Do Publishers Need to Offer More Value to Authors?

Jane chatting with Kay Steinke at LitFlow

Chatting with Kay Steinke at LitFlow (Berlin), 2012

Last month, I gave a 15-minute presentation in Berlin, Germany, called The Future of the Author-Publisher Relationship, as part of an innovative publishing think-tank event called LitFlow. To accompany my talk, I wrote a 2,500-word article.

In a nutshell, I suggest that—given the changes happening in the industry—traditional publishers will need to be more author-focused in their operations by offering tools, community, and education to help authors be more successful, to everyone’s greater benefit. If publishers fail to do so, then authors, who have an increasing number of publishing options available to them, will depart for greener pastures. I pointed out that Amazon has a VP of author relations, and views the author like a second customer, but publishers have no such author-relations position or focus on authors as a community to be served. I recommended publishers create their own VPs of author relations and be more strategic in serving authors on a long-term, broad basis rather than on a title-by-title basis.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen a lot of public shares and comments about this piece from authors, but very little from those working inside New York publishing. Part of that is natural—I’m known mostly to authors and they follow me. The other part, though, is that my proposal is flawed, even laughable, if you’re part of the Big Six engine. Let me count the ways.

1. Publishers’ most important service to authors is undertaking the financial risk of their creative work.

If you sign a traditional deal with a Big Six house, you’ll receive an advance. But most authors (up to 80%) never see royalties; their books never earn out. That means most publishers pay more to authors than what prevailing royalty rates might indicate, though there are reports that advances are declining.

Still, publishers (and agents) by and large make it possible for authors to focus more on writing than the business. Even if authors don’t earn a living wage, most are not eager to shoulder the risk alone. Now, some might argue that e-publishing and digital distribution has greatly reduced financial risk for creative work—even driven it to zero. But there remains an opportunity cost. You’re not doing something else: you’re not spending time with loved ones, you’re not working another job, you’re not learning a new skill, etc. So, again, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most authors would like to be less exposed to risk.

I participated in a recent conversation where a publisher-insider asserted that Amazon KDP (and similar DIY e-publishing services, pick your favorite) offered nothing to authors, while taking 30-70 percent for offering that nothing. Point being: Amazon doesn’t lift a finger for KDP authors, for the quality of the work, or for the marketing and promotion of that specific work; they don’t do anything a traditional publisher would do. Amazon assumes no risk yet receives a nice cut, while the author is 100% exposed. All KDP authors could fail, but ultimately Amazon loses nothing, having offered nothing. They only gain.

Of course, this “nothing” that Amazon offers has been a pretty attractive nothing for authors rejected by traditional gatekeepers. This nothing provides authors an equal opportunity to play along with the big dogs at the biggest e-retailing storefront in the world. This nothing is earning authors some meaningful money, whereas 5 or 10 years ago, it would have been near impossible for an author to expect any results at all from an e-publishing or self-publishing effort. (Plus there are other ways that this “nothing” can be even better than what a traditional publisher provides, but I’ll leave you to discuss that in the comments.)

Still, it’s a small percentage who turn Amazon’s “nothing” into something—thousands upon thousands of authors go unnoticed—but it’s an opportunity all the same for those with grit and determination. Who does it hurt if most people fail, if they’re happy to have had the freedom to try? (And who determines what constitutes failure vs. success?)

Well, some might argue that allowing people to publish sub-standard material (also known as crap) is not helping anyone. Such an argument might be considered elitist (who’s to say what’s crap?) unless you’re able to demonstrate that these new opportunities are hurting writers in the long run—in a way that these writers would understand and agree with. There might be a way to do that, but that’s for another post.

Getting back to ways my proposal is flawed …

2. Authors have limited interest in spending additional time on marketing, promotion, and platform building.

Most authors would greatly prefer their publisher pay them more money (and they’ll use that money to pay a marketer if needed), rather than be given tools and community to support their livelihoods. While I personally might find this a short-sighted view—one that makes the author more dependent on the publisher than she ought to be—it’s hard to argue with. Authors typically have skills that make them wonderful at writing, but lousy businesspeople, and as much as I believe in finding ways to change authors’ whole mindset, approach, and idea of what it means to be entrepreneurial and empowered on the business side, there’s no arguing against the fact that nearly everyone does better when they can focus on their strengths and minimize the time they spend on everything else.

