Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ebooks and Self-Publishing - A Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath

This is a live Google docs discussion. It examines the history and mechanics of the publishing industry as it exists today, analyzes the way the digital revolution reflects recent events in Egypt and the Maghreb, and considers a completely inappropriate YouTube video featuring a randy monkey and an unlucky frog. It clocks in at 13,000 words, and reveals some pretty startling things.

We encourage everyone reading the conversation to comment, and to tweet and otherwise link to it. You also have our permission to copy all or any part of it, provided you link back.

If you'd prefer to read this on your ereader, you can download various versions for free here. This zip file (you need WinZip to open it; a free trial is here) contains doc, pdf, epub, and mobi formats, so it can be uploaded to Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Kobos, and pretty much any other device.

You can also go to Smashwords and get various formats for free, or to Amazon or B&N to get those formats for 99 cents (they wouldn't allow us to post for free.) It's also posted in full on Barry's blog.

Our goal is to get this information out there, because it benefits authors and could theoretically make legacy publishers smarter. Please help us spread the word. Thanks.

And I almost forgot. This recent blog post of mine where I mentioned my anonymous friend? It was Barry.

Joe: To the casual observer, you appear to be heavily invested in the legacy publishing system. They’ve been good to you, they helped you get onto the NYT bestseller list, made you wealthy with several large deals, and seem to have treated you fairly.

Barry: Well, I don’t know about wealthy, but I’ve been making a living writing novels for almost a decade now, which is a pretty great way to live.

Joe: You had six-figure and seven-figure deals. Logic dictates anyone offered a deal like that should leap at it.

Barry: You wouldn’t.

Joe: But I never had the treatment you had from legacy publishers. I would walk away from a big deal now, most certainly, because I have two years of data proving I can do better on my own.

However, what if a NYT bestseller were offered, say, half a million dollars for two books?

Or, more specifically, let's say you were offered that.

You'd take it. Right?

Barry: Well, I guess not... ;)

Joe: So... no BS... you were just offered half a mil, and you turned it down?

Barry: Yes.

Joe: Holy shit!

Barry: I know it’ll seem crazy to a lot of people, but based on what’s happening in the industry, and based on the kind of experience writers like you are having in self-publishing, I think I can do better in the long term on my own.

Joe: Holy shit!

Sorry. That needed to be said twice.

Barry: It’s okay, I like when you talk dirty.

We are living in remarkable times, aren’t we?

Joe: Indeed. "Barry Eisler Walks Away From $500,000 Deal to Self-Pub" is going to be one for the Twitter Hall of Fame.

Barry: Here’s something that happened about a year ago. Anecdotal, but still telling, I think. My wife and daughter and I were sitting around the dinner table, talking about what kind of contract I would do next, and with what publisher. And my then eleven-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you just self-publish?”

And I thought, wow, no one would have said something like that even a year ago. I mean, it used to be that self-publishing was what you did if you couldn’t get a traditional deal. And if you were really, really lucky, maybe the self-published route would lead to a real contract with a real publisher.

But I realized from that one innocent comment from my daughter that the new generation was looking at self-publishing differently. And that the question--“Should I self-publish?”--was going to be asked by more and more authors going forward. And that, over time, more and more of them were going to be answering the question, “Yes.”

This is exactly what’s happening now. I’m not the first example, though I might be a noteworthy one because of the numbers I’m walking away from. But there will be others, more and more of them.

Joe: Over a year ago, you wrote a Huffington Post blog called Paper Earthworks, Digital Tides. You basically predicted that digital would become the preferred reading format...

Barry: You’re being kind to me--you predicted that switch way before I caught on to it. In that blog post, I was more building on what I’ve learned from you. But my general point was that digital was going to become more and more attractive relative to paper. First, because the price of digital readers would continue to drop while the functionality would continue to increase; second, because more and more titles would become available for digital download at the same time more brick and mortar stores were closing. In other words, everything about paper represented a static defense, while everything about digital represented a dynamic offense. Not hard to predict how a battle like that is going to end.

Apple sold 15 million iPads in 2010, and the iPad2 just went on sale. And Amazon sold eight million Kindle books in 2010--more digital books, in fact, than paperbacks. Meanwhile, Borders is shuttering 224 stores. So I think it’s safe to say the trends I just mentioned are continuing. And the trends reinforce each other: the Borders in your neighborhood closes, so you try a low-priced digital reader, and you love the lower cost of digital books, the immediate delivery, the adjustable font, etc... and you never go back to paper. The reverse isn’t happening: people aren’t leaving digital for paper. There’s a ratchet effect in favor of digital.

Joe: In the history of technology, when people begin to embrace the new media tech, it winds up dominating the marketplace. CDs over vinyl and tapes, DVD over VHS. The Internet over newspapers. Even Priceline over travel agents--

Barry: Yes! Sorry to interrupt, but this is something that interests me so much. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.” That isn’t the point! If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you. So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized. Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No--some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No--I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.

Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology. The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?

Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc... those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight--but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

Joe: I also love print books. I have 5000 of them. But print is just a delivery system. It gets a story from the writer to the reader. For centuries, publishers controlled this system, because they did the printing, and they were plugged into distribution. But with retailers like Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, the story can get to the reader in a faster, cheaper way.

And publishers aren't needed.

Do you think publishers are aware of that?

Barry: I think they’re extremely aware of it, but they don’t understand what it really means.

Joe: I believe they've gotten their business model mixed-up. They should be connecting readers with the written word. Instead, they're insisting on selling paper.

Barry: Yes. There’s a saying about the railroads: they thought they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business. So when the interstate highway system was built and trucking became an alternative, they were hit hard.

Likewise, publishers have naturally conflated the specifics of their business model with the generalities of the industry they’re in. As you say, they’re not in the business of delivering books by paper--they’re in the business of delivering books. And if someone can do the latter faster and cheaper than they can, they’re in trouble.

Joe: You say they're aware of it, and some evidence points to that being true. The agency model is an attempt to slow the transition from paper to digital. Windowing titles is another one. So are insanely high ebook prices.

Barry: All signs that publishers are aware of the potential for digital disintermediation, but that they don’t understand what it really means.

Joe: Because they still believe they’re essential to the process.

Barry: I would phrase it a little differently. They recognize they’re becoming non-essential, and are trying to keep themselves essential--but are going about it in the wrong way.

Joe: You and I and our peers are essential. We're the writers. We provide the content that is printed and distributed.

For hundreds of years, writers couldn't reach readers without publishers. We needed them.

Now, suddenly, we don't. But publishers don't seem to be taking this Very Important Fact into account.

Barry: Well, again, I think they’re taking it into account, but they’re drawing the wrong conclusions. The wrong conclusion is: I’m in the paper business, paper keeps me essential, therefore I must do all I can to retard the transition from paper to digital. The right conclusion would be: digital offers huge cost, time-to-market, and other advantages over paper. How can I leverage those advantages to make my business even stronger?

Joe: We figured out that the 25% royalty on ebooks they offer is actually 14.9% to the writer after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: Gracious of you to say “we.” You’re the first one to point out that a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agent takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Joe: Yeah, that 25% figure you see in contracts is really misleading. Amazing, when you consider that there’s virtually no cost to creating ebooks--no cost for paper, no shipping charges, no warehousing. No cut for Ingram or Baker & Taylor. Yet they're keeping 52.5% of the list price and offering only 17.5% to the author. It’s not fair and it’s not sustainable.

Barry: I think what’s happening is that publishers know paper is dying while digital is exploding, and they’re trying to use the lock they’ve always had on paper to milk more out of digital. In other words, tie an author into a deal that offers traditional paper royalties, which are shrinking, while giving the publisher a huge slice of digital royalties, which are growing. The problem, from the publisher’s perspective, is that their paper lock is broken now.

Joe: I feel all writers need to be made aware that there is finally an option. Not just an option, but an actual preferable alternative to signing away your rights.

Barry: It’s inevitable that more writers will be realizing this is true. It’s being demonstrated by more and more self-published authors: you, Amanda Hocking, Scott Nicholson, Michael J. Sullivan, HP Mallory, Victorine Lieske, BV Larson, Terri Reid, LJ Sellers, John Locke, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, Aaron Patterson, Jon F. Merz, Selena Kitt, hopefully me... :)

Joe: You're on track to make $30,000 this year on a self-published short story. I'm not aware of any short story markets that pay that well.

Barry: Well, it’s early yet, but yes, The Lost Coast has done amazingly well in its first few weeks, netting me about $1000 after the initial fixed cost of $600 for having the cover designed and having the manuscript formatted. I plan to continue to publish short stories and I’ll be getting the new John Rain novel, The Detachment, up in time for Father’s Day, and I have a feeling that each of the various products will reinforce sales of the others.

Joe: That's a really smart plan. My own sales, and the sales of other indie authors doing well, pretty much confirm that a rising tide lifts all boats. Virtual shelf space functions a lot like physical shelf space. The more books you have on the shelf, the likelier you are to be discovered by someone browsing. And when a browser reads you and likes you, she buys more of your work, and often tells others about it.

In other words; the more stories and novels you have available, the more you'll sell.

Barry: Gotta just jump in here to point out the significance of this. It means that a writer’s best promoting tool is once again her writing. Advertising costs money. New stories make money.

Joe: I told you so...

Barry: You did. Glad I listened late rather than never. It’s amazing: for most of the history of publishing, outside a brief book tour and maybe a few public appearances throughout the year, a writer couldn’t do much to promote. Then the Internet happened, and writers had to do a tremendous amount of online promotion--blogs, social networking, chat rooms--to be competitive. Now, with digital books, once again there’s no more profitable use of an author’s time than writing. Not to say that authors don’t need to have a strong online presence; of course they do. But anytime you’re thinking about some other promotional activity--a blog post, a trip to a convention, an hour on Facebook--you have to measure the value of that time against the value of writing and publishing a new story. The new story earns money, both for itself and your other works. The social networking stuff doesn’t.

Joe: Yes. But it’s even more than that. Because there are two major difference between virtual shelves and physical shelves.

First, a virtual shelf is infinite. In a bookstore, they have a limited amount of space. Often, my books are crammed spine out, in section--and I'm lucky if they have a copy of each that are in print. Many times they only have a few, and sometimes none at all. But a virtual shelf, like Amazon or Smashwords, carries all my titles, all the time. And I don't have to compete with a NYT bestseller who has 400 copies of their latest hit on the shelf, while I only have one copy of mine. We each take up one virtual space per title.

Second, virtual shelf life is forever. In a bookstore, you have anywhere form a few weeks to a few months to sell your title, and then it gets returned. This is a big waste of money, and no incentive at all for the bookseller to move the book.

But ebooks are forever. Once they're live, they will sell for decades. Someday, long after I'm gone, my grandchildren will be getting my royalties.

Currently, my novel The List is the #15 bestseller on all of Amazon. I wrote that book 12 years ago, and it was rejected by every major NY publisher. I self-published it on Amazon two years ago, and it has sold over 35,000 copies.

Barry: That is insane. Aside from some major external event--a big movie release, something like that--it’s almost unheard of for a backlist paper book to suddenly become a bestseller. Yet that’s exactly what just happened to The List.

Joe: Because I dropped the price.

