The Business Rusch: Smackdown!!!!!
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
What passes for American journalism these days loves a good smackdown, and a week ago Monday, the Journalists Who Cover Publishing got one. On that day, some nervous publishing executives, afraid they wouldn’t get a hot deal, leaked to the press that Amanda Hocking, “darling of the indie world,” as one blog called her, was in negotiations for a million dollar book deal. On that same day, New York Times bestseller Barry Eisler announced that he was walking away from a half-million dollar book contract with St. Martins Press to publish that book (and future books) himself.
Who was right? Who was wrong? Because in what passes for American journalism these days, there are only two sides and no shades of gray. So if Eisler is leaving traditional publishing and Hocking is courting traditional publishing, then one was right and one was wrong.
Journalists, whose jobs depend on traditional publishing (and most of whom want to be novelists if they only had the time), believed Hocking was right and Eisler was wrong.
Of course, it’s not that simple. I analyzed Eisler’s side of the deal last week before Hocking’s deal was finalized. In my piece, I did some speculation based on Hocking’s blog, and fortunately, my speculation was wrong.
Turns out that while I was writing my piece and speculating incorrectly about her motivations based on her blog’s cryptic comments, Hocking and her agent had completed the auction and received a $2 million dollar deal for four books…with St. Martins Press, the company Barry Eisler had just walked away from. This is not a coincidence, by the way. St. Martins was able outbid competitors because it had financial room. In addition to the loss of Eisler, St. Martins had lost a few other big names on its roster in the past year. St. Martins had the ability to negotiate on price that other companies probably weren’t willing to do.
So…the smackdown looks pretty even: Eisler left a deal for $250,000 per book on the table, and Hocking snatched it up, getting $500,000 per book. The indie darling has left the indie fold and Eisler joins it. The world balances and guess who’s looking stupid now?
Um…the Journalists Who Cover Publishing, that’s who.
In their coverage, they have selectively trimmed Hocking’s quite sensible blog post, taking out the juicy bits that fit into the smackdown narrative and leaving the parts that confuse them or don’t fit into the “story” they’re trying to tell.
Here’s the key point of Hocking’s blog: She’s augmenting her indie publishing career by selling four of her nineteen finished novels to traditional publishing. Apparently the Journalists Who Cover Publishing can’t do the math, because that means that Hocking will publish 15 novels indie-style while only publishing four novels traditional style.
And that woman is smart: she’ll learn a lot from her traditional friends, which will help her indie books down the road.
Of course, this isn’t the only thing that happened in publishing this week. If I was only to discuss publishing on my website, I would have to blog damn near hourly to cover everything. So let me put in some links you should follow, that I’m not going to comment on (much) this week before I return to discussing the smackdown and related ideas.
Here’s what crossed my desk this week. Read these links if you want to stay informed about publishing. I’ll try to group them. First, the important copyright court cases. The biggie that you’ve probably already heard about: Judge Denny Chin has rejected the Google Books settlement saying it “goes too far.” The deal would “give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.” There’s a lot more here. Check out various articles in all the major media. I just linked to one.
The other copyright case: New York’s Court of Appeals ruled that publishers should file Internet copyright infringement lawsuits in the courts where their businesses are located. In the past, publishers had to file in courts where the infringement occurred. Here’s one link.
If you don’t understand why copyright cases are important and why you, as a person who works in publishing needs to understand them, then let me say one thing: You don’t sell stories. You license copyright. If you’re going “huh?” get thee a copy of the Copyright Handbook right now. Because writers who don’t understand copyright get screwed; publishers who don’t understand it get sued. Got that?
A couple more pieces of news: France wants the European Union to regulate e-book prices as soon as possible. This comes after the European Commission competition officials raided the offices of five French publishers because the officials suspected the publishers of “forming a cartel to drive up digital book prices through agency pricing.” Believe me, if the EU regulates e-book pricing, this will have an impact around the globe.
Taiwan’s international airport has opened the world’s first airport library for e-books. Where is this all going? Beats me. But it’s all interesting, I think.
But the most interesting news that came out this week came from writers. In addition to her book deal, Hocking made a film deal before she was published by New York. Everyone is shocked, shocked!, that she could sell subsidiary rights without going through a New York publisher or an agent. (I don’t know if her agent ended up negotiating the deal, but the contact got made before she had an agent.)
Sigh. Once upon a time, before there was such a thing as the internet, it was hard to do business without the backing of a publisher or an agent because no one could find you. Now I get e-mail daily about subsidiary rights projects. In the past two weeks alone, I got contacted by three foreign publishers, two film producers, one theatrical producer, an audio books publisher, and a game designer. Not one of these contacts came through my publisher or my agent.
They came through the very website you’re reading right now. Someone hit the “contact” link here on my blog.
It’s then up to me whether or not I want to pursue these leads. Barry Eisler mentioned in his conversation with The Daily Beast that he was uncertain what would happen with his foreign rights now that he was going indie. (By the way, The Daily Beast piece is one of the few that actually interviewed someone on the indie side of this smackdown.) Eisler has only worked through traditional channels on these rights.
