The Economics Of Publishing: How do you Make The Business of your Book Work? Report

Posted by Maleeha Mir on 26 May 2023, in Event reports, News, Uncategorized

Photos by Amelia Kyazze, Words by Chris Russell

Byte The Book’s May panel saw chair Abiola Bello (author and publisher at Hashtag
Press) leading a discussion on the economics of publishing with Phoebe Morgan (author
and publisher at Hodder & Stoughton), Chris Wold (director at Whitefox), Ivan Mulcahy
(agent and director at MMB Creative) and David Hargreaves, author of the four-volume
World War One account As We Were.

Our panel from left to right: Chris Wold, David Hargreaves, Abiola Bello (panel chair), Phoebe Morgan, and Ivan Mulcahy.

Abiola began by asking the panel how much authors should be thinking about the
commercial appeal of their books. “It depends what you want,” answered Ivan, reflecting
that there are as many motivations for writing a book as there are authors. “Some simply
want the book they’ve written to see the light of day, and are happy just selling a few
copies to friends and family. But if you want more than that, you need to think about it as a
business”. The disconcerting truth, he added, is that “there are far, far more books being
published than can be published properly. The industry is choking with them”. In such a
climate, he concluded, if you want to stand out, you have to apply yourself.
Hodder’s Phoebe Morgan, who brought a unique perspective as both a writer and an
editor, addressed the delicate tension between creativity and commerciality that is
common to all publishers. “It’s my job to find and nurture new talent for Hodder, but I also
have to make money for them. When those two elements work together, that’s where the
magic is”. And though some in the writing community are instinctively squeamish about the
marketing arm of author life, Phoebe was quick to reassure them. “There’s nothing wrong
with knowing the market,” she said. “Knowledge is power”. As someone working in the
crime and thriller genres, she added that a submission that catches her eye will only go on
to secure a deal if it’s approved at an acquisitions meeting, and for that to happen, it needs
a killer one-line pitch. “Without a simple, memorable hook, it will be very difficult for me to
get the book through acquisitions”, she said, advising authors that, if they’re struggling with
the pitching process, the Sunday Times Bestseller List — where charting books are
described with one-liners — can be a useful source of inspiration.

Phoebe Morgan sharing her insights as an author and publisher at HarperCollins.

Whitefox director Chris Wold expanded on the discussion by pointing out that there’s more
than one way to be commercial, and the most lucrative approach can sometimes seem
counter-intuitive at first. In 2021, Whitefox published As We Were, fellow panelist David
Hargreaves’ four-volume, week-by-week account of World War One, a work that, with its
800,000-strong word count and £100 retail price, “wouldn’t have been touched by a big
publisher”. David was unflinching in his commitment to the project, insisting that neither the
word count nor the price should come down, and gratifyingly, reflected Chris, “this was one
of the reasons it worked”. ”As We Were was featured in the Spectator and achieved a full
spread in the Sunday Times partly because of its uncompromising heft. “It was commercial
by being non-commercial,” explained Chris, “which proves that there’s something to be
said for going against the grain, if you feel that’s truthful for your audience”.

David Hargreaves detailing his experiences as an author from a smaller publishing house. 

Once published and out in the market, asked Abiola, how do authors know that they’re
ready to make the leap to full-time writing? Ivan’s answer was amusing, if a little startling:
“It’s literally my job to help authors make a living from writing books, and the first thing I
say to new clients is ‘ try to make a living from writing books!’”. He expanded on this
by pointing out that it’s “extremely rare” for an author to generate all their income from
publishing deals and royalties, so he’s always relieved when clients have a day job. Even
the legendary and much-misunderstood ‘six-figure deal’ isn’t necessarily enough to justify
going full-time, especially if that deal happens to be at the low end of six figures, as is typically the case. Ultimately, said Phoebe, “publishing is a risk business, so it’s best not to
put all your eggs in one basket until you have genuinely sustained sales”.

Chris Wold sharing his advice on how authors can think outside the box to find more opportunities to create revenue. 

Chris, meanwhile, advised writers to consider how their books might be leveraged to
create alternative revenue streams outside the publishing sphere. One of Whitefox’s
middle-grade authors, for instance, generates three times as much income from brand
merchandise (T-shirts, in this case) as he does from novels. “Of course,” expanded Chris,
“the merchandise only exists because of the books, so it’s an ecosystem”. Similarly, many
of Chris’ corporate clients view their sales primarily as a funnel for attracting consultancy
work, exploiting their books as a means to an end rather than money-spinners in their own

Abiola Bello asking the panelists about the best ways to support debut authors.

To close, each panelist was asked to consider what they wished they’d known before
starting out in publishing. Touching on a subject that could have warranted an hour-long
discussion of its own, Abiola revealed that, when she first dipped a toe in the publishing
world, she was stunned by its lack of diversity. The panel was unanimous that, while the
situation is improving, it’s doing so at a snail’s pace, a not-uncommon pattern in the

Our attendees networking on the rooftop of Century Club Soho.

On the topic of indies versus the Big Five, Chris advised authors to “consider small
publishers, because it’s easy to become siloed in a big house”. David was quick to bolster
this view, commenting: “There has not been a single moment when I wished I’d been
taken on by a mainstream publisher”.

Ivan Mulcahy sharing his insight as an agent in the industry.

As a precursor to the Byte networking session that was to follow, Phoebe praised the book world for its openness. “Everyone in publishing is a normal person,” she assured the writers in the room, “so try not to be intimidated. It’s a very collaborative and friendly industry”. With archetypal Irish flair, Ivan echoed this sentiment: “I came to publishing late, from another industry. I thought I might like it… and I f**king love it. I wish I’d jumped ship earlier. It’s a fantastic business”.

Thank you to HW Fisher for sponsoring our event!

You can see more photos from our brilliant photos from 'The Economics Of Publishing' event here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *