Monday, February 10, 2014

The New Role of Gatekeepers

I saw the following quote in the comments section of a blog:

Instead of keeping writers out, now the gatekeepers are desperately trying to keep writers in.

This struck me as such a wonderfully succinct and correct take on this situation that I wish I'd said it.

Recently there have been a spate of gatekeepers who have publicly posted their views on self-publishing. This is a relatively new phenomenon.

It's not that gatekeepers and those who benefit hugely from legacy publishing haven't voiced their concerns before. The leaked Hachette memo was a classic case of a publisher trying to convince itself it was still relevant. James Patterson's NYT ad  was a love letter to the gate keepers. Agent Richard Curtis didn't believe authors should self-publish. And Authors Guild President Scott Turow has said so many stupid things during his reign that fisking him has almost become a fulltime job.

But when Kensington CEO Steve Zacharius makes himself available for discourse, and big name agents like Robert Gottlieb, Donald Maass, and David Gernert make public statements about self-publishing, I can't help but speculate why they've finally come down off their thrones--after years of silence--to address the peasants they've lorded over for so long.

I believe it's fear.

I've tried to imagine the mindset of a gatekeeper. For decades, they were the king makers. All authors who wanted to reach readers had to get their approval and endorsement. We've all heard how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone with the power to make dreams come true. The legions who vie for your approval and sing your praises. The feeling of gratification when you sell an author's work, and of vindication when a book you represented becomes a big bestseller.

How can you not begin to buy into your own importance? Believe your own hype? Tens of thousands want to work with you, hundreds love you, everyone shows you respect.

Then, suddenly, you aren't necessary anymore. You're optional, not essential. And while the option of legacy publishing can provide some lucrative benefits (print distribution, major reviews, tours, publicity, possible bestsellardom) it also comes at a high cost that many forward-thinking authors don't want to pay.

So you find yourself defending your way of doing things, which has to be pretty shocking. Even more surprising, you have to contend with people who believe you're the bad guy.

How easy would it be to believe you were a force of good in the world, and it turns out the group you thought you were helping in fact were abused, exploited, and hated the experience?

Could anyone's ego accept that?

I think it would be difficult. So instead of accepting it, the old guard is rejecting it and clinging to the old way of doing things. Of course you would try to argue you've been right all along, that the old way is still relevant.

But your arguments suck. How can you defend against a free market system that evens the playing field and removes barriers to entry? How can you compete with 70% royalties and total author control? How can you justify your continued existence in an ecosystem where you're no longer needed, and more and more authors are realizing this?

First, you ignore it. Then you denigrate it. Then you begrudgingly accept parts of it, while publicly promoting your stance in order to sway those who don't know any better. You openly support those going down on the same sinking ship you are. Hey, we're still a billion dollar industry! We've always been here, and we always will be! The threat to our livelihood is greatly exaggerated!

Yet not a single gatekeeper can answer the simple question: Why do you think authors will keep submitting manuscripts to you, especially in the numbers you'll need to survive?

You do still have something potentially valuable to offer. And some authors still want that. But the cost you demand is high, and the risk is great. The industry is changing faster than you think, because the ways you measure success don't apply to the shadow industry of self-publishing. You don't know how much you're actually losing. You really believe things can remain the same in the midst of a tech takeover and an author revolution.

And it is, indeed, a revolution. We are witnessing a fundamental change in power.

The publishers and agents once controlled the industry. That was a classic seller's market. There was a limited supply of publishing slots, and a seemingly unlimited number of books to fill those slots. Publishers had a monopoly on distribution, so they could pick and choose the books that reached readers.

But it is now a buyer's market. Authors can choose to sign with publishers, or they can reach readers on their own. And readers have more choice than ever, not simply what the gatekeepers chose. Publishers went from being the only game in town, to having to justify their existence. They've gone from being the popular kid that everyone wants to befriend, to the unpopular kid who is losing friends by the thousands and desperately wants to keep the few they have left.

The friends they do have left are important. Big bestsellers. Prestigious award winners. Big brands with big platforms, like Turow and Patterson and Russo, who can command media attention and preach their path to success to newbies.

But this is a house of cards.

I see three insurmountable hurdles that legacy publishers are now facing.

1. More and more readers adopting ebooks.
2. More and more bookstores closing.
3. More and more authors leaving the legacy industry to self-publish.

Any of these three would be deadly. All three at once is catastrophic. But hurdles #1 and #3 are particularly deadly because:

Self-publishing is a shadow industry. 

There are no accurate surveys or polls to show how big it is, or how fast it is being adopted. Apologetics like Mike Shatkin downplay the threat. Perhaps some of it is denial, but I get the impression that many in the legacy industry are truly unaware of the breadth and scope of what is happening. It's like the old joke about the guy who was completely healthy until the day he dropped dead. There was a reason he dropped dead; he wasn't paying enough attention to his symptoms. Perhaps he'd been too distracted to notice them. Or maybe he didn't feel they were serious. But those symptoms were there, warning him he was going to die. He just didn't act when he should have.

If the legacy industry is whistling past the graveyard, or denying the threat, or simply doesn't see there is a threat, they won't be able to weather the revolution. Those that do will have no choice but to offer authors better terms, and allow authors greater power. Because authors once needed publishers, and now they don't. When you're no longer needed, you better make a damn compelling argument as to why authors should sign with you. And so far, I haven't seen any compelling arguments.

On a semi-related note, I've seen some remarks on Twitter recently, and just read an interesting post on Jim C. Hines's blog, that seem to believe this is an "us vs. them" pissing contest between self-publishers and legacy publishers. I'm not going to rehash it because I left several comments there, and I encourage writers to check it out.

