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Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers

5 February 2015

From author Harry Bingham via Jane Friedman:

I’ve been an author for more than fifteen years. My first book came out with HarperCollins in February 2000 and I’ve been going ever since. (I’m British and the book came out in the UK and elsewhere, though I’m a relative newbie in the US.)

Fifteen years might not sound such a long time, but I’ve already had two literary agents, four publishers, seven editors, and thirteen books—even more if you include things I’ve worked on as editor or ghost. More to the point, I’ve witnessed the publishing industry evolve through at least four different eras.

The first era—I just caught its tail end—was back when price discounting was still modest. Back then, publishers still had marketing cash to spend on actual marketing. HarperCollins spent about £50,000 ($75,000) on launching my very first book, with posters up at rail stations and airports, on the London Underground and elsewhere. I was lucky: those times were already ending.

Before long, retailers started to become more assertive. They slashed prices to lure consumers and sold space in their retail promotions to replace that lost income. The cash that had once been used to attract consumers was now going straight to bookshops to compensate them for the pain of all that discounting. No more posters, no more direct appeals to the consumer.

That was the second era, but it was still pre-Amazon, pre-ebook.

. . . .

Publishers were finding it increasingly hard to sell in print and to sell right across their front lists—but it soon turned out that they didn’t have to either, or not the way they used to. The huge margins they made on ebooks more than made up for the loss of print revenues. The equally huge margins they made on their backlist ebook titles made up for the struggles of the frontliners.

In a weird, paradoxical way, Amazon provided both the threat (the rise of the ebook) and the solution (those giant margins).

The net result? It turns out that now, at the end of that third era, publishers are making more money than they ever have done before.

. . . .

But what about the author in all this? What does it mean for you? What has it meant for me?

Well, I don’t know. Anyone who claims to have answers is a fraud: the wheel is still in spin, the ball has yet to settle. But I do have a story that contains the seeds of an answer.

I said I’ve been through a number of different books, different editors. Well, I should really have added that I’ve been through a number of careers too. I started out writing financial thrillers. Those things morphed into historical fiction. Then I jumped over to nonfiction, both specialist and non-specialist. But I could never stay with nonfiction for ever. I just liked telling stories too much. So I started writing a series of mystery novels, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths.

Those books did really nicely, and still are.

. . . .

 In the US, my books were bought by Delacorte/Bantam Dell, part of Random House. I enjoyed a superb editor and the firm’s quite excellent production standards. I got some incredible reviews—that first book, Talking to the Dead, had starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and was a crime book of the year for the Boston Globe and theSeattle Times. What’s more, my ebook sales were strong enough that I’d earned out my author advance before the book had even come out in paperback. That’s good going.

. . . .

 Because the two books I did with Random sold well as ebooks, they pretty much failed in print. The $27 hardback isn’t an obviously desirable product for today’s crime/mystery reader—certainly not when debuts are concerned—and the book basically flunked. Because retailers couldn’t shift the hardback, they didn’t want to be burned twice, so they ordered the paperback only in very limited numbers. That too sold horribly.

. . . .

To me, it was obvious that we needed to establish the series in stages. We’d start with ebooks, priced so as to attract the risk-averse buyer. Then, once we’d built a base, we’d start to issue affordably priced paperbacks. Then, once all that was strong enough, we’d offer the premium priced hardback too. Simple.

Only not. For one thing, Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.

And then too, if I was going to be published e-only by Random House, I would receive just 25% of net ebook receipts. That’s about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon.

. . . .

 I very happily chose to self-publish the third book in the series.

. . . .

 And this, I think, will be the theme of this fourth era that’s now just possibly emerging. It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, “You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.” Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman and thanks to SFR for the tip.

Here’s a link to Harry Bingham’s books

Big Publishing, Self-Publishing

43 Comments to “Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers”

  1. Dreadfully sorry, I just couldn’t get past the ‘good, Big 5 Publishers’ oxymoron.

    • His finale is quite a zinger, though.

    • He’s very polite; not burning bridges.
      But this testimonial is majorly damning and bad news for tradpub.

    • Harry Bingham writes like a house afire, and is now publishing his own books after saying no to the usual deal from his former publishers. I’ve just bought The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, and am looking forward very much to reading it.

      • @Bridget- I started that book last night and read into the early morning hours. I cannot wait to get back to it this evening. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am (so far).

