At an event hosted by children's booksellers The Book People last week, the author gave a talk questioning the role of the publisher in today's literary world. This is an edited version
The title of this talk is, "Do We Need Publishers Any More?". I was going to call it "Thank Christ We Don't Need Bloody Publishers Any More" – but I felt that sounded too partisan.
Relationships between writers and publishers are of course very strange and change all the time, rather like a see-saw.
I remember my first meeting at Walker Books. The first question they asked me – and I swear this is true – was what mug would I like my tea in: the one with the teddy bear, the tennis racket or the pink one with the flower? And when I left the building, they asked me if I'd be OK taking the tube on my own. I was 33. I was married with a child. But they clearly saw me as some sort of demented child myself.
Cut forward 20 years: I've grown up, and they're nervous of me. There's Alex Rider. I've created a brand. Walker also resent me ever so slightly because now I'm the one with the SMA powder and the changing table. To a certain extent, they need me and that's probably tricky for a publisher who might find life so much easier without writers.
Meanwhile, across the river, I have my adult publisher, Orion – and they also have problems with me. Relations between us have been strained ever since they published my Sherlock Holmes novel, The Mouse of Slick, with no fewer than 35 proof-reading errors. Their proof-reader tried to kill herself. She shot herself with a gnu. Even so, we're doing another book together … a story of murder, suspicion and revenge.
But the truth is, I have other options.
Everywhere, publishers are being squeezed out. In 2010 it was Andrew Wylie with his Odyssey Editions, "cutting publishing houses out of the future" as the Guardian put it. Then came Sonia Land selling 100 Catherine Cookson titles directly to Amazon, bypassing Transworld and Simon & Schuster. The Ian Fleming estate shafted – I'm sorry, I mean excluded – Penguin in promoting digital rights in Bond. And of course there's Bedford Square Books and Ed Victor which published six backlist titles – "for the fun of it", he said – last year but whose fun extended to the exclusive deal they struck with Tesco this very month, selling a new novel, Dead Rich by Louise Fennell. Bedford Square, by the way, will apparently give me royalties of 50% … and every little helps.
I could, of course, go it alone. I could self-publish with unbound.co.uk as Terry Jones did last year. "Traditional publishing is in the doldrums, it's collapsing," said Terry, who turned 70 on the first day of this month and I very much hope he's neither.
I could upload the new Apple iBooks Author software which will allow anyone to produce high-quality fiction. High-quality print, paper and covers, anyway. It's true that Apple have cannily demanded 30% of all profits and you can only sell your books through Apple stores, meaning that effectively they own you. But 70% is still tempting. Amazon is offering the same deal with their Digital Text Platform and I'm not saying anything bad about them in case they remove the BUY button from Alex Rider – as they did with all Macmillan books two years ago. That's a glimpse of the world we're now entering.
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