Friday, March 25, 2011

One Man's Hope

So last week was something of a crazy one in this Brave New World of publishing. On the one hand, bestselling author Barry Eisler turned down a half-million dollar deal to self publish. On the other, million-dollar self publisher Amanda Hocking inked a two million dollar deal to get OUT of self publishing.

Folks all over the internet are trying to figure out what's going on. Things are changing, and in a big way, but none of us truly knows how.

I don't have answers. But I do have hope.

When I started writing, I knew what I was getting into. I knew I'd struggle to break in, to stand out in a crowded field. That I'd have to write my ass off to get an agent, to stand out in a field crowded with wannabes. That every year publishing houses face hundreds of agented submissions for fewer and fewer debut slots.

I knew that getting published was only the first step: The death of the midlist made the writing life a Darwinian struggle, brutal and fierce.

I knew I'd have to do my own promotion. That I'd have to turn in manuscripts polished to the point they barely required an editor's attention. That I'd have to take the cover and the title I was given or run the risk of being labeled 'difficult'.

And I knew that for all my own effort, my fate was still out of my hands. My publisher could spring for coop enough to make me a bestseller, or a negligent decision on sell-through could doom me to a life of declining sales. A title readers wanted could be allowed to go out of print.

I knew all this, and I went for it anyway. I danced around the room when I got my agent, and I took the hit calmly when my novel was ultimately rejected by marketing (that's right, marketing) for it's lack of American focus.

After all, the game was rigged, but it was the only game in town.

Ebooks are changing that game. And none of us quite knows how.

But I have my hopes.

I'm not hoping for the demise of Big 6 publishing. That's actually the last thing I want. Like JD Rhoades, I don't believe that a cabal of three (Amazon, Smashwords and B&N) is guaranteed to treat writers any better than the cabal of six.

Novelists have never been very good at collective bargaining. Screenwriters have a strong union that fights for pay rates, royalties, etc. Novelists, not so much. As long as the oligarchy hung together and enough of us were willing to take a bad deal, just so long as it was a deal, bad deals were going to be the rule.

I hope ebooks give us a real alternative. For a long time now, the Big 6 have acted like a bullying husband who treats his wife like dirt because what's she gonna do without him? She's got nowhere else to go.

Well, now we do have somewhere else to go. Ebooks are already a viable alternative, and the market's got a lot of room to grow yet. Some folks are making plenty of money. Some, like me, are growing an audience by word of mouth, something I wouldn't be able to do in today's mainstream climate. And yeah, most are still sinking beneath the waves. After all, success is never guaranteed.

My hope, my great hope for the future of our industry, is that the ebook revolution will reform the Big 6.

They can't expect to act they way they have and survive.

It won't happen overnight. Likely, there will be a lot more pain before they change their ways. As ebooks find their natural, lower price point (and they will, whether publishers like it or not), they'll need to offer a better deal. After all, why should an author like CS Harris (for whom ebooks are ALREADY a quarter of her sales) accept 14.5% of $2.99 or even $4.99 when she could self-publish and take 70%? Yeah, she'd lose a lot of print sales going POD-- enough that right now the move doesn't make sense.

But there is a tipping point there, and it's coming fast.

At the point mainstream authors can make more self-publishing, with accurate and up-to-date accounting and no 'reserves against return', publishers will have no choice but to change their game.

Of course, they probably won't. Not right away. I anticipate a bit of bullying, bluster and outright pleading to keep profitable authors in their stable, but when the losses get bad enough, I hope we see a change.

Equitable royalties on ebooks. Small-batch, POD-style printing to keep booksellers stocked without carrying extra inventory (like Toyota's just-in-time manufacturing). Term licenses for titles instead of the current 'forever and ever'. And services offered that actually add value.

Imagine a world where publishing houses changed their game to actually court writers, to offer us good reasons to go with them instead of going it alone...

I can hope.


Angie said...

On the other, million-dollar self publisher Amanda Hocking inked a two million dollar deal to get OUT of self publishing.

Keep in mind that Amanda Hocking is not getting out of self-publishing. She talks about her reasons for entertaining the Saint Martin's Press deal here, including this bit:

If it took me five years to write a book, and I only had one book written, I'd be thinking long and hard about this deal. But right now, I have 19 books currently written. By the time the Watersong series goes to print, I'll still have 19-24 titles at least that I can self-publish.

She's going to keep self-publishing while she does the SMP deal with one series of four books. She's only giving SMP a small fraction of her books. (And may I say, I wish I could write a quarter as fast as she does. :) )

Last I heard, she still hasn't signed the contract, which means it could still fall through. Someone, I think it was Kristine Kathryn Rusch but I can't find the post right now, mentioned that SMP might try to tie her down with a non-competition clause. She (or whoever said it) thinks that if they do try that, and won't budge, Ms. Hocking would most likely walk away. I agree that'd certainly kill the deal for me if I were in Ms. Hocking's place. It's one thing to agree that the benefit of being in bookstores and grocery stores and WalMarts and cetera is worth probably losing some income on four books (although as she mentions, there's also a chance New York can make her the next James Patterson), but it's quite another to agree to cut a huge, gaping hole in her own wallet regarding those next twenty books for the sake of a four-book deal.

It's definitely Kris who says here:

Her reasons are not financial. (She talks about the money she’ll lose doing this.) Nor are they about traditional publishing marketing her better through advertising or anything else (which is what her earlier blog post implied). She’s talking about improving the quality of her product (not of her books, which are high quality as it is, but of the produced book itself) and of market penetration. She doesn’t want to focus on doing the hard work of making herself a household name through distribution. She wants to write the next book.