  2. Read the whole thing. Comments too. Here’s the real meat, with the flavorful tenderloin in bold.

    And then too, if I was going to be published e-only by Random House, I would receive just 25% of net ebook receipts. That’s about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon. I couldn’t understand why I’d want to do that. I mean, yes, I’d have listened if they’d come to me saying, “Harry, I know giving up 75% of those net receipts sounds like a lot, but we’re going to add a whole ton of value to the publication process. We’re going to do a whole heap of things that you can’t do on your own. And here’s a stack of in-house data which shows that we can boost your sales way past the point you could achieve.”

    They didn’t say that. They didn’t actually make any argument at all. When I said no to 25% royalties, that was it. No further conversation.

    • Well, every author who signs with a Big 5 Publisher does receive the following:

      * World-Class(tm) Editing to polish your manuscript to a shine where you can see and admire your own reflection. Why engage in a senseless debate of whether this is a Floor Wax or a Dessert Topping (https://screen.yahoo.com/shimmer-floor-wax-000000185.html)? It’s both!

      * Special curation through a finely-tuned series of filters to ensure that only best quality of manuscripts make it through – and you’re one of them! Congratulations as you join the hallowed halls of such legendary authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Snooki, and E.L. James.

      * Talented cover artists who will ensure your book receives the cover it deserves, whether it be stock art or a garage door (http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/lets-give-them-something-to-talk-about/).

      * Teams of skilled advertising and promotional people who will ensure your book receives all the attention it deserves to become visible to the public, including sending pre-release copies out to a handful of the remaining book reviewers at major newspapers.

      * A New Toy-Yoda!!!! (http://www.sptimes.com/News/072801/photos/state-yoda.jpg)

      • Talented cover artists who will ensure your book receives the cover it deserves, whether it be stock art or a garage door (http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/lets-give-them-something-to-talk-about/).

        OMFG at that cover! I’ve seen data centre adverts with more appeal. O.O

        There’s a breeze block in my back yard that’s sexier…

        • Maybe, just like humor, artistic sensibilities are hard to translate across cultures? It’s all I’ve got as an explanation. In that same thread, the second comment links to the French edition of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It never crossed my mind to picture Lisbeth Salander as Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci era). I remember seeing the French covers of the Miles Vorkosigan books, where he actually looks sinister to me (to be fair, the Baen covers rarely had bragging rights, either).

          • Ashe Elton Parker

            I don’t think Eisler’s cover is about artistic sensibilities as much as it is about simple laziness and ineptitude. I can’t imagine any culture which would apply garage doors and surveillance cameras to a tale of political intrigue and expect it to sell books successfully. No matter what their artistic sensibilities happen to be. Eisler’s French cover is pure and simple laziness and ineptitude. And possibly a misguided effort at trying to save a few bucks by having an intern take a pic of their apartment complex’s garage.

            Eisler’s French publisher is effectively shooting themselves in the foot with that cover.

          • Replying to you, Ashe Elton Parker — I know that here that cover is beyond lazy, but I was giving the benefit of the doubt that the cover would resonate with the French. For example, if surveillance was a huge issue with them? If they were a rash of incidents with people spying on their neighbors (or the government spying on civilians)? From the description I know that cover is inaccurate, but at least in that context it would make sense. It’s so lazy that I went to the website of a surveillance camera company, just to be sure. And yep, even the camera company used more imagination in their photos. So I just wondered if the image was supposed to tap into something the French [could have been] brooding over at the time.

            I just assumed it could be cultural, since I noticed they were using the original title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which would be a complete non-starter here. If not, then yeah — they shot themselves in both feet and their knees for good measure.

          • Ashe Elton Parker

            In reply to your reply to me, Jamie.

            I said what I said primarily because I follow a number of Trad Pubbed SF and Fantasy authors on Twitter. Over the past few months, every single time a new cover was made for one of their books for a particular country, they’ve posted those covers. I’ve seen lots of countries in and around Europe (and a couple in Asia/Africa) whose publishers have given much more fitting covers to these books.

            Now, granted, the covers in question were genre, and may not particularly fit the books behind them, but in every instance, the author whose book was given a foreign cover seemed pretty pleased with the cover provided. So, even if the publisher created a cover which didn’t particularly fit a given book, they at least tried. And this includes books bought by French publishers, which, I can tell you, had far more in the realm of artistic sensibility employed than Eisler’s cover even begins to have.

            The publisher of Eisler’s book isn’t even trying. Unless, as I said, their main goal was to save a bit of money.

            Foreign artistic sensibility isn’t as far from Western artistic sensibility as it may seem.

    • I especially liked this bit

      “The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big 5 Oligopoly, or vice versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice. What that choice is will depend on the author, the territory, the genre, and multiple other issues which will vary across every different situation.”

