Friday, February 21, 2014

Eisler - Publishing is a Lottery & Konrath - Publishing is a Carny Game

Barry Eisler: Over the weekend, I gave one of the keynotes at the terrific San Francisco Writers Conference.  The framework of the talk (Surfing the Waves of Change) was broadly similar to a keynote I gave last year at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference; for the main ideas, here’s a guest post Joe kindly let me post here, and an article I wrote for the Guardian.

One of the key updates in the talk I gave at SFWC had to do with bullshit—specifically, the prevalence of bullshit being peddled by various fixtures in establishment publishing.  This was natural enough, because in just the last month or so quite a few publishing insiders have grown sufficiently concerned about restlessness among the peasants that they’ve ventured into the provinces to try to head it off.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that industry analyst Michael Cader, literary agent David Gernert, literary agent Robert Gottlieb, literary agent Donald Maass, industry analyst Mike Shatzkin, and Kensington Publishing CEO Steve Zacharius have all seen fit to engage some of the arguments that are both cause and consequence of the revolution in publishing (“Authors Guild” president Scott Turow, unsurprisingly, remains in hiding, perhaps because he senses how he would come off if he tried to respond to his critics).  Along these lines, I was encouraged that one of the SFWC founders, literary agent Michael Larson, felt compelled to take the stage immediately following my talk to try to rebut some of its substance.  I think this level of dialogue is unprecedented in publishing and will be enormously healthy for the industry, and I salute all the insiders who’ve elected to engage even though I disagree with much of what they’re saying.

In addition to bullshit in publishing, another theme of my talk was that publishing is a lottery, but it was only after Michael’s rebuttal that I realized I could have been doing a better job of integrating that notion with my points on bullshit.  Here I’d like to talk about why, and to make that connection more explicit.

One of the things Michael pointed out was that my thoughts on the benefits of self-publishing don’t apply to everyone (I certainly agree with that, and hope I made clear that I don’t believe there’s any one-size-fits-all publishing solution).  After all, he said, ask Stephen King if he wants to self-publish, and King would almost certainly say he would not.

I thought about that point afterward.  And then I realized—respectfully, because I really like and respect Michael—that it was bullshit.

Now, by “bullshit,” I don’t mean untrue.  In fact, I think Michael’s point very likely is true: while Stephen King has in fact dabbled in self-publishing (he even said, “My friends, we have the chance to become big publishing’s worst nightmare”), this was a while ago, and today, given the treatment he gets and the money he makes within the legacy system, I don’t think it’s terribly likely King would be attracted to self-publishing (though potential fame and fortune aren’t the only considerations an author might have in mind when trying to decide which publishing route makes the most sense).  Regardless, note the following:

First, the “but don’t you want to be Stephen King/James Patterson/Nora Roberts/J.K. Rowling” meme is widespread and frequently deployed by the publishing establishment.  For some examples, just click on any of the links in the second paragraph of this post.  More often than not, it strikes me as much more of an article of faith than a deliberate dodge, and knowing Michael, I believe he was referring to it sincerely as the former, not the latter.  But it certainly is widespread, and for this alone it’s worth addressing.

Second, the meme implicitly acknowledges that publishing is indeed a lottery (unless anyone advancing this meme would also argue that Stephen King-levels of publishing mega-stardom are in some way guaranteed or foreordained, neither of which would be a logically or empirically easy proposition).  This implicit acknowledgment is of course, in my opinion, not at all bullshit, because as you know I do believe it’s extremely useful to conceive of publishing as a kind of lottery.

But despite the kernel of truth, and despite the useful implicit acknowledgement, the meme is still bullshit (and all the more insidious as a result).  I would even argue that “Stephen King!” has become one of the two primary dodges of the legacy industry (we’ll get to the second in just a bit).  Here’s why.

First, let me briefly explain why publishing is, in fact, a lottery.  It’s simple.  Hundreds of thousands of authors play it, and only a very few of them win.

Some people object to the analogy because they say it ignores the hard work of authors and publishers.  But hard work demonstrably does not guarantee success.  If it did, then those hard-working publishers would produce nothing but massive bestsellers.  After all, don’t they work hard on all their books?

Of course, hard work (and a variety of other factors) can influence your odds of success in publishing, which is why it pays to work hard.  But the ability to influence odds doesn’t makes something not a lottery.  In fact, I can tell you how to instantly double your odds—double them!—in a regular lottery.  Just buy a second ticket.  Congratulations, you just influenced the odds dramatically.  Is it not still a lottery?

No matter how talented you are, no matter how hard working, no matter how awesome and committed your publisher might be, statistically you are far more likely to lose the game of publishing than you are to win it.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Nor is it good.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  You could argue it’s the nature of life itself.  Our job is to do what we can to influence the odds, but it’s foolish at best to argue the odds don’t matter, or don’t even exist.

Okay, now you’re trying to decide whether a certain lottery is right for you.  Whether it’s worth playing.  If someone was encouraging you to buy a ticket, and that person wouldn’t talk about anything other than the potential monster payout, would you feel you were receiving accurate, complete, and useful information?

Or might you sense something was missing in the presentation?

Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a lottery.  Whether to participate in one is a personal decision.  But to make a good decision, an informed decision, you need three data points, not just one.  These are:

1.      What is the potential payoff?
2.      What are the odds of achieving that payoff?
3.      How much will a ticket cost me?

Two quick hypotheticals to illustrate the point.

Lottery #1:  This lottery offers a million dollar payout, a one-in-two chance of winning, and a ticket that would cost you only a buck.  A one-dollar risk in exchange for a 50% chance at winning a million dollars.  Who wouldn’t buy a ticket to a lottery like that?

Lottery #2:  This lottery offers a million dollar payout, a one-in-ten-million chance of winning, and a ticket that would cost you ten thousand dollars.  You’d have to have a hell of a lot of money, and a hell of an appetite for gambling, to want to play in a lottery like that.

The same big prize, but two very different lotteries—one sensible for almost everyone, the other insane for almost everyone.  And if the people promoting them gave you only that one piece of information—a One-Million-Dollar Prize!—while concealing the odds and the cost, how could you know what you were getting yourself into?  How could you make an informed decision?

Well, you couldn’t, of course.  It’s enough to make you wonder why the people peddling the legacy-publishing lottery only want to talk about Stephen King.

So here I’d like to talk about the aspects of the lottery that establishment types tend to omit (for what it’s worth, again, I don’t think these omissions are for the most part deliberately intended to mislead.  I think they’re more commonly caused by well-intentioned people having been so long and so deeply embedded in a system that they’re unable to grasp its actual contours.  A classic case of missing the forest for the trees).

First, let’s stipulate that the legacy publishing purse is not a myth.  It’s real.  J.K. Rowling became a cash billionaire in the legacy lottery.  I remember reading somewhere that James Patterson makes over $90 million a year.  The richest purses in the legacy lottery are almost obscene.

But now it’s time to talk about the odds of you being the next J.K. Rowling.  How many authors are there who achieved anything like a comparable level of fame and fortune in publishing?  We can quibble over the details, but in general I’d say there have been maybe a dozen in the history of publishing.  Though I’m happy to broaden the definition of mega-success and up the number of mega-winners to, say one hundred.

Now we have to measure those one hundred winners against the hundreds of thousands of authors who have tried to get into the legacy system and been unable to do so, or who have secured a legacy contract only to see their book underperform and their contract canceled, or their publisher otherwise decide not to do another book with them and cut them loose.

Okay, a hundred big winners; hundreds of thousands of losers (and some hundreds winning lesser prizes, which we’ll talk about in a moment).  Now we’re getting some sense of the odds.

Please note that I’m not saying these odds should make anyone either embrace legacy publishing, or flee from it.  Different people have different objectives, different appetites for risk, different inclinations.  There really is no one-size-fits all.  But regardless of differences, no one can make a sound decision about a lottery without information about the odds of success, and developing that information is all I’m trying to do here.

Finally, let’s talk about what that legacy ticket will cost you.

First, it’ll cost you your rights, which someone else will own control for at least a very long time and in all probability forever (have a look at a typical legacy-publishing page-and-a-half, nine-point font, opaque-as-the-Dead-Sea-Scrolls reversion provision, and you’ll eventually conclude that the gist of it is “You will never get your rights back, ever”).

Second, it’ll cost you time-to-market.  Most legacy books don’t see daylight until a year after manuscript delivery and acceptance.  Many take much longer.

Third, it’ll cost you a huge margin in digital.  Legacy publishing typically pays authors 12.5% of the list price of a digital book.  Self-publishing pays 70%.

Fourth, it’ll cost you control over pricing, packaging, marketing, branding, and all other business decisions.

Fifth, it could cost you a good deal in conference and associated travel fees, as you fly from one writing convention to another trying to meet editors and agents and get them interested in your manuscript.

And those are the unavoidable costs, the innate costs.  You pay these costs even if you win.  That’s the way a lottery works.  There are also the risks:  risks of crappy covers, risks of embarrassingly bad titles, risks of cargo-cult bios, risks that overall your publisher, upon whom you will be relying almost completely, will fail to do its job and will destroy your books chances as a result, and maybe destroy your career in the process.

But it’s also absolutely true that in exchange for those costs, the risks might be avoided and you will become the next Stephen King.

It’s also true that becoming the next Stephen King isn’t the only payout promoted by the legacy industry.  There’s also the possibility of good conceptual editing, line editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, packaging, promotion, marketing, and paper distribution.  Note that I say “possibility” of these things.  They are not guaranteed, neither contractually nor empirically.  The notion that “You write, we’ll expertly take care of everything else” is the theory of publishing, the publishing ideal.  It is not usually the reality.  The promise of receiving expert editing, awesome cover design, crack marketing, wide paper distribution, etc., is itself one of the things that makes legacy publishing a lottery.  Some people get it.  Most do not.  Conflating the theory of legacy publishing with the reality of legacy publishing is another central deceit of the industry.

