Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers

Harry Bingham between houses

Harry Bingham between houses

Today’s guest post is by Harry Bingham (@harryonthebrink), a UK-based author.


I’ve been an author for more than fifteen years. My first book came out with HarperCollins in February 2000 and I’ve been going ever since. (I’m British and the book came out in the UK and elsewhere, though I’m a relative newbie in the US.)

Fifteen years might not sound such a long time, but I’ve already had two literary agents, four publishers, seven editors, and thirteen books—even more if you include things I’ve worked on as editor or ghost. More to the point, I’ve witnessed the publishing industry evolve through at least four different eras.

The first era—I just caught its tail end—was back when price discounting was still modest. Back then, publishers still had marketing cash to spend on actual marketing. HarperCollins spent about £50,000 ($75,000) on launching my very first book, with posters up at rail stations and airports, on the London Underground and elsewhere. I was lucky: those times were already ending.

Before long, retailers started to become more assertive. They slashed prices to lure consumers and sold space in their retail promotions to replace that lost income. The cash that had once been used to attract consumers was now going straight to bookshops to compensate them for the pain of all that discounting. No more posters, no more direct appeals to the consumer.

That was the second era, but it was still pre-Amazon, pre-ebook. And as that third era dawned—the Dawn of Bezos—it turned out that the actual digitization issue was easy. (E-reader technology? Get Amazon and Apple to invent something. Distribution? Leave it to Amazon and iTunes.) The thing that truly gave publishers sleepless nights was the risk that their traditional retail buyers would go extinct.

In both the US and the UK, Borders collapsed. Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, the book retail leaders in either country, were either loss-making or only marginally in profit, a situation which still persists.

Publishers were finding it increasingly hard to sell in print and to sell right across their front lists—but it soon turned out that they didn’t have to, either, or not the way they used to. The huge margins they made on ebooks more than made up for the loss of print revenues. The equally huge margins they made on their backlist ebook titles made up for the struggles of the frontliners.

In a weird, paradoxical way, Amazon provided both the threat (the rise of the ebook) and the solution (those giant margins).

The net result? It turns out that now, at the end of that third era, publishers are making more money than they ever have done before. All those tedious stories about Amazon wanting to swat publishers from existence somehow ignore the fact that Amazon is only marginally profitable, while the publishers are making a fortune. (And, yes, literary agents know how much money publishers are making, but they still haven’t managed to reverse the long decline in author incomes. No sign of that changing.)

But what about the author in all this? What does it mean for you? What has it meant for me?

Well, I don’t know. Anyone who claims to have answers is a fraud: the wheel is still in spin, the ball has yet to settle. But I do have a story that contains the seeds of an answer.

I said I’ve been through a number of different books, different editors. Well, I should really have added that I’ve been through a number of careers too. I started out writing financial thrillers. Those things morphed into historical fiction. Then I jumped over to nonfiction, both specialist and non-specialist. But I could never stay with nonfiction forever. I just liked telling stories too much. So I started writing a series of mystery novels, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths.

Those books did really nicely, and still are. They sold in the UK, in the US, and to other publishers in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. A production company optioned the rights to the first book and that book has already successfully been televised.

Which is nice. My career has had some ups and downs (more about that here if you’re interested), and it’s wonderful to be writing series fiction that’s performing strongly. It’s like having all the nice bits of being a writer (the writing) without all the worst bits (the massive financial insecurity).

Only there’s a twist in this tale, a twist that caught me totally by surprise.

In the US, my books were bought by Delacorte/Bantam Dell, part of Random House. I enjoyed a superb editor and the firm’s quite excellent production standards. I got some incredible reviews—that first book, Talking to the Dead, had starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and was a crime book of the year for the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. What’s more, my ebook sales were strong enough that I’d earned out my author advance before the book had even come out in paperback. That’s good going.

As you can imagine, I was pretty pleased. An author’s turbulent life looked, for once, to be pretty calm. With hindsight, I was like the pretty teenager in the weird, creaky house who decided, “Nope, there’s nothing to worry about here.” The quiet bit before the horror starts.

