way, this isn't the time to go for sure bets only."
As many publishers push titles back to autumn, Geller said he thought moving so many was "a mistake", and that "delays will make next year jammed". He added: "I'll take my share of blame on that. The bunfight this autumn and delays will make next year jammed and instead of finding new ways to sell direct our titles during these months, we've delayed some."
Independent publishers and some bookstores have begun to explore new business models, with presses such as Galley Beggar, Bloomsbury and Sandstone delivering straight to customers. There has been discussion about subscription models, but Geller advised caution. He said: "some subscription could work, but the 'all you can eat buffet' style would destroy authors' incomes and reduce choice."
As e-books and audio products continue to rise in popularity, Geller called for a change in royalty rates said it was "unconscionable" to keep them low when sales were increasing. "If publishers are asking us to defer advance payments they should help the authors on the back end", he added.
A survey conducted by the Society of Authors found that authors were statistically the most vulnerable to the pandemic's impact. This is due to irretrievable losses caused by launch cancellations, falling outside government financial provision, and in some cases a reduction or delay in advance payments. Geller said he was "confident" the bounce back "on production and events" would be huge, and that he saw "no reason for advances to lower" as bookshops would re-open.
"Publishers buy the licence of my authors for 70 years after their death! They have time to make it work. I am always open to new business models but very rarely get a publisher to change."
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme last week, Faber c.e.o Stephen Page urged that "bookshops be among the first to open" as lockdown restrictions lift. Geller emphasised the pivotal role retailers play in the industry. He said: "The whole business of books depends on shops, the pleasure of browsing, talking to a bookseller, discovering the joy of a new gem. We can find ways to do some of it, of course, but if we get it wrong now, we may risk customers [not] returning for good. Trust is all."
"Until we know it is safe, I don't believe you can expect anyone to work in the normal way. If people want to take the risk, provide a safe environment and are supported by their companies, I understand the desire to open."