How traditional publishers could (and probably will) win

Why is Apple, a computer company, the largest music seller in the world? Because the record industry spent its resources defending CDs rather than building a new marketplace where customers could download MP3s legitimately.

Why is Simon & Schuster pricing Stephen King’s next ebook, Mr. Mercedes, at $13.99 when the hardcover is $18.00 for Amazon Prime members? Because they’re defending paper rather than encouraging the ebook marketplace that Amazon built for them. Simon & Schuster should have invented the Kindle, not Amazon, just as the RIAA should have invented iTunes. They didn’t because they were more focused on defending their established distribution network than adapting to what a new generation of customers wanted.

In fairness, Simon & Schuster is quickly lowering prices on King’s ebooks as they age. Doctor Sleep (2013) is now $7.99, and 11/22/63 (2011) is now $2.99. That’s smart. I expect this trend to continue, perhaps to the point where a new ebook is $5.99, and a year out it’s $2.99. The data I’ve seen suggests you sell the most ebooks at the $2.99-$3.99 spot, and that the increase in sales outweighs the higher per-book royalty of a $7.99-13.99 ebook.

I sell my first three books as ebooks today for 99 cents each (Amazon’s minimum price) at a 35% royalty. Those three short books add up to about the same page count at Doctor Sleep (545 pages). Is Stephen King’s latest book better than my little trilogy? Probably. I’m about halfway through Doctor Sleep, and it’s pretty good. Is it twice as good? Maybe. Part of that judgment has to be whether you prefer horror with alcoholic psychics or hard sci-fi with Texans and aliens.

Having read a dozen of King’s novels, will Mr. Mercedes prove to be five times better than my trilogy? I doubt it. And that’s a good thing.

As long as traditional publishers overprice their ebooks, indies like me will have a chance at gaining an audience. However, as they lower ebook prices, that opportunity fades.

The smartest thing traditional publishers could do if they wanted to encourage me to go through their gatekeeping process is lower the price of all their ebooks to $2.99. They’d sell a ton, and new readers wouldn’t give me a chance, even at $0.99. I’d have to go back to the old ways — publish a few short stories, get an agent, get a manuscript bought, go through editing and design, and maybe see it on a shelf/on Amazon two years later, where I’d get a 15% royalty (after earning out my advance — if I did), instead of immediately earning 35% (at the $0.99-2.98 price range) or 70% (at $2.99+) as an indie, and having full control of content, artwork, and pricing.

Going through that process might be good for me. I can admit that. I’m not an anti-traditionalist; I’m simply impatient. Given the landscape today, I’d rather have two years of sales and giveaways than wait for a publisher to put it out — and that’s assuming I get immediate interest (highly unlikely). What’s more likely is that a prospective agent/publisher would pass, and I’d never know if anyone liked my story. A year and a half into this process, I’ve had a couple of thousand people download it, and about 50 post reviews in the US and UK that say they liked it. That’s very cool.

I’m willing to set this knife on the traditional publishers table because I don’t think they’ll pick it up and cut me with it. They still don’t see that paper will be a niche market, soon. Maybe in another decade they’ll get it, but by then I should have an established audience, and I probably won’t see the value in giving an agent 15% and a publisher/distributor 70% to reach customers I already have: 70% of $2.99 ($2) with higher sales is better than 15% of $13.99 ($2) with lower sales.

My advice — for the 99 cents it’s currently worth — is if you’re considering self-publishing, get cracking. Publishers are slow to change, but they won’t sleep forever. By 2025, I expect this gold rush to be panned out. Self-pubbed works will be the new slush pile that beginning agents and editorial assistants browse at lunch. Even today, the likelihood of another Amanda Hocking bursting onto the scene seems very low.

Timing and luck matter. This is the time. Luck… well, I can’t help you with that, but I do know you can only get lucky if you’re trying.


8 thoughts on “How traditional publishers could (and probably will) win”

  1. My (main) reason to consider traditional publishing is that they do things that I’m not good at, like dealing with artists for the cover, finding someone to write the flap text, going through all the /administrative/ stuff that are between my writing and the book-as-it-is sold.

    But judging from what authors say, they sometimes also completely suck at them:

    – Covers that aim at selling books, not being true to the content. Yes, you may call me a purist on that.

    – Proofing that gets words wrong. Sometimes I misspell (or invent words) on purpose.

    – Flap text, that — like the cover — has nothing to do with the content.

    The one thing they do well that I don’t is the actual promotion, as in ads, and sending out review copies etc. But right now, the balance is all in the favour of self-publishing, albeit electronically.

    PS: I know that my list of misgivings reflects my history of being a reader, rather than writer. I think that is a good thing.

  2. Yep, I totally get that. And, like you said, sometimes they don’t do those core things well.

    Today traditional publishers expect you (the author) to have an online presence: to manage a blog, Facebook page, Google+ page, Twitter feed, etc. The amount of advertising they throw your way may be minimal. The typical advance for a new author is in the $5-20k range, of which your agent gets 15%, and then you have to deduct taxes, so you end up with $3-12k, and your book probably won’t see a shelf for 2-3 years. After that, getting 15% royalty, you may never earn out your advance. The question to ask, then, is “Can I do better on my own?” Today, I’d say you have a reasonable shot of doing so, especially since you start earning immediately.