Barry: Well shit, legacy publishers use dynamic pricing to move books all the time.

Joe: Sorry, I just spewed beer all over my monitor.

Barry: I apologize.

Joe: No problem. But right, with digital you have the option to put an ebook on sale. I originally self-published The List in April of 2009. It went on to sell 25,000 ebooks at $2.99. Now, two years later, I lowered the price, and it's selling 1500 copies a day. Things like that don't happen in paper. But in self-publishing, I'm seeing more and more books take their sweet time finding an audience, then take off.

Forever is a long time to earn royalties. So it makes sense for forever to begin today, not tomorrow.

If you had taken the deal for The Detachment, when would it have been published?

Barry: This was one of the reasons I just couldn’t go back to working with a legacy publisher. The book is nearly done, but it wouldn’t have been made available until Spring of 2012. I can publish it myself a year earlier. That’s a whole year of actual sales I would have had to give up.

Joe: We can make 70% by self-publishing. And we can set our own price. I have reams of data that show how ebooks under $5 vastly outsell those priced higher.

Barry: This is a critical point. There’s a huge data set proving that digital books are a price-sensitive market, and that maximum revenues are achieved at a price point between $.99 and $4.99. So the question is: why aren’t publishers pricing digital books to maximize digital profits?

Joe: Because they're protecting their paper sales.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: It's awfully dangerous for an industry to ignore (or even blatantly antagonize) their customers in order to protect self-interest.

Barry: Not that it hasn’t been tried before. Just never successfully outside a monopoly. And the advent of digital has broken the monopoly publishers used to have on distribution.

Joe: In the meantime, I'm selling 3000 ebooks a day by pricing reasonably. There aren't too many Big 6 authors selling that well. And I'm getting much better royalties than they are.

So what’s going on with legacy publishers? It seems like either willful ignorance or outright stupidity. They're irritating their customers, alienating their content providers, and refusing to embrace the future.


Barry: I think there are a lot of things going on, some emotional, some institutional. Clayton Christensen wrote about a lot of this in a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma. Fundamentally, it’s extremely hard for an industry to start cannibalizing current profits for future gains. So the music companies, for example, failed to create an online digital store, instead fighting digital with lawsuits, until Apple--a computer company!--became the world’s biggest music retailer.

Joe: Simon and Schuster or Random House should have invented the ereader. They should have been selling ebooks from their websites a decade ago. Instead, an online bookseller, Amazon, is leading the revolution.

Barry: Exactly. The same outcome as in the music business. It’s one thing for a single media company to make these mistakes--but one after the other? What’s that Oscar Wilde line? “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Joe: Or, as your character Dox would say, “This isn’t really about hunting, is it...”

Barry: That Dox has a way with words.

Joe: Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. I also think the Upton Sinclair quote is appropriate: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Denial is a powerful opiate.

We both dig quotations too much.

Barry: And I think it was Nelson Mandela who said, “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.” We’re probably all victims of those kinds of pressures, to one extent or another. But you have to try to be as aware as possible of the dynamic. If you’re not, you could lose a lot of money.

Joe: You might also lose your content providers. If you're selling eggs, don't piss off your chickens.

Barry: It’s not just the chickens. It’s the people who buy the eggs, too.

Joe: The readers. And the libraries. HarperCollins just announced they are putting a limit on ebook loans in libraries. After twenty-six check-outs, the library has to buy a new copy.

Talk about biting the hand that feeds...

Barry: Yes. The problem is twofold. First, by giving authors only 17.5% of the growth end of the business while keeping 52.5% for themselves, publishers are going to lose authors. Second, by attempting to retard the growth of digital--holding back digital releases until paper is ready, charging paper prices for digital books--publishers are thwarting their customers. Take a step back and consider it, and it’s hard not to see that this strategy is badly flawed. A business grows by giving customers what they want, not by insisting that customers take what the business wants them to have. It grows by cultivating its wholesale providers, not by alienating them with precentages so unfair that it motivates them to develop their own retail channels.

Joe: It reminds me of the golden age of television. You had three choices, ABC, NBC, or CBS. They dictated what you would watch.

But that model no longer works for TV. Now there are hundreds of channels. And it no longer works for books, either. If you look at the current Top 100 bestsellers on Kindle, twenty-seven of them are self-published. Many of those authors were rejected by NY. Yet consumers are showing us what they want to read, and voting with their wallets.

The "gatekeeper" model, where agents and Big 6 Publishers decided what would be fit for public consumption, is eroding. YouTube has proven that viewers are okay with having unlimited choices, and happy to surf to find things that interest them.

Barry: Yes! I mean, which of the networks would have broadcast that monkey raping a helpless bullfrog?

Joe: It wasn't rape. It was consensual.

Barry: I don’t know. I don’t think the frog was conscious. I’m not sure it was even alive.

Joe: I--

Barry: After the first five minutes, I mean.

Joe: I'm married. I see this all the time. The frog was conscious. Just not very active.

Barry: Yes, but he couldn’t speak.

Joe: So the frog croaked?

Barry: Aaaargh!

I still think about that frog. I feel sorry for him. What happened... it just couldn’t have been in the lexicon of normal frog fears. Maybe he was worried the monkey would eat him. But then... he’s thinking, “Dude, don’t do this! You’re a monkey, I’m a frog, it’s not right, it’s against nature, it’s mmmmmmmpppphhhhh.”

Joe: It's not easy being green.

How many people do you think followed that link and then, out of mistrust, never returned to our scintillating conversation?

Barry: Yeah, but the ones who returned will be our readers for life.

Joe: We're probably going to cut this entire section later.

Barry: A tear just rolled silently down my cheek.

Joe: You're twelve years old. I swear.

Barry: On my good days, yes.

I do want to go on the record at this point as saying that no frogs have ever been harmed in the production of my books.

Joe: But gay bashers are rightfully fair game.

Barry: Ask my character Larison, in The Lost Coast, about that... :)

Joe: So is this a revolution? Are writers and readers fed up with legacy publishing? And won't their opinions, and their options, hasten the Big 6's demise?

Barry: No question: there’s a revolution going on here. In fact, there are parallels between what we’re seeing in the publishing industry and what you see in social revolutions--the kinds with pitchforks and torches.

Joe: You need to elaborate on that. We once had an interesting conversation about kings and peasants which could apply...

Barry: I remember that conversation. That was the one with the mescalin, right?

Joe: No. That was the one when you confessed your secret love for me. This one was about royalty and peasants.

Barry: Oh, right... right. Part of what’s going on in the industry now is that publishers are resisting the way technology is empowering writers. I’m sure some publishers will read this and disagree with it, but that’s because they’re genuinely unaware of the resistance.

Joe: Again, are they truly unaware? Or purposely ignoring it?

Barry: I’m not sure, but in the end it probably doesn’t matter. For a long time, publishers’ lock on distribution has given them enormous leverage in the industry, a leverage they’ve come to view as the natural, desirable order of things. Legacy publishers are part of an establishment, and if you’re part of the establishment, you’re of course going to like and support the establishment, and to resist any attempts to change or circumvent it. It’s just human nature.

Joe: They think they're royalty, that they’re entitled to certain assurances. And we're peasants, who need to listen to what our lords and masters tell us. Naturally, a peasant uprising is unthinkable.

Barry: I’d tweak this just a little. In America, the concept of royalty as such isn’t popular, so no matter how many royal perks and prerogatives Americans might have, the people in question wouldn’t want to think of themselves as royalty.

But that said, certainly there’s a mentality in publishing about who has the power as between publishers and authors generally. There are exceptions--I doubt Stephen King’s publisher thinks it has the upper hand in that relationship--but overall, publishers look at authors as needing publishers more than publishers need authors.

Joe: That's changed. And they don't seem to realize it.

Barry: Right. Before the digital revolution, there was some basis for this viewpoint. But today it’s antiquated, and publishers are starting to need authors more than authors need publishers. If for generations you’ve been the lord of the land worked by your peasants, and you suddenly find yourself needing the peasants more than they need you, if you find them making new demands you don’t have the negotiating leverage to resist, you’ll probably find yourself resentful because damn it, this just isn’t the way God ordered the universe!

Joe: And despite all this, legacy publishers don’t realize a revolution is afoot.

Barry: I think they’re aware of it, but in an abstract way. I talk to a lot of people in the business, and when most of them talk about digital and the changes it’s causing in the industry, you can tell they’re imagining a future that’s safely abstract and far off. Something you acknowledge in conversation, of course--you’re not in denial, after all--but that fundamentally still feels to you like theory. Because you’re still having your Tuesday morning editorial meetings, right? And you just launched a new title that made the NYT list, right? And signed that hot new author, right? Sure, there are rumblings in the provinces, but here at court in Versailles, the food is still delicious and the courtiers still accord deference appropriate to your rank. When you live in the palace at Versailles, the rumblings in the provinces always sound far away. Right up until the peasants are dragging you out of your bed in the middle of the night and setting fire to your throne.

Joe: Sounds like Egypt.

Barry: It is Egypt. You think Mubarak had any idea of what he was facing at any time before he was being escorted from the palace? At one point, he actually believed that offering to fire his cabinet was going to appease protesters. And at some point, publishers will believe that offering authors 25% or 30% of digital retail instead of 17.5% will put down the rebellion. In fact, this is probably their current backup, hail-Mary, worst-case plan. But it’s already too late.

The royalty/peasant mentality is pervasive, largely invisible to the people who are part of it, and manifests itself in a lot of contexts. Look what happened when I published my blog post, The Ministry of Truth.

Joe: The one about your NPR essay?

Barry: Right, my essay examining Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four as a thriller, which I wrote at NPR’s invitation. The blog post examined the way NPR edited the essay, and how NPR’s edits revealed that fundamentally, NPR is an establishment media player.

Joe: Your editor was pissed.

Barry: He was. NPR called up Random House and complained about my blog post. And my editor then dutifully complained to me. At first, I didn’t understand the complaints at all. I said, “Why don’t they complain in the comments section of my blog? You know, the box where it says, ‘Leave Your Comment.’ Why not engage my argument? Why are they complaining to you in private?”

Joe: Because they didn’t want to imply you were an equal.

Barry: Bingo. Their attitude was, “If we argue in public with this unwashed blogger, by implication it puts the blogger on the same footing as NPR.” So instead, they called another establishment player, Random House, to settle it all privately. “Straighten out this peasant, won’t you? He’s making us all look bad.”

The weird thing was how much sense the whole thing made to my editor and how little it made to me. I mean, it’s not like I took a dump all over NPR; I just pointed out that they’re an establishment media player playing by establishment media rules. An entirely legitimate and worthwhile argument. But they weren’t concerned about the merits of the argument; they were concerned that the argument was being raised at all, and by someone without the appropriate status to raise it. I just didn’t get it. I asked my editor what, is there some lese majeste law protecting NPR from respectful public criticism? It’s bizarre, how delicate establishment egos can be, how frightened they are of criticism from the wrong quarters.

Joe: Peasants aren’t allowed to criticize the royalty.

Barry: Yes. People don’t understand what this means. They see Fox fighting with CNN, Democrats fighting with Republicans, and they think they see real competition, competition that matters. But the old clans of Europe fought each other, too--they fought viciously. But you know what would bring them together as one?

Joe: A peasant uprising.

