Hugh Howey is a New York Times best-selling science fiction author and one of the most vocal proponents of self-publishing. His biggest hit, Wool, was published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program and ballooned into a best-selling series that went on to win Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie Book of 2012 Award. Wool has also been optioned by director Ridley Scott and appeared in print under Random House UK.
Howey, along with Data Guy, is also part of the team behind the Author Earnings reports, which present data on self-published titles through Amazon’s KDP program and inform the industry on how big of a role self-publishing plays in today’s book publishing landscape.
I spoke with Howey about a number of issues, including the role of traditional publishers today, what self-publishing can do better, and what he wants the industry to look like 10 years down the line.
What do you view as the role of traditional publishers today? And do you see that role changing at all going forward? Put another way, do you believe that the big publishers will slowly go away, or will there always be a place for them, however diminished or different it might be?
The major publishers will always have a role in delivering books to readers, even as that role dwindles. Bookstores and paper books will be around forever in some capacity, and the major publishers have great relationships here. One thing we don’t acknowledge enough in this industry is that there are more reasons for buying books than simply reading them. There’s gift-giving; decorating a home library; as a promise to our hopeful future selves (like gym equipment); for social status (young readers prefer physical books partly because they are a signal to their biblio-tribe); and to own the must-read item that no one actually reads, like Kapital and Goldfinch.
But the market share of the Big Five will continue to shrink. It has already shrunk enormously. What ground has been held has almost entirely come through acquisitions, which is why I expect we’ll get down to three major publishers eventually—much as the music industry winnowed itself from six to three major labels. Profitability has held steady and even increased in areas due to Amazon, which has reduced costly print book returns from over 30 percent to less than 5 percent. And by the digital tools Amazon has unleashed—ebooks, POD—that are more profitable and less wasteful than offset print runs.
The problem is, major publishers are going to have to eventually compete with the 70 percent earnings offered by KDP, so their margins are going to get squeezed on the royalty side. And they are going to have to compete with indies on price, which means getting squeezed on the price side. As middlemen, their role is not only going to get smaller as self-published authors bypass them—their profit margins are going to shrink as readers and authors demand better prices and pay.
There are solutions, but I don’t think any of the major publishers will adopt them. I’ve been saying for years that the smart move would be for a major publisher to get out of New York, stop competing on advance size, invest in original IP, and grow writers’ careers by sticking with them for half a dozen novels before cutting them loose. They should focus on genre works, move to shorter work lengths, and break up non-fiction into salable chapters that readers can “complete” as they might a full music album. They need to pay monthly via direct deposit. And they need to connect authors to readers a lot better than they currently do. Instead, it’s been west coast companies doing the innovating. The center of the publishing world is already along the Pacific coast with the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter.
There are clearly benefits from the author’s perspective to self-publishing. But do you still see benefits for the author in trying the traditional route?
There’s a lot about this question that I find troubling. Rather than gloss over those benefits, as if DBW has been covering them, I think publishers would be well-served to hear all the ways they are deficient compared to self-publishing. There’s no way for them to stem their losses if they don’t understand why they’re losing.
The advantages to self-publishing are enormous. Key among them is price control. Publishers are charging too much for their ebooks, especially for ebooks from new authors. The Big Five have got to stop looking at ebooks as competition to paperbacks, and they really need to stop worrying about a low-priced ebook competing with a more expensive ebook at the same publishing house. Every shopper is different. By ignoring entire segments of the reading populace (and not exploiting their backlists), publishers are missing out on revenue, not serving their authors well, and are losing readers to indie authors.
Publishers need to rebrand from the ground up. Get rid of ancient imprints that readers don’t care about. Stop paying seven- and eight-figure advances to people who are already millionaires, and instead pay more up-and-coming authors a livable wage. One of the great mistruths out there today is that publishers somehow support authors with advances so they can write. This simply isn’t true. You have new authors getting $5,000 for a manuscript while celebrities and politicians who are already wealthy get piles of money. Either way, authors are writing those first novels while working other jobs; they aren’t getting paid for proposals. Even most non-fiction authors write while working a full-time job elsewhere.
Self-publishing is so much faster, pays so much better, offers so many more creative freedoms, and allows experimentation with price and retailers. Kindle Unlimited is just one example of the enormous sums of money an author misses out on by going with a major publisher. We’re talking $150,000,000 a year going directly to authors, and if you sign with a major publisher, you are taking yourself out of that pool.
As for when to do a deal with a major publisher, I think authors should consider this once they can afford to. It’s just too costly to go the traditional route, both in time wasted and money lost. Once an author has a steady income through self-publishing, it might be a good idea to try something with a traditional publisher, partly for the experience, and partly for the exposure provided by brick and mortar bookstores, even though this is shrinking.
