The Age of the Trade Publisher is Over.

23 January 2013

From Futurebook:

“So, hot on the news that 15% of the ebook bestseller lists are self published authors comes this piece about Touching the Void author Joe Simpson leaving his publisher (and agent) over the issue of e-book royalty rates.

“I have spent years warning publishers that they are doing a brilliant job of conspiring with themselves to fail by pursuing the short term maintenance of margins in a period of transition over and above longer term repositioning of their business for the future.

“Of course if publishers are in trouble then so are agents, or at least the ones that don’t adapt their business model.”


“This isn’t about any particular publisher; it is about a seemingly endemic desire to alienate authors, damage the publishing brand and do as much as is possible to create the impression that they just don’t get it.

“All of the predictions about further consolidation after last year’s news about the Random Penguin merger are confirmation of this.

“On the face of it how do you fight a titanic enemy like Amazon? You mass your forces right? No, not if you are still heavily outnumbered, that way you merely present a bigger target. The classic answer is to take a leaf out of the Vietcong’s book – split into small units and snipe from the hills: tie the enemy down in a protracted battle they ultimately cannot win because it is not their territory and they do not understand it or care about it as much as you do”.


“The only way to make that work in the resource shy cottage industry that is publishing is to be an expert. Know your market sector. And the simple fact of the matter is that publishers do not because publishers still expect to shift between celeb auto’s, swords and sandals, chick lit, reading group fiction etc. etc. in any given month. A few averagely paid marketing people cannot possibly make that work.”

Read the rest here:  Futurebook

Super interesting article.  Julia Barrett

Agents, Amazon, Bestsellers, Big Publishing, Books in General, Contracts, Ebooks, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

21 Comments to “The Age of the Trade Publisher is Over.”

  1. “On the face of it how do you fight a titanic enemy like Amazon? You mass your forces right? No, not if you are still heavily outnumbered, that way you merely present a bigger target. The classic answer is to take a leaf out of the Vietcong’s book – split into small units and snipe from the hills: tie the enemy down in a protracted battle they ultimately cannot win because it is not their territory and they do not understand it or care about it as much as you do.”


    Amazon is not my enemy.
    It is Amazon’s territory.

    • Amazon is not your enemy. Amazon can be, although it is not inevitable, the enemy of trade publishers. I don’t think they want to be, by and large (although of course their imprints are competitors) but it takes two to make peace and only one to make war.

      The experiences of Circlet Press in this area are interesting. The Internet SAVED them. They became profitable for the first time in many years when they went digital. They get on, so far as I know, just peachy with Amazon et al.

      • How’d you get the italics?

        • You can use some HTML tags in comments here, notably italic and bold.

          If you’re not HTML savvy, the way you do it is you put i or b in angle brackets at the beginning of your text, and /i or /b at the end. I’m going to try to use escaped characters to show you what it looks like but I don’t know if they work here.

          <i> starts italics and </i> finishes them.

          Ha! It works. So to get italics, do this:

          Here is the word I want to <i>emphasize</i>.

          which produces:

          Here is the word I want to emphasize.

          Use a “b” instead of an “i” and you’ll get bold instead. Use a nested pair of b AND i and you’ll get bold italic. (You can’t put the b and the i in the same pair of brackets.)

          If you see in your comment that the italics/bold just keep going after the word(s) you wanted to emphasize, you didn’t “close the tag,” which means you didn’t put the </i> with the slash in it at the end.

      • “Amazon is not your enemy” — Exactly! I’d even go as far as to say Amazon is not the publisher’s enemy; they’re just the powerful force that moved into the neighborhood that everyone now needs to figure out how to live with. Trying to fight & defeat Amazon will be no more successful than Cnut commanding the tides to obey him, & even if Amazon were to go out of business, someone else would copy their business model with the necessary fixes.

        And I agree with Mira that the money quote was the self-published author who said the traditional publishers had nothing to offer him in return for a slice of the profits from his writing. The big publishers tell us that they are the gatekeepers who find & promote new talent. If they would stop telling us that & actually do that, they will have a future. If the best-sellling writers don’t need the traditional publishers, & the midlist writers aren’t helped by them, then they will fall to the wayside.

        On the other hand, traditional publishers won’t entirely die off. Some will find a niche where they can continue to make money (e.g. legal publishing), but the rest of the survivors will be forced to rely on their backlists to keep them in business. Perennial classics like The Iliad & A Farewell to Arms will only sell a fixed number of copies each business year, making them vulnerable to liquidation by a spreadsheet MBA.

    • I think he’s got a point though. If the publishing industry must insist on viewing Amazon as the enemy who must be taken down, they’re being horribly inept about it.

  2. Oh look, another sabre rattling piece of rubbish from one side of the phoney war between traditional publishing and self publishing.

    Yes, traditional publishing houses have to change some of their methodologies to fit in with the new digital paradigm, and indeed if they don’t do this they are doomed to failure.

    But to sit there and make sweeping, idiotic statements like ‘trade publishing is over’ helps no-one… especially self-published authors who need and deserve a level-headed, factual and sensible reading of the changes in the publishing industry. That’s the only way they can make the best decisions for them. All this ‘them and us’ bulls**t helps no-one – other than the people who write these articles and their site visit stats.