(I do have to put a big asterisk on this, however: I’m speaking primarily of creative writers and storytellers, not non-narrative nonfiction writers. Non-narrative and non-creative writers really need a whole other discussion, and likely pose the biggest flight risk from the Big Six. See: Tim Ferriss, though he’s reportedly not too happy right now with his Amazon deal and lack of print sales.)

Thought of another way, if you believe the government should fund arts and artist grants—in part because the arts can’t and shouldn’t be run entirely like a business and deserves societal support because its value and strength gives even more back to society as a result—then you’re probably sympathetic to authors also being supported by publisher-patronage, and not burdening themselves with the business of their art. Workaday concerns are a distraction, and writing great things requires focus and huge amounts of uninterrupted time.

Also, when publishers support a project, they generally are able to provide more skills, strengths and resources than a single author can manage working alone. (That is certainly debatable, though, and depends greatly on the author.)

3. The Big Six will never have sufficient motivation to do more for authors than they already do. 

Only an unfailing idealist like myself would think a Big Six publisher would expend resources on author relations and support. As long as the publisher can offer a reasonable deal, or lend the stamp of approval that authors crave, or provide quality editorial support, that is likely more than enough to prevent the author from moving to another arrangement if they’re not entrepreneurially minded to begin with.

Or: It boils down to three desirables that publishers offer.

  1. Money
  2. Service
  3. Status

The publishers are getting increasingly challenged on the first (money), and they’re now having to prove they provide the second (service). My presentation too rests on the theory that authors may choose alternate paths that bring more money (and in some cases, more service) since so many are dissatisfied with Big Six service (including—but not limited to—editing, marketing/promotion, and publicity).

That leaves us with status. I’ve long extolled the virtues of tools and technology that empower the author, give them more insight into their readership—and power to grow and mobilize it—and democratize the publishing landscape. However, I can’t ignore human nature, which pushes us to seek validation and gives us status anxiety when we lack the traditional signifiers of approval. (Here enters the old self-publishing argument that readers decide what is “good” rather than traditional gatekeepers. This argument is very convenient and necessary for the author without traditional signifiers of approval.)

While plenty of authors successfully publish and gain a following without first gaining approval or permission, most are rightfully susceptible to the honor and prestige that comes with being anointed or accepted by a particular house, editor, agent, prize, review … choose whatever status symbol you like. Furthermore, even if your book utterly fails (on a commercial level) with a traditional publishing house, being able to claim you’re published by Penguin, Random House, or HarperCollins is a kind of currency in itself. That can open doors and lead to other types of paychecks.

The shrewdest authors—those who are primarily interested in their long-term business success and could not care less about acceptability on New York’s terms—will be the fastest to find other paths, and that’s exactly what’s happening. What are these other paths? Well, Amazon KDP, Smashwords, and numerous other DIY services are only part of the picture. Services such as Rogue Reader, Brightline, and various author collectives are emerging as competitive partners to shoulder the risk—and these are just the early days of such models. Given industry change, a start-up can reasonably challenge publishers on at least 2 if not all 3 of the desirables mentioned above.

Still, for my idealistic vision to be taken seriously, the Big Six (maybe soon to become the Big Five), would have to lose valuable authors. They’d have to suffer. So far, the loss has been minimal, and most self-publishing authors who strike it rich are only too happy to sign with a big player and see their sales skyrocket into the millions from the hundreds of thousands. A lot more has to change in the industry to convince publishers to be more service-oriented toward their authors. But if and when it does change, will it be too late to convince authors who offers the best partnership?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my presentation—and this post, serving as an anti-presentation!—in the comments.

Posted in Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Kaye Publicity

The core difference between the Big Six taking a large cut and DIY services like Amazon and PubIt taking a smaller one is what that cut is for. Big Six advances signify a partnership. They are (ideally) investing in the book. DIY services are being paid to provide a service. They have no vested interest in the book’s success. However, I believe that investment or partnership between an author and a Big Six publisher is too often lost. Everything is tied up in corporate policies and procedures. Certain authors are deemed less important than others, In-house editors and publicists are… Read more »

Patt Hollinger Pickett, Ph.D.

