Joe Konrath invites Barry Eisler to guest blog:
Two weeks ago, I wrote a guest post here called The Bogeyman and The Axe Murderer. There was some substantive discussion of the post, which was about why many authors fear a potential future Amazon monopoly while remaining sanguine about the current New York one, but most of the substance was eclipsed by reaction to several charged analogies and metaphors I used, including a “house slave mentality.” I have to take some of the blame for this relative lack of substantive discussion, and if I could write the piece over again, I’d change the rhetoric. Not because I agree with all the criticism my rhetoric occasioned (much of which, in my view, was misplaced), but because when enough people find cause to be outraged about your language, the reaction eclipses your underlying argument, and it’s my argument I want to discuss, not my presentation of it.
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Anyway, among reactions to my post, two far-reaching misapprehensions stood out — misapprehensions that I think could inhibit people from understanding as clearly as they might the new choices facing writers today, and what those choices mean for the industry as a whole. So let’s address those misapprehensions here, and see if we can clarify them.
1. All Legacy-Published Authors Are Making A Mistake.
In fact, I can think of many legitimate reasons an author might want to go the legacy route (and the self-publishing, and Amazon-publishing ones, too), and here’s an online conversation I did with Amanda Hocking and agent Ted Weinstein discussing several of them. I’ve repeatedly said that for me, publishing is a business, not an ideology, and I don’t think it’s legitimate to criticize someone’s tactics without first understanding his objectives. The key is not your chosen means (legacy, self, Amazon), but rather the degree to which those means maximize your chances of achieving your objectives.
So let’s talk about those means for a moment. I think the most accurate way to understand the current choice between legacy- and self-publishing is this. Both systems, statistically speaking, are lotteries. If you measure the number of authors published in each system overall against the number who are making a living wage in that system, I don’t think you can reasonably conclude that the odds of making a living wage through publishing are particularly good either way. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need saying, but neither system remotely guarantees success.
All this being the case, authors have to do some additional analysis to make a sensible decision. Reasonable questions to ask would include, How much is the advance? How much do I need the advance? Do I think that with higher self-publishing royalties, I can beat the contract (to see what I mean with that concept, follow the last paragraph in this Daily Beast interview)? If so, how long do I expect beating the contract will take? How important is paper distribution to me, and how important is digital? How important to me is control over things like pricing and packaging? How important is time-to-market? How much do I like, and how good am I at, running my own business vs. outsourcing business management to someone else? How much do I trust my potential business partner to manage things well? How much do I hate what legacy publishers are doing today vs how much do I fear what Amazon might do tomorrow? Which system gives me more personal power to influence my odds of success, and how important is that power to me? Etc. If you make a decision without asking such questions, you’re making a mistake, at least in your process (though you can still get lucky in your result). If you are asking these questions, then regardless of the path you choose, you’re making an informed decision, and for you, the right one.
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So, to reiterate: I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone, or that legacy-publishing is for no one. And publishing with Amazon has been great for me, but it doesn’t follow from that that it would be great for everyone. If you’re conscious of your objectives and you ask the right questions, you’ll have the best chance of choosing the course that’s right for you.
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2. New York Publishers Are Evil And Publishing Would Be Better If They Died.
As I’ve argued many times, I believe legacy-publishing business practices have become overly self-serving because of a longstanding lack of competition in the industry. But I don’t believe these practices make legacy publishers evil; in fact, I think these practices are just a natural part of legacy publishers’ humanity. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and monopolies, by virtue of human nature, always come to serve themselves at the expense of the wider society (that’s why we have laws against them). But it doesn’t follow from this that any monopoly needs to perish, or that I would personally want it to. After all, when someone is sick, you don’t want him to succumb to the disease; you want him to get better. Similarly, what I want for New York publishing is not for it to die, but to reform.
And I want New York to reform not just because even New York would benefit from more enlightened business practices (not to mention the benefits to readers and authors). I also want New York to reform because Amazon needs healthy competition, too. If New York disappears as a counterweight, then current fears about an Amazon publishing monopoly will have substantially more basis in fact. Yes, I expect Amazon will still face competition from a host of players like Apple, Google, Kobo, Smashwords, and others, and from newly emerging author website bookstores, too (check out Joe’s store right here), but the more competition, the better, so I hope everyone stands with me in cheering New York on in its efforts to reform its business practices.
Now, if you ask me to bet on the likelihood that New York will successfully adapt to the advent of digital and the emergence of Amazon as a publisher, I would have to regretfully decline to bet very much. As I noted in my previous post, companies coddled by a lack of competition get flabby, and New York, which hasn’t faced real competition in living memory, is now squaring off against a formidable competitor indeed. I don’t think it’s likely legacy publishers will be able to adapt and survive. And though I hope I’m wrong about that, my hope doesn’t lead me to want to protect New York from competition, either.
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If there’s a better way than Amazon to reform New York’s previously unassailable quasi-monopoly and all the suboptimal business practices the monopoly has enabled, what is it?
One way of answering this question would be to deny the legacy publishing model is suboptimal at all. You could also respond by acknowledging some degree of suboptimal behavior, while denying that the behavior is the result of a lack of competition. I doubt I’d be persuaded by such arguments, but I would welcome them because they’d be on point.
But if you accept my “Suboptimal New York business practices are the result of a lack of competition” premise, then what I’d like to hear is your solution for getting New York to improve. Personally, I’m thrilled by the advent of self-publishing and the emergence of Amazon publishing because I can’t think of any more potent combination of competitive pressure on New York. But I’d be very interested in the views of others on this point — thanks.
