Is today’s book publishing industry failing its writers?

Although, on the face of it, the book publishing industry exists to publish great books and bring them to the public, to bring readers great reading experiences, to change the cultural life of the world, and to pay writers for their work. James Essinger argues that the industry is no longer living up to its promise.

Yes, this still happens, but nowadays new, unknown writers hardly ever have a chance, under normal circumstances, of taking part in the fun.

Most ‘traditional’ publishers – that is, publishers that offer advances for books – don’t in fact buy books from unknown writers at all. They only want to publish newcomers who are famous in some non-literary field, such as politics, films or TV. If you aren’t, the chance of your book being taken in is close to zero, no matter how good it is.

Like the notorious Gordon Gekko in the famous 1987 movie Wall Street, publishers only want to bet on certainties. And certainties for publishers mean writers with established track records and well-known names.

Consider the case of J.K. Rowling – a writer you’ve probably heard of. After the prodigious success of Harry Potter, she turned her fertile imagination to writing her first adult thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she wrote under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. J.K. Rowling wanted to know what would happen if she sent out the book under the name of an unknown writer.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that the submissions she made were all rejected. One of the publishers even had the temerity to suggest that the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling needed to take writing lessons! The email looked like a stock reply and the publisher most likely didn’t read the book.

I don’t necessarily blame publishers for this. After all, getting a new novelist established is difficult, so if you were a publisher with a limited budget to invest in novels, wouldn’t you put your money into writers who are already well-known?

What’s intensely annoying though, is that publishers just won’t admit they do this. They claim to be interested in new talent but they are not. Indeed, even less-than-famous established writers struggle to get their books accepted in the present climate. And I’m not referring to the current Covid crisis. This has all been going on now in the publishing industry for about twenty years.

Even worse, when publishers reject a book, which they almost always do, they invariably blame the writing, with the implication that if the writing were better they would accept the book. But in fact they wouldn’t: it’s just an excuse.

Now, I agree that most if not all books need editorial improvement, but if you have no intention of accepting the book anyway, why make the writer feel humiliated? Why not admit the truth: that you’re just not really interested in taking on new writers at all?

Literary agents aren’t much of a solution

Try placing a book, especially a novel, with an agent and it is virtually impossible even to get a reply. But agents shouldn’t be blamed, they’re only trying to make a living, just as publishers and writers are. And agents can’t be expected to take on a book if they don’t think they can sell it to a publisher. Indeed, in the present climate, they probably can’t sell it.

So again, writers get rejected by agents, or even ignored – many writers who come to me say they’ve sent their book sample to agents and never got a reply. Or they get a form email reply that says something like, ‘If you haven’t heard back from us in 12 weeks, please assume your submission has not been successful.’

My own experience as a publisher is that many books are very readable and could be made first-class with editing. Publishers would do a lot better to say: ‘We like your book, but we don’t think we can make enough money by selling it, and so we’re rejecting it.’ That would at least be honest!         

And this is the point. Publishers accept books for commercial, not editorial, reasons. Of course, if a book really is bad, that is different. But in fact one of the curious things I find running The Conrad Press is that I receive very few submissions that are really bad. I do sometimes get some very weird and seriously unpublishable books of personal philosophy, but the novels tend to be  readable, competent and sometimes even inspired.         

What can be done about the way the publishing industry is today? By the way, this is a global problem, not just a UK one, and indeed in the US the publishing industry is even more closed to new writers than it is in the UK.

Stop pretending

Firstly, publishers should stop pretending that they’re scouting for new talent when they’re not. Writers are more important than publishers and agents. Publishers and agents should consider themselves lucky to work with writers, and should treat them with respect.

Remember that anyone can become a publisher or agent, but a writer must sacrifice vast swathes of their lives – days, evenings, weekends, holidays are all foregone to put in the relentless hours required to write their book.

It’s also time for the industry to cease its arrogant and snobbish attitude towards subsidy publishing, where authors contribute towards the cost of printing a book. There are too many literary awards (the Paul Torday award for example.) that exclude paid-for books from eligibility to enter their competitions.

Many great books have been paid for partly or entirely by the writer: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and many others. The notion that authors contributing towards the publication of their book is somehow dishonourable is outdated and simply silly.

But writers need to do their homework and choose the right subsidy publisher: a publisher who genuinely is interested in publishing their book and publishes it properly and to the highest professional standard.

Unfortunately, as opportunities to be taken on by traditional publishers have become more and more limited, plenty of illicit organisations have sprung up who shamefully are more interested in the cash than in helping writers. All too often, writers have come to me with tales of dishonourable publishers who have taken money for a book and not published it for years – or not at all – and even if they do they publish it very badly.

I founded The Conrad Press in 2015 because as a literary agent I found I could not sell even excellent books to publishers. I thought it was time to get some of those books published. Yes, we have a modest author contribution, but it doesn’t do much more than cover the disbursements we pay to get books ready for publication in the first place.

Authors also pay for printing the books, but they pay this directly to our printer Clays – the same printer who publishes Harry Potter –  we make no mark-up on the printing. We have good contacts in Hollywood and some of our writers are forging careers there.

A subsidy publisher can be a perfectly honourable organisation and give a great service to writers. Subsidy publishing can an honourable way of conducting business in an industry that otherwise is, distressingly, pretty much a closed shop to talented new writers, writers who have worked hard to produce a great book, and deserve better.

  • James Essinger is affiliated to the Conrad Press, Canterbury