By Catriona Troth
“This has all got brilliantly competitive...” Polly Courtney tweeted the night before her scheduled debate with Richard Charkin, CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Billed as “What’s The Future for Publishers in the Digital Age?”, November’s Byte the Book event was a head to head discussion between best-selling self-published author, Courtney and Charkin, recently appointed Vice President of the International Publishers Association.
Byte the Book is a membership organisation that aims to bring together publishers, authors, agents and others in the publishing industry to educate them on the latest developments in technology and to help authors to get published – whether independently or through the trade. To that end, they run monthly events in the luxurious surroundings of The Club at the Ivy in London’s West End.
This month, they challenged Charkin and Courtney to answer the question:
“Do authors need publishers or are they better off to go it alone? What do we think will happen to publishing houses in the future as the self-publishing movement gathers momentum?”
Plenty of potential for sparks to fly, you might think – though Courtney somewhat deflated the combative atmosphere by admitting the two had met before – over a bad college dinner – and had found more than a little to agree on.
Charkin began by talking about his early experience of publishing, with Harrap and Co in the 1970s. His description reminded me of the world PD James describes in her book Original Sin, which captures a publishing house on the cusp of the change from the old world to the new commercial realities.
Courtney’s experience is much more recent. She self-published her first book, Golden Handcuffs, with Matador in 2006. Her success as a self-publisher led to her being picked up by Harper Collins but her experience there was not a happy one. Shoe-horned into a ‘chick-lit’ box she felt she did not fit, Courtney famously ditched her publisher shortly after the launch of It’s a Man’s World, and her latest and boldest book, Feral Youth has again been self-published through Matador.
It’s true that they did find much to common ground. Courtney admitted that self-publishing was ‘too easy to do badly.’ And Charkin agreed that the best promotional tool for fiction was word of mouth.
However, Charkin strongly refuted Courtney’s accusation that the industry was becoming too risk averse. “If you sat through an editors’ meeting, you would never say that these people don’t take risks.”
And when Courtney posed the question of how readers can filter the vast number of titles published each year to find the titles they really want to read, Charkin replied, “We have filters and they are very highly paid – they are called editors.” (Which rather begs the question of what happens if a reader finds their taste doesn’t match that of the majority of editors.)
So had the debate been combative enough? Afterwards, Courtney regretted not tackling Charkin on what publishers can actually offer authors. “One of the major things aspiring authors want from a trade publishing deal is marketing support – and that is one thing they almost certainly won’t get.”
The next Byte the Book event will be on Thursday 9th January at The Club at The Ivy, 18:30-19:30, theme tba. Events are free to Byte the Book members and cost £15/£20 for non-members. Sign up here to be kept up to date with the latest events.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.