Grumbling, but not quitting: what authors really think of publishersHarry Bingham
At the start of March, Jane Friedman and I launched the English-speaking world’s most comprehensive survey of what authors think of the firms that publish them. We invited the views of traditionally published authors only, whether or not they had also self-published. We sought to create a survey that was both balanced and incisive: one that wouldn’t shirk the questions that matter most to authors.
Our results are in. We’ve had 812 responses all told and the data makes for very interesting reading indeed. You can view the entire dataset here. You can also find, in separate PDFs, the Twitter-style comments that authors made to publishers, to agents and to Jeff Bezos. My personal take on the principal conclusions to be drawn from the survey follows. I do recommend taking a look at Jane Friedman’s note on the topic as well. Tweet the full dataset.
Who responded to our survey?
Our authors were typically highly experienced: almost 50% had published 6 or more books. Almost 80% had had something published within the last 12 months. More than 60% had the services of a literary agent.
Our group were also typically allied to Big Publishing: 56% of our respondents were published by a ‘Big 5’ firm or by one of the industry’s larger independents (such as Bloomsbury in the UK, or Perseus in the US.)
The Bookseller was a strong supporter of the survey, but we also had supportive tweets / blogs / appeals from (among others), the Society of Authors, the ALCS, Novelists Inc, and numerous other author associations and leading industry figures.
In short, the authors who responded to our survey were a well-rounded, experienced and authoritative group. I’m not aware of any reason why our sample should be skewed either to favour or penalise the industry overall. On the contrary, we did all we could to invite views from the entire breadth of the spectrum.
The rest of this post summarises the data and draws some of the main conclusions.
Conclusion #1: Authors respect their publishers’ editorial and design skills
There’s no doubt about it: authors rate their publishers’ editorial, copyediting, cover design and copy writing skills very highly.
Some 71% of authors thought their publishers’ editorial skills were good or excellent. On copyediting, the proportion was 73%. On cover design and cover copy, the proportions were 81% and 80% respectively. These results are equally strong when we consider only the smaller, indie publishers, implying that standards remain high right across the industry.
These are outstanding results, proof that traditional publishing is indeed expert at taking a manuscript and making a book. It’s an excellent endorsement of some of the industry’s core competences, and one that comes from those people in the best position to make the assessment. Congratulations. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #2: Authors have serious reservations when it comes to their publishers’ marketing skills and philosophy
There’s no kind way to say this. Authors are unimpressed by their publishers’ marketing campaigns and the methods by which those campaigns are developed. Our key question on marketing was this:
If the top two responses can be taken as broadly equivalent to the “Excellent or good” categories we were looking at before, the 70-80% satisfaction rate has now dropped to less than 40%. Adding the “significant gaps” and “not marketed at all” answers together, we have a Poor/Non-existent rating that’s nudging 50%.
Needless to say, any author would like a splashy launch with lots of consumer advertising and all those other lovely, expensive things. But note that our question explicitly calls attention to budgetary limitations and simply asks about whether the author’s own skills and connections have been properly used – an area where any cost implications are small to minimal.
I would also note that if we look at the responses only of those (400+) authors who have published 5 or more books, the distribution of answers is essentially identical – and it would seem highly implausible that these experienced authors continue to have misguided expectations as to the scale of publisher marketing spend. In short, our survey offers no support for the hypothesis that authors only grumble about marketing because they are unrealistic about budgets.
Indeed, our survey doesn’t simply offer a conclusion as to what authors think – it offers a massive clue as to why they think it. Here’s our data on the extent to which authors felt involved in their publishers’ marketing strategy.
These results look broadly similar whether the authors were being published by very large trade publishing firms (the Big 5 and their closest competitors) or by smaller indie or academic presses. They look broadly the same whether we look at North American publishers or British & Irish ones. In short, it seems that our authors – numerous and experienced as they are – feel neglected by their publishers’ marketing departments and feel underwhelmed by the campaigns that result. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #3: Publishers are poor at communicating with their authors
In my view, the single most astonishing finding of this survey is this:
A full three-quarters of authors are not asked for feedback by their publishers. That proportion is essentially the same if we look at authors publishing with a major publisher, or authors on large advances (defined for the purposes of this post as any advance of $30,000 or more.) British publishers were a little less likely to invite feedback than American ones, but only somewhat and within a plausible margin of error.
This failure to ask authors about their overall experience of the publishing process doesn’t appear to be a one-off glitch in a generally strong and communicative relationship. We also asked authors to rate their publishers’ communications more generally. We received these responses:
The answers divide pretty much 50/50 between Good and Excellent on the one hand, and Average or worse on the other. Given the generally strong experiences authors reported in relation to editorial and other book production functions, it seems clear that the industry as a whole could do a lot better.
