What’s The Point of Publishers in a Digital Age: Response
This blog post is a response to Rob Eagar’s post here at Digital Book World: What’s The Point of Publishers in a Digital Age. I was going to just make it a comment, but then it grew too big. I recommend you read his post first, and then mine, and the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle.
While human nature must certainly be factored in, and emotion does usually trump logic, when running a business, one must focus on logic. Publishers do indeed help the author ego, if that author happens to be in the top 5% of the ranks at their publisher. Below that, the experience is often the opposite. The midlist is usually the living hell of getting blown off by harried editors, being promised promotion just so you don’t call or email any more and when the book actually arrives, there is no promotion, and the reality is that when you don’t earn out, you are in essence going to get ‘fired’ by not getting renewed.
This was my experience over 42 titles with 4 of the Big 6. Even when I sold over a million books for Random House, they could have cared less. I didn’t see much ego stroking going on for most authors. But if you are in the elite 5%, certainly.
Actually, the more I think about it, publishers are running a business, not a therapy center. The bottom line rules for them and it needs to rule for authors. Publishers might stroke your ego if you’re earning big bucks for them, but like in professional sports, stop producing and bye-bye.
An author who makes business decisions based on their ego is an author who won’t be an author for long and I’ve watched those types of authors fall by the wayside since my first book came out in 1991.
You bring up some valid points, but also some questionable ones.
I very much agree the concept of “self-publishing” is an oxymoron. More than one or two titles and doing it alone is overwhelming. Authors do need publishers in one form or another. When you say that Hocking and others “jumped ship” you seem to indicate the indie ship is sinking. I’m not sure we ever had much of a ship to start with, but there are still quite a few of us out there making very good money. I’ve noticed a strong backlash against indies lately, but that’s for another day.
1. “Authors want to get paid for their work.” Yes, but fairly.
Advances? Dangerous and a way of doing business rooted in the past that I believe is now outdated. Profit sharing is the way of the future. At my publishing company there are no advances, but authors make just about 50% of cover price on their eBooks. The level of motivation for the author to participate in promoting and marketing is much higher when their share is higher. I can resist an advance when I’m earning on the back end. In fact, I just did—more on that later.
Enjoy the accolades? I really could care less. What I love about being an indie author are the multiple checks arriving ever month from all the platforms equaling from a “Very nice deal” to a “good deal” in Publishers Lunch parlance. Every month. I know exactly how much money is coming in at the end of September. I have a very good idea already how much at the end of October (both “very nice deal” months). How many traditionally published authors are earning and paid a very nice deal every single month? Few and far between. But the same is true for indies– a handful of us, and mostly because we owe a debt of gratitude to traditional publishers who published us in the first place. Although they did divorce us too.
I’ve enjoyed my checking account balance a lot more this year than the years I was a NY Times Bestselling Author. In all fairness, though, if I could not say I was a NY Times bestseller, that would certainly hold an appeal.
2. “Authors hate dealing with detail.” I do hate dealing with details. Why I started my own publishing company. Again, I think the life span of a true indie author who wants a career is a limited one without help. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be legacy publishers rooted in the old way of doing things. There are the Amazon imprints and smaller agile publishers, like Cool Gus, who understand the digital age and are committed to change and being ahead of the curve, instead of reacting to it. If a Big 6 is really on the ball with the digital age and offered an attractive deal, certainly I’d go for it. Some already have as you indicated. They know the details of their contracts and what’s been promised, so they obviously see a great appeal because they signed. But they usually sign at a level that gets them into that 5% club from the start.
3. “Authors want everyone to read their books.” I want people who pay to read my books at a royalty rate that is fair. With diminishing rack space, point three really applies to a small percentage of authors. Good Morning America? Come on. Top 5% again. Publishing is perfect for them, no doubt about it. Although, to be fair, those top tier authors bashing Amazon, really need to put up and have their publishers pull all their titles from Amazon. Can’t bash your cake and eat it too. I’m a publishing whore. I’d sign with Beelzebub Press if the deal made business sense. Right now, most traditional deals don’t.
Here’s what publishers and Amazon can bring to the table. Even having my own company, I just signed a three-book deal with 47North. For zero advance. In return for higher royalty rates and the promise of promotion (we’ll find out how that works starting 11 December). The reason I signed primarily is the ONE thing every author must have now: Discoverability. Some indies have it: Bella Andre. Barbara Freethy. I’ve got a very broad base across multiple genres, which isn’t the smartest business plan but the hand I dealt myself over 20 years. Frankly, I need Amazon’s marketing push to help the books they bought, but also to build my brand and sell my indie books.
I respectfully disagree with the last line of the post regarding the point of publishers: “To exist and thrive by keeping the author ego healthy and alive.”
Ego doesn’t pay the mortgage. An author more concerned with ego than business is looking for a job. I submit that the point of publishers in a digital age is to partner with authors in a fair royalty scheme so that all the players in the business are committed to getting books from the content creators, Authors, to the content consumers, readers. All must bring value to the table in one form or another.