What’s A Writer To Do?

So there are big doin’s in publishing. 

Yesterday Joe Konrath posted that The End is Nigh.  Joe reports the news that “the first self-pubbed author to sell 1 million ebooks, John Locke, just signed a print deal with Simon & Schuster. But it’s a unique one. Locke keeps all of his erights.”

In a world where traditional publishers are still basically brokering to sell and warehouse paper rather than books (i.e. sticking to an antiquated business model in a market where ebooks are rapidly growing to be the majority of sales and shouldn’t be ignored), this is a landmark deal.

This is the thing that any smart writer should want. 

Why?  Because traditional publishers are often foolish in how they handle ebooks–insisting on seeing them as contenders for paper sales rather than a different market entirely and generally overpricing them, in addition to generally giving the authors a pittance of a royalty on them.  Which all equates to, theoretically, fewer ebook sales.  Which they want because they want people to buy paper.  Even though we e-book fanatics aren’t going to buy paper.  Why is this important?  Because authors can make 70% royalty by epublishing their books themselves.

So you have a $9.99 traditionally published ebook, on which the author probably makes at most 25%, usually–so we’re talking a $2.50 cut of the pie (less the percentage to one’s agent, etc.).  VS. 70% of, say a $4.99 self-published ebook (much more REASONABLY priced in the consumer’s eyes)–which is a $3.50 cut of the pie.  Self published authors make more money on their ebooks, which they can price far more attractively to customers, which means more books sold. Which means more profits.  None of these are new arguments.  Indies have been batting around these numbers ever since Amazon announced the 70% royalty rate.  And it’s why many authors are choosing to go indie and stay that way.

Now, a couple of weeks ago, I made a post about how traditional publishing is a lot like the stock market.  And I got a truly marvelous comment from Trish McCallan that I’m going to shamelessly reproduce in full here because it’s that good and you need to read it.

There is another side to this length of time issue, that nobody ever address. I’m not sure anyone even thinks about it. You touched on it briefly here. You said that books being released today were bought 1-3 years ago. I think the average is 2 years years. So if an unpublished author were to sell right now, their book wouldn’t debut for two years give or take. So my question, when I started thinking seriously about this time lag was “What’s the climate going to be in 2 years?” If I were to sell right now, where would my book sell? But likely, I wouldn’t sell right now. It might be a year, or two– which pushes when my book would debut back even further. So where do you think a debut author is going to sell in 2-4 years?

The Tipping point will be here by then, or close. Right now 20% of books sold are e-book. As we get closer and closer to the tipping point and less books are bought through physical places where debut authors find the bulk of their readers is going to change. Those avenues that made traditional publishing so attractive are going to dry up. It’s already drying up with every bookstore that closes and every retail chain that goes to a “best selling authors only” policy. In 2-4 years, new authors will be debuting on the huge online books stores along with their self published counterparts. Once I realized that, I started wondering how a debut author will be able to stand out? 99% of debut authors don’t get any adverting from their publishers. They are expected to market their books, they are expected to find their readers. At this point self-published and traditional will have the same advantages, but the traditional author will be under a huge disadvantage. She/he won’t have any control over the things that can catch a reader’s eye.

This is when I seriously started looking into self-publishing, because the only things that I could see making a difference and helping an author find a reader base– are things a traditional author will have no control over. And if you look at our industry now, and then project where it will be in the future, all the sign point that we are headed into an online sales model. When that happens, I am very much afraid that traditionally published midlisters and debut authors are going to get screwed.

A scary and realistic prediction, indeed. 

So here I am trying to straddle the fence.  I’ve started pretty decent roots as an indie, roots I intend to keep deepening and growing even as I have some projects that I have my agent shop traditionally.  Is this smart? Joe Konrath doesn’t think so.  He thinks taking any kind of traditional deal is a mistake and a waste of your rights.

I disagree.  I call it hedging my bets.

No one can really truly say where publishing will be in five years.  Nobody can say where Amazon will be in 5 years.  They could up and decide they’re going to drop the amount of royalties authors receive.  If all the self publishing venues moved to a 25% royalty model, indie authors would be similarly screwed.  I don’t think this WILL happen.  Right now they’re making money off indie books hand over fist and why would you piss off your money base, but the possibility is there because they hold all the control over the distribution system.

I think it is still early enough in the game that it’s worth pursuing both avenues of publication.  Right now I can get my work written and out there much faster on my own.  That helps me continue to build a platform and a presence with fans.  But ebooks are still only 20-25% of the market.  There’s a whole 75% I’m not reaching this way.  So for the moment, traditional publishers still have something to offer me in terms of access to that 75%.  And though it’s not important to me per se, having something out there that’s traditionally published will give me legitimacy in the eyes of a certain segment of the reading public who still believes in having vetters and gatekeepers.  At the moment, that’s something straight indies don’t have (we won’t argue whether or not it’s needed).

Now in five years, maybe everything will be different.  Maybe we will be a market where ebooks rule the internet and publishers start to fold.  Or maybe between now and then traditional publishers will wake up and realize they have to change their business model if they want to survive in the new climate.  Either way, it’s the kind of possibility that makes me glad that right now I’m just shopping a stand-alone title instead of a series.

What about you, writers?  Do all these changes have you quaking in your boots?  Changing teams?  Being a double agent?

11 thoughts on “What’s A Writer To Do?

