Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Big Bestseller Weighs in on “Publishing Is A Lottery”

Yesterday, a big bestseller (really big) Barry and I know and respect emailed Barry in response to our post Publishing is a Lottery/Publishing is a Carny Game. The bestseller’s thoughts were so interesting we decided to post them here, anonymously, with our response. We hope the person in question will offer some additional comments, whether anonymously or otherwise, because this is exactly the kind of conversation we hoped our post would elicit. And we hope we’ll hear from many more people who can offer different perspectives based on different vantage points within the industry.

Big Bestseller: Barry, my friend, evidently the new world is already old enough to have grown zombie memes of its own.

Barry: Not just that, but many of them are already several years old!  In fact, Joe and I have been talking about doing a post of the Top Ten of them. We’ll let you know when it’s up.

Big Bestseller: You write, re publishing deals, "First, it’ll cost you your rights, which someone else will own for at least a very long time and in all probability forever ... " I have publishers in 98 countries and none of them own my rights. I own them all. You might say, come on, you know what I meant, or that it's a distinction without a difference, or that you were exaggerating for effect, or whatever—but be fair: you'd have ripped Turow for saying that. You'd have said, "A lawyer who doesn't know the difference between owned and licensed? Really?"

Barry: You’re right about the difference between own and control; I appreciate the correction and I have asked Joe to run a strikeout through the first and to add the second. You’re not right that I would have ripped Turow for the same mistake—precisely because I recognize that in this context it is indeed a distinction without any difference, and making a big deal of it would be pointless and petty (not only that, but I spend so much time addressing the egregious substance of Turow’s frequent mistakes of fact and logic that afterward I don’t have a lot of time left to nitpick him). That said, depending on my mood it’s possible I might have tweaked Turow for his harmless error, as you have me. A little tweak here and there can be good clean fun.

Now, if only Turow would crawl out from under his rock to engage his critics the way you and I are engaging each other…:)

Joe: I changed the word "own" to "control." But I'm okay with "own." You don't own a car you lease, but if you lease it for 70 years until it dies, you might as well have said you owned it. It isn't as if the owner is ever getting it returned, and possession is 9/10 of the law.

Big Bestseller: And earlier, that lame, tired, sad canard: "... 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?" That's like saying, "If the Yankees are such a great franchise, how come they don't win the World Series *every* year? How come they don't all bat a thousand?"

Barry: I know you’re fond of this analogy, and I suspect that fondness might be causing you to bring it up even when it’s not applicable. Here, it isn’t. One is an analysis of a lack of guarantees for purposes of arguing that a system functions as a lottery. The other is an analysis of whether something is good. These are not the same inquiries.

If what you’re trying to say instead is, “You can’t expect a guarantee from New York or from anywhere else, but you can expect the best possible odds, just like you can expect the best possible effort from a great team like the Yankees,” then although I wouldn’t entirely agree, I wouldn’t call it an incoherent argument, either. But I’m not sure if that’s what you’re trying to say.

Joe: Your comment that the Yankees can't be great unless every player bats 1000 and they never lose the World Series is (sort of) analogous to the Big 5 can't be great unless every book is a bestseller. That's not our point.

When legacy pundits refer to publishing as a true meritocracy, and they extol their ability to create bestsellers—much like you do later in this post—it is fair and approproiate to call them on that BS. How hard you work is no guarantee of success.

Baseball teams compete against one another, and statistics are carefully tracked and transparent. Book sales are not zero sum (authors don't compete with each other like baseball teams do), nor are book sales statistics known by the public. If I were to try out of the Yankees, my numbers would mean a lot, and everyone would be aware of them. The Big 5 doesn't release numbers, but I'm guessing not all their authors sell as well as you.

When Gottlieb gives examples of big publishing successes, he does so like a carny, pointing to the big stuffed Snoopy no one will ever win because the odds are so against it. And the thing is, the publisher will never tell anyone those odds. But I could find out exactly what numbers and odds I'd need to do to be a Yankee, and how well I'd have to perform to stay a Yankee.

