From the Wire

Is This What Author-Centered Publishing Looks Like?

This originally appeared in our Today in Books daily newsletter, where each day we round up the most interesting stories, news, essays, and other goings on in the world of books and reading. Sign up here if you want to get it.

____________________________________

Turns out yesterday’s single-story newsletter about Allstora was interestingly timed: today a different player in the book-making game is using the promise of increased author earnings to differentiate themselves.

Authors’ Equity, founded by some serious industry heavyweights, is also looking at the available dollars in each title sold, and its plan to slice the cake a little differently looks like this: No advances, lower overhead, and higher royalties. At first blush that might seem pretty simple and straightforward, the ramifications if it works, could be significant. Let’s do a little round of “cool/interesting/nope” for the key new elements here.

Higher profit sharing for authors

Sounds great right? For each book sold, the author gets more of the sale. Winner, winner chicken dinner. Except. Most books don’t earn out their advances, so most of what an author makes on their book is the advance itself. Now, some books do earn out and beyond and boy it would be great to know ahead of time whether to take a smaller guaranteed lump or press your luck and just take a higher percentage of sales. I am guessing for most authors a guaranteed advance will still be more attractive. Now, if you’ve already got a following and a name that can move books (like some of the authors who are investing in Authors Equity) the downside risk of foregoing the advance is probably more lucrative. But this is a very small percentage of authors.

Verdict: Interesting

Lower Overhead

But where, you should be asking, is this new money for authors coming from? The answer is “lower overhead”: “The publishing team for each book, including editors, publicists and marketers, will be assembled from a growing pool of freelancers. Authors and their agents will help decide who gets hired.”

There it is. Freelancers. Non-salaried, unbenefited, and certainly non-unionized freelancers. This also means needing much less office space (and possibly in less expensive places) and quite a bit more flexibility in terms of adding and subtracting capacity on the fly.

Is this good for publishing? I doubt it. Freelancers are not the same as full-time professionals. They generally don’t have the same institutional knowledge, longevity, and commitment of full-timers. But they are cheaper.

I think at this moment, there is a ready-crop of willing former full-time publishing pros (or current salaried employees who might be willing to make the switch to contract work) for Authors Equity to grab. But where do freelancers learn how to be marketers and publicists and editors who are good enough to replicate what a traditional publisher does? At traditional publishers. This creates a circular problem where you need trained freelancers that used to work in publishing but if there are fewer people working in traditional publishing, then there aren’t qualified freelancers to hire.

Verdict: Nope

Increased Author Input

It’s worth browsing the “core principles” of Authors Equity. The one that is the most interesting to me is “Flexibility & Transparency”: “Every author brings something different to a project, so we approach every project differently. By shaping the process and strategy alongside each author, and making decisions together, we’re able to act in the best interest of that book.:

Might this mean the author decides where marketing dollars go? (what if you have authors that don’t want to sell the book on Amazon or advertise on Facebook? Is that cool?). What if they really hate the first 17 versions of the cover? Do they have hiring and firing say in these really amazing and cheap freelancers that are apparently at the ready? If you are an author and really want to get your nose dirty, this could be great. It also sounds to me like a major headache generator.

Writing and publishing are two different skill sets. Perhaps there are some authors who are good at both. And I myself think that publishing could be more supportive of authors (here is a true thing I cannot quantify: there are many, many, many more people making a full-time life out of being an employee at a publishing house than there are writers making a full-time life out of writing books). There is a very real probability that this increased author input will actually result in fewer sales rather than more. But for authors willing to bet on themselves, this is a way to do that.

Verdict: Interesting

Faster, More Regular Payments to Authors

Authors Equity will pay authors monthly. And that is a huge change. In the advance & royalty model, it can take years for the money to hit an author’s wallet (advances should really be renamed “guarantees.” Hard to stomach calling something an advance when a big chunk of it comes after the book is out). Again, since authors aren’t getting advances, they by definition will not be waiting around for them. But it sounds like once your book hits the street, you are going to start seeing royalty payments.

Verdict: Cool

__________________________________________________

Will this add up to a new heavyweight publisher? I think it might. If it can pump out a few titles from high profile authors and show they can move mostly the same number of units, that might show other authors that the water is warm. Is it going to cultivate the next Tommy Orange or Jesmyn Ward? Hard to imagine.