Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Guest Post by Barry Eisler

Joe sez: There are plenty more guest posts I will be running throughout the rest of the year, but I'm going back to Barry Eisler today because it is a directly related to a recent post of his. This is about publishing misapprehensions.

Barry sez: Two weeks ago, I wrote a guest post here called The Bogeyman and The Axe Murderer. There was some substantive discussion of the post, which was about why many authors fear a potential future Amazon monopoly while remaining sanguine about the current New York one, but most of the substance was eclipsed by reaction to several charged analogies and metaphors I used, including a "house slave mentality." I have to take some of the blame for this relative lack of substantive discussion, and if I could write the piece over again, I'd change the rhetoric. Not because I agree with all the criticism my rhetoric occasioned (much of which, in my view, was misplaced), but because when enough people find cause to be outraged about your language, the reaction eclipses your underlying argument, and it's my argument I want to discuss, not my presentation of it.

By the way, for anyone interested in the pros, cons, and merits of the slavery analogy, I highly recommend this superb recent piece by Mike Stackpole, Degrees of Slavery, along with the exceptionally civil and substantive comment discussion that accompanies it.

Anyway, among reactions to my post, two far-reaching misapprehensions stood out -- misapprehensions that I think could inhibit people from understanding as clearly as they might the new choices facing writers today, and what those choices mean for the industry as a whole. So let's address those misapprehensions here, and see if we can clarify them.

1. All Legacy-Published Authors Are Making A Mistake.

In fact, I can think of many legitimate reasons an author might want to go the legacy route (and the self-publishing, and Amazon-publishing ones, too), and here's an online conversation I did with Amanda Hocking and agent Ted Weinstein discussing several of them. I've repeatedly said that for me, publishing is a business, not an ideology, and I don't think it's legitimate to criticize someone's tactics without first understanding his objectives. The key is not your chosen means (legacy, self, Amazon), but rather the degree to which those means maximize your chances of achieving your objectives.

So let's talk about those means for a moment. I think the most accurate way to understand the current choice between legacy- and self-publishing is this. Both systems, statistically speaking, are lotteries. If you measure the number of authors published in each system overall against the number who are making a living wage in that system, I don't think you can reasonably conclude that the odds of making a living wage through publishing are particularly good either way. It's so obvious that it shouldn't need saying, but neither system remotely guarantees success.

All this being the case, authors have to do some additional analysis to make a sensible decision. Reasonable questions to ask would include, How much is the advance? How much do I need the advance? Do I think that with higher self-publishing royalties, I can beat the contract (to see what I mean with that concept, follow the last paragraph in this Daily Beast interview)? If so, how long do I expect beating the contract will take? How important is paper distribution to me, and how important is digital? How important to me is control over things like pricing and packaging? How important is time-to-market? How much do I like, and how good am I at, running my own business vs. outsourcing business management to someone else? How much do I trust my potential business partner to manage things well? How much do I hate what legacy publishers are doing today vs how much do I fear what Amazon might do tomorrow? Which system gives me more personal power to influence my odds of success, and how important is that power to me? Etc. If you make a decision without asking such questions, you're making a mistake, at least in your process (though you can still get lucky in your result). If you are asking these questions, then regardless of the path you choose, you're making an informed decision, and for you, the right one.

Speaking only for myself, it's difficult for me to imagine going back to the legacy world (and at least as hard to imagine, at this point, that they'd have me). I'm very attached to control over packaging and pricing; time-to-market is important to me; I love the dramatically higher per-unit royalties self-publishing affords me. In other words, in general, I expect self-publishing will be, for me, more profitable and more pleasurable than was legacy-publishing. (Incidentally, I've also found all these personal objectives have been well served in my experience with Amazon as the publisher of The Detachment. In fact, I've found that, given my various personal objectives, a business model where I publish some works with Amazon and others on my own is the ideal mix). But that's just me. If your objectives are different, it makes sense that you would choose a different course of action. When I write these posts, I'm always far more interested in trying to tease out objective and widely applicable lessons from my own experience than I am in talking about the experience itself.

So, to reiterate: I don't think self-publishing is for everyone, or that legacy-publishing is for no one. And publishing with Amazon has been great for me, but it doesn't follow from that that it would be great for everyone. If you're conscious of your objectives and you ask the right questions, you'll have the best chance of choosing the course that's right for you.

