I do love a good first. The first t-shirt day of the summer; the first beer on a night out; the first time you wear a new hoodie. Last week saw the announcement of the first digital-only literary list in the UK, Blackfriars from Little, Brown. The list promises to curate 9 to 12 titles a year from new or established authors, and is launching in June. Now there’s a first to get out of bed for.
The news has been met with mixed attention from commentators. Paidcontent’s Laura Hazard Owen made the point that Blackfriars will be offering standard eBook royalty rates, and that ‘without the promise of higher royalties, digital-first imprints are not likely to be many authors’ first choice when they consider their publishing options’. It’s an interesting point: where’s the value for an author when you go head to head with Amazon’s royalty rate for eBook publishing?
Arguably, the value of a publisher-curated list as opposed to striking it out independently is directly proportionate to how well adapted that list is to communicate with readers and gain their trust. It’s hard not to talk about volume and visibility when we talk about publishing, because it’s become very very apparent to everyone that we’ve got surplus product and a shortfall of routes to get them into readers’ hands.
Subdividing lists into community pockets makes it easier to directly target a specific readership, as anyone knows. And I’d say there’s a massive need for this particular pocket to exist, in whatever form it can, because good literary books are generally incredibly hard to find. You don’t see huge ad campaigns for them (unless they are breakout authors) and they don’t sell in massive enough volumes to be ‘unmissable’. It’s hard to run into anything beyond classics and award-winners in newspapers or bookshops. But somehow, we need to look beyond, because there are some absolute gems being written in the literary fiction genre.
If I could go to one person whenever I finished a book and say ‘what’s next?’ and have them say ‘try this one, because it’s both like and unlike and you’ll enjoy it’, I absolutely would. And I think this is true of most readers who really enjoy literary fiction, skeptical and jaded about the world we may be. We would love someone to trust.
Clare Smith nails it when she says: ‘We know there are writers out there producing wonderful novels and memoirs, and we know there are readers of literary fiction and non-fiction who would welcome guidance through the digital labyrinth.’
As ebook publishing and print publishing move closer together as more and more people shop for their books online, I think we’ll see even more of a rise in these publisher-owned communities. What a reader is buying into when they decide to become part of one of these is the idea that there are people working in publishing who love books for the same reasons and of the same type you do. I think publishers have their work cut out for them in making readers believe they give a shit about good books. Once that hurdle is crossed, though, the whole thing becomes a lot more attractive to authors.
As an author, you’d be attaching yourself to a recognisable and trusted name for readers. To me, that seems a pretty appealing prospect considering the amount of noise and crap in the market; readers’ general unwillingness to try new things; and the amount of work, trial and error and number of good contacts it takes to get lift-off for your book. I think as the market is flooded with more and more ebooks, particularly from metadata-savvy authors, the visibility offered by publisher communities will rise in value to make the royalty question perhaps less important.
But then I would say that.