Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Publishing Means Business

CHAPTER TWO

‘More Opportunities for Staying Published, but Less Income?’

Australian Authors Speak about Their Experiences in the Contemporary Book Industry

JAN ZWAR

Introduction

This paper examines the responses of Australian authors to contemporary changes in Australia’s book publishing industry based on qualitative research conducted by researchers at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). During 2013, Sophie Masson, Chair of the ASA, interviewed 39 authors, mostly Australian writers with a long career of publication, plus a small number of international and newly published Australian authors. Five Australian publishers and five literary agents were also interviewed. In these interviews, which were conducted by a long-standing member of the profession and prepared mainly to be read by other authors, the interviewees spoke with candour and humility that is in some ways at odds with their public personas as successful writers. Following the publication of these interviews (Masson 2014), this chapter analyses the transcripts with the aim of constructing an overview of the authors’ experiences and their forecasts for the industry. The authors gave wide-ranging responses to a series of key questions (see Notes), with their points of view about the changes ranging from, ‘I’m glad I had my shot when I did and was able to write in the traditional way’ (Horowitz in Masson 2014, 191) to ‘This is the most exciting and wonderful time to be a storyteller’ (Mawter in Masson 2014, 153).

Are Conditions Getting Tougher for Authors?

The Australian retail market for books has contracted over the last few years, with onshore print trade sales in 2016 valued at less than $1 billion, plus another $410 million in educational sales (Nielsen BookScan in Zwar 2016, 3; Australian Publishers Association in Zwar 2016, 6). Although the industry’s sales are substantial, several hundred million dollars of annual sales have been lost offshore to online retailers such as Amazon, and through ebook sales, with no hope of recovering them (Coronel 2013, 25). This has contributed to more constrained circumstances for Australian publishers and authors. Many of the authors interviewed believe that it has become more difficult to stay published, particularly by ‘legacy’ or established, mainstream publishers. Several authors drew attention to the impact of Nielsen BookScan data on getting published: if their book had sold lower numbers than anticipated, it was a hard proposition to get the next book accepted, even if it was a better book. Literary agents and publishers agreed. In the words of an Australian multinational publisher, ‘In the past, publishers were far more inclined to give an author five, maybe six, books to make their mark and slowly build a relationship. That is much shorter now—maybe three if you’re lucky’ (Anonymous in Masson 2014, 231).

Many authors had experienced such pressure. Two commented that ‘you’re only as good as your last book’ (Marillier in Masson 2014, 148; Pullman in Masson 2014, 169). After 30 years as a writer, Sally Odgers made the wry observation that writing ‘must be one of the only occupations where practice is not seen to be a good thing’ (in Masson 2014, 158). Digital-only publishers were noted as an exception: ‘These publishers are not so obsessed with previous sales figures as the model is such a different one and the investment much smaller’ (Inglis in Masson 2014, 221–2). However, other respondents believed that it was no more difficult to remain published currently and that the industry has always experienced shocks and destabilisation. Natalie Jane Prior says:

There has always been some current ‘crisis’ preoccupying authors and their publishers—the paper crisis, the introduction of the GST on books, the GFC and now ebooks … The big publishing mergers of the 1980s must have been appalling to work through—and going back further, how do you think publishers of cheap hardcover editions felt when Allen Lane started Penguin? (in Masson 2014, 162)

Margaret Connolly injected a steely reminder: ‘Fact is, there’s no golden age. I remember that in the 1980s … the contracts were brutal, the advances and royalties stingy, and there was little promotion of the general range of books going on. It certainly was not an easy time for authors’ (in Masson 2014, 215). However, even authors who didn’t think it was more difficult to stay published referred to ‘a kind of anxiety about publishing, [which] does affect you’ (Dubosarsky in Masson 2014, 83).

Increased competition for readers’ time was acknowledged, and also the increasing number of aspiring authors. Some interviewees were very critical of tertiary creative writing courses, either for unrealistically inflating the number of would-be authors or for injecting a ‘sameness’ in the graduates’ writing styles. ‘The Creative Writing class has been the main instrument by which the mystery of imaginative writing has been rendered shopworn’ (Gould in Masson 2014, 121). However, other authors had undertaken such courses and many had taught in them, which provided a useful secondary income stream.

Changes to Authors’ Income Streams

Many authors were pursuing a writing career while undertaking other paid work. Most authors spoke about developing multiple income streams. Their own examples included journalism, writing a column, film and TV writing, having a paid day job, teaching creative writing, providing manuscript assessment services, running a creative speakers bureau, and public speaking (at schools, festivals, libraries, and conference dinners). Their advice was often to ‘diversify’.