Because the two books I did with Random sold well as ebooks, they pretty much failed in print. The $27 hardback isn’t an obviously desirable product for today’s crime/mystery reader—certainly not when debuts are concerned—and the book basically flunked. Because retailers couldn’t shift the hardback, they didn’t want to be burned twice, so they ordered the paperback only in very limited numbers. That too sold horribly.

What we had was a paradox—emblematic of that third era in publishing—where a book could have (a) great reviews, (b) a good author-publisher relationship, (c) excellent production quality, (d) strong ebook sales, yet (e) be a print failure. What were we to do?

To me, it was obvious that we needed to establish the series in stages. We’d start with ebooks, priced so as to attract the risk-averse buyer. Then, once we’d built a base, we’d start to issue affordably priced paperbacks. Then, once all that was strong enough, we’d offer the premium priced hardback too. Simple.

Only not. For one thing, Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.

And then too, if I was going to be published e-only by Random House, I would receive just 25% of net ebook receipts. That’s about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon. I couldn’t understand why I’d want to do that. I mean, yes, I’d have listened if they’d come to me saying, “Harry, I know giving up 75% of those net receipts sounds like a lot, but we’re going to add a whole ton of value to the publication process. We’re going to do a whole heap of things that you can’t do on your own. And here’s a stack of in-house data which shows that we can boost your sales way past the point you could achieve.”

The Strange Death of Fiona GriffithsThey didn’t say that. They didn’t actually make any argument at all. When I said no to 25% royalties, that was it. No further conversation.

And I was OK with that. I very happily chose to self-publish the third book in the series—The Strange Death of Fiona Griffithsand will accept whatever outcome the market cares to deliver. 

That book has just come out. It cost me about $2,000 to publish the book. That sum includes cover design, editorial work, manuscript conversion and some marketing activity—primarily an author blog tour and a paid Kirkus review. I know there’s debate in the indie community as to whether it makes sense to pay $425 for a Kirkus review, but the investment has come good for me. Kirkus described the book as “exceptional” and gave me some very quotable quotes. I don’t think you can easily quantify the impact of that review but, for me, I’m much happier marketing a book that has some potent third-party endorsements.

It’s way too soon in the publication process to evaluate whether my experiment has been successful, but my pre-orders were sufficiently good that I’d repaid my upfront investment on the day of publication itself. The advance I’d got from Random House was $30,000 per book, so I’ve a way to go before equalling that, but I don’t rule out succeeding. It’s just too soon to say.

And this, I think, will be the theme of this fourth era that’s now just possibly emerging. It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, “You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.” Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers.

The much-published Claire Cook has already described on this blog her own journey away from the Big 5. Her story is different from mine, but it’s also the same. There are others too. On my own website, William Kowalski—a critically acclaimed bestselling author—talks about why he made a similar journey. A spatter of refuseniks.

The traffic isn’t only one way. Hugh Howey is the epitome of self-publishing success, but he was (rightly) happy to accept a huge print-only deal from Simon & Schuster. He’s also 100% conventionally published in the UK. There are plenty of other examples of self-pub authors who have decided to take all or part of their business over to the traditional model.

And that’s great. The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big 5 Oligopoly, or vice versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice. What that choice is will depend on the author, the territory, the genre, and multiple other issues which will vary across every different situation.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that publishers will adapt fine: they’ve adapted to everything else. Agents too: they’re going to have to understand that their authors have more options than they did before, and that their agencies can’t necessarily take a cut of everything that moves. (Again, most agents will navigate this shift just fine: my own literary agent has shown immaculate integrity and professionalism.)

But the fact that some major players will be able to adapt doesn’t mean that nothing’s changed. On the contrary, from my own point of view, the ability to say, “Thank you, but no” to a massive publisher is an utterly revolutionary and liberating shift. And the more that authors move from trad-pub to self-pub and back again, the more publishers will be aware that things have changed. If they treat authors poorly—and they do far, far too often—they’ll need to bear in mind that the author in question now has a choice about where to take the next book, far more than was ever previously the case.

