The Business Rusch: The Changing Definition of Publishing

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The Business Rusch: The Changing Definition of Publishing

Kristine Kathryn Rusch


This week, the announcements for the Pulitzer Prize shocked the publishing world because, for some reason, the Pulitzer board declined to chose a winner from the three fiction nominees. Lost in the controversy (besides the hurt feelings of the fiction nominees and the fact that no award was given in the editorial writing category either) was the fact that David Wood won in the National Reporting category for a series he published in  The Huffington Post.

A few news outlets mentioned this, but very few, because it scared them. And because they really prefer a juicy, meaty, why-the-hell-didn’t-these-novels-measure-up scandal.

What’s so important about Wood’s win? It marks the first time that an onlineonly outlet won in the national reporting category. Or as Rem Reider, editor of The American Journalism Review, commented in the Huffington Post on the win itself:

“I think it’s very healthy to see the Pulitzers have moved, albeit slowly, from a solely print focus. The world has changed dramatically. There’s an awful lot of exciting developments with digital news operations.”

The Pulitzers have acknowledged “new” media in the past, including ProPublica and PolitiFact, both of whom are affiliated with “old” media, like (ahem) newspapers. But this win is a first for an online publication only in a reporting category.

What I find most fascinating isn’t the win, which was inevitable for an online news site at some point, considering the good work being done by so many online sites, but Wood himself. He’s not an upstart blogger or a thirty-something reporter who has only worked online.

He’s a sixty-six year old reporter who got his start in 1970 with the Pioneer Press chain in the Midwest. The farther back in his resumé you read, the more you realize that this man worked for dozens of traditional outlets, most of which no longer exist.

He joined The Huffington Post in early 2011, not as an early adapter, or an early cross-over pioneer, but as a legitimate reporter whom the Post hired (along with others) to beef up their reporting credentials. (Well, he definitely did that.)

I would also wager, given his age and his resumé, that he would have been a tough hire at what Jay Rosen of New York University calls “legacy media companies.” Wood still has a lot of reporting in him, and he clearly wasn’t ready to retire or slink off into obscurity.

New media worked for him, as it’s doing for so many of us.

Also this week in the Huffington Post came the news that one-time indie sensation Boyd Morrison is returning to indie publishing. And not entirely willingly. It seems that Simon & Schuster, which had published four of Morrison’s novels, abruptly canceled his new three-book contract in January.

Morrison was, so far as anyone can tell, the first Kindle bestseller to get a traditional publishing contract, based on his indie sales. His sales were good, but not spectacular. He was selling 4,000 copies per month of three books.

I’ll wager—and I do not know exactly—that he received a helluva deal from S&S, a deal that did not match those sales figures. Someone at S&S believed his sales would jump once a “legacy” publisher got involved. I’ll even wager that those sales did jump, just not as significantly as expected.

I’ve seen this before. Anyone who has been in publishing a long time has. Something changes in the marketplace, and traditional publishers jump on that something with too much money and too little sense. The one I remember clearly happened twenty years ago because of The Firm. The Firm sold to the movies first. There was a lot of excitement in Hollywood over the book, and the excitement traveled backwards to New York.

Grisham got a sizeable advance, and The Firm became a bestseller, partly riding on Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent wave and the fact that Turow wrote too slowly to meet the demand for the legal thriller genre that he essentially started. Because The Firm became a bestseller, Hollywood gave the book a green light, and in 1993, the movie came out.

Fast forward to 1994. At that point, publishers seemed to believe that whenever a book sold to Hollywood first, that book would become a bestseller, not thinking, of course, about the differences in the two businesses. What works in Hollywood often differs from what works in New York. A novel with a spectacular pulse-pounding plot, thin setting, and even thinner characters will work in Hollywood because real locations provide the setting and the actors develop the characters into something memorable.

(Before you all jump on The Firm, let me say that I like the book a great deal, and believe it does have good characters and a helluva setting. The books that followed Grisham’s onto this bandwagon usually did not.)

So for about three years, New York bought books that had sold into Hollywood. Those books came out first, sold poorly, and the movies never got made.

That wave ended with a violent whimper. Publishers vowed never to do anything like that again.

The new wave? Buying books from successful indie authors for outrageous sums of money. From a traditional publishing perspective, this actually makes a lot more sense than buying something Hollywood loved. The indie book is proven: it can attract an audience.

But here’s where traditional publishers’ vaunted gatekeepers screwed up. They seemed to think with their editorial paws on the book, their interior and cover designers improving the exterior, and their sales force (such as it is) on the game, they could increase sales to justify those advances.

And guess what? They couldn’t. Because they didn’t—and don’t—understand that indie publishing can reach a national (and international) market. So Morrison sold 4,000 copies per month of three books. That’s 1,333 copies per book per month on one site (Amazon) or a  mid-list level of sales for a thriller.  Yeah, the book might greatly improve on that number with a bit of publicity or promotion behind it. It might sell similar numbers in paper as well.

Or it might not.

