No, it’s not quite the revolution it might appear to be. But Britain’s The Bookseller has run a feature interview with “former” self-published writer Kerry Wilkinson headlined “Wilkinson says publishers ‘need to try harder’ to innovate.” Wilkinson, according to his own Wikipedia page, is “one of the United Kingdom’s most-successful self-published authors,” and “one of Amazon’s top-10 bestselling UK-born authors worldwide for 2011, as well as “one of Amazon’s top-10 bestselling Kindle authors in 2012,” so his words presumably must carry some weight.
Wilkinson now appears to have a fairly comfortable relationship with Pan Macmillan, his publisher since 2012 and the platform for 14 of his books, but he still has criticisms lined up for the traditional ways of doing things. Amazon, he says, is “the one innovating the most in publishing … People do have a go at Amazon, but I love Amazon because of the way it innovates. If it’s not hardware, in terms of an actual Kindle, it’s the back end of things like the KDP system, like the ACX audio system and so on. And there will be something new next year because there always is something new next year.” Traditional publishers, he feels, are likely to be slow and reluctant movers because the “only reason you change is if you’re forced to.”
Is Wilkinson’s appearance one sign of a sea change at The Bookseller to embrace independent self-publishing? To an extent, the journal already has, with platforms like Futurebook. And that arguably puts it in step with a publishing industry where Penguin Random House has taken author solutions … ahem… in-house. However, Wilkinson’s comments don’t really amount to a challenge to the way that publishers operate, to my mind at least. For one thing, an author who has 14 books out with a major publisher is hardly a convincing proponent of the exclusive benefits of self-publishing – and a journal that puts him forward as its spokesperson on the issue is arguably hedging its bets, to say the least.
For another, and more important, thing, though, neither Wilkinson or The Bookseller seem really ready to engage with the most important issue about traditional publishing – how it privileges itself at the expense of authors. Innovation, or lack of it, frankly seems a lesser issue compared to this, yet Wilkinson doesn’t say anything in the published interview about how much money he does, or doesn’t, get as an author on a traditional publisher’s list, versus as an independent. And to judge from the number of titles he’s pushing out through Pan Macmillan, he’s now a beneficiary of Big Publishing’s rights-farming operations. “I can’t fault Macmillan for getting physical editions into the hands of new readers,” he says. So perhaps he doesn’t have a sound basis of comparison any more.
Plus, the whole innovation question hinges on whether Amazon and the publishers are even playing in the same game. After all, Amazon, as we can thank Andrew Wylie for reminding us, is a distributor, not a publisher. And you’d expect those dirty-handed people who deal with distribution channels to be the innovators in issues like packaging and fulfillment, rather than the highbrow stuff that Wylie deigns to brush with his mantle.
Above all, I reckon that most authors of less than Wilkinsonesque stature are much more interested in income than innovation. Is that a conversation The Bookseller is ready to have? We’ll see.