  1. I have nothing substantial even close to being publishing ready at the moment, so my thoughts on this sort of thing are all speculative, but I have recently been toeing the edge of the cliff that is self epublishing and all that fun stuff with trepidation. It does seem like it could be an excellent opportunity; I’m growing increasingly warmer to the idea, though I’m still pretty clueless on the whole thing. I mostly just wanted to say that your posts regarding your own experiences and thoughts on the subject have been invaluable. So thank you, and keep them coming! Between you and the other forces nudging me this way, you guys might have a convert on your hands yet.

    • Welcome to the Dark Side. We have cookies 😀

  2. I’m just starting out as a writer, shopping my first short story for magazine publication. But I’ve got a WIP also, and in addition to the conundrum you describe here, I’m struggling with finding the appropriate word count. 45K 75K 90K…for sci-fi/fantasy title, where’s a good landing point on that spectrum?

    The changes don’t so much have me quaking as wondering when I’m going to find the time to learn how to be an indie, which is definitely the route I want to take. The trad model doesn’t look like a viable option in 2-5 years time for exactly the reasons you cite. Add to that a pervasive DIY aesthetic in my favored genre (Steam/dieselpunk), and it all adds up to eschewing agents and publishers, though I have to admit I’m a fan of print-on-demand simply because I love the feel of a good book in my hands, as do most of my friends and family members.

    One thing you mentioned that really stands out though is the issue of distribution. We don’t yet have the problem of distribution rights as far as I know, excepting of course that we’re still beholden to Amazon, Kindle, Nook, et al to provide the means and venues for distributing ebooks. If authors ever get a handle on that technology in the same DIY way as we do our publicity, then I think we’ll really see a revolution in the publishing industry. Kinda looking forward to it, since the direct writer-to-reader connection is getting closer all the time. In a global sense, the more middlemen we cut out, the better our economy will be, IMO.

  3. I’m nearing the query stage for Light and Dark, and all of this is semi-frustrating and confusing, lol. It’s hard to figure out route to take, especially when we can’t tell the future. On the one hand, I know self-publishing/indie would make sense financially, but on the other, I’d still like to tap into that traditional market. I finally decided that I would shop Light and Dark around while I wrote my second book, and if I haven’t gotten anything by the time it’s finished, then I’d consider self-publishing. That way, I’d have a couple of titles to put out within a three to four month time span.

  4. Kate – as usual a good post.
    If you follow what’s happening with successful indy authors (Locke, Hocking) getting deals is what I’ve been saying about the indie movement – it’s making the slush pile more efficient.

    We’re all familiar with the stories of the number of people who rejected King, Rowling, Grisham and Clancy. The modern indy movement makes it easier for good authors to be discovered. Not guaranteed but easier – in particular if you write & publish consistent.

    Which has pretty much been the case forever (Harper Lee & To Kill The Mockingbird the exception).

    Traditional publishers have benefits that authors don’t want to deal with – advances (e.g. earn some money while you are writing), copy editing and marketing assistance (though if you think they will market without your effort, you are just lying to yourself).

    Though all of this can be done on contract basis as well.

    Finally – my other piece of advice is that this takes hard work and commitment. Overnight successes are usually years in the making :).

    Best Regards,

    Mark W.

  5. Someone would have to offer me a VERY sweet deal to publish traditionally. And I would have to think long and hard about giving up digital rights for sure. I hate the prices that are charged by most publishers for ebooks, especially considering what the authors actual make from those prices. Very little. One of the main reasons I like to be indie is because I run all aspects of my business. I have total control. I love the business side of this, although I know that many authors do not. Authors that like only the creative side might be better off with traditional publishing. But I like the writing, the proofing (although I have help), the formatting, the keeping up with sales….everything. It’s MINE. Would I turn down a two million dollar deal? Nope. Would I turn down a $10,000 deal? Yep. I’ve made more than that on my own. With much less marketing than I should have done.

    Things are most definitely changing. I read the post about John Locke on Konrath’s blog. Joe has made a lot of true predictions. I think there’s going to be a different blend of indie and trad publishing, and only the publishers that adapt to this are going to last.

  6. I love this post! When I first started back to writing, I thought trad publishing was all there was (except for vanity presses and such). The time involved kind of scared me because I wasn’t (and still am not) finished with my novel yet. The idea of indie publishing has grown on me. However, I’m not closed to trad pubbing either. After all, there’s still that 75% of readers we don’t yet reach. I’d love something right in the middle. Being able to keep most if not all of my rights, keep my ebook prices reasonable, and have control over timing, etc.

  7. My book is scheduled to be released on 7th of September by a small mostly e-publisher, after signing the contract in April, with 40% of net profits coming my way.

    I intend to self-publish down the road, but this experience is teaching me sooooo much about the publishing side of our industry, that I wouldn’t miss it for quids.

    Going with a smaller press gives me a lot of the freedoms that self-publishing would, without the stress of the nuts and bolts of publishing. I’d still have to do all the grunt work of promoting no matter which option I chose.

    We’ll see how it goes! It’s all an adventure after all!

  8. I’m very interested to see how publishers are going to adjust. They’re not out of the game yet, and if they start treating ebooks like assets, they might actually turn the tide on it’s head. I think you’re playing it smart to have one foot in each door. Right now, all we can make are predictions, but those don’t always come true.

  9. It is very scary!!! I’m prepping to self-pub and feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.

  10. Not really. As I’ve said before, self-publishing gives authors an extra path. Why not take it? After all, it allows me to have control over my destiny if I publish it. 🙂 If the traditional houses picked it up, then I know I must be doing something right.

    Traditional houses tends to react late when it comes to what’s hot in the market anyway so why not publish our own while they’re deciding whether or not a particular trend is hot or not?

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