Home » Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Non-Fiction » In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?

In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?

7 April 2016

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

[Hugh] Howey’s observations are not particularly welcomed by publishers, but he has a deep interest in indie authors and, by his lights, is always trying to help them by encouraging them to indie-publish through Amazon rather than seeking a traditional deal through an agent. He has organized the AuthorEarnings website and data repository along with Data Guy, the games-business data analyst who has turned his analytical skills to the book business whom we featured at the most recent Digital Book World this past March.

Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody.

In this interview, Howey says that any author would be better off self-publishing his or her first book than going the route of selling it to a publisher. And he actually dismisses the marketing effort required to do that. Howey says the best marketing is publishing your next book. He thinks the best strategy is for authors to write several books a year to gain success. In fact, he says taking time away from writing to do marketing is a bad choice. Expecting most writers, or even many writers, to do several books a year strikes me as a highly dubious proposition.

. . . .

Howey also has an unrealistically limited view of the output of big publishing. If you read this interview (and I would encourage anybody interested in the book business to do so), you see that he thinks almost exclusively about fiction or, as he puts it, “storytelling”. Books come, like his did, out of an author’s imagination and all the author needs is the time to write. Exposure through Amazon does the rest.

. . . .

The other is that Howey’s analysis totally leaves out one of the biggest categories of publishing: big non-fiction like history or biographies or industry analyses that take years of research and dedication to complete. Unlike a lot of fiction, those books not only take time, they require serious help and expense to research. In a imagined future world where all books are self-published, aspiring fiction writers give up very little (small advances) and successful fiction authors have the money to eat while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have). But big non-fiction books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” (or anything by David McCullough) took years of research to put together. “Dark Money” was undoubtedly financed at a very high level by the Doubleday imprint at Penguin Random House. How books like that will be funded in the future is not covered by Howey’s analysis.

Now, that’s not to say they must be. Economic realities do rule. Howey’s thesis that things are shifting in Amazon’s direction and away from the ecosystem that has sustained big book publishers is correct.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to Jan for the tip.

PG says that, because a successful fiction author like Hugh says fiction publishing is best done by indie authors and doesn’t say anything about non-fiction, Big Publishing must be the only way for big non-fiction to be published.

The fundamental economics of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing include an inherent financial bias for the author towards self-publishing. Amazon is just as willing to pay 70% royalties to an indie non-fiction author as it is to an indie fiction author.

Mike cites nonfiction unicorns (the nonfic equivalent of James Patterson and Lee Child) and says they need big publishing to finance their research expenses. Ergo, nonfiction authors need big publishing.

PG is happy to be corrected, but he bets that midlist nonfiction authors don’t get treated any better than midlist fiction authors. PG doubts that any publisher plans to fund years of research for anyone but a nonfiction superstar.

As far as attractive alternatives to tradpub funding, what about Kickstarter and GoFundMe? A far greater portion of the financial benefits of indiefunded and indiepublished nonfiction will go to the author than will the benefits of publisher-funded nonfiction.

PG bets that David McCullough could get millions for research through Kickstarter. PG would certainly contribute. Come to think of it, James Patterson could as well.

Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Non-Fiction

39 Comments to “In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?”

  1. Felix J. Torres

    Given that advances are really secured loans, the authors are the ones that are financing their resesrch, not the publisher. They just happen to be a risky enough bet they can’t secure low interest loans from traditional banks so they go to the loan sharks of the Manhattan Mafia.

    If the best argument that can be made for tradpub is their financial services it might be more effective to deal with the street level loan sharks. At least those guys don’t demand payment for 70years after you’re dead.

  2. My non fiction research was paid for by me for my first book/dissertation. The second book was paid for by a post-doc research grant, which also included funds to help the publisher. My current non-fic is funded by me. Because there are no publishers who will fund the kind of travel for research needed to write on my topic, unless you are already a David McC or Timothy Egan. So I’m nibbling here and there where and when I can, ILL’ing books from overseas, and doing stuff as time and funds permit.

  3. So thankful Shatzkin discovered Hugh, has set him straight about listening to and learning from others and developing new data rather than just relying on his own atypical success, and taught him manners. At this rate he’ll have Hugh cleaned up and presentable enough to introduce to polite New York publishing literary society in a couple of decades. So thankful and appreciative!