But he’s a smart guy. He can contact his overseas publishers directly if he wants to see if they want the next book. He can hire a foreign rights agent if he wants. (I wouldn’t recommend it.) He can hire a Hollywood agent/manager. He can be proactive if he wants to.
Or he can write the next book like I do, and let interested parties come to him. Believe me, they will.
Other writer things that happened this week: The estate of one of my favorite writers from my teenage years, Catherine Cookson, announced that 100 of Cookson’s novels will appear exclusively as e-books through Amazon. The estate’s agent predicted that her print publishers will put up a fuss, but she said, “But at the end of the day, what can they say? They do not own the electronic publishing rights to the works. In recent years, they have shown little interest in marketing or exploiting the Cookson brand.” [Emphasis mine.]
Cookson isn’t the first dead writer to make such an announcement. The Ian Fleming estate (James Bond to those of you who don’t know) made a similar move a few months ago—although they didn’t give an exclusive to Amazon.
And finally, romance writer Connie Brockway announced that for her next novel, she’s “going rogue.” Brockway, who is a household name to romance readers, says that her next novel “and very probably the next two full-length historical romance novels I write will be available solely as e-books.”
When asked why she made this decision, Brockway cited a lot of reasons, including a lowball offer from a publisher and a terrible e-rights deal. She said she was making a financial decision. But she also said this:
“For years, I have been trying to convince a publisher to let me do sequels to As You Desire and All Through The Night. Waste of my breath. Now, I understand from a business perspective that it doesn’t make sense to publish a book that is a sequel to one owned and still being published by another company, but let’s be honest here. There’s more to it than that.”
Before we get to the more to it, let me explain a couple of things. First, for you non-romance readers, romance sequels aren’t like fantasy trilogy books. Romance sequels generally follow the best friend or the sister or the cousin of someone in the original novel. A romance sequel is a stand-alone book in the same world. Got that?
Secondly, once upon a time, meaning ten years ago, publishers used to buy stand-alone sequels to books still being published by other publishers. In fact, the new publisher loved to snatch away a book with a built-in audience. What changed? A short explanation is that the short-sighted suits didn’t want to give their competition the chance to rejuvenate the backlist book with the promotion of the front list book.
But the real explanation is that the beancounters changed. They went from people who understood publishing to people who understand how to make a corporation look profitable in the short term. If you use that short-term thinking, then you don’t understand how to build audience, which is what publishing is all about. This short-term thinking is what has gotten publishing into the dilemmas it is in right now, from losing its monopoly on the book delivery system to not controlling e-books and e-rights until this year to watching its print sales decrease day by day.
Books sell by word of mouth. If you don’t keep the product on the shelf long enough to build word of mouth, you sell fewer books. Duh. But the corporate beancounters, who only care about this quarter’s bottom line and not the bottom line say, five years from now, don’t understand that.
Okay. Rant over. Moving back to Brockway.
She writes, “Over the last couple of years, as print publishers have been facing numerous financial crises, it has felt like they’ve become less likely to buy a book that doesn’t fit snugly within the parameters of last month’s success and since last month’s success was dictated by the previous month’s success (and so forth and so on) there hasn’t been a lot of room left to play. And I dearly love to play….My best books, not necessarily my most successful books, but those that won awards and keep showing up on all-time favorites lists have always been the ones I wrote while following my instincts…”
Following your instincts. That’s what writers used to do, back when Catherine Cookson was writing her fascinating novels or when Ian Fleming decided to create some guy named Bond, James Bond. Back when Ed McBain was jumping from publisher to publisher with his 87th Precinct series, before it became an overnight bestseller thirty years after the first book was published. Publishers weeded through the instincts to find the ones that they could publish best, but they kept books in print and they didn’t tell already successful writers that they needed to change what they were doing to keep up with the market and improve their sales.
In her long announcement, Connie Brockway asks the question that Barry Eisler asks, the question that isn’t getting asked by the Journalists Who Cover Publishing: “At a certain point, an author has to ask himself, ‘What exactly will a publisher be able to do for me?’”
All three writers and two estates asked this question. Here are their answers:
Brockway and Eisler, longtime established pros, say that a traditional publisher can do nothing for them in the modern market. These two writers say they can and will do better than their traditional publishers have done in recent years.
Both Brockway and Eisler are only looking at e-books, but if they learn how to act like publishers, do catalogues for their books and establish the proper discounts like publishers do, topics that Dean will cover in his Think Like A Publisher series, then there is nothing that a traditional publisher can do that Eisler and Brockway can’t do as well.
Right now, Brockway and Eisler are betting on e-books growing fast enough to bring in readers at huge levels. Brockway and Eisler are not alone: a Barnes & Noble executive, Marc Parrish, speaking at the GigaOm Big Data conference in New York City this week, said that given the numbers and the rapid rate of adoption, the publishing industry will soon reach a point where more readers prefer e-books to print.