Now, to be as fair as possible, let’s expand the idea of what constitutes a winner in the legacy system still further.  In general, I’d define it as the ability to make a living writing full time.  But even that might be an unreasonably narrow definition.  We could broaden it still further:  the ability to make enough money from your writing to pay some bills and to occasionally take a nice vacation somewhere.  It wouldn’t be J.K. Rowling nice, but it would still be nice.

Well, wouldn’t it be useful if the legacy industry could share some of that information, too?  You’d think they’d want to.  “Hey kids, not everyone gets to be the next Nora Roberts (but you might!), but lots of people get to quit their day jobs and write full time, or at least get to use their winnings to make car payments and periodically buy a vacation in Hawaii.”

But they never talk about any of that.  What you hear instead is only, “Stephen King!” and “We’ll take care of everything but the writing so you won’t have to worry!”

Look, if I’m full of shit on all this, then why don’t legacy publishers share the data?  If the story of their lottery really is so enticing, why not let us see how it really works?  Why not talk about the odds, the risks, the costs?  What’s keeping them from anonymizing the last decade’s worth of data:  the range of advances; the number of books published per author; the number that have broken even for the publisher and the number that have earned out (these are not the same thing, and the suggestion that they are is another legacy publishing dodge.  Publishers typically start to make money long before the author earns out her advance—precisely because author royalties are so low).  For every entrant into the legacy lottery, what has been the purse?  The number of manuscripts legacy publishers reject at the door would also be useful to know, because if you realize you only have a one-in-ten-thousand chance of even being able to play in the legacy lottery, you might rationally decide not to waste years trying (part of the cost of a ticket), and to start playing the self-publishing lottery immediately instead.

An intern with decent spreadsheet skills could do all this as a summer project.  Why hasn’t it happened?  If everyone really is a winner in the legacy lottery, why doesn’t New York get this story out?  Wouldn’t authors just swoon for it?

(Steve Zacharius did say in his exchange with Joe that he would “try to find answers to some of these questions,” but I don’t think he’s gotten back to anyone since then…)

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.  Because if authors were presented with the actual data—not just the purse, but also the odds and the cost and the risk—many of them might rationally decide they liked the self-publishing lottery better.  New York understands this.  So instead what we get is “Stephen King!” pixie dust tossed in our eyes, and all the rest omitted.

As long as establishment publishing is only willing to talk about the biggest winners in publishing, and as long as they deliberately continue to suggest that the ideal of legacy publishing is in fact the widespread reality, without also being willing to talk about the odds, the costs, and the risks of legacy publishing, you are being bullshitted.

Now, am I suggesting that legacy publishing is a lottery but that self-publishing and Amazon publishing are not?  Of course not, and in fact I’ve repeatedly referred to the self-publishing lottery throughout this post.  Let’s go into a little more detail now, first for self-publishing, then for Amazon.

What is the high-end payout of the self-publishing lottery?  So far, it seems to be in the low seven figures annually.  What are the mid-range payouts?  Hard to say, though over 150 KDP authors sold over 100,000 books in 2013 and certainly many more than that are for the first time making car payment and periodic vacation money.  Other benefits include a dramatically higher per-unit digital royalty; significantly faster time-to market; and control over all aspects of your books and business.

What are the odds?  Long.  Again, I’m not aware of any solid data on this, but my impression is that even getting the lower-end “car payment and vacation” money payout has statistically speaking got to be a thousand-to-one shot.

What are the costs?  A few thousand dollars in upfront fees for editorial, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, and formatting.  There are few material opportunity costs, unless you had a legacy offer you decided to eschew in favor of playing the self-publishing game instead (and in fact, if your self-published book does well, that itself might lead to legacy offers.  You’ll also be acting as the CEO of your own business, with all the time commitment and aggravation such a role can entail (but note again that the notion that you’ll be free of such commitments and aggravation in the legacy system is a promise customarily unfulfilled—legacy ideal vs legacy reality—and that therefore having to manage your own business is generally not a material difference between the two systems.  For the most part, you can expect to be quite busy with the non-writing aspects of the writing business in both).  Because you keep all your rights and maintain full control over all aspects of your books and business, your risks are limited only to your upfront costs.

What about Amazon Publishing, which I think can best be understood at a high level as a hybrid—higher digital royalties, faster time to market, and more control over business decisions, like self-publishing; the promise of outsourced business tasks, corporate-level marketing, and higher ultimate payoffs, like legacy publishing, plus, possibly a decent-sized advance.  The odds of hitting at least the medium-level jackpot within the Amazon lottery (assuming you can get in—as in legacy publishing, a ticket in the Amazon system is not guaranteed) strike me as higher than those of the other systems, but as for my impressions of the other systems’ odds, this is largely anecdotal.

The costs include:  as in the legacy system, long-term and possibly permanent loss of your rights (in my experience, Amazon’s reversion provisions are far more sane and certainly less opaque than those of legacy publishing, but the thresholds for reversion are still hard to hit); opportunity costs, in the form of the even higher digital per-unit royalties you would make in self-publishing and the even greater business control you would have there, and in the form of whatever you walked away from if you were presented with a legacy offer, as well.  As in legacy publishing, there are no upfront costs with Amazon.  As with legacy, there is the risk your book will be poorly published and die (though from everything I know firsthand and by knowing and talking with dozens of other Amazon-published authors, my sense is that this risk is statistically far lower with Amazon than it is in the legacy system).  On the upside, in my experience publishing with Amazon means the opportunity to work with a group of exceptionally smart, interesting, fun, innovative, risk-taking people, which I count as a benefit and one I haven’t heard of any Amazon author failing to receive.  On the downside, I would note that in my opinion and in the opinion of more than a few of my peers, Amazon legal is becoming increasingly corporate and legacy-like in its outlook and its practices.  It’s still not remotely as bad as what I’ve experienced in the legacy system, but the trends concern me and I hope Amazon will reverse them.

I also think it’s entirely fair to criticize Amazon for its own unwillingness to share more data about winners and losers within the Amazon system.  I would only note this possible difference:  in my experience, Amazon is so obsessed with secrecy that the company won’t disclose even data that I know is tremendously supportive of the value they offer authors, including the terms of their publishing agreements (though again, in some respects these have been getting more legacy-like; Amazon, why not keep playing to your strengths?), and including the details of some of their biggest publishing successes.  Knowing this, and being familiar with the impressions and stories of quite a few other Amazon-published authors, my sense is that Amazon’s reluctance to share aggregate, anonymized data about the details of its lottery are driven more by an innate (and, in my opinion, unfortunate) impulse for secrecy than by a desire to obfuscate, but you could reasonably draw somewhat different conclusions, too.

That said, note that when an author self-publishes, the legacy industry is cut out entirely.  Legacy publishers make no money on a self-published author’s books.  But Amazon does make money, by charging 30% for access to the KDP distribution platform.  In other words, legacy publishing is institutionally, unavoidably, financially invested in spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about self-publishing.  But Amazon makes money either way.  Draw your own conclusions.  You can draw similar conclusions about whatever biases I and other authors who are vocal about the revolution in publishing might bring to the conversation.  Say what you will, but I don’t think you can argue that my bottom line is dependent or even in any way affected by how other authors choose to publish their own books.  The truth is, I don’t care.  What I care about is that authors have good information upon which they can make the decisions that are best for themselves.  Can an establishment publishing insider who is steering you in a particular direction make the same claim of disinterest?

Overall, the biggest difference between the Amazon lottery, on the one hand, and the legacy- and self-publishing lotteries, on the other hand, is this:  Amazon’s unmatched direct-to-consumer marketing power.  Legacy publishing has virtually no such power at all, though to some extent it can buy such marketing by paying Amazon to do it for them (in self-publishing, your direct-to-consumer marketing reach will be even smaller).  If your sales are primarily digital, the paper distribution legacy publishing will offer you is relatively unimportant (it may even be less important than that), and legacy will be able to offer you almost nothing to market your digital books that you couldn’t have done yourself.  Whereas Amazon will be able to use its unmatched data on its own end-user customers, including direct email and on-site merchandizing, to market your book to an audience that is both huge (tens of millions of people) and targeted (people who demonstrably want to buy books).  In my experience, that kind of direct-to-consumer marketing power is worth a lot.  But will you get it?  Not everybody does, at least not in the same caliber, and the question of, “Yes, Amazon can promote the hell out of my book, but how much will they?” is part of what an author needs to grapple with when trying to decide whether the Amazon lottery makes sense for her.

I believe the biggest shift we’re seeing in publishing is precisely this:  the foundation of the industry used to be distribution.  Now that digital has broken legacy publishing’s lock on distribution, new publishing will be built on direct-to-consumer marketing, which is replacing distribution as the item new authors most need and will have the hardest time outsourcing for a flat fee.  Companies that can offer real direct-to-consumer marketing reach will be well positioned in the new world of publishing.  Companies that can’t will be in trouble.

Way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned a second major dodge of legacy publishing.  Sorry it took a while to get to it.  It’s actually a more general category, of which “Stephen King!” is in part a specific subset.  What I’m talking about is the tendency of the publishing establishment to suggest, whether implicitly or explicitly, that all the benefits of publishing are in legacy and all the risks are in digital.  This dodge is ubiquitous—have a look at the links at the beginning of this post and you’ll see what I mean.  And now that you know about the dodge, I promise you’ll see it wherever an establishment publishing personage makes a pronouncement.  And you’ll be aware also that if someone is trying to have an honest conversation with you, that person will start by acknowledging that there are risks and potential rewards, costs and benefits, disadvantages and advantages in both systems.  Anyone who suggests or even implies otherwise is bullshitting you, whether deliberately or otherwise.

To sum up:  if we’re going to have a useful conversation, it helps to start by acknowledging that all publishing systems are lotteries.  After that, we have to acknowledge not only the systems’ different payouts, but also their different odds, different costs, and different risks.  Only now we can start to grapple with matching that framework with our own objectives, talents, skills, preferences, and personalities—overall, with our own unique circumstances—to make decisions that are likely best for us.

