Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Is The Future of Publishing Without Publishers?

Late tonight I'll be putting up the third installment of The Great War. In the meantime, I found this piece by Matt Yglesias on the future of the publishing industry thought provoking, though I'm not sure that I agree with it:

Of course a world where more people can get more books more conveniently is a better world. It is true that some individual authors may earn less in the new era, while others authors may earn more. But there is no reason to believe that authors as a whole will get less money. Indeed, as Amazon and other digital distributors gobble up some of the publishers' slice of the revenue, it's likely that authors will also get a share and see their total income rise. Beyond money, no book worth writing is undertaken for purely pecuniary motives. In the new regime it will be easier for writers to find readers and reach larger audiences. They just won't find them through the exact same set of middlemen who currently sit astride the pipeline.

Essentially, Yglesias believes that publishers are middle-men (at least as regards e-books) who don't add much value. Authors provide the product. Online venues like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple provide the distribution. Publishers claim they're doing lots of marketing but Yglesias is skeptical they do that well:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it's easy to whine that other people aren't marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct.

After all, imagine a world in which publishers were good at marketing books. Then it would be almost trivial for Hachette to get what it wants out of Amazon. It could just not sell its books on Amazon! Unlike in the old days when it might have been inconvenient for someone who lived in a town with a Borders but no Barnes & Noble to go get a book that Borders didn't sell, it's trivially easy to click on some non-Amazon website to order a book. But you do need a customer who actually wants to buy the book.
The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books. When George RR Martin's next iteration of the Game of Thrones series is released, I will buy it. If I can buy it as an Amazon Kindle book, I will buy it that way. If he decides that the only way people should be able to read the book is to get Powell's to mail them a copy, then I will buy it that way. And I am not alone. Nor is Martin the only author with the clout to not worry about the terms of distribution.
Now, if you're George RR Margin, or indeed Matt Yglesias, is probably is true that publishers are moderately useless in terms of getting your book out to people. Yglesias knows journalists and runs a major website, and if he puts a book out himself he can let a fair number of people know about the fact. Martin is already a wildly successful novelists, so if he comes out with another book it is news and people will want to cover it.

However, as someone currently self-publishing a book online (who wants to eventually publish through a real publisher) let me point out that while publishers are not very good at marketing books, non-publishers are generally a lot worse. When my sister's first novel was published by Balzer Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins) their publicity people managed to get early release copies into the hands of so many book bloggers and reviewers who liked the YA Fantasy genre that by the day her book came out it already had 1000+ ratings (most of them positive) on Goodreads and 100s of reviews. My own little publicity effort to get people to follow The Great War as it's published has thus far resulted in 174 page views of the first installment and 74 of the second.

Don't get me wrong, I'm intensely grateful to have the audience that I do, and I'm moderately confident that as I get more out there and convince my existing readers that the novel is good, I can build some word of mouth that will get more people reading it. But if that's how well I can do when I've been blogging for ten years, I think it serves to underscore that while the companies that currently exist in the publishing industry are definitely expendable, getting the word out about previously unknown authors is something that takes work which companies that specialize in that work are going to be better at than is the average author working on their own. And one of the reasons why Amazon lets you "keep most of the money" if you publish directly through them is that they do minimal work themselves to make people aware of your work. You keep most of the profits when you self-publish an ebook with Amazon because you do most of the work which either finds (or doesn't) an audience for your book.


Uncle Lar said...

Ah, the death throws of a once vital and necessary industry now rendered superfluous by technology.
Pity is that the publishing business, and I include agents in that mix, might have and still could with a minimum of effort adjust and adapt to the new paradigm. Baen certainly did, and is doing exceptionally well as far as I can tell.
There are any number of services necessary to ensure a successful rollout of an author’s work, writing the damn thing is the very necessary first step and rests solely on an author’s shoulders. Proofing, editing, formatting, cover art, promotion, distribution, all enhance the process of getting a work from the author’s brain into the reader’s hands. And all can be provided by an involved and supportive publisher, or each can be bought by the yard by an independent writer.
Those of us paying attention, whether writers ourselves or merely attentive readers interested in the process, are in the position of watching while an industry implodes through greed and a steadfast refusal to accept a new reality. Tain’t pretty, but most certainly entertaining in a terrible train wreck sort of way.

Darwin said...

Uncle Lar,


This is one of those things that pulls me back and forth all the time. I'm fascinated by the flattening of the publishing industry, and the idea that anyone can be a publisher.

And yet, I see a lot of value in some of the things that publishers do (badly) in terms of marketing and getting books to high profile reviewers.

I'll be really curious to see how it all shakes out.

sanford begley said...

First I must say that I am not an authority on publishing, merely an informed layman. my only contact with the publishing industry is through relationships with a number of authors traditionally published, hybrid, and indie.

