Wednesday, 25 February 2009

How Mainstream Publishers Could Make Money Out Of Their Slushpiles

(Or, Perhaps I Live In Cloud Cuckoo Land)

How could a mainstream commercial publisher make a POD, accept-anything imprint work without acting unethically and attracting criticism?

  • The publisher would have to be absolutely honest about the problems that its POD authors would face, and make it clear that they were very unlikely to sell more than a handful of books each.

  • The publisher would have to provide lots of information and support for all its writers: details about booksellers' discounts, promotional and selling techniques, and editing resources. All this could be done via a website, tied in with a message-board open to all where writers could discuss their endeavours and network to create joint sales and marketing opportunities.

  • The publisher would be wise to enforce a strict "previous rejections required" policy when accepting books for POD publication, in order to ensure that the books which might have an excellent chance of commercial success were still published through the usual channels.

    There are more details which would have to be considered, such as the possibility of recommending paid-for editorial services (and here the publishers' successful writers could opt in to provide a freelance service—I bet that many would welcome the extra money); cover designs (a standard template which was colour-coded according to genre could be used, unless the author provided their own); and the possibility of providing some sales and marketing support for selected books, and the scheme as a whole.

    There'd be a conflict of interests if publishers referred the writers it rejected direct to their own POD imprints: but if several publishers set up such imprints they could together fund an umbrella organisation to govern them all (which wouldn’t take much—a carefully-researched website, plenty of information and resources, and someone to respond to queries), and refer rejected writers to that organisation for advice. This organisation could run much like the UK's Society of Authors: it would provide all interested writers with information about the problems inherent in publishing books with no editorial, marketing or sales support, in order to reinforce the message that this was not a route to billionaire-status; and it would add an extra layer of assurance that the writers knew what they were getting into.

    What would this sort of scheme achieve?

  • It would help all sorts of writers get published who didn't have the ability or expertise to be published in any other way.

  • Some of those who took part might well do very well, in which case they could reconsider submitting their books for commercial publication, and the editorial, sales and marketing support that goes with it.

  • The volume of the slush pile would reduce, the submission-response times would improve, and many mainstream publishers might well reopen their doors to unagented submissions.

  • Discuss.


    green_knight said...

    Can you say 'conflict of interest'?

    Also, I feel it is in everybody's interest to encourage writers to *write better* rather than to believe they'll never succeed and their only route to publication is paying for it.

    Yog's Law: Money always flows to the author. (Yes, there are situation where self-publishing is a valid step - writing for a niche market, mainly - but they're the exception.)

    none said...

    I suspect the slush piles would increase as everybody rushed to get their rejections in order to get the hallowed commercial publishers' imprint on their books....

    Jane Smith said...

    GK, you're quite right: it would be a conflict of interest unless safeguards against that were put in place, some of which I discussed in this piece. And I agree with you that writers SHOULD do all they can to write better, and I know self-publishing is sometimes good for niche books, and that Yog's Law is very wise (people are sick of me quoting it).

    BUT. If a reputable publisher started a scheme like this and operated it in an ethical way, what would be the downside for those less talented writers who will never be good enough for commercial publication? Many of them tend towards vanity publishers in the end: wouldn't this be a better, less exploitative alternative?

    Jane Smith said...

    Buffy, good point. But that effect would wear off after a while, I suspect.

    I'm not insisting that this is a good way for the publishing industry to develop: but it seems a better option, to me, than mainstream publishers referring rejected writers onto established, fee-charging vanity publishers--which has started to happen (and yes, I've got a blog post about that planned for next week).

    Derek said...

    I think that a publisher redirecting authors to a vanity imprint smacks too much of bait and switch.

    I agree with green_knight that there is one legitimate area for co-op publishing, and that is where a book is good enough to be published but simply has too narrow an audience for a publisher to take it on as a project.

    BTW does anyone know if Random House still has a stake in Xlibris?

    Sally Zigmond said...

    Presumably, the author will pay for the line and copy editing amongst other things? It would be a huge expense for the publishers otherwise.

    But what happens if authors refuse to pay for the editing either because they can't afford it or, more likely, they don't think their precious writing needs it. Will the publisher still go ahead? If the quality of the resulting book is poor, would it not tarnish their core business?

    And as most editors and copy-editors in mainstream publishing have any idea of how hard it would be to work with authors whose work is not deemed of a high enough quality to be published in the mainstream but thinks it is?

    It would be great if it worked but I'm not sure how it would in practice.

    Sally Zigmond said...