So what are some of the questions a writer trying to decide between the various systems might want to ask?  I would include these:

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?  Am I in a genre like romance or science fiction, which are doing exceptionally well in digital, or am I writing something like a children’s book, in which for now I could expect relatively few digital sales?  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.

It really is interesting to consider the way New York tries to obscure the nature of the legacy lottery.  The prize is never other than Stephen King.  The odds are never other than that the reality you receive will always match the ideal you were promised.  The cost of a ticket is never mentioned at all.

A Martian might find an honest and transparent conversation about the nature of the various publishing lotteries so entirely obvious and commonsensical that s/he would find it hard to understand why the publishing establishment is so intent on avoiding it.  Of course, the Martian might not know about how long New York protested that their costs of digital book production were similar to their costs of paper production, when logic and just baseline common sense made such a proposition nonsensical (every single paper book a publisher prints and ships costs additional money, whereas the marginal costs of distributing digital books are zero).  The Martian might not know that HarperCollins recently confirmed what any honest observer already knew (and what Joe knew at least as far back as 2010), which is that indeed New York has been making far more money from digital books than from paper, and sharing far less with authors.  The Martian, in other words, might not know of New York’s demonstrated habit of, shall we say, dissembling (in fairness, if the Martian had ever seen a New York publishing contract or a New York royalty statement, the Martian would understand that obfuscation is one of the traditions Traditional Publishing most assiduously honors).

So come on, publishing establishment.  I know Scott Turow is too afraid to come out from under his rock and have an honest conversation, but I know not all of you are that cowardly.  Some of you have been engaging already, as I’ve noted, and, as also noted, I salute you for it.  Please, the comment section is yours.  Prove that I’m full of shit.  Share your data on payouts, odds, costs, and risks.  I can’t think of a better way, or a better opportunity, for you to prove once and for all that the legacy lottery is the best damn game in town.

P.S.  I know this is a long post, and certainly not my first.  I’d have liked to make it shorter because shorter would save everybody time (me most of all, because it takes longer to write these posts than it does to read them).  But I find it’s difficult to be brief when it comes to exposing bullshit.  Bullshit tends to come with a ready-made and already generally accepted superstructure that allows the bullshit to act as its own automatic abbreviation.  “Stephen King!”  “It’s so hard to get discovered in self-publishing!” (as though it’s easy and guaranteed in legacy, or in any other business, for that matter).  “When everyone can publish, there will be so much crap no one will be able to find good books!” (AKA, The Tsunami of Crap).  “Self-publishing is so much work, you’ll barely have time to write!” etc. are easy sound bites designed to play to people’s fears.  At a high level, they’re a lot like “Death Panels!” “Socialism!” “National Security!” and other such political propaganda that’s used to cow and manipulate the populace.  Using logic, evidence, and argument to assuage the fears ginned up by propaganda requires a bit more effort.  For more, I recommend Noam Chomsky on “concision.”



Joe sez: I was talking about publishing being a lottery eight years ago, before the Kindle existed. It's an apt analogy.

And while I agree with Barry that luck indeed plays a part, and it is important to know payoffs, odds, and costs, more and more I'm looking at the bullshit many legacy pundits are spouting, and their unconscionable contract terms, and I think of it as less of a lottery and more like a carnival game. You know, the ones where you pay for three chances to toss a hoop around a stuffed animal, or to knock down a pyramid of blocks with a baseball.

See, those games seem like they're easy. But they are heavily favored toward the carnival. That hoop barely fits over the stuffed animal. Those blocks weigh a lot more than they look. And don't get me started on how impossible it is to lob a quarter onto a small glass tray or get a ping pong ball into a cup only a millimeter wider than its circumference.

Legacy publishing trumpets its bestseller successes, tempting authors to be the next John Grisham or Lee Child, without explaining how goddamn hard it is to sell in those numbers (unless you're John Grisham or Lee Child). They talk about big names and big advances like anyone off the street could get them. They talk about how essential they are. They say that if you're good enough, you'll be rewarded.

I find this pervasive attitude analogous to a giant stuffed Snoopy doll that you have three chances to win for just $1. The Snoopy doll is no doubt worth a lot more than $1. It's hanging right there in front of you, practically begging for you to win it.

But the carnies can offer that doll for $1 because few ever win. The number of losers more than pay for the occasional winner.

And I believe, like the carnies, legacy pundits know this. But they never come out and admit it.

For example:

Kensington CEO Steve Zacharius: If you look at the printed NYT list, how many of the mega authors are self-published?  ….if indie publishing is as good as you’re all making it sound…..why do you think that the biggest and most successful authors in publishing don’t go this route? Why isn’t Nora Roberts, Patterson, Lee Child, etc….going this route?

Carny: Look at this gigantic Snoopy doll! You're a Snoopy fan, I can tell. Well, the only way to get this doll is to throw a ring around it, and you get three rings for just a dollar. Don't you want to take home that doll?

Legacy Apologist Mike Shatzkin: Unearned advances are a substantial part of author compensation. I know of one Big Five house that calculates that they pay more than 40% of their revenue to authors

Carny: People win all the time, and look what they win! Look how big that Snoopy is! I tell you, the odds are so good you'll win one that we're going broke here. This is our last Snoopy.

Agent Donald Maass: Authorship is a true meritocracy. (Sorry, it is.)

Carny: You're good at this game. I can tell. You're the best. And the best always wins. Give it a try, only three rings for a dollar. I'm sure you'll win that doll.

Agent Robert Gottlieb: Sometimes sharing opportunity with a publisher, wherever possible, creates greater opportunity for an author’s career.

Carny: You can't find a Snoopy doll like this anywhere else. We're the only ones that have it. If you want it, now is your chance to get it. Three tries for a buck.

Agent David Gernert: I am not a fan of self-publishing in general. It removes the gatekeepers from the process, and if we come to a point where every person in America who is writing a book can “publish” it, it becomes much more difficult for readers to find the good ones.

Carny: Knocking down blocks with a baseball? That game is rigged. And they don't have a giant Snoopy doll. Trust me, this is the game you want to play. The one you're good at, with the big reward. Just three rings for a dollar.

So you buy the three rings and fail to win the Snoopy, because the game is rigged, The odds were much harder than the carnies made them seem. But every so often--it is rare but it happens--someone wins a giant Snoopy worth a lot of money, and they only paid $1 for it.

But who really paid for that Snoopy? The one who won it? Or all the losers who didn't win it?

Who pays for the mega-bestsellers? Do they pay for themselves, and make so much extra that they also cover all the midlist books that lose money?

Or could the opposite be happening?

Let's do some quick and dirty math.

Phil the Writer gets a $5,000 advance. He sells 5,000 ebooks his first year at a Digital List Price of $6.99—a reasonable number for a midlist author. The publisher earns $2.62 per sale (selling to the etailer at 50% of the DLP and keeping 75% of net) or $13,100.  The author earns $0.88 per copy sold.  He's earned $4400—still $600 short of earning out his advance. So the publisher made $13,100, minus the $5,000 advance, so it actually earned $1.62 per copy sold.

Jack the Writer gets a $2,000,000 advance. He sells 1,000,000 ebooks his first year at a Digital List Price of $6.99—a reasonable number for a bestseller. The publisher earns $2.62 per sale or $2,620,000, and the author earns $0.88 per copy sold (assuming a 25% royalty—more on this in a minute) or $880,000—still $1,120,000 short of earning out his advance. So the publisher made $2,620,000, minus the $2,000,000 advance, so it actually earned $0.62 per copy sold.

In other words, in this scenario, it is arguably better for the publisher to publish a lot of midlist books that don't earn out instead of a huge blockbuster that doesn't earn out.

And how about those huge bestselling authors who make higher than 25% ebook royalties? That means an even smaller per unit profit for the publisher.

Of course, as the sales for both ebooks continue, the profit per unit increases. But some publishers offer advances so high they will likely never earn out, and they also offer some bestsellers higher ebook royalties.

So who is really paying for whom? If you were a publisher, would you rather have Jack the bestseller, or 400 writers like Phil?

Pundits like to say that legacy publishers—by offering advances and paying all the costs of publication—take all the risk. They're essentially giving authors an interest-free loan that never has to be returned even if the book fails to earn out.

But is this really the case?

I submit that the loan isn't interest free. In fact, the interest on it is huge; paying it back at 12.5% royalties takes a lot longer than the 70% royalties an author would make by self-publishing.

As I explained in a recent post fisking Mike Shatzkin:

If you were a genre author offered a $100k advance earning 12.5% royalties off of the digital list price (25% of net, and publishers sell to Amazon at roughly 50% off their digital list price), and your ebook is priced at $4.99, you earn $0.63 per ebook sold. You need to sell 159,000 ebooks to earn out your advance. And when you do, you're stuck with 63 cents per sale, FOREVER.

The same ebook, self-published, earns the author $3.49 per copy sold. If they sell 28,653 copies, they made the $100,000. Every copy they sell after that, they make 5.6x more money than they do on a legacy ebook.

Which seems like a better deal for authors?

And remember—even if the advance never earns out, the legacy publisher can still make money. The example of Phil the writer shows how.

And if Jack the writer had sold 1,000,000 ebooks via self-pubbing, he would have made $3,490,000, or $1,490,000 more than his advance (which he still hasn't earned out yet according to the figures I posted).

Isn't this looking more and more like a carny game where the publisher always wins? Especially when you include all the one-sided contract terms—non-compete clauses, next work option, term of copyright, etc.

Like carnies, publishers aren't in the business of losing money. They also aren't in the business of showing odds.

That's the distinction between a carny game and a lottery. Lotteries require the odds to be posted. Anyone who goes gambling has easy access to the odds in blackjack, roulette, and craps. It's simple math, and the gambler is aware of those odds.

With a carny game, the big fluffy Snoopy doll is hanging right in front of your eyes, promising itself as a huge reward for a simple ring toss. But the ring toss isn't simple, and the odds of winning aren't apparent. All you see is a big Snoopy—or a guest spot on Oprah and a #1 bestseller—without the carny or the legacy publisher actually telling you what your chances are.

