Publishing-stammtisch: the relationship between author and publisher under the microscope

Photo Publishing Regulars' Table

A gap seems to be opening up between authors and publishers, triggered by the upheavals in the book market. The new direct publishing opportunities on platforms like Amazon and XinXii with much higher royalties strengthen the authors’ position. Most of them are well informed and are now clearly asking about the benefits that publishers offer them. And they, in turn, find themselves for the first time in the situation of having to explain and defend their business model. This was discussed at the 5. Publishing regular’s table "Pub ‘n’ Pub Frankfurt" clearly.

Full House

About 60 book people met at the 30. July in Frankfurt/Main. Among them were authors with publishing houses, indie authors, publishing house editors, freelance editors, employees of the Borsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers and Booksellers Association), of Frahlinguren, of TV stations (WDR and ZDF) – in short: it was a colorful and illustrious crowd. The crowd was so large that the specially reserved room was not enough, and numerous participants crowded around the open access (see photos; photographer: Hartmut Ehreke). The writer and publicist Dr. Cora Stephan and Juliane Beckmann (editor at S. Fischer, previously a freelance editor) first gave their respective views on the author-publisher relationship and thus opened the discussion, in which all present were able to participate.

Common goals

Of course there are common goals when so many book-crazy people get together. Everyone wants a thriving book market and great books that stimulate, teach, entertain, touch. In spite of the discrepancies described below, one must not forget that basically all of them are concerned with good literature and its success.

The author-publisher relationship

Photo Publishing regular

Dr. Cora Stephan has published several non-fiction books and various crime novels under the pseudonym Anne Chaplet. Their experiences with publishers were mixed. Often she would have hoped for more support. She ultimately asked the question, "Why is it that everyone is so eager to publish in the publisher’s?"Self-publishing is a great option, says Stephan. You can do everything yourself or buy the appropriate services, you can even choose the people and keep full control.

Authors among the attendees asked pointedly: What are publishers for anymore? E-books, print on demand, marketing measures on the Internet by means of social networks, etc.Anyone can do all this and it involves much less effort than the publishers used to tell you. What does the publishing house do at all?? External editors can also be booked (Beckmann: "Yes, but then you have to pay them, too."), marketing is often left up to the authors themselves anyway and is now also expected of the author by the publisher. Answer Beckmann: "The publishing house takes care of the editing and the whole production process." When asked, she confirmed what is an open secret: that by far not all authors benefit from a marketing campaign on the part of the publisher.

The problems of authors

The authors accuse the publishers of a lack of transparency. Nobody tells you which publication place you have. Only the top titles get high attention, get marketing support, but no publisher tells an author: "You don’t belong to it." There were great promises, but the publisher did not do much for the success of the book. All in all, with 700 new publications per year in a publishing house, the question arises as to what status the individual authors still have at all. The frustration here is high among authors.

Many authors are also dissatisfied with the way in which many publishers reject manuscripts offered to them. Publishers still see themselves as gatekeepers, as gatekeepers to the book market, who only allow good quality to pass through. Many good manuscripts have been rejected at first (best example: Harry Potter), while a lot of crap is published on the other side.

Beckmann emphasized that S. Fischer takes enough time per book and strives for high quality. In-house editors would work and polish the text as a matter of course, and would have plenty of time to do so due to generous publication schedules. This is a luxury that the publisher allows himself. This was countered by experiences from the group of participants with other publishers: Many publishers have thinned out in-house editing or outsourced it altogether and work with freelance editors. They also know their craft, but get too little time per book and work under too much time pressure.

The editor of a non-fiction publisher recounted her day-to-day work: "If a non-fiction author suggests a book that is great, has a great topic, but also knows that it only addresses a very precisely defined target group, all of whom he reaches in his seminars, then I say to this author: ‘I’m sorry, but then I don’t know what else we can do for you, best bring it out yourself, you’ll get more out of it’"." This was very positively received by all participants and considered fair. On the other hand, if it’s a topic that appeals to the masses and that will find more potential readers by being placed in bookstores, the editor said, then the publisher can certainly help, if only by getting it into bookstores.

The problems of the publishers

Publication cycles are getting shorter and shorter. In the past, publishers usually brought out two programs a year. Today there are often four. The number of new publications per year increases, while the sales per book decrease. As the editor of a major nonfiction publisher put it, "You used to get an average of 10.000 copies of a book sold, now one is glad if it 4.000 are."To the question whether one does not see the connection that with ever more published books the sale per book declines, she answered: "Yes, but one always hopes that it does not affect oneself. The aim with the additional books is to grab market share from competitors, but not to reduce the average sale of one’s own works. But this does not always work. Something must therefore certainly change in the near future. Throwing more and more books onto the market is the wrong way to go."

I’ve long considered it a rumor that publishers get so many unsolicited manuscripts that completely miss the mark on the publishing program. I simply could not believe that so many authors work so unprofessionally. But that seems to be exactly the case, because publishers confirmed it at the Publishing-Stammtisch. According to that it is partly creepy, what all unsolicited is sent in. This immediately ends up in the garbage can. Publishers have (rightly!) no understanding when authors don’t even make the minimal effort to research where their book could fit in. Outstanding works, however, are sometimes passed on to another publisher with the words: "Here, I think that’s great, it doesn’t fit here, but maybe that’s something for you?"

In addition to new books by in-house authors and licenses from (mostly English-language) foreign countries, publishers usually include recommendations from frahlinguren in their program. Frahlingurs know the market and the publishing landscape, they know which book fits where and have already checked for quality. Publishers are very happy to work with agencies. Unsolicited manuscripts have only a very slim chance of being published. One publisher’s editor reported that in her publishing house, the rate of publication of such manuscripts was about 0.5 percent.

When asked why the e-books from the publishing houses were so expensive, Beckmann replied that the inclusion of e-books in the publishing program was accompanied by high investment costs for new software and the conversion of the entire infrastructure.

For publishing authors, the worst time in the publishing cycle seems to be just before the book comes out. When everything is ready, the proofs are approved, but it’s still six weeks before the book is published, that’s when you often have to hold hands, said two female employees of a nonfiction publisher in a small discussion group. The author could not do anything at this stage, make any changes. Some then called the publisher several times a day, almost in a state of dissolution, to ask if everything was all right.

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