    There’s also the psychological factor of seeing sales every week, and getting customer reviews… it’s really encouraging. A traditional publisher may not even talk to you for 6-12 months. Amazon deposits a check into my account every month.

    Still, I will agree that I’d rather have professionals do all that stuff.

    I’d love to just focus on writing. I have friends/fans proofread, and I have a designer who does my covers and print layout. I’ve invested maybe $100 in online ads; Facebook was worthless; Goodreads seemed to drive sales, though I have no direct evidence (can’t use links coded to track promotions). I think my best promotion has been giving away ebooks 5 days out of every 90 on Amazon (a perk for being Amazon-only). At this point, I’m trying to build readership more than make money. But even that has limits; some people just grab free stuff and never read it, or only read free ebooks and never buy. I’ve noticed my most negative reviews have been after giveaways. Maybe it’s just human nature not to respect anything that’s free, though I suspect with some it’s just confusion — they were looking for the Hunger Games or the Walking Dead, instead of a simpler, more intimate story.

    And, there’s no reason not to self-publish, then accept a traditional deal. That’s what Andy Weir did with The Martian. I bought it for $2.99 when he self-pubbed. Now it’s $9.99 from Random House. I hope he does well.

  3. I write because I want to. Not because I want to be read, or make a living, or be famous.

    I write because less than a month after I started¸ I found I couldn’t _not_ write.

    Being able to actually reach people was a nice add-on. Bringing joy or entertainment (hell, even knowledge) to people is immensely fun.

    And unless somebody reads your stuff and tells you what they dislike, you’re never going to become a better writer.

    I’m in the enviable position of being able to write (albeit slowly) while having a paying job. The whole monetary side of book publishing actually bores me.

    But what I want is to know if anyone cares. Cares enough to spend money. If I put my book on some god-forsaken homepage (i.e. my own) for free, all I would get is download counts — not exactly a good measurement of popularity, and no way of getting feedback.

    So I go for self-publishing, because all the incentives of traditional publishing (advance, royalties) are irrelevant. Combined with the downsides (loss of control, glacial progress), the extra strain — publishing, marketing and managing by myself — is small enough to bear.

    Now if someone were to offer “I’ll promote this for a reasonable fee”…

  4. I perfectly understand. I too write because I love it. I graduated with a degree in English 25 years ago, and have written ever since, regardless of what work I did to pay the bills (editing, teaching, marketing communications, now instructional design).

    That said… I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience publishing on Amazon. You have nothing to lose by trying it.

    Have you published yet? I looked around on Google+ and Amazon and didn’t see it.

  5. No, not quite yet — novel #1 is currently with a professional proofreader. I’m not a native speaker, so that seemed doubly prudent. Once she’s done, I’ll get a cover and publish, probably on Amazon.

    I considered traditional publishing for a while, for the aforementioned reasons. But the longer I thought about the wait times, the loss of control and the prospect of seeing others make more money from it than I do, the more I realized that I’d rather do some haphazard promotion work than wait longer.

    And who knows, my first novel(s) being obscure may make their flaws slightly less discoverable. 🙂

  6. If traditional publishing goes the way you suggest and lowers ebook pricing in order to compete, how long do you think they will remain “traditional”? It’s a different business that has faster cycles and a strong consumer feedback path to guide profitability, and tighter margins. I think it’s an all or nothing proposition. A tug-of-war under one roof has to result in a choice, and I’ll lay odds on the leaner, faster team. Agents will change too, making their careers by helping self-publishing nobodies find a path to greater readership online. I’d like to see more ancillary businesses to help authors gain more online readers, like we see in the online music biz.

    RIAA chose to sue the industry, even the users, instead of adapt, slowing their demise without preventing its eventuality. For them, it’s about control over distribution that allows them to command pricing, and they’ll never get over it. Venues like CDbaby and Kickstarter are helping speed the transition to the open model by removing the barriers to entry, as are new micro-studios for recording.

    As for competition, why can’t consumers enjoy your books AND Mr King’s? They can, and the market sets the price, not some monolithic traditional “business”.

  7. Your sentiments certainly echo those of Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, two successful indie authors whom I respect. I just think it’s our nature to be drawn to brands.

    After a certain point, the author is the brand (Stephen King, et al), but before then, I think readers still like to see Random House or Simon & Schuster or something like that on the spine. It seems that, across American business history, there is always a flood of indies at the start of a new industry, then consolidation and standardization.

    Consider the car market 100 years ago. There were dozens of manufacturers (Dodge Brothers, Detroit Electric, etc). Fifty years later, there were three. I think in some ways, an indie book is like a kit car — it may be great, and it will certainly be given a chance when the big three only offer boring crap, but if the big three offer something even halfway decent, the kit car loses a lot of its market.

    But, I will readily admit, I may be misreading this. It may be that Amazon and iTunes themselves *are* the brands, and indie authors/musicians are just some of their products, and in 10 years no one will care about traditional publisher brand names. I can especially see this considering the way customers can review/grade the products, which erodes the impact of establishment book and music critics.

    Whatever happens, it’s fun to be part of it.

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