Of all the ages of publishing that I’ve lived through, this is the one I’m happiest to be part of. The one that feels most exciting, most aglow with promise.

Long live the revolution! And may you always find readers!


Note from Jane: Harry’s book The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is available on Amazon and elsewhere. If you want to find more about Harry: visit his author site | Writers Workshop | Agent Hunter.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham writes crime novels and loves it. When he's not doing that, he runs the Writers' Workshop, a British literary consultancy. He lives in Oxfordshire, England, but spends a lot of his childhood in Wales, where his crime novels are set. Things he loves apart from writing: wild swimming, rock-climbing, walking, & dogs. He's married, has two kids, and he loves his life.

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107 Comments on "Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers"

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Rebecca Cantrell
1 year 7 months ago

My journey was very similar to yours, and I’m currently very happy to be self pubbing my current series. It’s nice to be able to play in a couple of different sandboxes! Best of luck to you!

Dianna M. Winget (@DiannaMWinget)

Very interesting article. I’ve had two childrens novels traditionally published, and with the help of my agent, have self published a sequel to the first. Ebooks for middle grade readers are a tough sell so sales have been slow. But it’s very nice to have options and I look forward to seeing what eventually comes of my experiment.

Debbie A. McClure
1 year 7 months ago
I love reading stories about other author’s journeys in publishing, Harry, so thank you for sharing yours. Having published my first two books via a small independent publisher, I learned a lot through that experience. I learned more about what I want and don’t want from my next publisher and hopefully, agent. What I find interesting though is that many writers who are moving from the “Big 5” publishers to self-publishing is the fact that they were able to cut their teeth, learn invaluable lessons, and build a solid platform with readers by working with the traditional top publishing houses… Read more »
jpchoquette
jpchoquette
1 year 7 months ago

Love that comparison, Debbie, authors as apprentices. The opening of the Big 5 doors a bit more would be a positive on many levels.

Thanks for the informative post, Harry. And much luck to you on your continued writing journey!

gourdhouse
1 year 3 months ago

Thank you Debbie A. McClure. I am of your belief. I am on the edge of the pond wanting to dive in and I think, for me, it is better to dive in to big pool with the sharks and learn what I can before swimming in my own pool by myself. Thanks. Nicola Tierney.

Carrie Aulenbacher
1 year 7 months ago

As a newbie picked up by a small publisher, this is so interesting to read. Those who have “made it big” look down at me for not holding out for a big name publisher, and those who have self published look down at me for not doing it all myself. I often feel as if I can’t get it right! So this tale shows that I will have an evolution of career ahead of which I have a lot of powerful choices. Thanks for bringing the excitement back to things! Cheers!!!

jpchoquette
jpchoquette
1 year 7 months ago

Carrie, I just had to tell you that I read your reply while chuckling. “I often feel as if I can’t get it right!” Been there! Hope you have a lot of success with your book that’s been picked up.

Kate Tilton (Froze8)
Kate Tilton (Froze8)
1 year 7 months ago

“The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big 5 Oligopoly, or vice versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice.”

YES! Exactly this. There are many options now authors can take to get their books to readers and that is a good thing. I’d love to see the day when we shed the “Us vs. Them” mentality.

trkravtin
trkravtin
1 year 7 months ago
I will add here that publishing is not all big 5 conglomerate publishers or self-publishing. As some have mentioned, there are much smaller, more independent publishers out there that differ from conglomerate publishing in other ways as well. I am an independent rep with a bag full of independent publishers and my rep company actually still visits brick and mortar stores. That isn’t true for several of the big conglomerate publishers that are making more money than ever now, as reported in this article. My belief is that publishing isn’t really suited to big corporate, faceless, nameless algorithms. It has… Read more »
tiradochiodini
1 year 7 months ago

I loved your article and shared it with peer indie authors at the Indie Author Group on Facebook. It presents a seasoned perspective on the evolution of the industry from someone who has lived through it. It also provides insight to self-published authors from a business perspective. Self-published authors are very much like startup companies and should think about the different factors that play a role in a successful business. These include not only product(s) and quality, but also the determination of the most suitable distribution/sales channels for their work.