Barry: Yes. If a peasant spoke up, if a peasant suggested by word or deed that there was something fundamentally illegitimate about the very system within which the clans fought each other for spoils, that the system should be open to everyone--in the face of that, the clans would unite against the threat to the system itself. The clans hated each other, but they would work together to support the overall system.

Joe: Two beers and you’re already getting political.

Barry: You should hear me after two coffees. It’s worse. Anyway, “competition” between the major New York houses and other establishment players works the same way.

Joe: Other establishment players like the New York Times Bestseller List. Which, according to my calculations, I should have been on...

Barry: Yes, what the New York Times has been doing is a perfect example of the royalty/peasant mindset at work.

Joe: Let's set the Wayback Machine to 2009, when ebook sales began to really pick up speed. The NYT had ample opportunity to include them on their prestigious list.

Barry: Yes. Now, the natural, sensible, path-of-least resistance kind of thing would have been to include digital sales from the beginning, right?

Joe: Absolutely. Especially for a periodical that is considered the gold standard when it comes to reporting the news. It's a "bestseller" list, after all.

Barry: At least that's what it purports to be. So why didn’t the Times include digital sales from the outset? Or at least from some point after digital sales became more than a niche. Why did they wait until Amazon was selling more digital books than paperbacks?

Joe: Perhaps reporting the truth was somehow not aligned with what the NYT perceives as its interests.

Barry: Please don’t get me started on the Times’ cowardly insistence on calling waterboarding torture only when it’s done by other countries, and “harsh interrogation techniques” when it’s done by Americans. That’s their official policy, by the way.

Joe: I noticed you managed to sneak that sound bite into the Freakonomics movie. Which, incidentally, you never even told me you appeared in...

Barry: I still can’t believe I forgot to tell you that. But yes, I think it’s important that in a variety of critical ways the “newspaper of record” sees itself as the government’s partner and spokesperson, and believes that role is natural and desirable.

Joe: In the case of the bestseller list, I would assume that advertising dollars play a part. I'm a self-pubbed author. I don't buy full page ads in the Times for big bucks.

Barry: Surely this is no more than coincidence!

Joe: But even if we set aside the money, the Times has ample motive for not putting indie authors on their bestseller list. Newspapers, like Big 6 publishers, are remnants of the analog age. Printing and shipping paper is an antiquated form of distributing media. These companies are trying to stay relevant in a digital future, and aren't doing so well at it. Certainly the fact that I can sell more books than most bestselling Big 6 authors shows how ineffective the Big 6 are. So publishers, both newspaper and book, have an aligned interest in keeping digital at bay. Keeping it out of the public eye is one way to forestall things.

Barry: Right. Look, if the Times bestseller list were really just about sales--you know, if it were really just about the books that were “selling” the “best”--than you and a lot of other indie authors would be on it, because your numbers inarguably put you there. But the Times won’t allow it. What we can infer from the Times’ behavior, therefore, is that what they call a “bestseller” list is in fact a “those bestselling books we believe have been properly vetted and blessed by trusted establishment players with whom we see our interests as aligned” list.

Joe: That's a mouthful.

Barry: Sometimes the truth takes a little more explaining than the soundbite. Which is why governments, and Madison Avenue, like soundbites better. On the other hand, it’s a pretty simple soundbite to ask, “Why are so many bestselling books not being included on a bestseller list?”

Joe: Because including digital would accelerate the transition from analog. And paper pushers don't want that.

Barry: Right. And there’s more. What happened when digital sales became so big that even the Times recognized it was beginning to look undeniably foolish and antediluvian in pretending digital didn’t exist?

Joe: They said, “All right, we’ll include digital. But not by indie authors.”

Barry: Yes. Apparently, bestselling indie authors aren’t “real” bestsellers. Some sales are more equal than others.

Joe: Maybe I'll get lucky and the Times will publish a separate bestseller list for indie ebooks. "Separate but equal" is fair, right?

Barry: I almost wish they would. It would be pretty funny to see how many more books the indie bestsellers were selling than the legacy bestsellers.

Joe: It would be kind of like the old Negro Baseball League. The white establishment segregated them, and the Negro league wound up having the best players. Eventually, the establishment had no choice but to combine them.

Barry: It’s always interesting to watch the gyrations and contortions someone has to engage in when he takes an illogical and otherwise untenable position, a position he knows he can’t explain honestly and openly. Listen to the Times’ editor, Bill Keller, try to explain his position on the word “torture” and you might almost begin to feel sorry for him.

Joe: The Times, like the Big 6, are gatekeepers. But the gatekeepers aren't the only parties interested in keeping the status quo.

There are so many writers now defending the Big 6 that I liken their behavior to Stockholm Syndrome. As artists, we've become so used to the idea of breaking into the publishing industry by appeasing the gatekeepers that we've begun to revere them. We defend their decisions--even the wrong ones--because we've deemed them essential to the process. They're the powerful purveyors of wisdom who nod at worthy intellectual properties and welcome their creators into the fold.

Barry: If you can add one more “P” word to “Powerful Purveyors,” you’ll have a hit on your hand. You know, like “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism.”

Joe: Powerful Purveyors of Preference.

Barry: I like it. One for the ages.

Joe: So when confronted with how unfair the gatekeeping system is compared to self-pubbing, some authors get angry and insist that the Big 6 must know better, and have our best interests at heart.

Barry: I’ve seen this from time to time in the comments section of your blog and also in the comments at Jane Litte’s excellent Dear Author. I think of it as a peasant mentality, but absolutely, Stockholm Syndrome is a perfect reference.

Joe: The thing is, the notion that the gatekeepers know better is demonstrably untrue. While I've had good relationships with industry pros, they always boiled down to one thing: money. There's nothing wrong or dirty about that. Business is business. But as the artist, we have a lot more at stake in this business.

Barry: We have more skin in the game. A publisher can have hundreds of authors, but I'll only be able to write so many books in my lifetime. They can afford to have a few fail. I can't.

I want to digress here for a moment to show how in the current system this hidden asymmetry can work to the author’s detriment. You know how legacy publishers are now agreeing to what are called “lookback” provisions on digital royalties?

Joe: You mean the clauses that says, three years after publication, the two parties will renegotiate the digital royalty?

Barry: Yes. The clause then provides, “And if the parties can’t agree on a new royalty, the publisher will stop selling digital copies of the title in question.” Sounds like an equitable solution, right?

Joe: Not to me. But I see why it’ll fool some people.

Barry: It fools a lot of people. They think, “Well, that seems fair... if we can’t agree on a new royalty, no one can sell the book until we do agree.” Equally applicable to both sides. But as a percentage of the publisher’s corporate earnings, that one version of one title is barely a rounding error. As a percentage of the author’s earnings, it’s massive. If there’s a freeze, who’s going to squeal first?

Joe: People need to understand this. I need my books to make money, or else I can't make a living. A publisher needs books, but not any specific book.

Barry: A critical concept that applies to burglaries, too. A burglar doesn’t want to rob your house; he wants to rob a house. When you understand this, you can take appropriate defensive measures.

Joe: Okay, back to your decision. Without--

Barry: Did I digress?

Joe: You never digress.

Barry: You’re being kind.

Joe: Without revealing who offered you half a million dollars, how did they handle your reaction?

There have been other authors who have turned down deals. Though hearsay and rumor continue to trumpet otherwise, I passed up legacy offers for Shaken, Endurance, and Trapped, and I pulled a second book in a two book deal with Berkley because I couldn't get them to understand that low prices and no DRM sells many more books, even though I have a lot of evidence that shows I'm right.

But I didn't give up half a mil...

Barry: Every time you say that you make me feel like a lunatic!

Joe: You might be, but not in regard to this situation. Obviously, I'm 100% on your side on this one. I'm on track to make half a mil in the next ten months. I know how lucrative self-publishing has become.

But I'm an outlier, remember? An anomaly. (Me and the dozens other writers who are doing the same.)

Barry: Here’s another quote, this one from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

As a news junkie, it’s been fascinating for me to watch the way the publishing establishment has tried to marginalize you. First by ignoring you, and then, when ignoring you become impossible, by trying to position you as some sort of shrill, bitter, fringe player with nothing more than an axe to grind. The way legacy publishing has tried to de-position you is perfectly analogous to what The New York Times and other establishment media players have tried to do with Wikileaks.

I can’t tell you how many otherwise smart and reasonably well-informed publishing people have said to me, “Well, yes, but Konrath was rejected by all the NY houses” (about the same number as the otherwise smart and reasonably well-informed people who’ve said to me, “Yes, but Wikileaks indiscriminately released a quarter million top-secret cables and has blood on its hands”). I tell them that’s untrue, that in fact your legacy books have earned out and that you had offers on various others which in the end you decided not to take. And I ask them, “What do people say when they’ve been fired? ‘I quit.’ What do they say when their girlfriend breaks up with them? ‘I dumped her, man.’ Maybe they even believe it, too, but that doesn’t make it so.

And then they say, ‘Well, all right, but Konrath is a marketing genius.’

Joe: That part’s true.

Barry: It is true, but it isn’t the point. Their trying to argue that you have to be a marketing genius to succeed in self-publishing, and that therefore no one else but you can do it. This is just demonstrably not the case. A talent for marketing is going to help you in any business endeavor, but there are too many people making money now in self-publishing for an outbreak of genius to be the explanation.

And then the next argument (contradicting the first one, by the way), is, “Konrath only succeeded in self-publishing because he had a legacy deal first.” And then I point to your various blog posts where you show how much money is being made by self-published writers who have never had legacy deals.

Joe: I think I contradicted the "legacy deal first" argument pretty well here.

Barry: You demolished it. The final argument I’ve been hearing--and it really will be the final argument, because after this, “then you win”--is that, “Okay, some people are making money in self-publishing, but it’s always the same names.”

But that list of names keeps getting longer. The critics are going to be reduced to saying, ‘Okay, some people are making money in self-publishing, but it’s always the same five thousand names.’

The critics will be self-publishing themselves before then.

Joe: I was in love with the publishing industry. It was my dream to land a Big 6 deal. And I still believe the industry is filled with intelligent, talented, motivated, exceptional people. I'm grateful to have sold as many books as I did (and continue to do.)

My switch to self-publishing isn't personal. It's just business. I can make more money on my own.

Also, I see publishers doing a lot that’s wrong. Things we've just discussed. It isn't a good idea for most authors to sign a legacy deal anymore.

You, however, are a NYT bestseller. This is important, you passing on a deal like this. It says something I haven't been able to say, and shows something I haven't been able to show.

Barry: Some people are reading this and saying, “Yeah, it shows that he is demented!”

Joe: Nah, that they already suspected. Actually, I'd qualify it as a tipping point. When big name authors start turning down major deals, the tides are truly turning.

Barry: I think it’s fair to say it’s probably a kind of milestone. There will be many more, some we won’t even be aware of except in retrospect, but yes, when authors start turning down half-million dollar book deals because they think they’ll do better in the long run on their own, it’s hard to argue “Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving...”

Joe: I've said it to you in person, and I'll repeat it here. You have got some gigantic balls.