From the looks of what happened to Morrison, his books didn’t do a hell of a lot better through a traditional publisher than they had from an indie publisher. The fact that S&S canceled his contract meant that the claim that the book needed a hefty revision was just an excuse. They were losing a lot of money on this contract, and they wanted it off their financial books.

Expect to see more of these kinds of stories in the future. As Morrison says, he was the first indie author to get a traditional publishing deal. Now he’s the  first indie author to get dumped by a traditional publisher for not performing to expectations. Of course, the expectations weren’t his, but that publisher’s, but when has traditional publishing ever owned up for its own errors?

Note that Morrison is doing better in the UK. He has an editor who loves his work and is championing it, and if you look at the deal notices on Publishers Marketplace, Little Brown UK clearly paid less for the privilege of publishing him than Simon & Schuster did.

The kind of books he’s writing (see the comparison to Steve Berry) have a European flavor, which do better there than here (at least according to traditional publishing). And then there’s this important fact: when Boyd Morrison began his indie publishing venture, it was 2009. He didn’t have access to Europe or anywhere other than the US. The Kindle store hadn’t gone into the UK yet, the iPad was just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye, and Kobo didn’t have a good e-reader.

In other words, Little Brown UK brought him into a market which he hadn’t tapped yet. Those 1300 readers per month hadn’t already downloaded a copy of the book—which, by the way, has to be good, or it wouldn’t sell at those numbers.

And what is the possibility that S&S screwed up the marketing of Boyd Morrison’s traditional published books? Excellent. I did fifteen minutes of digging and found that the first books were sold for six-figures on a pre-empt, which means the offer had to be high enough for Morrison’s agent to recommend that he forget about the other players. Then I looked at the promotion for his books, and the covers he has.

Um. I read the kind of thrillers that Morrison writes, and while I remember hearing about The Ark when it sold, and seeing a Publisher’s Weekly ad for it, I don’t remember hearing or seeing anything else about it. S&S paid too much money for a book selling 1333 copies per month on Kindle, but not enough to put the real promotion machine behind it—the TV interviews, the planted stories in Vanity Fair (I’m looking at you, The Art of Fielding), and so on. And they actually had a story that could have gone to the media. They could have had a media blitz on these books when they came out.

I note that St Martin’s Press is making the same mistake with Amanda Hocking. If I didn’t follow her twitter feed, I would have had no idea that the first book in her Trylle series came out in January. In fact, the marketing is so poor on her books that I didn’t realize that the second book came out last week until I went to Amazon to double-check the spelling of Trylle.

With the public failure of Morrison’s traditional books (which got more press than the initial sale had), and the upcoming mishandling of other indie writers books, traditional publishing will soon jump off the non-existent gravy train.

What traditional publishers will do is take a nice-selling indie book, like Morrison’s, and make the writer an offer that actually reflects its current sales. As one friend said to me at our weekly professional writers’ lunch, “If a traditional publisher offered me a midlist deal, I’d laugh at them.” Not just because of the money, although the money is a huge factor, but because of everything the writer is supposed to give up.

If you want to see the difference in the money that a writer can make indie publishing these days and the money that the writer will make publishing traditionally, go to my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. He has a post in his New World of Publishing series called “No Balance.” It’s accurate and a bit frightening.

If you understand contracts—which most writers don’t—then it gets even more terrifying. The writer is expected to give up years of copyright, not write a “competing” work, and essentially chain herself to that publisher for as little as $5,000. But as my writer friend said at lunch, it’s the lack of consideration that bothers him.

Consideration, in this instance, isn’t a term for politeness. It’s a legal term. What he meant in this case was that traditional publishing contracts expect the writers to give up a great deal for almost no money, while the traditional publishers give up only the cost of producing the book. For example, if traditional publishers want a writer to stop publishing loosely defined competing works, then the publishers should do so as well. If you sell a vampire romance to a traditional publisher, then your vampire romance should be the only vampire romance that they publish. Not that month or that year, but for as long as they expect you to forgo competing works as well.

See what I mean?

But writers are used to that. The problem isn’t the lack of consideration (well, it is a problem, but an age-old one), but that traditional publishers have gotten more dogmatic in their contract negotiations, not less. I’ve been through three rounds of contract negotiations since 2009, and the contracts have gotten nastier and nastier. What’s worse is that clauses we used to be able to negotiate are now non-negotiable.

Why would I sell a book for five figures or even six figures into a system that will not promise me good treatment—a new cover, for example, if the first cover sucks—and yet expects me to give up most rights to my own work (and often adding a legal injunction against creating other work) when I can publish the book myself, write other works, and make the same amount of money in less time than it takes to receive the entire advance?

It really makes no sense.

As traditional publishing digs in and starts treating writers worse than ever, it’s going to lose even the mystique that it had of being able to take a product, improve it, and sell it at a premium.

Professor at the renowned Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, Clay Shirky, sent ripples of fear through the traditional publishing community last week by talking about this very thing. Worse, he gave it a label that’s going to stick.

He said that publishing is a button.

A button.

Here’s the exact quote: “Publishing is going away. Because the word ‘publishing’ means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.”

