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Authors v Publishers

Two opposing camps

What’s this adversarial language? Surely publishers and authors should be united in their desire to produce a good and widely read book? Why the reference to ‘sides’ and ‘opposition’?

Authors v publishers

Anyone who tries to get published will quickly understand that there are two main groups of people involved in the process: publishers (and I would include agents here, as they are part of the same system), and authors – and that frequently, it feels like a situation of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Gather any group of authors together and they will moan about their publishers – most usually about the lack of marketing for their books. Attend the London (or indeed any) book fair, and the authors, whose works form the main body of what is being bartered and sold on such occasions, are present only in picture form, like the sanitised mantelpiece of an elderly aunt who finds the images of her unruly relatives easier to deal with than their boisterous presence.

Needing each other                                      

The views of publishers and authors about each other are often polarised. They need each other and cannot survive effectively without each other, but the problem for writers (potential and actual) is that it’s a buyers’ market; there are vastly more people wanting to get published than have the talent to make it, than there are production resources within the industry to put into print, or shelf space in shops to stock.

Authors often complain that publishers lack an appreciation of how what they provide is the basis of the industry they feed. They feel marginalised by publishers who have no real understanding of how much effort it takes to write a book, all the while conscious that their ability to do so again is not automatic – whereas publishers blithely assume that it is infinitely sustainable.

Without authors there can be no publishing industry, and yet still one gets the impression, whenever publishers are gathered together, that this is a party to which authors are not really invited; they would get on faster without them – and write the wretched books themselves if only they had the time.

Authors’ gripes

For the first edition of this guide I collected a series of authors’ gripes about the industry, each one a tale of mean spirit, grudge or just lack of awareness of the potential of their major suppliers. The chapter was printed as an extract in The Bookseller magazine and caused a great cheer amongst authors, and a bit of a stir within the publishing industry. But even in discussing the reaction, the publishers somehow missed the point. The Bookseller editorial, which discussed the issue I had raised in the same edition, commented that it should be of concern to the industry that many authors ‘whose work is central to the publishing process, feel alienated from it’.

Frankly this reaction annoyed authors even more. Most feel they are not ‘central to a process’, but rather that the ‘process’ would not exist without them. We do not have a ‘process of publishing’ as an independent good, like a constitutional monarchy or democratically elected government. You do not search for authors as a commodity in the same way that you indent for chairs or paperclips; rather the role of the writer, the person who comes up with the ideas, is crucial. In any case, most authors would feel that the publishers seldom have to go searching, in the way that a production director would seek out new materials. What they have to do is recognise the merit of what has already been offered to them, sent to their doors, with return postage supplied.

‘I don’t believe that it’s the writer’s job to respond to some vague idea about what readers want. Readers don’t know what they want until they see what you can offer. Nowadays, we’re told, they’re all asking for the next Harry Potter, but no-one ever asked for the first Harry Potter. It took JK Rowling to think of him before people realised that this was something they might like to read. The writer and the idea always come first, and are always the most important thing.’
Philip Pullman

It’s true today that many ‘published’ authors have not actually written the books (celebrity biographies are a notable example), but it is still the ‘author’ – or name on the cover – that draws the interest. Interestingly this often catches publishers by surprise, when figures such as Sharon Osbourne and Katie Price (aka Jordan) go on to be huge bestsellers, simply because people are fascinated by their lives.


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

Working with your publisher

Number one tip for writers

Author etiquette