That conclusion is underlined by a further question, which asked our respondents whether they received “systematic guidance from your publisher about how you could add most value to the overall publishing process”. Half of respondents either received that help or felt they didn’t need it. But a full half reported either that they received some guidance but wanted more, or that they received no guidance and felt marginalised as a result.
The traditional publishing industry often claims to have authors at its heart, but our results suggest, on the contrary, many authors feel somewhat excluded from it. Since communicating better with authors would not entail significant costs (and might, you’d think, bring some significant benefits), it would seem that our data provides a large clue as to how regular publishers could improve their operations.
Finally on this point, I think it’s worth relating a more anecdotal observation. In the course of collecting data on this survey, I was told by three authors – all formerly Big 5, now with Amazon Publishing – that Amazon constantly solicits and responds to feedback. One told me, “It’s night and day. There’s much more of a teamwork attitude there. Completely different from any of my traditional publishers.” That is: the faceless machine of Seattle may actually be better at author relationships than the traditional industry. If that isn’t a call to action for more mainstream publishers, I don’t know what is. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #4: A clear majority of authors are unimpressed by their publishers
The single most important question in our survey was also the simplest. We asked, “For your next book, if a different, reputable publisher were to offer you the same advance as your current one, would you move to the new house or stay where you are?” Here’s what authors told us:
That is: more people would quit their current firm than would choose to stay. The move/don’t knows together emphatically outnumber the stays, by almost exactly 2:1.
If we look only at authors working with major trade publishers, the results look distinctly better – the “Stay” group now nudges up to 42% – but that still leaves almost 60% of authors who would, or might, choose to switch. The same effect is apparent if we look only at authors with large advances: the “Stay” category is now 44%, but a clear 31% of such authors would choose to move.
I don’t think anyone involved in the industry would or should think that those numbers are acceptable. Given that authors are highly impressed by many aspects of their publishers, the two clear areas of weakness, as identified by our survey, are (a) authors’ involvement in marketing, and (b) the whole area of communications and feedback. Those two things shouldn’t simply be cheap to fix; better performance on those two fronts might well prove profit-enhancing. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #5: Authors generally love their literary agents
Reviewing what we’ve learned so far, one might be tempted to conclude that authors are just a grumbly bunch. Maybe nothing would make them happy. Well, that’s a theory of course, but it’s not one with any visible empirical foundation. Our survey also asked the question, “If another reputable literary agent at another reputable agency offered you representation, would you accept it?”
Looking only at the data from authors with literary agents, the reponse we got back was as follows:
Fully two-thirds of authors are happy with their current representation, and the positively dissatisfied proportion is little more than 10%. The ratio of stay vs move is better than 6:1, as opposed to the worse than 1:1 ratio we discovered in relation to publishers.
What’s more, authors’ frustrations with their agents seemed relatively limited. Although this survey did not investigate the author-agent relationship in depth, we did ask respondents for a Twitter-style summary of the message they’d want to send their agents if they could. Many authors just wrote some variant on the message, “I love you!”. The one negative issue which recurred again and again was a variant on “Answer my emails!” I’d suggest that if the poor communicators among agents sharpened up their act, there would be extremely few authors who would remain dissatisfied.
That interpretation is also, I think, given support by the response to our question about career guidance (data is for agented authors only):
Just 3% of authors view their editor as being their main source of career wisdom. A further 17% answered “agent and editor”, as compared with the 57% who replied “agent only”.
Some observers might argue that publishers are there to publish books, agents are there to guide careers, and there’s simply no purpose in the former group attempting to do the latter’s job. That isn’t, however, what the industry itself claims. For example, in its submission to the House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee, the Publishers Association states that the “the publishing company[‘s] core roles are . . . to identify, nurture and develop authorial talent.”
You can’t nurture and develop talent if you take no interest in its longer term evolution. At present, literary agents seem to be performing that role very successfully. On our data at least, few publishers can say the same. Since this site is proud to serve writers seeking agents, we’re delighted that published authors share our favourable view of literary agents. Well done, guys: you’re doing a fabulous job. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #6: Authors feel poorly paid and poorly treated
It’s common for surveys like this one to report, by way of headline, that authors are badly paid. And, indeed, our median author received an adance that was somewhat less than $10,000 – or, let’s say, about £5,000. That figure, however, includes many academic authors, or poets, or people bringing out smaller books with smaller presses. It would be fair to assume that those people aren’t really turning to publication primarily as a source of income.
On the other hand, if we focus only on authors who (a) have agents and (b) sell their work to Big 5 or other large trade publishers, it would be fair to assume both that those writers are writing primarily as a way to make a living and (certainly) that they represent the most commercially successful cross-section of our sample. Even here, however, our median author received an advance of just $20,000 or so (£13,000), which will not strike most people as a handsome income, (though royalties and overseas rights sales will tend to increase that amount.)