OK couple of points here. One you are somewhat correct about the value of publishers. If they give a book push it helps. for most midlisters they won't. They still have a lot of value for an unknown writer in that being listed by them puts more eyes on the work through being on the list. There is also the point that being published by the traditional houses is a way of saying "This book has been vetted and is worth money"

Now to your errors in judgement, or at least I think they are errors. First problemis that you are going about it in the most difficult way possible. One midlister I know has a couple of thousand who read her blog on a daily basis. She has done some books on the installment plan as an experiment (still ongoing). She makes no money from them until she rolls them out onto Amazon as full books. There are a lot of reasons for this including th4e fact that many of us will not read serials. We don't even know all the reasons they won't sell well on the installment plan but, that is one of them. Another thing to consider about insty publishing is that a good writer, midlist ability or above that does some promoting will get an average advance back in a few months. If traditionally published all the money you will normally ever see is that advance. The independent will continue to get at least a trickle of money as time goes by, it costs nothing to keep the book available and it will keep selling if it is any good. The next thing to consider is volume. If you have only one book in you traditional is the only way to go. having a lot of books published under your name serves to boost your name and redership. Get 10 or more books out there independently and you start selling.
The last thing I have to say is that nothing I said holds water beyond a few months or a year. All the knowledge of the field I have garnered is subject to upheaval and changes in the industry. We don't know where we are headed
Sanford Begley

Darwin said...

Fair points.

Honestly, the reasons I'm currently serializing are mostly selfish or practical: It's going to take a long time to finish the first volume, much less all three, so it seemed like more fun to publish online as I went along in order to get a bit of initial feedback. I figured that a lot of people wouldn't read it as a serial, even though it's free, so that still leaves it open to sell as a finished product once I'm done. (And people who really liked it might buy the finished version anyway.)

So yeah, I do realize that I'd probably have more "sales" if I had a finished book I was peddling rather than constantly telling people "Go read the next chapter!"

My speculation would be that since most publishers are not being very nimble in adjusting to the new world, what we'll end up seeing is some new sort of vetting process that emerged to replace the "this is worth trying" filter of books being published by a commercial press rather than self-published. I just have no idea what that will look like.

If I was hugely wealthy or had a bunch of investors eager to fund my curiosity, it would be fascinating to try to find out...

Uncle Lar said...

There is a school of thought which I mostly agree with that holds a primary reason for the fall off in readership of the public is the cavalier and elitist attitude held by traditional publishers with their efforts to force literature on their customers when all they really want is a good entertaining read. TradPub as we call them are cutting their own throats by this, and by doing so have created a crying need for both the support functions I mentioned earlier, and a service such as you describe, ie an Angie's List if you will that serves as a quality filter for the reading public.
I don't think it's going to take huge wealth or well heeled investors, just the right person or small group with the ability to recognize a need and fill it with an expectation of some reward for services rendered.
Will again mention Baen, a small niche publisher specializing in military science fiction, a genre I'm partial to. They supply what their readers want, honking good stories that entertain. They also anticipated the coming of electronic media and early on adopted an in house e-book sales division which not only functions on its own, but meshes quite nicely with Amazon as well. And the TradPub big shots could have done much the same at any time, still could, if only they could find it within them to reluctantly drag themselves kicking and screaming into the 20th century. My estimation of them making it all the way to the twentyfirst is just too much of a leap, but any headway is good.

walter daniels said...

I'm, sort of, in the same boat as you are. (I'm in a Nursing home, semi-paraplegic {can walk a few steps, but need help for most everything else}, on Medicare and Medicaid. As a result, I have an _effective_ income of $42/month.) I just published my first book, a children's/YA, and sold _8_ copies between 10/5 and 10/30/14. Except for a not very successful attempt at fund raising, to put 10 copies in every Children's Hospital in the Continental U.S., it hasn't been pushed at all. (I raised enough to give away 80 copies.)
I now have three cook books for single/handicapped in progress (go out to beta readers late this month). I'm going to make a special offer on LinkedIn, and Facebook, this weekend. Donate _Five_ copies of the paperback, and *15%* of the royalties will go to a local Domestic Violence shelter. If you: a) request and notify me of which hospitals(s) from a list I have; b)supply proof that you did it (screen capture of completed order); c) it's done between 11/8/14 and 12/10/14. I will post the names (if allowed, they can choose to be anonymous) of every company that does so.
Obviously, on my income, a 15% hit is substantial, but it's worth it to me. It puts books in the hands of children, to cheer them up at Christmas time. If you want to look it up the title is, The Man Who Was A Santa Claus, by Walter Daniels, on Amazon.
Watch my FB feed tomorrow for the announcement. In the meantime, I "publicize" it, by submitting to reviewers, and reviewing other authors books. (I can't expect them to review mine, unless I do the same for them.)
I agree that "serializing" is a bad way to gather interest. Unless you run parts _at least_ once a week, people lose interest/continuity. I wish you luck, in getting published. Me, I'm in it for the *long* haul. "Big Pub." has nothing to offer me, with the Instant hit, or die model.