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Random House Uses E.L. James & Other Authors to Defend Publishers' Importance

A month after author Joe Simpson went on camera to explain why he parted ways with Random House, the publisher recruited E.L. James and nine other authors to sing its praises, and that of publishers in general. With self-publishing tools enabling authors and agents to bypass publishers and Amazon offering more attractive returns on e-book sales, publishers have been forced to prove their value. Interestingly, James originally self-published Fifty Shades of Gray.

Random House’s authors argue that the publisher’s value lies in their vast amount of resources from copyediting to cover art to marketing. “Organizing the book tour that I did in the U.S.; doing some events here in the U.K. — as a self-publisher, that’s just so time-consuming,” James said.

Sir Terry Leahy added, “You hear nowadays, with the internet and digital, that people won’t need publishers, you know? They can self-publish, and so on. My experience at Random House really taught me how important the publishers’ contribution is.” Leahy and the others also touted the relationship with the publishers, noting the importance of having a team on the author’s side.

It’s important to note that the authors speaking on their behalf are among the publisher’s most successful which means they most probably got the “cosseting” writer Joanna Trollope is referring to. They also ignore the reality that authors — self-published or not — can’t afford to sit back and let the publisher handle the marketing alone. As author Ayesha Harruna-Attah pointed out in a recent interview, “Whether you go with a big publisher or a small one, you are ultimately the one who has to make sure people hear about the book.”

I think Random House could do better than this hard sell that doesn’t address why more and more authors are taking advantage of self-publishing tools to get their work out.

Authors are frustrated by most traditional publisher’s closed-door policy when it comes to submitting manuscripts. It can take years to find a literary agent (as it did in my case), and then years after that for an agent to sell a writer’s work. As a case-in-point, author Chinedu Achebe says he chose to self-publish because “because telling my story and getting it out was the most important thing to me. …I didn’t have time to write letters to different publishing houses to see if they would want my manuscript.” Additionally, the economics of self-publishing can be more advantageous for authors if they choose to distribute their work digitally or via print-on-demand services.

If I were Random House, instead of discussing relationships and copyediting, I’d be trumpeting the one main advantage publishers still have over self-publishing: upfront money. Even though book advances are apparently not what they used to be, it’s still a lump sum of cash, whereas self-publishing can requires thousands of dollars to cover printing and other costs.

As a secondary point, the editors’ expertise borne of years of experience in the business is important too. Publishers must have miles of data of readers’ buying habits down to gender, region, etc that is advantageous to writers for marketing as well as story editing.

That said, Random House and other publishers need to look at other ways to increase their attractiveness. Tor UK, for example, has done so by lifting the gates formerly kept by agents, allowing authors to submit manuscripts directly to editors. What do you think? What else can / should publishers do to prove their worth to authors?

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