Then he goes on to discuss what parts of the old industry matter. Editing matters. Fact-checking matters. For some kind of texts, designers matter. But editors, fact checkers, and designers can be hired individually. He sees most content creators acting on what he calls the movie system—hiring a professional to do a particular job, combining that professional with other professionals until the job is done. Then the band breaks up and goes their own way.

Think of it like this: a movie studio hires a director, cinematographers, actors, extras, costume designers, etc. to work on a movie. When that movie is over, the professionals from the actors to the directors can work on a different movie for a different studio. That’s how Shirky envisions the creation of a book working. The content creator hires the designer, the editor, the fact-checker, and maybe even someone to sell the book, and then launches it herself.

With the touch of a button.

Shirky ends that section of his piece with this: “Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.”

You can take that phrase “manufacturing demand” two ways. He means it the way movie studios manufacture demand, by getting the film into theaters, by advertising, by doing all that hype that we’re used to when a film gets released.

But the first time I read his phrase “manufacturing demand,” I saw it as something else. Publishers must now manufacture demand for their own services. They must convince the content creators to join forces with them to release a product.

And, judging from my last few contract negotiations, the publishers are failing at this.

One thing I’ve asked for in all of my recent negotiations is a limited license. Meaning the publisher has the right to publish the book for a limited period of time. Industry standard—and yes, there is a publishing industry standard on this—is ten  years. The license would then be up for renewal after ten years.

Amazon’s publishing arm just acquired a ten-year license to publish the James Bond books.  The Bond estate’s previous ten-year license—with Penguin—expired in March. At the same time, the estate sold a ten-year license in the UK to Random House.

I’ve signed license agreements in the past, mostly with my overseas books. It’s not unusual. I routinely sign limited license agreements for my short fiction. I plan to continue traditionally publishing short fiction because the editors in short fiction treat the writers well, and because the stories do act as a loss leader. And because it makes good business sense in many instances.

Yet when I told my traditional book publishers that I was moving to the license model for my novels, I got a tremendous amount of pushback. One publisher completely refused to consider my next work. Another told me that “only bestsellers” can have a license. A third considered it, but we decided to part ways over other matters.

Mostly, though, I’ve been told that “licenses aren’t done,” or I got the who-the-hell-are-you? treatment.

Well, who the hell am I? I’m a long term professional writer with more publications that I’ve written than some editors in New York have edited. I have a dedicated following of fans for all of my pen names all over the world, and I have guaranteed sales whenever I release a book.

Who the hell am I? I’m someone who can now make a living publishing her own work electronically and in print.

So here’s what I figure. If traditional publishers want me on their list, then they have to make it worth my while. Not just financially, but in the contract terms as well. Then they must live up to those contract terms or risk termination. That’s what a limited license would do. If I don’t like the way Publisher A treated my books, I do not have to renew the contract when it comes up after ten years. I can move to Publisher B.

Chances are I’m not going to play that game, because from what I can see, no traditional publisher can offer me anything that I can’t get on my own at less risk to me and my work, and at less cost to me and my work

And about that whole loss-leader idea I had a year back, when I thought maybe it would be worthwhile to have a book published traditionally for the access to a traditional publisher’s ties to help my indie books? That’s out the window, primarily because of traditional publisher’s contracts and their screw-ups.

I’m seeing more screwups ahead. As traditional publishers try to justify their positions (manufacture demand for their services), they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth. Digital Book World had an article this week about consumer reactions to high e-book prices in the face of the Justice Department suit (yes, Rick,  you were right about this). In that article, Molly Barton, Penguin’s global digital director said that e-book production “costs 10% less” than print book production. “But,” she added, “the largest expense is author payment and always has been.”

Let me say, simply, bullshit.

Most writers get paid $,5000 to $20,000 as an advance on their book. They get 25% of gross (theoretically) for their royalties after that $5,000 to $20,000 gets met, if creative accounting allows it to ever get met. If that’s the largest expense on an e-book for a traditional publisher—larger than their overhead—then e-books truly are cheap to produce.

Her argument assumes ignorance on the part of consumers who think all writers are rich.

But her argument should strike fear in the heart of all writers who want to remain in traditional publishing. Because the argument traditional publishers are now giving for their ridiculously high e-book prices is that authors cost too much.

Got that? Authors cost too much.

I’ve seen that argument time and time again as the e-book pricing wars with traditional publishers have heated up. What does that mean? It means that authors who want to go traditional will be asked (or, more accurately, forced) to take even more of a cut in advances and royalties.

Think traditional publishers will pay writers well? Think again. Traditional publishers will look at failed contracts like Morrison’s and take the wrong lesson from it. They will think either that indie books don’t translate into the traditional publishing realm  or that they shouldn’t pay so much for indie books.

Never ever does a traditional publisher take responsibility for their own failures. And they did fail Morrison. They expected to publish the books with little effort and reap the profits. They probably sold double what he could sell, but that’s not enough to cover their overhead or their production, shipping, and manufacturing costs. Ooops.

Better that traditional publishers believe that indie books don’t translate. That’ll protect more writers from the insanity to come.