  4. I know a colleague in London who used to get paid £60k a book to write those authorised celeb non-fiction biographies, spending anything up to 6 months embedded in said Z-lister’s life to write the book. When the money dropped to £8k a book, he left and became an air steward. Wasn’t treated any better at all, really.

  5. Did I read this right? “…while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have)”

    Dude, really? I can name a few, and I’m not even paying that much attention.

    Having said that, my first two indie-pubbed novels have recently been picked up by Baen. They are the only publisher I’d consider signing with these days.

  6. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much)

    I just can’t get over the condescension/dismissal here. “Such as it is”?

    Even the most minimal amount of marketing engaged in by indie authors seems to be more than corporate publishers really provide, or at least let the authors participate in.

    I will say it’s the first Shatz post I’ve seen in a while whose title I didn’t read and immediately think, “Oh, it’s Shatz word salad, there. So corporate speak. Such veteran publishing consultant. Wow.”

  7. Barbara Morgenroth

    I won’t go into the story again of how hellacious my experience was with Alpha/Penguin and my Complete Idiot’s Guide. The worst experience of my publishing career.

  8. To answer the question posed by the title of this post…

    In an indie-dominated world, “artificially” high-cost non-fiction isn’t necessary … nor wanted.

    Cutting out the “sloth-like” middle person that is traditional publishing in favor of learning the publishing business and marketing is better for the indie author AND the reader.

    The reader will become the “gatekeeper” and the indie author will evolve to understand how to replace the functions of the giant massively slow an inefficient trad. publisher with more efficient and more profitable “pieces” that move more fluidly.

  9. I knew it’d be a joke at: “From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin”

    Howey’s WRONG! So what if he’s showing just how good self-publishing can be — the qig5 have been at it longer so they must be RIGHT about how things should be done!

    Sorry, Mike, I think you need to lay off the qig5 kool-ade and look around, the times they are ah-changing …

    • I think Hugh is probably the best thing to happen to the Shatz in quite some time. Dropping his name and arguing his points at every turn keeps getting him read.

  10. First time self-pub non-fiction author here and I wanted to say there is some truth in what Shatzkin is saying. It’s going to cost quite a bit to get it ready for print beyond editing and layout ( illustrations, require the $$ creation of an Index, etc.). I DID fund mine primarily via Kickstarter (raised $14K, netted close to $9K after Kickstarter fees and budget for rewards) and I’m ENORMOUSLY GRATEFUL.

    Will this cover fully the production of the book? No, but it’s definitely the lion’s share.

    But let’s be honest – those Kickstarter backers were people who I had already developed a relationship with over years of blogging and social media engagement. So that option is only going to fly if you’ve got a substantial readership already established. After my campaign closed successfully I got flooded with emails from other authors wanting to know how they could do the same. My unhelpful advice was – Step #1 – cultivate a quarter million monthly readers. Step #2 – kickstarter.

  11. My second book, coming out this August, is a nonfiction anthology about James Dean consisting of articles and excerpts from memoirs and autobiographies written by Dean’s friends, family, and colleagues.

    I spent approx. $2,500 on permissions to use articles and book excerpt and for high-quality photos.

    Self-publishing was a nonstarter for me. I’m far short of a celebrity and have no fan base, so crowd funding wouldn’t have worked. I wasn’t about to invest thousands of dollars into a book which might very easily sell only a handfull of copies: I learned with my first book that even arduous efforts on my behalf to promote myself–including getting a human-interest story about me published in the LA Times which was syndicated by other papers and tweeted by Roger Ebert–yielded surprisingly little in the way of sales. (I’m also disabled and on a fixed income.)

    My current publisher gave me an unspectacular but decent advance, sufficient to cover my costs with something extra, enabling me to turn my concept into an impressive book.

    It’s hopeful at best and arrogant at worst to airily suggest that self-publishing and crowd funding is a sunshine-and-roses alternative to traditional publishing for most authors of nonfiction books.

    • Who said there is a sunshine-and-roses alternative to traditional publishing? In nonfiction or anything? Certainly not Howey.

      Authors need to weigh their options. If you have a good relationship with a publisher, who is willing to finance a book even you wonder might only sell a handful of copies, that’s great.

      But there are plenty of people who would like to write who don’t have a publisher willing to finance their efforts. So what makes the most sense for them? To try to find such a publisher (not so sunshine and roses that path) or to try to do it on their own on the cheap or do it through kickstarter?