What I'd like to see happen is for authors to make informed decisions while deciding whatever path they choose. That means learning as much as they can, setting appropriate goals, experimenting, discovering things for themselves, sharing information, and deliberately picking what is best for them.

We now have a choice on how we reach readers. Prior to self-publishing, there was no choice.

When gatekeepers spout nonsense to defend their way of doing business, some writers will agree with that nonsense because they aren't looking at it too closely, or because they want to curry favor with the gatekeeper, or because it aligns with their entrenched beliefs.

That can't last. Not as long as authors talk to one another.

When I blog about the bullshit that the legacy industry endorses, I do so to show how poor their arguments, data, beliefs, and contract terms are. The fact that bigshot legacy insiders are now speaking on public forums to voice their bullshit opinions about self-publishing is extremely telling.

But here's a question to ask: Why aren't any of these gatekeepers fisking me?

If they've committed the time to publicly state their positions. Why aren't they taking the time to dismantle my points, one by one, like I do so often with them?

I have an open invitation on this blog to allow any industry gatekeeper a chance to respond to me.

I've gotten no responses. Even though I'm 100% sure they're reading this.

Why the silence? If I'm full of shit, why not say so?

Can someone show me a single, compelling argument why the Big 5 are still necessary?



Bob said...

No one attacks unless they feel a need to defend. For years these people were silent, now they're coming out of the woodwork.

I'm fine with that. But it's too late. Instead of walking around conferences like Gods and not attending any workshops hosted by writers and just palling around with their buds on the conference dime, they should have had their ear to the ground and been attentive to the changes.

They're not fisking you because most are still pretty much clueless about the reality of an author's position. Many in traditional publishing believe that the way they treat their elite 5% is the way they treat all their authors.

There is no doubt the worm has turned from just a few years ago when most of these people ignored indie publishing and eBooks, even laughing at both.

I find the expectation that things will remain the same as naive as it was back in 2010.

JA Konrath said...

I agree, Bob.

My agent has been attentive to changes, and is acting accordingly. Maybe she's indicative of a larger segment than the industry than I believe. I can safely name Kristen Nelson and Laura Rennert and to a degree David Hale Smith as agents who "get it" and are acting appropriately. I'm sure others are as well.

But other agents obviously aren't getting it, and I haven't seen any large publishers who seem to understand the real threat the shadow industry presents.

They'll figure it out, though, when they're unemployed.

Unknown said...

Another great post. It's important to have a voice of common sense stepping forward. Too many new authors still drink the Kool-aid. I saw one person ask on a forum how successful she'd have to be as a self-published author to get a traditional publisher to offer her a deal. I could only wonder why she'd want that. Once you build a brand successfully, why cut in the people who didn't want it to begin with?

I find it interesting that the lesson that some new to the field--a lesson traditional publishers don't want to disabuse people of-- is that self-publishing is always lesser and people should aspire to the traditional model. Though, the model that works best for the author and fan is often one that doesn't follow the past mold. And that's not a bad thing.

Jim Kukral said...

Joe, Gods don't have to answer to their followers. You nailed it. Their entire structure is collapsing yet their still playing violins on the Titanic deck.

Woelf Dietrich said...

I lament the fact that there is a pissing contest. It's about choice. It has always been about choice. No, hang on, scratch that last bit. Choice is a recent phenomenon. The point is, as writers we have a choice how we want to reach readers, and as a reader I don't see books competing with each other. This is cause for celebration, not infighting. And yet, I get the impression that publishers still tout the line that those going legacy are of pure blood, while self-published writers are half-castes. Seems pride and vanity are still as strong as ever. Again, we have a wonderful situation where you can make a choice that fits with your circumstances. That is a positive, in my opinion.

Agent D. Umbass said...

I know I'm still relevant because I still send out hundreds of form rejection letters every month. I don't even bother reading the enclosed pages most of the time anymore. It's easier to just say eenie meenie miney mo and pick the winners that way. Then I'll ask for the first fifty pages of the lucky author's "novel" and promptly forget about said pages for a few months while I spend most of the workday on my blog, snarking on newbies who don't know how to kiss my royal ass well enough in query letters.

It's fun to be king! And there's a never-ending supply of wanna-bees to keep me on my throne forever!

JA Konrath said...

I saw one person ask on a forum how successful she'd have to be as a self-published author to get a traditional publisher to offer her a deal.

This mindset is ingrained in many authors, and will be for a while.

But will the legacy system be able to support itself solely on their current bestselling authors and the self-pubbed bestsellers they can cull from the herd?

I don't see how that's sustainable.

Amazon KDP isn't a slush pile. A slush pile is full of the unpublished. Those authors aren't making money, aren't reaching fans.

For self-pub authors to attract a legacy deal, they already have to be successful. How many will continue to trade 70% ebook royalties for 12.5% and hope to make up the difference in paper sales, when ebook growth continues and bookstores are closing?

"Congrats, Bestselling Self-Pubbed Author! You made $100k in two months! It's you're lucky day, because we're going to offer you $200k for your next book, which, at 12.5% royalties, means you'll have to sell 5x as many to make what you were already making! Plus give up all control and accept unconscionable contract terms for your life plus seventy years!"

Who will do that as more and more authors educate themselves about this biz?