Thanks, everybody, for your excellent analysis and sharing on this topic. I agree with most of what is being said. About four years ago I selected publishers and dedicated 18 months to querying/proposing a self-help title for which I have excellent credentials (and a good platform) to write. Over 100 “no,thank you’s” later, I received the kind feedback that my book was needed but ahead of its time. I decided to set that project aside and totally self-pubbed a chap-book as an experiment. No significant sales,but a huge education for me. I discovered there were so many areas I needed… Read more »

Scott Waxman

Jane, thank you for the great post. At Diversion Books we are working with dozens of agents and their authors to provide much of what you’re talking about in terms of service as well as status as we are selective in the books we take on. We also take on the financial risk of the editorial, design and marketing of our titles. As more and more mid list authors are looking for a valuable publishing partner we are happy to be that alternative.

Jane, I could not have said any of this better myself.

Fiona Ingram

I think the industry is in the midst of turmoil, but with some good results. Readers are reading more than ever and although it’s sad there are many sub-standard books out there, the fact that people are reading outweighs this. Hopefully, as people read more they will demand higher standards. Literacy and reading is no longer the prerogative of an elite. New genres have arisen that people like! Mash-ups of genres have arisen that people love. Publishers have to adapt to a new millenium. Everyone and anyone can now read books on mobile devices or the internet. The old methods… Read more »


Recently, I had a conversation with a Big5 (now that Penguin is merging with Random House) editor. We went over what she could do for me vs. what my little pubs house could do. End result? They offer better distribution into bookstores. <–that's all. I make more money via royalties than they can offer in an advance. They offer no better services than I have already, plus expect the copy/line edit services and marketing services to be done. (They offer content editing.) And I haven't ever cared about status. If I had I would have married the rich guy my… Read more »


You and I will take over the world – of course. 😀

Philippa Rees

An excellent analysis Jane. As an author who was seriously considered by three (none of them big six) publishers and turned down after the marketing departments had had their say, and having received some very positive endorsements from Editors in the field about which I write, the essence is the judgement call on markets. Publishers are into safe investments, writers into communication. It seems to me that the gulf lies in that gap. All the emphasis now is on providing advice and tools to authors to bridge that gap, and find their own market, platforms blogs etc Your suggestions of… Read more »

Stephen R. Welch

Good points all. In the short term, yes, Amazon assumes no risk. However, as the already mind-numbingly large cohort of KDP writers continues to expand and there is no useful means of sifting the wheat from the chaff, the exuberance over KDP could very well fade. If that where to happen and writers (and buyers) become more circumspect (read: jaded) over KDP’s value as a provider of opportunity or quality content, Amazon’s brand value, at least in the self-publishing sphere, could suffer. I suppose, though, as long as Amazon continues to make a boatload of money and they have no… Read more »

Bob Mayer

I’ve been listening to editors and agents at NINC in the roundtables and they make me wonder what part of publishing I missed in the last 20 years with 42 titles at 4 of the Big 6. The way they describe treating authors was not the way I was treated. Even when I sold over a million mass markets for one house, hit bestsellers lists for another, etc. I always felt like a replaceable cog in a large machine. The concept of advances is nice, but a dying one. Profit sharing is key. In my opinion, NY is relying on… Read more »

Karen Adams

As far as #3 — publishers “will never have sufficient motivation…” I would have to disagree. They might. It depends on what the market tells them.I agree with your assumption that change comes at the point of pain, and apparently they’re not feeling it. Which means the market (that is, readers) aren’t signaling them to change. While I understand the limits of a blog post and that you’re addressing the author/publisher relationship, still, there’s no mention of arguably the most important party here. The point of a book is to satisfy readers. And as long as publishers are satisfying readers,… Read more »

Patricia V. Davis

Hi, Jane,

This post was of particular interest to me because I recently became the president of a small start up publishing indie. I would really love to comment on what we’re doing differently that is so in line with your perspective, but I really don’t want to hijack your thread t toot our own horn. May I send you a private message with my comments leaving you to decide if they should be published here?

