Monday, 12 October 2015

Publishing in 2015

I suspect this post is going to be the second most controversial article I'll write here. (The most controversial is one which I'm still planning.) The subject this time is my overall assessment of the traditional book publishing compared to self-publishing . I think you'll see why the article may be controversial as you read on.

To be up-front and honest about where I'm going, I'll offer a metaphor for the traditional publishing industry:

It's like an ivory tower inside a mediaeval castle-and-keep; where a select few serfs are allowed inside to share in the protection of the walls and the benefits provided by the King. And now, visitors from another planet have landed outside, bringing new technology which they're sharing with anyone who wants it – inside the walls or out.

What follows are my personal views, based on my personal observations. Do take it with a grain of salt. Perhaps one day I'll put some effort into some research to substantiate all these claims, but for now I'm just working from memory.

Book publishers over the last 40 years have changed very gradually. In the “good old days”, most publishing companies were owned and run by people who fundamentally loved books and reading. For them, making money from doing something they loved, which supported authors and the whole culture of books and reading, was a source of deep satisfaction. Money was important, but was not the be-all and end-all.

Of course, these owners grew older; and other business-men and women saw the value and profitability of these publishing houses. Running them on more business-like grounds, with an eye fixed more firmly on profit, was just good sense. Gradually, smaller publishers were bought out by larger publishers. Publishing became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The love of books somehow drained out of the equation, replaced by the necessity of maximising profitability and shareholder value. Publishing became an industry.

Of course, the spirit of books lived on: but increasingly, concentrated in the hands and hearts of smaller publishers and indie publishers. Some held out, but the money men were always present, waiting to make offers for valuable property and offer golden handshakes.

From what I've read recently, care of the Australian Society of Authors and researchers from Macquarie University, incomes for writers have been in decline for a long time. The average annual income for an Australian writer in 2015, from writing, is $12,900: $248 per week. The poverty line in Australia is defined as less than $358 per week. (Wikipedia: Poverty in Australia)

This is not the result of a rapid change; this is not a new thing. This is how it has been for a long, long time. Everyone knows: you don't choose to be a writer because you want to be wealthy, you choose to write because you feel a desire or even a need to write. You do it for the love of writing.

So, does this sound like the sort of situation that might result when you have a group of people, each basically working solo, and not part of a collective that wields power, who are driven to create and produce, and whose work is commercialised by other people? Does it sound like the sort of situation that would naturally evolve when the standard contracts and agreements are written by the commercial entities that hold the power and make the money – and the commercial organisations have changed from being controlled by people who love books, to people who need to love profits?

The Traditional publishing business model is, as I understand it, like this:

  • Find good authors (find new ones via agents or slush pile reading)
  • Work with the author to improve the book
  • Know the market for the book's subject matter, and predict sales
  • Print a fixed number of books in a single print run; warehouse and distribute these
  • Market the books: advertising, sales reps visiting big retailers, book promotions, etc.
  • Pay a royalty of 10-15% to the author; much of the rest goes in costs
  • If the print run sells out, maybe make another print run.
  • If books are left over, stop printing the book and sell off the leftovers at remaindered-prices

In this model, the publisher lets the writer concentrate just on writing, and looks after all the other annoying and tedious and difficult parts of the work for them. So there's certainly some benefits for writers. The publishers have specialist experts in every aspect, and can do a great job at each task: great book covers, clever marketing, beautiful typography and layout, high quality production, great blurbs, wonderful editors. So, many authors are very happy working with their publisher and agent, and these relationships tend to last a very long time.

One of the big problems with this model is that it's aimed at the mega-successful books: the publishing house may make very marginal profits on most of the titles they publish, making the bulk of their profits from just one, or a handful of, best-sellers. The best-sellers basically fund the other books. The publisher can only afford to offer 10%-15% royalty to the author because of the costs involved.

But there are other problems, too.