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Many lit agents are now out of business. Legacy publishers are folding or being acquired. Brick and mortar bookstores are going the way of the dinosaur, while indie e- publishers are greatly increasing. Ray Charles could see the handwriting on this wall. In a few years, these types of exchanges will only have an historical value. We've seen it with the music industry, we are seeing it now with the movie industry. We are participants in the publishing revolution. Any blacksmith can yell loudly, but who needs him anymore? Legacy publishing enterprises are now the rotary phones of the book industry.

T.R. Roach said...

Joe, I have been reading your blog for a couple months (sorry to say it has not been years). It is interesting to me as an aspiring writer to live in the time where the Big 6, now Big 5, do not control your destiny.

If I was them, I would continue to push the vision of elitism and the idea that you are not a real author without a deal from them. This keeps the wool over the eyes.

If you were a bank, would you go tell people they could lower their interest rates? Why give money away, or even put yourself out of a job?

But let's be real. This is not just about them. It is the author's responsibility to do their homework, learn their options, and make an informed decision. However, holding your books hostage out of spite or because you want them to come back to you is wrong.

E. Nathan Sisk said...

I read Mr. Hines's post as well. He makes some good points and I could see a world where traditional publishers are seen as a viable option, as a service provider. What he doesn't acknowledge, in fact refutes, is that currently the industry standards (especially for new authors) are to be abusive. They grab everything or tell you to take a hike. That's not just "another path to publishing". Until they change those practices, the vs debate will, and should, continue. Thank you for being such an advocate.

Jill James said...

Brave new world, Joe. Glad I get to be a part of it and glad you were here to point me in a direction I'm glad I took.

gpstberg said...

This gatekeeper stuff sure will talk itself to death. I don't mind, I don't have to read it.

It seems like an old and passe argument to me, and let me tell you why.

See, I've got a history degree. For the many years I was in university I'd always hear the debate between professional and amateur historians.

Of course they both hated each other and had to prove to the other that they were superior. And as you can guess, no out outside the hallowed halls of academia could give a hoot.

Oh, I'm sure they're still arguing over it, and I just wonder what good it's done them. What good will it do me to rehash the debate?

I've sent press releases to my university each time I release a new history book. None of them care, and I'm sure it just reminds them of the old debate.

Oh well, if you can't do...

Gerard de Marigny said...

I'll give you three reasons brutha:

1.) Because they employ gatekeepers and gatekeepers are a necessary wall of protection for the world of idiot readers out there.

2.) Because only the Big 5 really "know" great books. No one else does.

3.) Because writers can't make any money publishing without them. Just look at you ...

p.s. I luved your use of the word "fisk" ... wanted to try it out! hehehe ... Keep knocking 'em dead Joe. You're my rock star brutha!

Walter Knight said...

There's another consequence of the gatekeepers crashing down that's not much discussed yet, and it's political. The New York Gatekeepers lean to the left, just like Hollywood gatekeepers still do. That's ironic, because so does Joe, new authors' best advocate.

My genre is science fiction, a genre dominated by liberal stories of one world governments, failed ecosystems, apocalypse America, politically correct female warriors, and anti-military rhetoric. Now conservative fiction can get through with more frequency. It's about time.

As cable and satellite TV made liberal ABC, CBS, and NBC less relevant, to too as self publishing authors and small presses reduce the influence of the Big Five (used to be the Big Six).

I expect Big Government to try to intervene, but it's too late. The gatekeepers of what we were once allowed to read have already fallen from their perch, and like Humpty-Dumpty, cannot be put again.

Susan said...

Joe, as usual, great post. I'm so glad I found your blog and have been reading for the past few days.

I hesitated to self-publish over a year ago, having dreamed of becoming a traditionally-published author most of my life. Now, I'm glad I pushed "publish" through Amazon's KDP program for I've sold on average 7,000+ books a month since April of 2013. I keep hearing about those 100 Amazon self-published authors selling 100,000 books in 2013. I'll be close to selling that by the end of the fiscal year.

I wonder how many of us there are, but if you watch the romance bestsellers lists, there are a lot of us selling hundreds of ebooks a day, thousands a month, tens of thousands a year and all or most of it (outside of sales) at 70% royalties. I'm a bit of a stats geek and have been watching my sales vs. rank to see how they correlate and those top 100 spots translate into serious sales numbers. I doubt many romance authors in legacy publishing can match that and this is why the gatekeepers are so busy defending themselves and trying to assert their value to authors.

I can't believe how bad the terms of these legacy contracts are. Thank you for all you do to call attention to the discrepancies between what we novice writers think and the reality of publishing with legacy publishers. There are a lot of misconceptions out there among aspiring authors about what getting an agent and a book contract with a legacy publisher means. Blogs like yours are helping to lift the veil.

I met a lot of aspiring writers during my buildup to self-publishing, in crit groups, writers workshops and on agent blogs. So many make the evil eye when self-publishing is mentioned, as if it is the worst possible way to go. I'm extremely happy with it, but then, I'm doing very well -- not at your level but quite good by my own standards and by that of most aspiring writers. Based on my success with two romance series, I decided to take the plunge and quit my day job, write full time.

I've been courted by an agent who wanted to rep me in print publishing. Their agency also has an ebook service and the agent encouraged me to use them for my backlist and future books, but I am very reluctant to give up control and my 70% royalties.

What has struck me the most is the thought that the real 'vanity publishing' is legacy. Since most legacy authors don't make a decent advance, and since most legacy books don't earn back their advance, with the few blockbuster books paying for everyone else, most legacy authors are giving up potential income and control to legacy publishers in order to get the 'gatekeeper-vetted' stamp of approval. It seems like the reverse of what was true with the first vanity publishing companies.