Keep in mind that it can take years to get a book published through the query-agent-publisher route. The absolute minimum is probably 18 months. Five years is a good guess for the average author getting their work to appear on a bookstore shelf. To put that into perspective, I wrote my first dozen novels in the same amount of time. And even before Wool hit the New York Times bestseller list as a self-published work, I was making steady money every month, and it was growing. There’s a good route here for a livable wage if you can write entertaining stories and really pour energy into doing it right.
There’s a view that self-publishing has flooded the marketplace and that, although some truly great books have been able to be published, there has also been a lot of inferior stuff readers have to sift through and that authors must compete with. Do you agree with that at all?
I strongly disagree with pretty much all of this. When I worked at an independent bookstore, we used to laugh at the great stacks of catalogs publishers sent us every quarter. So many books! Who would read them all? We only ordered a scant fraction, and we eventually returned a lot of what we did order.
And yet, when Amazon opened up the #1 bookstore in the world to anyone with a dream of being a writer, self-published authors were able to sell millions of books every month. So where I saw a crushing deluge as a bookstore buyer, the readers were seeing huge gaping holes in the market.
Some of the biggest bestsellers for publishers in my lifetime have been works derided for their supposedly awful prose. The year 50 Shades of Grey came out, one in every five books sold that year were from that trilogy. Instead of judging the quality of works from their own tastes, or assuming that readers don’t want any more books in the world, publishers should pay attention to what is selling and offer as much of that as possible.
The fact that publishers have largely walked away from urban fantasy is something I find baffling. There are dozens of examples of missed opportunities out there. Publishers should concentrate on that, rather than operate from a position of fear and entitlement. The world is never going to go back to the days when they owned a monopoly on readers’ attention. Those days are gone forever, and that’s a good thing.
Are there too many books now?
Never. Never. Never.
There will never be too many books. You can get on gutenberg.org right now and find thousands of classic novels for free. In lots of formats. More words than you can read in a lifetime, and great words. Many of the best books ever written. And yet, a lot of money is spent on books every year. There will never be full saturation. There will always be books that don’t sell well, but this has been true for as long as there have been books.
Really, this is a meme that needs to die. It’s just fear from publishers and authors who don’t think they can compete. We should welcome the competition. Know that you can write a book that people will talk about and that no one can put down. Stop trying to paint the landscape as this volcano of swill, or whatever the metaphor is these days. It’s bunk. It’s like saying we have too much pizza, sex or chocolate. Books belong on the short list of things we can’t get enough of.
How can self-publishing—as a whole, not on a specific platform—be improved? If it even can or needs to be?
There are lots of areas for improvement. I’d love to see online editing tools for published ebooks, so typos can be fixed without having to re-upload files. It would be great to have a place for matching writers with cover artists, editors, beta readers, and formatters. The discovery process could be refined, though Amazon does a good job of recommending titles once you have a buying history with them. Amazon could get rid of the tiered royalty structure and the delivery fees. Lots of little things like this.
They pale in comparison to the things the major publishers and retailers need to fix, of course. Draconian contract clauses; pitiful royalty rates; infrequent payments; poor pricing strategies; not embracing POD; the blacklisting of self-published and Amazon-published titles at brick and mortar stores; the current returns system; and so much more.
In your view, is Amazon’s the best self-publishing platform for new authors?
Of course. It isn’t even close. They are publishers’ #1 sales account, and they are probably the #1 sales account for 99 percent of self-published authors. It’s the biggest bookseller in the world. Partnering with them is a good idea if the goal is to sell lots of books. One day this might not be true, and we will be right to focus our energies on whoever the new top-selling retailer is.
I can also say without reservation that most debuting authors should go exclusive with Amazon until they gain traction and can afford to branch out. The increased visibility offered by Kindle Unlimited makes it worth thinking of Amazon as a writer’s personal publisher. Keep in mind that self-published authors can move their works around. KU exclusivity is only for 90 days at a time. Unlike the decision to go with a major publisher, where you lose all control of your work for the rest of your life—and another 70 years for your heirs’ lives—with self-publishing, you can experiment freely. You can dip in and out and try lots of options.
There’s some talk lately about Amazon being a monopoly or monopsony and the negative effects its share of the market has on the flourishing of literature. In your opinion, how worried should we be?
I think the motives here are no secret, and they have historical precedent. When those who can’t compete on the open market realize this, they appeal to the public for sympathy and to the courts for protection. There are two very strident campaigns going on here, and both are ethically bankrupt.
Amazon has vastly increased the access to books. They have also vastly increased every author’s access to the market. They are lowering prices for consumers and increasing pay to producers. They are able to do this by operating very efficiently and by pouring all their earnings back into their business divisions.
What’s really Orwellian about these monopoly complaints isn’t just that Amazon is doing the opposite of what they’re being accused of; it’s that major publishers are the ones who have enjoyed a collaborative monopoly for many years and have used the lack of competition to calcify the reading experience, overcharge for their wares and underpay for work.
For a very long time, most aspiring writers had no hope of expressing themselves and having access to consumers. Amazon almost single-handedly changed that. For an equally long time, many lower income and small-town readers have not had access to enough affordable books. Amazon almost single-handedly changed that.
Even better, Amazon is now hurting the big-box brick and mortar stores that decimated indie bookshops. Indie bookstores are making a comeback, and it’s largely because Amazon cleared out the wolves that were winnowing their kind. Those bookstores offer a shopping experience Amazon.com can’t emulate, so the two can exist in harmony. But there’s no doubting the positive effect Amazon has had on their numbers. Shoppers are showing they will support both.
So Amazon has been great for readers, writers and small bookstores. That leaves noncompetitive middlemen and the authors who were enriched by their system to complain. To be simultaneously pro-books and anti-Amazon requires some truly impressive mental gymnastics from anyone else.
What are the biggest issues facing self-published authors today?
The biggest issue facing a self-published author today has to be when reality slams into expectations. You write your first book, and you expect to make serious money. It rarely works like this. Your first book won’t be your best. You need lots of titles out there to build momentum and to hone your craft and develop your voice. Too few successful self-pubbed authors talk about the incredible hours and hard work they put in, so it all seems so easy and attainable. The truth is, you’ve got to outwork most other authors out there. You’ve got to think about writing a few novels a year for several years before you even know if you’ve got what it takes. Most authors give up before they give themselves a chance. It’s similar to how publishers give up on authors before they truly have a chance.
There’s been a bit of a cottage industry that has sprung up around marketing for self-published authors: social media, email lists, ebook giveaways. Are there any tactics that you endorse, or is it up to each author to figure out what works for her?
Each author should experiment, but I will say that nothing is better than writing the next book. If any time is being spent marketing in lieu of writing, that’s a bad decision. Most marketing tactics don’t work. The ones that do can be fun and don’t feel like marketing at all. Interact with your readers, even if you only have a few of them. Be open about the challenges you face, the triumphs you feel, the doubts you suffer. Lay it all out there. Readers enjoy this access, and I’ve personally found it to be immensely rewarding on many levels.
I talked to Data Guy about a bunch of issues, including the genesis of the Author Earnings report. What was your reaction when he initially reached out to you?
I fell out of my chair when I saw the first data set. I knew something was happening out there, that more authors were earning a living than any other time in human history, but I had no idea how pervasive the gains were for self-published ebooks. I kept thinking something must be wrong with the math, but we checked and rechecked. It was a complete game-changer, what Data Guy did. Most of the anti-self-publishing rhetoric dried up after that first report, and what hasn’t dried up has looked more and more inane since.
There are certainly critics of the data and/or conclusions of the Author Earnings report. What do you say to people who dismiss the report?
The data is the data. We make it all available. I say crunch the numbers and show us an issue with our conclusions. I don’t think it’s possible, because the titles are so evenly distributed throughout the bestseller lists. Any way you set up the sales rates, self-published titles comprise more daily royalties paid to authors than the Big Five combined. And by quite a bit.
That means Amazon is not only offering more titles to readers at lower prices; they are also paying more money to writers than all the publishers. There is no other way to see Amazon than the best thing that’s ever happened to readers and writers. Of course, the middlemen who can’t compete will continue to gnash teeth.
What do you want publishing to look like in 10 years?
There are two trends I would love to see: I’d love for the popularity of reading to go up and up. And I’d like to see the friction between writer and reader to go down and down. These are the only two trends anyone in publishing should care about.
I think the reason Amazon is such a global leader is because they focus on these two things. How can they reduce friction? With quicker shipping. One-click purchasing. Predictive book ordering and warehousing. POD. Better upload tools for authors. And on and on and on.
They also want to see more reading taking place, which means QA concerns, enjoyable and easy to use devices, and great content.
When you look at publishing through this lens, all the mistakes publishers make are startlingly obvious. Delaying some book formats so readers can’t get the ebook or paperback they want? That’s more friction. Less friction would mean publishing the ebook ahead of the print book’s release. Less friction would mean free ebook promotions (especially the first in a series). It would mean inclusion in KU. Lower prices on unknown names so readers will take a chance on a debut author. Fairer prices for libraries. Quicker shipping fulfillment The list goes on and on.
My biggest concern is that all the dollars going into video games, films, music and so on, will shrink the pool of dollars going to authors. How can we make reading more popular with more people? That’s what keeps me up at night. It needs to start in schools. We need to stop forcing kids to read books they won’t enjoy. Let them graduate to the classics on their own. Don’t force our values on them, but get them hooked on the hobby so many of us value. Trust the process.
The reality is that the nature of storytelling will continue to change. We will write stories for video games, TV, film, VR, interactive theater, and so much more. We truly are storytelling animals. The desire to tell and hear stories will never abate. Publishing will just have to fight for their share of that pie. We are currently living in the greatest era in human history for readers and writers. I hope we’re saying the very same thing 10 years from now.
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