As PT Barnum said, there's a writer born every minute.

Wait… I meant a sucker born every minute.

But as suckers, er… writers, we can arm ourselves with knowledge. We can share stories and read blogs and participate in forums and ask questions.

A few months ago, Brenda Hyatt updated her Show Me The Money! blog post, revealing average and median advances, royalties, and earn-outs for many legacy publishers. It's a must-read for any author considering a legacy deal.

It isn't up to me, or Barry, or anyone, to tell you what path to follow.

So why do Barry and I and many other authors blog about stuff like this?

Simple. Pain shared is pain divided. Joy shared is joy multiplied.

Share the pain. Spread the joy. Tell others what you've learned, good and bad.

And next time you go to a carnival, spend that five bucks on cotton candy, not on the ring toss. At least you'll get what you paid for.

P.S. A question that occurred to me after writing my bit was: If publishers are making so much less on bestselling titles, why do they keep offering huge advances?

I could think of a big reason: the long game.

The more copies a book sells, the less important an advance becomes because the publisher eventually absorbs it into total production costs. When enough copies sell, publishers are making almost the same amount on Jack's book as they are on Phil's book.

Carrie and Killing Floor and One For The Money and Along Came A Spider are first books (or first books in a series) by some mega-bestselling authors. These books continue to generate a lot of revenue, year in and year out, even though they no longer require marketing or advertising dollars. Backlist pays for the front list, in a sort of weird reverse-pyramid scheme. The old books front the costs for the new books until the new books become old enough to be money makers, which in turn pay for new books.

What a publisher makes next quarter is largely based on what they did years ago.

So a legacy publisher can afford to offer a 10 million dollar advance, because previous books by an author have shown, over time, to generate (or have the potential to generate) that kind of income.

There are also the instant hits, like Twilight and 50 Shades and Dragon Tattoo and DaVinci Code that also help to pay the bills.

A solid backlist and a few runaway hits, coupled with underpaying most authors with low advances and poor royalties, allow publishers to offer giant advances—even if those advances take years to pay for themselves.

As long as there is a steady supply of authors willing to accept what publishers are offering, the legacy industry will endure.

But 99.9999% of authors don't get the huge advance, just like 99.9999% of ring tossers don't win the giant Snoopy.

So what happens when authors wise up and realize they don't have to deal with publishers anymore?

Data Guy's nine-year-old daughter instantly understood what happens. She was reading The Passive Voice over her father's shoulder and said, "It's just like A Bug's Life. The ants are finally realizing they don't have to give the food they collect to the bullying grasshoppers anymore, while they starve."



Can't be more on the nose than that…

70 comments:

James Scott Bell said...

An absolutely superb overview, Barry. I've thought a lot about this, too, over the last few years. When I talk to writers, I call the top of the pub pyramid a wheel of fortune (maybe here is where Joe's barker stands). The job is to get a book on the wheel. Getting one on there is in part skill--craft and hard work. Those increase your odds. My pyramid analogy means that getting up to the smaller demographics at the top is a matter of effort (like being at a writer's conference and learning) and those who are doing so are really not competing with "everybody." They're ahead of most wannabes.

Now, how much this increases the odds of getting on the wheel is beyond any certainty, because there are too many variables. So getting into this game is a decision that requires thinking along the lines you suggest.

On the self-publishing side, I'd use the metaphor of the small business. We know most small businesses fail, and very often we can pinpoint exactly why. No business sense. A lousy product. A sales force taking too many smoke breaks. But if someone has something of quality and works really heard, they may be able to run a profit. And then a small business may actually grow into a substantial asset. Sometimes it explodes into HUGE success (remember the Super Bowl ad that showed all those big businesses--including Amazon--starting out in a garage?)

So maybe it's like this: You want to go play that wheel of fortune game? Long odds, a lot of risk, little control over outcome. Or do you want to start a small business, learn how to be an entrepreneur, know the value (and joy) of hard work, and maybe make some real bank? Not just Starbucks money, but car money...and maybe, just maybe, quit-the-day-job money.

Joseph Ratliff said...

IF trad. publishers truly provided more leverage for the money they take in a publishing transaction than I could get on my own... it might be worth it.

Leverage = powerful book marketing (not distribution), setting up speaking engagements FOR ME, advertising FOR ME, reaching out to potential readers FOR ME.

It doesn't make sense for me to give up any of my money unless the entity I'm giving that money to furthers my business in a profitable way.

I think trad. publishers are finally being called to the carpet for results... what they "take" doesn't justify what they "give" in a so-called "partnership."

RC O'Leary said...

This has been another great post in what has been an amazing stretch for your blog--pretty much relentless.

I have a feeling there may be a few people with the same look Apollo Creed had on his face when he knocked Rocky down in the 14th round and saw him get back up. Disbelief that you just keep coming and coming. Although in your case you I haven't seen you get knocked down or hit with any seriously damaging punches for a while. They seem to be glancing blows.

You may have originally entered the publishing ring as the underdog, Joe, and lost some rounds early in your career, but, at least on my scorecard, you're now winning on points as the fight moves into later rounds. And you are now, without a doubt, the one bringing the fight to your opponent.

One suggestion I thought of is it time to change your Blogger name from " A Newbie's Guide to Publishing" to something liked "An informed writer's guide to Publishing?"

I don't know the difficulties of making the change re: google rank, etc, but that seems, to me, like a more fitting title based upon all the information that has been shared on your blog.

James said...

Great post, as usual, especially for someone almost finished with my first MS and evaluating my options.

One minor edit:

"Hard to say, though over 150,000 KDP authors sold over 100,000 books in 2013 and certainly many more..."

150,000 should be 150 (as written later).

Thanks, and keep up the great work!

Alan Tucker said...

Joe, you nailed it.

The carny analogy is as perfect as it gets. Even to the hucksters who hover close to the game, offering to sell advice on how to make your wrist stronger or more flexible to increase your odds of winning (how-to books, agents, conferences, agents with how-to books).

Then there's the vanity presses who stand just outside the carnival offering to sell knock off Snoopy dolls for only $10,000. Dolls whose stitching unravels before you get back to your car.

Rob Gregory Browne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Then there's the vanity presses who stand just outside the carnival offering to sell knock off Snoopy dolls for only $10,000."

What are you talking about?

http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/penguin-buys-self-publishing-platform-author-solutions-for-116-million/

The only difference between the two divisions of vanity press Random Penguin?

- One screws writers by taking their hard-earned money.

- The other screws writers by taking money they haven't even earned yet.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

It's helps to finish reading before you post a comment...

gniz said...

Although it might make a less "talking point" friendly analogy, I think the truer model for legacy publishing is that of a lottery paired with a carny game.

First, you have to win a lottery. You have to get your book picked up by a decent agent (very difficult in and of itself) and then you have to convince a publishing house to want to buy your manuscript. In point of fact, each one of these steps has multiple layers your book has to pass through (each one a mini-lottery) before you finally cross the threshold and are offered a chance to play the big carny game.

Once you're offered a publishing contract, you become a player in the rigged carny game where very few actually get the prize.

It's really the worst of both worlds, the worst of both analogies.

People consider lotteries to be fair, and I suppose we could argue that the lottery of getting a book accepted for publication is "reasonably" fair.

But everything after that (the unconscionable contracts, the poor royalty rates, all the unfair stuff designed to bilk the writer out of everything important) is subject to the carny game mentality.

And the publishers know that once they offer you the chance to play for the prize, it's nearly impossible to turn it down.

The carnival barkers use smoke and mirrors, and the mirrors are funhouse mirrors--distorting the true picture and suckering in yet another naive customer.

Nirmala said...

Of course, Barry mentions how a legacy contract will cost you a huge margin in digital. I would add that it also does cost you some margin in paperback. Using POD, my wife and I make more per paper book sold (about $4-5) than most legacy authors make per paper book sold. Of course it would be likely that a legacy author would sell more paper book, but the difference in margin does level the field a bit and is one more cost of a lottery ticket in legacy publishing.

Steven M. Moore said...

I guess I'd say that having a successful book (selling more than N copies, where you determine N) is a lottery, whether self-pubbing or legacy pubbing. How much money you make on N and satisfying those N readers (reasonable prices) is more about the business of writing. Barry and Joe convinced me awhile ago that self-pubbing is a smart business decision, for many reasons.
That leads me to consider the "snob factor." Someone mentioned vanity presses. I don't how many readers and how many moldy smelling little bookstores turn up their noses at anything that's self-published, many still equating self-pubbing with vanity presses. While I know this snob factor is irrelevant to my writing life and time will erase that attitude, it means indie writers right now are considered to be low in the publishing caste system. Of course, that's an argument for indies to band together and support each other, and for readers of indie works to support the indie writers they love.

Anonymous said...

This is the last snoopy. I love that.

Sarah Woodbury said...

That 9 year old is a smart cookie.

MS said...

You should fix this: "Hard to say, though over **150,000** KDP authors sold over 100,000 books in 2013..."
I almost threw out my neck with that double-take.

Joe Konrath said...

Fixed to 150.

Alan Spade said...

gniz is right, legacy publishing is gamble upon gamble upon gamble. But I love your carny analogy, Joe, because it's so concrete.

In 2010, I wrote a blog post titled "A dream can cost you much".

One of the things I said was: the system's perversity do not have to be attributed uniquely to the financials, nor to the publishers, nor to the media coverage, nor to the showbusiness industry.

The fault, in my opinion, is primarily that of authors, legacy published writers, of course, but also all the others, the ones who discredit and disregard the power which is theirs. If the things have to change, by the way, it will be by the basis.

Prophetic words?

http://emmanuelguillot.over-blog.com/article-un-reve-cela-peut-couter-cher-58715117.html

Anonymous said...

