State of the Author July 2021 edition, ending an era

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From Michelle Sagara/Michelle West:

Some of you may remember a couple of months ago I said things were… stressful (possibly worst month ever) on Twitter.

If I had been thinking, I would have made certain to separate terrible month from pandemic, which has – for my family – remained a large and consistent weight in the background. We’ve been lucky; we’ve lost no one. We made sure that the less internet-savvy were signed up and vaccinated, and we got vaccinated ourselves; I have no under 12s in my household, and there are none in the household we bubble with when its safe to do so.

Mostly, however, what I was thinking was: How do I tell people? And what do I do going forward?

So let’s start with that first part: Telling people the bad news. TLDR: DAW will no longer be publishing the West novels going forward.

. . . .

My first four books were published by Del Rey. They were The Books of the Sundered, my first sale. And I watched those with anxiety. I’ve worked in bookstores since I was sixteen years old, so I knew that books that I loved with the passion only an adolescent can achieve disappeared without a trace, going out of print and becoming inaccessible.

It was shocking to me; it was inconceivable that something so brilliant could disappear without warning: when I was sixteen, I equated “good” with “successful”. If I loved it, how could it be unsuccessful?

The obvious answer is: not everyone loved it as I did, because we all have different tastes (the acceptance of this obvious answer would not occur until another decade had passed.)

So the first series did not, in the end, succeed at Del Rey.

. . . .

I wrote the Hunter books; Hunter’s Oath was my first DAW title. I wrote The Sun Sword series.

The House War series was, in the end, eight books long. It was supposed to be shorter; it was supposed to be fewer books. It would have been, had Hidden City not insisted on being the book it became, because my intent with that, when I started it six times, was to write a braided past/present narrative.

I always watched the sales numbers with a certain tension, and that escalated with time. I have always loved my West readers, and I have always, always loved these books — but truthfully, the sales numbers failed to climb in any way.

In publishing that’s … not good.

. . . .

DAW is, and has been, distributed by Penguin Random House (PRH going forward) for decades (I could go into their distribution granularly, because they started with NAL, which was absorbed by Penguin NA, and then by Random House, but I think the general statement covers that).

DAW has offices in the PRH building in NYC; their books are produced in the PRH production department; their books are sold to stores by the PRH sales reps; their books are warehoused in PRH warehouses and shipped by those warehouses. DAW is, however, independently owned. But all of the elements of the publication process are tied tightly into Penguin Random House. Someone with no knowledge of SFF publishers could easily be forgiven for assuming that DAW is a division – like Ace or Roc – of Penguin Random House, given office space, etc.

They aren’t.

Editorial is independent. Editorial decisions are made by DAW, not a PRH editorial board.

Distribution, however? All PRH. In order to be distributed by PRH, DAW has a distribution agreement, which gets renegotiated as it nears the end of its term. This agreement is what gets DAW all of the above: office space, production/PR departments, sales force, warehouse and shipping-to-bookstores. All of the above is necessary.

That negotiation period is this year. And the negotiations have impacted the West novels which are a) too long and b) not great sellers. My DAW editor has, in spite of this, continued to publish the West novels until now, because she’s always loved them.

But she can’t do that going forward.

This isn’t her fault. This isn’t, in the end, PRH’s fault either, although it is largely their decision. I’d like to think it’s not mine, because I wrote the books and as much as I can love anything I’ve personally written, I love them fiercely.

But the last leg of the West series will no longer be published by DAW. While writing is a creative art, publishing is a business. PRH has no personal connection to me or my writing; what they have is numbers, which is how business decisions are ultimately made.

. . . .

This has been a stressful couple of months as I’ve tried to envision some way forward. I did try to start again from page zero, to see if I could structure the books to be shorter, because shorter books would be acceptable to PRH. But as this would only be proven true or false when I reached the end, and no attempt I’ve ever made has worked, I gave up on that.

