Monday, 18 July 2011
Selling to writers or selling to readers - further reflections on the Legend Press seminar
Having depressed myself yesterday with the realisation that the publishing world seemed to be lacking almost any objective facts and seems to delight in not making available or even collecting much in the way of data, I usually manage to recover myself by deciding that a few truths can perhaps be discerned in the fog. Not writing, guarantees not being published. Obsessing on a particular book, sending version after version to the same agent or publisher is probably doomed as well. Several speakers at the legend seminar said as much. Actually, they joked about it. They also appeared to sincerely believe that giving any meaningful feedback would be doomed. Stories were told where an author was told about a particular fault, and a new version would soon be winging its way back with that bit fixed. They also felt that so much material was sent to them that they simply did not have time to say anything more than a stock response like ‘this is not for us’.
There was some encouragement to the notion that one should expect to send material to many agents, simply because any given agent may be over committed or simply come to a subjective decision that they don't like your stuff, however good it is. Sending to multiple agents at once was also acknowledged as common sense, life is too short to wait six to ten weeks for agent after agent to say no.
This suggests to me that there is an unexplored territory. Somewhere between not submitting too early and not sending out to enough people, there must be a happy medium, a nirvana that may of course only be identifiable with hindsight. Where that place lies, will of course be different for every writer and will change as the economy and the book market shift up and down. Successful writers obviously find where that place is for them. It is clearly not necessary to wait until something is perfect, what would be the point in publishers having editors if there were nothing to edit?
Another dimension that was illuminated to some extent was the issue of marketing. A naive view is of course that self-published writers do their own marketing and published ones have it done for them. There was a clear message from the panel that this is not true. Most writers do their own marketing. Agents market to publishers; may help with editing and are supposed to be good at dealing with contracts. Publishers publish, and often do little else, or at least concentrate their marketing on a small number of books or authors who they think will sell best.
As the seminar progressed it became clear in my mind that there are two markets in the writing game; one is concerned with selling things to readers; books, e-readers etc. The other is selling things to writers; creative writing degrees, vanity publishing, editorial services and everything in between. To put it a more cynical way, one market seeks to make money from readers and the other makes money from writers.
When you make that distinction the real difference between vanity publishing and traditional publishing becomes clear. If the main thrust of the business model is to make money from authors, then it is a vanity press; if the main thrust is to sell books to readers then it is a trade publisher. Simple as that, you pay your money and take your choice. What about when a writer does the publishing themselves? Well it is obvious enough that they are seeking to make money from readers, so you have to think of them as publishers.
What about agents? It seems clear to me that their market is writers; they may be helping a writer to make money, but fundamentally they are selling services to writers not readers. That seems to suggest that when agents start doing publishing, as some are with e-books, then they begin to look suspiciously like vanity publishers, unless they charge no up front fees and make their money from a percentage on sales. Then they really are middlemen, selling to writers but making money from readers.
I may be guilty of a rather narrow view in this. If one took a historical perspective, it could be argued that agents only gained their current traction as middlemen when publishers downsized and got rid of a lot of staff that previously spent time nurturing authors. After the net book agreement disappeared, the industry went though a period of vertical disintegration, creating a sort of middle ground between writer and reader in which a range of models have been tried. In effect by narrowing the portals of entry into the publishing business, the industry created an incentive for the 'selling to writers' market to increase. Ironic really, because the publishers who were in the best position to sell information and service to writers left themselves out of the market. Creating a market and letting someone else exploit it, seems to be foot shooting of a high order.
Clearly running seminars for writers, as Legend Press are now doing, is a smart move; who better than a publisher to tell writers how to sell to readers, apart from readers themselves of course.
Now of course, e-books, Amazon, iBooks etc. have thrown the whole thing into meltdown. Writers can put their stuff out as e-books very simply. Readers can in theory find the material with a few clicks of the mouse. The only problem is that there are half a million books on Amazon and many millions of readers looking for those books. Readers are bound to ask the question, what is the best way for me to find the book I want?
Other readers are one obvious source, particularly readers who write reviews. Book bloggers are a more sophisticated version of such readers. Advertising must have a place too. So where do agents fit into this? In their current form, my guess would be nowhere. Publicists may have a role, especially if they have expertise in knowing what readers want, but agents whose knowledge is only about publishers may have painted themselves into a corner. Tom Chalmers, the Managing Director of Legend Press, who spoke at the seminar, clearly believes that one of the roles of publishers is to help readers by only publishing material that he thinks is worth reading. As a publisher he has one source of useful data, he knows how many books he has sold.
So we come full circle, my thanks to Legend press for closing some of the loops and making me think, and all for a less than £60 for the day with a chapter review thrown in. Anyone who wishes a similar experience can find the dates of future seminars on Legend’s web site www.legendpress.co.uk.