Good explanation of the pros and cons of both systems. I doubt, however, that any traditional publishers are trying to lure authors with the representation that they can or might be the next Stephen King. By the time an author and a NY house come to the contract table, each side has a fairly good understanding as to what to expect regarding print publication type (HC or TP), estimated size of the first print run, advance, T&C, etc. Galleys are produced and submitted to the big book reviewers (PW, Booklist, Kirkus, etc.). After getting those reviews (assuming the book is reviewed, it is often not), the parties have additional information regarding the potential value of the book in terms of library purchases, store purchases, etc., and can order a print run correspondingly. The print is made, the book is released into distribution and everyone crosses their fingers. Readers will start to weigh in. Things may take off and they may not.

Should a writer go trad or indie? Quite frankly, for almost all authors, 99.9% or more, the question is academic, because they could never be picked up by an agent in the first place and, if they are, the agent will probably not be able to land them an offer. Almost all efforts to become traditionally published fail. That’s because the traditional publishers can only put out so many book and are very picky on the ones they want to take a financial risk on. That’s right, every book is a financial risk to a publisher.

As far as I can tell, there is no shortage now or in the near future or even in the distant future of publishable MSs being submitted to publishers. They’re not trying to keep authors out or keep them in. They’re doing business one book at a time and then only after careful P&L analysis.

So, most writers end up going indie. Here’s the problem. Indies are consumed by their own masses; and the problem is compounding itself every single day. The sheer volume of indie writers is their own worst enemy. Most are invisible to readers in spite of endless hours on blogs, twitter, facebook and the like.

It used to be that if your book was genuinely cream, there was a very good chance that it would raise to the top. It would get good reviews by the biggies, get picked up by libraries and stores, etc., get a good print run, etc. That little spark of flame could get fanned if readers responded.

Now, if you write a good book, even an excellent book, will you succeed at indie? Chances are not. Why? Because even good books are invisible. Take The Cookoo’s Calling, initially released under a penname and squandering for months with hardly any sales. It wasn’t until it was “leaked” that the book was written by Rawling that it took off. Did the book change or get better? No, it just got visible. It didn’t get visible because it was a good book, though.

Like I said, the biggest problem today for indies is invisibility and being a part of the endless sea of writers. Every indie is looking for a way to break from the pack and get that much needed visibility. Go to KBoards and you’ll see the endless discussion on whether anyone knows if there is a way to sell their books. No one has the answer.

Assuming you are good enough to land a traditional contract, I would seriously keep in mind that that going trad is in fact one way to break from the pack. It may make you visible. And that visibility may be the initial flame you need. And if it doesn’t, so what? Put your next book out indie.

Just thought I’d add this in since it’s never an element raised in the never-ending debate of trad vs. indie.

RJ

Mir Writes said...

Mr. Zacharius has responded on FB and articles/blog posts, so I went to Brenda's SHOW ME THE MONEY to get some info no the Kensington earnings. I don't know if Brenda gets rid of much older survey info and adds in the new one or just keeps it all together, but here it is with the rather shocking first advance/median advance in the 3K-3.5K range. Wow. That's kinda not much. But then look at the EARN-OUT MEDIAN!~~~

Kensington/Zebra………………………………………………………………………………..149
Average advance (first book): $3500 Median: $3000
Average advance (subsequent books): $7100 Median: $3700
Advance range: $1750 – $60,000
Standard print royalty: 6 – 8% Electronic: 25% (net)
Average earn-out: $6200 Median: $3800 Range: $2500 – $17,800

Kensington (novellas) ……………………………………………………………………………29
Average advance: $2750 Median: $1500
Advance range: $750 – $9000
Standard print royalty: 2 – 3.75%
Average earn-out: n/a

Mir Writes said...

Okay, my brain farted. Brenda states clearly she only includes titles from 2000 on. :)

Michelle Muto said...

Short and sweet - the kid nailed it with the grasshopper/ant video.

Thank you, Joe, Barry, and Hugh for being three ants who are helping the ant army figure it out.

I wish I hadn't listened to the carnie. I don't need a Snoopy Doll. I need to pay the mortgage. ;-)

Hugh Howey said...

Hey Joe, that Amazon stat of 150 authors was that they sold 100,000 copies of a single book, not total books. It wasn't clearly worded, but you can tell that this was the intent in the original press release. It got mangled after that, and the story diluted.

More than 150 authors sold over 100,000 books last year. Something else to keep in mind: This was only on Amazon. :)

Mark Edward Hall said...

I sold more than 50,000 copies of a single book last year. Since 150 authors sold more than 100,000 copies, I wonder how many authors sold in the 50,000 range. Anybody have that stat?

Alan Spade said...

RJ said: "As far as I can tell, there is no shortage now or in the near future or even in the distant future of publishable MSs being submitted to publishers."

Perhaps we can admit that, but what about the quality of these manuscripts? If you are an author who think her MS has some value, unless you have no clue at all, you'll be inclined to do researches for the best solution in order to earn money.

And on the Internet, you'll learn brick&mortar booksellers are shrinking, Barnes&Noble closes stores, and Big publishing is increasingly using the same tools as self-publishing: lowering prices for promotion, making loss-leaders, using Facebook's like sites and using Bookbub's like sites.

So, my guess is the authors who believe in their MSs will be more and more well informed, and legacy publishing will have less and less quality new MSs. Just a guess.

William Ockham said...

I disagree to a certain extent. Publishing is not a lottery. Legacy (Big 5) publishing is more like a casino and the publisher is the house. They are making money every year and very few writers are.

I'm also not buying Joe's explanation for the big advances (backlist pays for frontlist). I think that if it worked that way, the aggregate payout to authors would be much closer to the aggregate royalty rate. According to Shatzkin, that's not the case. The numbers he offered up were that two Big 5 publishers told him that authors received 35-40% of the publisher’s gross revenue in the past fiscal year. That figure would include royalty payments for backlist titles and advances for future books. He was arguing that legacy published authors were making more than it appears from Hugh’s data.

I resisted the urge to go all Princess Bride on him:


You keep citing that fact. I do not think that fact means what you think it means.

Of course, I’m not sure anyone else has quite figured out what it means. Think about it. They pay authors (in the aggregate) more than the agreed upon royalty rate by design. How does that help them maximize profits? What are they buying with the money they spend over and above the royalty rate?

Remember the “produce” model that Kris Rusch talks about? Your book doesn’t spoil, but your book being on store shelves spoils their business model. They are paying you a small part of the profits they make by pulling your book off the shelves before it reaches its full audience. The reason they do it is they want readers to see *New and Improved* books every time they go into a bookstore.

That logic made perfect sense in the print era, but in the ebook era, they are doomed unless they can change this. And I don’t think they can. Everything you need to know is summed up by Carolyn Reidy’s marginal note on the price-fix scheme:


Higher price slows Ebks/casual purchaser/keeps retailers/stops authors leaving

Slowing the spread of the ebook ‘virus’ before it infects the casual purchaser is the only thing they have to stop [best selling] authors from leaving. The entire business model of legacy publishing is built around controlling which titles are available to the casual book purchaser.

[Note to readers of both this blog and TPV. I just posted pretty much this same comment over there.]

middle grade ninja said...

Thanks for some highly enjoyable reading during my lunch break. This might be the most fun I've had since reading Be The Monkey. I so appreciate you guys bringing this discussion to the forefront.

I might point out that the self-publishing pitch equivalent to "Stephen King!" is "Hugh Howey!" (two of my favorite writers whose success I'm not statistically likely to duplicate)

As a writer who has an agent, but self published my first book last year, I can honestly say that life is a lot more fun on the indie side. I love my agent and consider him to be truly my advocate, as evidenced by the fact that he's still my agent. But nothing beats being in control of my own art. Knowing that what I'm writing today will actually be read by someone (maybe even two someones) makes all the difference. More, the book my reader picks up will be presented exactly the way I intended it to be presented without compromise (for better or for worse.

Barry Eisler said...

RJ, have a look through your comment, and I think you’ll see you’re doing several of the things I pointed out in my post:

1) Suggesting the challenges of self-publishing are somehow unique to self-publishing, and are not even worth mentioning as they exist in all other forms of publishing: "Now, if you write a good book, even an excellent book, will you succeed at indie? Chances are not.” But is this not also true for every other publishing lottery?

2) Conflating the ideal of legacy publishing with its all-too-frequent reality: "It used to be that if your book was genuinely cream, there was a very good chance that it would raise to the top. It would get good reviews by the biggies, get picked up by libraries and stores, etc., get a good print run, etc. That little spark of flame could get fanned if readers responded.” The whole point of my post is to start a more productive conversation about how often this really happens, a point you’ve utterly failed to address.

3) Raising alarums about the “tsunami of crap:” "Here’s the problem. Indies are consumed by their own masses; and the problem is compounding itself every single day. The sheer volume of indie writers is their own worst enemy. Most are invisible to readers in spite of endless hours on blogs, twitter, facebook and the like.” Did you click on the link for that phrase within the post itself?) Here it is again: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/07/tsunami-of-crap.html

Overall, I think your comment is an elegant demonstration of just how stubborn and deep-rooted these zombie memes really are. Because even in responding to a post that refutes them, for the most part you just… say them again, as though they’re new, as though no one has made an argument against them that you ought to address if you want to move the conversation forward.

Most interesting of all for me was this paragraph:

"Now, if you write a good book, even an excellent book, will you succeed at indie? Chances are not. Why? Because even good books are invisible. Take The Cookoo’s Calling, initially released under a penname and squandering for months with hardly any sales. It wasn’t until it was “leaked” that the book was written by Rawling that it took off. Did the book change or get better? No, it just got visible. It didn’t get visible because it was a good book, though."

You’re arguing *against* going indie because of the failure of a *legacy* published book? And note that what turned that book’s fortunes around wasn’t even anything the publisher did, but rather a leak about who wrote it. Here we have an instance of a legacy publisher unable to push even *J.K. Rowling* to success, and you think that means ipso facto no one should *self* publish? Does that make any sense at all to you? It doesn’t to me, but maybe I’m missing something.

Barry Eisler said...