Barry: I don’t know if it’s that so much. It’s more that I’ve spent a lot of time in this industry and a lot of time studying it. I’ve also spent time in other industries, and in the government, and there are certain dynamics at work in the publishing world that feel familiar to me. Plus I read your blog and I track the results of your experiments. You’ve created a lot of data that’s providing a kind of roadmap through new and confusing terrain. Anyway, add all that up and it leads me to the conclusion that I’d be better off on my own. Doing the right thing isn’t the hard part, I think; it’s knowing what the right thing is in the first place. You’ve made that easier.

Joe: Dude, they're like two pumpkins in a sack. Your balls are massive. Other men fear your balls.

Now would be a fun time to reveal that I made up all of my numbers, and am only making $7 a week on ebooks.

Barry: Heh. Remember, if Amazon is playing with your numbers, they’re probably inflating them just to tempt other authors to take the plunge, create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and hasten the transition to digital.

Joe: We discussed that recently. How can we be sure Amazon, or any of the other etailers, are being honest in their accounting?

Barry: We can’t. But--

Joe: But how can we be sure the Big 6 are honest in their accounting? Especially with reserves against returns and inflated print run figures?

Barry: Exactly. What’s so interesting about this species of question is that it always ignores the same risk as it exists in a more familiar context. For example, “How do you know you’ll be able to market your books effectively by yourself?” As though working with a legacy publisher automatically means you’re going to be marketed effectively.

Joe: My fave is, "So what if Amazon reduces the royalty rate from 70% once they dominate the market?"

Barry: Yes, that’s the classic. I mean, they might even reduce it to 14.9%! And God, a 14.9% digital royalty would just suck.

Oh, wait...

Joe: LMAO.

Barry: One more related point. I know some people are going to be reading this and thinking, “Okay, but how will I ever cut through all that digital clutter? How will I ever get noticed without a publisher?”

Joe: How did anyone ever get noticed with a publisher?

Barry: Exactly. Walk into a bookstore--even with today’s diminished inventory, there are tens of thousands of titles. How do you get noticed? Getting noticed and other aspects of marketing is a challenge in any business, digital, paper, or otherwise. It’s too big a topic to cover here, but for now, let’s just say that it’s hardly a unique challenge for digital books. And, as you and many others have demonstrated, it’s hardly an insurmountable challenge, either.

Joe: I’d argue that marketing a digital book is actually easier. But we can come back to that. I want to ask, can you reveal who made the offer?

Barry: I don’t think it’s a secret that the publisher was St. Martin’s Press. And my demurral had nothing to do with SMP specifically--in fact, I think they’re terrific people, and if I’d worked with them earlier in my career, I would have been much better off. Also, I had comparable offers from other publishers and thought the SMP people were the smartest and most impressive of the bunch. So my decision had nothing to do with SMP in particular, and everything to do with pervasive industry dynamics as I see them. To put it another way, from everything I’ve heard and seen, I think SMP would be an exceptionally strong publisher. But like all publishers, they’re currently caught in a digital riptide and don’t have a good way through it.

Joe: So, were they shocked?

Barry: Well, certainly surprised and disappointed. And we tried to work out something a little different than what had originally been proposed, but in the end I just couldn’t convince myself not to go it alone.

Joe: How about your agent? What was his reaction?

Barry: Again, surprised and disappointed. But it’s led to a lot of terrific conversations about where the industry is going, and how agents will be changing their business models accordingly.

Joe: Did your wife want to strangle you?

Barry: If she did, it wouldn’t be anything new. But she’s amazing... totally understands how I think and feel about all this and is completely supportive.

Joe: Also, if you don't do well on this, I'll be the one she strangles.

Barry: She’s told me exactly that.

Joe: What was the ultimate basis for your decision? Did it come down to pure dollars and cents?

Barry: Financial considerations were a big part of it, yes. You and I have discussed various models to understand what a publisher’s advance represents: a loan, an insurance policy, a bet. On the loan model, the first place I heard the concept articulated was in an extremely ballsy and persuasive blog post by Terrill Lee Lankford.

Joe: I like that analogy. I also believe signing with a big publisher is like signing a life insurance policy, where the payments keep getting larger while the payoff gets smaller as time goes on.

Barry: Yes. Now, of course there are numbers where the loan, the insurance, or the bet would make sense. If the loan is so big that you don’t think you’d ever be able to make that much on your own, plus you won’t have to pay it back, then sure, take it. If the insurance payout is so big that it eclipses the event it’s supposed to protect against, okay. And if you find a publisher willing to put down so much money upfront that you feel they must be stoned because no one could ever earn that much back, then by all means, take the bet.

But short of that, you have to wonder if the person you’re betting against isn’t yourself.

Anyway, yes, much of this was financial. A lot of people don’t realize--and I probably wouldn’t have realized myself if you hadn’t pointed it out--that the appropriate measure for determining how much your books can earn you in digital is
forever. In paper, with rare exceptions, there’s a big upfront sales push, followed by either total evaporation or by years of low backlist sales. Digital isn’t like that.

Joe: Time is the ultimate long tail. Even with a big wad of money upfront, if something sells forever, the back end is what ultimately counts.

Barry: Right. So if you think you’re going to die on Tuesday, for sure take the advance on Monday. If you think you’re going to stick around for a while, though, and you have resources to draw on such that you don’t need that expensive loan, don’t take it. You’ll be better off without.

Joe: Or to put it another way, getting half a million bucks and 14.9% royalties, forever, isn't as lucrative as no money up front and 70% royalties, forever.

Barry: Yes. Especially because you first have to earn out the half million at 14.9% per book. That could take a while. After which, as you note, you’re still only earning 14.9% rather than 70%. You need to move five times the volume at 14.9%.

Joe: But currently, you're a paper bestseller.

Barry: Yes, which maybe makes my experience instructive. My books are probably pretty good examples of reasonable success in paper. The first two, Rain Fall and Hard Rain, are in something like their 15th printings eight and nine years on. So that’s good. But I’m still only earning pennies on each copy sold. And my publisher of those books, Putnam, is still trying to charge $6.99 and $7.99 for digital copies, which is demonstrably too high if your goal is to maximize revenue (as opposed to, say, trying to shore up an eroding paper ecosystem).

I’m getting close to earning out on some of those books, which would be another sign of success--but even after I’ve earned out, I’ll still be making only pennies because of low paper royalties and because 14.9% multiplied by sluggish digital sales caused by too-high prices doesn’t make me much money.

I should add here that I don’t begrudge Putnam--they have the rights and they can use them however they like, however mistaken I think they are in their digital pricing model. The point is that I would be making far more money from the books if I held the digital rights myself. At the time, holding the rights myself wasn’t an option. Today it is, and I don’t want to be kicking myself eight years from now when The Detachment would be making me only pennies through a legacy publisher when it could have been making me a mint through the rights I refused to sell cheap.

Joe: Time also has to be an issue for you. Not just having to wait a year to publish The Detachment, but the time it takes to promote it.

A few years ago, there was some idiot who did signings at over 500 bookstores during a summer. He wound up visiting 40 states and over 1200 bookstores.

Barry: I heard about that guy. Funny-looking dude.

Joe: Hah. But there was another idiot who came pretty close to that record, who personally visited over 800 bookstores in the last few years.

Barry: Heh. People who live in glass houses...

Joe: And I may be the only other person on the planet who knows the amount of time and effort that took. Time that you could have spent writing...

Barry: Based on what I knew at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. Plus I’ve always wanted to see Montana.

Joe: I'm sure you saw that and more, driving those thousands of miles. But it was the right thing to do. We're both still in print, aren't we? How many of our peers who were published at the same time aren't?

Barry: That’s a good point. Books were selling through bookstores, and I looked at booksellers as my frontline sales force. So I wanted to do all I could do develop a closer relationship with that sales force and help them sell books. Not an unworthy objective, even today, but what it fails to take into account is the opportunity cost involved. When you’re driving (or whatever), you’re not writing, and again the highest profit margin activity an author can engage in is writing. In retrospect, I realize this has always been true, but it’s more true now that ever due to the numbers of units you can sell in digital, because of the tendency of a new digital customer to vacuum up an author’s entire low-price, high-margin oeuvre in one purchase.

Joe: So this decision should allow you to be more prolific. Because, dayam, a book a year is really fricking slow...

Barry: I think you’ll see me writing a bit more in my new self-published capacity. And not just because I’m motivated. It’s also because, contrary to conventional wisdom, in my experience publishers don’t actually save you much time on the marketing front. Dealing with a legacy publisher can be quite time-consuming, and aggravating, too. Of course, publishers might say the same about authors! But that doesn’t change the fact that publishers can take up a lot of your time.

Joe: Dealing with bureaucrats, large companies, or committees, is always a time suck. Lots of effort, little result.

Barry: If you think about it, for years publishers have been steadily outsourcing their core business functions. Culling the slush pile went to agents long ago. A lot of editorial devolved to agents, too. Marketing has increasingly become the responsibility of writers, who are expected to blog and be social media demons. I think publishers felt comfortable outsourcing all these functions because they felt the lock they had on their core function--distribution--made their overall position impregnable.

The problem is, they’ve lost that lock, and they’ve already outsourced so many of their other functions that it’s getting hard for them to offer a writer a coherent value proposition. For now, they have enough cash to offer advances, which most authors will need to live for the same reason most people need a mortgage to buy a house. But even that advantage is being eroded by digital, because with digital, you publish right away and start earning right away.

It’s funny, what are the two most common, even pervasive, writer complaints about legacy publishers? First, that publishers don’t know how to market and expect writers to do a tremendous amount of their own marketing. Second, publisher incompetence.

Joe: Yeah, the incompetence. Lots of people call me bitter, and I don't completely discount that. But it isn't because I couldn't land new contracts--I had plenty of those, even too many in retrospect, when I consider how much more money I could making on the titles I sold to legacy publishers. It's because my publishers have made a lot of mistakes. Some of them big. Some of them which cost me, are costing me, money.

Talking to other writers, I know I'm not alone. Almost every writer I know has gotten screwed by their publisher, in one way or another. I know hundreds of writers, and I can count on one hand the number of my peers who have no publisher complaints. Bad covers, title changes, editing conflicts, slow payments, unclear royalty statements, orphaned books, bad launches. The list is so long that I have to wonder if we're not being intentionally screwed...

Barry: This was part of the not-strictly-financial calculus in my decision. Of course, when a publisher makes a mistake, it costs the author money. That’s a financial problem. But there’s also the irritation of knowing that your publisher is making a mistake, the time you spend trying to correct it, the frustration of not being able to. I mean, imagine that your publisher thinks the appropriate cover for your thriller is a close-up image of an olive-green garage door.

Joe: I've been fighting with a publisher for years now because not all my ebooks are available. How crazy is that? I'm not on all platforms, in all countries, yet they praise me for being one of their bestselling ebook authors.

You've got the rights! Exploit them, dammit! I'm one guy and I can get my self-pubbed ebooks up for sale without any problems! You're a multi-million dollar company with a big staff!

Years I've been dealing with this.

Barry: Yeah, there are a lot of frustrations. Now, in fairness, there are authors whose publishers have done everything right--and good for them. But it’s a question of probabilities, based on empirical evidence.

Joe: Even a blind bird finds a worm every now and then.