Want to sell a book traditionally? Sign away your copyright,  your ability to publish books with another company, let the publisher pay you $2,500 to $10,000, with 10% of net royalties, and maybe, maybe the publisher will buy your book.

And oh, the publisher will not guarantee that they will do a good job of publishing that book. Doing a good job is not their responsibility according to the contract.

According to the contract, the only person who has to do a good job in traditional publishing is the writer. If she doesn’t, she has to pay back her advance and the contract gets canceled.

Oh, and who decides who does a good job? The publisher, of course. Never the writer, never another publisher, never an impartial third party.

If I were traditional publishing, I would look at this year’s Pulitzer Prize results and tremble. Not because some jerks declined to make a decision in the fiction category, but because non-traditional media is moving into the mainstream.

Move aside, traditional publishers. You’ve already lost your monopoly. And you don’t know how to justify your jobs any more.

Publishing is a button.

Get used to it.

In 1988, I co-founded a publishing company. In those days, publishing was hard and costly. We spent thousands, tens of thousands really, every month to produce books that had a large impact on the sf/f field. We also got our education in a system that’s akin to manufacturing buggy whips now.

Instead of putting this blog in a magazine that will then need to go to a printer and get sent to you through the US mail, I can write the blog on Wednesday, post it Wednesday night, and you can start reading it on Thursday in places like the UK and Australia, places I couldn’t even mail that magazine without incurring tremendous costs.

Publishing is a button. And the button that will keep me publishing this blog is the PayPal link below. Because my overhead is low, so I only need you to leave a tip on the way out—if (and only if) you get some value out of this blog.

Thanks to everyone who does contribute, not just financially but with comments, e-mails, and links. For example, I’m not sure I would have found Shirky’s piece in a timely manner without you. So thanks, and thanks for returning week after week.

Click Here to Go To PayPal.

“The Business Rusch: “The Changing Definition of Publishing,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.






85 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: The Changing Definition of Publishing

  1. Whenever I start to wonder if I should have held out for an agent and a big traditional publisher, articles like this make me appreciate my current position with a small and personal independent press.

    Publishing is evolving at a phenomenal rate. If traditional publishing does not adapt, they may go the way of the dinosaurs.

  2. “Publishing is a button” made me think about what I’ve always envisioned publishing to be: a mensa club. I wanted to be in that club of incredibly intelligent humans who decide what literature is worthy of the rest of the human race. It was just a sorority. Thee sorority.

    …and now it’s a button.

    (I’m imagining an Animal House-like rebellion going on in my head now. And I get to drive the tank.)


  3. Well, this particular set of popcorn kittens are now lined up and will be a Monday feature on my blog this summer. (Starting May 7, ending…?) It’s an experiment, and not exactly a serial, something between memoirs and dispatches from one of the characters.

    This week and next I’ll be posting about where the project came from and what I hope to be doing with it. We’ll see if I get eaten by the kittens or not….

  4. I could be way off here, but when they say most of the cost goes to authors, I think they mean the minority of bestsellers, not necessarily back to the mid-list or newly acquired author. Their chunk of change from the newly published goes into the general coffers, which then pays for that enormously ridiculous amount that goes to the privileged few who have been deemed “Bestsellers,” just so they can keep the gravy train rolling as long as possible.

    1. Cherie, even that’s not true, because those books are priced high enough and sell at enough copies that the author expense is still the lowest expense. Btw, the bestseller doesn’t get all of their money up front, so the cost is amortized over the years of the book’s existence, often with money “reserved.” So, no. Her statement is flat wrong and quite disingenuous.

  5. I think controlling the popcorn kittens is a hopeless lost cause. I’m working on finishing up a novella that interrupted my current novel while casting one audiobook and recording two others while plotting the next book in my science fiction series and working on a premise for a new anthology story I just got invited to, but somewhere in there I have to find time to finish up a novel I’ve been pecking at for three years and finally found the end to, so that I can clear the decks for the stuff I have scheduled for this summer.

    And to think, in January of this year, I just had 4 books and 1 audiobook planned.

    The popcorn kittens shall devour us all–and I suspect most of us will find it a sweet way to die.

  6. One of these days someone is going to have to explain to me how to deal with the popcorn kittens. Ever since I started indie publishing I’m all over the place. This month so far I finished a novel, a short story, and a first draft screenplay. Would be great, except I’ve started two novels, two short stories and a script. I’ve got more unfinished projects than I started with.

    Help! They are breeding!

  7. great article. esp liked your insight into fra-la-la over no pulitzer for fiction being the smoke screen for that an online newsite won a P. Agreed. Owe you your tea or beer of cuppa joe of your choice, for that. As a journo I covered the demise of sev newspapers, the last being the Rocky Mtn News, leaving Denver a one paper instead of two newspaper town. Interestingly, the one paper left is also struggling. Perhaps not interestingly. Rather, sadly. Thing is if the newps dont invest in investigative reporting, they run mostly ‘i love my dog’ and x shot y, stories. Plenty of those on line already.