William, I don't disagree with the casino analogy, and in fact I think we're making the same point. The house always profits in both a lottery and a casino, so that's not really a distinction. Both the state (lottery) and the casino (black jack, roulette, etc) are running forms of gambling. As long as players know the payout, the odds, and the cost of playing, I'm fine with it.

Talin said...

RJ, even a few years ago publishers were putting out over 100k books per year. There's more books put out per year, even without indies, than anyone could read in a lifetime. Even if you don't touch Snookie type books and celebrity diet/cookbooks.

I've argued before that you could spend most of a lifetime reading classics from libraries and used bookstores without touching anything published in the last 10 years.

And yet millions of people buy new books, including indie ones, all the time.

http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2011/pr_05182011.shtml

Alan Spade said...

Exactly what I thought. Isn't the casino a lottery?

Anonymous said...

Barry, you missed the point of my post, and I’m blaming myself for that, not you. I’ll try to restate it. The problem with going indie today is that it is very difficult to get visibility, EVEN WITH A GOOD BOOK. I’m not saying there’s a “Tsunami of Crap” (Lee’s infamous term) but rather that a Tusnami of books, an ever-rising Tsunami to be precise. Authors are finding it very difficult today to break out of the pack even when they deserve to, meaning their book is good, readable, enjoyable, well-written, well-described, error-free, with a great cover and catchy name. Cookoo was an example (a good book but lost in the Tusnami until the real author was disclosed). Other examples include Stephen King’s penname books, relatively luke-warm sellers until the real author becomes known.

In fact, I’ve done my own experiments. A couple of years ago I took one of my (then) hot-selling books at $5.95 and released it under a penname for only $2.99, just to see what would happen. It was the exact same book, the exact same book description, at half the price. Know what happened? It did sell more than a handful of copies. The reason is obvious. It wasn’t visible. No one knew it was there. The visible book sold like hotcakes; the exact same invisible one sold nothing.

My point about going trad is that it’s a way to break out of the pack and possibly (no guarantees) get some visibility. That visibility can then be used to sell the author’s indie books.

Like JA alway says, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Any serious author is going to write far more than one book. Why not release one trad (for those who can) and see what happens? If it flops, so what? But if it doesn’t flop, if it brings a spotlight to you that pure indie can’t, then your whole catalog might rise.

Phased differently, there’s a lot to be said for going hybrid. I know, because it’s helped me.

RJ

Elka said...

“Barry, you missed the point of my post, and I’m blaming myself for that, not you. I’ll try to restate it. The problem with going indie today is that it is very difficult to get visibility, EVEN WITH A GOOD BOOK. I’m not saying there’s a “Tsunami of Crap” (Lee’s infamous term) but rather that a Tusnami of books, an ever-rising Tsunami to be precise. Authors are finding it very difficult today to break out of the pack even when they deserve to, meaning their book is good, readable, enjoyable, well-written, well-described, error-free, with a great cover and catchy name. Cookoo was an example (a good book but lost in the Tusnami until the real author was disclosed). Other examples include Stephen King’s penname books, relatively luke-warm sellers until the real author becomes known.”
What is this actually saying to me, which probably isn't your intent, since you insist on “he problem with going indie today is”, that with being published today is that it is very difficult to get visibility,, that being either indie published or trade published, when you have a 'marketing machine' behind you, as your examples demonstrate.

Anonymous said...

This is actually depressing, because even with 16 titles available self-published, I'm still only selling around 10 books across the board monthly.

I'm not winning at this indie book lottery thing. Let the pity party ensue.

Mark Edward Hall said...

Anon is likening "visibility" to being a superstar author like King or Rowling. We all know that most of us are never going to attain that status.

Most of us just want to be able to write for a living, maybe pay the house or the car payment. If I'd waited on legacy to get me there, I'd still be waiting.

I took the bull by the horn and did what was best for me, I went independent.

I understand that not every independent writer will pay the house or the car payment with their royalties, but I like the independent odds much better than the alternative.

Anonymous said...

The "tsunami of crap" is kind of a discredited argument at this point.

The top 10,000 indie books are better-rated by reviewers than the top 10,000 legacy-published books.

Bad books of both types sink out of sight and become invisible. 100 million more of them won't make a difference.

The real "volcano of crap"?

It's the endless bullshit coming from the mouths of trad-pub's apologists Zacharius, Shatskin, and the like as they publicly humiliate and embarrass themselves over and over again.

It's sad.

Anonymous said...

"Anon is likening "visibility" to being a superstar author like King or Rowling. We all know that most of us are never going to attain that status."

Actually, I'm not. I'm saying visibility is a real problem for authors in today's market, indie and traditional alike. But that said, trad does get the author into the print distribution stream. That might help that particular author get visibility that is not available to the indie-only, digital author. That visibility, in turn, might lift the author's entire catalog. If it doesn't, well, then in hindsight you threw a book away. So what?

It's important for the author to view his/her collection as a whole and elevate the whole collection to the extent possible, rather than concentrate on every book as its own independent line item.

Authors who have perma-frees understand this type of reasoning.

RJ

William Ockham said...

To Barry,

The difference I was trying to point (and edited down to obscurity) was that a lottery consists of a single decision (buy the ticket or not) while a casino has all the blinking lights and different games to attract you. Think about how the casino works. The "whales" get great treatment for a reason. I think legacy publishing works the same way.

To RJ - Your experiment was a good one and it proves something very different than you think. A couple of days ago I heard Barry speak in person. He said one thing that was correct, but there is a huge exception. He said there's nothing you can put on the cover of a book that will make people buy the book. The exception* is the author's name, if you are a fan of the author. Put Barry's name on a novel and I will buy it. Lots of other authors fall in that category for me (don't want Barry getting a big head, his hair might take over the world).

What you proved was you have fans. People who buy your work because you wrote it. Same thing with Rowling. Cuckoo's Calling had really good visibility even when it was supposedly written by a fake veteran.

*Series names can do the same thing, but that always comes down to trust in the author(s) as well.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the attempted clarification, RJ, but I don’t think you’re saying anything new — in fact, in repeating yourself, I think you’re continuing to prove my points. You mention King’s Bachman experiment, but that happened thirty years ago. If it proves anything, the Bachman example proves precisely that the odds are long in *all* of publishing, that the odds have always been long, and that as Talin says, rising above the noise of the hundreds of thousands of legacy-publishing books has always been a challenge, a challenge even for books as good as those written by Stephen King and (your own example) J.K. Rowling.

Discoverability is simply not a new challenge in publishing. It’s not even a new challenge in business. If you want to discuss the *differences* in the challenge of discoverability WRT to the different publishing lotteries, that’s a useful conversation. But — forgive me — I haven’t seen you do that yet. Instead, I’ve seen you repeating the very memes Joe and I tried to debunk and move past in our post as though the post itself had never been written. I don’t know where that’s going to get anyone.

You said, "My point about going trad is that it’s a way to break out of the pack and possibly (no guarantees) get some visibility.”

That might be a benefit, if things go well. Are you suggesting this doesn’t happen with self-published books, too? Why do you discuss this benefit as though it’s only possible (or even perhaps certain) in the legacy lottery, and not even worth mentioning in the self-publishing one?

(Hint: search for this paragraph in my post: "Way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned a second major dodge of legacy publishing. Sorry it took a while to get to it. It’s actually a more general category, of which “Stephen King!” is in part a specific subset. What I’m talking about is the tendency of the publishing establishment to suggest, whether implicitly or explicitly, that all the benefits of publishing are in legacy and all the risks are in digital. This dodge is ubiquitous—have a look at the links at the beginning of this post and you’ll see what I mean. And now that you know about the dodge, I promise you’ll see it wherever an establishment publishing personage makes a pronouncement. And you’ll be aware also that if someone is trying to have an honest conversation with you, that person will start by acknowledging that there are risks and potential rewards, costs and benefits, disadvantages and advantages in both systems. Anyone who suggests or even implies otherwise is bullshitting you, whether deliberately or otherwise."

You also said, "Why not release one trad (for those who can) and see what happens? If it flops, so what?” Again, I have to ask… did you even read the post? I list five different costs of a legacy ticket, including #1, "First, it’ll cost you your rights, which someone else will own for at least a very long time and in all probability forever (have a look at a typical legacy-publishing page-and-a-half, nine-point font, opaque-as-the-Dead-Sea-Scrolls reversion provision, and you’ll eventually conclude that the gist of it is “You will never get your rights back, ever”).” If you want to explain why that (and the other four costs I list) aren’t particularly important, then fine, but to ask “Why not go trad? If it flops, so what?” as though those costs don’t exist and no one has mentioned them is just not productive. Does it seem productive to you?

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

I'm still laughing my ass off about the snoopy doll. So true!

It amazes me how many writers are still hanging on to the mirage.

Well said, fellas. As usual.

Barry Eisler said...

Anonymous said:

"I'm not winning at this indie book lottery thing."

This is what makes it a lottery. Most people who play don't win. But I think it's best to understand that, not to obscure it, and then to consider what we can do to influence our odds in the various systems available to us.

Barry Eisler said...

William, that is a great clarification -- brand and discoverability are not the same thing at all, and in fact creating a strong brand is the ultimate solution to the problem of discoverability. Bachman and The Cuckoo's Calling are solid evidence for this proposition.

Barry Eisler said...

RJ said:

"I'm saying visibility is a real problem for authors in today's market, indie and traditional alike. But that said, trad does get the author into the print distribution stream. That might help that particular author get visibility that is not available to the indie-only, digital author. That visibility, in turn, might lift the author's entire catalog. If it doesn't, well, then in hindsight you threw a book away. So what?"

Okay, now I'm beginning to understand you a little better. Look, as I keep saying, it's about costs, benefits, and odds. If you believe paper distribution is likely to sell lots of books for you, and you think you're likely to get it, and you find the cost acceptable, then by all means, play that lottery. But to make the conversation useful, you have to discuss all three categories: payoff, likelihood, risk/cost/opportunity cost.