Barry: Actually, I think it’s a little different from that, and more tragic, too. I’ve heard some people say in response to a publisher success, “Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day,” but that’s not what’s going on. Publishers actually have good instincts, and when the right property is being handled by the right team, a team that gets the book on a gut level, understands its essential marketing hooks, that knows which channels to push it through, when, and how, they can make magic happen. The tragedy is the cultural inability of legacy publishers to extract from those instinct-driven successes (and from their failures) objective, replicable lessons that they can then apply to increase the odds of success of books for which the publisher doesn’t have that rare, spot-in gut instinct.

Joe: I gotta disagree with you here. Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon. Two books with similar topics can have similar launches, and then one tanks while the other is a huge hit. If the same things were done for each book, there is no way to learn what works and what doesn't.

That isn't to say publishers can't help a book find its audience. They do. But they only do it one out of five times. The other four don't make a profit. And I've heard the return rates are as high as 70%.

Guess what? Every single one of my self-pubbed books has made a profit. Now, some make more than others, and I can't account for why, any more than a legacy publisher can predict what will be a hit.

Barry: But is that all luck?

Joe: Yes. Randomness is a bigger factor than we like to admit.

Barry: My point on extracting and applying objective lessons isn’t that the extraction and application of such lessons guarantees success, but rather that it increases the odds of success.

Look at it this way: does an image of an olive-green, static garage door decrease sales of a book? Of course it does. Mistakes cost. So it follows that the avoidance of mistakes, and the application of sound tactics, must increase the probability of success.

Joe: But according to your logic, every time a publisher does everything right, the book should be a hit. And it can be shown this is true, in retrospect. But this is called the sharpshooter fallacy. You're attributing significance to events after they've already happened.

Barry: No, not a hit, but the book should do better than it would have when they screwed up.

Joe: They still have too many misses, even when they do things right. It's luck, man.

Barry: That’s a good point, and it might just be--probably is--the case that publishing is an inherently hit-driven business, like movies or venture capital. But with more sound tactics, the misses could at least be mitigated and the hits might do even better. Probably some misses could even be turned into hits. Not all, but no one needs to shoot for (or could obtain) a .1000 batting average. The point is just to increase the odds, and therefore the profits.

Joe: Odds can be increased, and I agree publishers can do that. Talent, knowledge, experience, and hard work can improve the chances for success.

But in order to prove publishers are good at manufacturing success, they should be able to apply their knowledge and predict hits. And they can't do this, even though they often believe they can.

Barry: Exactly. Here’s another example of something I found frustrating: that one of my publishers just didn’t understand the principle of a good author bio--what the bio is for, how it should function. Now, is a good bio going to make a book a hit? Probably not. But a bad bio can’t help, and since there’s no cost to doing the bio right, why not do it right? Why not explain to newbies in the publishing house that this is what a bio is for and this is how it’s done? Why not have a system for passing along that institutional learning? And it’s not just bios, of course. It’s packaging, it’s titles (and titles)... learning just isn’t part of the culture, and the inability to extract, apply, and transmit learning has cost publishers, and therefore authors, a lot. And remember, when a publisher screws up a book, it costs them fractionally. When that book is your book, it costs you one hundred percent.

Joe: LOL. Get two authors together, and after a while they'll start bitching about their publishers...

A phrase I hear you use a lot is "adding value." I like that. In contracts, and even in our dealings with others, we should consider what value we're offering, and what value is being added.

Whether or not we agree on the luck thing, can we agree that sometimes publishers add value, but sometimes they take away value?

Barry: Definitely we can agree on that. And this gets to the heart of the conundrum facing legacy publishing.

There’s no question that legacy publishers still add a lot of value on the paper side of the ledger. With paper, you need to actually make books, deploy a sales force, take wholesale orders, get the books on trucks, handle returns... there’s a huge amount of infrastructure, which is what’s given publishers the relative clout they’ve enjoyed for so long. Authors can’t distribute paper nearly as well by themselves, or even with a service like Amazon’s CreateSpace, as they can with a legacy partner.

Joe: Agreed, but I am making $120 a day through CreateSpace on my print books. In a year I'll earn more than my original advance for Whiskey Sour, my first novel.

Barry: Yes, you can definitely still make money through paper distribution even without a legacy partner, but probably not nearly as much.

Joe: That’s changing, though.

Barry: Yes, like everything else, and I expect that as more authors turn to digital self-publishing, more paper fulfillment players will emerge and offer authors more choices and better margins. And of course if something like the Espresso Book Machine Print-on-Demand become sufficiently cheap and ubiquitous, writers will even be able to self-distribute through paper.

Joe: I was thinking more along the lines of: it's changing, because paper is becoming a subsidiary right. I think we both agree that digital is going to become the preferred format for books.

Barry: Yes, and that’s the other side of the conundrum. On the digital side of the ledger, publishers don’t add much at all because there’s nothing to distribute. Or, to put it a little more accurately, what publishers can add on the digital side (editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, jacket copy, formatting) can all be done by other players at least as well. So what an author needs to consider today is fairly straightforward: “Is what I’m giving up on the digital side by taking on this legacy partner balanced or exceeded by the partner’s paper muscle?”

The answer is going to be different with different authors. James Patterson, to use an extreme example, sells bazillions of books in every conceivable paper outlet. He’s clearly better off with a legacy partner than he would be on his own. But as bookstores close and digital readers proliferate, more and more authors will decide that what legacy publishers take from them in digital sales isn’t worth what legacy publishers earn for them in paper sales.

Joe: And there's something else at work here, too. Let's say you have both a digital version and a print version available. You may sell one of each to two different readers. That's two copies sold. But if the book is only available digitally, that doesn't mean you'll only sell one copy. You could sell two copies to the same people--the one who would have bought a paper copy had it been available just buys the digital version instead.

Barry: Yes, many people assume sales is a zero sum game. For a car, it is. For low-priced items, not necessarily.

Joe: In some cases, I've had readers email me saying they bought a Kindle or a Nook just to read one of my ebooks.

Barry: Had the same experience with The Lost Coast--just for a short story! Very flattering, and a portent more generally, I think.

Joe: My point is, I don't think walking away from a paper deal means the loss of all those paper sales. Maybe some. But some of those who would have bought you in print, will buy you in ebook. And you may find ebook readers who would have never bought you in print.

This can also be applied to price. Right now, your best ranked ebook is your $2.99 short story. Why is it outselling your backlist? I'd say it’s because of price.

If you controlled the price of your backlist, those same people who are avoiding those ebooks would likely buy them, as evidenced by those buying your short story.

Barry: Agreed. One of the things you’ve demonstrated is that digital sales don’t behave like paper sales. I think this is primarily a function of two things: price, and intangability. A $2.99 download is an impulse purchase. Lugging around a ten-dollar paperback just isn’t.

Joe: Sales 101: Don't make the consumer think about the purchase. Several things can impede a sales. Cost. Convenience. Tangibility. Even the use of money or a credit card.

Ebooks leapfrog all these roadblocks. A low price is an impulse buy, no guilt attached. You can own one with the press of a button--and a button press is much less painful than opening up your wallet. No getting into the car and going to the store is necessary. No ordering online and waiting for the mailman to come a week later. You can buy a book while in bed, and get it a few seconds later.

It's no wonder Kindle and Nook owners wind up buying more books than they ever did in print. It's easy, painless, cheap, and instant.

But instead of pouncing on this new technology and embracing this wonderful delivery system that turns readers into happy addicts, publishers are trying to slow down its adoption.

Barry: Yes. That’s another key not-strictly-financial reason I couldn’t do another legacy deal. I just don’t want to be part of an industry that doesn’t make sense, that’s fighting change rather than taking advantage of it. I want to make money by giving readers what they want, not by seeking ways to deny it to them.

Joe: This conversation went on for several hours. It’ll take a while to to edit, too.

Barry: We should leave the frog stuff in. That’ll save time.

Joe: It will. But what would you say to someone who said, “But I thought you said writers should spend all their time writing?”

Barry: That’s not what we said. We said that a writer’s time is most profitably spent writing. There’s more to life than profit, though, and sharing experience and insights with others who might benefit is a good in its own right regardless of what money it might make or cost you. I’ve never profited from all the articles I’ve written about the business of publishing, and the politics of my blog, Heart of the Matter, might even cost me readers. That’s fine by me. And we probably would have made more money if this 13,000 word conversation were a jointly-written short story, instead. That’s fine, too. Again, activity X might be your most profitable activity, but that doesn’t mean activity X is the only thing you should do. It just means that activity X is what you should be doing when you’re trying to make money. For writers today, activity X is indisputably writing.

Joe: Which brings us back to the entire reason we're having this conversation in the first place, and why we've documented it for posterity (or to help other writers, or to clarify our own motives, or all of the above.) Namely, you just turned down a half-million dollars to self-publish.

One of the things I've said, time and again in our conversations, is that ultimately writers will make more money by self-pubbing than by signing a legacy deal. Even if there is a nice chunk of money upfront, in the long run a 70% royalty wins. But there’s more to it than that. As a self-publisher, you can get your books to readers much faster--often by a year or more--than a legacy publisher can. You don't have to deal with the ungodly amount of time we've both spent touring, booksigning, and travelling. There's no wasting time or getting frustrated with publishers' mistakes. You're in complete control of your own career, whereas before you were at the mercy of a corporation that treated you like just another product--a product that it wasn't very good at selling in the first place.

Barry: I want to interrupt to ask one question.

Joe: Damn, I was just building up a head of steam.

Barry: The terminology. I love the term “self-published” because it used to carry a stigma, and now it’s being rehabilitated. Which makes sense. In America, the self has a lot of positive connotations. Self-possessed, self-actualized, self-confident, self-pleasure--”

Joe: Self-pleasure?

Barry: Well, everybody does it. Everybody likes it.

Joe: I guess that’s true.

Barry: And you really are self-published, in that you manage everything yourself. But let’s talk about what “everything” means for a moment.

Joe: Okay.

Barry: To turn a manuscript into an actual book and get it into the hands of a reader, we still need an editor, line editor, copyeditor, proofreader, jacket copy writer, bio writer, cover art designer, and digital formatter. Plus there are various marketing and sales elements, too. You manage all these functions yourself, and this is one way in which I’d argue that you really are, if not exceptional, then at least unusual.

Joe: I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Barry: So as legacy publishing dies out, where will other writers turn to for assistance with the critical functions I mention above?

Joe: We’ve talked about this before.

Barry: I know. I was trying to prompt you in an unobtrusive way.

Joe: Right. Okay, unobtrusively, I think agencies will morph into what I call E-stributors.

Barry: I agree with the concept, even if I don’t like the nomenclature.

Joe: You don’t like “print,” either.

Barry: Not when you’re talking about paper. There’s paper print and digital print. I think the better distinction is between paper and digital.

Joe: I know, I know. Anyway, E-stributors will be a combination of publisher and manager, handling all the elements you mention above for authors who don’t want to manage those elements themselves. The ones that do it well will probably be able to make a good case for keeping their 15% cut.

Barry: As opposed to legacy publishers, which are keeping 52.5%.

Joe: Yes. Hard to see how legacy publishers will be able to compete with the digital model being adopted by agencies. They’d have to morph into E-stributors themselves, which would be a huge challenge given their attachment to a paper infrastructure. More likely, you’ll see the most entrepreneurial editors jumping ship and joining agencies.