Now that the stink of self-publishing is being blown away by successes snapped up with huge contracts by legacy publishers, why not start off self-publishing and see if you can find an audience? Things may be so good as a self-published author that you can shrug if a legacy publisher comes a wooing.

Thank you for your fabulous website and posts on self-publishing. It's been an eye-opener.

David L. Shutter said...

"Who will do that as more and more authors educate themselves about this biz?"

This reminds me of the recent events with KB'er Brenna Aubrey. Joe mentioned her in a number of the exchanges with the BigPub trio recently but, among many other points, it was simply ignored by them. Just another "indie nobody" they haven't yet read about in the trades. So no matter.

And we shouldn't be surprised. Not being as established as someone like Barry her story didn't exactly send shockwaves rippling through the halls of NYC.

But it should have.

And when she (potentially) reports that she's SURPASSED what her Big Advance would have paid, and continues to earn off works that she owns, it too will likely go ignored by BigPub. I mean, if it's not mentioned in the NYT or PW then it's probably not worth knowing. Right?

But it won't be ignored by writers. Stories like hers, and there's more everyday, gain our undivided attention.

Lee Dennis said...

I really liked Hugh Howey's post the other day:

His proposal: If you're so vain or naive that you think being legacy published is all that counts, go ahead and submit your work. If/When it's accepted, enjoy the stamp of approval - then self-publish and enjoy the money!

Oh, and we owe the word "fisking" to Andrew Sullivan, who is to the world of blogging as Joe Konrath is to the world of self-publishing.

Deep River said...

"Can someone show me a single, compelling argument why the Big 5 are still necessary?"


Because Wal-Mart, Target, and the other big-box retailers have a lot of linear feet of shelf space devoted to printed books.

Until they decide they can put something more profitable on them.

Like ereaders.

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

Because Wal-Mart, Target, and the other big-box retailers have a lot of linear feet of shelf space devoted to printed books.

If my local stores are any indication, that shelf space is shrinking rapidly, and what's left seems to be reserved for the same top ten authors we've been seeing there for fifteen years...

Chris W. Martinez said...

Ha! I like that.

Alex O'Meara said...

Wow. Hines has been making quite the damn fool out of himself the past couple of weeks between this and the Correia spat. Bet it gets his blog traffic multiplied several times over, though.

And, weirdly, he seems to come around to agreeing with your basic position just like he did Correia's.

Anyway, there will always be gatekeepers. Today, you could say the Amazon recommendations are a form of gatekeeper. A less malicious one at present, but a gatekeeper of a sort. And to that end, I always appreciate your advice in gaming the system to get around that gatekeeper, Joe. :)

Edward G. Talbot said...

"Can someone show me a single, compelling argument why the Big 5 are still necessary?"


"Because Wal-Mart, Target, and the other big-box retailers have a lot of linear feet of shelf space devoted to printed books"

Perhaps a slightly better question would have been "Can someone show me a single, compelling argument why the Big 5 are still necessary for 95% of the authors out there?"

Because it's only that top 5% that is getting in the big box stores. And while it is certainly possible for a writer to hit the lottery and move into the top 5%, it's hard to say that's a compelling reason for most people. And I actually think that the massive names like Patterson and King don't need the publishers to get into Walmart and Target. If Mega-bands like AC/DC and the Eagles can do it without a label, mega-authors can too.

So it's not the top 1%, it's that small number of people right under them for whom I would think tradpub might be compelling. Which is not to say they're not leaving money on the table in the long run - I don't know the terms they're getting and how their ebook vs paper balance would shake out if they went indie. But it's at least a plausible argument.

David L. Shutter said...

"And while it is certainly possible for a writer to hit the lottery and move into the top 5%, it's hard to say that's a compelling reason for most people"


The sales of top tier mega-sellers came out more than a few times during the recent discussions with the BPH folks. I don't know about anyone else but I found this pretty inane.

Seriously, if hitting a one in 300 million odds BigPub Powerball is your big motivation then, by that rationale, why are you bothering writing books?

Shouldn't you be writing some new software with the hope that Yahoo will cut you a $7 billion check instead?

I mean, if you're going to play the really crazy odds then play big!

While we're on Mega-Sellers I'm reminded of a subtle thing Joe said some time ago.

"Stephen King is Stephen King because he's Stephen King."

Now, I can't read Joe's mind but I've always taken this to mean that the reason King is (arguably) one of the greatest living writers of our time, with every book a global bestseller, virtually all of which have been made into major movies or optioned as such, is because he's written books hundreds of millions of people couldn't put down.

And NOT because a publisher anointed him as such.

Anonymous said...

Although there’s a tremendous amount of discussion and back-and-forth about “gatekeepers,” I really don’t think there is such an animal. There are “publishers” and there are “agents,” but it may be counterproductive to think of them as “gatekeepers.”

“Publishers” are in the business (emphasis “business”) of finding and building, and distributing stories for consumers (readers). There are not in the business of keeping anyone out or keeping anyone in. They are only in the business of producing a product they hope will sell and hope will make them money.

“Agents” are assistants to publishers, assisting them in the “finding” aspect of the business. Agents are also not in the business of keeping anyone out or keeping anyone in.

The publishing landscape is shifting digital, but it is a long ways from a complete shift, and may in fact never reach that proportion. Paper is here, still big, and may remain that way forever. “Publishers” front the money to produce their products in paper, for the consumers who want it. This is a financial risk. They are entitled to something for their investment and their risk.