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Michael E. Henderson
1 year 7 months ago
This article was well-timed for me. I have three self-published novels, one of which was originally published through a small publisher. What I found most interesting about your article is that the hard copy did not sell, although the ebook did. Why is that? It’s clearly not because you are a bad writer, or that you were unknown. I think it’s because people are not laying out the dough for hardcovers, and publishers are not marketing. The small publisher did virtually nothing to market my book, which is standard; I expected it. But, as you say here, large publishers do… Read more »
chanakeefer
11 months 11 days ago
I am exactly where you are in all this, Michael. I’ve self-published four novels rather successfully (all hit #1 Hot New release and #1 in their list on Amazon, etc.) I’ve never worked with a publisher, per say, though my first was through a company who helped me through the process and taught me how to produce books that did NOT scream “self-published” due to quality of all aspects. Their promises of promotion were pretty much a joke. Any sales were totally due to my efforts but that too was part of a valuable learning curve. I totally relate to… Read more »
carmen webster buxton
1 year 7 months ago

Fascinating! I liked his overall analysis of the eras of publishing. One thing he doesn’t mention is price. His first Fiona book is $9.99 in the US Kindle store, even though it came out in 2012. The 2nd one from 2014 is $11.99 on Kindle, while the 3rd, brand new and self published, is $2.99. Obviously, he thinks he will make more money at the cheaper price.

Sadly, he writes in present tense, so I won’t be trying any of them even though I love British mysteries and women detectives. Present tense is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

P. Ramponi
1 year 7 months ago

I also checked out the first Fiona but 9.99 is a bit pricey. I always like to start series with the first so I will pick it up when I have finished my backlog. Fiona sounds like an interesting character.

lexacain
lexacain
1 year 7 months ago

This was a fascinating post. Thanks so much for all the info and sharing your personal experiences. Being a hybrid author makes sense these days, but only if you start with the Big 5. The money, quality editing, and production values are important for an unknown who’ll otherwise sink into the morass of ebooks if they self-pub first.

LG O'Connor
1 year 4 months ago

Lexa, I couldn’t agree more! That’s why I’m on submission to the Big 5 for my next series after small pub / indie for my current series… Goung indie is great after you have the readers.

lchwriter
lchwriter
1 year 7 months ago

It’s interesting that you said your hardback and paperbacks didn’t do well. Most of the writers I know who are self-published are only publishing ebooks. Their readers have gone digital, and so have they. I do believe you need to know what your readers buy.

I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and publishing my book about online promotion this summer. I plan on offering it as workbook and also as ebook.

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m nervous about my experience, but it’s a good nervous. Good luck with your new book.

aleksandr voinov
1 year 7 months ago
Hi Harry – congrats on the jump and I wish you many, many sales. I do most of my books with specialist small, e-first publishers (much better terms, better “care and feeding of authors”), but I had the joy of self-publishing my book that was rejected by everybody in the space. My literary agent felt it didn’t have a market, publisher 1 called it “immoral” (adding a “how dare you?” in terms of tone), and another publisher felt it was fitting into any one genre so is “hard to market”. So it rested in a drawer for 5 years. I… Read more »
Deborah Smith
1 year 7 months ago
Hi. My journey away from the big publishers covers over twenty years, nearly 35 novels, one NYT bestseller, one extremely lucrative film option with Disney (which never went to production) multiple six-figure contracts, a number of editors, agents (including one who is now arguably one of the most powerful agents in the world) a bitter feud with a major editorial executive, and some unknown staffer at my last big pub, a house known more for its literary list than for signing commercial fiction authors (romance and women’s fiction, that’s me) leaking unsold proposals I’d sent to my new editor for… Read more »
gpfield
gpfield
1 year 7 months ago

Hi Harry, best of luck with the new book. I went and downloaded a sample straight away. I enjoyed the article — but for some reason I imagined your speaking voice as akin to Bill Nighy and I internally narrated the entire article in his ‘Love Actually’ voice!