Barry: Sorry for the digression. I guess I was just wondering aloud whether the term “self-published” will be widely applicable after all. For some, no doubt. But maybe “indie-published” will be more appropriate across the board.

Joe: Could be. Regardless, the one trump card legacy publishers always had--the lock on distribution--is now gone. Writers can reach readers on our own through Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, Createspace, and Overdrive (a company that distributes ebooks to libraries.)

Even with all that, however, it still takes a lot of guts to walk away from a half-million dollars.

But it's the right thing to do. And you're correct that you won't be the last to do so.

Allow me to congratulate you on being the first one to do so, my friend.

If I'm right, you may have just fired a shot heard 'round the world...

Barry: Thanks for the kind words, amigo. But you saw the way and blazed the trail. I might be doing something to make the way more apparent myself, but in the end I’m still just following in your footsteps.

About the Authors

Joe Konrath is the author of more than twenty novels and hundreds of short stories, written under the names J.A. Konrath (the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series), Jack Kilborn (Afraid, Trapped, Endurance, Draculas), and Joe Kimball (Timecaster.) Joe has a lot of names, apparently. He began self-publishing on Kindle in April, 2009. As of March, 2011, he's sold over 200,000 ebooks. On his blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, he has chronicled his writing journey. You can visit him at

Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler's bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous "Best Of" lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. The first book in Eisler's John Rain series, Rain Fall, is now a minor motion picture (kidding, it’s reasonably major) starring Gary Oldman. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he's not writing novels, blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law. You can find out more on his website, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. He was also in the movie Freakonomics, which he forgot to tell Joe.


«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 263 of 263
Ernie said...


Lets not forget the "Amazon Community" features on the site. Check the “listmania” feature. Customers put together their own lists on hundreds of topics, and Amazon automatically links those lists to the pages of related sales items. Someone has an interest in 'Vampire Romance'? They create a list of favorite stories, authors, etc. If you've got a story in their list, you get tied to the other authors they've added and a customer buying one of those can find your item: built in networking and exposure.

And Amazon also provides a "Customers who Bought This Also Bought" list on the page of other items (and on your item's page, linking to other authors). Enough folks buy your story and one of Joe's, and the next customer looking at Joe's stuff gets automatically pointed toward yours. That's yet another answer to the question of publicity and exposure.

Oh yes, Amazon also takes care of sending out Email and other notifications to your customers when one of the items on their wish lists comes up for sale. Or when one of the authors they've bought from in the past comes out with a new story. That way, you don't even have to rely on your customer to come and visit your “virtual store window”, the “window” goes to the customer and says “Hey! Lookie Here!”.

Of course, there's also the financial side; not referring to the money you make, but the mechanics of the transaction. Exchange rates, credit card transaction management, accounting, taxes, paypal interface – the works. Considering what a credit card company changes a retailer just to use their cards, and all the frustration, accounting, and paperwork that goes with them (and has to be repeated for each card you accept), that in itself is a HUGE burden off the shoulders of the author. And lets not get started on handling the folks trying to rip you off with fake cards, overdrawn accounts, and all the rest. All that gets shifted into the Amazon collection department. Certainly better than trying to deal with it as a self-publisher running an independent business site.

I hope that provides some insight to what you get from Amazon's “cut”.

As for the bibliographers and writers who need years to produce their material: You implied that those authors would be unable to function without the “up front” advances from a publishing house.

I have to say that I feel this is somewhat of a strawman argument. It appears only to apply to authors that are so well established and proven that a publishing company is willing to risk an advance of “five years” (your estimate) worth of living expenses to produce a sure-seller at the end; one that justifies such an risk with guaranteed profits. This appears rather atypical.

After all, most publishing houses don't pay "full living expense" sort of advances to first-time authors who are going to crank something out in under a year (other than exceptional circumstances, like famous persons writing their life story or insider “tell all” stuff). They're definitely not going risk paying an unknown and unproven author enough to live on while they do “years worth of research” to produce their first book! Either that author is already established, or they are, as you said “independently wealthy” or have some other means of supporting themselves while cranking out their first submission.

And, if they are not “unknown/unestablished” and worthy of the risk of a big enough advance to support five years worth of research, then why couldn't they have “established” themselves via the self-publishing means, and be making enough income from the difference in their “cut” so they have that 'other means of support' mentioned above and don't require a hefty advance as you claim?

Ernie said...

Dang it, this is frustrating! This first part of the post was there, then it was gone again and only the last half was left (above). The counter for number of posts incremented to 202, but Blogger chopped it back to 201 and cut the post out.

Going to try cutting it into more sections to see which paragraph is tripping the "cut this post" filter...

Trying again (number 7)

To Writerman:

Perhaps I can provide some insight on what Amazon brings to the table, not from a writer's perspective, but that of a systems logistician and reader.

First, that “Virtual Store Window” which you seemed somewhat dismissive of, comes with a whole lot of “behind the scenes” cost and effort. There's bandwidth charges, equipment costs, hardware maintenance requirements, backup for both data itself and the infrastructure that it resides in (power, cooling, etc), facilities costs, and software design and support. Of course you have the system administration needs and a constant “watch” by the IT crew to keep such a huge presence functioning in the jungle of “script kiddy” crackers and “denial of service for the 'lulz'” of it attackers, as well as those more determined and “professional” types who see a target of enormous opportunity if they could just figure a way to get in and rip it off. And let's not forget the normal corporate overhead for HR and such, that keeps all those persons happily employed.

Amazon keeps the site up, keeps the data secure, protects against intrusion, and makes sure your product is available worldwide 24/7, ready whenever a potential reader gets an itch to go looking for a new story. Then there's all the coding that went in to making that site easily navigable, relatively pleasant to look at, and functionally reliable – many folks who can write a great story couldn't produce and manage a “Hey it's me” professional-looking splash page, let alone a fully functional e-business site. And taking the time to learn how takes time from doing their primary business – writing books.

Then lets add the international marketing campaign(s) that brings Millions of shoppers daily to a single-point clearing house, where your work can be discovered. Think being an unknown author on a shelf among hundreds of others in a brick and mortar bookstore is tough? Try being an unknown author on an unknown website in the middle of the vastness of the internet, and not only worry about getting your work discovered, but also bringing people to your teeny, tiny site to discover it!

(Continued next post...)

Ernie said...

(Continued from above. Getting closer to seeing that was tripping the filter! Try number 8)

Now that Amazon brought them to the door, there's the ways they provide for customers to find your product: subject categorizing, author indexing, key-word search functions, and all the other means by which Amazon provides links and accesses for shoppers to find the materials they're looking for.

For those who already buy at Amazon, and more specifically, those who already have purchased Kindle readers, Amazon sets up automatic, individually-tailored “Suggested for You” links based on your reading habits, subject matter, and authors. They also create a separate “New In” list related to authors and subjects you've already read, AND they add yet another list of “Coming Soon” with the option of pre-ordering items for later delivery when they post to the site.

Of course, they also manage user “wish lists” by individual customer, for your readers to keep track of stories they'd love to buy, but just don't have the ability to do so at the moment. Oh yes, the user can also Publish that “wish list” and point their friends and family to it, so folks can use it for gift ideas and even buy an item off it and send it to the user with a single click. Surely that's worth something? Not only do you get the sale for the person putting together the “wishes”, but you get another person exposed to your presence and material when they check out the list.


Ernie said...

Sorry about the mish-mash and out of order reply above. Apparently Blogger took some exception to the first half of that post, but didn't mind breaking it up later. Anyway, hope that (overly wordy) post helped answer the question, at least partially, of what you get for the 30% "cut" that Amazon takes off the top.


Robin Sullivan said...

And so it begins...Congratulations Barry for being the first pebble that may start an avalanche. Personally, I think there is no question that you'll make much more than if you took the $500K deal.

It's going to be really interesting to see what you price your book at.

The 75/25 will only break down once enough authors walk away. It's not too hard to imagine a future where publishers query authors to "please come back" rather than authors submitting to pubishers as they do now on the query-go-round.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Lundeen Literary said...

Another weird thing blogger is doing... I'm looking at what is labeled as comments 200-222, but there are only 5 comments, not 22.

Robin Sullivan said...

Joe, I totally don't understand your e-distributor scenario - since as you are paying a % for the life of a book to do stuff that could be done with one-time fees. I read your post about this long ago - but kind of thought your abandoned this idea just as you chaned your opinion on self-pubishing.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Robin Sullivan said...

Martin said...
Interesting stuff, and I have great respect for both these guys, but I still don't think this is a viable route for a newbie. For them, sure. But a newbie? I think it would be like printing out your book and leaving it at a bus stop. More chance someone would use it to kill a fly than read it and pass it on.

My 2 cents. I hope I'm wrong.

Martin, You must be new here. There are dozens of "never published before authors" that are doing just what Joe and Barry are and doing well. Many in the list that Barry mentioned fall into this category.

Barry: It’s inevitable that more writers will be realizing this is true. It’s being demonstrated by more and more self-published authors: you, Amanda Hocking, Scott Nicholson, Michael J. Sullivan, HP Mallory, Victorine Lieske, BV Larson, Terri Reid, LJ Sellers, John Locke, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, Aaron Patterson, Jon F. Merz, Selena Kitt

Now some of them Like Blake Crouch and Lee Goldberg have traditional experience but here are just a few that I know who have sold tens of thousands of books with NO traditional publishing:

Amanda Hocking
John Locke
B.V. Larson
Michael J. Sullivan
H.P. Mallory
D.B. Henson
Victorine Lieskie
Christopher Smith
B. V. Larson
J. R. Rain
Stephen Carpenter
Heather Killough-Walden
Nancy C. Johnson
Michael Gallagher
Christian Cantrell
David Dalglish
Vaughn Heppner
L.J. Sellers
Selina Kitt
Nathan Lowell

So yes even a "newbie" with no traditional publishing can be successful.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Ken said...

this was a very interesting and convincing blog about self publishing and I saw one comment asking about marketing which would be useful to hear. A question came up while I was reading 'these guys seem to be established authors with a following, what about someone who is trying to get their first thing published, has no following' marketing would be very important for them.

make a little music everyday

Coral Russell said...

Ernie, gave me an idea - a Listmania for Indies! :)

Michael Allen said...

Round about the middle of this long discussion, Joe asks the following question: ' can we be sure the Big 6 are honest in their accounting?' Which brings the answer, 'We can't.'

Actually I think it's worse than that. I think we can be fairly sure that they all 'make mistakes'.

Here in the UK I use a fairly large firm of accountants which specialises in serving writers and media people generally. Each year they publish a booklet about the range of services they offer. This year they remind us that royalty auditing is 'one of the fastest growing areas'. In other words, they check whether the talent is getting paid according to contract.

Turns out, in most cases, they aren't.

'In almost all cases, we discover missing income... Over the past year alone we have recovered upwards of £10 million [for clients]... In some cases, the amount we recover may be less than £10,000; in other cases, it can be more than £1 million.'

Nice that someone is on the ball here.

ivinv said...

Hello Joe.

Congrats on the great traffic. IT deserves it because like I said on my blog, this is GROUND BREAKING.