Joe aptly notes that “And while the option of legacy publishing can provide some lucrative benefits (print distribution, major reviews, tours, publicity, possible bestsellardom) it also comes at a high cost that many forward-thinking authors don't want to pay.”

These are not insignificant. Some authors will find them (especially print distribution) very significant and will set their goals accordingly. Others won’t, and set their goals differently.

The only thing worth observing in all of this is that there are different options for different people to achieve what their goals may be. To each their own. And, really, there’s nothing complicated about it. The two systems are pretty self-explanatory. Which ever you choose, you won’t be wrong as long as it is the system best designed to get you to your particular goals.

RJ Jagger

Susan said...

“Agents” are assistants to publishers, assisting them in the “finding” aspect of the business. Agents are also not in the business of keeping anyone out or keeping anyone in."

But agents are, de facto, gatekeepers, because they are the ones who choose who gets in through the front door or gets the form rejection letter, and thus, who goes forward on submission to the publisher. The publisher is relying on the agent to sort through the slush to find the talent / books.

Maybe agents are 'assistants' to publishers, but should they be since they take a slice of the author's royalties? That sounds like it's backwards.

No wonder the typical boilerplate contract is weighted towards the publisher rather than the author in terms of benefits...

J.R. Pearse Nelson said...

I'm just happy to have a wide open world full of possibilities for reaching readers. It's such an exciting time to be a writer. :)

William Ockham said...

I am going to quote extensively from a blog about something very different from publishing. The link to the original is at the bottom.

The most important thing to realize about a large successful company reacting to a disruptive market entry is that every element of the company just wants to return to “normal” as quickly as possible. It is that simple.

Why does legacy publishing trumpet the "the growth of ebooks is slowing" every year? This is why.

Once a disruptive product gains enough traction that a more robust response is required, the course of action is almost always one that is designed to reduce changes to plans, minimize effort overall, and to do just enough to “tie”.

Keep in mind that in any organization, large or small, everyone is at or beyond capacity... In a large organization these challenges are multiplied by scale ... because they cross layers of managers and functions.

This means that the actions taken often follow a known pattern:

Campaign. The first thing that takes place is a campaign of words and positioning. ... Almost always the campaign emphasizes the depth, breadth, reliability, and comfort ... A campaign might also be quite negative and focus on a fear...

What does that sound like? Next comes:

The basic idea is to use someone else to offer the benefit articulated by a disruptive product. This repotting plants approach ... has the benefit that once the immediate crisis is mitigated, either the need to actually offer and support the partnership ends or the company just becomes committed to this new sales channel.

Yes, Apple will save us, they said.

Special effort. Every once in a while the pressure is so great internally to compete that the ... team signs up for a “one off” product change or special feature.

Bookish, anyone?

All of these typical responses have the attribute that they can be ignored by the vast majority of resources on a business... Large incumbents love when they can fend off competitors with minimal change.

Once the initial wave of competitive wins settles in and the disruptive products lose, there is much rejoicing. The teams just get back to what they were doing and declare victory... Existing customers are happy. All is good.

Or is it?

This is exactly where the biggest opportunity exists for a disruptive market entry. The level of complacency that settles into an incumbent after the first round of victories is astounding.

This is exactly where the publishing industry is. They are still making money, they survived the antitrust lawsuit, and authors like Hugh Howey still come to them. They still rule the roost. Or so they think.

In fact, just about every disruption happens this way–the first round or first approaches don’t quite take hold.

A lot of people think that only the early self-publishers like Konrath can make it. But I am calling bullshit on that. The real opportunities are still ahead. Here's what it will take:

Product readiness can improve
Missing ingredient gets added
Conventional wisdom will change
Legacy products can’t change.

The blog I am quoting is from Steve Sinofsky, the man who brought you Windows 8. Before you dismiss it for that reason, realize that he has first hand experience being the legacy product manager.
Even if legacy publishing knew all this, they couldn't do anything about it. They are trapped by their own success. I am not saying that it will all be bread and roses for every self-publisher, but the environment isn't getting tougher, it is getting more and more conducive to your success every day.

Product readiness = improve your craft
Missing ingredient = better ways to reach readers
Conventional wisdom changing = casual readers discover ebooks
Legacy products can't change = legacy publishing is tied to big print runs

Dru said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

Sounds like the five stages of grief and loss by Kubler-Ross:

Denial and Isolation

Where is legacy publishing?

I'm no expert -- not that lack of expertise ever stops people from opining on things. ;) I don't think legacy publishing will die out completely but will morph into serving a niche market of physical book enthusiasts, like vinyl enthusiasts. Look at the music biz and network television for models of what might happen.

Netflix and iTunes, baby.

Unknown said...

Joe, you stated the TradPub leaders coming down off of their thrones is a relatively new phenomenon, and wondered why.

It may be a coordinated plan.

Back in December, YS Chi (Pres. of the International Publisher's Assoc.) stated that the Bigs had gotten together and formulated an attack plan - complete with talking points - to execute over this coming year:
"He said that to address the problem of image the leadership of various publishers associations realized they needed a strategy. “We gathered all the communications people together to discuss the issues and create an action plan. We have a multi-faceted audience to address, and in the next 12 months you will see key messages delivered, compelling stories of our impact on society for culture and education. We’ll ask you to personalize that message. I’m very excited that there is a meeting of minds on this."

These gatekeepers and star novelists suddenly pushing this (and strangely, focusing on terms such as "first class" and establishing a caste system) sure seems like media outlets parroting talking points.

The Ys Chi quote is from this article:

Anonymous said...

