Lessons from the ‘Penelope Trunk Affair’

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

This week, author Penelope Trunk went on a rant about how she left her publisher with her advance after determining that the publisher didn’t know how to market books online. Despite the dubious nature of some of her claims, there are lessons to be learned from her.

A small handful of publishers have powerful brand names with their audience. Publishers like Tor, Baen or Harlequin. The majority of publisher and imprints though are utterly obscure. People outside the industry have no idea who they are or what they stand for. For the most part authors have been the brand. Authors stand for consistency — the promise that if you liked one book by the author that you would like their other books, too. If you read one John Grisham or Danielle Steel or Malcolm Gladwell, then you would probably read a fair number of their other books, too. Discovery in such a world is discovering new authors either directly or through one of their key works.

The author has also been at the center of most marketing campaigns, be it book tours, book signings, interviews with newspapers and magazines, the book jacket, etc. Ask any kid who the publisher of Harry Potter is (Bloomsbury in the UK, Scholastic in the US) and you are likely to get a blank stare. Ask the same kid who the author is and there is a good chance they may know it is J.K. Rowling. She has a very high profile even though she “came of age” in a traditional publishing environment.

Digital has not changed this in any way. It is actually one of the constants in a rapidly changing publishing world.  If anything, the digital has poured fuel onto the embers and the fuel is social media.

The ebook has been a revolution and Amazon has leveraged its dominance of online distribution for print books into a near monopoly in ebooks. It is social networks though — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and others (including good old-fashioned, but still powerful email, now delivered and accessed via the cloud courtesy of Google) — that are now the new platform for authors to connect with readers and promote their books. The decline of the traditional bookstore, whether indie or Barnes & Noble/Waterstones branch is only accelerating this trend further.

Some authors are taking to this trend like ducks to water, others are like chicken at the edge of a river. They don’t know what to do. They are not adapted for this new and alien medium. Their feet, their feathers, their experience, their entire way of life is not suitable for this strange environment.

Penelope’s “rant” highlights how tricky it is for many traditional publishers to adapt. They are like the chicken — though of course there are some publishers who are morphing from chicken to duck and adapting with amazing agility. As an example of one such “duck” I would cite Sourcebooks, but there are many others, too. We often hear about digital skills shortages at publishers. Sometimes this means literacy in ONIX, HTML, CSS and Cocoa (the coding language of iPhone apps) but it also means familiarity, knowledge and execution skills in social media. Some publishers have trouble adapting to this and hiring the right people. Usenet groups? Really? What’s next? Ebook samples on Gopher servers (to quote Kirk Biglione). Wakey, wakey!

The consequence is that naturally extrovert writers take to social media with relish and feel that traditional publishers have nothing to offer them. They love Amazon because Amazon gives them many (but not all!) of the tools to thrive in this brave new world. Tools like easy distribution direct to readers, tools for creating awareness with readers and tools for engaging with readers. Amazon also gives authors (at least today) big fat royalty checks – 70%, paid monthly, not semi-annually. Amazon also gives authors the cocaine of the social world: real-time data.

Note how Sourcebooks, the “duck” uses the slogan “Authors are our Rockstars”. They pay them higher royalties and lower advances than traditional publishers (or even no advance at all, talk about the Dodo in the room) and they are obsessively data-focused.  Being 25 years old, Sourcebooks preceded the digital revolution, but they have learnt and adapted.

As a result of these trends, we are now witnessing a radical shakeup in the publishing business model. The model of a traditional “publisher,” which means a company that owns the intellectual property, does not serve authors as well as it once did. Under the Amazon model authors retain their copyright. Self-published authors, at least many of the successful ones,  still work with editors, copy editors, cover designers (nobody has all the skills themselves), but they hire these on ad-hoc project basis and platforms like Bibliocrunch are emerging to serve authors in finding the best talent on a  project-by-project basis.

Related: Arms Race Among Self-Publishing Technology Vendors

Authors are thus transitioning form a model where they were freelancers taking significant risk for a fixed advance paid in installments with the promise of maybe winning the lottery afterwards (if they “earned out”) for a model where they are truly entrepreneurs, running their own author-owned-and-operated (AOO) publishing company (it is a genuine publishing company) and capturing far more of the upside while accepting a lot more risk and a lot more extra work.

The new crop of digital companies engage as service provider, not as publisher with authors operating under the AOO publishing model. Some traditional publisher (or maybe it will be agents or a hybrid of both) may morph into the equivalent of venture capitalists serving AOO publishers, providing upfront funding in exchange for a major stake in the AOO enterprise and that means not just part ownership for the rights to one book, but the rights to all the authors books and the author’s auxiliary revenues (movie rights, T-shirts, adaptation as a musical, everything, the 360 degree deal). Is that an infringement of the author’s moral rights? Maybe, but look at the fashion industry (Dior, Yves-Saint-Laurent, etc.) to see how this might evolve. Successful artists morph into corporations (is Damien Hirst an artist, a brand or a corporation — it’s difficult to tell).

Off course not every author is an extrovert. Many still prefer the old model: Focus on writing and leave the “other stuff” to publishers. I am sure many would even prefer a world of corporate security and regular pay checks with health benefits, too. Alas such a world has never existed for most writers. What is new is that many of the publishers who provided such false security are now faced with the new challenge of legitimizing their existence to authors and of having to compete with Amazon and others for authors.

It is a brave new world. Power has shifted to the author. Exciting times ahead.

Learn concept photo via Shutterstock

5 thoughts on “Lessons from the ‘Penelope Trunk Affair’

  1. Ken E Baker

    I took Penelope’s words with a pinch of salt. Yes, there are incompetent people in all industries (personal experience talking here), but there are also some good ones – visionaries. I think the visionaries in the publishing companies are going to lead the way, but the (successful & profitable) model still needs to be defined by the industry. Still, the change is happening so rapidly! It’s really great to see!

  2. Carolyn Jewel

    Just a couple of clarifications:

    1. Overwhelmingly, other than in the case of a work for hire, the author remains the copyright holder. They license certain of those rights to a publisher.

    2. Because of No. 1, traditional publishers are not the intellectual property owners of the books they publish. They have licensed rights from the author and so are licensees.

  3. Andrew Rhomberg

    I stand corrected, then. Though I have done dozens of distribution contracts, I have never seen an actual author-publisher contract.

    However, to all intents and purposes it makes little difference with regards to the argument. Its like a long-term leaseholder. They might not be the freeholder, but to the tenant they are the landlord, the “owner”, and in many ways it is is the same with publishers. The licenses or rights they acquire from the author are so comprehensive that to retailers they are the *de facto* copyright holder in the traditional publishing value chain.

    But yes in terms of legal technicalities, my description was wrong. Thanks for pointing out my error. Learnt something new.

    1. Literary Agent

      Re: Sourcebooks
      “They pay them HIGHER ROYALTIES and lower advances than traditional publishers”
      Is this a joke?



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