Patricia V. Davis

Thanks, Jane. What we’ve begun to do is select authors rather than their manuscripts. What are their motivations, goals, strengths? What’s their personality like? Is it engaging? Do they enjoy interacting with readers and other writers? Do they have a thick skin and a reality based assessment of their art and the the industry? Are they comfortable if not prolific with social media? How do they see marketing their work–is it anathema to them or do they find it fun and challenging? Once we’ve got our eye on an author as a potential, it’s only then that we ask to… Read more »

Word Beeps

I’d love to hear the joke Joe Konrath might make of this comparison and what the big publishers do to writers.

Stephen Bateman

Jane, this is a truthful and truly insightful post, full of astute observation and comment, which can only come from an expert like you, who has straddled the author/publisher fence for much of your career. Your points tie in neatly with the observations I make in my own publishing workshops and lectures to publishing professionals in Europe.

Elizabeth Lang

An insightful post about the changing challenges and needs of the publishing industry from both perspectives.

Word Beeps

It’s great to read a post by Jane Friedman on Jane Friedman’s blog. I have missed that. I do like the way you can rebut your own position by putting yourself in the shoes of the other. I like that.

Barbara McDowell Whitt

“The difficult work lies in getting attention in a world of cognitive surplus.” Well said.

[…] Friedman (@JaneFriedman) writes a long post discussing the question Do Publishers Need to Offer More Value to Authors? The key word here is “need” and the underlying question is who has the need. To summarize the […]


I decided to self publish without even trying the traditional route thanks to Joe Konrath’s blog. Not that he convinced me, he just showed an alternative I didn’t realize existed and that works for my personality. I grew up in a self-employed family; my husband and I have owned a business for 20 years, and I started a non-profit 3 years ago. I like being in control of my books, and I realize that, as with any business, it takes investment, work and time. (ie in our business, we started with 1 contract of $180/mo. It took 15 years to… Read more »

Peter Turner

“Do Publishers Need to Offer More Value to Authors?”–yes, indeed, but I might frame the answer a little differently. My guess is that the thing writers value most–today as always–is the ability to maximize the likelihood of their work being read, followed second by being compensated for their efforts. With the declining relevance of the print supply chain to physical retailers combined with the advent of the eBook, the ability to deliver this “value” is at the heart of what’s being disrupted. If this is what writers value most, I think most publishers are less and less, with each passing… Read more »


I was originally a business major (along with Drama) in college, so that part of it is not so hard for me. It does take some effort and some deep thinking. Currently I am launching one novel, re-launching another with e-book and audiobook editions, and working on two film projects based on my work. I don’t do it all myself. You can’t. You need a team. But I do control the entire process and take responsibility for the final result. I get great reviews, so I must be doing something right, but this is an evolving business model. I don;t… Read more »

David LeRoy

In general, I would agree that many authors are not good business people, however the past two years has seen a new type of author emerge on the scene. Self-Published, Indie authors are self-starting and highly motivated individuals. All too often, the traditional publishing world projects out there this idea that authors are incapable of business decisions and are people lost in thought, completely dependent upon an agent, such as the character in the book The Winter Sea. However, the new authors are very independent and self-sufficent people, and not all are on the make just to make a quick… Read more »

[…] BiB12 was in session in San Francisco, Friedman published an essay, Do Publishers Need to Offer More Value to Authors?, based on her presentation in Berlin and her accompanying monograph for the Thinktank. There is […]

Holly Weiss

An excellent discussion from both sides of the fence. You see authors clearly and demonstrate a great understanding of what we go through. I appreciated your second point about authors having limited interested in…marketing and promotion. I hesitate to say I agree with you. I spent eighteen months marketing my book, (and did a great job of it, say others) becoming so burned out I found it difficult to get creative gears in motion to continue writing. Thank you for writing about this dilemma.

[…] Jane Friedman’s incredible blog post about how publishers should better serve authors. […]


Jane, this is very interesting indeed, but I fear it merely supports my growing conviction that authors are no better of now with the increased accessibility to publishing than they were before under the strictures of the big six. You either self publish and burn out in the self promotion marketing flames, or you find a publisher whose expectations of your efforts also fry you. Like one of your readers here, I struggled to promote my own books, then found a publisher to give me the ‘stamp of approval’ and support, but it hasn’t really helped…yet, and I still seem… Read more »


Sorry, that was meant to be ‘are no better off’ now. And something I forgot to add is that yes, I agree, all this self promotion takes time from what I’d much rather be doine – writing!