It was widely acknowledged that advances have shrunk considerably. One agent said, ‘[I]n the last five years we have seen advances go down by about 20 per cent across the board. These days we are thrilled if we can get an advance that’s greater than the last, or even one that matches’ (Inglis in Masson 2014, 221). Many authors gave examples, such as Pamela Freeman, who lamented, ‘I’m getting the same advance for my kids’ fantasy novels that I got for my first book in 1994’ (in Masson 2014, 110). Some authors also observed that schools were less likely to buy class sets of books, contributing to a reduction in the number of writing assignments on offer in the education market. Meredith Costain noted that educational publishers were offering fee-for-work deals rather than royalties, which precluded the authors from being eligible for Public Lending Rights (PLR) (Masson 2014, 77).

The authors interviewed described different career paths. Some expressed gratitude for the opportunity to establish themselves in their profession at a young age. However, several also spoke eloquently about career dry patches lasting years, in which they were not able to secure publication for their work. Richard Harland spoke with candour:

My own career has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs—at least, that’s how it seems to me. … Now I’ve hit lucky with my steampunk novels Worldshaker, Liberator and (I trust) Song of the Slums, which came out in May 2013. To an outsider, it probably looks as though I’ve been steadily on the rise ever since my first small press publication, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle. But it’s not true—and the more professional writers I share confessions with, the more I discover it hasn’t been true for them either. Not naming names, but even authors with the biggest reputations seem to have had times when their next novel was knocked back, when publishers lost interest in them, when they seriously suspected their career had come to an end. (in Masson 2014, 128–9)

More than a few authors described periods when they seriously considered leaving the profession. Other writers portrayed themselves as having steady, if unspectacular, career trajectories: ‘I’ve never been in the position of being a big-selling writer and then becoming unfashionable’ (Blackford in Masson 2014, 51). A small number had completed a doctorate in Creative Arts as a way of having (very modestly) paid time to work on a novel and to increase their employability as a writing teacher. Most of those who spoke about other forms of paid employment to supplement their income had undertaken this work for up to 20 years or more. Some spoke about a moment of realisation that they would never earn a living from their books alone and about making peace with their career choice: ‘I have also accepted the possibility that I may not ever make a living out of writing … Sometimes I fear I will regret having given up the chance to have a high-flying career in a good profession, but on the other hand I do love the writing’ (Anonymous in Masson 2014, 41).

Relations with Publishers

Many authors were sympathetic to the financial constraints publishers experienced: ‘It’s genuinely tough for publishers’ (Earls in Masson 2014, 88). However, an interesting theme was the discontinuity in author relations with their editors and publishers, even for authors with long track records, unless the author was ‘an A-lister’ (Edwards in Masson 2014, 97). Russell Blackford referred to ‘the death of Byron Preiss in 2005 and the subsequent bankruptcy of ibooks, Inc.’ (in Masson 2014, 50) as a difficult, disruptive period. Publishing staff cutbacks meant that many authors had to wait to find out whether their work would be of interest to the next person filling the role:

In 2010 two New Zealand publishers were sold to bigger firms. I had six junior fiction titles with one of them and these were just dropped. The letter I got said that the books were no longer selling. While they certainly weren’t on the bestseller list, they were steady sellers but that wasn’t enough to entice the new publisher to keep stocking them. (Beale in Masson 2014, 180)

When an editor leaves a company, sometimes the market is lost because the incoming editor has a new direction in mind. I once telephoned a company to ask for the current guidelines and the editor told me kindly that she preferred working with existing authors. I pointed out the company had published a dozen of my books. (Odgers in Masson 2014, 155)

Some authors were experiencing longer waiting periods for responses from their publisher. ‘The company sat on my fifth book—a sequel—for almost two years then asked for a rewrite and sat on it for another two years before they passed on it’ (Anonymous in Masson 2014, 38–9). One established literary author drew attention to long periods (11–12 months) before he received a response from major publishers to his manuscripts. It ‘renders what should be a dignified vocation to beggarliness’ (Gould in Masson 2014, 125).

The authors’ responses to these circumstances could be summarised as resilient. They gave advice not to take rejection personally and referred to their own long histories of rejected manuscripts. Despite these disruptions, many authors referred to a manuscript they were working on with the intention to offer it to a large, mainstream publisher first, which still appears to be the preferred option overall.

