In America, Hachette (the world’s #2 consumer publisher) is spending $240 million on a good-sized independent, Workman. In France, the two largest corporate publishers are merging. Globally, Penguin Random House (PRH) is buying Simon & Schuster, its #5 competitor.
A US investment banker, commenting on these changes, said it’s ‘all about market share.’ His implication: that the big will continue to eat the small, and the small – lacking the resources of their bigger brethren – will struggle to maximise the potential of their books and their authors.
Well, that’s one view. Here’s another:
Markus Dohle, CEO of PRH, says: ‘I’m not worried about consolidation. It is the smallness of publishing that matters. It’s one book at a time. There is no scale.’
Now, you’re entitled to be cynical about that. If a giant, whose diet is largely composed of hobbits, gnomes, halflings, and other small fry, tells you that size doesn’t matter, you probably want to nod politely then run as fast as you can into your burrow.
At the same time, you’re not a publisher. You are an emerging author and the thing you really want to know is: What kind of publisher do I personally need?
And look: that’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer it, but I don’t know your exact situation. So whatever I say in the rest of this email needs to be supplemented with your own knowledge, your own wisdom. That said …
When size matters
Let’s say, like me, you write police procedurals. There’s clearly a mass market for that fiction. It’s the sort of thing which can potentially sell a ton on Amazon, but also fill the shelves of supermarkets and specialist bookstores too.
Let’s just assume, for now, that you want to sell a lot of books and you want to be present in print as well as digital (we’ll talk more about the digital-first option in a moment.) In that case, yes, you want a Big 5 firm or any independent that can muster the firepower needed to compete.
To give you an example: when I sold the first of the Fiona Griffiths books, the leading offers I received (in the UK, that is) came from Hachette, a giant, and from Faber, a first-class independent, with global revenues roughly 1% of Hachette’s.
Put like that, Faber doesn’t sound like a real competitor, except that the tiny little company has published no fewer than thirteen Nobel laureates, a fistful of Booker winners, and plenty more besides. It’s an outstanding publisher – just smaller. I was flattered to get an offer from them.
What’s more, the key question for anyone with real ambition in commercial fiction – or any non-fiction with a chance of making mass sales – is simply this: does the putative publisher have the financial resources to compete in the mass market?
So let’s say Faber had persuaded a handful of supermarkets to go big on the book. To make that work, they’d have needed a hardback print run of 30,000 or more books (many more if you’re looking at big sales in North America), plus a ton of promo spend … and the whole deal would be done on a ‘sale or return’ basis. That is, if the books sold worse than expected, Faber would have had to take them all back and pulp them.
Really small publishers just can’t take that financial risk: the cost, if the venture went wrong, could be crippling. So, if you want to play in the mass market – genre fiction, bookclub fiction, any non-fiction with front-of-store sales potential (eg: The Tipping Point or Educated or A Brief History of Time) – you must pick a publisher that has the ambition to gamble big and the resources to do so. Faber (with $30 million in annual revenues) was comfortably big enough to take those risks.
Below the $10-15 million revenue figure, you need to get a lot more cautious. If you pick a micro-publisher, they can still publish in print, but they can’t afford to enter Supermarket World. Media attention tends to chase books that are already selling well, so your total potential sales will be much lower than if you picked a publisher with more heft.
In short, when it comes to any mass market book, there comes a cut off point below which size really does matter. You don’t have to be on the Penguin Random House scale to win big, but you do have to be able to spend properly in support of your book.
When size doesn’t matter: digital
If you don’t care about the whole print market, then digital-first publication is unquestionably an option to take seriously. The current model for such publishing was pioneered (brilliantly) by Bookouture, a UK-based outfit that has since been eaten up – but also left well alone – by Hachette.
That model, now widely copied, is this:
- Advances are minimal or non-existent.
- E-book royalties are excellent.
- The pace of publishing tends to be frenetic.
- Books are published as e-books, as audiobooks, and as online-print. (So you can get a hard-copy of your book, but not from any bricks-and-mortar street retailer.)
