From the category archives:


What do authors need?

October 28, 2009 · 6 comments

Flickr/editrxMark Coker, founder and CEO of dynamic e-book publishing company Smashwords, is asking “do authors still need publishers?”

In his article for The Huffington Post, Mark argues that an author with the fanbase and platform of Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling or  Dan Brown, could get a much better return from the marketplace by self-publishing. Certainly this is true. I’ve often wondered why more authors of this level of sales success don’t go down the self-publishing path, the same way many successful music acts are producing and distributing their own albums.

Says Coker at his Smashwords blog:

If publishers are going to remain relevant, they need to do what Stephen King can do for himself, only better.

But it’s a bittersweet thought-experiment for the majority of writers who don’t have King’s following, or even a modest platform. Barriers to entry to publishing have reached almost zero, sure. But being able to publish isn’t the same as being able to profitably publish. Production is easy. Distribution is not. Even digital distribution, while frictionless, is not easy to convert to sales without the ability to engage a readership who’ll fork over money for your product.

But the biggest challenge of all is that alchemical mix of promotion and platform, the ability to gather around you a community of willing fans who will sustain your core income and be your best sales force. Stephen King and his frontlist colleagues could easily commercialise their platform now, but I wonder how effective they’d be at it if they had to build up a following from scratch today.

And this is the essential problem with the idea that authors can go straight to the market. Of course they can, in many cases they should because they’ll earn a better income. But are they capable of it, and do they want to?

The author that can make a self-publishing project successful is the author who is an entrepreneur, a small business manager, a savvy marketer, a tireless communicator, and that’s assuming effective distribution is in place. Many of the authors I work with aren’t interested in these things. They are interested in their craft, their artistic practice. They fight for every minute of writing time they can get.

Somehow I feel Mark’s conclusion – that publishers need to do what Stephen King can do for himself, only better – doesn’t quite hit the mark. Instead, I think publishers need to determine what authors don’t want to do for themselves and offer a fair partnership for how they can share both the risks and the rewards of publishing.

Some authors, especially those with established online fanbases, won’t need their publishers to play all the traditional roles a book publisher has played in the past.  And their contracts should reflect this. But others will be willing to cede more rights and receive fewer royalties in exchange for not having to worry about the commercial functions of professional authorship.

The challenge for publishers is that they are no longer the only ones who can offer such services to authors, and will have to think differently about how they offer value to get access to content. In this way I think we’re headed for more bespoke publishing contracts, more customised agreements that reflect the strengths and weakness of each party for the benefit of both.


I dig your marginalia

August 4, 2009

The quote of the day comes from YA blogger Steph Bowe: I love it when you borrow a book from the library for school and all the relevant passages have already been underlined, all the pages you’re meant to read are dog-eared, and there are notes in the margins that match the questions you’re meant […]

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Pavlov’s Writers

January 20, 2009

I am heading to bed to grab three hours snooze before getting up at 2:30am to watch the Inauguration live. (Curse Australia and it’s proximity to the international date line!) So, instead of a thoughtful, considered blog post, you get literary sadmasochism, courtesy of Write or Die!, a  friendly little web app that punishes a […]

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Is Authonomy authentic?

January 16, 2009

Bren MacDibble alerted me on Facebook to  some grumblings about HarperCollins’ Authonomy site. Authonomy participant, Alexander McNabb, fought his way to a top 5 ranking on the site, spurred on by the promise that each month HarperCollins would read the Top 5 ranked manuscripts. What he got was not what he expected. But the HC review […]

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Dr Roundbottom, I presume?

October 14, 2008

BoingBoing has alerted us to a marvellous multi-channel fiction and photography project called Dr. Julius T Roundbottom. The puppetmaster of this fascinating world is Jeremiah Tolbert, who says of the project: “It’s a little fantasy, a little steampunk, a little clockpunk, and I hope a hell of a lot of fun. The comment community that […]

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