    • That part is telling, I think. They’ve had years now to come up with an answer like the one Harry suggested. And still they’ve got nothing to justify taking all the money? They can’t make even a token effort to come up with some half-baked razzle dazzle? If I worked at that company, I’d consider that a good sign to get out.

  3. I can respect a writer who analyzes the situation he’s in and adapt rather than bemoan his fate. I wish Harry much success.

  4. “To me, it was obvious that we needed to establish the series in stages. We’d start with ebooks, priced so as to attract the risk-averse buyer. Then, once we’d built a base, we’d start to issue affordably priced paperbacks. Then, once all that was strong enough, we’d offer the premium priced hardback too. Simple.”

    That sounds like a recipe for guaranteed pbook failure. Yeah, the opposite of Big Pub’s sequential publishing strategy, which is also being proven to be a failure.

    IMHO, ebooks will continue to diminish pbook sales.

    • Actually, if I really love a book, I’ll buy it in paperback form so that I can easily share it, thumb through it, and read it without having to worry about draining the charge on my phone.

      So yeah, if I read an ebook, loved it, then found out there was a paperback version that wouldn’t break my budget, I’d probably buy it.

      And if I wanted a good, sturdy copy that I knew was going to last a number of readings, then I’d also buy the hardback when it came out.

      It all depends on how much I love the story inside the book.

      Only the sucky or “meh” stories I read in ebook form don’t get my paperback love.

  5. Maybe he misspoke? Should the title be: ‘Why Authors Walk Away FOR Good, Big 5 Publishers’?

    More as a warning to them as well as showing us the path he followed?

  6. Hey now – there ARE good publishers, you know. But sure as eggs is eggs (*), it feels good to be able to say, “You know what? I’m not playing any more.”

    We (= all authors) don’t have to be mean or angry when we say that. It’s just great to be able to say it and to have a superbly engineered alternative route to market.

    Oh, and if anyone wants to know more about my backstory with the big boys, then take a look at this long series of posts on my WW blog
    (If you want to cut to the chase, it starts getting quite spicy from episode 7 onwards. And watch out for tomorrow’s episode.)

    Thanks, PG, for reposting this. Thanks everyone for commenting.

    * not sure if that’s a weird Britishism or not. It’s definitely weird.

  7. Follow the money.

  8. As far as I can see, the linchpin for a publisher to be worthwhile to an author is making print sales happen. It’s the big untapped pool of readers that most indies fail to reach. If a publisher can’t successfully market a book in print, it seems to me that they are very unlikely to be of value to an author who can simply self-publish.

    On the other hand, if they can deliver strong print sales, I do think they offer value (through reaching new potential fans) even if the total money turns out to be less on a given book. I’m often surprised more indies don’t think that way, when they’re willing to give away free books to tap new readers, but they don’t see the same potential from tapping print readers (especially when it is so easy to have the rest of your books available POD).

    • Well, free promos are temporary.
      The author ends them at will.
      Modern tradpub deals?

      Bigger penalty for choosing poorly.

      • Let’s not pretend it’s about choosing at all. With intermediated publishing, it’s about being chosen. Only now you don’t have to buy a ticket in that lottery anymore.

        • Well, some people choose to sit and wait to be chosen.
          Others choose not to be chosen after they are chosen.
          Plenty of choice to go around. 😀

  9. Wow – things have changed.

    I attended a York Writers Conference four or so years back [it’s organized by Harry Bingham or his Writers Workshop, I believe] and the antagonism and negativism generally shown towards me as an intending self-publishing writer was almost alarming.

    I was expecting tar and feathers any minute…

  10. Yep, that conference is ours – but you wouldn’t have got any negativity from me. true, I absolutely HATE the old-fashioned rip-off vanity publishers. Those people should be splatted from the face of the earth as far as I’m concerned. But e-publishing via KDP? Or print self-pub through an honest third party? Yep, go for it. I’ve always said as much.

  11. Great stuff.

  12. Drat! I SO did not need to add yet another book to my already-too-long TBR collection. But I loved the first two books in the series, so purchase it I have.

  13. I submit that the “good, big 5 publishers” are only as good as the contracts they spew out, and from the horror stories I’ve heard here and on Absolute Write lately…

    I’m taking my next one indie (third in the series) this month.

  14. Oh, I do so love these stories of authors who’ve been successful in traditional publishing and decide to walk away. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. 🙂

  15. Thank you for the information. I am a newbie fiction writer, but an old grizzled technical writer that never dreamed make-believe would be so much harder than technical/computer facts. Thanks again for the career boost! I enjoy reading your posts and learn a new facet of the publishing every time.

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