We've discussed a lot lately how we've reached the point at which many authors have realized that self-publishing
is a better deal than going with a big publisher. This is leading some to turn down huge advances
from publishers to go it alone. And some are now asking if it makes any sense
for authors to bother with publishing deals any more.
As with record labels, I've always thought that there are a variety of factors at play here, and for some authors, it can absolutely make sense to sign a publishing deal -- though I would be very careful to understand what's in the deal. For example, I've noted that for an author that isn't that well known, it's possible that doing a deal with a publisher can help with the marketing and getting the book in the right hands. Of course, some recent authors have pushed back on this, noting that publishers often expect authors to do much of their own marketing anyway... and that the marketing that they do contribute often is a total waste.
Indeed, it appears that some more authors are agreeing with that. Novelist Polly Courtney, who had successfully self-published a couple of books a few years back, leveraged that success into a three book contract with HarperCollins. However, now she's made the news because at the launch party for the third book... she announced that she's dropping HarperCollins and going back to self-publishing
. Part of the problem? The "marketing" that HarperCollins provided. In her mind, they tried to pigeonhole her book in a category where it didn't belong.
"My writing has been shoehorned into a place that's not right for it," she said this morning. "It is commercial fiction, it is not literary, but the real issue I have is that it has been completely defined as women's fiction … Yes it is page turning, no it's not War and Peace. But it shouldn't be portrayed as chick lit."
"I'm not averse to the term chick lit," said Courtney, "but I don't think that's what my book is. The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams. [My books] are about social issues – this time about a woman in a lads' mag environment and the impact of media on society, and feminism."
Apparently, the issue of the covers has been going on for all three books, so she's dropping HarperCollins at the first opportunity -- and doing so in quite a public manner. The final straw was apparently the positioning on this final book.
The jacket, which displays the chick-lit staple of a pair of slender legs, misrepresents the novel, Courtney believes. "The titles and covers have been a problem with all three of my HarperCollins books, right from the start," she said. "If I had my time again I certainly wouldn't have signed with them. There's a feeling that any author should be grateful for any attention they can get from any publisher – that they should take what they can get. But I don't think they should have looked to sign me on the basis of what I'd written so far."
Her decision to publicly ditch her publisher was the result of "three years of pent–up frustration", she said. "People are looking at my books and saying 'you've turned chick lit'," she said. "The irony is that what's inside the books hasn't changed. To give Avon their due, in terms of the editorial process they didn't try to change what's inside into something different. It's the packaging. From the reader's perspective, they'll see it on the shelf and think this is chick lit, and it's not."
What this highlights is that some of the benefit
of a big publisher might also be its biggest weakness. And that's scale. Book publishers can do scale well, but in order to handle scale, they try to run things through the same formula. You classify and then you follow the playbook. But that keeps you away from doing anything really creative, and creates problems when a book doesn't necessarily fall into a pre-defined area. I think if publishers are really going to serve authors usefully going forward, they're going to have to become a lot more flexible, and a lot less about marketing-by-the-numbers.