Does chivalry exist between authors and publishers?

2 March 2017

Does chivalry exist between authors and publishers?

Most of us enjoy a good tell-all book. A chance to take a peek behind the curtain of power, get an insight into the private personas of some of the most well-known personalities.

Most of us enjoy a good tell-all book. A chance to take a peek behind the curtain of power, get an insight into the private personas of some of the most well-known personalities.

Memoirs from political figures including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have been bestsellers, spending weeks at the top of the charts. As World Book Day 2017 comes upon us, one of the most contested publishing bidding wars has come to a close. 

This week, reports confirmed some of the details of the astronomical book deal secured by Penguin Random House (PRH), for the next books from former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Since they left the illustrious address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we are still captivated by what the Obamas are doing. So, it is no surprise that when the rights for the next publications from the former president became available, it was a sought after commodity. PRH ensured that they would be the ones to put these titles into publication, acquiring world publishing rights for over $60million.

Barack Obama is no stranger to the publishing world.

With a New York Times bestseller to his name it is likely that his next book, rumoured to be his memoirs from his time in the White House, will be one of the most anticipated publications in the coming months. Yet, what is surprising is that the publishing rights for the Obamas next books started a bidding war between some of the largest international houses including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

The former president published his previous books in the US with imprints of PRH, so it could be expected that they would have acquired the rights without having to go through a bidding war. However, the Obamas sold to the highest bidder, which just happened to be the publishers of his most popular works.

There was a time in the publishing industry when this was frowned upon.

Once an author published with a house, usually they stuck around, giving loyalty to those who had supported them from the beginning. But if bidding wars for publication rights can potentially run into the millions, does loyalty to a previous partner matter to an author? As long as the book gets published, does it make a difference who publishes it?

For trade or mass market publishing which accounts for your popular novels and non-fiction works, the author is the brand; the person the reader is paying attention to. If you asked the readers of Audacity of Hope who published the book, it is unlikely they know or were even bothered.

Publishers’ brands usually become more important for academic and scholarly texts. Readers tend to lean towards names they know and feel they can trust.

Academic publishing brands can trade on their name and can be as popular as the author they publish. I can recall times where I have bought a textbook because it had been published by Oxford University Press! They have been going for over 400 years, they don’t need celebrity authors to entice me to purchase….

But for trade publishers, to the general reader, their significance is concentrated to the logo on the jacket of the book, so they have to work much harder to get their name noticed. Therefore, the trade publishers would argue of course it matters who publishes the book! The reader, in this context probably not, as they are most interested in being able to peek behind that curtain; no matter who provides the access.