YS Chi (Pres. of the International Publisher's Assoc.) is refreshingly honest. Here are some quotes from that speech:

“We are perceived as relics from another era, as dinosaurs...”

“We are not seen as the guardians of culture, but the greedy gatekeepers...”

“ authors can... enter into a direct relationship with the reader.”

"[There is] a perception among consumers that ebooks were cheaper to produce..."

“Consumers feel they should pay less now. They also feel that any ebook should be available for immediate download anywhere at the same price."

"These changes are threatening and challenging — but the most dangerous path is to ignore them.”

“I think five years from today we will look very different..."

Of course, if the best strategy publishers can come up with is a coordinated PR blitz that ends up embarrassing them publicly, I don't think they actually have the five years he mentions.

The Big NY publishing houses won't last three.

Daniel said...

I'm self-published and loving it. My totally unglamorous niche was just waiting for somebody to undercut the big players. I can't think of any reason why I should go begging to a big publisher when I can cash royalty checks now. Maybe later, they'll come to me!

Anonymous said...

Greetings Joe, I have followed your blog for some time now and I must say it is one of the most entertaining and educative places in the net about publishing. I can't think of many things more entertaining than see you chew your way through the bollocks the trad pub industry puts in front of you.

I myself have published one novel independently about one year ago and probably would still be waiting for some contract if I tried the traditional way. I do have concerns though.

Indie publishing is not the goldmine some people seem to call it (my finger is not pointed at you Joe, though). The more books there are out there, the harder it is to make your book visible and gain any sales. If trad-pub had a midlist and out of print books, the new indie wave will have hordes of books that nobody will buy, they are not ever going out of print but lost in the chaos of the industry.

We are living a time of transition, and the pioneers who can strike with lots of quality books, when the industry has not settled down (this time I am pointing at you Joe) are in tremendous advantage. They can truly shape their destiny with such an advantage.

Still I wouldn't want to go back to the world of yesterday and the gatekeepers. I just wish to point out that indie books are not unnatural phenomena and as much as there are success stories, there are and always will be stories of failures as well.

All the best and keep up your important work.
Petteri Hannila

Anonymous said...

A little off-topic, but just came across this concerning Barnes and Noble firing its Nook hardware engineering staff...

Mick Rooney said...

"I can't help but speculate why they've finally come down off their thrones--after years of silence--to address the peasants they've lorded over for so long - I believe it's fear."

I think you partly right, Joe, but a great deal of what I'm hearing from the legacy thrones (and their clumsy attempts to also plug in to self-publishing) is also driven by sheer ignorance.

For a few years I did believe it was entirely fear-driven, but after some time (surrounded by the changing realities of the business), if a trapped and threatened creature does eventually strike out, it's usually through ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with you Joe, I don't think it's fear, but arrogance.
I think that Steve Zacharius, Robert Gottlieb, Donald Maass, and David Gernert and all the other advocates of trade-publishing strongly believe that signing with a trade-publisher is still a holy grail of every writer, and that all they have to do is to spread their fairy tale meme (as Daleo named it over at PG) and repeat it a few times, self-publishers/writers will see the error of their ways and return to crowd before the agents's and publishers' closed door.


Anonymous said...

Why are some people so surprised about the legacy response to ebooks and self-publishing?

It's fear, self-esteem and survival - a natural human response. Their livelihoods are threatened. These legacy jobs, if they don't adapt (some can, some won't be able to), will go extinct - like whale oil salesman and horse buggy whip makers. There are people that have spent decades in their legacy job - what else do they know? Regarding your day job, how would you think and react if you were told you and your 20, 30 or more-year lifelong-career are being made redundant? People will do anything they can to hold on to what they have, and don't want to lose it.

Alan Spade said...

Susan said: "I don't think legacy publishing will die out completely but will morph into serving a niche market of physical book enthusiasts, like vinyl enthusiasts."

I agree with that. But by saying that, we are also saying that the Big 5 with their huge overheads will cease to exist and become something else.

We have to take into account politics. Legacy publishing is linked to television and newspapers, which are linked to political power. They are trying to use that levers to stay relevant (and do it successfully in some foreign countries).

We also have to take into account legacy publishing's assets: religious books, not so strong as ebooks, or all the other types of books which are not so strong as ebook as paper.

But I agree ebooks are very strong with fiction.

Let's also remember, for example, the case of Laura Resnick's publisher: a publisher smarter, more flexible, who has adapted and give her very good conditions (as far as I know). Notice, though, it's not a publisher from the old guard, nor one of the Big 5.

So, trad pub as we know it may entirely disappear (and I wish the Big 5 to disappear), but there will always be some gatekeepers, although they will morph into something very different in the future.

Anonymous said...

It's the classic pattern identified by Clayton Christensen, which he wrote about in The Innovator's Dilemma: The disruptor comes in at the bottom of the market, and the incumbent ignores it; the disruptor starts to move up-market, and the incumbent cedes it as less profitable (as in the disappearing midlist authors in traditional publishing) and focuses on the top market with highest margins; the disruptor starts to challenge top markets, and the incumbent now sees a threat to its core business and attacks, but is burdened by legacy infrastructure that proves a hindrance, no longer an advantage. It happened in steel mills, it happened in radios (remember the old tube consoles your parents or grandparents had in the livingroom?), and we're seeing it here.

