Found via a post on the E-Book Mailing List today, a fantastic blog post by writer Sarah A. Hoyt, that links to an equally fantastic blog post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (which is of related but not identical subject matter to the blog post by Rusch we covered back in March).

Rusch’s post, made back in May, is intended to be an eye-opener, a clarion call to the publisher-bound writers that Michael Stackpole analogizes to Roman “house slaves”. Traditional book publishing, Rusch warns, is traveling down the same road that rock music has. She points to examples from music-industry insiders demonstrating that new bands can get $250,000 advances yet still end up owing their record label money after their first album, then sits down to demonstrate how traditional publishing is becoming like that.

Publishers, Rusch points out, are starting to add more grasping clauses into their contracts—and naive writers are signing because they don’t know any better. Middlemen like publishers are no longer necessary, Rusch explains.

Many writers find this scary.  They don’t understand that they are—and always have been—in business.  So they don’t act like business owners.

Business owners invest capital up front to start a business.  They recoup that investment over time, and eventually earn money from that investment.

When publishers started paying advances, they—in effect—told writers not to bother their pretty little heads with business.  “Write,” the publishers said.  “We’ll take care of your bills while you finish that book.”

Writers got used to this.  Writers forgot that they had to take risks of their own like other small business owners.  And right now, that attitude is biting writers in the ass—and most of them don’t even realize it.

Thanks to the current Internet environment, Rusch writes, writers have more power than ever before to reach readers directly. For a fee, she can have her book professionally edited, and for a couple more small fees she can quickly and easily put it into the two most popular e-book stores in the world—and earn a much greater percentage of cover price than those publishers would pay her. And for $50 on CreateSpace and a little extra to her cover designer to make the cover wrap-around, she can create print-on-demand editions that can be ordered from those same stores by those who don’t care for e-books.

But most writers still “don’t want to do the ‘work’ because they don’t know how little work they have to do,” Rusch writes. But all the “the work” really amounts to is paying someone up front instead of giving that someone most of the income of their book until the contract runs out (if, in the modern publishing world, it ever does).

Rusch also insists that agents are no longer necessary, because most of the sooper seekrit nawlej they used to impart has become accessible by Google. And indeed, now if you have a successful book “then the foreign editors and the Hollywood scouts come looking for you. On the internet. Through your e-mail.”

Rusch boils it down to this singularly dystopian view:

Here’s the flat truth of it, my friends: If you are a midlist writer and you sign a traditional publishing contract with most modern terms, and you do so with an agent—and not an IP attorney—negotiating for you, you will not make any more than your advance on that book.  And the advance is not enough to  live on.  You will not be able to reserve e-book rights to you.  Those rights will be a percentage of net, which in most contracts is undefined.  And you will have to sell world rights so that the publishing industry can adequately exercise those e-book rights, making any money you would receive on foreign rights vanish.

If you have what I’m now beginning to believe is the standard agency rider in your contract, you will also lose a percentage of any auxiliary rights sale to that agent even if you fired that agent in the meantime and someone else negotiated the deal.  Plus that agent will be entitled to a percentage of any work you write using that series, those characters, that world, or anything resembling that.

The only ones who can make the current system work, Rusch holds, are the ones fortunate enough to write New York Times bestsellers—and even then, their days might be numbered. No one loves an ex-New York Times bestseller.

Hoyt’s post, from this morning, starts by exhorting readers to go and read that Rusch post if they have not already done so. Then it elaborates, with Hoyt discussing the peculiar experiences she has had with old-form writers dissing new without actually knowing what they were talking about.

I had the dubious privilege of hearing a mid-press published author telling a self-published author whom I happen to know makes more in a month on one book than the mid-press published author has made for any two or three of his books that “most of what’s self published is crap and no one would buy it. The future is finding a publisher and convincing them to accept you. In two years, all this e-book stuff will be gone.”

It was breathtakingly bizarre. Kind of like, in a fantasy novel, standing next to the hidden prince and watching the false king parade down the street looking down on everyone. Like Saturnalia, with the fools reigning.