Another problem is numbers: there are a lot of good writers out there. The infamous “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts from would-be authors just grew and grew over the decades, inside each publishing house. The depth of the slush pile grew from hundreds, to thousands, to many thousands deep. Publisher's Readers were drowning in books. Many stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts at all: only accepting agented work. In other words, the slush piles were pushed to a new group of people, charged with panning the river of slush for the manuscripts of gold.

And a secret that wasn't widely known? That these golden manuscripts still needed editing and working on. Very few (any?) MSS came in where the publisher could say “Nothing to do, print it!” Most books require collaboration between a good editor and a good writer. (Maybe for some writers, this changes over time as they learn what their editor knows, and can produce work closer to publishable quality with fewer iterations of edits: I don't know.) But without this big effort, many wonderful books would have been ordinary. We read admissions of this over and over again, from authors, and I think there's more truth in it than most readers are aware. Not because good writers are not really good: it's simply that it's really that hard to write a wonderful book.

Okay, so one aspect of the “numbers problem” is that the number of writers who could produce a wonderful book is far larger than the number of people available in the traditional publishing industry to find them all, and get their work in front of the reading public. For new writers, being discovered required a lot of luck. I remember Stephen R. Donaldson speaking (over 30 years ago), and saying that he had submitted his first book in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to every major publisher in the US, and been rejected by them all, and was on the second loop through when an editor finally saw the potential. That was, over 50 rejections. I'm sure you've heard similar stories from many other famous authors. (For example.)

So, yeah, luck was required, not just good writing.

All this very clearly means that the traditional publishing model was failing to nurture and develop a whole lot of good writers. Think about that: think of some of your favourite books. I wonder how many great books exist as a pile of printed pages languishing in someone's garage, one day to be thrown out when the author dies; completely unread and undiscovered.

Pretty tragic, eh? The number make that a certainty: the only question, really, is how many hundred, or thousand, or whatever, wonderful books will have been lost to the human race because of this. Ah, well.

The trouble was, traditional publishing was the only game in town.

Enter the computer. As much as many people bemoan the computer, they're a key enabler of modern society. They're a tool that allow us to amplify the power of the human mind. Just the ease of preparing a manuscript with a home PC is a major boost. Even as recently as 20 years ago, most publishers required a printed, paper submission. And the MS was often retyped from that. Then came the internet, and email. Then social media. Then eBooks and eReaders. Then Amazon, and Google.

And consider how dramatically the traditional publishers changed, how their very business model changed: they accepted (and later, required) manuscripts to be submitted in electronic form.

That's about it, really. Apart from that, as far I've been able to see, traditional publishers have stayed with the same business model and the same practices that have worked for the last 100 years. After all, it's worked for that length of time, so why change?

Twenty years ago, when publishers always had electronic files that provided the typeset and layed-out form of the book, in a very small amount of space, I couldn't understand why books were still routinely going out of print. As a computer programmer, I could see how easy it would be to automate the reprint and reissue of a book, and even to keep track of people who would say “Yes, please, I would like to buy a copy if you reprint it for $X.” So that the cost of doing so would have meant the publisher would break even with a print run of about 100 books.

And then came print on demand (POD).

Understanding the alien technology. I don't know, I'm sitting here shaking my head. I see little sign that traditional publishers are adopting the new technologies; I see less signs that they properly understand the potential of the new technologies. I see them fighting and resisting the changes and the technologies that would benefit both themselves and the writers working with them.

Fortunately, the publishing landscape has changed enough, and other companies (technology companies, of course, who do understand the new technologies and who deeply appreciate the potential they bring) have been working diligently “outside the castle walls”, so writers now have another option. And in my view, this other option is a fundamentally better one, and should only improve further over time.

Self-publishing. Now, if a writer wishes to publish, she can do it all herself. The new business model for self-publishing looks, I think, like this:

  • The writer writes the best book she can.
  • The writer polishes it, gets beta-readers, and works on it some more.
  • If they can afford to, and if they can find a good editor, she pays for a professional edit.
  • The author either designs their own cover, finds a pre-made one, finds a good book cover designer, or relies on a by-the-numbers generic design if they don't really care much.
  • The author applies for and gets an ISBN and possibly an LCCN
  • The writer slaves over a good blurb and synopsis, and polishes them till they gleam.
  • The writer works out a marketing campaign for their book.
  • The writer registers with Amazon, or Apple's iBooks, or Barnes and Noble's Kobo, or with Smashwords (which lets them deal with all of the above), or with Lulu, or other electronic publishers, for an eBook version. Or even creates their own web page and ordering site.
  • The royalty figure is anywhere between 30% to 70% for eBooks (or higher, if you choose to keep complete control of everything: but you'll sell far fewer).
  • The writer can (and should, I think), prepare a version of the MS for printing, and offer a printed edition too, like Amazon's CreateSpace. The royalty for Print On Demand books is also higher than the traditional 10-15%, because you don't have to manage the risk of non-sales.
  • The writer publishes her book: electronic, printed, and maybe even an audio-book version. For extra points, they prepare a dyslexic-reader-friendly eBook.
  • The writer promotes their book, engages with their readers, and balances that with their primary work: working on their next book.
  • The books never go out of print. The more books you write, the more likely your older work is to sell.

With most of those steps, the writer can choose to dip into his or her pocket to get outside help, for a wide range of prices. (Yes, including free, or quid-pro-quo.) Generally, though, the costs are much lower than what traditional publishers require, because rather than the profits going to support the whole company, the money is only going to the individual or very-small-company providing the service. I've mentioned a few of these in other posts, so I won't rehash that here. But as a self-published author, know that don't need to go it alone. There's help if you want it.

Unfortunately, yet another numbers problem has been caused by this basically-positive boom in “production”: there are now so many books published each year (I have heard the figure of 1.3 million books published in 2014), how does the reader find the best books? Many people have noticed this, (See "Discovery Challenges Mount in a Reader-Driven World" and also the lovely follow-on piece: "Accounting for Authors, Publishing’s Forgotten Customers"),

Yet I feel the solution to this problem may be very straightforward, natural, empowering, and fair: word of mouth and the Network Effect. But let me quote something from that last article which I think goes to the heart of the problem with most traditional publishers:

'But there’s yet another customer few publishers usually identify when prompted.

'When I ask our publishing clients here at Biztegra to list their customers, they will usually include all the parties I’ve mentioned [readers, libraries, small online bookstores, distributors, large online retailers] and maybe one or two more depending on how they categorize their revenue. And when I then ask to them quantify each one, I can usually get a monetary value quoted directly from a revenue spreadsheet.

'By mapping all this out and developing marketing programs (and costs) associated with each customer category, we can get a pretty good idea of where the revenue is coming from and how much is being spent to acquire that revenue, the profitability of each and the potential to improve either the top or bottom line for each customer type. Ultimately, this lets us come up with programs to maximize both the associated spend and the revenue.

'It’s only then that I ask the question, “What about your authors?”

'And I usually get a blank stare.

'I will then ask something along the lines of, “How much is an author worth to your business?”

'The stare usually gets blanker.

'The truth is that authors are one of publishers’ most important customers, but I’ve only once heard a publisher actually list them as one .'    [Italics, and bold, are mine]

My predictions for the future. If I were working in a traditional publishing company, would I be worried? Well, yes and no. If I were working in such a company, I'd be doing my best to show them how they could use the new technologies work for them. :-) But answering the spirit of the question: if the company management doesn't “get” that things have changed, then yes, I'd be looking for somewhere else to work; but if the company does see the potential, then no, I wouldn't worry.