    Sorry. posted in haste. The incomprehensible sentence in the penultimate paragraph should read:

    And have most editors and copy-editors in mainstream publishing any idea of how hard it would be to work with authors whose work is not deemed of a high enough quality to be published in the mainstream but thinks it is?

    Jane Smith said...

    Derek wrote, "I think that a publisher redirecting authors to a vanity imprint smacks too much of bait and switch."

    I agree, Derek: and yet a few are now doing it. Osprey Publishing (UK publisher) has started referring writers it rejects to AuthorHouse; Objective Entertainment (US agent) does the same; and other publishers have started similar arrangements with other vanity/publishing services. I'm going to be blogging about that whole thing soon but meanwhile, I suspect we're going to see a lot more of these sorts of associations as the financial climate worsens: in which case, doesn't it make sense to discuss how, if at all, this can be done properly?

    Jane Smith said...

    Sally, you're right: it's a potential minefield. But under this scheme (as I see it!), if writers don't want to have their books edited they don't have to--they just have to take the flak when people review their work (much as we've seen over at Scott Pack's blog today--for those who haven't read it, a self-published author has taken Mr Pack to task over Pack's brief review of his book: cringeworthy stuff).

    Anonymous said...

    I agree that if PODs were completely transparent in their business practices and alerted authors about their chances of sales, they wouldn't incur my wrath. After all, the author is completely aware of the risk they run, and in order to make any sales, they would need to purchase their own books. If they agree to this, I have no problem.

    But there is no way I, as an indie trade press, would put any of my investment money into a book that I knew wasn't ready for prime time - and never would be.

    PODs make their money on a big quantity of authors. They need a large number who are willing to buy their own books to offset those who won't. How else do you think Willem Meiners of Publish America can afford his own helicopter? If no author bought their own book, PODs wouldn't exist.

    The only other option is to make this a vanity operation, where the author assumes all costs of production. Or a co-publishing venture like the one HC started (and ditched) a while back. Vanities already exist, so I'm not seeing the benefit other than a general call to honesty among the PODs.

    Jane Smith said...

    Lynn, I didn't know that HarperCollins tried a co-publishing scheme: I shall go and look that one up, thank you.

    Bankrolling a scheme like this wouldn't be for the independents, you're right: it's far too costly, and would be potentially disastrous for your real business, which is producing great books.

    But so far the POD-based publishers and the vanities show now signs of honesty: none of them are holding their hands up and admitting the limitations of the services that they offer. Consequently, novice writers get caught, and end up fleeced. It's impossible to stop the vanity presses: it's a profitable business that works, if you don't happen to have any scruples. Which is what made me bring this whole thing up: to mix several metaphors here, if the good guys of the publishing world can't beat the bad guys, then could they join them while still maintaining the higher ground? And if so, how?

    Anonymous said...

    It might suit those who have had an agent, say, but who has had their novel turned down by several publishers because, though they like it, are not in love with it enough to invest in a debut novelist. Or it might suit an established writer whose next novel has been turned down because of the ecomnomic climate, say.

    I am talking from a position of ignorance here, though. So I'll just sit in the corner and remain anonymous.

    Anonymous said...

    A lot of the authors I encounter (I'm an independent editor) say that mainstream publishers don't offer much anymore--not much editing, certainly not much promotion. I also work with an agent, and I know first-hand that the Marketing section is a really crucial part of any proposal: Many publishers expect authors to hire a publicist, put up a Website, start a blog, essentially do all their own marketing. Thus, many authors, even those who have already been pubbed by mainstream publishers, are tempted to self-publish, do their own promotion (which they would have to do anyway), and enjoy a higher royalty rate. Self-publishing does seem to make sense in certain circumstances, for a more sophisticated author, and with the right publisher. And there are some self-appointed watchdogs out there who identify the good self-publishers and the bad ones.

    I think mainstream publishers have, to some degree, failed us by giving up on midlist authors, etc., and self-publishers are jumping into the gap. As the industry evolves, I think there are some real opportunities.

    Matador said...

    Jane Smith said: "But so far the POD-based publishers and the vanities show now signs of honesty: none of them are holding their hands up and admitting the limitations of the services that they offer. "

    You are right that most POD and vanity presses (and those who call themselves self-publishing companies but who are vanity publishers really) do give the impression that it is easy to be successful when you self-publish. But that is MOST, not ALL. At Matador we are very clear and up front about the whole business of self-publishing; we don't promise the earth and we don't 'imply' that an author will easily recoup their investment (look at our website or Online Guide if you don't believe me!).