One last thought. We now live in an era where writers feel they ought to clarify that they don't think legacy publishing is necessarily a bad decision, and where self-published authors like Amanda Hocking feel they ought to publicly justify their decision to take a legacy contract. Whatever you think about the respective merits of the two routes, this is an astonishing development. Can you imagine, five years ago, someone publicly explaining why she took a seven-figure legacy offer? It would have been inconceivable, because the decision would have explained itself. No longer.

2. New York Publishers Are Evil And Publishing Would Be Better If They Died.

As I've argued many times, I believe legacy-publishing business practices have become overly self-serving because of a longstanding lack of competition in the industry. But I don't believe these practices make legacy publishers evil; in fact, I think these practices are just a natural part of legacy publishers' humanity. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and monopolies, by virtue of human nature, always come to serve themselves at the expense of the wider society (that's why we have laws against them). But it doesn't follow from this that any monopoly needs to perish, or that I would personally want it to. After all, when someone is sick, you don't want him to succumb to the disease; you want him to get better. Similarly, what I want for New York publishing is not for it to die, but to reform.

And I want New York to reform not just because even New York would benefit from more enlightened business practices (not to mention the benefits to readers and authors). I also want New York to reform because Amazon needs healthy competition, too. If New York disappears as a counterweight, then current fears about an Amazon publishing monopoly will have substantially more basis in fact. Yes, I expect Amazon will still face competition from a host of players like Apple, Google, Kobo, Smashwords, and others, and from newly emerging author website bookstores, too (check out Joe's store right here), but the more competition, the better, so I hope everyone stands with me in cheering New York on in its efforts to reform its business practices.

Now, if you ask me to bet on the likelihood that New York will successfully adapt to the advent of digital and the emergence of Amazon as a publisher, I would have to regretfully decline to bet very much. As I noted in my previous post, companies coddled by a lack of competition get flabby, and New York, which hasn't faced real competition in living memory, is now squaring off against a formidable competitor indeed. I don't think it's likely legacy publishers will be able to adapt and survive. And though I hope I'm wrong about that, my hope doesn't lead me to want to protect New York from competition, either.

Maybe I'm clarifying here more than is really necessary, but I've learned from recent experience how willing and even eager people can be to mischaracterize arguments they find threatening. So again: the fact that I'm predicting an outcome doesn't mean I'm hoping for it. I predict that one day I will be dead, but that doesn't render me particularly enamored of or eager for that outcome. Similarly, though I don't think New York's chances are good, come on, guys, I'm cheering you on. I want you to step up, not give up.

Which brings me back to the question I asked in my previous post -- a question no one, as far as I know, has yet tried to answer:

If there's a better way than Amazon to reform New York’s previously unassailable quasi-monopoly and all the suboptimal business practices the monopoly has enabled, what is it?

One way of answering this question would be to deny the legacy publishing model is suboptimal at all. You could also respond by acknowledging some degree of suboptimal behavior, while denying that the behavior is the result of a lack of competition. I doubt I'd be persuaded by such arguments, but I would welcome them because they'd be on point.

But if you accept my "Suboptimal New York business practices are the result of a lack of competition" premise, then what I'd like to hear is your solution for getting New York to improve. Personally, I'm thrilled by the advent of self-publishing and the emergence of Amazon publishing because I can't think of any more potent combination of competitive pressure on New York. But I'd be very interested in the views of others on this point -- thanks.

Joe sez: I don't have anything to add to Barry's points, because he's correct and they don't need bolstering from me.

But I will expound a bit about authors supposedly making mistakes by signing legacy deals. Because a lot of them ARE making mistakes.

If you hit yourself in the face with a hammer, I'm going to call you stupid for doing so unless you can really justify it using facts and logic. Otherwise, you're wrong in doing so.

If you don't like being told you're wrong, stop being wrong.

I've always stated that is important to set reasonable goals in your career, and to separate goals (things within your power) from dreams (things that require a "yes" or "no" from someone else in order to happen.)

Your dream could be to get published by a legacy house. That means your goals should be to write a terrific book, then send out ten queries a month to top agents. If stars align, your goals can help you reach your dream.

Then, once you have a legacy deal, your next goal could be to write another book for that house.

But is this really a worthy goal in today's publishing climate? Is it even a worthy dream to begin with?

Many authors defend legacy publishing without fully understanding their reasons for doing to. They don’t back up their opinions. They don't feel they have to. For the past 100 years, we writers haven’t had a real choice if we wanted to earn a living–it was legacy or nothing. So we pursued legacy.