The growth in the number of small presses was often pointed out—‘Small press publication is bigger than ever’ (Pierce in Masson 2014, 195). Small publishers were perceived as more adventurous than large, legacy publishers. They were said to be ‘often more prepared to take on books considered to be too “risky” by a larger “name” publisher’ (Costain in Masson 2014, 79) and willing to identify and build the profiles of new authors. The professionalism of small publishers was praised, with Alan Gould saying, ‘[T]he [small press] publisher of my latest novel has turned out to be the most attentive, intelligent, fastidious, courteous and energetic person I have met in forty years’ exposure to publishing’ (in Masson 2014, 124). Gould characterised a good relationship with a publisher as a ‘safe home’ where an author ‘knows his work is valued by another’ (in Masson 2014, 126). The limited budgets and other resources were also acknowledged, as were lower advances and smaller resources overall. Digital-only publishers do not usually pay advances, but royalties are paid from the first sale (Inglis in Masson 2014, 222).

Authors as Publicists and Promoters of Their Backlists

Apart from a couple of established writers who had been able to avoid online media throughout their careers and who intended to do so in the future, most authors were experimenting with websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media such as Goodreads. Some found it particularly useful for keeping in touch with their overseas readers. Michael Pryor referred to a narrowing of the distance between readers and writers: ‘[T]he notion of fandom—of committed super-readers who are active advocates—is an important one to nurture’ (in Masson 2014, 167).

Authors noted that publishers expected them to cultivate an online presence, and most also underlined that they did not expect publishers to promote their books beyond their initial release. Some authors blogged on a topic different to their books to avoid appearing as self-promoters—‘I don’t find other people’s blogs about their writing very interesting’ (Anonymous in Masson 2014, 40)—with one posting restaurant reviews (which led to paid work as a reviewer) and another blogging about her work in a railways customer-service office.

Extensive advice was offered about ways to promote backlisted titles. In this sense, authors were active entrepreneurs finding ways to breathe new life into reverted titles by offering them to smaller publishers or by self-publishing, either as print on demand (POD) or ebooks. Tara Wynne, an agent at Curtis Brown, described working with Momentum, Open Road, the Kindle Direct White Gloves Scheme and other ebook publishers to return her authors’ backlisted titles to print ‘and potentially giving them a new lease of life’ (in Masson 2014, 227). Nick Earls’s initiatives in republishing his backlist are discussed in the next section on epublishing. Authors also worked collaboratively with their publishers to give new sales impetus to backlisted works. Isobelle Carmody described the reissue of the Obernewtyn series by Penguin, which aimed to draw in a new audience by using ‘a slightly romantic new cover, though I was a bit resistant to a cover change … They convinced me and the new covers were so dynamic and attractive that both the U.S. and U.K. publishers adopted them, which is rare’ (in Masson 2014, 62).

Many authors had at some stage of their career participated in the schools speaking circuit as a way to supplement their income and to build readerships (plus, as Fleur Beale said, ‘[I]t’s huge fun’, (in Masson 2014, 182)). However, an established author reflected that recently she had resumed this work for financial reasons and if other established writers were doing this too, it reduced access to a valuable income stream for new and emerging authors (Masson 2014, 63).

Epublishing

Several authors spoke about their experiences of epublishing. One of Nick Earls’s books was ranked in the top 100 in the US Kindle Store, which he attributes to a recommendation by BookBub, which then had 700,000 subscribers. The title ‘sold 1000 copies in a matter of hours’ (in Masson 2014, 93). Hazel Edwards noted that the title and cover were particularly important for ebook sales. She cautioned against expecting ebook publishing to produce ‘instant income and celebrity status’ (in Masson 2014, 99). Rather, authors viewed epublishing as a way to keep their work in print and hopefully to generate longer-term revenue streams.

Earls has been actively experimenting:

… ebooks also create an opportunity for stand-alone short stories and novellas, and I hope we can grow a commuter market for them (among other markets). Already, it’s possible for people on a commuter train to use the free wifi to download a story when they get on and read the whole thing on the way to work, for a fraction of the price of a cup of coffee, but with most of the money ending up in the author’s pocket. I’m hoping that’s only the start. (in Masson 2014, 89)

Some authors had the same title simultaneously published in multiple formats. John Knight, publisher of Pitt Street Poetry, discussed the publication of books by two poets, John Foulcher and Jean Kent, in 2012:

In each case we published them as an ebook ($5), a slender paperback in understated design with a plain white cover and rich creamy paper ($20) and a cloth-bound limited edition, numbered and signed by the author, with beautiful illustrations ($50).

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the hardbacks have been the most popular and the ebooks the least popular. At least in the case of these two poets, readers have been prepared to pay ten times as much for exactly the same words, in order to have them in a sumptuous hardbound edition. (in Masson 2014, 246–7)

This supports the prediction, discussed further on, that some print books will be desired as beautiful cultural artefacts described by economists Bounie et al. as titles with ‘print-preferred’ characteristics (2013, 52).

