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The digital truths traditional publishers don’t want to hear

29 April 2013

From Barry Eisler via The Guardian:

Until November 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle, the only viable means of book distribution was paper. Accordingly, a writer who wanted to reach a mass audience needed a paper distribution partner. A writer could hire her own editor and her own cover design artist; she could even hire a printing press to create the actual books. The one service she couldn’t hire out was distribution. And publishers didn’t offer distribution as an à la carte service. If a writer wanted distribution, she had to pay a publisher 85% of her revenues for the entire publishing package: editorial, copyediting, proofreading, jacket design, printing, and marketing, all bundled with distribution.

Was a price of 85% of revenues a good deal for this packaged publishing service?

. . . .

But for every author who wanted and benefited from the packaged service, there were countless others who took it – if they could get it at all – only because they had no alternative.

Digital distribution has provided that alternative. And increasing numbers of authors are choosing it.

. . . .

An author so inclined can buy digital distribution for 30% of the list price of the book she’s publishing – the same digital distribution a legacy publisher offers – and outsource all other publishing functions, all for significantly less than legacy publishers charge for their packaged service.

. . . .

And yet, when I offered these fairly axiomatic observations during a recent keynote at the 21st annual Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, the reaction among some editors and agents in the audience (and elsewhere) was extremely negative, with some walking out; others taking to Twitter to urge others to leave, to boycott my talks, and to boycott conferences where I’m talking; and a fair amount of name-calling.

The hostility is surprising in one sense (we’re just talking business, after all, not politics or religion), but in another sense it’s readily understandable. Because in essence, what I was describing in my talk was how digital distribution has changed the legacy publishing industry from something a writer needed, into something a writer might merely want. Because of digital, legacy publishing, which used to be a necessity, is now only potentially useful.

. . . .

But if your worldview, your conception of your rightful place in the universe, has always been informed by the implicit knowledge that you are indispensable, and tens of thousands of authors are now informing you that you’ll have to account for your value or they will take their business elsewhere, it’s not so inconceivable that you might find your sensibilities temporarily shocked.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

A classic example of shooting the messenger. Other messengers should also expect to be shot without, of course, having any impact on the ongoing disruption of traditional publishing.

Big Publishing, Disruptive Innovation

31 Comments to “The digital truths traditional publishers don’t want to hear”

  1. Thank any gods who are listening for Barry Eisler. He has good sense, he’s articulate, and he’s on the author’s side. Add to that he can write like a house afire, and sells enough books so that publishers, editors, and agents have to pay attention.

    Of course, they don’t like what he gets them to pay attention to, but that’s a different problem: theirs.

  2. I find it fascinating that the subject was met with such a volatile reaction. I even reread your article to see if I could find the bone of contention.

    I just participated in a free webinar presented by Brooke Warner in connection with an upcoming summit she is involved with in CA titled, “Self-Publishing Summit”. Her advice and thoughts were much the same as yours on the benefits of self-publishing. I’m curious what the objection was? Certainly, if folks want to, there are still traditional publishing options and even a myriad of hybrid options available. But perhaps the reaction is less of reflection of writers and more of those in the traditional publishing industry.

    • If you mean the staff of the various publishing houses, I’d say there is at least some likelihood of that.

      At a variety of ebook-related websites, I’ve seen some extremely vitriolic characterizations (bordering on irrational) of Amazon, self-pubbers, and other “new publishing” players from people self-described as editors, formatters, etc.

      I’ve seen worse from people unwilling to admit it.
      Some people take tech desruptions personally and favor the “shoot the messenger” school of coping.

  3. You know, I’ve never read a Barry Eisler book, but I go running to pretty much every article he writes.

    • Dan, they’re pretty good. Some of them are more action-packed than others, but they’re all good reads. His John Rain character is pretty cool – the sort of character who exudes a subtle badassitude, like Michael Caine in a nice suit.

    • I love his stuff. He recently got control of his back list and has republished almost all of it at reasonable digital prices. You should check it out if you like thrillers.

  4. Outstanding article.

    I echo Bridget: Thank any Gods who are listening for Barry Eisler.

    He is a wonderful and admirable advocate/representative for indies.

  5. That’s why I’m not a messenger. I publish my books and quietly collect paychecks and ye old system knows not what I am nor what I do and nor I do I care to tell them or the writers who still flock to them.

    • There are many paths to the same destination.

    • Live and let live is fine until James Patterson wants your tax dollars to bail out Too Big To Fail Publishing.

      • Which was was actually a silly thing to say. Look up BPH’s 2012 financial reporting; the big houses, led by RH, all had slamming years. That would be like bailing out Exxon. The Fortune #1 company right now.

        Some new programs for libraries and maybe some tax incentives for small, indie bookstores? Sure, sounds good, but the BPH bailout comment is really odd as well as a smack in the face for readers who just so happen to be taxpayers as well.

        Lifes tough all alone up in that tower, I guess.

  6. The trad publishers had a great monopoly/cartel going on via control of distribution. They’ve already made all the easy money at the expense of authors.

