Let’s all agree: Publishing is screwed, and it’s Amazon’s fault. The book giant has hired a veteran commissioning editor to dole out shovel-fulls of cash to the world’s best selling authors. Even the “big six” publishers have no way to compete. Cash-cow authors are turning their backs on the traditional industry players, leaving no money to nurture new talent.
Let’s all agree: Publishing is screwed, and it’s self-publishing’s fault. Easy-to-use publishing tools, and the rise of e-readers have made it possible for anyone to become a best-selling author. No publisher can compete. First-time authors are turning up their noses at traditional industry players, leaving no new talent to nurture and profit from.
Let’s all agree: Publishing is screwed, because publishers are a bunch of whiny, self-entitled idiots.
One of the above statements is true.
I’m sitting here, reading yet another screed about how Amazon is the devil. Tomorrow I’ll likely read another equally pessimistic lament about how self-publishing is driving publishing into the ground. And yet, and yet…as someone who has been a self-published author, a ‘big six’ published author, an indy published author, and an indy publisher, I still don’t see what all the fuss is about.
There is no doubt that Larry Kirshbaum’s arrival at Amazon bodes troublingly for traditional publishers. Tim Ferriss, Penny Marshall, Deepak Chopra, and James Franco have already signed over to the new imprint, and more are sure to follow, lured by huge advances and more generous revenue splits. Meantime, at the newbie end of the market, self-publishing superstars like Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, and John Locke have shown it’s possible to sell a million books before signing a formal book deal.
Still, in the US alone, book sales are worth $14 billion a year. Even if an appreciable chunk of that cash goes to Ferris, Marshall, Chopra, et al., that still leaves a tsunami of cash for hundreds, if not thousands, of publishers to survive and thrive.
As an anonymous publishing insider admitted right here on Pando, the only reason why Amazon’s publishing imprint is a threat to traditional publishers is because they’ve made their entire business model about using cash-cows to subsidize the rest of their business. All they need to do is move away from that model, and everything will be just peachy. I’ll get back to the “how” in a moment.
But first, what of self-publishing? Surely that’s a legitimate threat?
It’s a joke.
I don’t care if you’re God Almighty Himself, you still need an editor. In fact, at the very least you need two — a copyeditor, and a proof reader. You also need a cover designer who is far enough away from the text to know what sells. You need a team dedicated to production, sales, and PR & marketing (spending your entire life whoring yourself on Twitter is not conducive to doing good work).
And even if you rope in all of those people yourself — and pay them — there’s still no getting past the fact that a good publisher is a filter. They’re a filter for readers to know that they’re not spending money on something full of typos and plot holes, and they’re a filter for the author to know they’re doing good work (or that they’re not). There’s a reason why both Hocking and Locke have subsequently accepted deals, from St. Martin’s Press and Simon & Schuster respectively.
(Richard Nash and I discussed the role of the publisher, as opposed to a “printer,” in this video. He’s much more eloquent on the subject than I am.)
For publishers of all sizes, there remains a huge middle ground of opportunity between the handful of authors being scooped up by Amazon, and the vast slushpile of crap that will only ever be self-published. Any professional author worthy of the title will always take the suite of services offered by publishers — particularly the filter and the badge of approval — over the short term (and hypothetical) financial benefits of going it alone.
But at the same time, those authors are not stupid. They know that social media makes it possible for them to do some of their own marketing and to build their own audience, an audience that will buy their books with or without prompting from a publisher’s marketing team. To hand over that value for a small percentage of the cover price of each sale encourages them to at least flirt with the idea of self-publishing, or to hold out for a monster advance before signing a traditional deal.
Publishing can and will be “saved,” but only when traditional publishers accept that they’re competing with Amazon at the top end and self-publishing at the bottom end, and adjust their dealings with authors accordingly.
For one thing, we all — publishers and authors alike — need to accept that gigantic advances are a thing of the past. Authors need to get comfortable with mid-five figure advances, even for second or third books. That’s the only way traditional publishers can afford to keep plugging away with mid-list authors.
For their part, publishers need to stop obsessing with signing bankable stars and instead go back to their talent-nurturing roots. Find tomorrow’s stars, pay them modestly but fairly and give them a deal for a quarter-dozen titles right out of the gate. Once you’ve found your authors, nurture the living shit out of them. Lovingly edit their work, produce delightful covers, and then promote, promote, promote.
Promotion is a two-way street, though, and as an author’s career progresses, it’s likely they’ll build a loyal audience, who will follow them from book to book. Herein lies a bugbear with authors: If my five-figure Twitter audience is going to buy my book anyway, why am I paying a publisher 80% of the cover price? That irritation only increases as advances get lower.
To make up for the shortfall in advances, publishers need to dramatically change the way they pay royalties. For this they might take a leaf (no pun intended) out of the book (no pun intended) of movie theaters (no mixed metaphor intended)…
On a movie’s opening weekend, the lion’s share of the ticket price goes to the distributor while the theatre has to make its profits from popcorn and soda. But as time passes, the split starts to shift in favor of the theatre. A movie like Titanic which stays in theaters for months might end up offering close to a 50/50 spilt between theatre and filmmakers.
A version of this model can work for authors publishers too: For the “opening” week or two immediately after publication, the publisher might pay an established author an inflated royalty, maybe as much as 90% of net receipts. This acknowledges that those first days’ sales will include all pre-orders from fans, plus whatever sales come with the author’s promotional efforts via social media. (The publisher doesn’t have to fret too much about this author-friendly split: Those initial dollars will simply work towards earning back the author’s initial advance.)
Then, as the book continues to sell, so the royalty can begin to shift in the publishers favor. In week three, maybe it’s 80/20 between author/publisher, then 70/30, then 60/40, finally ending up with, say, a 50/50 split. That’s still far more generous than most authors get today, and not too much worse than self-publishing.
An added advantage of that sliding royalty model is that it incentivises publishers to continue promoting titles way into the long tail. Ask any author how much promotion their publisher was still doing a month after publication and you’ll see why this is A Good Thing. Again, the focus should be on the author and publisher as a team, with appropriately aligned goals.
And that’s that. A modest, back of a napkin, proposal for saving traditional book publishing. You’re welcome, traditional book publishing.