Please get back to me on that interview.

bowerbird said...

selena said:
> this Amanda Hocking thing
> has me a little befuddled
> in light of this amazing post.
> Eisler is in legacy publishing
> and passes up on half a mil
> for a two book deal in order
> to self-pub... while Hocking,
> who self-pubbed and made
> 2 million on her own... is
> rumored to be signing
> a million dollar four-book
> series deal with a legacy pub.
> *scratching head*
> The grass is always greener?

yes, in a way... but i'd put it as
"2 pastures are better than 1."

sometimes you just want to see
what the other clubhouse is like.
you don't expect it to be better;
it's just different, and you want
to experience that difference...

it's easy to see what eisler is
doing: moving to the future...

but amanda's motivation isn't
really too difficult to figure out:
she's padding out her resume,
which is an equally good way
of preparing for _her_ future...

there's still a lot of juice left
in those legacy oranges, and
she's smart to squeeze them.
it's a solid guaranteed payday,
plus she has the upper hand
at the bargaining poker table.
besides, she still has 9 books
online, making good money...
so why not go out on the boat
and try to find a white whale?

i'm amused that anyone sees
any kind of a trend in all this;
it doesn't represent continued
dominance by the corporations,
but rather instead how utterly
desperate they've now become.
they're no longer lampooning
the self-published; they are
now signing them to big deals.


info said...

I wonder whether or not there would be a interest in ebook screenplays... if people would enjoy reading in that format... I happen to have a few of those kicking around...

author Scott Nicholson said...

You had me at "Hell no"


author Scott Nicholson said...

Not trying to steal blog thunder but I just interviewed John Locke briefly for

Interestingly, he also just signed with an agent.


Coral Russell said...

Thanks Ernie for the idea. I'll add Indie Author eBooks as I find them. :)

Barry said...

Wow, I just finished reading all 200+ comments, even Marv's and Bowerbird's. Thanks, everyone (almost everyone), for all the encouragement, warm-wishes, and great questions and insights. I've put together a list of what seem to be the most frequently asked questions prompted by my move, and maybe I can persuade Joe to join me for another mescaline-fired talkfest addressing them. If he won't join me, I'll just have to do it on my own, but then it won't be nearly as entertaining or as informative. I'm amazed that after 13,000 words, there's still so much we didn't get to. Thanks again to all for adding so much to this conversation, which for me has been fun and interesting as hell.

writerman said...

Posting for the second time. Didn't appear the first, apologies if there's a repeat.
This is in response to both Robin Sullivan and Ernie. Ernie, I appreciate your taking the time and energy to respond, though I wish Joe himself might have done so. I think you made some good points about what Amazon brings to the table, but at the same time I feel like there's a bit too much of the apologist in your response. Most of the "services" they provide are already in place and do not require much effort or expense on their part, certainly not 30 percent worth. No matter how you slice it, they are middlemen, and until and unless they actually do more in a production sense, I'm going to be of the opinion that their cut is too high. As to your response to my concerns about advances, you didn't really seem to get my point. I'm not talking about first-time authors, I'm talking about writers who do books that require an inordinate investment of time before there is a payoff, an investment that has heretofore been made possible by getting an advance based on a book proposal. No argument that you made really addressed that. And to Robin, who clicked off a bunch of first-time authors who have self-published to success, they were, I'm fairly certain, admittedly without having done due diligence, all genre writers, as are both Joe and Barry. There's no question that genre writers, who tend to develop cult followings, can, if they pick up a little steam, successfully self-publish, because their audience is the sort to actively proselytize. This is not to in any way diminish what they or their audience do, but simply to say that there are all different kinds of writers out there, and self-publishing, while wonderful in theory, may not be the answer for everybody. I'm not an advocate for the legacy publishers. I just wonder what the future holds for midlist writers like me, who do not have cult audiences but rather a more general readership that may not connect with one another on social networks or other such platforms. And unscientifically but just by observation it seems as if the writers and readers pushing hardest for this inevitable electronic future are genre writers. I'm happy to be corrected on this, enlightened or anything else. As I say, I am very open to self-publishing but want to know how it will work for writers like me.
Peter Alson

Chris said...

Off topic:

Anyone in need of some neck loosening exercise should head over to Nathan Bransford's blog and read the comments under his latest post.

Count how many times you shake your head in disbelief as you scroll through the 'predictions'.

Konrath, I've been reading your blog for half a dozen years now. I don't always agree with you and sometimes I want to choke some of that confidence out of you... but at least you man-up and go out with an attitude to win. You're a fine antidote to many in (or wanting an in to) publishing.

I know, it's a weird way to show gratitude. Consider this a fuck you/thank you comment!! ;)

BTW: Barry, I hopes this all works out for you. It shows great courage but you seem to have a similar work ethic to Joe, so the sky will probably be the limit.

Robin Sullivan said...

@writerman...The books I have personal experience with are genre based so I can't say I'm an expert on say, "literary fiction" but I think that traditional and self-published follow similar trends here.

That is to say that if you are a 'genre' writer its easier to find a following then someone who is more of a 'generalist'. So I "think" both methods struggle a bit more then their genre counterparts.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Lundeen Literary said...


@Rebecca -

"Writers need to start acting like business people. Once the writing is finished, put on the business hat and be responsible for your own business. This to me is the essence of Barry's decision. He looked at his options and made the best business decision for himself."

I could not agree more. I think what's driving a lot of authors is fear, and the feeling that they can't do something or don't deserve it.

Even with my statements above that I don't think long-tail percentages are a good idea, and that, sure, I'll do it if you really, really want me to, I STILL have emails about doing long-tail work in my email box this morning, with folks referencing this blog. Sometimes, you have to make options available to the customer. This one just makes me scratch my head. Then again, I've gone out and paid high prices for brunch, and I know the markup on eggs. It's a waste of money but I do it anyway. Everyone can choose what to spend their money on, I suppose.

Doesn't mean I agree with the business decision for my business, but if the author makes that choice, well, that's up to him or her. Still makes me shake my head.


bowerbird said...

barry said:
> I just finished reading
> all 200+ comments, even
> Marv's and Bowerbird's.


you mean you've ignored
joe's advice to ignore me? :+)

surely you know no good
will come from this. ;+)


Pat Mullan said...

Joe and Barry: I just posted this on FACEBOOK: Cheers, Pat
If you are a writer - or a reader - you have to read this conversation between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler (both of whom I know well). It's so convincing that I have self-published my latest thriller, LAST DAYS OF THE TIGER, under my own imprint (ATHRY HOUSE Books ) and it's now available on B&N's Nook - very soon on Kindle and all others too ...
Thanks Joe and Barry. I owe you guys a beer (in your case Joe, a case of beer) !

PJ said...

Wow! I'm a preacher and see SOO Much of the same in the "church" today as a the "publisher" seeking to stay, even by force, relevent, needed and in the wrong business - even the monkey & the frog fits in some areas!! Your statements have led to some very cool introspection on what's it all about and what is my part in it!! Thank You!!

Morgan Mandel said...

This post could have been sold as a book on Amazon!

I don't expect to get any two-book offers of $500,000 from a legacy publisher, but being as I'm older than Barry, if I did, I'd take the $500,000, then self-publish as well. Since I don't expect that kind of offer, I've already decided to self-publish again, but not to accept returns. Bookstores love to order too many books and then return them. That's how self-pubs get mangled.

Morgan Mandel

Lundeen Literary said...


Bookstores are in LOVE with returns! There was a B&N a few years ago, and they moved to a larger building across the parking lot, maybe 1000 feet away. One of my pals was working there, and he asked what order books should be boxed in order to facilitate unpacking in the new location. Get this: they told him that they weren't moving all the books in the store, they were *returning* all the books in the store. Every last one. They ripped the covers off every paperback and got full credit. They dumped stuff willy-nilly into boxes and sent them back to the distributor. Then, they ordered all new books for the new store 1000 feet away, and they were all delivered fresh and shiny new.

THAT'S why I hate returns.


Monette said...

Hey, guys, Moni here. Great post and from an e-published author since 1999 welcome to my world.

Grapeshot/Odette said...

Holy freakin' crap. The comments were longer than the post, and that was a doozy. Loved the information, the humor and the inspiration. Much food for thought.

The Shadow Warriors, now on Kindle

dtgooden said...

I think Amanda Hocking owes you big, Barry. You seem to have them frazzled enough to spend $2 mil on winning her over.

Thanks for the insight, to both you and Joe. It's got me realizing that first dream of being a writer (where you just write for you and the readers and are your own boss) might not just be a dream after all.

I don't need to make $2 mil. I'd just like to pay off my little house. Looks like there might be a living wage for more and more authors--very exciting days.

Jacob said...

"Holy shit," that's pretty incredible. It does push me further in the direction of self publishing to say the least.

I had been going back and forth, not sure yet whether I could get a legacy publisher if I wanted one, and not sure I should want one. If I self published, I knew I could produce the book at a lower cost, higher profit and greater level of creative and editorial control. I also knew that self publishing had a kind of stigma attached to it, and that according to the numbers self published books most commonly only sell a few hundred copies.

If someone who's been a best seller writer would rather go to self publishing than remain with a legacy publisher that puts one up for the idea of self publishing.

Thanks for bringing this article to my attention.

Robin Sullivan said...

Regardign Amazda's deal - did anyone other than myself find this a humerous post from the NYT article announcing the signing?

"Publishers, weary of hearing about their disposability in an age when writers can self-publish their work on the Internet and sell it on, said they were vindicated by the news."

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Viking said...

Yes, the publishing revolution will be digitized, but it's not true that paper books are just a delivery system. That's what Stephen King said last year, and it was countered well on The Huffington Post in their Books section:

jesusangelgarcia said...

Some advice, por favor? My debut novel's coming out in late May on a deviant li'l micropress willing to take a chance on my over-the-top story. I own all rights except North American paperback. My publisher has some concerns about me issuing the ebook at the same time as the paperback release, potentially cannibalizing paper sales. I respect his position and appreciate his support, so I don't want to do that.

I'm thinking that we'll release the paperback and I'll go on a massive DIY summer tour and sell books at shows. Then when I'm back home in the fall, I'll release the ebook kind of like a paperback release that comes out after the hard cover, though w/ a bit of a compressed timeline, and then I can do, I dunno, a blog tour or something to promote that. A year later I could maybe release an iPad version b/c the project's a full-blown transmedia effort -- a novel, a CD of songs derived from the narrative and a DVD documentary film based on the novel's themes. But I don't see a huge interest at present in media-intensive iPad apps/books, so I'm thinking I'll wait. It also would cost some money to combine all the multimedia into one, but not too much through Electric Literature's Electric Publisher model.

Thoughts, anyone? Thanks in advance. And many thanks to Barry and Joe for this candid discussion.

rictheturtleryan said...

Have to wonder if a new nitch is not about to open to a smart publisher that sells all their books by mail like Amazon and that learns to cut the fat and provide a service to the writers instead of trying to suck the last drop out of them. They need to adapt just like the blacksmiths and buggy makers did when the automobile came along. Those that adapt will survive, those that do not will be buried alive.

Merilly said...

Very interesting!
Thanks for posting

Marcus said...

amazing dialog. i do some research with the publishing industry also and i spread this widely. i also linked to it at kaffe in katmandu where we'd be delighted to have you two as members. will also write about this later on my blog - very exciting times!