She notes that Amazon’s print book and e-book arms have broken publishers’ monopolies over what gets into the hands of consumers. E-books aren’t going away—and indeed, with every new iteration of reader, the devices get cheaper and into more and more peoples’ hands. Many self-published works may still be awful, but they aren’t guaranteed to be awful the way they used to be. Publishers aren’t going to vanish altogether, but they should start thinking more about what they can do for their authors rather than what they can squeeze out of authors.

And Hoyt points to Baen as an example of a publisher that has done a great job building a brand around its name, with a following of devoted readers and a reputation for doing certain sub-genres of SF and fantasy extremely well. She suggests that publishers should start trying to do the same thing for their editors: give them their own focused imprints and Baen-like tools to publicize them.

Posts like this have not exactly been uncommon over the last couple of years, but I’m more and more wondering what to think. At the same time we see authors like Rusch, Hoyt, Stackpole, and Konrath urging traditionally-published writers to throw off the yoke of publisher oppression, we have self-publishing stars like Amanda Hocking “going pro” because they don’t like all the extra work self-publishing requires. And there are still plenty of awful (if not downright illegal and immoral) books self-published every day, and methods of getting the word out seem largely limited to individual authors self-promoting and hoping.

But more and more, it seems like something is going to have to happen to traditional publishers over the next few years as the self-publishing pressure builds up. They’ll have to change something to stay alive. The question is what? It’s easy for people like me to say publishers should ditch the massive inefficiencies that have built up over time, wherein they print many more copies of a book than they know they will sell and pay for taking back and pulping the extras.

But publishers may well be as much prisoners as perpetrators of that system, as the already-emperiled distributors and bookstores might stop ordering their books altogether without the guarantee that the publisher would eat the cost of any that didn’t sell. It might very well take the much-prophesied “death of the bookstore” for publishers to break free.

As for what writers should do, I don’t know. Whatever makes the most sense to them based on their individual cases, I guess. I’m not a novelist myself, so probably not really qualified to advise except based on my own opinions. But I can say this: it’s getting more and more attractive to me to try writing a book and popping it up on the self-publishing sites, because what the heck: at least some people would buy it. And that’s more hope than I ever allowed myself of getting past a publisher’s slushpile.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve had three novels up on Lulu for about four years. In that time, not counting friends and family, I have sold exactly one copy of one book. That’s pretty much what I expected, but the message is clear: don’t quit your day job, Chris.

  2. Jon, you might enjoy John Locke’s new book on how he sold a million copies. His basic message is: 1) figure out who your ideal customers are 2) figure out where they go 3) go there and sell to them. If you are not clear on who your customers are and whether they shop at Lulu or somewhere else, you won’t sell as much as if you ARE clear on those things. It may be worth a little homework. Fwiw I read about 100 books a year and have never even heard of Lulu…

  3. There’s some creative misunderstanding going on here I think, either that or ignorance about how publishing actually works – as opposed to how internet trolls try to portray it.

    Firstly the difference between a writer’s advance and a lump sum that they owe the publishers. The advance payments are recouped through royalties yes, but they are NEVER to be repaid unless the author’s in breach of contract. So the writer never actually owes their publisher money no matter how badly the book sells, they just might not earn anything above the advance. But if they don’t, the publisher’s making very little profit too and the margins of publishing are FAR smaller than the music business.

    Secondly ” When publishers started paying advances, they—in effect—told writers not to bother their pretty little heads with business. “Write,” the publishers said. “We’ll take care of your bills while you finish that book.” ”

    Yes, for the (very) small percentage of successful writers, that might be losing you some money – after all, the big names, despite their huge advances, subsidise the careers of the rest – including the best, most innovative writers who need a long-term view to be taken by their publisher. However, the vast majority of authors are not skilled business people, we’re folk who spend our days shut away working quietly. so “don’t worry your pretty little heads with business” also translates to – “you like food, right? How about we help you eat and have a roof over your head for the next year until you’ve actually got something we can make money out of?” There’s always the alternative of working full-time and cutting into your sleeping/seeing-your-family time until you’ve got something to sell, then spend half your free time trying to make a success out of it.