I'm new at publishing, applying old editing skills on other work while finishing my own first novel. I look at traditional publishing and I see an industry that is hostile to writers. When comparing traditional publishing to self-/indie publishing, few studies include the slush pile, but isn't that also part of traditional publishing? How many books succeed in traditional publishing? Most point to a number like 5%, but that's a percentage of the books that traditional publishers actually publish, and does not include all the books that are languishing unpublished in the slush piles. So the real number is a tiny fraction of 1%, I'd wager. Even agents admit that they take on a tiny fraction of those who come knocking. One agent recently said she took on 1 writer for every 2000 who submitted.

What's my upside for going traditional? It's obviously not money, or improved chances of success. It must be the seal of approval of being published by one of the Big 5. So please explain to me why it's self-publishing that's supposedly the "vanity" press.

Alan Tucker said...

Before I became a writer, I was a reader.

I went to the bookstore — I was thrilled when my town got a Waldenbooks, remember them? — and I'd spend hours perusing the shelves for something new and fun to read. I had maybe earned a few dollars doing odd jobs and it was important that I find a really good book, because it would be a couple of weeks or more before I could afford another.

I did not pay attention, or care, who published the books. I certainly had no idea who the authors' agents were. When someone says, "Wow, I just read the best book!" what's the question that always follows?

"Who wrote it?"

My point here is it's painfully obvious that most publishers and agents have forgotten on whose backs they stand. We often say that authors who hit it big like King, Patterson, Child, Brown, Steele, et al, won the lottery.

But really, isn't it their agents and publishers who did?

Where would Stephen King's agent be now if Carrie hadn't been shoved under his nose? Where would Little Brown be without Patterson's army of writing "partners" to churn out books with his name on them?

Anonymous said...

Except for Baen, I read very few books that are from the Big 5 houses mainly because the stories in their books are tired and worn around the edges, not because they are loved stories but because they overuse certain types of stories that were fun once--but boring when repeated over and over.

Even some of the worst stories in ebooks from self-publishers has a freshness that is not found under the thumb of the Big 5. So yea, I love this wild west of digital publishing--

Irwin P. said...

So with the disclaimer that I'm 100% indie, very optimistic, and extremely thankful for all the good discussion that Joe generates on his blog, I do want say that I do not think the Big Five will (in our lifetimes) ever control less than 50% of the publishing market, and quite possibly will own around 65%-70%.

I want to state some facts from the music industry, which is the closest media business to books. (Before you jump on me and point out how CDs aren't like Hardcovers because a CD comes with a digital version, I have accounted for that in my grossly unscientific estimate of 50% market share.)

1 - The music industry is something like a $20 Billion market worldwide.

2 - 88% of that market is owned by the Big 3: Universal, Sony, and Warner

3 - Music sales in the US are now 65% digital vs. CD/vinyl, and the ratio is shifting to more digital, which means the Big 3 music publishers are dominating the digital market even as the percentage of physical editions drops

Now, I realize you can't just take these market share numbers and slap them onto books because they are only generally similar industries and perhaps even more different than similar.

But it has to make you wonder if the difference between the two industries is so great that while the Big 3 music publishers were able to hang on to almost a 90% market share, somehow the Big 5 book publishers will go to ZERO?

No way.

Now, that doesn't mean there won't be huge changes, changes that will see indies building their own multi-million dollar publishing imprints and being "allowed" to win Pulitzers or whatever.

But the Big 5 are still going to be big. And we're part of the same industry. We're going to have to play with them as competitors sometimes and collaborators sometimes, and so while we should respond forcefully when insulted as a group, let's be careful not to build too many psychological walls in our own minds.

The biggest danger of a few loud-mouthed agents or CEOs spewing garbage about class systems or whatever is that it annoys us so much that we become dogmatic and closed-minded ourselves.

- Irwin P.

Meb Bryant said...

At AgentFest last summer, I pitched to nine agents and received seven requests. One seasoned agent called my manuscript "emminently readable" but stated she was "a coward in this tumultuous market and must regrettably pass." I was grateful for the kind words and can certainly understand her position.

Conversely, a young agent told me that she would never be able to persuade a publisher to read anything of mine because I had self-published in the past. Okay. I can live with that.

Although the other agents sent timely, positive rejections, the final rejection arrived this week (7 months later) with the explanation that she "wasn't in love with the novel." Okay. I can live with that, too. Especially since I'm already receiving (small) royalties on that same novel I indie-pubbed in October.

When I entered the querying process a few years ago, I tried my best to grab the brass ring. (I would've settled for tin) but couldn't understand how or why the system worked considering how newbie writers were treated by most agents. I consider myself tough-skinned but felt that I had to get off the merry-go-round for my own sanity.

Before reading your blog three years ago, I felt like a character on The Twilight Zone wondering when everybody would come to their senses. Joe, thankfully, you've got the sales and fortitude to be our Pied Piper. Play on.

Alan Spade said...

Alan said: "Where would Stephen King's agent be now if Carrie hadn't been shoved under his nose?"

Perhaps Stephen King has kept his agent from the time of Carrie. But he certainly didn't stay with the publisher who published Carrie at the time, because this publisher screwed him.

@Irwin: There's a huge difference between the music business and the book business: music business is a collective business, with band of musicians, whereas book business is by nature an individual business.

So, authors are much, much likely to do better than musicians in this context. And you know what? They already are.

There's also more piracy with music than with ebooks.

I hear you when you say it's a business and we shouldn't have a dogmatic point of view. For me, though, it's not as much a dogmatic response as an emotional one: see my remark above regarding Stephen King, how would I negociate with sharks who just want to tore me to pieces when I can do otherwise?

How could I negociate with monsters screwing so much my peers? Yes, it's business, but if they doesn't change (and for me there's no sign they will change their unconscionable contracts), no way.

