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What Do Authors Want?

To be discovered or to be valued – that is the question

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Ever since a colleague of mine heard two editors at the 2013 London Book Fair describe what authors want as ‘discoverability’, I’ve been wondering what this might mean. Can it be measured in terms of sales, awards or literary fame? Does it mean something different for each author? Or is it a term that becomes more elusive as time goes on? When I published my first novel I had the clear sense that I had ‘arrived’. Sixteen books later, I not only know that that is not true, but that I had never really analysed what it meant.

The two editors did not specify what they thought ‘discoverability’ was. They did, however, say that what publishing firms could offer was not ‘discoverability’ but ‘the professional environment’. This included professional editing to a high standard, high-end book layout and design, a ‘reasonable’ distribution (again, not specified), and publicity in accordance with the allocated budget. This budget, they said, varied, but on average it was between £200 and £300 per book. They also emphasised that authors were now expected to contribute to their own marketing and publicity, especially through social media and blogging.

It seems to me that the discrepancy between what authors want and what the publishing firm might provide must have consequences.

Authors, of course, have different experiences of the publication process, indeed they often have a different experience with the publication of each book. It is notoriously difficult to generalise or draw conclusions about publishing, especially today, when there are such a wide range of options; while I cannot conduct anything like a comprehensive survey, by way of illuminating some of the processes involved, the hopes raised and dashed, and the compromises involved, I’m going to tell the stories of three authors A, B and C, whose novels were published at the same time.

Author A’s novel was accepted by a major publishing firm. Her book was published both in a hardback edition (to be followed by a paperback) and as an e-book. A respectable (not huge) advance was offered, and a professional environment provided. The book was intensively edited and production and design were of a high quality. An illustration was chosen for the front cover and submitted for the author’s approval. In terms of publicity, the novel was to be taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair, all the major newspapers were notified close to the date of publication, and several hundred copies were given out via the Goodreads website. The author was told that although no launch would be provided, at the time of publication she would be expected to participate in online publicity, writing articles or giving interviews for various blogs.

Author B used to be published by a major publishing house that dropped her from its list because of low sales. She subsequently had difficulty getting her work published and was delighted when her novel was accepted by a small press making its first venture into fiction. She was offered a tiny advance and some limited publicity. Her novel was edited once and proof-read. She was consulted about the cover, but there was a limited budget for production and design. She arranged her own launch party, which was attended by members of the publishing team. Her publishers have offered regular updates on sales and reviews, and suggested places where she might give readings or talks. Author B was already active on social media; her novel had been selected by the publishing firm after she had blogged about it weekly, attracting 60,000 hits. And she had several thousand followers on Twitter.

Author C self-published with an online publisher, although her agent was involved in negotiating the deal. It was agreed that hard copies would be provided on a print on demand basis. Some editing suggestions were made and the author paid extra for copy-editing. She chose the cover herself, though design and layout were determined by the publishing team. She did not meet this team at any time, and has actively arranged her own launch, subsequent readings and local publicity. She has worked hard to get copies of her books placed in independent bookshops and to raise its profile online via Facebook, her own website, and Twitter.

Which of these books sold best? Answer: book C.

The online publisher submitted it for various Amazon promotions. It was accepted twice, sold for 1p, and in the course of one week, 4,000 copies were sold. In the course of a month the book had risen to number four in the (genre specific) fiction lists. Author C has recouped all the money she spent on publication and is awaiting royalties, which will more than compensate for her lack of an advance.

Over the same period, author A sold just 400 copies of her book. The major publishing firm would not submit it for Amazon promotions because they refused to sell the book at such a low price (the online publisher, of course, did not stand to lose any money by doing this). However, the other forms of publicity did not seem to be generating the desired effect. In a depressing meeting with her editor, author A was told that they (the firm) was ‘devastated’ at the lack of reviews, quotes, media attention, sales. Although a second book had been commissioned she was told that it would be very difficult to launch it on the back of the first novel’s poor reception.

Book B also outsold Book A, but by a smaller margin. The publishing firm seem pleased with sales and in any case has given no indication that further publication is sales dependent. The firm is willing to work towards building a relationship with author B in the long term.

Which of these authors is happiest with their publishing experience? Answer: author B.

Author C is delighted by her sales. They have gone a long way towards ameliorating her feelings of being neglected and rejected by the publishing world. She knows that in all probability her novel would not have done better if it had been published by a major publisher, but still feels a certain sadness that no one was willing to invest in her book.
Author A felt an initial sense of pride at being accepted by a major publishing firm, not least because it allowed her (an academic) to submit her novel to the REF — the Research Excellence Framework that assesses the quality of research in higher education in the UK.

Her sense of pride soon dwindled, however, when the book was comprehensively ignored and failed to sell. She left the meeting with her editor with the distinct feeling that it was all her fault. There has been very little communication since, in keeping with the impersonal style adopted by the major firm throughout. At no point did author A feel she was being invested in as a writer.

The small press succeeded in developing a personal relationship with Author B. It has been interested in her progress throughout and supportive of her, believing in her enough to invest in future books. Of the three authors, she is the most unequivocally positive about her experience.

So, what do authors want? And is it covered by that unwieldy word, ‘discoverability’ — given that none of the authors I discuss was ‘discovered’ in the usual sense of the word, and that most authors want their books to sell?

The problem here is that sales figures do not necessarily provide a measure of a book’s worth. Certainly, in the current climate the biggest sales rarely reflect the quality of a work (Fifty Shades of Grey being the famous example). Expecting most literary fiction to sell is rather like reintroducing croquet to television and expecting it to gain the same kind of viewing figures as football.

Sales (and ‘discoverability’) aside, it is difficult to determine what provides writers with a sense of value, and of feeling that their work is of merit, important and worthwhile, especially today, when literature is no longer the dominant cultural form. However, it strikes me that a sense of value is generated by the belief, support and personal investment that publishers can offer. The major publishers used to supply this in the days when publishing houses were smaller, but now they are dominated by mass marketing systems that render it almost impossible. In this respect, small presses have a clear edge.

Of course, smaller presses often lose their authors to bigger firms who scoop them up when they show signs of being successful. Yet it still appears that it is no longer just authors snubbed by the big houses who are seeking out the smaller press. Authors who want more personal control and freedom, a sense of relationship, commitment and belief in their work may also turn to the small press first. Since the bigger firms can no longer guarantee reviews, sales, awards or media attention – and won’t guarantee investment in the author – they may soon find that they are losing trade to the smaller, independent firms.

It may, in other words, not be enough to supply a ‘professional environment’ when what is required is the personal touch.

Livi Michael’s most recent novel, Succession, was published by Penguin in 2014. The sequel Rebellion is published this July.

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