All that aside, your analogy doesn't fit. Barry and I constantly talk about luck being a factor. Publishers can work hard, authors can work hard, or both can work hard, and none of it is any guarantee of success. But show me where publishers are admitting this.

So we're not likening the Big 5 working hard and making every book they release a bestseller to the Yankees working hard and batting 1000 and winning the World Series. The Yankees aren't claiming that will happen. They don’t suggest that if you become a Yankee, you’ll bat 1000 and win the World Series. The Big 5 are the ones being dishonest about a writer's chances.

Working hard does NOT mean you'll have a great batting average, become a Yankee, and win a ring (though hard work can affect your odds of getting lucky, which is one reason to work hard). Just like a big publisher working hard does NOT guarantee you'll sell like Nora Roberts or Dean Koontz.

Big Bestseller: You have to scale praise or criticism to what is possible, within the parameters of likelihood. And it's arithmetically impossible for every book to be a bestseller. The word "best", after all, has meaning.

Barry: Well, not arithmetically impossible (there are different ranks of bestsellers, after all—the New York Times even helpfully numbers them), but perhaps linguistically impossible. Beyond that, I don’t disagree. I just don’t see the applicability of your otherwise true statement to an analysis of systems as lotteries.

Big Bestseller: You betray your bias by blithely walking into it later, when you mention: "Amazon’s unmatched direct-to-consumer marketing power." To which I say, of course, "If Amazon's marketing power is so great, it would produce nothing but massive bestsellers." Right? See what I did there?

Joe: Actually, no.

Amazon does have unmatched direct-to-consumer marketing power, via its website and email lists. Publishers treat the bookstore as the customer, not the reader. Besides, Amazon isn't pointing to Barry, or me, or Hugh Howey, as something attainable, nor is it spouting BS about meritocracy or the importance of gatekeepers. Amazon is keeping mum for the most part, just like legacy publishers are keeping mum, about actual sales figures.

Amazon doesn't spout the BS or the ridiculous claims that legacy pundits have in the last dozen times we've fisked them. If Amazon did, I'd admonish Amazon—I've been critical of them before when they removed reviews, and Barry and I both don't like the amount of legacy legalese creeping into their current contracts. As we've said, this is a business, not an ideology.

My intent is for authors to be treated fairly. So far Amazon is much better for authors than legacy publishers on contract terms, royalties, control, and many things authors want... with the exception of paper book distribution. Legacy trumps Amazon on paper distribution. But I'm doing well enough that I don't need those paper distribution to make a nice living.

Big Bestseller: And seriously, it's a question worth examining. Why has no AP title ever even approached a million sales? Why has no KDP title?

Barry: This is a great point precisely because it leads to the kind of honest and productive conversation about payoffs, odds, and risks Joe and I hoped to elicit with our post. We could talk about what legacy publishing’s power is intended to achieve, what Amazon’s power is intended to achieve… things like that. We could talk about the ways these two lotteries differ, while being careful to scale our praise or criticism to what is possible, within the parameters of likelihood. This is useful.

So why hasn’t Amazon had a million-copy bestseller yet? My guess is it’s primarily because their strength isn’t in paper and because their digital editions are Amazon exclusives, unavailable in other retail channels. Their focus is on selling a lot of digital copies to Amazon customers, and at this they’re demonstrably great. For some people, this kind of lottery will be attractive (it’s working better for me than the legacy one ever did, both in terms of overall volume and because I make so much more per unit with Amazon in digital). For others, such as you, it likely wouldn’t make sense. The point is to understand the benefits, odds, and costs of all the available lotteries so we can make the choices that are best for ourselves.

Big Bestseller: Because a million is fairly routine for a BPH e-book. Even though BPHs have "virtually no such power at all ..."