Whether these sums feel like fair rewards, given the broader industry context, is perhaps more telling. And, when asked for their broad agreement/disagreement with a number of possible statements about publishers, authors told us this:
That is, only 7.5% of authors feel well-paid by their publishers. If we select only those authors who have literary agents and are with major publishers, that scant 7.5% stat rises . . . to 9.5%. When you consider that the average Big 5 graduate trainee is paid around 50% more than that median Big 5 advance, you can understand that authorial frustration.
Now, to be fair, the industry has never claimed to offer large rewards to the bulk of those who write for it, yet you would hope a lack of financial remuneration is made up for by good treatment in other respects. Our data, however, do not provide evidence of that good treatment. Only one quarter of our respondents felt well-treated by their publisher “in non-financial ways”. The agented/large publisher authors felt well-treated just 31% of the time.
That seems a dispiriting result.
The only other firm messages from this question were that a clear majority of authors felt that the industry had been “lazy and uninnovative” when it came to digital matters, but that only a smallish minority (about 16% of respondents) think the industry is likely to vanish any time soon. Curiously, most authors don’t think that publishers constitute a “crucial bastion of culture and learning”, a result I am not able to explain. (Except possibly as a matter of priming: it may be that by asking our authors to think through their relationships with publishers, we accidentally primed a kind of surliness by the time we reached this point in the survey. I’d also note that only 30% or so of authors felt that Amazon treats self-publishing authors well. Given that Amazon offers access to pretty much every reader in the world via a well-designed author-interface that costs nothing to access, that delivers instant results, that provides real-time sales data and very swift payment – and bearing in mind also that the firm’s sites and e-reader technologies are both state-of-the-art and have cost billions to invent and create – you sort of have to wonder what the 70% of hold-outs want from a self-pub company. In short, I think there is some evidence of surliness towards the end of our survey.) Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
Conclusion #7: Authors aren’t leaving the traditional industry
You might think that our results so far would imply that a broad swath of authors would consider leaving the traditional publishing industry altogether. And, indeed, there is some support for that view, as evidenced by this rather remarkable piece of data, which suggests that some 44% of traditionally published authors have also self-published:
Yet this data may well mean less than appears. To speak personally for a moment, I have self-published work in both the UK and US. In Britain, I’ve self-published some of my older work, where I never sold the e-rights. I make a couple of hundred pounds a month from the exercise, but not even remotely enough money to base a career on. In the US, I’m currently self-publishing some of my front-list work (for reasons explained rather exhaustively here), but I’m conventionally published in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and elsewhere besides. Those relationships contribute the vast bulk of my authorial income and I have absolutely no intention of disrupting them. I’d be crazy to do so.
In short, it may be that plenty of authors are happy to self-publish their older or more marginal work, or self-publish in territories where traditional print publishing didn’t quite work out for them – yet those same authors have absolutely no intention of self-publishing their current, front-list work if they have an alternative.
That, more nuanced, conclusion is supported by the answers we received to two further questions.
Just under a quarter of respondents say they’d feel excited by the adventure of self-pub. Well over a third say they’d feel negative, or worse. But perhaps the key stat in this set of responses is that the question itself was skipped by more than half of respondents . . . a fact which suggests, to me at least, that most respondents were thinking, “I would never self-publish” (or perhaps “would never self-publish a front-list work in my home market”).
That lack of enthusiasm for the new frontiers of self-pub is also evident when we focus directly on the cash implications of going independent:
Again, this question was skipped by most respondents, suggesting that the topic did not feel involving. And of those who did respond, only 15% of authors felt confident of improving their financial outcomes.
To summarise: authors may have grumbles about their existing publishers, and many authors would seek to switch publishers if they could, but that dissatisfaction does not imply authors are about to start leaving the industry en masse. Today at any rate, authors are in a state of discontented equilibrium: grumbling, but not leaving, the industry. Like this conclusion? Click here to Tweet it.
A parting note
A final hope on which to end. I’m a big believer in traditional publishing. I’ve been with the industry for 15 years and I hope to be with it for 15 more – yet it’s no secret that my own journey has at times been rocky. But I firmly believe that the things which are broken are not just fixable, and eminently fixable, I also think that the industry could actually achieve better results by acting on these insights. This survey suggests ways of increasing profits, not spending them.
The formula for success is not hard to find. Talk to authors. Involve them. Ask for feedback. Then rinse and repeat. The more you solicit and respond to feedback, the better your results will be. Tweet the formula.
Do you agree with my conclusions? Or passionately disagree? Either way, do please give me your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks so much for reading.
>>> If you are a journalist, blogger or publishing executive and would like to talk this material through, please get in touch. I’d be more than happy to help. I’m also willing to share all the data (filtered and unfiltered) underlying this report. <<<