I just attended an interesting panel in which I got to meet self-pub booster Joe Konrath and former Authors Guild President Scott Turow. Also on the panel was author Barbara Freethy, and it was moderated by Jon Fine from the Authors Guild. The panel discussed the problems and opportunities faced by authors in this brave new digital world.
The panelists started out by discussing their backgrounds. Barbara started out as a romance/suspense author in traditional publishing, twenty years ago. She has worked with four out of the Big Five publishers, and had a pretty decent career as far as traditional books went, with the usual little glitches that came from being part of a huge bureaucratic system.
In 2011, she wanted to take more control over her career, and placed some rights-reverted titles on Amazon. At the time, there were few educational resources available for self-publishing writers, so she effectively taught herself to do all aspects of self-publishing to put her books out there. (She’s found that for whatever reason, her books sell better when there’s a body of water on the cover.) Her first original self-published title hit number one on the NYT Bestseller List in 2012, causing her traditional publisher some consternation as they weren’t even sure whether they could mention it on the cover of her next book.
Scott noted that the Authors Guild’s position is often misperceived. His philosophy was that he wanted to see authors survive and be able to support themselves through writing, whether that be through traditional or self-publishing, or via print or e-books. He had a similar story of starting way back in the traditional-publishing days. His first book was L1, a non-fiction account of his first year at law school—but the editor who bought it for the publisher was out of favor, so he got to witness his own publisher torpedoing his book when it came up for reprints. Turow noted that this is not something that happens in self-publishing, so he’s sensitive to both sides.
Turow said that, if given the choice, he still felt it would be best to choose to publish via a traditional publisher who can provide editing and marketing support. But he has a daughter who is self-published, too, so doesn’t think there’s one right or wrong way to earn a living writing. Either way, he noted that he and the other two authors on the panel were among the lucky ones—for each of them, hundreds of other authors hadn’t been as fortunate in either self- or traditional publishing.
Joe Konrath noted that he agreed with Scott insofar as if you had the “choice” to publish traditionally, you should take it—but disagreed in that all too often, whether to publish traditionally wasn’t a “choice” anymore than one could “choose” to win the lottery. Furthermore, even if you are one of the lucky ones, you often have to contend with boilerplate contracts that reserve way too many rights for the publishers. (He had some good words for the Authors Guild’s fair contract initiative to try to deal with that.) He spent considerable time and money wrangling with publishers to get rights to many of his books back thanks to those obnoxious contract terms.
He also said that he tended to get a lot of credit for “predicting” the success of Amazon’s Kindle and its self-publishing initiative, but the truth of the matter was actually that he had written nine novels that no publishers had wanted before he got lucky and a publisher wanted his tenth, so he had those manuscripts lying around and available. When he posted his first couple of titles at 99 cents each, he was surprised by how much money he ended up making ($1,500 in the first month. “That’s my mortgage payment.”) and so put more titles up and raised the prices a little. When Amazon started paying 70% to authors for $2.99 to $9.99 e-books, he started making $80,000 per month.
He was also careful to differentiate between goals and dreams. Self-publishing is a goal, he said. Writing 1,000 words per day is a goal. However, becoming Joe Konrath or Scott Turow is a dream. You can go after dreams if you get the opportunity, but not everyone gets that kind of chance.
Next, the authors talked about their publishing philosophies. Barbara Freethy said that she’s gone totally independent now, because of the control it gives her, and so far now traditional publisher has made an attractive enough offer to change that. Traditional publishing is full of buyers for print sales who think they know what readers want—but her experience self-publishing in genres that the buyers said were “dead,” such as romance/suspense, showed her that they didn’t always know what they were talking about.
Joe agreed that having control over rights was extremely important. He was required by nondisclosure agreements to say that he had “parted amicably” from his prior publishers—Hyperion, Hachette, and Ace—but it wasn’t easy for him to pry his rights back loose, no matter how “amicable” the process had been. No matter who you sign with, you should always be aware of what you’re signing when you sign that contract.
Scott put in that, as an author, no one cares as much about your rights as you do. He said he had a great agent, but he still acquaints himself with what’s going on concerning all rights-related matters. He used the metaphor of intellectual property rights representing “a bundle of sticks,” and you have to be aware of exactly which sticks you’re taking out and giving away when you enter into a licensing deal.
Barbara said that she’d had a number of agents over the years, and joked that her nightmare was all of them getting in the same elevator with her. She said she’d found them useful, especially when it came to selling foreign rights, but didn’t have or need one right now.
