At London Book Fair: Jonny Geller

Curtis Brown's Jonny Geller watches a PEN Literary Café event with author William Boyd at London Book Fair
Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller, at center with the messenger bag, watches a PEN Literary Café event with author William Boyd at London Book Fair

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

From April 18, 2013

Part of my series of columns on pub­lish­ing, Writ­ing on the Ether, appear­ing Thursdays at the invi­ta­tion of Jane Fried­man at

Something close to the creative value of the work of publishing—easily overlooked in the business-first setting of trade shows and daily sales efforts— lies in What Authors Want from London literary agent Jonny Geller.

In a timely blog post at The Bookseller this week, he offered some counterpoint to the market-driven maze of business hustle that gets so loud during trade shows. Here, in fact, you can read some of the distance opening up at times between agents and traditional publishing, something the louder self-publishing evangelists might have thought they’d never see.

The 90/10 (or is it 95/5 these days?) ratio of how many hits pay for all the misses is a model that cannot sustain itself.

16 April 2013 debut London on the Ether from The Bookseller show daily LBF
Inaugural London on the Ether column in The Bookseller’s 16 April 2013 show daily at London Book Fair

Geller’s position is that publishers in many instances are getting in the way of an author’s success:

  • Publishers do not intend to get in the way, but this is how they can get in the way:
  • By putting a cover on a book that they think the retailer wants (not the same thing as what the reader or author will like, by the way)
  • By pushing the book out too early when it is not properly cooked yet
  • By concentrating on too many other projects. Promiscuous publishing is an addiction.

I especially like that phrase “promiscuous publishing.” We see it in the too-fast output of some self-publishing people, of course, but Geller is right, we see it in established publishers’ lists, too.

He goes on:

Smaller publishers should not compete with this model anyway. If you are small, revel in your size, focus on it and don’t rest until the book you believed in and acquired all those months/years ago has found its deserved readership.

If you are big, silo out your imprints and give them character and panache and force in the market. In other words, convert the 90/10 to, say, 60/40: let 60% of your business subsidise 40% of the ones that got away.

Second London on the Ether installment, in The Bookseller's 17 April 2013 show daily at London Book Fair.
Second London on the Ether installment, in The Bookseller’s 17 April 2013 show daily at London Book Fair.

Geller is even willing to take on what I’ve recently termed the “stinking gatekeeper” issue. I’ll quote him at a bit of length here — to be clear, he’s writing to the publishing establishment:

  • In the new world of self-publishing, gatekeeping is not keeping people out, but guiding people in …
  • Place the author central to your strategy
  • Wean yourselves off the addiction of Promiscuous Publishing
  • Publish the book beyond the first month—surely e-books allow you this strategy more than ever?
  • Communication is good, but collaboration is better
  • In a world where retailers are narrowing their range, fight harder to find new routes to the book buyer
  • Look again at every element of the way you interact with authors in terms of royalties, licences, partnerships. Are you offering a dynamic package?

What I like about Geller’s approach here is that he’s handling questions of business value in ways that relate to the requirements of the work, and of the authors who create that work. This is business, yes, but without forgetting the product is cultural.

And it’s just that tone, that viewpoint-of-the-creator that I think can be missed in too many discussions of content-as-business, some of them, yes, at paidContent Live in New York.

Geller, one more time before we move on:

If you believe in the editors you have hired, the marketers and publicists you have engaged and, most importantly, the books you have acquired, how could you not succeed?


Click to read this week’s full Writing on the Ether col­umn at

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