New Survey Reveals What Authors Think of Publishers
I'm an author. Late this year, I'll publish my tenth novel. Publish, that is, in the traditional way: with a Big 5 publisher and all that goes along with that.
That sounds like a strong track record and, in a way, it is. Yet my strong advances haven't always been matched by stellar sales outcomes and, last year, I separated from Random House in the US, when we couldn't find a way to continue our relationship together. I wrote about this experience on Jane Friedman's blog and the response was extraordinary. Two thousand social shares in little more than a week and a ton of commentary from authors with their own complex histories.
Clearly, Jane and I thought, we'd touched a nerve. The relationship between author and publisher seemed strangely jangled and unsettled. So we launched a survey to find out. The survey was open to all traditionally published authors and it asked about everything. How did authors rate publishers' editing capacity? Their copyediting? Their cover design? Their jacket copy? Their marketing? Their communications?
We put the call out through multiple channels. Novelists Inc. was an important supporter in the US. The Bookseller helped spread the message here in the UK. Numerous other author groups also tweeted and otherwise broadcast news of the exercise.
By the time we closed the survey, we got 812 responses. Our respondents were typically highly experienced and recently published. Some 56% were allied either with a Big 5 publisher or a large trade outfit such as Perseus. (Full results can be found here.)
On editing and everything to do with book production, our authors rated their publishers very highly indeed. Aggregating the good and excellent responses, publishers scored between 70% and 80% in all these categories. Indies were praised on a par with their bigger and better resourced cousins. Right across the industry, the basic competences of the industry seem to be in fine shape.
Which is good, because as soon as our survey started to probe matters of communication and marketing, the picture grew considerably darker. Just 50% of authors rated publishers' communications as good or excellent. On marketing, the same ratio was below 40%.
Perhaps the single most striking stat of the survey came when 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?" More authors (37%) chose to move than stay (33%), the remainder being unsure. By contrast, when as asked the comparable question in relation to literary agents, authors with agents voted in favour of their existing representation by a ratio of 6:1.
When we asked our authors to agree or disagree with various statements, just 8% thought that "publishers pay their authors well" --and if that's hardly news, it's also surely saddening that only 25% of authors agreed that "publishers treat their authors well (in non-financial ways)." While authors with literary agents and good advances were generally somewhat happier, the picture, even for that upper echelon of authors, was not pretty.
In short, we found enough that was troubling to prove our intuition correct: that the author-publisher relationship is not settled, is not harmonious. Some of the takeaways are clear. Others will need more teasing out. But whatever your precise take, I hope you'll agree that the topic is of crucial importance and deserves far greater prominence than it's had hitherto. You can read my more detailed conclusions here, or jump straight to the full survey data here. I hope you take the time to have a read -- and I look forward to reading your comments.