      The answer is different for every writer. But the fact is, many writers are writing and self-publishing great non-fiction (as well as fiction). Shatzkin’s only purpose in pieces like these are to reassure big publishers (who hire him for consulting) that there empire will last forever. There’s very little good advice for individual writers who face difficult choices.

    • I would have thought that James Dean had a sufficient fan base to crowdfund such a project, regardless of your own.

      I find it kind of a shame you had to use your advance to cover permissions and photos. I’d think that publishers who cover the cost of publishing (cover design, editing, etc.) would cover all costs to publish.

      But yes, to echo Mackay, I don’t think anyone is suggesting any ways of publishing are all sunshine-and-roses. Just like nobody is ever claiming that Amazon is authors’ “friend.”

      Good luck with the book!

  12. As someone who had written five non-fiction books, I don’t see the need for a traditional publisher. My first book, a memoir, was published traditionally. A few years ago I was able to get my rights back from the publisher. Once I got control of the book, I sold more copies and made more money then my previous publisher had made me.

    My last non-fiction book, a dating guide, required a good amount of research into the lives of people like Joe Biden, Thomas Edison, and Paul McCartney. I doubt any publisher would have subsidized it. I did the research on my own time and on my own dime and then did the work to get the book edited and published. The book’s sales have exceeded my own expectations and I’m thrilled that I don’t have to share my monthly royalty checks with anyone or feel beholden to a publisher for giving me the time to research it.

    As PG mentioned, there are plenty of other ways for non-fiction writers to raise funds to research. Being beholden to a publisher is the least attractive option of all.

  13. “an indie-dominant world”

    This term in the headline is the best part of the whole article.

    Hey, PG, we need a new T-shirt: Indie Dominant. Maybe with a cute little picture of a whip? 😉

  14. Fifteen years ago — give or take — I approached a small Texas publisher with a proposal to write a history of the Texas Navy. (Yeah, Yankees, Texas had a navy. Still has the right to have one, by treaty. Holds the distinction of being the only navy to defeat steamships with sailing ships: Battle of Campeche.)

    My proposal included target markets: ~800 Texas libraries and the hundreds of members of the Texas Navy Association. I expected an initial print run of 2,000 copies and anticipated that a quarter of those would be sold before the book came off the press.

    The publisher rejected my proposal. With the rejection, he gave me a quote to print the book.

    That’s the way the world is. Get used to it.

  15. The takeaway from all this: traditional publishing is fighting the losing battle of justifying its continued existence.

  16. I’m a reader, not a writer. But I used to purchase a lot of nonfiction – true crime mostly. These days, I have not been buying it. The price is just ridiculous for an e-book, and by the time trad pub finally puts out a book, I’ve read everything interesting on Huff Post or elsewhere on the Internet for free. I would love to buy relevant true crime that is published when it’s still in the news. But I don’t see much of that at a reasonable price. I think that there’s a lot of room here for an ongoing type book that you could purchase with enhanced content such as videos and pictures with updates added as the case moves forward, but I don’t see that either. So, when I’m interested in a particular case such as the Jodi Arias case, it’s just easier to Google it. I really hope that in the authors will focus more on true crime.

  17. This is a silly — stupid, even — argument.

    There is no uniform “publishing industry.” There is, at best, the bastard offspring of three-century-long bacchanalia among thirteen distinctly different industries whose only historical unifying element has been that they used the printing press as part of their process.* Claiming that there’s a “publishing industry” is like claiming that there’s a “wheels industry,” in which the participants would include Chrysler, Schwinn, Caterpillar, Harley-Davidson, FD-EZ Skates Co., and the guy on the corner who knocks together custom wheelbarrows from junkyard parts.

    Even an MBA knows to be cautious in blithely applying principles from industry X to industry Not-X… even within a single conglomerate. ITT of the 1960s is a cautionary tale; the internal efforts to prevent cross-contamination within more-successful conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway reinforce it. For that matter, Borders is a cautionary tale: Its problems began after it was acquired by K-Mart, the new owners installed their own middle- and senior management, and the fun began. Let’s just say that commercial-conglomerate publishers don’t resemble Berkshire Hathaway’s approach and leave it there, ok?

    For that reason alone, both Shatzkin and Howey are more often demonstrably wrong than right when trying to speak outside of their own particular experiences: Trade nonfiction and category trade fiction. Just as one should probably not trust a nuclear physicist’s opinions on what constitutes a worthwhile research agenda in molecular genetics, no matter how smart that physicist (or how much time he spent as a dean). And, for that matter, vice versa.