Anonymous said...

"But to make the conversation useful, you have to discuss all three categories: payoff, likelihood, risk/cost/opportunity cost."

Actually, you don't. It doesn't all need to be set out in pie charts and defined topics.

In simple terms, Trad publishing gets the author into the print distribution stream, which is still a big deal, and can get the author visibility. That visibility may lift the author's indie side of the equation, it may not. It's all a trade-off and a gamble. In hindsight, a trad book may pay off big or it may end in no money and lost rights. I don't need to figure it all out in advance. For me, I have no problem rolling the dice with a book and see what happens. If it ends up being a throwaway, there are more where that one came from.

It's also interesting to note that some of the more successful indies, including yourself and Joe, started life with a highly visible print distribution.

No correlation or connection? No continuity of movement or readers? No leveraging of one to the other?

RJ

Samuel Morningstar said...

The lottery analogy is an apt one. The thing that attracted me to self-publishing is the notion that I could buy a ticket to the lottery on my time-frame: the faster I put out quality product, the more "tickets" I get, and the greater my chance of getting lucky. Under the legacy system, I could only get one ticket every two to three years, depending on their schedule.

Barry Eisler said...

RJ, thanks for all your thoughts on this. I understand you don't think a person needs to consider all three categories (benefits, odds, risks/costs) to make an informed decision about which lottery to play. I've argued otherwise. At this point, I think people still reading probably have enough info to decide what's right for themselves. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I don't need to figure it all out in advance.

But isn't that what Joe's blog is all about? Stressing the importance of going into these things as informed as possible?

With a traditional publisher, if the advance is huge, you're probably going to get some decent visibility in print. If the advance is not huge, you're probably not.

So every author should decide, before they sign anything, how much they think their book is worth. If you think it's worth $5000, and you're willing to sign a contract knowing that $5000 is probably all you'll ever see, and knowing that the two spine-out copies on one of Barnes and Noble's genre-specific shelves for six weeks aren't going to lift any boats anywhere, then go for it. Sign those rights away.

But go in knowing this: at some point, you're probably going to wish you hadn't.

Books aren't like gambling chips. We have an emotional investment in them. An intense emotional investment. At least some of us do.

Angry_Games said...

Since everyone in my social circles all have ereaders, whether Kindles, Nooks, or their phones/tablets, I'm seeing the trend shift to digital.

It might take a while to become mor than 50% of the book market, but it will. Technology is an erosive force, and ebooks are eroding print, and will continue until print is a small strip of land being pushed into another ocean, one that will not only begin eating the remains of print, but will be the erosion of ebooks.

I have no idea what this technology will be, but it will be. As vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CD's, and mp3's. Ask B&W tube TV's, color tube TV's, flatscreen plasma TV's, DLP TV's, and LCD TV's.

The movement is already happening. Some are slow getting onboard. Publishers are the slowest, even as they see their profits rise from expanded ebook sales and the almost nil cost of distribution that ebooks inherently have.

Print is still viable, but I don't know of any authors, self-published and floundering, or self-published and making a very, very good living at, that have said something to the effect of "without print books, I'd still have to have a real/second job." None. Now, my numbers are anecdotal, but I'm also pulling from my experiences at Kboards.com forums, a very large author hangout where such things are constantly discussed (sometimes to death).

Then there's the whole 'digital books are forever, they never go "out of print" like paper books' thing.

I guess what I'm saying is that with the forward march to ebook domination, then whatever replaces ebooks down the road in a decade or two, or less, print is becoming less important, and I'm kind of tired of hearing how this is such a huge thing that authors absolutely must consider. It's important to some, sure, but most of us self-published authors either don't care, or we are doing quite well with paperbacks from CreateSpace and Lightning Source POD services.

Yeah, we can't get our books into a lot of brick & mortar stores, but again, technology's erosion of brick & mortar bookstore necessity is unstoppable. The smart B&M stores will adapt and survive, even prosper. The giant corporate behemoths that have a chain of command are bulky and adapt far slower than the smaller, nimble mom and pop or small chain types. Smart indie bookstores are offering terminals to order ebooks for use on various readers, and getting a 10% or some other affiliate cut.

Authors don't need physical books to be successful and reach millions of readers. Authors can do just as good at marketing their works (and themselves) as a traditional publisher can. A self-pub author only has to market herself. A trad pub author has to compete with hundred, maybe thousands of other authors within their own publishing house to get marketed.

And to those that are floundering as self-pubs... all I can say is this is a long game. You're in it to win it no matter how long it takes. Even if you pull up stakes and go back to your old life of being a corporate drone, self-employed IT tech, whatever, your books are forever. Once they are listed at Amazon or elsewhere, they cost you ZERO dollars to list and sell. Who knows, some reader might come along one day and discover your obscure title when reader genre tastes change/shift, and suddenly your name is exploding from the lips of readers?

To me, this is like buying a lottery ticket that you pay for once, and every week when the lottery drawing happens, your ticket is still valid and you still have the exact same odds of winning (or losing).

Anonymous said...

AARGH! Indie publishers CAN get their books in print into bookstores. Go to today's post at DeanWesleySmith.com - he's got a lecture about it! Do NOT buy into that argument by the trad publishers!!!

Joe Konrath said...

I think that if it worked that way, the aggregate payout to authors would be much closer to the aggregate royalty rate

Not if it were a reverse pyramid scheme.

The idea is that publishers can only become profitable off the tiers that have earned out. So they'd be paying out a lot--in royalties plus new advances--that they'll only recoup years from now.

Anonymous said...

If you've got a POD through Createspace (extended distribution) or LightningSource, virtually every bookstore in the world will list your paper book on its online catalog and make it available for customer orders. If you actually want to see physical copies of your indie book on the shelves, you'll have to pitch the bookstore directly to convince them to order it, but it is certainly possible. If you hope to see a pile of 100 copies of your book near the entrance...well...even Stephen King doesn't get that so much anymore. Haha.

Paul Draker said...

Anonymous said:
AARGH! Indie publishers CAN get their books in print into bookstores. Go to today's post at DeanWesleySmith.com - he's got a lecture about it!

I'm 100% indie, and I've got my LightningSource-printed, Ingram-distributed books on the shelves of many bookstores, including a half-dozen Barnes & Noble stores.

Last weekend, a big California Barnes & Noble held a book-signing author event for me, despite the fact that I am self-published.

Not one bookstore I've called has said no. They order my indie books and put them on the shelves. Often, when I visit the stores in person to sign their stock, I find my books face-out.

The indies-can't-get-into-bookstores argument is utter bullshit.

Disgraced industry groupie Mike Shatzkin even got himself called a liar by Examiner.com for trotting out that tired old nonsense:

"Sadly, instead of looking at the numbers, all Shatzkin did was try to discount them all. He used broken arguments that publishing houses will edit books and create covers and promote them, which make it worth making less money and giving up all rights to the books to the publishing houses. This ignores the fact that self published authors can pay a professional copy editor and book jacket designer and make more money while keeping 100 percent of the rights to their books.

Shatzkin also pointed out the fact that self published authors can't get into book stores, of which Barnes & Noble is one of the only ones left, which is also a lie since self published authors can get into bookstores just like traditionally published authors."


http://www.examiner.com/article/self-publishing-author-earning-report-helps-authors-make-better-decisions

Joe Konrath said...

But that said, trad does get the author into the print distribution stream. That might help that particular author get visibility that is not available to the indie-only, digital author.

It doesn't, Jim. I make 8x as much as I did in the legacy model.

There's no magic bullet. It's just luck. Keep writing and experimenting until you get lucky. But with legacy, there is less writing and experimenting. You're at the mercy of morons who confine you to "standards" that make no sense, like non-compete and term of copyright.

Change your covers and drop your prices. If noir isn't selling, write something else. But don't think a legacy deal is the key to success. it isn't.

Joe Konrath said...

Disgraced industry groupie Mike Shatzkin

Mike, Mike, Mike, how far has thou fallen?

I give him credit for dancing with the girl he brought to the party, even though she turned out to be a real dud. But making excuses for her being a dud is really getting old. Use your brain and move on.

antares said...

I've been thinking about the analogies of publishing as a lottery and as a casino. An analogy is valid to make a point, but what is not obvious is that an analogy includes a viewpoint.

The analogy of publishing as a lottery comes from the viewpoint of the author.

On the publishing side, Author Solutions and their ilk must see the business as a carnival game.

Legitimate publishers see publishing as a horse farm.

When the farm bring in a new colt, they assure the owner that his horse can run and that they will give it their best. The farm point to their past winners to assure the horse owner that they know how to make winners.

But we know that not all horses win. Some horses win regularly; those horses get the best facilities, the best jockeys, the best trainers. Some horses run in the money but seldom win and sometimes don't place; those horses get less attention. Most horses never finish in the money; those horses get ignored; soon they are gone. The farm back the winners and pull their services from the losers.

How do the farm know which horses are winners? The truth is they don't until the finish of the first race. Maybe not even then. Like Seabiscuit, John Grisham came back from a bad start. Her first time out of the gate, her publisher laid a small wager on J K Rowling. He was surprised by her success, just like the trainers of Sarava in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. (Except, unlike Sarava, Rowling won again and again.)

Do the farm pass on horses that turn out to be winners? Yeah. Secretariat. Frank Herbert. Joe Konrah. Barry Eisler. Mel Comley.

Seen from the perspective of the publisher, the business is a horse farm, and he is going to back the winning pony. Does he pamper the winning horse? Yeah. Wouldn't you?

Just remember: When a legitimate publisher first sees you, he may spin stories about the Triple Crown. But until and unless you win your first race, to him you're just another ass.

Barry Eisler said...

Antares, I don't think any particular analogy will have a lock on this topic. Carny game, casino, horse farm... we're all trying to illuminate different aspects of the experience of trying to succeed in the book world.

That said, is becoming Secretariat guaranteed? Foreordained?

If not -- if making it to that level of pampering and privilege requires a lot of luck -- I think we're still talking about a lottery, just using different terms.