Natalie Jane Prior expressed concern that income to authors would be reduced as readers switched to ebooks because ‘authors make far less money on the sale of an ebook than a printed one’ (in Masson 2014, 165). Alison Goodman speculated about a possible insistence on the part of authors that they retain the ebook rights separately from pbook rights if the royalties on ebooks were not increased. In some cases authors would receive greater returns by publishing the ebook component themselves:

I am interested to see whether writers will start refusing publishing deals that insist on ebook rights that only offer twenty-five per cent of net receipts (which are not dollar for dollar receipts). It is a very poor rights split, considering that a self-epublished book can earn up to seventy per cent of full receipts. Recently, there have been a few reports of writers with a sought after book who have refused ebook rights to publishers and subsequently secured print-only deals with an eye to epublishing their book themselves. Will the publishing houses realise that the current ebook industry standard of twenty-five per cent of net receipts (on something that takes them so little effort and money to produce) will need to be improved if writers are going to grant them digital rights as well as print? We shall have to wait and see. (Goodman in Masson 2014, 119)

Self-Publishing

Authors and agents referred to a softening of the stigma associated with self-publishing. With the availability of cost-efficient, high-quality options such as digital printing and POD, a number of authors have self-published reverted works or works that had not been taken up by their publisher, with some success. Alison Goodman’s ‘traditionally published’ books have been on the New York Times bestseller lists and have been shortlisted for, and sometimes won, literary awards. Her second book was published in the US in 2007 and titled Killing the Rabbit. When rights reverted she published it in Australia as A New Kind of Death with Clan Destine Press and as an ebook.

My agent has a ‘White Glove’ agreement with Amazon, which includes a certain amount of promotion in exchange for exclusive ebook rights for a year. The percentage that I receive for each sale is more than double than (sic) what I would receive if I sold the ebook rights to a publisher, and that percentage is taken from full receipts not net receipts, as is most often the case with mid to large publishing houses. More and more authors are recognising that they can publish their own ebook without a publishing house behind it. (in Masson 2014, 117)

However, Goodman noted that this strategy is usually only viable for established authors with a base of readers, and industry commentary supports this view (Flood 2012). Likewise, Felicity Pulman self-published the last two books in her Janna Mysteries series after her publisher declined them. Although she has found a new publisher for her next (different) book, she would consider self-publishing again (Masson 2014, 170). Authors commented on the heavy workload required to distribute and market books. Isobelle Carmody published Greylands as an ebook and concluded, ‘I have to say that it would not be my choice to go that way, based on that experiment. There were not significant sales …’ (in Masson 2014, 55). Authors such as Hazel Edwards, who actively manage their own backlist as ebooks, also cautioned that the range of skills and time required would not suit all authors.

Steven Herrick self-published a travel book, baguettes and bicycles, through Amazon. Although the book is available in pbook and ebook, ebook sales comprise nearly 90 per cent of total sales (Herrick in Masson 2014, 82). Herrick noted, ‘I earn a similar amount from my $2.99 baguettes and bicycles ebook ($9.99 in paperback) as I do from my $17.95 paperback. This means both the reader and the writer benefits (sic)’ (in Masson 2014, 133). The experience has been sufficiently positive that Herrick recently self-published his sixth book on Amazon. In contrast, Hazel Edwards was critical of poor returns on Amazon and preferred to self-publish her backlisted titles directly from her online platform.

There was considerable criticism of the high number of self-published ‘very cheap, often sub-standard products, which threatens to devalue the industry as a whole’ (Forsyth in Masson 2014, 102). Sally Odgers was more positive: ‘I have read some brilliant books that have been self- or small-press-published. Many were never offered to traditional publishers at all, simply because the authors couldn’t find an open door or didn’t want to wait for years’ (in Masson 2014, 156). To place these responses in context, a widely reported survey of over 1,000 US self-publishing authors found that over half earned less than US$500 per annum from their titles (Flood 2012). The opportunities for established authors with a loyal readership are seen to be significantly greater than for new entrants.

Apps

Although some writers referred to friends who were involved in picture-book apps (Mawter in Masson 2014, 78), there was less detail about authors’ experiences. Jeni Mawter was one of the few authors interviewed who had direct experience of writing apps, with ‘three children’s apps ready for publication’ (in Masson 2014, 151). Aleesah Darlison commented that ‘lots of authors and illustrators are doing DIY ebooks and apps’ (in Masson 2014, 205) because children’s publishers don’t have the budgets. Felicity Pulman predicted: ‘We’re already seeing interactive ebooks and I think that’s going to take off, with apps for music, scene-setting and role-playing, characters and their blogs, alternative storylines, reader-written plots and characters, etc.’ (in Masson 2014, 172). However, the type of work and the different forms of rewards are unclear, and could form an area for further research.