Barry: A million copies of an ebook is “routine” for BPH? (I confess I’m not not familiar with the abbreviation BPH, but I’m guessing you mean Big Publishing House?) That sounds like a huge number to me, but perhaps that’s because we hobnob with what Donald Maass would call different classes of author?

Anyway, in the absence of verifiable data it’s hard to know for sure, but judging from my own experience and from that of the many other Amazon-published authors I know, Amazon is indeed using its unmatched direct-to-consumer marketing power to generate sales for its authors far larger than those their previous, legacy publishers were able to achieve. Sales as large as yours? Not even close, I imagine. But this brings us back to that interesting and productive conversation about benefits, odds, and costs, of the different natures of the different lotteries, about why some people would want to play one and some people another.

Joe: A million is fairly routine? No, it isn't. Not even close. Not even close to being close.

It perhaps is fairly routine that a paper book that sells a million will sell a million ebooks, but even then I'd balk at the word "routine". A million is a lot of books, and very few titles sell that many. I'd posit those that do are bolstered by the omnipresent paper distribution, which we'll get into shortly...

Big Bestseller: Problem is, you're viewing Amazon's marketing in a solipsistic way. An Amazon blast might indeed be a wonder to behold, compared to anything else you've seen in *book* marketing, or not, but consumers are just regular folk, not especially interested in books - and, crucially, they're all getting somewhere between thirty and forty e-mail offers every day. Not technically "spam", as defined by their ISP's spam filters, but certainly spam as defined by their frontal lobes. They pay less and less attention. Delete, delete, delete. Direct-to-consumer marketing is a losing proposition now. It usually takes the public the best part of twenty years to wake up to something, and now folks are beginning to understand: the Internet is all about selling them something, and they're starting to build resistance.

Joe: Based on... what sources? If you look at what Amazon does to sell books, compared to what the legacy industry has done (big ads, book tours, coop to booksellers) I'd say people are more apt to buy books based on an email than a billboard. My numbers, both via Amazon campaigns and BookBub, show that visibility through email can increase sales for a title by 3000%, and that those effects last for a bit after the promo has ended.

Moreover, all A-Pub authors get this treatment. Which is why there is a disproportionately high percentage of A-Pub authors in Hugh's data

Barry: Direct-to-consumer marketing involves a lot more than just email campaigns. For example, there’s also merchandising on the Amazon website and ads on the home pages of Kindles, both of which are also exceptionally powerful sales tools. True, legacy publishers can indirectly achieve something similar by buying coop, whether in brick-and-mortar stores on the Amazon website. But legacy publishers have virtually no contact with, and therefore very little knowledge of the behavior of, end-user customers. They have less ability to tailor such campaigns to make them as effective as possible.

Also, I’m pretty sure it’s a mistake to dismiss all direct-to-consumer marketing as “a losing proposition now.” That’s an awfully broad statement when you consider how much it must encompass, now and historically.

I’ve seen amazing results from Amazon’s campaigns so far, but it’s certainly not logically impossible that direct-to-consumer marketing could lose its mojo. The key question, I think, is how much of what Amazon does akin to what Seth Godin calls “permission marketing,” and how much of it is akin to spam? People like permission marketing (“You want fries with that burger?”). They hate spam. I think if Amazon continues to do the former, they’ll stay strong. If they drift off into the latter, agreed, they’ll get tuned out. Either way, it’s probably a bit early to make across-the-board pronouncements about the death of direct marketing.

Much of this comes down to the question of, “What do you primarily want from your publisher?” Which can be rephrased as, “What are you primarily paying your publisher to do?” In a paper universe, I think the answer is “distribution.” In a digital universe, I think the answer is “marketing.” Now, as the consumption of books becomes increasingly digital, if you’re right about direct-to-consumer marketing being dead already and right about New York being the best marketing game in town, New York will be fine, and authors will continue to be happy paying New York 75% of their digital royalties in exchange for all that great marketing. I don’t see things shaking out that way, but I’m not clairvoyant and I could be wrong. Regardless, as long as authors are asking themselves these questions (“What do I want from my publisher? How likely is it my publisher will provide it? What will it cost me?”), I’m happy. How individuals decide is their own business.