Sandra Parshall said...

Just wanted to say this is a fascinating and useful discussion. Thanks for starting it, Joe and Barry.

asset said...

Fantastic dialog on the state of self publishing. I just came out with "The Point of Power" it is available on Amazon. I cannot be more excited about the change of game that has been occurring. Thank you for your detailed study and verbal exchanges to illustrate what is going on. Warmly Peter Baksa

asset said...

Fantastic dialog on the state of self publishing. I just came out with "The Point of Power" it is available on Amazon. I cannot be more excited about the change of game that has been occurring. Thank you for your detailed study and verbal exchanges to illustrate what is going on. Warmly Peter Baksa

asset said...

Fantastic dialog on the state of self publishing. I just came out with "The Point of Power" it is available on Amazon. I cannot be more excited about the change of game that has been occurring. Thank you for your detailed study and verbal exchanges to illustrate what is going on. Warmly Peter Baksa

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

Great interview, It's certainly an exiting time be a writer. Barry's movements in publishing are landmark and deserve to be noted. When I first heard about it I thought, what? turn down a half a mill?
I'm self published and the time it takes me away from writing for advertising and self promotion really sucks and I'd do almost anything not to have to do it myself...but I'm not Barry.

Kevin Lynn Helmick

bardolini said...

Your conversation prompted me to write the following email to my agent:

Hi Sarah,

I've attached a PDF file of a conversation between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler (who, as you know, just turned down a 500K deal with St. Martin's in favor of self-publishing.)

The conversation embodies what many authors—even new one's like me—are thinking about these days. Crazy as it seems, there's even a part of me that wonders if getting a deal with one of the Big 6 is really a good thing for me. Probably so, since I'm a debut author and it could help me get rooted in the market. But the issue of digital rights and the meager royalty paper-publishers offer on them weighs heavily on me. Especially because I expect BRAINRUSH to become a best seller. (Of course I do!) That may be wishful thinking, but you know what? I believe it anyway. After all, nearly a thousand reviewers on Authonomy really liked it. And the Publisher's Weekly and Amazon Vine reviews from the ABNA contest—both this year and last—were excellent! So I'm frustrated that it's not available for sale RIGHT NOW, (digitally) in order to get that sales ball rolling.

I'm even a little worried about the possibility of making the finals of the ABNA contest this year. Why? Because there's a short clause in the fine print of the entry form that says if I win, then the terms of the contract with Penguin are non-negotiable. That worries me. Alot. But not enough (yet) to pull out of the race. My current thinking:

Don't be stupid, Richard! If you are lucky enough to win, the publicity alone is enough to justify letting Penguin rake you over the coals on the contract. Even if they tie you up on Book 2 (which the non-negotiable contract may include), then worst case scenario we can start making some real money on Book 3. BUT since they won't publish Book 1 until June, 2012, and Book 2 in 2013, we'll have to wait until Spring 2014 to release Book 3. That's a long time from now...

On the other hand, we could self-pub Book 1 today, Book 2 (which is nearly complete) in a few months, and Book 3 six months after that. Three books on the market in less than twelve months, each of them drumming up sales—with a 70% royalty through Amazon instead of 17% from a publisher—before the Publisher launches the first book. Attractive...

Anyway, it's what's on my mind and I wanted to share it with you. The industry is changing, and publishers had better start changing with it rather than fighting the inevitable, or even new authors like me are going to think twice before signing away our dreams.

The conversation attached is intriguing. I’ll be interested in your take on it. Who knows, perhaps you're already way ahead of me, a new "E-stributor" in the making.

Okay, back to writing.



Richard Bard, author of BRAINRUSH. Preview at Authonomy, search BRAINRUSH

Coral Russell said...

I hear there's a sequel in the works - hot diggity!

AND Ted interviewed Barry and Amanda together - links and my take here

Ron L Coby said...

Brilliant, enlightening article.

Well, except for the monkey-frog rape part. I think you could have gotten the point across in other ways.

Jason M. said...

Some publishers might disagree that there's "virtually no cost to creating ebooks" -- see

Coral Russell said...

lol Jason, who cares how legacy publishers spin the news to justify the cost?

It takes 30 minutes, if you've never done it before and are possibly computer illiterate, to upload the document.

Great topic for my next post on how stupid publishers think we really are though! Thanks!

Jason M. said...

Coral, maybe you should read the link. The article isn't about the cost of a home user uploading a document, but from the perspective of a publisher. It explains what goes into the cost of producing a book, and that printing and distribution is a relatively small portion of that cost (12%). Joe and Barry spend allot of time in this thread discussing why publishers charge so much for an ebook -- the link I posted is essentially an answer to that.

Coral Russell said...

Jason, I read everything and that post doesn't answer anything. I'm sure others on here can pick it apart here better than I can, but it's going to be fun to do when I get to it on my To Do list.

I am unaware that Amazon and all the rest make it harder for a publisher than an individual to upload a book.

Jason M. said...

Publishers do more for an author's work than just upload it to Amazon. As the article mentions: copyediting, cover and interior design, page composition, cataloging, marketing, publicity, legal, etc. These costs are the same whether the work is published in paper or digital, and why they have to charge about the same price for both.

lgmaakes said...

A wonderful picture book author friend of mine asked me about this blog post. It's a topic I think about more and more as I finish up my first young adult novel. In fact, my husband (a multimedia designer) and I discuss this aspect of publishing every week. It seems clear the marriage of art and technology is inevitable. When people ask questions about e-books/self-publishing at conferences, I seem to hear the same answer from a lot of publishing professionals: "We're watching closely." Welp, while they're watching, technology giants and tech-savvy companies are changing the landscape of publishing. Writers are going to ask more and more of traditional publishers, "What are you bringing to the table?" The answer used to be distribution and expertise, but that advantage is shrinking. Young buyers don't want to purchase books from B&N stores if they can get it for less from Amazon. And if they can find a digital version that's even cheaper? That's what they'll purchase. And the hysterical part is, writers with quality work may make more money that way, because traditional publishers take such large percentages from print books. By the way, I'm not dismissing the valuable expertise editors and others have. The quality of books do not have to suffer as long as work is edited by great editors, illustrated by great illustrators, designed by great designers, and line-edited by great line editors. All of those services can be done freelance. I would not be surprised at all if, when all of this is over, editors make more money from flat fees charged to authors who self-publish than when they were paid salaries by big publishers. This is a time of innovation and experimentation. Can you imagine writers, illustrators, designers, and editors bartering services or creating new business models jointly? I, for one, am all for it. I think the reason publishers are so reluctant to fully embrace e-books and self-publishing is that they can't see how they [publishers] fit in the picture. Agents, too, are wondering the same thing, I'm sure. But, in a way, that's the beauty of unknown territory. For example, I can still see a future where agents broker deals. Not between large parties (like a publisher, author, and illustrator), but between authors and illustrators. Who knows? Perhaps well-sought after editors will need agents to manage their contracts to authors. Current marketing/sales people may find a niche in conference bookings. I'm just throwing stuff out there. Clever people out there are going to come up with fantastic alternatives. My point is, people shouldn't fear what could be a wonderful, more expedient, and more profitable venture.

Coral Russell said...

Jason the link is here:

Yes, they do, but I'm referring to the 3 reasons listed in the link article you listed.

Inglath said...

Incredible sharing of experience and information - both of you are trailblazers! Thank you!

Todd Lombardo said...

Thanks for this post, Barry and a relative newcomer, I'm on my second read and taking notes on all the sh*t I don't know. Encouraging!

Thad McIlroy said...


I've tried to search your blog for the answer to this question but can't find it.

I assume that you support public libraries. Why would you allow your ebooks to be published EXCLUSIVELY by who refuse to let libraries lend them?

Looking forward to your response.

Thad McIlroy said...

Oops...mean to write "Jack" -- apologies.

Lena Sledge said...

Enjoyed the interview piece. It was very insightful. I had to tweet it, it was that good. And this is the first piece I've read on your blog, so I look forward to reading more. THanks.

Twintwit said...

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we were beta testers from the Adobe solution for digital publishing (Adobe DPS).

In six months we have learned a lot and we decided to share our experience and practice. We have collected all into a project that is not just an app, but a set of tools that we needed to move towards a digital magazine.

We'd love to know what you think and if you think our tools useful.

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Carter said...

With the help of ereaders and the digitization of print media, becoming an author requires less work than ever. not only that, but most of the work can be outsourced. This free time means authors can write as a hobby, while getting paid like a job. A great resource I've found for outsourcing most of my publishing work (like converting to mobi, createspace PDF, ect...) is

Great article. I'll have to come back to it though. 13,000 words!

Beth Burgess said...

This was really interesting and useful, thanks.

I have chosen to self-publish a couple of non-fiction books because I wanted complete control over the timeframe and I understand my target market in a way that a publishing house just wouldn't (I write for addicts). I had visions of them 'cleaning up' the language, when it written in a very specific tone for my audience.

I am also writing a fiction book (semi-autobiographical, based on my experiences as an addict), and I was thinking of trying to get an agent and a publishing house etc, but I'm rethinking this already.

What you wrote in a post last year probably has even more truth to it today. Thanks, very informative.

Beth Burgess

Unknown said...

Very encouraging dialogue, especially for genre writers. There used to be a term, 'general fiction,' that's now nearly extinct. My ex-agent warned me *never* to use it. And it's true, Those of us writing regular old novels have a harder time placing our books. I wonder if either Barry or Joe has any thoughts . . .

Orikinla Osinachi said...

What a thesis.
I started out as a promising author of traditional publishers in Nigeria until I discovered self publishing in 2006.
Publishing is publishing regardless of the format and what matters most is QUALITY.
It is not "publish or perish" anymore. It is now liberty of the freedom of expression and an end to the dictatorship of the NY tyrants of traditional publishing.

Lest we forget, traditional publishers are not perfect. I have destroyed copies of my traditionally published book, because I found 21 typos in it and Charlton Heston's autobiography "In the Arena" published by Simon & Schuster has errors caused by poor editing.
So, quality cannot be compromised in both traditional and self-publishing.

I spend money on paying an editor, book designer and graphic artist before I go on Lulu or CreateSpace to self-publish any volume of my articles and stories.
Once you are sure of the quality of your work, then you can publish it traditionally or self-publish it. Blogging also helps to improve writing and finding your right audience. I am yet to achieve a bestselling feat, but I know I getting there as I keep on reading and writing.

Unknown said...

Hm. Barry. I bet you got a lot of posts about your NPR issue that you relate. I would be pissed if I was the editor. Now, does that take away my beer privileges? I wouldn't be surprised. The way I see it, for whatever reason, you are asked to do a piece for NPR it can't be one-sided on these issues. It's simply not reasonable. Study with me a minute, will you? There is a big difference between RATIONAL and REASONABLE. NPR makes its audience, like (I believe) the NYT does, and even (yes) WSJ and HUFFPOST - by being reasonable in the story field, and letting their commentors resort to whatever RATION makes balances things out in their head. You, being a fiction author, are expected to live by your imagination. That is, however, a bad fit for factual news. Okay, so that said I am digging your now ancient blog on new media and publishing.

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