Charles Christian on what the Publishing World did next - or not as the case may be

As a technology journalist by trade, it is not only fascinating to see how new technologies emerge but also to watch established technologies stumble and lose their way – not least when the corporate ship finally hits the long observed rocks, it is always the fault of someone else and not the doomed vessel’s captain – or the corporate CEO. Or, to put it another way, we all love a bit of schadenfreude, which brings us nicely to the publishing world.

Faced with the challenges of the ebook revolution, the decline of traditional bookstores and the rise of self-publishing, it is fascinating to watch the traditional publishing industry wriggle and squirm as it tries to justify its own practices and rubbish the alternatives, while frequently simultaneously shooting itself in the foot. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde in his lecture on Charles Dickens “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell/Traditional Publishing without laughing.”

For example, we are frequently told that self-publishers cannot compete with the professionalism of traditional publishers, so how come Bloomsbury recently reprinted Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder with a cover banner stating it was the Winner of the Orange Prize 2012 ? Ann Patchett is an Orange Prize winner but she won it in 2002 with her novel Bel Canto. True, State of Wonder was shortlisted for the 2012 prize but the actual winner was Madeline Miller with Song of Achilles. To make matter worse, Miller is also published by Bloomsbury. Well, it’s easy to confuse all these women lit-fic authors.

One consequence of the error being spotted (and more on that below) is that Bloomsbury pulped the entire print run of 6000 copies. How many, just 6000! Let’s do the maths... there about 3500 outlets who hold membership of the Booksellers Association in the UK, including around 1000 independents. (Independents are closing at a rate of 75 a year – there were 1483 independents in 2006.) The UK industry also includes 296 branches of Waterstones, 618 High Street branches of WH Smith and 619 travel branches (typically in railway stations) of WH Smith. In addition some 700 supermarkets across the UK sell books. And finally, of course, there is Amazon’s print book retailing operation. Given so many outlets (let’s be conservative and say 3500 + Amazon) 6000 copies is not a lot of books to go around. Reminds me of a friend whose book was picked up by Waterstones – he was very happy until he learned they’d ordered just 500 copies in total for their entire national chain.

But back to Bloomsbury, their mistake was first spotted by one of those pesky independents that refuse to die, who posted a copy of the cover on their website with the comment “A tip from Bloomsbury: if your shortlisted book fails to win a major book award, just say that it did anyway!”

So much for professionalism. But what about the way traditional publishers nurture their relationships with their authors? Enter Joe Simpson, the author of the mountaineering classic Touching the Void who has just split from his long-term publisher Random House (who published him in their Jonathan Cape and Vintage imprints) following what he describes as a “huge dispute” over ebook royalties.

Simpson has now co-founded a new digital publishing venture called and split with his agent Vivienne Schuster of Curtis Brown. In a YouTube video posted to announce his new plans, Simpson describes the royalty rates he was offered as “ridiculous”. He goes on to say “I had a huge dispute with my publishers... the thought they could bully me into accepting 25%. If there are any authors out there in a similar situation, look at your contract, stand up for your rights, don’t be bullied.”

He added that the split was “a great shame” but authors “don’t really need publishers as much as they would like us to believe. OK, they have all the influence over book marketing and publicity but they don’t need to take 75% of your royalties to do that!”

Exactly. It’s called disintermediation – the cutting out of the middle-men (and women) who stand between the customer and the product – or the reader and the author.

I'm back next month, in the meantime you can find me lurking on and on Twitter at @ChristianUncut


madwippitt said…
Enjoyed this post! If only B'bury had gone digital first, they'd have been able to correct the 2012/2002 cover typo so much more cheaply - another advantage of ebook publishing ...
As for learning about the 6000 copy print run - well, feeling positively smug now about one of my other books. Thanks for making my day!
CallyPhillips said…
Yes, what a great post. Reminding us that we are on the side of progress - and that more professionals will come to join us as independent writer/publishers. And a good one to cite when they start on the old 'all indie writing is rubbish'
Thanks Charles.
glitter noir said…
Terrific post, Charles. Looking forward to the next!
Reminds me of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody knows the ship is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied..."

Superb, and devastating, array of detail to make the point there, Charles, thank-you!

(I actually found this post in draft on Blogger late last night, and couldn't resist reading...went off to follow DirectAuthors on Twitter immediately...and, being nimble Indies, they follow back!)
Chris Longmuir said…
Brilliant post, Christian. Enjoyed reading it.
Lydia Bennet said…
great post Charles, oh dear what a mistake for poor old Bloomsbury! Yes I was shocked a while ago to find out that major publishers often only print a relatively small run of books even by successful authors (unless they are celebs, in which case they print loads which lie about unbought). also, they choose a few books to promote, and leave the others, which they've paid to print etc, to sink or swim. then get annoyed with the author if their sales aren't huge. Someone in the music biz once said record companies can make money even if they are rubbish at their jobs, and this probably goes for estate agents too - does it apply to lit agents and big publishers or is that unkind? they make a big percentage compared with the author, and seemingly can afford to make mistakes.(turning down harry potter etc).
Jan Needle said…
Great stuff, Charles, and extremely useful. Welcome aboard. I'm now following you on Twitter
Anonymous said…
Interestingly, and inexplicably, the ones offering the worst rates seem to be those who do put out digital versions first... Not sure why this is, except that someone has to pay for the prime real estate the publishing monoliths sit upon, and their salaries. Mel.
Pauline Fisk said…
Recognise much of what you say, Lydia, from my own experience. Meanwhile Bloomsbury have e-book rights on three of my novels. Oh dear.
A great (and cheering) post. A traditionally published - but very pro indie - friend said to me recently 'You only have to visit any of these big corporate publishing headquarters to see that no matter what they say, writers are subsidising an awful lot of prime real estate.'

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