Marcy McKay
1 year 7 months ago
First, Bill – The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is a WONDERFUL title. So compelling. And, your book cover is gorgeous. Congrats on taking charge of your career. Best of luck to you. My literary agent quit the biz last year before we got the chance to sell my debut novel. I’ve been looking for another agent, but in the meantime, I listen to two women in my weekly critique group. Each have been paid over six figures and have hit the NYT Best Seller’s list. Sometimes when I hear how their publishers treat them, makes me wonder – do… Read more »
David J Delaney
1 year 7 months ago

That is a really interesting article. I’ve contacted on agent and received a stock standard, albeit pleasant reply. I’ve decided to go indie and will always keep my options open. Hopefully the indie movement will place some leverage back into the authors hands.

Ernie Zelinski
Ernie Zelinski
1 year 7 months ago
Great article and great comments. I agree “that publishers will adapt fine: they’ve adapted to everything else.” When this so called “indie revolution” started, a lot of overzealous writers were gleefully predicting the quick demise of traditional publishers. Of course, I knew better. Incidentally, I too have a book (“The Joy of Not Working”) with Random House, which they got when they acquired Ten Speed Press in 2009. Luckily for me, when I negotiated with Phil Wood (owner) of Ten Speed Press way back in 1997, I got a royalty of 30 percent net and got to keep the foreign… Read more »
Kim Roberts
1 year 7 months ago

Thanks for sharing this story! best of luck to you.

ryanpettywrites
1 year 7 months ago
Hi Harry, A great article by you has produced a rich stew of comments. I think you are on a good path now and I hope it rewards you greatly. I was not familiar with your work prior to this, but will give your new self-published book a try. I’ll also try your STUFF MATTERS book on the secret of capitalism. My background includes 30 years in economic development work for local communities in the U.S. I want to thank Ernie Zelinski, too, for sharing something of his business. I’m reading his THE JOY OF NOT WORKING right now —… Read more »
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Bob Mayer
1 year 7 months ago

Sounds like there are more of us than we thought. We produce the content and we need to value that. More than many others do.

Kim Roberts
1 year 7 months ago
Thanks Harry! This is so helpful and timely. I’ve just been awarded a free package (worth $8000 of upfront costs) with a self-publishing “house” and am also in dialogue with an agent interested in my first book, a memoir. I don’t know what to do! I would like to know if I am able to get a traditional publisher, simply because I think it might build credibility for my next book. Also my platform is still quite small. But I could also use some decent cash flow about now, which makes self publishing attractive. If you were a first time… Read more »
Jane Friedman
1 year 7 months ago

Hi Kim – I know you didn’t ask me, but from my POV, assuming the $8K free package doesn’t expire right away, I’d see where the agent path takes you. It’s worthwhile to experience the traditional publishing process if it’s available to you, especially if we’re talking about your first book and it’s a memoir. The experience will make you much more knowledgeable about how to do things on your own later, should you self-publish.

Kim Roberts
1 year 7 months ago

HI Jane, Thanks so much for chiming in! I hear you and this confirms what I’ve been thinking too. I feel like I should at least know how the process works before I decide to renounce it.
I’ve been following your work for several years now and really appreciate your candid insights. If I get in a tight spot, you might be hearing from me for some individual consulting.

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Cheryl
Cheryl
1 year 7 months ago

Thank you for your sharing, Harry. My new book, The 24-Hour Woman: How high achieving, stressed women manage it all and still find happiness is just our for pre-order and your article gave me additional insights as to what might be my choice of publishing in my next adventure. With deep gratitude for this education around publishing.