    There is certainly a case to be make for the traditional model changing, one no one argues with, but please actually know something about your subject before writing about it?

  4. I’ve just read this and back to the Rusch post. Fascinating. I have done something similar but through books (tyhough each has its e-book).
    Formed my own company, Raven’s Quill Ltd. (www.ravensquill.com); wrote, illustrated, designed, produced first children’s nonsense quest story, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Curd the Lion (and us!) in the Land at the Back of Beyond’ end Oct 08. No marketing or publicity budget. Now sold close on 8,000 copies in hardback at £15 ($23). Made a Book of Year here UK by Lovereading4kids website. See http://www.lovereading4kids.co.uk/book/3991
    Sold Transl. rights to South Korea and Israel so far. Tons of great kids reviews.
    Then produced my 2nd book, and adult – YA gothic ghost tale, ‘The Flight of Birds’ by Alan Howard (my middle name) as paperback with French flaps at £10 ($15.40) 400 pp.. Oct 31, 2010. Sold around 2,000 so far. Getting great customer reviews. Ignored by press here as was first. See http://www.lovereading.co.uk/book/5159
    But, since I am all parties at this private party, I receive 42.5 – 60% of the list price. Work it out. I pay, of course, for print, warehousing and going to international book fairs to sell rights, but still pretty neat for an ‘amateur’ author/illustrator?

  5. HiT Entertainment (children’s UK TV co.) very kindly wrote of Curd the Lion: “We really enjoyed the inventive witty narrative and surreal humour in the book. We can see that Curd the Lion might work very well as a family feature film”
    I’m working on ways and means of increasing web projection for the e-book versions, available worldwide on most e-book outlets, aggregated by Faber Factory. i.e. By signing up to Amazon’s Summer offer, etc..
    I should mention that I am probably atypical in that, as an illustrator and designer (for other publishers and architects), I had or could learn the skills to enable me to produce physical books.

  6. To pre-empt anyone tempted say, “oh, well, no wonder, if you are a publishers’ designer, of course you can do this” – I had nothing to do with publishers when I started this.
    I came from a different industry – newspapers (graphics editor of The Daily Telegraph, London) – and started both operations in parallel, so had to learn all about book publishing from scratch.
    RE first comment. It’s no good producing a self-published book and expecting the world to knock on your door. You have also learn to do all your own marketing. As this article says – you have realize you are running a business, with up-front costs and a strategy.

  7. Jon, if you’re not selling, recognize that it’s your fault. Either the books are no good or you are marketing them the wrong way.

    I strongly suggest that you put those titles up as ebooks at Smashwords. That way, you’ll be distributed to all the major ebook retailers, including Amazon if you choose, but I recommend that you open your own Amazon author account instead. If you do that you can set up author pages at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, which will let readers find your other work.

    About 50% of sales come by word-of-mouth, driven primarily these days by online reviews. First of all, though, you have to make your voice heard above the hubbub of authors and wannabes who are begging people to buy their books. One method of doing that is to make one of your titles free. If it’s good, people will latch on to it very quickly; it’ll get noticed and reviewed, and your other books will start to sell.

    Why isn’t your name hyperlinked? Do you have a blog or web site? If not, get one! Anyone reading your post might have been interested to find out more about you and, maybe, after reading your site, buy your work!

    There’s a ton of excellent advice out there about ebook marketing; Ms Rusch’s site is a very good place to start.

    As for the general point being made, legacy publishers simply cannot compete on price. They have a back office to maintain, and the $2.99 sweet-spot (less retailers’ cut) for a mass-market novel just won’t cut it. The big general publishers are doomed, since mass-market fiction is their bread and butter. Given the treatment they have traditionally doled out to the bulk of their authors, I submit that this is no bad thing.