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[Part of Joe's Response]
I will expound a bit about authors supposedly making mistakes by signing legacy deals. Because a lot of them ARE making mistakes.
If you hit yourself in the face with a hammer, I’m going to call you stupid for doing so unless you can really justify it using facts and logic. Otherwise, you’re wrong in doing so.
If you don’t like being told you’re wrong, stop being wrong.
I’ve always stated that is important to set reasonable goals in your career, and to separate goals (things within your power) from dreams (things that require a “yes” or “no” from someone else in order to happen.)
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Many authors defend legacy publishing without fully understanding their reasons for doing to. They don’t back up their opinions. They don’t feel they have to. For the past 100 years, we writers haven’t had a real choice if we wanted to earn a living–it was legacy or nothing. So we pursued legacy.
I see that attitude still being expressed, even though there is now a choice. And based on everything I know, having been on both sides of the issue, self-pubbing is a far better choice.
But rather than argue with my facts and figures and logic, some folks choose to attack me, or my tone. There are reasons for this. Some of it is envy (though people will deny this vehemently.) A lot of it is fear.
Most authors are scared of something. Scared of their publishers, of losing a contract, of not getting a contract, of bookstores closing, of ebooks, of piracy, of going it alone.
As far as ebooks go, many are ignorant. They simply don’t ‘get’ it.
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If you’re still accepting legacy deals as-is, you really aren’t thinking about the future. That isn’t being business savvy. In fact, it’s the opposite.
If you’re fully aware you’re getting bad terms on ebook royalties when ebooks are growing so quickly, just to get a paper version in bookstores when both paper and bookstores are receding so quickly, explain how that is wise. Unless you’re a bestseller or getting a ton of money upfront, it makes no sense.
Publishers KNOW this. Their contracts are becoming wickedly draconian in regard to erights. They refuse to offer more to authors because they need to replace their lost paper sales. They need to cover their overhead.
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[Barry jumps back in]
[T]he primary reason legacy publishing has traditionally been able to take 85% of an author’s earnings is distribution. Because no author could cost-effectively distribute her books in paper without a distribution partner, legacy publishers have been in a position to charge an 85% monopoly rent for paper distribution. The other services they provide — enumerated above — are add-ons. How can we be confident about the relative value of distribution vs the add-ons? Because if those other services could be disaggregated from distribution, no author in his right mind would pay anywhere near 85% for them, and publishers would not have the negotiating leverage to charge such an amount.
Today, with the advent of digital distribution, an author can distribute her works 100% as effectively as any publishing conglomerate. In digital distribution, authors and legacy publishers stand on an entirely level playing field — which is another way of saying that in digital, an author simply doesn’t need a publisher to distribute. So what legacy publishers are saying to authors today — the new legacy publishing value proposition — is this: “Before, when we handled distribution plus, we charged you 85%. Now you don’t need us for distribution anymore, and we’re only going to handle the plus part — and you’ll still have to pay us the same 85%.”
Obviously, this is unsustainable.
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Put those two developments together, and what you get is a massive disintermediation and disaggregation play. Authors still need the same editing etc. functions they needed before, but now we can get them via a variety of emerging business models, many of which have nothing at all to do with legacy publishing. All of which means that legacy publishing will have to reinvent itself and reprice its drastically reduced list of value-add services if it wants to survive. Meanwhile, with legacy publishing’s paper lock broken, new entrants, including literary agencies and authors like Bob Mayer, are offering authors various collections of add-on services for various rates of remuneration. So whether legacy publishing survives or not, today authors have more publishing choices than they ever had before.
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[Joe promoted a comment from a guy named Blake]
I think what’s not been said succinctly is what this has all been pointing toward:
Taking a midlist deal from a legacy publisher is dumb-ass thing to do.
The “average” advance for a first novel is about $6,000.
How sad to be a good enough writer to get a book deal, but with such poor business sense and such a potent need for a stamp of approval that you squander the money you could be making.
People say but taking that midlist deal is a career builder. Yes, it is. A career of being repeatedly f***ed that culminates with getting dropped. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of that scenario. I’ve been in this business since 2004, and the number of people who were first published when I was and still are being published is a fraction.
Do you think it’s easier now than it was then?
With the rarest of exceptions, publishers support books they pay lots and lots of $$ for. And only some of those are successful. If you get big money for a book up front, take it and run. No one’s saying that’s not a smart thing to do. I think Amanda Hocking was masterful in leveraging her ebook sales into a killer major print deal.
But midlist, for the most part, stays midlist. And considering the current royalty structure for ebooks, midlist is an even worse place to be now than it was a few years ago.
I haven’t heard anyone here say that all legacy-published authors are morons. Because no one believes that. Some are making fat bank. Good for them. Ride it out. But if you have a first novel, or are considering publishing again, and you’re taking less than $25,000, I think it’s safe to say that’s a stupid, stupid thing to do.
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[Joe finishes with his usual style]
So attack the messenger, not the message.
But me being a jerk doesn’t make you any less stupid.
Link to lots, lots more at A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing
Passive Guy will not tax the patience of those who have made it this far down.
He will only say that, having watched disruptive innovation overturn more than one industry, he believes the chances Big Publishing will emerge from the current monsoon in anything approaching its form and size of 2-3 years ago are very long.
It’s always messy to be on the receiving end of cataclysmic change and some good and talented people take a beating in the process. Ask a former newspaper editor or a talented programmer who helped build WordPerfect for DOS.