  1. One small but key part of this is the eBook readers themselves. I think these devices and programs have achieved somewhere between 10% to 30% of what they will achieve in the longer term (in ten to twenty years). I think the current eReaders are functional, but embarrassingly limited in usability and capability for their main function: reading books and managing a personal digital library.
  2. I think we're about halfway through the change – probably less. I think that traditional publishers will start including POD in their business model. (Ideally, they'd scrap the whole “remainders” concept, especially since it's so harmful to authors.) They'll even start including eBooks.
  3. I think the key problem will continue to be how good books are discovered by the readers who want to read them: the marketing or publicity side of things, if you like. I think that either reader's practices will change slightly (providing more word-of-mouth recommendations), or book promotion will change (via review sites and/or search engines).
  4. I predict that a lot of the middle-men in the supply chain will vanish.
  5. I think readers and authors will be much more directly connected.
  6. I think Amazon will continue to dominate the market, unless it starts abusing its power. If it does that, then I predict that innate human fairness will see people leaving Amazon's virtual stores in droves, and Amazon's competitors will emerge from the shade to handle the influx of new customers.
  7. I predict that someone is going to see the business possibility of print-locally and ship-locally, vastly reducing the cost and the wasteful use of energy in printing books overseas and shipping them locally, and providing this as a service to publishers large and small. I predict that someone will see the sense in doing this with a mix of traditional large print run offset printing and tiny-volume print on demand.
  8. I predict that author's royalties will rise, to a level that will allow their incomes to rise well above the poverty line and provide them with a good income.
  9. I predict that piracy will decline as the purchasing of books legitimately and fair pricing of books improves.
  10. I predict that authors will earn the success they deserve: that poorly-written or poorly-produced books will not be very successful, but that books that match the quality of good traditionally-published books will routinely earn the success they deserve.
  11. I predict that traditional publishers will stay, but that their business models will change. After all, the key benefits provided by publishers remain unchanged, and few authors really want to be involved in and micro-managing every aspect of their book's production and promotion. I think the Indie publishers are likely to lead the way. (I see Simon and Schuster are touting this new platform for authors,, but I personally don't see the platform as interesting or valuable, but more as an attempt to divert authors away from better existing such services).
  12. I predict that a very healthy, vibrant, and supportive service industry will continue to grow and flourish to support the large numbers of writers who simply have to write.
  13. I predict that the rate the human race produces good books and great books will increase to a level something like two or three times higher than what it currently is.
  14. I predict that the cost of books will drop a little further, while the income paid to the creators will increase.
  15. Who knows, more good writers may even start to be employed by Hollywood, so we'll get more movies with sparkling dialogue and plots that make great sense, with characters human and warm and engaging, as well as horrifying and scary.

I predict a bright future, provided we don't let fear of change start making us collectively act irrationally.

Update - helpful sites It occurred to me I should add some useful external links, though a Google search will turn these up:


Botanist said...

Lots of food for thought. As far as I can see, visibility is the biggest problem faced by Indie authors, and I don't see how that is ever going to change. You can't argue with the numbers - how does one manuscript, however good, stand out from among a million others except by chance?

Luke Kendall said...

I basically agree, though I don't think the problem is that much different for the traditionally-published unknown author. If the first book is good enough, you're likely to get readers buying your new stuff. Everyone seems to agree that reviews are they key thing, and more readers and sites are seeing that the reviews they provide are the solution to the discovery problem. I suppose I'll be finding out about that in due course, too! I think the "Network Effect" could be the solution.

Chris Jack said...

I would make an additional prediction: traditional publishers offer a branding/quality advantage. Although it's possible for self-publishers to acquire a reputation, in practice this is much easier through traditional routes.

So you'll end up with a two tier quality perception: which will also be reflected in price. There will be plenty of, say, self-published cook books - but people will tend to buy traditionally published cook books because of the branding.

Self-publishing however will offer the potential for much better coverage of topics and this may be where greater profit opportunities exist. Identify a topic not covered but not considered sufficiently profitable to warrant the cost of traditional publishing - and you're set.

Luke Kendall said...

I don't completely agree: there are a lot of books produced by traditional publishers (TP) that aren't wonderful. I do agree that currently there's a perception that self-published (SP) books are often lower quality - and partly that's because it does take a lot of work to achieve high quality, whichever route (TP/SP) you take, and the SP needs to learn how to do it all on their own.

I think the point you're making is very much the point that used to be made by people like Encyclopedia Britannica in the early days of Wikipedia.

I think though that as review sites, and the role of reviews, becomes more the norm, this perception (that you can predict the quality by knowing whether it was TP or SP) will fade.

Time will tell how things pan out!