    From now on, they’ll have to actually earn their money by creating value beyond the monopolization of distribution. I’m certain a few of them will figure out a non-exploitive business model they can transition to.

  7. One particularly amusing (to me) part of this kerfuffle was the objection to Barry’s use of the term “legacy publishing”. This is a term borrowed from the IT world where a legacy system is one that was designed and built around past requirements. As the business and technology change, supporting a legacy system can be a real challenge.

    Many legacy systems remain in place because they produce real value and, despite the pain of keeping them going, they are superior to the alternatives. Other legacy systems are just dragging down productivity.

    The amusing part about “legacy publishing” is that the term isn’t inherently derogatory. It’s a very apt description of reality. Traditional publishing is a system designed to meet the requirements of the pre-ebook world. It’s a system that can adapt and change or ossify. Yelling at Barry is a sign of ossification.

    Advice to legacy publishing: Don’t be the old man yelling at the self-publishing kids to get off your lawn.

    • And we won’t turn our music down unless you ask us nicely. 🙂

    • Thanks for that info on the etymology of “legacy publishing.” I tend to call it traditional publishing because I thought that the legacy part of that phrase implied that the authors so published were part of the legacy of fine literature, in contrast to we unwashed indies who were… not.

      Then again there’s that term “dead tree publishing,” but that has to do with the contrast between ebooks and treebooks.

    • Echoing thanks for that brief etymology lesson. I’d thought people were using “legacy” to imply that the big 5 conferred some sort of legacy. That it was a grand thing. I tended to eschew both “legacy” and “traditional”–a badly imprecise word, I think, given that the current distribution model only goes back 30 or 40 years, tops, and “traditional” tends to connote happiness/nostalgia/an idyllic way of doing things–in favor of “corporate” publishing. I’ve tended to find that in addition to the big 5, there are lots of smaller, “independent” presses that still do things like refuse unagented manuscripts and the like, but I noticed most of them were incorporated. It also seems like the progressive, interesting presses do LLC, so they’re not corporations.

      But then, I also think “independent” implies more “done outside the current system,” like Hollywood or the music industry uses “independent,” than actually “All by myself.”

    • I think Eisler or Konrath coined the phrase “legacy publishing”, if I remember right, because they didn’t like using the term “traditional publishing” because, well, it wasn’t “traditional” but a recent phenomena.

      They argued that self-publishing was the “traditional” publishing. And I believe they made the computer analogy too, but they meant the term a little more derisively as in “obsolete”. One of them has a blog post on it some time ago, I think.

  8. We hear a lot about what agents and publishers have to do to survive in the new world of publishing. They don’t have to survive.

    • This! So true!

      • Some agents have adapted to the new writer’s market. The one’s that insist on ingoring it…let them! Stop trying to educate them about indies and the shift of writers away from Big Pub. Their heads are just fine in the sand where they are.

        Disruptive change often builds to a tipping point and then enters a freefall. If they haven’t started adapting to it by now it may very well be too late.

        The less old guard agents we have around in the future means the less “pay-to-epub” services new writers will eventually have to sift through.

  9. As always Barry Eisler is so articulate that it’s always worth reading him and I’m not surprised he’s raised a storm among legacy publishers’ supporters (editors and agents). By the way, thanks to William Ockham for his explanation of the term “legacy” in the IT world, I didn’t know that, very interesting.

    I agree with all the commentators who came before me and I would only add one thing: there’s one aspect of the process of bringing a book to market that appears to be NOT covered by Barry Eisler or so it seems – I need to check the article in the Guardian. But it would appear that it does not cover a major aspect of the promotion role of legacy publishers through their hold/control over major literary prizes (the Pulitzer, Man Booker etc) which are, as we all know, still closed to indies as well as their ability to “place” the books they publish in major literary journals and get the attention of major literary critics as well as journalists in the main media like the New York Times, the Guardian (right!) and the Wall Street Journal, among others.

    That’s a powerful tool for book discovery and it is still in the hands of legacy publishers…

  10. Here’s a response to the legacy publishing term that is mature and well-reasoned (even though I disagree with his reasoning):


    • Interesting article. Seems the word “legacy” is an effective response to folks who sneer about “self-publishing.”

      • Works better than “dinosaur” I think.

        • No, actually, I think “dinosaur” publishing is a better term. More accurate. I may start using it instead of “legacy”.


          • My son the budding paleontologist would be offended at that. The dinosaurs died out through no fault of their own (okay, so they should have had a space program capable of deflecting asteroids). The same can’t be said for legacy publishers. 😉

  11. The article nails this perfectly — the future is here and the fat cats in publishing are scared. And with good reason.

  12. Industry term! I love this exchange of comments to the Guardian article:

    A: “You’re missing out marketing… the traditional model still offers that facility.”

    B: “If you’re a bestselling author, yes. But if you’re anything from a first-timer to a midlist author the amount of marketing you get is bugger all – an industry term.”

    Bugger all pretty much covers it!

  13. Another industry guy who got his feelings hurt by the term:


    Also, he wants to nurture you.

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