For months — as much as a year, perhaps — we have seen no new ideas for economic structures for post-Gutenberg publishing, the turn-of-the-decade preoccupation of many an anxious scribe, and the topic that launched this blog. Then we read the dire news of a ‘business model’ that a well-known large publisher has begun to offer authors. Fittingly, this was in a masterpiece of sardonic rage in the Books and Bookmen column of a satirical magazine, Private Eye (No: 1412; 19, February 2016). We will spare our readers the chore of looking up the Latin derivations of ‘libor’ – from libare or ‘sacrifice,’ or liborius, ‘free’, according to the Wikipedia. (But do scroll down this blog entry** to note the most interesting overlap with one Latin word for book — not codex, of course.)
With the vast majority of published authors earning below the minimum wage, one major publisher has found a way to give them even less — and indeed land them with a five-figure bill, in a scheme that owes more to vanity publishing than to the normal commercial author/publisher relationship.
Publisher John Wiley, which issues the popular ‘… For Dummies’ series, is telling writers its ‘business model has changed over recent months’. Out goes the advance on royalties. In comes an author commitment, ‘at the outset’, to buy ‘a minimum quantity of approximately 1,500-2,000 copies over the course of a three-year period’. For 2,000 books, even with an author discount, this adds up to nearly £13,600.
And out goes the writer looking to the publisher to help promote the title. In comes ‘author commitment in terms of promotion of the book at speaking engagements and training events’. This means the writers selling their own books, or as Wiley puts it, ‘purchasing discounted copies for events/business use/training courses to make our products viable’. An author selling 2,000 copies would make £19,200 — less costs involved in the ‘events’.
No mention of the cost of researching and writing the book, or the fact that some authors aren’t physically able to be travelling sales reps. These requirements will mean that most authors can only afford to write if an employer sponsors them with time, event organisation and the cost of buying their own books.
Take the (imaginary) Libor for Dummies. It would be hard to find an independent author with the ability or money to follow Wiley’s new business model. But there are plenty of bankers who could write this title from their employer’s point of view, and promote it with the bank picking up all the tabs. Which would make the book financially viable — and simultaneously worthless.
At last someone with a powerful megaphone has spoken out about the absurdity of trying to turn all scribblers into salespeople, on social media or anywhere else. Roxana Robinson, the president of the Authors Guild in New York — and author of a sensitive and perceptive biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, for which we were long ago proud to make room on our shelves — is pointing out what we did in an early entry in this blog, when practically no one was publicly challenging the near-universal conviction that writers have no alternative to morphing into performing fleas. It has been one of our most popular posts — without having any discernible effect, so far:
How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?
This is part of what the Authors Guild leader said on virtually the identical subject a few months ago:
Promotion is the opposite of writing. It’s depleting. And this kind of ‘creative’ promotion, is an act of desperation.
You can’t be a writer while you are onstage, answering questions. The only place where you can be a writer is alone with your mind, answering the questions that come from yourself, the ones you can reconsider, shift and re-phrase, until you find yourself heading out alone into the ranges you want to explore. Most writers are not performance artists. When we’re in public, we’re not writing. When we’re writing, we’re not in public.
… Moreover, if you’re not well-known, none of these strategies of self-promotion is useful. No one will pay money to see an unknown writer.
… It might be better if the publishing houses let writers do what they’re good at, which is writing, and if they did what they’re good at, which is editing and producing and promoting, the books they have bought, believe in and support.
That’s called division of labor, and in the world of economics, it’s quite highly thought of.
If only writers could go on strike …
** From a lively discussion on Reddit:
Liber with a short i (pronounced like: li – ber) means “a book” and declines liber, libri, libro, librum, libro. Liber with a long i (pronounced like: lee – ber) as a noun means “a free person; children of a family” and declines liber, liberi, libero, liberum, libero.