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Eisler on Digital Denial

22 April 2013

From author Barry Eisler:

This past Saturday, I gave one of the keynotes at the 21st annual Pike’s Peak Writers Convention (great conference and I highly recommend it to other writers). During my talk, I shared some thoughts on the choices writers have today in publishing — thoughts which, judging from some of the Twitter comments I’ve seen, have caused a bit of upset here and there.

. . . .

  • The primary value-add offered by legacy publishers has traditionally been paper distribution. Certainly legacy publishers offer many other services (much of which is outsourced) — editorial, copyediting, proofreading, book packaging, and marketing, to name the most obvious — but the primary service, the one the others are built on, has always been paper distribution.
  • The advent of digital book distribution means that today, not all authors need a paper distribution partner. Authors can reach (and thousands of authors are reaching) a mass audience in digital by self-publishing instead (a third option, Amazon publishing, combines elements of both systems).

. . . .

  • It’s important to compare the reality of one system to the reality of the other. Too often, people compare the reality of self-publishing to the ideal of legacy publishing, and such a skewed comparison doesn’t yield useful results. The most useful way to look at the choice between legacy publishing and self-publishing, therefore, is as a choice between two kinds of lottery, each with different odds, different kinds of payouts, and different overall advantages and disadvantages.

. . . .

Nonetheless, one literary agent in the audience, Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank, tweeted that I was “offering up bullshit” in suggesting that a legacy publisher’s primary value is paper distribution. Because this is an exceptionally important point of disagreement, I’d like to talk about it a bit more.

As I’ve noted, an author who wants to reach a mass audience in paper needs a paper distribution partner. But an author who wants to reach a mass audience in digital needs no distribution partner at all. It is simply a fact — a fact — that a lone author can distribute 100% as effectively by herself as she can with the assistance of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate (again, editing, marketing and all the rest is a separate story; for the moment, we are talking only about distribution).

To put it another way: a publisher offering an author digital distribution services is like someone offering me air. I already have it and I don’t need to pay extra for it. I know it can be unsettling in some circles to have the matter stated so baldly, but I really don’t think the matter is disputable, either. In digital, as Clay Shirky has said, “Publishing is a button.”

. . . .

I think it’s difficult to argue other than that paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing’s primary value-add, and I’m surprised that such an anodyne observation could provoke controversy, let alone consternation. Maybe in some circles, putting it so plainly just isn’t the done thing? It’s bad manners to depart from pretty talk about how legacy publishers “nurture” authors, and to focus instead on actual value? I’m not sure.

. . . .

Agent Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Lit recommended that Fairbank “Stop listening! Save yourself!” Agent Janet Reid of Janet Reid Literary advised that it’s a mistake to even attend a conference where I’m speaking (apparently it’s not sufficiently protective to boycott just me; you have to boycott the entire conference). Agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg of Larson Pomada tweeted that she wanted to walk out, though she didn’t. Agent Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary tweeted, “I had to be restrained in my seat. What a douche!” (Goldblatt subsequentlyretracted the name-calling aspect). Fairbank also claimed that a Random House editor left early, fuming, rather than listen to my presentation.

(Apparently, you didn’t even have to know what was said to know it was bad: author Lauren Dane offered up a variety of reactions, suggesting talks like mine are “insulting,” “condescending,” “smug,” and “dismissive,” before acknowledging, “Oh, I do want to say, I wasn’t there. I only saw one quote that I have no other context for so I could totally be reading it wrong.” Indeed. Why let a lack of any relevant knowledge get in the way of a chance to offer a string of public opinions?)

These reactions, and the attitudes behind them, aren’t just immature. They’re also fundamentally unhealthy. How can agents and editors serve writers in a dramatically changing industry if they refuse to listen to new and contrary views?

Link to the rest at The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

There is a lot more to Barry’s comment, but is PG the only one who thinks that this “nurturing” business sounds just plain weird? He’s heard the term used elsewhere to describe one of the most important things an agent or publisher does for an author.

Does nurturing even belong in a healthy business relationship?

PG says maybe some baby authors want nurturing, but most grown-up authors don’t. If you simply must have nurturing, maybe a dog or cat is a better idea than an agent or publisher. They’ll love you to pieces and never ask for a contract (unless the cat hires an attorney).

Like many things in traditional publishing, maybe you get nurturing whether you want it or not.