I see that attitude still being expressed, even though there is now a choice. And based on everything I know, having been on both sides of the issue, self-pubbing is a far better choice.

But rather than argue with my facts and figures and logic, some folks choose to attack me, or my tone. There are reasons for this. Some of it is envy (though people will deny this vehemently.) A lot of it is fear.

Most authors are scared of something. Scared of their publishers, of losing a contract, of not getting a contract, of bookstores closing, of ebooks, of piracy, of going it alone.

As far as ebooks go, many are ignorant. They simply don't 'get' it.

But once they are aware of what is happening, several things can happen.

They can accept it, and look for ways to benefit from it.

They can ignore it and hope it goes away.

They can blindly trust their publishers.

They can refuse to accept it, and get angry at people like me.

They can become even more scared, but instead of acting, they become defensive.

And in those cases, authors are being stupid. They are being wrong.

If you're still accepting legacy deals as-is, you really aren't thinking about the future. That isn't being business savvy. In fact, it's the opposite.

If you're fully aware you're getting bad terms on ebook royalties when ebooks are growing so quickly, just to get a paper version in bookstores when both paper and bookstores are receding so quickly, explain how that is wise. Unless you're a bestseller or getting a ton of money upfront, it makes no sense.

Publishers KNOW this. Their contracts are becoming wickedly draconian in regard to erights. They refuse to offer more to authors because they need to replace their lost paper sales. They need to cover their overhead.

What are they offering you in return for helping to save their industry?

Legacy publishing is a poor choice for a lot of reasons, all based on facts, not opinion. People may draw different conclusions from those facts, which stimulates discussion. Or people can walk away because I used strongly worded, inappropriate metaphors. Which is fine. We live in a world where children get a Certificate of Participation if they lose. Let’s coddle everyone, walk around on tip-toes, making sure no one gets offended by anything or gets their little duck feelings hurt because it might destroy the fabric of society. I personally don't care if I'm liked or not, or even if people listen to me. But if you want to debate, debate my points.

And FYI--pointing fingers saying “You’re an offensive jerk” isn’t smart. It’s every bit as childish as what I'm being accused of.

There are plenty of things to be rightfully outraged about. My blog ain’t one of them… unless you work for the Big 6.

Since April 2009, I've been blogging about ebooks, and the changes in the industry. If you really want to see how legacy publishers have reacted to those changes, take a day off and read my blog from then until now.

If that seems like a lot of work and you want to get a head start on making an informed decision, here's Barry again.

Barry sez: First, various functions legacy publishers have always provided (whether in theory or in fact) are and always will be critical. Editing, line-editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, pricing decisions (in digital, dynamic ones), branding, promotion -- all continue to be required for the production of a quality book and to maximize the chances that the book will be discovered by the largest possible audience.

Second, the primary reason legacy publishing has traditionally been able to take 85% of an author's earnings is distribution. Because no author could cost-effectively distribute her books in paper without a distribution partner, legacy publishers have been in a position to charge an 85% monopoly rent for paper distribution. The other services they provide -- enumerated above -- are add-ons. How can we be confident about the relative value of distribution vs the add-ons? Because if those other services could be disaggregated from distribution, no author in his right mind would pay anywhere near 85% for them, and publishers would not have the negotiating leverage to charge such an amount.

Today, with the advent of digital distribution, an author can distribute her works 100% as effectively as any publishing conglomerate. In digital distribution, authors and legacy publishers stand on an entirely level playing field -- which is another way of saying that in digital, an author simply doesn't need a publisher to distribute. So what legacy publishers are saying to authors today -- the new legacy publishing value proposition -- is this: "Before, when we handled distribution plus, we charged you 85%. Now you don't need us for distribution anymore, and we're only going to handle the plus part -- and you'll still have to pay us the same 85%."

Obviously, this is unsustainable.

Now as long as digital doesn't become too big a proportion of distribution generally, publishers can continue to try to stake their claim to that 85%. But the bigger the share of digital distribution, and the smaller the share of paper, the more absurd becomes legacy publishing's argument that it can still make a reasonable claim to that antediluvian 85%.

Put those two developments together, and what you get is a massive disintermediation and disaggregation play. Authors still need the same editing etc. functions they needed before, but now we can get them via a variety of emerging business models, many of which have nothing at all to do with legacy publishing. All of which means that legacy publishing will have to reinvent itself and reprice its drastically reduced list of value-add services if it wants to survive. Meanwhile, with legacy publishing's paper lock broken, new entrants, including literary agencies and authors like Bob Mayer, are offering authors various collections of add-on services for various rates of remuneration. So whether legacy publishing survives or not, today authors have more publishing choices than they ever had before.

