Do publishers ever take risks?

Let me explain my question. Traditional publishers are under greater pressure than ever from digital self-publishing. But they are fighting their corner with the same PR story they have used for years. It goes like this.

We publishers perform a valuable function. We find new authors and bring them to readers. We deploy our formidable skills in editing, cover design, printing, distribution, and marketing. We keep abreast of public reading tastes and, occasionally, lead that taste. We support today’s literary scene both financially and artistically. Above all, we shoulder all the risk. We offer generous advances on royalties to authors – many of which are never earned out. We bear the costs of editing, design, printing and distribution – taking all the risks while the writer sits back and counts his or her royalties.

There are, of course, elements of truth in this attractive tale. A few publishers are dedicated to maintaining publishing as a decent profession. But the story is at bottom propaganda and – as George Orwell said – ‘all propaganda is lies, even when you are telling the truth.’ So what is the underlying truth about publishing?

The publishing industry is dominated by a few giants – Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette. How do they measure up to their press releases?

First, do they find new authors? Not in fiction, they don’t, because they no longer accept unsolicited submissions from new writers – only from agents. This has made it even more difficult for writers to get their work read and accepted and is one of the forces driving writers towards self-publishing.

It also means that publishers employ fewer full-time readers and editors than they used to and instead outsource the work. Similarly, there has been a move towards trad publishers employing fewer graphics designers of covers and fewer book designers. Again they outsource this work.

One effect of this outsourcing of reading, editing and design has been that the trad publishers no longer have these skills in-house in anything like the same measure they used to. Whether they intended it or not, they have de-skilled their own organisations.

One of the main ways trad publishers cut costs is in marketing. They spend their limited budgets on buying front-of-shop shelf space in bookshops for their celebrity writers and next to nothing on writers who are less well known. The burden of marketing falls on the writer.

But the biggest distortion of all is the idea that publishers are shouldering all the risk. The reality is very different. As William Goldman said of Hollywood, “No-one knows anything”. Nobody in publishing knows which books are going to sell well, and which will not sell.

Big publishers are compelled to follow a policy of throwing as much mud at the wall as possible, knowing that some of it will stick, but without knowing which part. They have no idea where exactly their profits will come from, but they know that if they spend multi-million on publishing, they will make more multi-millions.

The ‘generous advances’ they provide are simply the seed money, much of which will be thrown away on books that don’t sell, but some of which will pay off well. It’s simply a form of spread-betting, the same technique used by bookmakers, online casinos and the commercial banks. What they are doing, in effect, is transferring all the risk to us, their suppliers, while continuing to pretend that they are bearing it themselves.

So, every element of the publishing industry’s PR narrative is false. They don’t find new (fiction) writers, they don’t possess formidable editing and design skills and they don’t use formidable marketing clout (because it would be too expensive.) Above all, they are not taking risks, but are playing it safe by transferring the risk to writers, like us.

They are – like every other business – buying cheap and selling dear. The important point to note is that it is us – writers – that they are buying cheap.

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