Here’s an idea. Let’s make nurturing an à la carte option that the author can pay for:

Agency Commission – 15% with nurturing, 7.5% without nurturing

Publisher Ebook Royalties – 25% with nurturing, 50% without nurturing

Disruptive Innovation, Ebooks, Self-Publishing

21 Comments to “Eisler on Digital Denial”

  1. PG, it may be that dogs can serve as “nurturers”. Those of us with cats know that our primary function in life is to serve as chamber maids to our furry felines (at least that seems to be the expectation of my own treasured kittens).

    • This.
      Also, I am thankful my cats don’t read, otherwise there would be contracts in the offing. And huge demands, like no snuggles until treats have been given.

    • That sounds about right to me.

      My rabbit, however, has probably taken 15% of my income over the last couple of years, and I don’t think any agent could ever give me as much value as I get from petting him and watching him eat dandelion leaves.

  2. I don’t really know what “nurturing” even means in this context. Certainly I never got any when I was published with HarperCollins.

  3. I was going to say I was never nurtured by an agent. Let me clarify that and say book agent. My television agent was great and took me to lunch all the time, once a month, and boy, does B**** know how to order Chinese! Also there was an occasion where I hadn’t worked for a while and B**** passed on his commission because he knew I needed the money.

    Remember my book agent who snarled at me “I’m not responsible for your income!” Maybe that was…um, tough love nurturing?

    • And you require tough love so you get just get over that writing addiction of yours!

    • The agent I was thinking of going with (before I learned about the horror show that contracts had become) would probably have been “nurturing” in the sense of, “Here’s areas where the book needs to be tighter, here’s where I zoned out.” Her comments in her personal rejection were very helpful. Best dang rejection I ever got. 🙂

  4. I’m liking that a la carte option!

  5. This is a terrific article – Bravo, Barry!

    Objective, measured and professional. In stark contrast to those who attacked him.

    And the best part – he names names. Thank goodness. He calls people onto the carpet for their immature behavior by name. That’s called real accountability.

    Good for him!

    And your commentary, PG, is both spot on and kind of funny! 🙂

  6. There are aspects of my career I’d like to see nurtured. I’d like someone who had a legitimate idea of how to market my work (LEGITIMATE, not “tweet everyone 50,000 times a day until they’re convinced you’re nothing but a hyperenthusiastic asshole) nurture that, because I have no clue. But me?

    I know what I want to write. I know how I want to write it. I’m happy to get advice and criticism, but at this point in my life I’m pretty set on what I’m going to do and I don’t need someone petting my hand telling me it’s all right. To be quite frank, it’s not all right–there are no guarantees I’ll ever be anything more than another one of the faceless authors putting his stuff on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes, only to be generally overlooked as others succeed. There are. No. Guarantees. and there’s no way to nurture around that.

    The only thing to do is grit your teeth and do it anyway. Which is what I’m doing. It’s pissing off my dentist, but he doesn’t buy my books so I don’t care.

    If an agent wanted to do business with me and was able to show a comprehensive plan of “this is what I’ll do for you” and it’s stuff that a) I’m not good at doing myself or b) stuff that’s creative that I never thought of before then I’d be more than happy to listen. But I don’t want to may someone 10%-15% just to hold my hand and coo at me. Seriously, that actually pisses me off.

  7. I am getting a very ivory tower of academia feel from these publishers and agents. Try having a conservative (or worse, libertarian) discussion on campus. Debate is only possible when all sides agree with you. Personally, i have a problem with someone who will not even listen to my argument, not someone who gives me fair hearing but afterward still disagrees.

  8. PG, that was a typo. The intended word was neutering, not nurturing.

  9. Thing is: Eisler has an agent. And he’s married to another. He’s not dissing agents–he says they’re valuable in getting that publisher/print distribution deal. Like Hugh Howey’s. Kristen Nelson’s great deal for Howey is where the future of agents lies. All Eisler is doing is recapping “the way things are now.”

    I find the reaction of those agents kind of shocking, especially since I know some of them. He’s right to use the word denial. Agents can have a role in the new paradigm, but not ones who insist on partying like it’s 1999.

  10. “PG says …. If you simply must have nurturing, maybe a dog or cat is a better idea than an agent or publisher. They’ll love you to pieces and never ask for a contract

    (unless the cat hires an attorney).”

    ***OR**** if that cat is yours truly! Purrrrrrrrr




  11. I’m content with agents denying the obvious.

  12. The idea of cats with attorneys sends a shiver down my spine. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep easily again. You should write horror, PG – you have a flair for it.

  13. I love that he named names.

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