Didn’t publishers use to offer another value for readers and writers, that of curating their lists? I’m phrasing this as a question because I’m referring to an era before I was born (and I’d love a recommendation for a book on the history of book publishing). But it is striking to me that brand names mean little outside of the insular world of authors, agents, and publishers. I recently had a book party with a game where guests tried to match publishers with their colophons, and no one could do it. Now, I’m not generally one who thinks branding is… Read more »

Stephen Bateman

Another must-read history of publishing is “The Late Age of Print” by Ted Striphas

JJ Foxe

Great comment Laurie!

Personally I loathe everything the Porn Industry stands for…


The Porn Industry is always at the cutting edge of technology, and use of technology.

Betamax lost out to VHS due to the Porn industry.
Paypal/safe online payments originated due to the Porn Industry.
Online membership sites with continuity income were first used in the Porn Industry.

And so on.

Anyone doing any kind online business can learn a shed load from how the porn industry does it….the main problem is how sleazy the research is.

[…] Do Publishers Need to Offer More Value to Authors? […]

Kris Bock

Excellent points. I hope some people will listen, but publishers seem to have an endless supply of excuses. The publisher-insider who “asserted that Amazon KDP offered nothing to authors, while taking 30-70 percent” totally missed the point – Amazon isn’t the publisher, Amazon is the bookseller. Booksellers don’t offer anything to authors either, except visibility. KDP is the equivalent of an author being able to walk into Barnes & Noble, place a book on the shelves without asking permission, and get 70% of the cover price. I’ve heard multiple mid-list genre fiction authors say that they are making a living… Read more »

Linda Adams

Unfortunately, publishers seem to be caught in the “It’s always worked so why change?” What’s going to happen when the tidal wave forces them to do something? Then they’ll be scrabbling and have nothing in place, and the writers will pay for it. Social media is one of those things that leaves me as a writer frustrated. I keep hearing that writers are supposed to be on Twitter and Facebook, have a blog, have this, have that. Meanwhile, I took a social media class for writers. The writers jumped on and started tweeting and blogging. Six months later, they all… Read more »

Misha Gericke

I feel exactly the same way. I have hit the bad luck of writing a so-called unplublishable subgenre of fantasy. Instead of evaluating the novel on its merits, traditional gatekeepers are now shooting my novel down left right and center. Yes, I know my book is a risk, but all investments are. If I’m getting shot down on the basis of 250 words that CAN NEVER do justice to the novel (107k words of political intrigue, conflict, five PoVs all blended to tell the story in its entirety) , I feel like the traditional gatekeepers are looking at the surface… Read more »

[…] though, this is definitely the age of the empowered author, and it will be interesting to see how traditional presses change their value propositions in this new publishing […]

[…] most of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. It […]

[…] of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. It […]

[…] acima de tudo, as editoras terão que pensar em como elas manterão seu apelo frente aos autores se colocar livros nas livrarias se tornar o componente menos importante da equação geral. Ainda […]

[…] about the future of the author-publisher relationship (sadly, no longer available online, though I discuss here). I speculated that marketing would be the key value, but in the literary world, editorial taste […]

Mary Burns

Jane, so many discussions focus on a choice between the Big Six, or self-publishing, but there are other worlds to consider. While there is rarely much money in literary fiction, except at the very top level, there are many independent literary and academic presses who publish it. I appreciate the expertise of those who have published my books. It is not only money that conventional publishers can offer, but skills that I don’t have. I’m a writer, not a publisher, as I describe here:

Mary Burns

Thanks for referring me, Jane. I missed that one somehow, but appreciate the accounts the authors provided. All positive. BTW, I still keep in the back of my mind the advice you gave to groups on…. hmm, forget the headline topic, but you used the phrase…”Be passive and patient, look for incremental improvements…” It is something I think of often as I navigate the new world.

[…] about the future of the author-publisher relationship (sadly, no longer available online, though I discuss here). I speculated that marketing would be the key value, but in the literary world, editorial taste […]