    1. Exactly, archangel. I stopped subscribing to The Oregonian, our major state paper, when they started cutting back–and raising subscriptions for those of us in the hinterlands. In fact, I bought my Kindle and subscribed to The Washington Post for less than the cost of 6 months of the Oregonian. That was in 2009. When the O got a Kindle version, I tried it out for a week, then let it go. No real news any more. And this year, I thought I’d download on my iPad, just because I did need some version of local news, and the app only worked for iPhone. Guess what. The yearly e-sub cost more than a new Kindle. I’m reading six newspapers on my iPad now, all free or some version of free, with advertising, and enjoying them all. Plus I am considering a sub to the LA Times because it seems to have real reporting–and it’ll only cost me a few dollars per month. Newspapers have done a lot to kill themselves. It’s not just the web causing their demise.

  8. I want to thank the folks here for utterly and completely freaking out my brain, and letting me see how I want to organize my popcorn kittens.

    I’ve had this strange backburner story in my head for years. I call it “The Serial” because it’s inspired by the world of silent movie serials. I figured out how I want to handle it as a “real book” and it’s on my To Write list.

    But reading this comment thread sent me into this wild mad spin, and I realize that what I really want to do with this is have one of my characters _blog_ the story. It really feels like it needs a more freeform style, and more of a “told” story narration.

    (Besides, I’ve been reading John Le Carre and his flowing omniscient works so well for me.)

  9. Oh, I agree, Kris – but he wasn’t playing in paper. So it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to assume you can take a bestselling ebook author and translate that into paper success – but it’s clearly not gonna happen just because you print the books.

    However, he says he earned out his first book’s advance, right? It was the second one that didn’t… So maybe it actually worked on the first book. And then something broke with book two? Dunno. Publisher tea leaves are pretty much a mystery to me.

    And we totally agree that they don’t get the algos :-P.

  10. In the blogosphere, decisions about whether to self-publish or to license rights to a publisher often wind up being framed as an ideology rather than a business decision. As in: “I’m a fiery-eyed ‘indie’ author who will never submit to ‘gatekeepers’!” or “Amy Author is a sell-out because she’s signed a deal with a ‘legacy’ publisher!” Or: “Publishers nurture writers and ensure variety and quality in the marketplace, while Amazon is evil, evil, evil!” Or: “I know it’s wrong, but I just won’t feel VALIDATED without a deal from a ‘trad pub.'” And so on.

    I’m not on board with any of that. As far as I’m concerned, in the words of the Corleones, it’s just business.

    And I see the writing business as highly individualistic, with no one-size-fits-all answer and no two identical paths to success (though many, many identical paths to failure, the way almost invariably paved by not writing enough, not learning about enough the business, and not being committed and persistent enough).

    I think that, based on individual circumstances, opportunities, needs, and goals, it can be a good business decision for a self-published writer to experiment with working with publishers; and that it can be a good business decision for a traditionally published writer to experiment with self-publishing new works. (The advantages of self-publishing backlist are already quite apparent and steadily lining our pockets now.)

    Such decisions may not always be good; they may be misguided or foolhardy or short-sighted. In many other instances, such decisions may be VERY good, but may nonetheless turn out badly due to various circumstances which the individual can’t control and/or couldn’t foresee. Or they may be potentially good decisions that get carried out poorly. There are a lot of possibilities for good or ill in any professional situation, when viewed with clear and informed eyes.

    And I think Boyd Morrison’s experience is a good example of how specific every situation is. He is, after all, happy with his European publisher. His US S&S sales seem to have been good despite his publisher’s disappointment in them (possibly due to unreaslistic expecitations combined with flaccid effort). He got an advance, most or all of which he has kept, and money is a GOOD thing to have in your pockets. Despite the disappointment of losing the deal, he’s currently getting a media bump from this situation–more so than he evidently got when S&S was responsible for calling attention to his name. As he notes, thanks to the ebook revoluation, the cancellation isn’t preventing him from publishing books #3 and #4 profitable, even though no PUBLISHERS wanted them.

    There’s a lot of food for thought in what happened to Morrison (and a lot of tedious predictability, in terms of S&S’s behavior), but the only universally-applicable conclusions I draw from it is that many publishers (as always (sigh)) need to start looking around for better business people to staff their companies, and that successful self-publishing writers who get approached by publishers should be candidly exacting in the negotiations not ONLY about money and rights, but also about the publisher’s sales expectations and HOW the publisher anticipates pursuing those expectations with a somewhat more proactive plan than “capitalize on the success you’ve developed, laddie.”

  11. I’m not a best selling author yet, because I’m not a world class marketer, yet. This change in publishing is the most liberating change in a hundred years or more. This is such an exciting time to be a writer.

  12. I’m very thankful to you both, and I’m anxiously waiting on Dean’s series on how to get books into major chains as well as indie stores. Since print is still the dominate outlet, I’m very interested in this. On a side note, I can’t help but “hee hee!” everytime one of my books sell. I’ve done practically no marketing, so these are readers finding my work on their own! I tell my wife, “another book sold!” and we ‘high five’. lol.