Joe: One of the things I'm keenly aware of, and caution others against, is believing that because something worked for me, it must work for others.

It certainly can work for others. I've been thanked hundreds (thousands?) of times by authors who gave self-pubbing a try because of my blog, or after seeing me speak. Just like there are more authors on the bestseller lists than just you, BB. But we have to figure out odd, payoffs, and costs in order to make informed decisions.

Big Bestseller: I have absolutely no beef with Amazon—I make a fortune from them, many times more than any AP or KDP author. They're definitely one of my Top 10 trading partners around the world. But I believe the desire to buy my books comes from third-party recommendation, either a trusted voice inside the national conversation, or a trusted friend. Or chance browsing. Not direct-to-consumer marketing by the seller.

Barry: I doubt it’s either/or. And you’re arguing as though New York has some ability to market indirectly that Amazon and others intrinsically lack. What New York has that no one else does is potentially massive paper distribution. If legacy distribution results in no more than your being spine-out in every third B&N, it’s just distribution and gains you little visibility. But if it means you’re in every big box store, every front table of every B&N, every airport kiosk, every drugstore, then distribution becomes its own form of marketing, and agreed, no one can do this the way New York can. But how many people get that treatment? And how many of your sales do you expect to be in paper vs how many in digital? And how long will the paper party rock on? These are precisely the kinds of questions authors need to ask when deciding whether the legacy lottery is right for themselves.

That said, I agree that the best advertising is "third-party recommendation, either a trusted voice inside the national conversation, or a trusted friend." But I think you might be confusing the match and the kindling, on the one hand, with the long-term fuel, on the other. The question is, how do the flames get fanned? Presumably you wouldn’t argue that advertising is useless, coop is useless, blurbs are useless, etc, for purposes of igniting and fanning a national conversation. None of these efforts is either/or.

No book can get beyond a certain point without going viral. But there are various tools that can help in that enterprise. If your response to this would be, “Yes, Barry, but direct-to-consumer marketing isn’t one of those tools,” I’ll respectfully disagree.

Joe: BB, your diehard fans benefit from direct-to-consumer marketing, because they're looking for your next book. But I'd argue that chance browsing is the real factor behind many NYT bestsellers, because their books are available everywhere. If there is a selection of 15 titles in a CVS or an airport kiosk, and one is yours, those looking for that kind of book are limited in their choice by what is available.
In other words, you sell a lot because you're everywhere. That isn't taking anything away from your ability as a storyteller. It's simple numbers. The more places a book is for sale, the more copies it will sell.

Amazon sells books on Amazon. It is one location. And its location is closer to an even playing field than authors have ever had. It is also a location with no barriers to entry, is a relatively even playing field, and is a place where authors have a measure of control.

When I was legacy pubbed, I had no say in distribution, marketing, coop, or discounting. Your books all have incredible distribution, marketing, coop, and discounting. Mine never did. And it isn't a quality issue. Some of my titles have more, and higher, Amazon ratings than some of your titles, even though you outsell me by an astronomical amount.

Big Bestseller: Again, no beef. Your main argument seemed to be that it's relatively a little easier to earn decent money through AP or KDP, and I don't disagree. Hugh Howey's guesses—while hilarious in their earnestness—back that up, because I believe them to be accurate in broad substance. But the "Stephen King!" response is also valid, I think. Why not shoot for the big win? So timid not to.

Barry: Now who’s being solipsistic? (And I want you to know, I find your earnestness is endearing, too. ;)). Someone prefers to play in a lottery that’s different from the one you prefer, and that means she’s timid?