I then began to look at the publisher side costs. Editing. Copy-editing. Proof-reading. Covers. Those expenses would, except for the cover, be at least double what most self-publishers would have to pay, because the books will be longer, and most freelancers charge by either page or per 100k words.

Revenue neutral activity is, essentially, a hobby. It makes no money, but you do it for love. If the costs are higher than the income coming in it becomes an expensive hobby. We work to earn money and we pour it into our hobbies because we love our hobbies, right? But… for most of us, a hobby is distinctly separate from work.

. . . .

Self-publishing will make some money. But…

Self-publishing is most successful at shorter lengths (like, say, 75k words), and at shorter publishing intervals (three to four months).

The Michelle West novels are exactly the wrong type of novels for self-publishing success. I don’t know how many of my current readers will follow ebook only new releases. (The cost for print on demand for Broken Crown, a book whose length I do know, would be 36.00 US for a trade paperback, assuming I make 1.00 a book, and the PoD service takes the rest. Page-count defines the price of a PoD book, sadly.)

Because the publishing gaps between books would be much longer than self-publishing ideal, and the books would be 3 – 4x too long, I… can’t gain traction, in a purely sales sense, publishing them myself. Also: These are related to the previous books; they’re not something new. They’re not the books that will draw in new readers because I can’t control the pricing/promotion of all of the books.

Link to the rest at Michelle Sagara/Michelle West and thanks to E. for the tip.

The original post is much longer than the excerpt.

Most of the OP wasn’t a surprise for PG. If you’re with a traditional publisher and your books don’t sell, regardless of whose fault it really is, it’s always the author’s fault and the author pays the price for not selling enough books.

The one item that interested PG was Ms. Sagara/West’s comment that her books won’t work for self-publishing because they’re too long. She then mentioned the cost for POD for one of her long books would be $36.00 for trade paperback and each sale would result in her earning $1.00.

Her only mention of ebooks is “I don’t know how many of my current readers will follow ebook only new releases.”

Perhaps an alien invasion occurred last night and the world is completely changed from yesterday, but yesterday, most indie authors typically earn the large majority of their income from ebook sales.

Ebooks are gold because you don’t have to pay $35 to publish a long ebook.

KDP ebook files can be up to 650MB. KDP will accept Word doc and docx files, MOBI, EPUB, HTML, and PDF.

In the interest of scientific inquiry, PG pulled up the MS Word manuscript for one of Mrs. PG’s early books, The Last Waltz, which Amazon says is a 480 page POD trade paperback (priced at $14.99 for hardcopy and $4.99 in ebook).

The original manuscript is 1.8 megabytes, virtually all text.

PG was going to copy and past a complete copy of the manuscript at the end of the original and continue repeating that process until he had a manuscript that was 650 MB in size.

However that process would be taking PG’s scientific research too far. Applying simple mathematics, 650 MB would hold more than 360 copies of Mrs. PG’s book.

If 360 copies of Mrs. PG’s book were combined to make a single large book, that book would be over 172,000 printed pages long, about the largest ebook file that KDP would permit you to upload and self-publish on Amazon.

Circling back to the OP and the author’s concerns about her books being too long to self-publish successfully, PG thinks she may wish to do a bit more research.

As far as the author of the OP being concerned that her current readers won’t “follow” her into self-publishing, PG suggests a couple of brief investigations:

  1. Are the author’s current traditionally published books available in ebook form? A quick check suggests that the answer is affirmative although the sales ranks aren’t very good, in part because the ones PG checked are overpriced.
  2. Of the titles PG checked, the sales rank for the ebooks was significantly higher than the sales rank of the printed books. (PG hopes sales through physical bookstores were better than via Amazon.)
  3. For PG, this means that the author won’t have as much problem getting her fans to follow her to ebooks as she might think she will, especially if she prices her ebooks right. It’s quite likely that the author’s current ebook readers are buying almost all of the ebooks she sells through Amazon, so the transition to the author’s indie ebooks should be pretty automatic.

For PG, the worst part of the story is that apparently, the author isn’t in a position to get the rights back to her current DAW books, or at least, she thinks she isn’t.

