From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?
The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.
For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.
Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance.
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Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.
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Although most of the Strum and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear.
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Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.
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All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others.
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In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.
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It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to David for the tip.
As PG has mentioned before, he generally regards Mike’s thoughts as representative of the more advanced executives in Big Publishing. If this theory is correct, Big Publishing appears to be moving beyond denial when it comes to the future of physical bookstores and the reality of successful indie authors.
However, grabbing all rights to a book forever in exchange for an advance is just not a very attractive publishing offer for a rising indie author any more. Especially if the contract includes a non-compete clause.
If an indie author has 3-5 self-pubbed books that are selling well enough to quit the day job, that author has probably cracked the code for reaching a group of readers that will buy more books that he/she writes in the future. This author has a reasonable idea of how much three more books written for the same audience will generate in royalties.
A $150K 3-book deal spread over three years that would have formerly looked wonderful isn’t that impressive for an indie author who is already earning $50K per year with no limitations on how fast he/she can publish new books and no agent to pay. Particularly if such a deal comes wrapped in a Paleolithic publishing contract that is impossible to understand. (Hint from PG: The parts of a contract that are difficult to understand are prime locations to hide nasty terms.)
Aside from the unimpressive money, there’s the whole complex process of dealing with a traditional publisher.
Having a publisher and an agent and telling all your friends you have a publisher sounds really cool to an author who hasn’t done it before. However, if you gather a group of traditionally-published authors for frank discussions, you’ll often hear experiences ranging from aggravating (nobody ever responds to emails) to horrifying (totally screwed-up royalty statements) arising from their relationships with publishers.
For a traditional publisher, the customer is always the book buyer and never the author. Once the publishing contract is signed, the honeymoon can end in a hurry.