  13. Guessing there will be a lot less publishers signing deals with indies in the next while ;-P.

    I did want to say this – if Boyd Morrison was selling 1,300 ebooks a month on Amazon *in 2009*, then in the small piece of the universe he was playing in, those are bestseller numbers. I’m not sure it was a miscalculation to assume he might be worth a lot with the strength of a traditional publisher behind him. It just sounds like he didn’t get the marketing push.

    The thing is, you’d need a big push to do better – because almost all indie books doing really well on Amazon are getting a big marketing push already, from the Amazon algorithms. It’s not word of mouth or tweets driving that kind of sales – it’s Amazon’s recommendation engine, putting the book in front of highly targeted readers. If the trad pubs don’t understand this, then maybe they believe a mediocre marketing effort for a previously indie book will net big results.

    1. Those are bestselling e-book numbers, Debora (or were in 2009), but when you add in paper, they’re only mid-list. They’re not anywhere near bestseller numbers, which is 10-100K per week in the initial release. For that, you do need awareness and marketing. Just expecting it to happen doesn’t cut it. And, on top of that, I’ll wager they made him pull down his version way early so all the momentum and all of those algorithms got lost. And no, they don’t understand that. To them, Amazon is evil.

  14. I know you and Dean say that traditional publishers are not going away, and I have a small understanding of why. Still. It seems like they are doing everything in their power to kill themselves. *envisioning the dinosaur running into the lava and splashing around*

    About two months ago I stopped looking at traditional publishing as even a remotely viable option, and suddenly, all those blessed rejection letters are very valuable to me. They saved me a lot of money and heartache. 🙂

    1. Exactly, Ramon. You have saved time & money. 🙂 The traditional publishers won’t go away any more than the recording studios did. They just don’t make as big of an impact as they used to. Or dominate the field like they did. That’s the difference. 🙂

  15. Kris said: “Think of it like this: a movie studio hires a director, cinematographers, actors, extras, costume designers, etc. to work on a movie. When that movie is over, the professionals from the actors to the directors can work on a different movie for a different studio. That’s how Shirky envisions the creation of a book working.”

    Let’s hope the comparison ends there. The movie business is an incredibly poor model for content creators, PARTICULARLY writers.

    Think “Sunset Boulevard”…


    1. You’re thinking about the example incorrectly, Todd. In this case, writers are the studio. The writer hires everyone. So if writers get treated badly, it’s because they’re not doing the hiring; they’re being hired.

  16. Hey Kris —

    I’ve been puzzling all day why this post, more than any other I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), struck such a chill in me. Whether it’s the concept of “publish as a button,” that you are seeing such harsh negotiating, or the blatant *lies* about author advances being most of the cost of a book. (That last one still has me shaking my head. The cover artist frequently gets as much as the writer.)

    I’ve always been a cautious optimist, thinking that sure, traditional publishing is going through a rough period, but it will come out the other side and maybe I can think about traditionally publishing again (for novels) because they’ll have *learned*.

    This post killed that optimism. It might still happen, but now I doubt it’ll happen in my publishing lifetime. I could be wrong, and there’s a part of me that hopes I am. But for now, no looking back. Just forward and on.

    Viva la revolucion!

    1. Leah, I’ve been hoping that they’d learn too. What I’ve seen both in public and behind the scenes has deeply upset me, as you can probably tell from some of my posts. What’s worse is I’m seeing some of this behavior from friends. And I thought they were good, ethical people. Thanks for the comment. And yes, indeed. Viva la revolucion!

  17. There’s an assumption on all sides that what makes a successful indie book is the same thing that makes a successful traditional book, and while there’s overlap, I don’t see that as inherently so.

    Where I see the spread here is that an indie books is unlikely to succeed without “legs.” It has to hook readers and result in more positive than negative word-of-mouth, at least among certain groups of readers. It doesn’t necessarily have to grab the attention of a bunch of readers in a very short time. In other words, it needs to speak strongly to readers, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have high-concept or novelty. It needs to be memorable. People need to speak well of it months or even years later. If it’s a print book, it needs to be the sort you’ll keep and put on a prominent shelf where you can always find it.

    Traditional books, on the other hand, run on velocity, and they benefit from books that attract attention (critical, from the media, and from readers), things like the afore mentioned novelty, high concepts, sexy (literally and figuratively) subject matter, and a page-turning pace that won’t let readers put it down (remember, they need to hurry the hell up to finish and recommend it to their friends NOW). But what’s important is that it gain attention in the now. If you can’t remember a thing about it a month from now (except maybe that it was a good ride, and you should watch out for that author’s next book) that’s not very important. If you give away the paperback to a friend or shove in in a grocery bag to go to Goodwill, that isn’t important. They show is over by then, and the book has either found its success, or not.

    Of course, a book can have all these virtues, and some do, but my point is that what makes a book successful in one format doesn’t necessarily translate to make it successful in another (in fact, I fully expect we’ll eventually see some traditional New York books that break out in ebook, but not in print, and perhaps the other way round as well). Old-guard publishers are going to have to waste a lot of money before they figure that out.

  18. A very insightful post, Kristine, thanks.

    @J.A., I love your analogy about traditional publishing being the (not-so-)white knight. I would take it one step further and say traditional publishing is like Don Quixote tilting at the Amazon windmills.

  19. The thing I dislike about Kickstarter and its ilk is that it turns creative people into aggressive panhandlers. I’ve already had to kill social media connections with a number of people who simply were too annoying with their Kickstarter pleas. What’s worse than a slush-pile? A slush pile that’s chasing after you rattling a tin cup.

    So my gut feeling is that while Kickstarter is working now, it’s pretty inevitable that it’s going to morph into just another kind of spam, and be just as beloved by all.

    1. I don’t have that problem with Kickstarter, Steve. In fact, I’ve only seen a few people mention it, usually major comic book figures (and I usually contribute). I’ve also seen it used for high school projects, which I think is spectacular. So I disagree.

  20. No problem. I am full of experiences, website resources and pointers to other successful serials/authors (one of them, in fact, is Circlet Press’s Cecilia Tan, even!) if you ever find yourself wanting more information on that route. There’s an existing webfiction community, though it’s not as robust in the US as it is in other countries. You already have the one criterion that most frequently leads to success, though, which is a pre-existing audience.

    I’ve been running serials since 2004, and I have been at the point for a long time where I don’t write unless I’m paid, and I write every day. Not too bad, for a “market” SFWA doesn’t recognize. E-book royalties are great, but it’s nice to get a weekly salary to go with the monthly one. 🙂

    1. MCA, much appreciated. I’m letting the appropriate people know to examine some of this stuff. We’re still in the thinking/talking stage, so any info does help.

  21. What kinds of things did you discuss at said WMG meeting, Kris? I’m especially interested in the opportunities for serialization in the new world of publishing, but I’m a full neophyte, so I’d be interested in hearing what some of the old guard have to say about its possibilities.

    1. Just various projects it might work on, Joshua, of all the future projects that we have. Or if it works at all. Nothing that can really be shared here, sad to say.

  22. I’ve already commented on this elsewhere, but the statement that publishing has just become a button isn’t entirely accurate. It forgets who the button represents. Rather than the old guard in Manhattan offices, it’s a crack team of computer wizards. They’ve fabricated an amazing publishing system that roars to life at the push of its “publish” button. The physical shift is over to computers and programmers, and the initiative shift is over to writers.

    1. Thanks, J.A. The difference between the programmers and the publishing industry, however, is that the programmers aren’t taking as many rights as they can grab to let the writers use their system…

  23. Kickstarter works for those with existing fanbases or with very modest goals; from my observation, you can only expect 10% of your backers to come from Kickstarter’s site, so you need to be bringing most of the backers to the party. If you don’t have a fanbase, or you’re not good with hustling, you’re going to have a hard time.

    I’ve used Kickstarter twice to fund print editions of books I otherwise wouldn’t have issued, and while the new readers I’ve acquired through Kickstarter appear to be working through some of my other material, I don’t consider this a way to build your audience… at least, not quickly.

    For gathering “an advance”, nothing has worked for me like serializing on the web. By the time I’m done serializing a novel on the web, I’m often in the four-digit earnings from people dropping tips to fund the posts. It’s worked for me because people can stop by and read enough to see whether it’s their cup of tea, and whether I seem to know what I’m doing. The community-building aspect of serialization, in the form of discussion in the comments, is hard to foster or predict but it also adds a great deal to the interest: if you see a post with 2 comments and a post with 40, which are you more likely to read?

    I do like Kickstarter, and plan to continue experimenting with it. But for someone building from the ground-up, I think it’s an easy way to become discouraged when no one wants to pay a relative unknown $5000 to write a novel. :,

    1. Thanks for the input on Kickstarter, MCA. I love the idea on serialization. Just this afternoon, before your post, I was at a meeting at the WMG offices where we were discussing serialization. So that was quite timely. Thanks.

  24. Kris, thanks. I’ve certainly noticed how the standards of proofreading and copyediting have dropped in recent years as the industry has cut costs, with many authors getting almost no benefits. Likewise, plenty of traditional publishers haven’t yet got the hang of clean formatting for e-books.

  25. Kris, another fine post. I’d like to stress the criticality of your excerpted point that, “editing matters. Fact-checking matters. For some kind of texts, designers matter. But editors, fact checkers, and designers can be hired individually.”

    I think Indie publishing (as I posted on my own blog recently) is at serious risk of losing the ground it’s gaining because of the huge numbers of authors who pay no attention to this stuff. At least with traditionally published books there was some small certainty that a ms. had its most egregious faults addressed prior to publication. We do need some kind of standards, some minimum threshold of readability and formatting quality, for ebooks, and I can’t for the life of me see how that’s going to happen. So although I don’t buy the publishing industry’s broader ‘Ocean of Dreck/Gatekeepers of Quality’ argument (Sturgeon’s Law), I do think that the publishing-as-a-button model has some drawbacks. It’s a Darwinian jungle out there, and the fittest *will* survive. But I do hope to see some minimum standards, a rating, perhaps, evolve within the indie industry.

