Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Rethinking Publishing

In the spirit of continuing discussion begun yesterday, as I had planned to, today I found this article at Publishing Perspectives, which muses about whether famous authors should even bother with traditional publishers anymore. It cites as examples authors including Steven Covey, of whom I’ve not yet heard and will research more shortly, as well as Timothy Ferris (The Four-Hour Workweek) and Seth Godin. I’m very familiar with Godin; I’ve read a lot of his blog, and he’s primarily a businessman concerned with marketing and branding but also has myriad interesting thoughts about how to harness the power of social networking and tribes.

All three seem to be businessmen of some nature, and all three seem to make their income primarily through speaking engagements and presentations. Their books are extensions of their content, and not vice versa, which I think is an extraordinary distinction to make.

I think this is precisely the sort of practice that may help us rethink publishing. Let’s face it: in the age of the Internet and at the advent of a new paradigm of digital distribution and consumption, the model as has been used since the Great Depression no longer seems appropriate. Does it make sense, in nearly 2010, to use a content distribution model that has existed since before television?

And the traditional model? Generally, it works like this: an author enlists an agent to represent a manuscript, which that agent brings to publishers. This is, in effect, a small-town sales model, basically the equivalent of knocking on doors, and one reason it’s so good to have an agent is because agents know which editors are buying what for how much, not to mention that many publishing houses flat-out refuse to even consider manuscripts that aren’t agented.

Agents can get higher advances-against-royalties for a book, which is one of the few aspects about a publication contract that is variable. Agents get industry-standard 15% of any revenue authors make; that’s 15% of the advance and of all royalties. Thing is, royalties don’t get paid until the advance is earned backed; authors who get, say, a $25,000 advance don’t see a penny of royalty money until that $25,000 is earned and then the publisher is earning profit, and then authors get some small percentage of that profit (usually something like 7.5% to 15%, and often tiered). Thing is, consider how long it takes a publisher, after discounts and returns, to earn a profit on even a $25 hardcover; even disregarding those sorts of factors, a publisher would need to sell 1000 copies of that hardcover to make $25,000.

And according to this post, roughly 90% of the 1.2 million titles tracked by BookScan sell fewer than 99 copies. Now, obviously, those numbers range widely, but it’s certainly true that even publishers who operate at a profit tend to on a razor-thin one. This is why so many publishers rely on big books by Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Stephenie Meyer; they are guaranteed sales and, by extension, profit.

Doesn’t something have to give?

Now there are endeavors like Harper’s Studio imprint, which does away with advances in return for offering authors a higher share in the profit. This makes a little more sense, I think. Because the question is not actually whether we authors “should bother” with publishers, nor even whether we need them anymore, but rather how and when we should use publishers.

It’s obvious we don’t need publishers for digital distribution; online content is often free and easily accessed. Yes, perhaps it’s true not everyone owns a PC, but not everyone goes to book stores, either. More and more phones are able to access the Internet from anywhere, and increasingly, there are apps (and maps) for anything you can think of, and e-readers and coming tablets are only going to increase that saturation. We don’t need dead trees and dry ink; sure, lots of people love books as physical objects, but those physical objects may work best as souvenirs of stories we’ve loved.

We do continue to need editors, but editors are not beholden to publishing companies; lots of freelance editors make a decent living on their own, and anyone who expects more than a decent living from the publishing industry probably doesn’t know much about publishing. I’m lucky I’ve found a terrific freelance editor, and I’ve also taken full advantage of the network I’ve built through USC and online; when I finish a manuscript, my beta-readers aren’t family and friends–they’re other writers who know their craft well and how to apply it. It’s a marvelous distinction.

The question shouldn’t be whether famous authors should bother with traditional publishers but rather how any authors can best use the tools available to get their stories into the most hands possible.


  1. Very interesting post and something I consider to evaluate often. I have three books with traditional publishers and several self-published. I decided awhile ago that I am using the traditional pubs the same way they are using me–they bring me bigger exposure and distribution and I bring them relevant content along with my commitment to marketing. It’s difficult to make any money off of my traditional pub’d books, but that’s the trade-off.

    Publishing is easy to access these days and regardless of who publishes your book, the author is responsible for the bulk of the marketing. If you’re committed and willing to do the work, then self-publishing is a smart option. However, I encourage most authors to at least go through the process of trying to get a traditional book deal. You can learn a lot about the market potential for your book (not that they are always right–they aren’t!) and how the system works.

    As e-books are picking up steam, traditional publishers are tightening up belts, self-publishing is becoming more accessible, it will be interesting to see how the industry evolves in the coming years.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie. Your suggestion of continuous evaluation is important; it’s always good to continue to look around and what is changing and how, and determine how those changes can be used well. Yesterday, Joel Fishman commented about adding value to work, and I’ll mention that here: whatever helps get more people reading is good.

    I think what one is writing should determine the process of seeking publication. When I published my collection through Lulu, it was because the only market for short fiction, essays, and poetry was small; the New Yorker cut its second fiction issue in favor of a “World Changers” magazine, while Esquire has gone online–the market for publications of this sort has dried up, and especially when there’s so much good content available online, that’s not likely to change.

    However, I’m not ready to publish either of my novels through Lulu; I think the market for novels, especially exciting novels that get people talking, is still demonstrable. That’s why I’m still querying agents for my novel, and likely won’t stop until I find a publisher who wants to license the manuscript.

    Whether I then decide to give that publisher digital/e-rights, however, is a different issue altogether. It’s likely they won’t sign a contract until they have those rights, but I’m certainly willing to negotiate with them on it.

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