New Forms of Collaborative Writing

Few authors spoke about being involved in new forms of collaborative writing; instead, some referred to traditional forms of collaboration, with colleagues, to boost one’s career. An exception was Jeni Mawter, who referred to working on stories that are ‘participatory and interactive’ (in Masson 2014, 151). John Knight of Pitt Street Poetry described John Foulcher’s experiment with ‘“crowdsourcing” a poem—putting up different versions of the same piece and asking his blog-readers which version worked the best, and why. Participation was lively’ (in Masson 2014, 241). Although some authors speculated about transformations in existing forms, such as novels, the area of collaborative writing—for example, with readers—had not yet received much attention.

Predictions for the Industry

Bearing in mind the diversity of views expressed, and the nuances outlined in the previous sections, the following section draws together the interviewees’ overall predictions for the industry. Respondents forecast continued consolidation among the large trade publishers, with suggestions that three or four major international corporations would dominate in the future. Most authors believed it would become increasingly difficult to be published in pbook format by a traditional or ‘legacy’ publisher. These publishers would move to more of a ‘top 20’ business, as Joel Naoum, then publisher at former digital e-press Momentum, described it (in Masson 2014, 237). The trend towards selling pbooks through discount department stores was expected to increase, while independent booksellers would benefit from location in an area populated by consumers with book-reading demographics or, one author suggested, by specialising in particular types of books (e.g. military, sports, cookery).

Large publishers would make more conservative choices when compiling their lists, with more titles ‘booked up’ in advance and fewer slots available for proposals from their mid-list authors. Ghost-writing work would continue to be available, for books by celebrities, sportspeople and other public figures. Likewise, large publishers would seek to replicate recent sales successes from their authors rather than encourage experimentation. It can be easier for publishers to attract publicity for new, young authors; therefore authors who have had long careers but who were not high-profile writers anticipated they would have to continue to work hard to keep their publishers’ interest. Authors also spoke of the need to work with publishers to design a series that would give some brand longevity, but they were also aware that if sales of the latest book in a series were disappointing, their next book might not be accepted, leaving them to search for other publishing options.

On the other hand, publishers were increasingly expected to approach established authors to write books or series conceived by the publisher. Authors have been given shorter timeframes in which to complete books recently, and this trend was expected to continue. As such, pbooks based on trends and personalities could go out of print more quickly with a faster transition to POD or ebook formats. Some authors predicted that large publishers would make self-publishing avenues more easily available for their authors if they didn’t take up their titles or renew rights. An Australian multi-national publisher pointed out that the creation of digital-only lists by large publishers would create opportunities for authors in genre titles such as romance.

Authors predicted that the tendency of bricks-and-mortar book-sellers towards reducing shelf time would continue—books would need to perform immediately or would not be kept in stock. This would potentially increase authors’ ability to promote their backlist via their own initiatives. However, authors can only self-publish previous works if the rights are reverted to them. Isobelle Carmody noted that publishers could argue that if a book is available in ebook format, even if it is passively listed without marketing support, it is still in print and should not be subject to reversion clauses (Masson 2014, 58). Carmody’s solution was to tie rights-reversion agreements to sales thresholds or to link ebook and pbook rights. She wondered, however, if authors would have difficulty gaining rights reversions for current backlisted titles if the contracts they signed at the time were not specific.

Large publishers will also source manuscripts by engaging people to monitor the popularity of online self-published books: ‘They will employ people to roam the net to determine, a la Fifty Shades of Grey, which books are doing well through word-of-mouth and through the efforts of their media-savvy authors. These are the books that will see print editions’ (Collins in Masson 2014, 73).

Low-priced, downloadable ‘convenience-reading’ eproducts may become widespread, particularly supported by the branding of well-known publishers and authors. Short stories or other forms of writing for consumption while commuting or filling in time, may become profitable niches in their own right. For example, they may potentially introduce readers to new authors if they are branded according to their genre. Tamora Pierce was optimistic about the prospects for emagazines:

Paper magazines, the desired market for short stories, have been steadily vanishing, but in niche markets electronic magazines have begun to take up the slack, when for years the prophets said short story markets were dead. (For a while they were.) I know science fiction, fantasy, and horror markets best, and magazines that pay at professional rates there are blossoming. (in Masson 2014, 194–5)

Similarly, John Knight was upbeat about the outlook for publishing poetry:

… paradoxically these global, industry-wide changes have opened up opportunities for new small presses such as Pitt Street Poetry. We are very much the new kid on the block. Other successful local examples include Puncher and Wattman, Giramondo, John Leonard Press and Black Inc. By rigorously controlling costs and by using modern production methods such as digital printing and print-on-demand, direct online sales and distribution through festivals and readings (as well as in selected bookshops who still take poetry seriously) these new-style poetry publishers have created a small but flourishing new market for Australian poetry books—around seventy to eighty new collections are published each year, which is a surprisingly large number for a small country like Australia. (in Masson 2014, 242–3)

Authors paid strong tribute to publishers’ strong editorial teams, and many predicted that the quality of books would decline because of the reduced budgets for editorial work on manuscripts—‘editing standards have slipped (a lot)’ (Bates in Masson 2014, 44)—and self-published authors who may have bypassed an editorial process altogether. Many authors had developed manuscript-assessment services in order to create another income stream and some expressed pride in the skills they discovered they could provide.

Natalie Jane Prior predicted that, speaking of publishers, ‘the major players ten years from now will not be the names we are familiar with today’ (in Masson 2014, 165), although Amazon and Apple were expected to remain ‘huge players’ (Masson 2014, 225). Sophie Hamley predicted growth in the divide between digital and print publishing and the skill sets required by them. Each ‘will start to look like a completely different industry’ (in Masson 2014, 219).

The shift to ebooks would continue for genre fiction titles such as romance, detective stories and science fiction, with Hamley predicting that ‘a great deal of fiction will be available in digital form only quite soon, and probably exclusively digital within the next ten years’ (in Masson 2014, 218). Prices for trade ebooks were predicted to continue their downward trend. Academic books that are frequently updated, such as textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, would be increasingly released as ebooks. On the other hand, books as special artefacts for gifts or collectibles would attract a price premium. Printed books would be marketed ‘as a luxurious alternative to the everyday digital experience in this increasingly frantic world’ (Carter-Henson in Masson 2014, 70):

Non-fiction and children’s books are often given as gifts—it’s likely there will be a range of these books available in print for a long time to come. The more obvious gift books—such as cookbooks—will likely also become more lavish. (Hamley in Masson 2014, 219)

Small publishers would become an increasingly important option for authors who are not frontlist bestsellers, and this trend would continue. While many authors appreciate the personal service and passion brought by small publishers, they would also be affected by the companies’ narrow margins and smaller budgets. The implication is that more books by small (and large) publishers would be published ‘straight to digital’ (Masson 2014, 24) without an advance on royalties. Masson summarised this as the possibility of ‘more opportunities for staying published, but less income’ (2014, 27), or as Paul Collins expressed it, ‘It’s certainly easier to get published now with POD and ebooks, yet conversely it’s harder to sell what you write’ (in Masson 2014, 72). Not all authors agreed, with some arguing that the environment has always been tough.

Rights agreements were expected to increasingly cover global territories. This would make it more straightforward for entrepreneurial authors and publishers to market books in overseas territories online, but they would need strategies to develop potential readerships. Masson highlighted an initiative by Bloomsbury’s Australian, UK and US publishers: a young adult digital imprint called Spark, with books simultaneously marketed in the three territories.

Several authors drew attention to Public Lending Rights, which do not apply to ebooks. They anticipated that after sustained lobbying, provisions would be revised to catch up with the technology. Piracy was not mentioned by authors as an issue, although Masson noted in her introduction that from mid-2013 Australian publishers reported increased instances of piracy.

The portrait that emerged was of authors who would be writing for a variety of platforms, including pbooks, POD, ebooks and apps. Many aimed to work in a variety of genres to help ensure the longevity of their careers: ‘More opportunities, less money up front’ (Wilkins in Masson 2014, 178). Adopting a new pseudonym was fairly widely accepted and recommended as a means to restart a career that had stalled, or to enable an author to move into new genres as a fresh ‘brand’.

Most authors found it beneficial to stay with one main publisher, if possible, although children’s publishing was an area identified in which it is more common to be published contemporaneously. In the broader industry, as rights revert or if an author’s main publisher declined to take up particular books, it may be possible that more authors will have concurrent publishing arrangements for various books and formats, with the consent of their main publisher.

Authors saw themselves as active promoters of their books, and most expected to take responsibility for publicising their books after their initial release. Kate Forsyth predicted that ‘writers will be expected to do more and more public appearances’ (in Masson 2014, 105). This meant being active in speaking circuits such as writers festivals, schools and libraries, and engaging actively with social media. It involved engaging with their readers, as ‘the distance between writer and reader is narrower than it’s ever been’ (Prior in Masson 2014, 167). It also meant authors taking an interest in the sales of their titles and investigating initiatives when titles were reverted or sales were stagnant.