    This applies on both sides of the argument.

    Everyone involved in this needs to grow up and start communicating like adults.

    • He doesn’t say that trade publishing is over.

      He says that the “general trade publisher” is over. As in, the publisher that wants to use the same editing/marketing/distribution team to publish “celeb auto’s, swords and sandals, chick lit, reading group fiction etc. etc. in any given month.” And he makes a good argument as to why. You may agree with it, you may not. But his argument isn’t quite so overblown as all that.

  3. Outstanding article.

    I like how bluntly the author puts this, no holding back. I continue to be amazed at how quickly the media tone is changing – even a year ago, this article would have been more tentative. It’s a good sign; authors are gaining power.

    It’s encouraging to hear that some authors are simply refusing to take deals with such pitiful e-book rates. And the fact that Publishers are entrenching and digging in their heels about this, makes it more likely that more authors will continue to do so.

    I liked this part of the article too:

    “Out of politeness the agent had discussions with the author’s UK publisher about a deal. It was a pointless discussion: the gulf between them was immeasurable and in the end it came down to this: why on earth should an author sacrifice a vast proportion of their earnings in order to have a publisher’s colophon on the spine of their books?

    Not only were they not adding value,but it was impossible for the agent to make any kind of convincing case to his author that the publisher was not in fact removing value and yet they showed no awareness of this at all. Their attitude was essentially that author and agent should be grateful for having had an offer in the first place”.

    Right on! I like the point that the Trad. Pub. was REMOVING value.

    Good. It is beyond time for authors and those who support them to start fighting back, and calling a spade a spade.

    And the spade is: In the current landscape, Publishers need to understand they have become optional. If they do not adjust to that, they will soon be extinct altogether. They can not stay in business without the author.

  4. Thought this was a good article too. The point about the consolidation in publishing is a good one (also enjoyed the analogy about the guerrilla warfare). Back in the 80s and you wrote a mystery novel, you subbed it to one of the dozens of mystery publishers, a sci fi novel to the same long list of specialised publishers, thrillers, romance, chick lit, the same. Then everything seemed to merge into the big 6. Even those that seem independent imprints no longer are, and small presses tend to be just minnows now.

    I don’t want to see trade publishing end, but nor do I think it has a future as an oligopoly. We need publishers that do one thing well, know particular audiences and understand what they want and how to reach them. That doesn’t seem to happen too much these days, its all tailored to the same grey audience.

  5. Actually, I think trade publishing is at the beginning of an inevitable decline. Ask yourself why do trade publishers exist. The answer is economies of scale. Those economies of scale were driven by the distribution requirements of the bestseller. Bestsellers come from the narrative publishing industry. Digital is already a superior distribution mechanism for the narrative industry. Ergo, the very reason that trade publishing exists is eroding out from under it. And Amazon is the leading, though not only cause, of that.

    The war rhetoric is overblown and overheated, but lots of groups have conflicting interests. The traditional publishers are the ones most likely to see this as a life or death struggle because it is for them.

    • “Ergo, the very reason that trade publishing exists is eroding out from under it.”

      I guess trad publishers think what happened with the horse-carriage industry when the automobile was introduced won’t happen to them?

  6. I thought this post by the same author, Agent Orange, is quite prophetic. It’s from April 2011:

    • So, this author is an agent? I give them great props. I really like what they are saying – even if anonymously – they are making no bones about it.

      I liked this from the article you linked, Anthea, about trying to increase e-book royalty rates:

      “…one realises what an effective job the publishers have done of cowing the agenting community. While many of us are fighting the battle individually, there is no kind of unified line: despite the expressed wish of the people we represent”

      Again, calling a spade a spade.

  7. Great discussion ya’ll. Keep going…

  8. Amazon is my ally, not my enemy. God Bless Amazon.

  9. Instead of a Viet Cong, can I be a zombie hamster nibbling on T-rex toes?

    William makes a good point with the “economies of scale” for the big publishers. But it doesn’t occur to them, that the reverse is also true. As a single author who knows I have to produce a quality story with a quality cover, I don’t have to sell a million copies of to recoup my initial costs (cover art, editing, etc.) and overhead, including the time I spent writing that particular story.

  10. I got my first ereader device (a Sony ereader) as a Christmas gift this last holiday. I did not ask for this gift nor hint for it. I have 5,000 books in my small library of fiction so I did not pay much attention to all this e-stuff too much. I was not a collector but an avid reader.

    I did not think I would like it but I had no idea its screen gave off NO light, it was like reading a solid page, and my eyes don’t hurt as when I read a computer screen or tablet. I was hooked and am reading everything on it on it now, novels, nonfic.

    But this reader –its like crack for lovers of the written word, damn it!

    Now I think: why pay more for the paper book if I can get it on the reader, store all the books on the reader and save room? Unless you are collector/reader and not just an avid reader as I have always been–this new way of reading is very addictive. I’m reading more too. The paperback book business has lost one more customer.

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