James said...

@Joe "If you were a publisher, would you rather have Jack the bestseller, or 400 writers like Phil?"

I think for the average working person this seems 100% logical.

However, this is not the pattern we've seen time and again when it comes to big business and astronomical numbers. Generally, it is a handful of people swinging for the fences (Hell, for the stadium lights, wanting to rain down sparks on the field as they round the bases). One big score and they can retire in glittering gold opulence.

Time and again this practice has brought industries to its knees. They don't even have to be similar industries. Just have to have people greedy enough and unconscionable enough to risk a millennial of hard-earned trust on your single pay out.

We saw this with our banking collapse, we saw this with Enron robbing California blind, and we've even seen this with comicbooks (Just goes to show, it doesn't have to be a "money" industry to be devastated by severe corruption and greed).

I bring this up only because you're asking which would a hypothetical publisher have? Publisher in terms of making a working business work -- forever. Making a business stronger.

I'm pointing out, that when you're the guy that brings in a Stephen King, and you pull in a multi-million dollar bonus for signing one of these super elite, you can do whatever the hell you want, industry be damned.

So, do they want the mid-list author or the super elite?

They're swinging for the lights. Strikeouts be damned.

Rob Cornell said...

On Joe's recommendation from a comment on a much older post, I picked up the book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. In reality, it isn't just the publishing industry that's a lottery--it's everything!

There are so many random variables involved with even getting a book *published* in the legacy channel, let alone whether or not you'll have any success with it.

At least if you go indie, you know you'll get published.

Basically, with legacy, you have to win a lottery in order to play the lottery. With indie, you skip the first lottery and go straight for the prize.

Anonymous said...

This whole situation reminds me of the adult industry back around the turn of the century.

Industry standard deals had the talent making $5k or less to shoot 12 scenes, while the website operators would rake in over $10M during the course of the year dishing out that content at one scene per month.

Then webcams became priced low enough that anyone could buy one, website hosting came down to the same level, domains went from $70 to $10, and the "manage your own adult career" revolution went into full swing.

Big names in the adult business were dropping like flies, all while trying to convince the customers that webcam shows were too expensive, low quality, boring, and a fad that would be gone by the end of the year. They were trying to convince the talent that starting their own webcam show was too great a risk, the start-up costs were too great, they'd never get visibility, they NEEDED the big websites and their huge cut to deliver traffic and give them name recognition.
After all, don't you want to be the next Asia Carrera? You'll NEVER get to her level without us managing your career! You NEED us.

It only took a couple of years for most of the industry dinosaurs who resisted change to go out of business. Those who survived the purge adapted and embraced the webcam revolution. The talent started getting better deals, started getting an actual seat at the table when discussing operations. The talent started making actual money - the kind you could live on; the kind you could invest into a college education or a retirement plan.

It was a frightening, beautiful, and chaotic time to be in the business. It was *fun* to watch all of the time-tested, traditional industry standards implode. To watch the big industry leaders fall under their own weight and arrogance. To sit in a penthouse suite at a conference listening to big website owners talking in angry voices about their shrinking traffic, slowing sales, and what they could do to band together and stop the bleeding. Meanwhile, independent cam girls were holding standing-room-only seminars down on the convention floor about how to successfully set up and run your own cam show and keep the lion's share of the money.

Same song, different industry.
In the adult industry, the dinosaurs toppled and the talent took charge.
Publishing industry dinosaurs who are resisting adaptation might take notice of other industries that have gone through this.
Here's a hint: It doesn't work out well for the dinosaurs.

Drew Gideon said...

RJ said:
"Authors who have perma-frees understand this type of reasoning."

I'm not sure *you* do, RJ.

A perma-free book is an investment. It's still your book. You can make any changes to it that you like. You can start charging for it. You can drop it into a collection. You can use the characters and world in it, and write more books. It draws readers to your backlist.

A "bad" TradPubbed book that went nowhere is not your book, it's theirs for your life and 70 years after. You can't make any changes to it. You can't dictate the price. You can't try offering it in a collection, or in other distribution outlets. You can't use the characters or world to write more books. (Unless the publisher puts it into Kindle Worlds, WOOT for LJ Smith!)
On top of that, you are bound by a non-compete clause that says you CANNOT publish another book under that same name.

So it does not become part of your backlist. Ever. When you "throw away" that book on being TradPubbed, you must start your Self-Pub career under a different name thanks to the non-compete clause.

A throw-away TradPub experiment is not an investment like a perma-free is. It's a LOSS.
(But only for you. The publisher will make money off of it for the rest of your life and 70 years more.)

Here are some examples of current TradPub non-compete clauses for anyone not familiar with them:
http://stevelaube.com/c-is-for-non-compete/

Joe Konrath said...

I now have to remember to add "adult film industry" to travel agents and Kodak and the rest of the tech upheavals of the last 40 years.

Thanks for the heads up.

Steven M. Moore said...

Three things bother me about the posts here: (1) There's a lot of non-productive whining. We all make our own choices (hopefully informed), but if we love writing, we sit down and write the next book. (2) Sure, there's a vast sea of new authors who put out that first book, but will they stay the course and keep writing? Isn't having a large number of books available to choose from ideal for readers? (3) An item missed here is the advantage that ebooks offer for an author to run a business on a shoestring budget. Sure, even after 14 books, I haven't even recovered costs yet, but 95% of my investment in this business has been time. Moreover, I have 14 more books out there that I wouldn't have if I stuck with the legacy model.
I think my comment on bookstores sounded like non-productive whining too, but, after attending many book fairs in the tri-state area, the snob factor is a fact-of-life. Perhaps we have to wait for different generations of readers?
r/Steve

Mad Adam said...

One thing that can raise your odds in the traditional game is to self-publish. 50 shades was a big selling self-pub ebook series.before trad-pub picked it up.
There are reports that show that authors who both self-publish and work for a traditional publisher on average earn more than someone who publishes through just one method.
Also, a book you have already self-published probably won't have its digital rights up for grabs under a trad-pub contract.

Sarah said...

I think a combination of the two analogies (lottery and carny game) makes even more sense.

There's no doubt that whether or not a published book is going to be a success is a lottery. It depends mostly on reader reaction to the work and that can't be predicted. However, self-publishing seems to me to be just buying tickets to the lottery outright. You can buy as many as you want as often as you want and you can even pick your own numbers. Whereas trying to get a contract with a traditional publisher is like playing a carny game where the prize is a lottery ticket. You have to deal with the rigged system of the game before you even get a chance at the jackpot or lesser prizes.

Joe Konrath said...

I changed "own" to "control" re: rights per Barry's request, because a well-known industry pro sent him an email.

First, it’ll cost you your rights, which someone else will control for at least a very long time and in all probability forever

I'm saddened this pro didn't post their views here, even anonymously, because I'd be more than happy to explain why they're incorrect.

Yes, rights are licensed, not owned. But if you lease a car for 70 years you might as well say you own that damn thing, because you had if for your entire life and the real owner never got it back.

S Naomi Scott said...

Another great post in an ongoing stream of great posts covering the legacy vs indie argument.

One thing that did spring to mind while I was reading: in the current legacy climate, could Stephen King become the next Stephen King? By this I mean, if SK was to submit his next work of fiction under a pseudonym as a debut work by an unknown author, how well would he do? And that got me thinking even more...

I'd like to see a bunch of A-List legacy authors try this little experiment. I'd like to see them submit their next finished work under a pseudonym and see just how many of them make it to print. More importantly, how many of them would have a heart attack when they saw the boilerplate contracts publishers offer to 'untested, unknown' authors.

But maybe that will never happen because they're all happy and comfortable with the status quo...

Marketing the Muse said...

RE: Legacy publishing trumpets its bestseller successes, tempting authors to be the next John Grisham or Lee Child, without explaining how goddamn hard it is to sell in those numbers (unless you're John Grisham or Lee Child). They talk about big names and big advances like anyone off the street could get them. They talk about how essential they are. They say that if you're good enough, you'll be rewarded.

I wish ALL writers would read this. I'm so sick of hearing naive writers with egos often bigger than their talent opt for traditional. Really? Any writer today who goes down this road hasn't been traveling this road for very long. It's littered with rejections and many mediocre published books that got published for a myriad of reasons that often don't include the author's writing chops.
I had a hot book about a hot team that had millions of kids and their parents waiting to buy it-not because I wrote it-but because it was filled with bio-like interviews of their FAVE players. Simon& Schuster bought it immediately and then what did they do? They acted as my cheerleaders via emails-everytime I snagged an NPR interview or got it on TV (David Letterman's show), I'd get an email from S&S marketing the next day: Go Marla! That was the sum total of their help. Since then, I've crafted a teaching/writing workshop career (MarketingtheMuse) based on that experience; the bitter taste still lingers. Legacy publishing has ALWAYS been about VANITY-theirs.

Marketing the Muse said...

good to see James Scott Bell here-he guested in my Santa Barbara Writers Conference workshop a few years ago. His focus back then was publishing & selling in the christian market.

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

I like all the analogies, but this is why I like antares's horse farm the best:
To me, the biggest shift may not be indie vs. trad pub, or bestsellers vs. midlist, but the ability for more and more of us to get our voices out there and sell a little bit.
Am I going to become a millionaire from my writing? Will I even make a living from my writing? I'd like to, but realistically, most of us, whether indie or trad pub, are going to be in the middle of the bell curve. I'd like to shoot for Secretariat, but at the end of the day, three square meals and a good run, that's about all you can ask for.

Anonymous said...

Ok. So Joe and Barry have a beef with Legacy Publishers and author royalties.

But in the interest of full disclosure, let's not forget that Joe and Barry's careers were launched by Legacy Publishing

The success they're having now with self-publishing is due in large part because they gained a readership and fan base while under contract with their Legacy Publishers.

I can't help but think Legacy Publishing is the best stepping stone to self-publishing.

The average self-published author sells less than 50 books.

Rod L. Harrell said...

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Saru Ranz said...

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