Authors also predicted a continued increase in self-publishing, with former employees of legacy publishers available for outsourced services such as editing, proofreading, graphic design and layout. One author forecast an increase in these cottage industry operations, which large publishers would draw on when needed (Carmody in Masson 65). Creative writing classes were also expected to remain popular.

Many authors believe that, over time, readers will buy fewer unedited, self-published ebooks, and that readers will begin to turn to brands they trust, in the form of authors and publishers with known reputations. One author predicted that popular book-bloggers would become increasingly influential in guiding readers’ online choices, and that readers would increasingly be guided by bloggers whose taste they shared (Carmody in Masson 66) or by reader websites such as Goodreads and Shelfari: ‘I think this is wonderful, and returns a great deal of power to the writer’s hands’ (Forsyth in Masson 2014, 102).

Alan Gould wondered if ‘the proliferation of books and authors has created a fatigue in the community for the claims of literary art, a sense of its becoming stale because somehow we have become bewildered as to its value’ (in Masson 2014, 126). And although John Knight was optimistic about opportunities for the publication of poetry among niche readerships, he also expressed concern that broad, contemporary public attitudes towards notions of ‘literary’ writing are not well understood.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report for the Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC 2013) identified new markets for English-language books: Brazil, South Korea, India, China, Argentina, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. But the authors did not refer to potential sales in these markets, and if these opportunities are viable, they appear to be some way off. Nerrilee Weir, International Rights Manager at Random House, noted ‘wonderful success stories in recent years across literary, crime and commercial titles’ (in Masson 2014, 254), but observed that strong regional variations in markets precluded the prospects for many titles being sold into a large number of territories. Weir gave the example that ‘outback romance is popular in Germany, but not in many other markets’ (in Masson 2014, 253). A couple of authors noted that the UK and US markets have become difficult to penetrate for Australian authors without a high profile because of tight financial conditions there, but were hopeful the situation would improve (Masson 2014, 28; 111). Tamora Pierce was critical of US children’s book publishers’ wariness of the potential responses of conservative sections of the market (Masson 2014, 198). Taking a global perspective, Pierce also forecast a contraction in children’s and young adult publishing in a decade due to demographic shifts as this proportion of western countries’ populations declined (Masson 2014, 201).

Conclusion

The emerging portrait of authors is one of committed, resilient, resourceful professionals. These are the characteristics of authors who have, for the most part, sustained long careers during which their works achieved publication, despite difficult periods sometimes lasting years. They were selected for interviews on the basis of this longevity. Further, the ASA works hard to emphasise the professionalism of its members.

The interviews give some cause to wonder about the ways in which Australian writing will be resourced in the future. Authors predict that personal projects will be increasingly self-funded until a point of development at which a publisher can respond to the manuscript. If it is published by a small press or self-published, the author may see little or no advance. However, many authors maintained confidence that good writing would eventually achieve publication, although years of patience could be required. Despite the rapidly moving marketplace, authors encouraged each other to maintain a long-term perspective on the reception of their work. Alan Gould said:

I have been struck by how often a book of mine has been rejected by a publisher or received lukewarmly in the first instance, then proceeded subsequently to win prominent literary awards or shortlistings and acclaim in reviews. This has illumined for me the caprices of taste and the capacity for ‘blindspots’ by even seasoned publishers. (in Masson 2014, 121)

Their responses can be briefly considered in an international context. In 2014 Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber and Faber and a respected author in his own right, published an article in The Observer, which caused quite a stir online. Provocatively titled ‘From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life?’, McCrum’s article argued that a brief period during which award-winning, literary authors could earn a comfortable living (which he characterised as roughly from 1980 to 2007) had passed, and ‘writers are now being confronted with the hardship of literary artists through the ages’. The article provoked considerable discussion, not the least because some readers pointed out that the examples cited by McCrum were, in their view, a middle-class or privileged version of hardship. These contributors noted that constrained, uncertain financial conditions now apply to most workers since the global financial crisis. Certainly, many of the Australian authors interviewed by Masson have won literary awards, but few are able to support themselves through the income earned via their books. This is consistent with the findings of a major survey of Australian book authors conducted by David Throsby in 2015, which found that “annual income from practising as an author lies between $9 thousand and $15 thousand for most genres of creative writing; poets are the exception, with average annual incomes from their writing of only $4 thousand” (Throsby, Zwar & Longden 2015, 21).

