NSFW: A Modest Proposal For Authors Who Abandon Their Publishers — Give Me A Break

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The Full-On Assault On Cable Is Underway

“Publishers are all cohorts of the devil.
There must be a special hell for them somewhere.”
- Goethe

If I were a commissioning editor in a major publishing house, I’d be feeling a little unloved right now. Like the wife of a guy who runs over his neighbour’s cat: why does everyone hate me? What did I do?

Maybe hate is too strong a word: hate is when you hope that someone will burst into flames and die. The current feeling towards publishers isn’t quite that: no one wants them to combust – it’s just that, well, they wouldn’t urinate on them if it happened.

To see what I mean, witness the glee with which the news has been greeted that Seth Godin is abandoning his publishers – Portfolio (Penguin) – in favour of self-publishing. “More and more evidence backs up his decision,” gushes Kit Eaton at Fast Company, “E-publishing is the future.”

And it’s not just Godin’s move that has elicited cheers; over in the UK, Ray Connolly has written a column for the Guardian, explaining why he too is “Doing a Dickens“: quitting his publisher and instead self-publishing (in installments) his new novel: The Sandman. Again, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Says one blogger: “It’s these types of innovative approaches, along with online social marketing, that can help authors stand out from the crowd. I’m seeing it happen all the time, and it can work for you too!”

Hmmm.

Some quick background to my life in publishing: I started my career as an author when, at the age of 19, I got my first book contract from Prentice Hall (part of Pearson, who also own Penguin). A few years later, I briefly became a self-publisher when my business partner, Clare Christian, and I decided to turn a London city guide that we published online into a real book. This was pre- ebook readers so we had to go door to door selling to book stores as well as promoting directly to our existing audience (we did just slightly better than break even). Shortly after that, with sales and distribution backing from Macmillan, we set up a full-fledged publishing house (since sold to Harper Collins) which was nominated for a Bookseller Industry Award for its digital strategy. And now I’m an author again, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, part of the Hachette empire. When it comes to professional publishing vs self-publishing, then, I can understand all sides of the debate.

And yet, as I read the crowing of Godin, Connolly and the various other authors who are suddenly turning their backs on their publishers and going solo; and as I hear the rising chorus of abuse directed at the women and men (mostly women) who toil in the world’s – I dunno? Third-? Fourth-? – oldest profession – I’m pretty sure which side of the barricades I belong on.

You see, I love my publishers. Absolutely adore them. Couldn’t live without them.  Furthermore, I think anyone who willingly abandons theirs in favour of self-publishing, is either delusional, a peremptory jackass – or both.

To explain why I feel that way, I need to break down the various arguments offered by Godin and Connolly for quitting their respective publishers.

The catch-all argument is that, thanks to today’s technology, publishers are redundant: anyone can write, publish and market an ebook. As Connolly puts it: “Anyone who is computer savvy can become a publisher these days. I know, because I’ve just become one. I’m now Ray Connolly, writer, editor-in-chief and head of marketing…“ Godin meanwhile criticises publishers’ digital strategies and their ignorance of things like free PDFs and discussion forums. “None of these things are supported by the core of the current corporate publishing model” he says.

I have plenty to say on this one, but fortunately most of it has already been said by Ursula Mackenzie, chair of the Trade Publishers Council at The Publishers Association, who rebutted Connolly’s article, pointing out that publishers provide a whole host of services including: “editorial input; marketing and publicity expertise; first-class sales contacts and proper remuneration”. They also take care of tricky legal matters: “Protecting copyright and ensuring authors are properly paid is a key function of every publisher: publishers have created and manage anti-piracy schemes and contractual rights for e-books, often taking legal action where an author’s copyright is breached.”

Messrs Godin and Connolly might be excellent writers but as anyone who compares the number of careless errors in your average blog post (including, probably, this one) with those in a professionally published book will testify, most authors are terrible editors of their own work. For example, a good editor would probably have gently pointed out to Mr Godin that he means “none of these things is supported” not “are”, and would probably drop a note to Mr Connolly asking whether he really intends to describe himself as “Doing a Dickens” when in fact Dickens had a publisher (William Hall) for his serialised works. The same editor might ask whether it’s quite right for one of the characters in The Sandman to be described  – quote – “holding her iPod to one ear”.