Initially Parrish made news by saying at this conference that the entire business will shift to e-book dominance “in the next 24 months,” but after he got off the stage he said he “didn’t mean to put a specific timeline on the shift” which, if you really look at it, is not the statement of a guy who is eating his words. It’s just a guy making sure that 24 months from now the Journalists Who Cover Publishing won’t crucify him for being a month or two off. (If, of course, the JWCPs can remember back two years; right now they can’t remember that Amanda Hocking started from nothing one year ago.)
The Cookson and Fleming estates are making the same calculation as Eisler and Brockway. Both estates see e-publishing as the wave of the future. Unlike Eisler and Brockway, however, both the Cookson and Fleming estates will continue with traditional publishing for the print books.
There are two reason for this. First, both Cookson and Fleming print books are still in print (or at least, the Flemings are, and it looks like, from the various Cookson articles, at least some of her books are). Second, both the Cookson and Fleming print publishers never licensed e-rights. (Look at that sentence, those of you who don’t know copyright. See how important copyright is? Buy that Handbook now!) In the case of Cookson and Fleming, e-books did not exist when the contracts were signed, so those rights are new, exploitable rights, one the estates are wisely exploring.
Finally, Amanda Hocking. She has an entire blog post delineating what traditional publishing can do for her. She lists three main reasons for going to traditional publishing for these four books:
1. Readers can’t find her books in traditional bookstores. Hocking (like Eisler and Brockway) doesn’t understand that she actually has the power to get her books there. It takes a few extra steps, which Dean will discuss in his blog, but it’s really easy. It’s just hidden from folks who didn’t learn all this stuff like we did back in the 1990s with Pulphouse. So Hocking wants her books in traditional outlets.
She writes, “I am getting an increasing number of e-mails from people who go into bookstores to buy my books…and not only does Barnes & Noble not carry my books, they can’t even order it for them. People are requesting my books and they can’t get them.” [Emphasis mine]
2. Editing. She wants a real copy editor. Again, she could hire one, but she wasn’t tapped in, and the people she was hiring were awful. (Let me speak as a reader here. Awful.)
3. She wants to be a brand name author like James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. She sees traditional publishing as the way to get there. Right now, this week, she’s right. Traditional publishing will get her there faster than she would on her own. But I suspect she could have done it by herself without this boost.
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.
What Hocking is doing is what I’m doing on a smaller scale. I am publishing two traditional books in May: City of Ruins, an sf novel under my Rusch name, and Wickedly Charming, a romantic fantasy under my Grayson name. I didn’t get paid seven figures for those books. Not even close. But I decided last year that I would use traditional publishing to keep my names out there in traditional markets, to help with market penetration, and to get readers I wouldn’t normally get.
In other words, I’m getting paid for work I would normally pay someone else to do.
Writers who write fast, like me or like Hocking, have this luxury. We can lose money on some books to bring readers to our indie published books.
Writers like Eisler, who has published less than ten books in ten years, cannot afford to lose money on a book to get his books to a different readership. He’s a slower writer. He makes different calculations. He even talks in that long discussion with J.A. Konrath about how writers can’t waste time on a failed book.
Slow writers can’t. Fast writers can. And now, we don’t have to worry about traditional publishing “killing” books. (If you don’t know what I mean, read this one example of mine which would have been a career-killer had I been a slow writer.
We writers aren’t fighting. This isn’t a smackdown. And savvy writers are looking toward independent publishing because that’s where (surprisingly) the money is. It’s also where the freedom is.
Brockway said, “At a certain point, an author has to ask himself, ‘What exactly will a publisher be able to do for me?’” But really, the way to phrase that is this:
Throughout her career, a writer has to ask herself: What exactly will a traditional publisher be able to do for me? If the answer is nothing, then the writer should indie publish. If the answer is more complicated, like Hocking’s, then the writer needs to look to see what she will gain from the traditional publisher and what she will lose.
Now the calculation is not: Go to traditional publishing or put your book in a drawer. Now the calculation is: Figure out what serves you, your goals, and your career the best. Sometimes writers will do better in traditional publishing. Often they won’t.
The writer must now research her decision before making it. And then she must make the decision that is right for her. It will be different than the decision that is right for me or Hocking or Eisler or Brockway. We’re different writers at different stages of our careers.
We will make choices this year that we might not make next year. Heck, Hocking hasn’t even seen the contract yet. She might still decide to abandon this deal. She only knows the shape of it at the moment, not the details, and the details might make her change her mind.
The control of our work and its distribution are in the writers’ hands for the first time in my lifetime. That’s a great thing. That’s why you’re seeing traditional publishing and the Journalists Who Cover Publishing scream about this. They’ve lost control. And they’re just beginning to realize they’ll never get that control back.
I may be a fast writer, but blogs like this do take time away from other, more lucrative pursuits. If you’re getting any value out of this blog, please compensate me for my time. The more y’all support the business blog, even with a dollar or two, the more work I will continue to do. Thanks so much.
“The Business Rusch: Smackdown!!!!!” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.