I'm also conscious in business you have to be level-headed, and not emotional. But I don't pretend to be a good businessman. :)

Satalic said...

I know a lady who shelves new paperbacks at various discount stores (you know the ones). She just lost her job. She blames it on--wait for it--eBooks.

Anonymous said...

"I do not think the Big Five will (in our lifetimes) ever control less than 50% of the publishing market, and quite possibly will own around 65%-70%"

That "shrinking of the ebook market" that only the traditional publishers seem to be seeing?

Indie authors are seeing the exact opposite.

e-books aren't shrinking.

What's happening is a wholesale shift of market share into an invisible shadow industry that's bigger than anyone in the trad-pub world realizes yet. And that shadow industry is growing faster than ever.

The Big Five *already* control less than 50% of the publishing market. They just haven't realized it yet.

gniz said...

Joe, I just want to say that for my money, your blog is still far and away the best place to gain REAL and APPLICABLE knowledge about our industry from the people who are on the cutting edge.

I hope you don't take any more long hiatuses, because places like Kboards just don't cut it, imo.

Your blog posts and your concise discussion of our industry is absolutely unparalleled. I've been reading for years and its contributed in large measure to huge financial and artistic success for myself and my wife (we are both authors, btw).

I couldn't do what you do, be so public and take so much flak. So I do appreciate your role, its not something you need to do, but rather a service you've provided to fellow writers.



Anonymous said...

The discussion here made me think of some examples from my own life. I have been working in IT about 15 years.

When I first started, there were technical manuals on every desk - and typically a "library" somewhere on the floor. The big challenges came when traveling and working with new technology. You would need to pack a volume of books larger than your computer.

Now, I don't own a single technical manual and would never buy one. They are old by the time they are available. When you need information, we always say "google is your friend".

Information is consumed in a completely different way - and the same goes for my entertainment. In ten years, nearly everyone will be doing the same.

Irwin P. said...

@anon/11:18 am:

No traditional publisher is seeing a shrinking of ebook sales. They are seeing a slowdown in the rate of increase. Very different things.Hachette just reported a 33% increase in ebook sales, and I expect the other Big 5 are seeing around the same.

And yes, I like Joe's description of the "shadow industry" and I agree that no one besides a group of folks in Amazon truly understand it.

That being said, given how emotional things are getting with this us vs. them nonsense (that I will warn again is poisonous to us Indies on an individual mindset basis), it's a safe bet that the Big 5 are underestimating this shadow economy, and that everyone on this blog (myself included) are overestimating it.

-Irwin P.

Unknown said...

Some amazing stats from our friend Hugh Howey:

gniz said...

Thanks Jude, was just going to mention that. Fisking JA Konrath just got a lot more difficult

Irwin P. said...

Thanks Jude (and Hugh).

How do I delete my previous comments?
And can I write off the time I wasted thinking about the music industry?

-Irwin P.

Anonymous said...

Things are moving so fast, that Hugh Howey article was published tomorrow.

Veronica - Eloheim said...

Wow, Hugh's report is incredible! Thanks for posting it Jude.

Unknown said...

I specifically place a page in the front of every one of my books that's all about supporting Indie authors (since I am one). In it I pose the same question I keep throwing at tradpub authors: Why would I give big publishing my money and then still have to do for myself what I'm already doing? A traditional picked up the third book in a friend's series, held it up for over a year, did a worse job of editing than he did on his own, and then informed him that if he wanted to attend a conference they'd sign him up but he'd be responsible for paying for it! His once-excited stance is now an I'm-sure-glad-I-kept-my-future-rights stance.

But I'm constantly curious at my fellow RWA members who still think I'm not a REAL author because I haven't been traditionally published. Some of their lofty membership designations even include dollar amounts of advances, never mind that they'll never earn past those advances. Now I'm hearing that advances are a thing of the past, and anything I'd even thought might be attractive about it is blown away by the wind of the revolution.

So my question is simple: Why would ANYONE tradpub? I can't see an advantage to it. Yes, I'm having trouble with promotion, but tradpubbed authors do too. So I fail to see the tradpub's relevance anymore. Even if big publishing takes you in, they'll ignore you unless you're a King or Patterson. And frankly, I'd prefer to be ignored by readers who simply won't give me their money than the people who are supposed to be helping me make money.

So would I take a contract from a publisher? Not unless I rewrote it and made it work in MY favor. Otherwise, it's wasted paper. And even then . . . uh, probably not.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about the CEO from Kensington was that he was sitting there saying "Oh we do pay some first time novlists on a $5000 advance, and basically acting like that was their minimum and all these authors were saying "Um I got $1500" and all the eKensignton author get NO advance of course and then Steve was saying how publishers offer free editing and advertising to authors and these authors were saying um I had no content editing I had a very minmal line edit. No I had no advertising and no promo. So....I don't know if he was trying to give a false picture to raise submissions or if he is just in the dark about what his company is actually doing.

Jim Alexander Rice said...

The beauty of self-publishing is that it's all on the author to put out a good product and decent story. My only semi-fear/complaint with this new found freedom is that right now with this kinetic influx of more and more new authors, it could possibly dilute the talent base. By that I mean, there could become a certain stigma attached to being self-published, since everyone has the tools to do it. Then again, like anything artistic, from the beat movement of the 50's to the rise of hip-hop in the late 70's, any artistic revolution is electric and exciting, as I feel this has become. It's on the author and for those of us who never followed trends or never written a cheesy S and M or Vampire Saga, I say, game the fudge on!