Joe compared an agent to a good hunting dog—you can hunt without one and do all right, but if you have one, he’ll bring you more game. Agents work the same way—they need to bring in enough money to cover their 10-15% of the take, after all. But they’re not as necessary as a lot of new authors think.
Scott put in that agents who know publishers can be helpful if you’re trying to get a book into traditional New York publishers, and from there branched into discussing some of the mistakes publishers had made. “One thing I sit here thinking about is whether traditional publishing will survive not just digital competition, but whether publishing will survive publishers. They constantly make wrong judgements. They’re trying to do their best, but did a good job over the years of being tone-deaf and face-blind.” He recounted an argument he had with a publisher, in which he accused the publisher of not even knowing who read his books. The publisher replied, “No other publisher knows either!” Of course, Amazon knows, but they don’t tell anybody.
Scott added that publishers have been cutting back considerably on the services they offer to authors now. More and more publishers put authors on a sink-or-swim model with limited editorial advice and no marketing help. He keeps telling friends in publishing that publishing doesn’t seem to realize it’s killing itself. Jon agreed, saying that no one had made more opportunities for Amazon than the traditional publishers.
Barbara commented on the irony that when she was publishing traditionally, the publisher required her to do her own social media marketing. So she learned how to do that, and as a result it stood her in good stead when she switched to self-publishing. She said that she laughs whenever someone talks about going into traditional publishing for the marketing support—if you’re midlist and down, you’ll be doing all that on your own.
Scott said that he continues to get frustrated with traditional publishers for not leveraging their advantages. He feels like publishers ought to sell books with a universal license—you buy the print book and get digital and audio versions that show up on any device you own—your tablet, your phone, in your car, and so on. But you have to pay at least twice to do that now.
Joe said that he’d said much the same thing when he’d been invited to speak at Google in 2007. He said that nobody even knew what “e-books” were at that point (which I’d differ on a little, given the term was in use when Peanut Press started in ’98, but perhaps he meant no one outside early adopters knew it). When you buy the hardcover, he said, why don’t you get a digital copy on CD? On the subway over there, he’d seen four people reading on smartphones and only one with a physical newspaper, and from that he felt sure that e-reading was going to be a big thing.
After that, discussion touched briefly on all the vanity scams out there—companies that charge too much for their services. Joe quoted a saying he uses a lot: “Money flows toward the writer.” If you’re going to pay for services like editing or layout that you can’t do yourself, then you should, but you should be very clear on what you’re paying for, don’t pay too much, and don’t give away the “sticks” from that bundle. Pay with money, not with rights.
After that, they took audience questions. One member of the audience asked what publishers might do to make things better for themselves. Scott touched on universal licensing again, and added that e-book royalties are a scandal. Every major publisher offers only 25% of net on e-books, which is about half of what print royalties would be. Jon noted there are remarkably few differences between contracts with different publishers, and publishers should differentiate themselves and use that as a marketing tool. Barbara decried agency pricing and the print protectionism that spawned it. “If e-book sales are going down, it’s because publishers are pushing them down,” she said.
The next question centered on what was a fair length of time to allow with licensing deals before rights reverted. Jon said that when the AG had worked with Amazon, they tried to create a structure where unused rights could be requested back after 2 or 3 years. Scott touched on the unfairness of the “out-of-print” rights reversion clause, because there’s considerable disagreement over just what constitutes “still in print.” Joe added that everything is negotiable if you’re willing to walk away. If publishers offer unconscionable terms, don’t sign. Hold onto your “sticks” and walk away.
Finally, they closed with thirty seconds’ worth of key advice. Barbara’s boiled down to not being scared of self-publishing, but don’t be scammed. Scott mentioned the importance of being able to take a punch and keeping at writing. Joe concluded with two pithy phrases: “Don’t write shit,” and “Watch what you sign.”
The panel was very interesting, overall, and I’m glad I had the chance to take it in. I finally got to chat with Joe Konrath a little afterward, and even got a photo taken with him. He’s a great guy, and Scott Turow was quite pleasant and affable as well.
I also chatted briefly with Mary Rasenberger, also from the Authors Guild, who asked for a copy of the notes I’d typed during the event. We disagreed about a few things, such as the Google Books ruling, but she seemed like a pleasant person, too. It’s a great experience to meet more of these people and put faces to names.
More to come later!