    * And at least in the US, protectionist instincts of over a century ago catered the party (for example, Copyright Act of 1909 § 16)… but that’s getting well beyond my point here, even though it reinforces it.

  18. As a historian I know published historians and biographers in my small country rely upon applying for funding from various organisations in order to afford to write their books. No funding = no book. Or they are employed in an academic institution and therefore have income, some time to research and write, but consequently get paid nothing by a publisher as there’s this belief in the industry that academic writers should get nothing but the ‘joy of publication’ as payment for their efforts.
    Not surprisingly very little non-fiction is published here except ghost-written rugby memoirs… I don’t know if any of our historians know about crowd funding or how to go about it.

  19. Seems a bit strange Mike limits non-fiction to biographies and scholarly work. As if those are the only parts of non-fiction that matter, or make up the biggest part of it.
    I’m mainly a non-fiction writer in a specific niche. Things have changed there too. I self-published my last one and am not considering traditional publishing at the moment for any new work. Many of the top authors in my niche have switched to self-publishing. Some are making a killing.

    • Mike just hasn’t figured out (or if he’s as bright as some say, he can’t admit) that the times they are a changing and that there’s no real difference between non-fiction and fiction when it comes to publishing. It’s all adapt or die, and trad-pub can’t/won’t adapt — or at least not far enough or fast enough …

      • No, Mike has figured it out. That’s why he wrote this post.

        This piece justifies the continued existence of Mike’s preferred segment of the publishing industry. (It’s a weak justification, but still.)

        Mike would not have written this if he didn’t see the need to convince everyone the legacy industry was still relevant. And that’s a sign that he’s realized it has become increasingly irrelevant.

        • Point.
          If there were no question about its “merits” there would be no need to defend it. It is, after all, the establishment.
          Orthodoxies only need to defend their existence when it is at risk.

        • That was my point: as far as justifications go, it’s pretty weak.
          Does anybody know what biographies and scholarly work represents percentage wise in the whole of publishing?

      • Mike just hasn’t figured out (or if he’s as bright as some say, he can’t admit) that the times they are a changing

        Long ago Mr Shatzkin figured out who punches his meal ticket. He does not write for you or me. He writes for New York City. Manhattan specifically.

        Because Mr Shatzkin does not write for me, I do not read him. His opinions are of less interest to me than the weather forecasts for Thule, Greenland, and I have been blissfully ignorant of those for, lo, many, many years.

      • “It’s all adapt or die, and trad-pub can’t/won’t adapt — or at least not far enough or fast enough …”
        One of my publishers recently went bankrupt and a competitor bought the rights for two of my books. They’re actually pretty smart and contract negotiations went well. They cut the clauses I wanted gone and adapted some of the text of others to what I wanted.
        They’re now re-branding the books for a new release and were great at asking input for the new covers. Compared to my other publishers, this is a breath of fresh air. We’ll see what kind of marketing they do for the release, but so far they’ve done the right things. Time will tell…

        • Nice to hear that there are a couple out there with a clue (but your first one wasn’t one of them from the sounds of it, and I have zero faith in any of the qig5 pulling their heads out before they fall.)

          • Bear in mind that compared to the big 5, my first publisher was as an ant to a giant. They did well for a while, but slowly faded.
            My other publisher is still in the dark ages though. I’ve given up on talking to them about what needs to change. 25$ for an ebook? 40-60$ for a DVD set? Not gonna happen.
            Oh well, moving on. So far the new publisher is great, so I can’t complain.

  20. People are always pointing to the insurmountable obstacle in the future. But when we get to the future, and look back at the past, those obstacles really didn’t matter.

  21. Smart Debut Author

    If readers want “expensive nonfiction”, then it will continue to get written and sold in an indie-dominant world. In fact, more of it will. The only question is whether publishers remain a part of that equation or not.

  22. I guess we can all be grateful that Hachette was around in 380BC to keep Plato in wine and olives or we might never have gotten The Republic.

    More seriously, I know several academics and if authors think they have it bad in trade publishing, you should see the advances and terms those guys get. They would kill for the crappy terms we get offered. So this idea that publishers are charitable organizations which invest in Great Thinkers so they can work on their Big Ideas is top-drawer, Grade A bullshit.

  23. Hopefully it goes away.

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