Saturday, 22 February 2014

Why Huge Publishing Advances can be Huge Steps Backwards

The reality of a six figure advance is highlighted this week by the failure of Harper Collins to realise its investment in Kindle best-selling sensations Mark Edwards and Louise Voss. A lot of noise was made in 2011 as the Harper Collins joined in a desperate scrap to secure the writing talents of the duo. Sadly and not surprisingly the transition from Kindle sensations to mainstream authors did not work for either Harper Collins or Edwards and Voss. The lure of big money is impossible to resist for most authors and for some they think the journey has ended there and then. Money in the bank, a big publisher behind you, books secured in high street stores and supermarkets...happy days. But the truth in the modern and complex retail environment is much more difficult as Edwards and Voss have found out. And this points to an extremely important factor which both Harper Collins and Edwards and Voss appear to have missed. I am talking about the disconnect between publishers and readers and authors and readers. Edwards and Voss were Kindle sensations through their own hard work and marketing. Harper Collins naively assumed all those Kindle readers would follow Edwards and Voss into the supermarkets and book shops. This was as likely to happen as Waterstones or WHSmiths core base of customers buying all their books online. The two are distinct and different animals. Sure there is a cross-over but percentage wise the cross-over is small. And here lies the rub for the future of the industry and brick and mortar environments. Books in these environments are spoon fed to us by curators (buyers) who make the choices for what we read. They make these judgements for us based on certain criteria: marketing budget, relationships with publishers, print runs – yes size matters, even if it means pulping a few hundred thousand unsold books. We were used to being told what to read by ‘influential’ reviewers – don’t for a second believe that all reviews are impartial and unhindered by the same criteria as buyers face. The whole of publishing was sewn up in a nice virtuous circle which the Internet has broken and publishers are still struggling to come to terms with. For now – but who know for how long – there are enough retail outlets that support the cosy virtuous circle but these are diminishing. Independent book shops in the UK have fallen below 1000 outlets. Book buying shopping habits have changed, who knows if these changes are permanent. Edwards and Voss have now signed for Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint having learned the importance of reconnecting with the readers they worked so hard to win in the first place while wanting ingress into retail at some level. Louise Voss recently told The Bookseller “It is so hard to get into bookshops these days. It would be lovely to see our book getting into WHSmith but it is getting harder and harder and both Mark and I would like to make a living through writing books.” As an independent publisher I can only second this sentiment and it echoes the importance of the work authors do in making those connections with the new readers through social media activity and online engagement. Whether self-published or with a publisher authors in the new age are the most powerful aspect of their own success. Publishers can add a vital role through expanding the reach for authors and their books and adding to the media reach as well as through new platforms such as apps. Publishers and authors can work together but both need to realise how the boundaries have changed and what the expectations and realisations of this new democracy are.