Peter Taylor (@PeterTayl)
1 year 7 months ago
This is most interesting, speaking both as a writer and a reader. It is good to have choices. Thank you, one and all. Much of the ‘success’ of one form of publishing over the other currently depends on the genre. Perhaps this will change over time – but I’m not sure. I have had five non-fiction books traditionally published and also a picture book. I do not rule out self-publishing in some form in the future – but the production values of the publisher of my last book (on calligraphy for greetings cards and scrapbooking) were so high that they… Read more »
Renee
Renee
1 year 7 months ago
Interesting article and lots of great perspectives here. I agree that it doesn’t seem like big publishers are giving writers the same level of support (especially from a promotional standpoint) as they used to. I love watching so many writers join the “indie movement”, learn to promote their own work, and enjoy the rewards that come from having complete control (both financially and artistically) over the process. A new publishing platform for indie writers (Channillo.com) is launching this Spring, and it looks to provide a unique alternative to indie writers wishing to release their work digitally. I’m excited to see… Read more »
Retirement Lifestyle / Nomadic Adventurer

Harry, thank you so much for the history lesson, as I now understand fully the impact of self publishing. As I move forward as an aspiring writer, I’m considering self publishing, marketing,and illustrating author and nothing else.

My Florida Writing Association and the local provides great resources for either avenue an author wants to take and these associations benefit greatly while producing authors of great caliber.

I’m so involve with writing that I will continue this career for the rest of my days.

Great posting. Harry

Nancy Miller
1 year 7 months ago

Hello Harry,
Thank you for your insight as well as that of the other contributors. As a new author just dipping my toe in the water, the challenge ahead is certainly daunting. It’s nice to know there are options. I suspect I’ll be an Indie.

James M Jackson
1 year 7 months ago
Harry, First, best of everything with your latest adventure. I think a key point you are making is that authors need to look at each book and determine what is best for them and the book at the time it is published. After publishing two mysteries in a series with a small publisher I decided to go indie with a prequel, using it as you are doing, as a way to introduce people to the series. However, the Kindle Scout program arrived just as I was finishing the final edits and so I switched gears and have ANT FARM in… Read more »
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Rhys A Jones
1 year 7 months ago

Even some of the Indie publishers are going hybrid. I have two books of a series out with a small Independent and we discussed ebook only with POD as an option. As an MG author, you definitely need the POD option. But then, why not try and do it yourself?

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1 year 7 months ago

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laughernyc
1 year 7 months ago
A terrific article, and every point seemed well thought out and reasoned, save the comment about Amazon’s profitability. You’ve done much to convince me to ignore the advice that the last generation of writers universally impart – there is nothing like the prestige of being published by a major – as it is dated and I need to rethink my next effort. As a first time author, at mid life after a finance career and health issues, I was about to self publish when a contract was offered by a top imprint at a Big 5. I, of course, went… Read more »
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Johnny Saunderson
1 year 7 months ago

I’ve been trying for longer than I care to admit to get either a publisher or a literary agent to show an interest (any interest) in my first book. I can only say, my overall impression is of overwhelming arrogance to the point where they are just plain rude. Maybe it’s time that all authors got together and self-published!

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[…] a sentence in order to satisfy a useless rule). The second befuddlement came while browsing Jane Friedman’s blog and reading that the big book publishers might not be the holy grail of print […]

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[…] Wald das einzelne Bäumchen aus dem Blick verliert. Der britische Autor Harry Bingham hat dazu ein schönes Stück geschrieben, in dem er es schafft, die Qualitäten der „Big Five“ (Penguin Random House, […]

Branam Creative Services
1 year 7 months ago
Since I saw Jane’s Weekly Blog Digest on February 8th and followed the link to this post, I’ve read all three of the Fiona books. They are smashing! Had to read them out of order, though (back to front). Bought Death because it was a steal (I’m on a limited budget). Loved it, so checked the Dallas Public Library for the other two. Found Murders as an ebook, and it was available–YAY! Talking was available only in hardback so I put in a request (I was the only one on the waiting list). By the time I was finished with… Read more »
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1 year 7 months ago

[…] Bingham, einem britischen Autor, der in “Why authors walk away from good, big 5 publishers” (link) schildert, welche Optionen zeitgenössische Autor*innen beim Veröffentlichen haben und wie sich […]

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[…] like to try to keep up with the times, but we all end up doing what we always do. Here’s Harry Bingham recounting his publishing history on Jane Freidman’s blog. His thought was that […]

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