Sunday 9 February 2014

Let them eat book tours: a new class system in publishing?

Last week I read agent Donald Maass's post in which he cheekily described a new class system that has emerged from the ongoing publishing revolution. I thought, Woah! That's going to upset a lot of people.

(Donald Maass is President of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He was blogging on Writer Unboxed)

Here's how he described the class system:

Freight Class - 'Self-published authors and electronic micropresses ... While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help ... The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.'

Coach Class - 'Decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.'

First Class - 'The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.'
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

Like many of the commenters on that post, I agreed with so much of what Donald said but my non-confrontational side stressed over how it was going to upset all the people who would feel slighted by being designated Coach and Freight Class (Clearly, I'm in Coach - it has ever been thus).

Donald describes himself as yes, one of the gatekeepers, but 'no worshipper of the old ways'. And I agreed with his assessment:

Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

He says the publishing world has evolved into a class system 'and like any class system there are winners, losers and opportunities.'

I invite Slushpile readers to stop reading this and read the entire post - which was enlightening as well as provocative. If it makes you mad, don't worry, the angry people got their say in the comments (including one self-published author who was turned down by Don and now claims to have made so much money she's quit her day job).

But don't get mad - if this is a snapshot of a world in revolution, then we ain't seen nothing yet.

The signs of revolution are everywhere - and I feel like I've had a front row seat:

  • My publisher Random House has combined with Penguin to become the BIGGEST publishing house in the world. It made me feel very small indeed.

  • My imprint David Fickling Books has gone independent.

  • I attended an agent event recently and whereas in previous years agents were usually sniffy about authors who self publish, the agents were eager and excited to see what indie authors had to offer. 

At the SCBWI conference in Winchester (UK) last year the collection of people I met made it absolutely clear to me that this is a world in a flux:
  • There was a self published author who had just signed up with a 'traditional' publisher, who despite her success expressed joy at finally being signed up.

  • There was an author-illustrator, multi-awarded over the past two decades, who was self publishing because publishers were no longer interested in her brand. Her decision appears to have been vindicated - she's been nominated for several national awards.

  • There were award-winning editors who left their day jobs and launched new in-demand editorial services.

  • There was the proprietor of one of the first editorial service companies, now finding itself in competition with these services led by name editors. The new competition didn't seem to worry her. She'd just launched her own publishing house

In his final comment, Donald made the following forecast. I reproduce it here in case you don't manage to scroll down that far:

As the strategies, costs and experience of the indie movement evolve, it will start to look more and more like traditional publishing, albeit more digital and online. Indie authors will become more dependent on third party services to do the collection of things that we call publishing. The true cost structure of independence will bring profitability down as more sophisticated competition heats things up.

Meanwhile, print publishers will learn new digital strategies and, slowly, be forced into–hear me now–paying higher digital royalties. Competition will make it necessary, and indeed it’s happening around the edges already. A more profitable picture for authors and better online strategies by “traditional” publishers will make that option newly attractive and its downsides less depressing.

The indie movement and the Big Five, I think, are both headed to the same place. Possibly they will converge, we’ll see. The sense of revolution and warring classes that we feel now isn’t natural and, ask me, exists because neither side of the industry has yet figured out the best way to publish in the 21st Century. When they do, they will look a lot alike.

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.
Let me say that again in case you glazed over before the end:

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Invention of the Teenager
Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism


  1. Sigh! I'm one of the coach class writers myself.

  2. I'm not in any class (yet), but I really think it's smart to know what's going on in the industry, even if it's projections, speculations, and guesses. Eoin Purcell is a great watchdog for the publishing industry as well. I'd recommend his blog if you're not familiar with it.

    1. Thanks Colleen! I will certainly look him up!

  3. While Donald has a point - and years more experience than I - I think there are one or two levels in between coach and first that he's left out for dramatic effect. He really needed a world traveller plus and a business first.

    For example, the little link in your bio Candy, to that wonderful review in the Guardian - that most definitely gets you upgraded from Coach class. How many children's books get that kind of exposure in a broadsheet? That's huge.

    Even if there isn't a 12 city tour, publishers - or at least Hot Key - support all kinds of in person visits to schools, bookshops and festivals and most definitely not just for top tier authors.

    There are authors making money through traditional publishing that aren't headliners.

    Like all class stereotypes, I think Donald's are full of presumption (this is very much focused on adult publishing, which is a different world to children's) and bias - and should be used cautiously.

    Finally, just to say, in my commuting life I have gotten away with sitting in first class several times without getting caught. Ignore the rules. Make stuff happen.

    Sara OC

    1. You are wise and encouraging O Sara. I think he makes the point that this is a snapshot that will definitely change as the revolution evolves. The main thing I've noticed is: the rules? They don't apply anymore. Maybe this is a time when we have more influence on outcomes than ever before.

    2. Great advice, Sara - Ignore the rules, make stuff happen. Excellent post, Candy. Things have to evolve don't they. Then suddenly you look back and wonder why you couldn't have predicted the path, it always looks so obvious in hindsight.

  4. Yep, definitely in coach. may pop into freight for a spell as well. But absolutely agree with last statement - bring on the revolution!

  5. Well, I'm still riding a bicycle, but my Lovely Husband has signed himself up on Amazon as an indie author - so that I can go freight (someone believes in me). We are in a state of flux and change and the ride isn't over by a long way yet. Interesting times make for interesting developments. Meanwhile the best thing writers can do is keep writing the best books they can.


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