London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – December

Amazon and Hachette settled their dispute over the price of ebooks in the end – and almost on Armistice Day too, thus proving the oft-quoted line true: it really was over by Christmas.

Much of November has been about the analysis, assessing the damage, seeing whose reputation is intact, venturing out into No Man’s Land to bring back the wounded.  You could see those authors who signed the famous open letter to Amazon management returning to their trenches, walking between the shell holes of lost sales (because their books were removed from the site), right arm on the right shoulder of the figure in front, blinded by those lost sales…  Well, one can take these things too far.

But naturally, as is the way in business, each side is claiming victory, although the real winner is Christmas trading itself.  Neither side wanted an energy-sapping, time-consuming dispute as they were about to enter the most important selling weeks of the year, and credit is due on both sides that they have managed to achieve that.

Mind you, it took a while.  What was the solution?  A simple, sliding scale.  The lower Hachette prices its ebooks, the more favourable terms it will receive from Amazon.  That’s right – it’s as elementary as that, but it took seven months to achieve and a fair amount of trench mud-slinging to achieve it.

One of the best – and most poetic summaries – of it all came in the New York Times which wrote: “Depending on which side you were rooting for, it was a struggle between the future and the past, the East Coast and the West Coast, culture and commerce, the masses and the elite, technologists and traditionalists, predators and prey.”

Amazon, of course, has been instrumental in the growth of self-publishing.  One way we can see how this sector has grown came with the announcement from the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA) that it was drawing up a set of guidelines to offer guidance for literary agents whose clients wish to self-publish.  The Good Practice Guidelines for New Agenting Services aims to help agents in the new world of self-publishing.  The timing is perfect, or even a little late, since for some time now, even established authors like Susan Hill have bypassed their traditional print publishers for shorter works and have opted to publish via Kindle Singles. 

Agent Lizzy Kremer of David Higham Associates, who sits on the AAA committee, said: “Up until now, almost all of the ways in which agents have supported authors have been guided by the structure of an author-publisher contract.  Those contracts very clearly set out the obligations of the publisher to the author.  When an author is assisted to self-publish there is no such contract, so we need to make sure that the author is well-served…This is a young industry, and on the self-publishing side it is also one which is to some extent governed by the biggest e-retailers and their innovations.  As the market develops, our guidance will have to evolve”.

Interestingly, almost in the same week, Kremer clashed with Ursula Mackenzie, the head of Little, Brown UK, over the contentious issue of ebook royalty rates, a long-standing point of disagreement between agents and publishers.  Mackenzie believes the publisher has a “fair rate for e-books” – 25% which is the industry norm at present – but Kremer said: “We don’t think the royalty rate is high enough, but we fought tooth and nail to get it that high.”

There were impassioned words from Susan Hawthorne, author of Bibliodeversity: A manifesto for independent publishing.  She believes independent publishing is the heart of the industry and that larger houses are forced to publish books that support huge offices and CEOs’ salaries.  “It means that books which take off slowly but have long lives, the books that change social forms are less likely to be published by large multinational conglomerates.”  In contrast, independent publishers seek “a way of engagement with society and communities and methods that reflect something important about the locale or niche they inhabit”.

There were fascinating glimpses into the writing styles of two very different authors this month.  Dan Brown, who has sold 200 million books worldwide, was guest of honour at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE, where he said: “It’s like playing the piano.  It’s something you have to keep working at every day.  I get up at 4am every day and I write every day.  If I leave it for a week, I know that when I come back to it, I’m going to find it that much harder.”

Anne Tyler, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 with Breathing Lessons, is celebrating her 50th anniversary as a published author.  She told the Bookseller that she always starts novels in longhand, never straight on to the computer.   “I’m a deep, deep believer in writing by hand.  It’s like knitting, when your mind flows in to what you are doing…”


Latest entries:

London Wall Publishing’s Project Manager, Fiona Marsh, with US actor, Trey Gerrald, at the 18th annual Independent Publisher Book Awards held during BookExpo America in New York receiving the Gold Award for Romance Fiction for The Echoes of Love by Hannah Fielding. 

Launched in 1996 and conducted each year to honor the year's best independently published books, the "IPPY" Awards recognize merit in a broad range of subjects and reward authors and publishers who "take chances and break new ground." Independent publishers, along with independent booksellers, have long held an important role in the world of books, offering an alternative to "the big five" conglomerated media publishers.