    Self-publishing is one route to market, and it has a place in a wider publishing market; for any author it is an option that they have, and one that they should consider carefully. As with anything that you buy, do your research and shop around... what's right for one author may not be right for another.

    There are people (and companies) in the self-publishing industry who are not out to fleece authors, nor pretend they are something that they are not. Self-publishing companies do make money from authors, but they also help them sell their books and go on to further successes in publishing. This is one reason why commercial publishers who start to offer publication in exchange for money are doing a disservice to those authors as the authors will have little understanding of what self-publishing actually is. Any idiot can arrange the production of a book, selling it in numbers more than just a few copies is far harder (and one reason why POD publishing is always going to be limited... but that's another issue!).

    Jane Smith said...

    Carrie, while I’ll not dispute your suggestion that self-publishing can work in certain circumstances, I wonder if your experience is mostly in non-fiction publishing or self-publishing? Because that would be a better fit for a lot of what you say about marketing, which doesn’t necessarily hold true for mainstream fiction publishing (or a lot of non-fiction mainstream publishing, either).

    I’m not convinced by your point that mainstream publishers don’t do much editing or promotion, as it’s completely at odds with my own experiences within the industry. You might have a hard time convincing some of my regular contributors here of your views, too: Sally Zigmond is in the middle of a months-long editing marathon with the publisher of her forthcoming novel, while Lynn Price of Behler Publishing edits the books she publishes until they twinkle, and promotes the socks off them too.

    I will, however, roundly agree with your final sentence: “As the industry evolves, I think there are some real opportunities.” We can all agree with that one, even if we’re not in full agreement about the form those opportunities might take.

    Jane Smith said...

    Matador wrote: “You are right that most POD and vanity presses (and those who call themselves self-publishing companies but who are vanity publishers really) do give the impression that it is easy to be successful when you self-publish. But that is MOST, not ALL.”

    I’m so sorry about that slip of mine: you’re right, there are some very reputable self-publishing companies out there and I’ll add here that I’ve not heard a single complaint made about yours. I should have been clearer on that point, and I’m grateful that you stepped in and made it for me.

    Matador said...

    No problem, Jane. We have a hard enough time with the adverse criticism from a lot of authors and many in the mainstream publishing industry as well. The self-publishing industry is growing and historically it has a poor track record, but there are those who believe that it has a legitimate place in the publishing landscape.

    Authors have a duty themselves when "buying in" the services of a self-publishing company to properly research what they are doing. If I buy a new kitchen I don't just go with the first offer I get from a company I've never heard of... I ask around, do some research, get a recommendation, get quotes, decide exactly what I want from my kitchen before I decide to place an order. That should be the same with self-publishing, but it is the author's responsibility in part to understand what they are doing. It's too easy to blame the self-publishing company if a book doesn't do well... by all means if you've been given the expectation that it's all going to be a breeze then there is come-back, but if you're told that it will be hard work and that you may not recoup your outlay, then surely the blame lies with the author in not understanding what they are getting into?

    Unknown said...

    Jane, you're correct that most of my experience is in nonfiction, and that nonfiction is much easier to market. Also, I have no doubt that there are plenty of examples of good editing and promotion work being done by mainstream publishers. But I do work in fiction as well, and the authors I was thinking of--two in particular, both friends of mine--published novels with prominent publishers and were appalled by the lack of support. And I have seen that first-hand myself in my professional life. (Would prefer not to go into detail in a public forum.)

    Yes, slush piles do tend to be filled with lots of stuff that really has no market other than friends and family. However, there is also a certain percentage that truly has more potential--and the business model of mainstream publishers is just not set up to do those authors justice.

    I think that as writers become more savvy about self-publishing and self-promotion, it will become an increasingly viable option, and really can work well in the right circumstances.

    none said...

    Scott Pack's blog looks interesting :). Funnily enough I just learnt today that a review I wrote has displeased the author. Makes me very sad when that happens.

    Anonymous said...

    I think that no such publisher would want books from the slush pile so close to home. They'd want the income such an initiative would create, but would be painfully aware that their own good name for quality would suffer unless there were a clear separation which everyone understood.

    The publisher would have to push the POD books into an imprint which became a euphemism for Unknown Quality. At the risk of brickbats, it would be like the Macmillan New Writing venture, only with a lot of additional vanity publishing techniques attached.

    So what price that coveted colophon? You might as well self-publish with someone else, and be damned.