After giving away their margins, publishers have let marketing and royalties for most of their writers slide
The world of publishing has got its knickers in a twist this week with Amazon's announcement that its New York imprint has bought print and digital rights to bestselling self-help author Timothy Ferriss's next book. While a few self-published Kindle authors have done well out of Amazon's ebook platform, this is new: the acquisition of a potential print bestseller that could mark a decisive point in publishing. Will authors begin to deal not with agents and commissioning editors, but with the companies that sell their work direct to the public?
It's not just Amazon that could cut publishers out of the equation; JK Rowling's new Pottermore website has become the only outlet for the ebook versions of the boy wizard's adventures and the Ed Victor agency has opened an ebook and print-on-demand house ? Bedford Square Books ? to offer out-of-print titles penned by its clients, although they haven't ruled out publishing new books which they haven't been able to place with a traditional publisher. If all of that sounds a long way from the glory days of 18th-century publishing, you'll be pleased to learn of Unbound, which is essentially subscription publishing of the kind used by Milton for Paradise Lost, only reborn in the digital age as "crowd-funding".
All of which raises the question: just what is the role of "traditional publishing". Aside from readers and writers, publishing is made of middlemen, with retail mediators on the one hand and arbiters of taste and merit on the other. Publishers, however, don't just select titles to commission, most hone and polish them relentlessly. Add that to marketing and publicity and you might feel that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this model until, that is, you introduce it to the less-than-gentlemanly, cut-throat world of 21st-century retail and realise that is where the muddle creeps in.
Publishing, as a whole, hasn't really been keeping up. Giving in to demands for ever-greater discounts from supermarkets, the high-street chains and Amazon in order to get stock moving and push the unit price down, they have in the process been voluntarily chiselling away at the royalty rates of their authors.
It's not just Amazon: supermarkets enjoy even better terms for a limited selection of stock and high-street chains have played their part in the muddle by competing purely on price and buying centrally, bypassing their own experienced booksellers, an army of knowledgeable retailers more than capable of editing the almost infinite selection of books in print down to a set of recommended reads. This is the same process that saw every branch of Waterstone's quickly become little more than a simulacrum of some unseen template at headquarters. It is why buying books from them became a chore rather than a pleasure.
While the publishers themselves have been giving away their margins, the majority of authors have suffered directly as a result: not only reduced advances and royalties, but lower marketing and publicity spends and the knowledge that their fortunes are in the hands of just a few buyers.
In those circumstances, who could blame an author for wanting to get closer to the retail end? Publishers perform many great services to the reading public and cutting them out of the loop will reduce choice and quality, but if they can't get the right book in front of the right reader, their days are numbered.