A pivotal year ahead

By   John Bond 5 min read

Worlds collide when traditional publishing tries to accommodate self-publishing services, but now the tide has turned.

January. Traditionally a time for looking forward. And we’re going to do that, I promise.

But I’m going to start by looking in the rear-view mirror, back some eight years, to January 2016, when reports started to emerge that Penguin Random House, as it had by then become, planned to jettison Author Solutions, the much-maligned supplier of outsourced self-publishing services, a mere four years after it had been purchased for $116 million.

Yes, $116 million.

In some ways, Penguin’s acquisition feels like a lot longer ago than that. A period when corporate publishing perceived that a land grab in a burgeoning, scalable but largely unregulated sector, crucially just prior to a results announcement, was somehow deemed a worthwhile strategic gamble.

Organic growth was hard for traditional publishers. It still is. But here was a roll of the dice without enough due diligence. Or, in other words, a crapshoot. The astonishing rise of self-publishing was seen as a threat to the industry, and Author Solutions at that stage somehow represented the worst of it: unquantifiable upsold vanity that was hard to square with Penguin’s reputation for curated quality. One might be tempted to call it a cynical acquisition, but if so it was still considered worth the risk for one of the biggest players in the traditional market. Caveat emptor indeed.

Since then, the global self-publishing market has splintered, evolved and grown up beyond all recognition. Largely, I’d argue, in ways that are positive, transparent and empowering for the contemporary independent writer (amongst others, thank you, ALLi).

Control is more than ever in the hands of the content creator.

At the start of 2024, even in challenging macroeconomic times, new ventures seem to be stacking up on the self-publishing runway. More indie author writing courses, more established US entities entering the UK market, and rumours abounding of big new plays from serial old-school publishers looking to amplify the sales and marketing of existing self-published authors. Not to mention some talent agents and big content-owning brands with data going d2c. Watch this space, I guess.

Publishers do, of course, continue to pick up on self-publishing success stories in the hope that they can amplify sales by…what exactly? More marketing and PR? Physical distribution and rights sales? Maybe.

And certainly the media and public seem to have an unquenchable appetite for what are always hailed as rags-to-publishing-riches success stories.

J. M. Dalgliesh is an interesting recent case in point. He successfully self-published 22 crime thrillers and sold more than 2 million copies before being signed up by Bookouture, a digital publishing division of Hachette.

It’s fascinating to understand exactly what he’s looking for in a traditional publishing partner (aside from an advance). Greater editorial support? Marketing data? The idea of a publishing ‘team’? In this instance it presumably isn’t even about physical distribution into the traditional trade.

In a recent interview, the author certainly talks positively about how self-publishing initially put the whole process ‘back in my control’. But ultimately he must feel there’s more to aspire to than that. ‘When you’re an indie…you’re closing off an awful lot of other avenues where readers are,’ he continues.

And the whole DIY thing is a challenge. In the end, as an author, you just want to focus on the writing – ‘the fun part’, as Dalgliesh describes it. I get that. Speaking to even a small indie publisher recently, it is exhausting being picker, editor, and then second-guessing the right initial print run and managing your author’s rants on X. To be responsible for wearing all those disparate but necessary hats can feel too much.

Let’s see how it all unfolds. One big publisher MD told me at the FutureBook Conference in London in November that the strengths of large traditional publishing conglomerates (scale, resource, retail negotiating power, rights selling, print deals etc) have to be offset against what entrepreneurial authors are already used to doing themselves 24/7, once they have proved the concept. Focusing on finding readers, building connections, owning the timeline and schedule and key creative decisions. Where you are competing with nothing but your level of energy and your capacity to create.

The comparative methods and processes between each model will find some faring better than others. And for every celebration of a self-published author who in the end chooses to cross over to the mainstream, there are ever-growing numbers who decide the grass is not necessarily greener. Ex Whitefox intern Melanie Price, now of Bookouture in London, is an example of someone who has decided to go DIY with her debut novel and publish via Amazon Kindle.

At Whitefox this spring, we’re collaborating with the esteemed author, speaker, networker and Bloomberg columnist Julia Hobsbawm on her new book, Working Assumptions. Covering the impact of the last five years on everything from office life to Gen Z, from commercial real estate to jobs, skills, workplace culture and well-being and of course leadership, it combines essays and interviews with fresh comment, analysis and data. Julia decided on this route for the sake of speed to market and to be in the creative and distribution driving seat. The pre-publication response has already been phenomenal.

Julia will be followed this year by yet more established writers, influencers, businesses, brands and charities choosing to go directly to market with our assistance.

I know we always say this, but it is going to be a pivotal year.

Seen through the prism of Whitefox, if I’m an agent I’m thinking that there is undoubtedly a law of diminishing returns from traditional publisher advances, after a tough autumn for all but the most generally appealing non-fiction. So how do I break out of the holding pattern and diversify to grow?

If I’m a publisher I’m thinking of trialling new models and new ways of selling that aren’t limited to, or by, conventional retail channels. Subscription, anyone?

And if I’m an author I am indeed thinking back to when Big Publishing tried to harness the creative lure of self-publishing, and to that most divisive of clarion calls in 2016. How do I take back control?

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John Bond
John Bond
John has been involved in publishing for more than thirty years. He held senior positions at Penguin and at HarperCollins, where he was on the main board for nine years, running sales, marketing and publishing divisions including the 4th Estate imprint and their stable of award-winning authors such as Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen and Nigel Slater. He co-founded Whitefox in 2012 on the principle that the future of successful publishing would be based upon external managed services and agile, creative collaboration with the highest quality specialists. Nothing that has happened since has dissuaded him of this view.