PG didn’t check to see what the costs of a book the size of the author’s prior work would be through KDP’s print on demand service, but someone else can do that and provide that information in the comments.

One final observation – If Ms. Sagara/West is still wedded to the idea of physical books in physical bookstores as her future career path, PG wishes her well.

However, he suggests that becoming a professional indie author with KDP (and agreeing to the exclusivity part to bump ebook royalties to the highest rate possible and pricing her ebooks in a sweet spot for Amazon ebook sales and max royalty rates) may be her best avenue to continue her writing career profitably.

But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong.

9 thoughts on “State of the Author July 2021 edition, ending an era”

  1. Here’s the breakdown using KDP’s calculator (and double-checking against my wife’s book, “The White Elephant of Panchen,” which in trade paperback is 624 pages long and we sell for $18.95 and realize $3.03 royalty).

    “The Broken Crown” is 768 pages long.

    According to Amazon: fixed cost is 85 cents per book and .012 per page, so her book would cost $10.07 to print (and which she could pay to get author copies to resell).

    Her royalty, assuming she sells it on Amazon for $18.95, would net her $1.30 per book.

    I also see from her series page that her first five books are out of print. Unless her readers buy her books used, the only option they have is ebook.

    • Just repeated that exercise before I saw your comment, Bill. That number just absolutely didn’t make a single bit of sense to me. The only thing that I can figure is that the OP believes an initial hardcover release is the only “real way to publish.” In which case, she is almost certainly looking at IngramSpark or Lulu for costing.

      Those two are nowhere near as transparent for comparison shopping as Amazon, so I haven’t bothered – although IngramSpark is the more expensive for startup. (Most of that being $125 for a one-off ISBN.)

      How many of her readers buy the hardcover, not wanting to wait for a paperback or ebook? Of those, how many are hard-core hardcover buyers, that won’t even touch a paperback?

  2. I don’t know how many of my current readers will follow ebook only new releases.

    Rather than wait for consumers to follow, other authors will lead their readers to their new ebooks.

    • This was my thought. In her position, I’d use my newsletter/website/social media to say ‘My publisher has dropped this series, and to continue writing it, I need to shift to self-publishing, which means it may look different, the ebook will be cheaper than the paperback, which will become a collector’s item, and I will have to have different/cheaper covers and packaging until the self-pub editions start earning. But I believe in this series, and I know you care about it, and I’d rather take this journey with you than give up on it.’

      I bet her fans would be on board with it, and that a large portion of them would probably ask how they could crowdfund any money she needs to get started.

      One of tradpub’s issues is that it fosters a belief in the ‘author + publisher vs everyone else’ mentality, when really it’s ‘author + readers vs everyone else’ that is the real magic.

      • If her agent is any good, they’ll lead her to agent-assisted publishing.
        (It’s a sort of halfway house for tradpub authors evolving.)
        If not, then yes, she should look into patreon or equivalent.
        She’s enough of a “name” to have the fabled thousand true fans.
        She can do quite well as an Indie but she is the one that needs to step up.

  3. It is as if these authors were in a dark prison cell, pulled up by the bars to look out the window at Armageddon, and fail to look behind them to see that their cell door is open.

    They’ve bought the story that only as things were is there any value, even in the face of diminishing sales, smaller advances, and fewer spots on publisher’s catalogs.

    It’s really hard to feel pity for those who willfully disregard changing reality. Anywhere, but we’re talking books here.

  4. We’ve read a Michelle Sagara trilogy, about necromancy, which was a lot of fun. We also had the pleasure of meeting her in passing at LonCon in 2014. Lovely person. But, she is one of those writers who reports on her writing process that to me look like an obsessive perfectionist.

    I understand the need to have a story work, but her reports of throwing not one, but two first drafts away for one of the books in the trilogy we read struck me as making a rod for one’s own back. YMMV on this, but I’m of the school that the story does what the story does, and nothing can’t be fixed by cycling back and fixing it.


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