Snarkiness aside, I’ve written before about the importance of publishers (or broadcasters, or record labels) as filters: how in a world where anyone can publish a book, we’re more likely than ever to be drawn to titles put out by recognised publishing houses. We simply don’t have time to sift through the millions of options available to us, so a good first filter will be titles we know have been edited by professionals, which a major publishing house has deemed of sufficient quality to warrant making a financial investment. Those of us lucky enough to have a W&N or Harper Collins or Portfolio logo on our title page will automatically hop to the front of the attention queue, both in terms of end readers and the still-very-important book reviewers.

There’s a second – arguably even more important – benefit to the professional-publisher-as-filter principle: authors of professionally published books instantly have more credibility when it comes to securing lucrative speaking engagements, journalism gigs and a whole host of other money-spinners for which knowledgable talking heads command top dollar.  Compare the number of professionally published authors you see opining in print and on television (or on stage) with the number of ebook-only authors you find in the same locations. Exactly. In a world where we’re being constantly told that piracy will kill sales and that authors, musicians and the rest will have to rely on live gigs – these bookings become even more critical.

Which brings me neatly to the marketing argument: that most professionally published books are woefully under-marketed by publishers, who seem obsessed with throwing millions of dollars at billboard advertising for a small number of superstars, while everyone else is left to organise their own book tour, or plug their titles on their Facebook fan pages. Authors – particularly those with pre-existing fanbases – can now cut out the publisher altogether, market their titles directly online and enjoy all the financial spoils.

That’s absolutely true, of course, providing you’re a professional marketer. Seth Godin is a professional marketer and as such has built up a fan base of people who will buy – as he puts it – “five or ten copies at a time and distribute them to friends and co-workers”. Go Seth! (Also: worst secret Santa EVER).

For most authors, though, building up an audience – creating viral campaigns, building up word of mouth, arranging book tours, book radio and TV appearances – falls outside their core skill-set. They need whatever marketing and sales support a professional publishing house can offer. After all, there is only a certain number of times that authors can get attention by writing an article about how they’re – gasp! – abandoning publishing (the exception to this rule is Cory Doctorow for whom the physics of attention don’t apply). It’s a testimony to Godin’s genius that he’s now pulled the same stunt twice – the first being back in 2000, when he announced he was abandoning traditional publishing and instead self-publishing his book ‘Unleashing the Idea Virus” on Amazon.com and BN.com. A short while later, he changed his mind: the paperback was published by Hyperion. Maybe this time he really means it.

Ok, what else?

How about the timing thing? Says Godin: “The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic. Today, even though all other media has accelerated rapidly, books still take a year or more [to be published]. You need to consider what the shelf life of your idea is.” Surely that one’s unassailable: publishing is sloooow, with a year between manuscript submission and publication being far from unusual a lead time. By contrast, an ebook can be conceived, written and put on sale in a couple of days.

And so yes, Seth, you’re right: you definitely should consider what the shelf-life of your idea is. And if you find it’s so short that it’ll be redundant in a few weeks, let alone a few months, then you shouldn’t – mustn’t – wait!  You should Tweet it immediately. If, on the other hand, your idea is likely to stick around for a while – like the ideas of, I dunno, Orwell or Postman or Keynes or, well, any of a hundred thousand other authors whose ideas are still relevant today, then maybe it’s worth taking the time – and the multiple rounds of copy-editing and revising and proof-reading and checking and double checking that causes publishing to the so slow – just to make sure you get it right before you publish. 1984 was an instant classic; 1983.5 sucked balls.

Which just leaves the hard financial argument: publishers are slashing advances, and yet still only pay a very small royalty on each sale to authors – a couple of dollars tops on a $10 paperback, often far less. Amazon’s Kindle store pays 70% – $7 – on that same title – straight into the author’s pocket. Only a fool would shun the opportunity to switch to electronic self-publishing!

Ok. In 2009, the American Association of Publishers estimates the net revenue of US publishers was $23.9 billion. Of that, ebook sales – at their highest estimates – contributed $313 million and $192 million came from audiobooks. The rest – around $23.4 billion – came from print. $313 million vs $23.4 billion –  I know which market I’d choose. Although, actually, given that my publisher also distributes via the Kindle, I don’t have to.

