by Clare Christian, Publisher at RedDoor
When I took my first steps in publishing in the summer of 1996 it coincided with an event that, now I look back on it, directly informed the job I am doing today.
That event was the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement, or at least, at the time, it was the point at which the Booksellers Association stepped back from the discussion around the NBA, leaving the Restrictive Practices Court (a precursor of the Office of Fair Trading) to rule that the Net Book Agreement (established in January 1900) was against the public interest and therefore illegal, in March of the following year.
At the time few people could have predicted the impact this act would have on the publishing industry. Interestingly, the NBA had been reviewed once before, in 1962, but had received a stay of execution when it was deemed of ‘benefit to the industry’, as it enabled publishers to ‘subsidise the printing of the works of important but less widely read authors using money from bestsellers’. Given where we are today, this was an important and telling position.
There followed what has been referred to as the heyday of British publishing. A buoyant, confident and ambitious few decades, where exciting and talented authors were published to greater or lesser success, the variations gradually evening out, leaving the publishing industry in profit and authors making a reasonable living. These were the days of launch parties and book tours and investing in authors way beyond the risky book 1 and perhaps 2, to build an audience and platform from which both author and publisher would later reap the rewards. Viewed from where we find ourselves in 2018, it’s hard to disagree that this was indeed a heyday for the industry.
The decision to dissolve the NBA has had a devastating impact on the business of publishing. The discounts that the booksellers were so keen to secure (and that publishers were so willing to give – at least initially) have caused the value of books, and the creative talent that is needed for them to exist, to plummet. Smaller bookshops struggled to survive in the wake of the dissolution and, in many cases, closed: in fact the 12 years from 1997 saw over 500 bookshops hanging up their ‘closed’ sign for the last time. Publishers could no longer afford the tours and the parties and investing in new authors was becoming more and more risky. The heyday was over.
Admittedly this is all pretty gloomy stuff, but it’s important background to where we find ourselves now and it goes a long way towards explaining the expanding slush piles and endless rejection notes that today’s authors have so much experience of. It also goes a very long way towards explaining why the practice of self-publishing has exploded in the last ten years and why it’s never been more important to have new publishing models that may at last help to expand our industry in a way that has been particularly tough over the same period.
So while it has become increasingly difficult for authors to secure traditional publishing deals, it has become increasingly easy to take control of the process and get a book out there, in print and/or digital formats relatively cheaply. Authors have seized the opportunity that self-publishing provides and although not new (as we know there are many historic examples of authors self-publishing in one way or another) it has provided an exciting and potentially rewarding option.
However, self-publishing is hard. If you self-publish you can’t afford to just be the author of your book. As any avid reader of Writing Magazine will know, you need to be author, publisher, sales person and distributor. You may even need to be the designer too and there’s a reason that traditional publishing houses never have just one person to do all these things – not many of us can be good at everything.
Some authors do of course manage to nail it. Not only are they great writers but they treat their writing like a business, giving them the greatest chance of success. These authors are something of a rarity though and most authors really benefit from some help, something the publishing industry was quick to spot and act upon.
It’s not surprising that as the traditional publishing industry began to become more risk-averse, the numbers of authors looking for publishing alternatives also increased. Up until relatively recently the so-called vanity presses were the main option but in the mid-to-late nineties technological advances within the publishing industry, along with ease of access to information via the internet meant that suddenly other options were available and vanity publishing was looking increasingly, and justifiably, shoddy. Authors suddenly had the tools to become more savvy. To make informed choices; to drive expectations for quality in paid for publishing up closer to where it should be. Services popped up to fulfil this demand, and to this day companies such as Matador and Silverwood Books do a great job of providing cost-effective publishing services, along with a transparent offer and reliable and honest support for their authors.
It was while working as a publishing consultant in 2011-13 (following a career working in traditional houses) that I noticed what I felt was a glaring gap in the publishing options landscape. It struck me that while there were very good self-publishing services at one end that were able to work with authors to produce books to be proud of, and traditional houses at the other that a small number of authors may be accepted into, there was nothing really in the middle that could take on commercial books that would have been picked up by the traditional industry not so long ago, but were now missing out due to the changes in the industry.
This got me thinking. If such a model were to exist it would need to operate as a traditional publisher but mitigate the risk element that traditional publishers struggle with – i.e. the financial investment needed to produce and publish each book. Therefore it would need to take the financial element from the self-publishing model, but the infrastructure from the traditional model. For authors to earn their investment back there would need to be a traditional UK and export sales arrangement, global distribution and sales partnerships in key territories. Sale of foreign rights would be vital, as they are in traditional houses, and, most critically, it would be essential to be publishing brilliantly written, commercial books.
We launched RedDoor in 2014 to do exactly that, positioning ourselves as a hybrid publisher. It’s an awkward term but it’s the only one that really sums up the way we work. We’re collaborative, author focused, and ambitious – and we’ve had some success, suggesting that this model is working.
There are other models too. Variations on the hybrid model that RedDoor operates and another one that you will be familiar with: Unbound. Unbound is a crowdfunding platform that requires the author to pre-sell their book (and associated rewards) to friends, family, professional and extended networks as well as to Unbound supporters. It can be hard work but it does obviate the need for up front payment from the author and can be very satisfying.
As you would expect, there are pros and cons with every route and which one is best for you completely depends on you and your book. I’ve set out some examples in the attached table.
If you’ve stayed with me this far then you can probably see why I feel the Net Book Agreement has been so instrumental in the changes to the publishing landscape: the decrease in diversity of output amongst traditional publishers and the explosion in self-publishing and other new models. It has removed the very thing that in 1962 it sought to protect: the ability of publishers to ‘subsidise the printing of the works of important but less widely read authors’ – an act that has directly led to the risk-averse, genre-led, celebrity-driven publishing that we see today.
However, we do have some reasons to be cheerful. The Publishers Association annual report for 2017 tells us that print sales are up, while digital sales remain relatively stable (a decline of just 2%). The audiobook market continues to grow, and export sales are up a healthy 8%. The number of self-published titles continue to grow and new publishing models offer authors different ways to get into print. All good news and reasons to keep writing – and keep publishing. Whichever route you choose.