Personally, I don't think there ever was a time of "pure" indie publishing. After all, Amanda Hocking needed Amazon's, B&N's, and Smashwords' distribution to get her books to readers -- she didn't sell through her own website. And even if she had sold through her own website, she would have been reliant on her website hosting company, on Paypal for billing services, etc. If you think about it, even an old-fashioned paper indie author was reliant on Kinko's for printing services and on Oldsmobile and a network of gas stations for his distribution platform. No one accomplishes anything in business entirely on her own, and I'd argue that notional concepts of independence are less important than the presence of actual choice. No man is an island, nor ever was; what matters instead is the effectiveness, desirability, and range of vessels available to carry us to our hoped-for destinations. For authors, there used to be only one such vessel, which was as expensive and inefficient as monopolies always are. Now there are many, and we're living in a different world as a result.

Joe sez: Self-publishing isn't a cult. It isn't an ideology.

Criticizing legacy publishers isn't a case of being ungrateful, or envious, or bitter.

My dream has always been to reach a lot of readers, and make a living doing something I love.

While pursuing this dream, my goals have changed throughout the years. My goals used to be about sending queries to agents and publishers. I got more than 500 rejections, remember? This was my goal because it was the only way to fulfill my dreams.

Then my goals were to self-promote as much as possible to help spread my brand and sell my paper books. Again, this was the logical thing to do.

Now my goals are to self-publish my work in as many formats as possible, and occasionally partner with a company (such as Amazon) in order to boost sales and reach more readers. I came to this conclusion the hard way, through experience.

Ask yourself once more, what are your dreams? What are your goals?

Now ask yourself if legacy publishing is the best way to reach those dreams and goals.

Blake sez: I think what's not been said succinctly is what this has all been pointing toward:

Taking a midlist deal from a legacy publisher is dumb-ass thing to do.

The "average" advance for a first novel is about $6,000.

How sad to be a good enough writer to get a book deal, but with such poor business sense and such a potent need for a stamp of approval that you squander the money you could be making.

People say but taking that midlist deal is a career builder. Yes, it is. A career of being repeatedly fucked that culminates with getting dropped. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of that scenario. I've been in this business since 2004, and the number of people who were first published when I was and still are being published is a fraction.

Do you think it's easier now than it was then?

With the rarest of exceptions, publishers support books they pay lots and lots of $$ for. And only some of those are successful. If you get big money for a book up front, take it and run. No one's saying that's not a smart thing to do. I think Amanda Hocking was masterful in leveraging her ebook sales into a killer major print deal.

But midlist, for the most part, stays midlist. And considering the current royalty structure for ebooks, midlist is an even worse place to be now than it was a few years ago.

I haven't heard anyone here say that all legacy-published authors are morons. Because no one believes that. Some are making fat bank. Good for them. Ride it out. But if you have a first novel, or are considering publishing again, and you're taking less than $25,000, I think it's safe to say that's a stupid, stupid thing to do.

Some people would say that number should be way higher.

You want some numbers?

On my first novel, Desert Places, which was published in 2004, I have earned a total of $13,114 from my publisher. That took six years, and I was paid an advance of $6,000.

Since I re-published it myself one year ago, I have made $17,677, on Amazon US alone. That doesn't include Kobo, Apple, Smashwords, Createspace, Barnes & Noble, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, Amazon Fr.

And this isn't my top seller. It's only cracked the top 1000 once. This is a 7-year-old novel.

Now, there's been a lot of talk about tone. So if this comment just hurt your feelings. I apologize. Go to this website, and have one on me:

Joe sez: Blake originally posted that in the comments, and I asked for permission to put it in the actual post.

Right now, I'm holding up a big sign that says, "If you do this, you're stupid."

A lot of people don't like hearing that. My guess is that those who don't like that comment are those who resemble that comment.

If you don't think you're being stupid, tell me why. Explain for all to see how you're making smart, enlightened decisions by signing with a legacy publisher. Show me actual numbers of how it is working for you.

But I don't see anyone doing that. I just see the same group of morons, circle-jerking each other about what an ass I am, without offering anything to prove me wrong.

Because they can't prove me wrong.

So attack the messenger, not the message.

But me being a jerk doesn't make you any less stupid.