Two news items about authors caught my eye this week. First, that Penelope Trunk, a syndicated columnist, blogger, entrepreneur and career guru, had angrily walked away from her traditional publisher to go the self-publishing route with Hyperink. Secondly, that Neil Gaiman had signed a multi-book deal with traditional publisher HarperCollins.
In heated moments like this (Trunk called her ex-publisher’s marketing and publicity teams “incompetent” and then some), it is sometimes easy to forget the obvious; both Trunk and Gaiman may be authors, but after that all resemblance ends. Ms Trunk, the author of Brazen Careerist, refers to books as “business cards,” which is probably the case for her. I doubt it is so for Mr. Gaiman, whose books include American Gods and The Graveyard Book.
The fact is that every author is distinct, with unique goals and publishing needs. I find that much hyperbole, angst, and muddy waters result from imprecise use of the word author. Put in today’s context, extrapolating from Trunk’s actions to all authors’ relationships with publishers is tricky business.
Authors are defined by what they write but also, and perhaps more importantly here, by how they choose to spend their time and earn their living. Trade publishers are designed to meet the needs of the majority of authors — those who expect to get most or all of their revenue based on the value of the content of their books. They are not as well suited to serve “edge cases,” who expect to derive a (small) percentage of their revenue — or perhaps simply marketing attention — from books.
In this week’s news, Penelope Trunk is the edge case — a pure brand who, I gather from her post, intends to earn much of her income from activities aside from her book. As one executive at a major trade house put it to me, “Trunk needs a printer, an eBook logistics company, and a back-office to process sales. She is marketing a business. The book is just a part of that. It’s a choice.”
Gaiman, on the other hand, seems to have made the decision that Harper adds value. Mr. Gaiman, from what I can tell, is a full-time writer and I suspect that has something to do with his choice.
I believe that, despite the hoopla, the lessons to be learned here are limited at best and I include the graphic at the beginning of this post as a general framework. I’d offer that when comparing one author’s actions to another’s it may be advisable to be sure they fall into the same quadrant, lest we find ourselves comparing a first novelist to Seth Godin who, interestingly, recently returned to his traditional publisher [WSJ abstract]. Perhaps he needed better business cards.