Authors Ask Agents: What Are The Publishers Doing for Us?

In Digital by Roger Tagholm

The inaugural Publishers Launch London conference considered what value publishers can give to authors in age of self-publishing and self-publicity.

By Roger Tagholm

Curtis Brown agent Jonny Geller: "Authors are asking me, 'What are the publishers doing?'"

LONDON: If agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown is to be believed, then publishers have no understanding of what readers want and are listening more to the supermarkets than they are to their own customers. “The reason we have so many jackets looking the same is that publishers will say ‘oh, we can’t choose that one because Tesco won’t like it,’” he said in the graveyard shift at the end of the day at the inaugural Publishers Launch London digital publishing conference on Tuesday this week.

Geller, who provided some real fire and dispelled any digital conference fatigue, added, “The whole chain from authors to readers has to change, and there are times when publishers and retailers get in the way.” He bravely criticizing publishers while sitting next to his own, John Makinson Chairman and Chief Executive of Penguin, whose Allen Lane imprint published Geller’s Yes, But Is it Good for the Jews? back in 2006. (Asked how Geller might have wished his title had been sold in supermarkets, he replied, “Hey, any cover will do!)

Questioning, Reasserting the Relevance of Publishers

Curtis Brown agent Anna Davis: Territoriality is "vital for the survival of the UK publishing industry -– if it goes, the US will dominate."

“Every day I have conversations with authors who are asking me ‘what are publishers playing at and what can I do about it?,’” Geller said. “They’re saying to me, ‘If they’re going to stick a 25% of net receipts on it, I might as well publish it myself.  If they’re asking me to invest £5,000 in a website or if publicists aren’t available after hours,’ –- authors are asking me what are the publishers doing.”

Of course, the issue of retailers quibbling about covers is nothing new. In the UK, publishers have a long history of meeting with WHSmith, for example, to discuss such matters. Furthermore, it might also have seemed a strange point to be raising at a conference entitled “A Global Perspective on Digital Change.” But the wider point Geller was making is that in a digital world, authors can increasingly take a range of matters into their own hands –- from self-publishing to self-publicity (blogging and the like) –- and are beginning to question the relevance of publishers. As Geller put it: “We need to re-configure the relationship between authors and publishers.”

Naturally, Makinson defended his corner, listing the numerous extra services that publishers provide, from creating apps to monitoring piracy and perfecting metadata –- “I don’t think publishers are becoming less relevant,” he said.  But Stephen Page, Chief Executive of Faber, suggested that publishers perhaps don’t do as good a job as they could of communicating to authors the value publishers offer. “We forget the difficulty of the remote position that writers occupy.”

Yet but both Makinson and Geller do agree that e-books are eating into paperback sales, with their release being the equivalent, as Makinson put it, “of bringing forward the paperback.”

Bloomsbury Executive Director Richard Charkin was characteristically forthright, at first seeming to defend territorial rights and then suggesting they should go. “There is nothing wrong with territorial rights and we’ll fight to protect those we have. But the world is changing.  Any publisher can now reach readers anywhere in the world, and the media is also globalizing very rapidly.  For me, not to be able to sell as widely as we can does not make sense.”

Territoriality and Protectionism

He called entrenched UK attitudes “protectionist” and questioned the recent deal for Jimmy Connors’ memoirs, asking: “Why does that need to be published by Harper in the US and Transworld in the UK?  Is one going to do something markedly different than the other?  What you end up with is two unearned advances.”

But Curtis Brown’s Anna Davis gave a robust defense of the status quo, and said territoriality was “vital for the survival of the UK publishing industry – if it goes, the US will dominate.”

There were duller-sounding, but no less important issues discussed, not least the continuing importance of metadata, with its cousin “granularity,” the latter one of the day’s buzz words.  It is the accuracy and the granularity of the metadata that is the key to discoverability.

Digital as Its Own Domain

David Roth-Ey, Group Digital Director at HarperCollins, is concerned that, for all the noise around digital, too often, when it’s comes to marketing, it’s just an add-on. That throwaway line at the bottom of advertisements, “also available as an e-book,” is very familiar. “Why don’t we see posters of people at a station actually downloading the book?” he asked, in a question perhaps directed at his own marketing department.

His colleague, Charlie Redmayne, Executive Vice-President and Chief Digital Officer, who is something of a cross between the X-Factor/American Idol’s Simon Cowell and British actor Clive Owen –- noted that digital is no longer a separate department. “It now impacts on everything,” and he observed that publishing has changed from being a business that was “oriented towards trade marketing to one oriented towards consumer marketing.” He admitted to being unclear on the affect of social media. “Is a book selling well because it is being discussed on Facebook, or is it being discussed because it is selling well?  Which is driving which?”

In one of the day’s most useful specifics, Juan Lopez-Valcarcel, Director of Digital Product and Consumer Technology at Pearson, discussing the new skill sets that the world of digital requires, noted that “You need to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions. We create manuals that explain the new developments and we believe in “show and tell.” You should start a meeting by showing something, by showing one of these new developments, which then begins a conversation. We also have reverse mentoring, with junior staff mentoring senior staff.” In essence, the latter is a business version of what happens in many families, with the young teenager showing parents the latest piece of digital wizardry.

The event was Publishers Launch’s first international conference, and founders Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin should be gratified by the response. There were some grumbles over the price compared to the Bookseller’s Futurebook, and some thought that stats on screen would have been helpful –- but in general, this was a satisfied audience. The danger, however, is that there will simply be too many digital conferences.  Yet since every week seems to bring a new announcement in the field, a conference a week would probably still not be enough.

SURVEY: Who Do Authors Need More, Agent or Publisher?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).