She will continue with her indie publishing. In fact, it’ll be the dominant way she publishes. She’s very business savvy. She understands this. But she’s is using traditional publishing to grow her name, get her into stores she had no idea how to reach on her own, and to learn how to improve her product.

And—smart, smart, smart—she got traditional publishing to pay her for things that the average business would pay an ad agency or a distribution company to do for them.

There's more -- that post of Kris's goes into several issues; there's a lot going on in publishing right now, and her opinions and observations are generally worth reading.

Kris and Dean Wesley Smith have collectively been talking about the Hocking, Eisler and Brockway (Connie Brockway is a New York published romance writer who's also going indie) deals on their blogs, and are well worth reading. Worth subscribing to, actually. They also link to some other good posts on the subjects.

Dean also did a three-way talk with Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath about indie publishing, and specifically how to pay your help. They don't all agree, but that just makes it that much more interesting a talk. (I agree with Dean, BTW -- you don't pay the guy who cuts your lawn by giving him a percentage ownership in the sale price of your house.)

Continued on Next Rock...

Angie said...

[...Continued from Previous Rock]

And in case that's not enough links :D Tobias Buckell talks about his own year-long experiment in selling one of his anthologies as an e-book. His results are much more modest than those of writers like Konrath and Hocking, but 1) he acknowledges that anthologies don't sell as well as novels no matter how they're being sold, and 2) Dean has said that in his experience, and that of some other writer friends of his, you have to have like thirty to fifty books out there before you really have a good chance of starting to get noticed. Assuming his numbers aren't necessarily on, let's just say it's "a lot," or at any rate "significantly more than one." More available books makes it more likely readers will find and like your work, and go looking for more, and blog about it or otherwise spread the word. One book is very likely to sink without much notice, and that seems to be what's happening with Toby's antho.

That said, $30-50 per month doesn't completely suck, assuming it stays steady at that level and neither takes off nor sinks. Plug in Dean's 30-50 books and multiply and that's between $900 and $2500 per month, without being "discovered" or hitting Amazon's Top-100 or anything like that. I'd take that.

Also-also, Dean's doing a series called Think Like a Publisher that's well worth following, even if you don't want to read everything he posts. Dean owned and ran Pulphouse Press back when, so he knows from publishing, more so than most writers. Good stuff there.

Angie, who's feeling very linky today

Charles Gramlich said...

Sometimes these days I feel pretty overwhelmed and want to pull my head in. Not a way to go though. GOtta keep the head up so I can see what is coming. Even if I don't catch the wave.

RK Sterling said...

Here's hoping with you, Steve!

(And thanks to Angie for adding more info)

cs harris said...

Interesting discussion, Steve. Having just today received the jpeg of my next Sebastian cover and sitting here wondering how anyone could take a great idea and mess it up so badly, I find myself in the mood to be particularly attracted to the idea of running my own show. But then I think about trying to design the cover for the one book I'm thinking about putting up on Kindle myself, and I freak out.

No doubt about it, ebooks are going to change the publishing industry, and publishers will be dragged along kicking and screaming. I suspect in the end, though, writers will once again get screwed. It still irks me that Amazon gets 30% right off the top.

Steve Malley said...

Angie, thank you so much for the extra info! So much there I didn't know yet. :-D

Charles, I've been thinking about you a lot. Seems there are two things you can do right away to jump up sales of your western:

1) Drop the price to .99 for a couple of months, while

2) Spending some time on the Kindle boards posting in the Western forums.

Also, three more things occur to me, but they're not 'right away' type actions:

1) Release each of the short stories as a .99 stand-alone. Keep the anthology at 2.99 while offering a single story as an inexpensive introduction.

2) New cover. Cruise by the Western bestsellers and check out their covers, then bring yours more into line with the market. It worked wonders with Crossroad Blues.

(As an aside, if you do these two, make sure the covers to the single are variants of the anthology-- different colors, something-- so folks have a visual marker that they're buying a related product.)

and 3) More titles. Your Talera publisher coming on board helps, as would the single-story offerings, but remember, the more you have on the shelf, the better all your titles will sell!

Steve Malley said...

Kate, I'm going to run over to your blog right now and catch up. I know I've been flat out, but that's no excuse for not visiting with my favorites! :D

Steve Malley said...

And Candy,

Once again, your situation on my mind as well:

Since your romance was previously released, it's not like you'll need editing. Kindle doesn't even need a lot of fancy formatting-- seriously, it doesn't have to be hard.

And cover-wise, may I recommend checking out Kate Sterling, right there above you in the comments? She does one hell of a romance cover!

Imagine you're cruising Martin Cruz Smith titles in the Kindle store. His publisher's got the series you know for $9.99 a pop, or there's a stand-alone you haven't heard of, and it's selling for somewhere between three and five dollars. You're gonna hit that button, right?

Give it a go! I really do think you'll be pleasantly surprised...

Kate Sterling said...

Hey, thanks for the pimping, Steve! ;)

Lana Gramlich said...

I totally hear you on this post, since it applies to visual arts, as well. Many people are asking if galleries are even necessary anymore. Unfortunately it seems they still are. Modern technological advances & the advent of the internet have given us opportunities we've never had before. Unfortunately that applies to almost everyone else in the world, too. Hang in there. If you love what you're doing, that's the important thing!

Drizel said...

Its hard, it's never been easy but now with the world of e-books ppl can go where they never though possible......wish you well always:)
Regards Etain