- Brilliant use of social media, digital ads, mailing lists and the like
- Cover designs, blurb, subtitles, metadata, and pricing will all be flexible, not fixed. So if a particular cover doesn’t achieve the sales needed, it’ll just be switched out for a different one.
- If a book sells in huge volumes digitally, there’ll be partnerships available with print-led publishers. For nearly all digital-first authors, however, the vast bulk of sales and readers will be via digital formats.
- You can be a huge author on digital platforms and still have near-zero name recognition from traditional media outlets, literary festivals, prize awards and the like. That makes no sense at all, but …
Any ambitious genre author should take any digital first publisher seriously. Financial heft really doesn’t matter – digital publishing is cheap. It’s not just cheap, it’s also brilliantly democratic. Bookouture still allocates the exact same marketing budget to all its debut authors. If a book does well, its budget is upped. If a book does badly (and some clever tweaking can’t fix it), then that book will be left without further support.
In the end, it’s readers, mediated by Amazon, who decide what books to support. That’s how it should be. The one thing you do want to check is the company’s sales record. Have they built big authors? Do they have a credible plan for you? If the answer to both questions is yes, you don’t need to worry about scale.
When size doesn’t matter: self-pub
And if size doesn’t matter in terms of digital publishing, it certainly doesn’t matter in terms of self-pub.
Indie authors need to allow proper budget for the book itself (editing and copy editing; those things are no longer optional.) They also need to buy a proper cover (for, say, $300-500.)
Thereafter, a marketing budget of as little as $500 will still do something. If you have a few books already published, and a mailing list established, you might want to throw an ad budget of (say) $1500-5000 at a launch, but those sums are within the reach of many authors, especially if there is real income coming in each month already. (I’d never recommend a $5000 launch budget for a debut novel, though. Start small, build big.)
In short, quite small amounts of money will allow you to build a real platform as a self-pub author. If you write plenty and write well and are professional in the way you publish, there’s nothing to stop you building a six- or seven-figure career. Plenty of indie authors have.
When size doesn’t matter: niche non-fiction
If you’re writing niche non-fiction - The Big Book of Dressage Exercises, The Complete Beginners Guide to Knitting, How to Tame Lions Without Losing a Leg - you aren’t going to appear on supermarket shelves and you’re never going to ride high on Amazon bestseller lists either.
That book on dressage exercises is a real book. When I checked, it was (not surprisingly) #1 for the search “Dressage books” but came a mediocre #83 in “Animal and Equestrian Sports” and only just made the top 50,000 on the overall Amazon bestseller list.
This is where Markus Dohle is right. It’s one book at a time and all publishing is small.
If you’re writing that kind of book, then simply pick the publisher with the most passion for your book. An equestrian publisher will know what to do with a book on dressage.
Niche non-fiction will never sell a lot in any one month, but if you’ve written a book that hovers, more or less permanently, around the 50,000 mark on Amazon, you have a little goose that will go on laying eggs for a long time to come. I’ve written books like that and, over ten years or so, they pay out very nicely.
When size doesn’t matter: literary fiction
Challenging literary fiction will almost never sell a lot, but passionate attention from a team skilled and experienced at selling small, difficult books will do fine. A big corporate publisher has budgets and profit expectations to deal with, so small, hard books are seldom taken on in the first place.
One of the striking ways that the publishing landscape has changed in recent years is the way that micro-publishers have scored huge successes with literary novels: winning prizes and, occasionally, hitting bestseller lists too. At times that success has stretched a company beyond its breaking point, so a book has moved from the original publisher to a larger one. But that’s good. That’s still success.
But have we had any fun?
And in the end, you shouldn’t make a choice only on the basis of probable sales and total advances.
It’s also about where you feel the passion and the energy and the chemistry. A couple of times in my career, I’ve made a decision based on the chemistry I felt with the people making offers. That matters. You’ll spend the money, but the memories stay with you.
That’s it from me. My children and I have built the biggest squirrel obstacle course in North West Oxfordshire. The squirrels love it.