(In terms of individual book sales, the numbers don’t look much better, even for eagerly awaited titles. When Dan Brown’s latest title – The Lost Symbol – was published last year, it sold 100,000 electronic copies in the first week. Impressive! Hardcover sales in the same period? 1.9 million.)

But of course, the market for ebooks is growing fast: perhaps Godin et al are just way ahead of the game? Perhaps. And yet even if we assume that all book sales will eventually be electronic (they won’t – at least not in our lifetime), the numbers still aren’t all that attractive for the self-publishers. A first time author at a major publishing house can reasonably expect an advance of $10,000 dollars (although some get waaaay more) – a payment that’s guaranteed no matter how well their book sells. After that, publishers are increasingly heading towards a 50% royalty (on net receipts) on ebook sales, up from 25% at the moment.

By comparison, Amazon pays self-published authors using their Kindle platform a whopping 70% royalty per sale, but of course with no advance. On a $10 ebook, self-published Kindle authors receive $7 (Connolly is giving his away free in installments, or readers can pay $7.50 for the whole thing; other self-published authors seem to be gravitating to the $5 or less price point).

The self-published author has to cover their own time spent writing, plus all the other costs – marketing, legal, cover design, layout etc etc etc – before they make a dime. And even without these costs, they still have to sell 1429 books at $10 before it becomes a good idea to turn down that advance. On a $5 ebook the number is 2858 copies; on a $2 ebook it’s 5000 – or on a freebie it’s – uh – infinity.

Those numbers seem manageable, until you look at the average sales of ebooks. Amazon won’t release sales figures for Kindle titles, but Apple boasted that 1.5 million titles were downloaded from its iBook store in the first month of its existence, when it contained about 50,000 titles (including free public domain titles). That number is for downloads – many of which will have been free – rather than actual sales, and yet that’s still an average of just 30 downloads per available book a month: 360 a year. (Some have suggested that Amazon is selling as many as 600,000 Kindle books a week, but with 600,000+ plus titles in their catalogue, that’s still an average of one of each title a week or, uh, 52 a year.) Sure, some super-authors will sell millions of copies – while others will sell none – but the window of authors who will sell enough ebooks to justify self-publishing, but not enough to want a fully fledged hard-and-paperback contract like Dan Brown – is a very, very small one.

There are many reasons why self-publishing an ebook makes sense, particularly if you have no hope in getting a publisher (Cat-Stuffing For Dummies? Definite ebook) or if you don’t have an agent but want to get the attention of proper publishers (most good commissioning editors regularly trawl the Internet looking for undiscovered talent).

But abandoning your publisher if you already have a book deal?

Please.

For all of the reasons above, there are really only two types of person for whom it makes a jot of sense to tear up their book deal and abandon the professionalism, billion-dollar print market, and immeasurable cachet of traditional publishing. The first are highly skilled self-promoters like Godin who have successfully identified their entire (niche) audience and who know they will only ever sell a certain number of copies of their books to that same audience. Marketers like Godin tend to make the bulk of their money with speaking gigs anyway – books are just a throwaway promotional tool, full of ideas that even they admit will be out of date by this time next week.  Might as well take the money and keep running.

The second type of person is more tragic: authors who, for whatever reason, fear they’re about to be dumped by their publisher (or at best paid a tiny advance for their next book) and who want to save face by using innovation as an excuse. Of course I’m not suggesting for one moment Mr Connolly falls into the category. But, well, I’ll just quote from his Guardian article…

“For as long as anyone has been writing books, authors’ careers have rested on the judgments or whims of publishers. Would the novel that took so many months, or even years, to write be read, let alone chosen, by editors? Who could tell? Who knew what publishers were looking for? This was bad enough when editorial departments had the authority to buy manuscripts themselves. But then came the endless rise of marketing departments, and soon novels were increasingly being selected according to which genre they fitted.”

Just sayin’, as one of his iPod-wielding characters might put it.

As for me, right now, I feel fortunate to be in neither of those camps, and so there’s no way on earth I’m going to abandon traditional publishing. Did I mention that I love my publisher?

But still, given my track record of screwing up relationships, be sure to check back this time next year for my bold announcement of why I’m abandoning traditional publishing – and how it can work for you too!

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