How about if we play a nice game of Russian roulette. Five chambers in the cylinder, one loaded, a million bucks if you win. An eighty percent chance of winning a million dollars!  What, you won’t play? When did you get so timid, my friend?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with swinging for the fences. Nor is there anything wrong with just going for a solid base hit. All I’m concerned about is that people understand the odds and the risks of each so they can make decisions that are best for themselves. Which, as I’m sure you know, won’t always be the same as the decisions you feel are best for you.

Joe:  The “Stephen King” meme is not valid. You're quite literally one in a million. And, as Barry's post correctly pointed out, the cost for taking that shot is high compared to the chance of it happening.
It is a fallacy to believe we got where we are because we deserve it. A whole lot of stars had to align to just reach my small level of success. But for a JK Rowling to happen, the odds are astronomical (for more, I recommend Leonard Miodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives). To advocate that approach to authors is unfair, and harmful. It's okay to sign an unconscionable deal with shitty royalty rates and no chance of ever getting your rights back for the 1/1000000 chance of selling as well as you do? No thanks. Especially because I'm pretty sure, once B&N collapses, most NYT bestsellers will see lower sales than ever before.

I can't match Patterson's sales in the paperback racks, because he's in all of them and I'm in none. I'm not a giant bestseller who releases 25 titles a year and has movies and TV shows based on my work. I'm not a regular guest CBS and NPR and have full page newspaper ads and television commercials and radio spots. But from time to time, my ebook titles can outsell his.

Again, everyone's mileage may vary, just as everyone's goals vary. Writers should understand the odds, payoffs, and costs. If they want to sell as much as King, Koontz, Roberts, Child, Clancy, Cussler, Rowling, Steel, Patterson, Grisham, etc. then the only way to currently do that is by signing with a BPH and hoping for the star treatment. Nothing wrong with chasing that dream, as long as you're informed of your chances.

Big Bestseller: And the win is bigger than you suggest, I think. Even at my level, which is far from the very top, the win is ten times bigger than we're seeing with AP or KDP, and even on your estimates it's not ten times harder to get there.

Barry: I named some of the biggest winners I know of, acknowledged that there’s more to the potential payout than just those megahits, and called upon New York to share anonymized data to help authors make better choices. As I said: if New York has the best lottery in town, why not back the story up with evidence?

I know, I know…because they don’t need to, everything is fine, self-publishing is the new slush pile. Maybe so. It’s interesting to watch it all unfold.

Big Bestseller: But that last paragraph refers to today's status quo. Will it sustain itself? No, I think, not in any recognizable way on either side, but that's a different subject entirely.

Barry: A different subject, agreed, but I wouldn’t say an entirely different one. Because depending on how much your digital sales are growing relative to your paper ones, you might find self-publishing or Amazon-publishing an increasingly attractive kind of lottery to play, and that inquiry involves the larger questions of, “What happens if B&N closes? What happens if digital continues to grow relative to paper overall? How long can the current structure of legacy publishing endure?" These were all part of my own decision several years ago. Not that my conclusions will necessarily be instructive for other authors, but I think the framework will be.

You want to know my favorite thing about all this? That we’re talking about it at all. Five years ago, or certainly ten, there was only one lottery to play, and conversations like this would have seemed pointless. Now, no matter how grudgingly or implicitly, everyone acknowledges there are new games in town. Trying to dismiss their significance or even their existence is like that Samuel Beckett line: “God. That bastard… he doesn’t exist.”

The new choices are real. Sometimes I forget how monumental that is. Sometimes I take for granted that even the staunchest establishment insiders like Maass and Gottlieb now feel compelled to try to marginalize them. But then I remember how awesome it is that for the first time authors have meaningful choices. Thanks for adding your voice and helping more authors make the best choices for themselves.

And now if only Scott Turow would say something…:D

Joe: Thanks, BB. And again, feel free to add comments, or email Barry or me if you want to add anything lengthy