Literary agent Sophie Hamley suggested that the relationship between publishers and authors needed to be reconfigured: ‘We possibly all need to reconstruct the relationships and ask each other how authors can stay published, not whether or not they should stay published’ (Hamley in Masson 2014, 217). The Australian industry is large enough to pull some weight on the margins of the international English-language book industry, but small enough to be collaborative. Perhaps industry members, including its professional associations, could find ways to work together to support the publication of Australian authors—in a variety of formats—and to enable the development of readerships, so that it’s easier for authors to build author–reader relationships and to stay in print.

The authors’ predictions about the changing nature of book markets can be considered in the context of debates about whether blockbuster economics will predominate in the digital, networked era (that is, a small number of heavily marketed titles will generate disproportionately large sales) or alternatively Chris Anderson’s ‘long tail’ theory (2008) that niche products will become increasingly viable. Anita Elberse, a marketing professor at Harvard, examined online movie and music markets while making reference to the book industry, and concluded: ‘The importance of individual bestsellers is not diminishing over time. It is growing’ (2008, 3). She found that niche consumers also buy popular products; hence even those organisations promoting relatively obscure products should base their marketing efforts around their most popular items and keep production costs of niche products as low as possible. It’s possible that the unknown environment for which the authors surveyed are preparing themselves is a cross between Anderson’s and Elberse’s: experienced authors are maintaining their links with large publishers but are simultaneously extending the life of their own reverted works by securing digital-on-demand agreements or self-publishing, where the majority of production costs only apply on receipt of a customer order.

The authors interviewed by Sophie Masson were in many ways remarkably prescient. Their analysis of changes to the professional practices of book authors was born out in Throsby’s findings approximately two years after Masson’s interviews (Throsby, Zwar & Longden 2015). His survey found that conditions are getting tougher for some authors (especially literary authors) and more volatile for others and that very few are able to earn a living from their creative practice alone. Authors are diversifying their income streams, experimenting with self-publishing and ebooks, and over half of trade authors are spending more time promoting their books. The portrait which emerges in both studies is of creative practitioners who endeavour to respond to changes in the industry with sufficient ingenuity and professionalism to maintain their commitment to their craft.

Notes

The questions asked were the following:

Can you give a short overview of your publishing career? Has it changed in the last few years? In what way/s?

Do you think it has become harder to stay published? Or have more opportunities arisen?

What strategies for ‘staying published’ have you adopted— and how have these changed over the years?

What do you think are the main pitfalls today for writers aiming to maintain a long career?

Do you have any advice for writers who have already started their publishing career—i.e. have had one or two books published—but are having trouble maintaining publisher interest?

Wearing your prophet’s hat—how do you see the publishing industry in the future?

Further information about David Throsby’s research at Macquarie University on the Australian book industry: http://goto.mq.edu.au/book-industry

Works Cited

Anderson, C 2008, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, Hyperion, New York.

BICC 2013, Book Industry Collaborative Council Final Report, Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Canberra, https://www.publishers.asn.au/documents/item/157

Bounie, D, Eang, B, Sirbu, M, & Waelbroeck, P 2013, ‘Superstars and Outsiders in Online Markets: An Empirical Analysis of Electronic Books’, Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 52–59.

Coronel, T 2013, ‘What Next for the Australian Book Trade?’, in E Stinson (ed), By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, pp. 22–28.

Elberse, A 2008, ‘Should You Invest in the Long Tail?’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 86, no. 7-8, pp. 88–96.

Eisenstein, E 2005, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.

Flood, A 2012, ‘Stop the Press: Half of Self-Published Authors Earn Less Than $500’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/24/self-published-author-earnings

Masson, S 2014, The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age, Keesing Press, Sydney.

McCrum, R 2014, ‘From Bestseller to Bust: Is This the End of an Author’s Life?’ The Observer Viewed 24 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/02/bestseller-novel-to-bust-author-life

Throsby, D, Zwar, J & Longden, T 2015, Book Authors and Their Changing Circumstances: Survey Method and Results. The Australian Book Industry: Authors, Publishers and Readers in a Time of Change. Macquarie Economics Research Paper 2/2015, Macquarie University. http://www.businessandeconomics.mq.edu.au/our_departments/Economics/econ_research/reach_network/book_project/authors/BookAuthors_WorkingPaper_2015.pdf

Webster, M 14–15 November 2013, Australian Publishers and Their Reading Publics, Keynote Address, Independent Publishing Conference, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

Zwar, J 2016, ‘Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry: Case Studies of Trade and Education Publishers’. The Australian Book Industry: Authors, Publishers and Readers in a Time of Change. Macquarie Economics Research Paper 1/2016, Macquarie University. http://www.businessandeconomics.mq.edu.au/faculty_docs/DisruptionandInnovationintheAustralianBookIndustryFINAL16Feb.pdf

Publishing Means Business

   by Aaron Mannion, Millicent Weber and Katherine Day