    1. Dario, there is a ratings standard. Readers. With their comments, their stars, etc. Besides, with e-books, you can sample and see the problems immediately. So there’s no need to worry about this. The lazy folks are never going to put their books into actual print. Too much work. As for trad pub standards, I just sampled a Randy Wayne White book from 1998 on my e-reader, from his traditional publisher. The book had been scanned, but not proofed, from the original text. I ordered the paper book after sampling. I find that kind of thing happens all the time with traditional publishing books.

      And one more data point, WMG is using a copy editor to double-check my previously published books against the texts WMG is publishing. She’s finding an equal number of mistakes in my file and in the published file–including (repeatedly) the word “flies” for “files” in one published novel. Ack! I could go on. So no, trad pub has some standards, but not as many as you’d think.

  26. Kris,

    I’d ask you to marry me after that post, but I spend time on Dean’s blog and I know he would kill me. (assuming he got to me before my wife…)

    I do have a quick question, though.

    You mentioned Morrison’s publisher canceled his contract. I am assuming he must have had some clause in it with a built in trigger of ‘if sales are not ‘X’, we can tear this up’. Is that right or are publishing contracts like NFL players contracts where the team can just say – ‘nevermind, we don’t want you’.

    1. Joe, if contract terms get violated–by either side–the contract can be cancelled. So the clause that S&S used with Morrison was that the manuscript was deemed unsatisfactory. Apparently his contract had nothing in it for a remedy, meaning that he had the right to try to rewrite, etc. If it has a remedy and he’s still repaying his advance, then he’s making a mistake. But if it doesn’t have a remedy, then his agent screwed up Big Time. He should not be repaying that advance.

      But yes, contracts can be cancelled on both sides if the terms aren’t met. I’ve threatened to cancel contracts too many times in my career to even contemplate, most recently with one of my major publishers. They were supposed to pay me within 30 days of signing on the contract, (and 30 days of accepting the ms). I gave them an extra 30 days, then reminded them of the contract terms. At 90 days, I said pay me or the contract is canceled. Money came ASAP. The problem with this company is that it happened every single time they owed me money. They needed to either remove or change that clause from their standard contracts or they needed to honor it, neither of which I’ll wager they’re doing. I refused to re-up with them. Great editor, badly run company.

  27. This just gives me more confirmation that my decision to self publish is the right one. I write erotic as well as gay erotic and what I’ve seen for the romance genre, self publishing seems the better way to go.
    As for YA, that is tricky as not too many teens out there have ereaders or are even interested in them. They would rather have a iphone to play with. Kids can’t text, facebook or take pictures of their friends doing something utterily stupid with a book or ereader I guess. The only way I see is through the school libraires where they all have to so spned time in if they want to or not.
    I was thinking of starting with the romance first and then introduce my readers to the YA stuff I like to write as adult women like YA.
    I think most of Amanda Hocking’s sales are from women her age or slightly younger and older too as I would read it, not from teens at least not that many I bet.

    1. Vera, YA is starting to build among kids, thanks mostly to tablet sales. I think the rise of e-publishing has led to a great phenomenon. All of those books we were “ashamed” to read, erotica, romance (if you were male), YA (if you’re an adult) can be read in the privacy of your own e-reader, on a plane, without anyone else knowing what you’re reading based on the cover or anything else. I think we’ll see e-book sales in non-snobby genres rise tremendously without that “viewing” aspect.

  28. Yes, self-publishing used to be incredibly complicated and very risky. There was no (effective) way to get distribution into bookstores or libraries. That has all changed now.

    Being an editor and publisher myself (of a very small press), I bristle at the “publishing is a button” adage. Mostly because I can think of the myriad other aspects involved in the entire ‘publishing’ process – many of which you touch on here, Kris (editing, design, sales, etc.) But while “publishing is a button” is hyperbole, I very much agree with the point you’re making.

    Publishing a work into a distribution channel for sale online and in stores (including both electronic and print editions) is pretty easy for anyone who wants to do it. Risk is very low financially, and the potential return (especially for an author with many books out) is high.

    This is a good time to be a writer.

  29. This piece brought a smile to my face. Given my job, you may (correctly) infer that it was the kind of smile that would have seemed excessive on the Grinch when he got his “wonderful, awful idea”.

    (1) “Publishing industry” comes from libel law. Really.

    Some people mistakenly try to draw “publish” directly from its Latin roots. The problem is that such a direct path ignores several centuries of history leading up to a decree of the Star Chamber in 1566 that explicitly distinguished between “print” and “publish” and then forced them back together.

    In the common law of libel (and the related law of slander, which together with libel is now called “defamation”, but wasn’t in the sixteenth century), the offense — keep in mind that this was also a criminal offense — arose from “publishing to another an untrue statement harmful to reputation.” The Star Chamber’s solution to this was relatively simple: It established the Company of Stationers as the only authorized printers, and gave the Company both a royal warrant and more than a hint of censorship authority. The common view is that this was aimed at religious dissidents, including such horrors as publishing a Bible in the vernacular, that the entirely-Catholic Star Chamber wished to suppress. If one looks at the private correspondence to and from the Star Chamber, though, one finds quite a bit of attention being paid to suppressing criticism of those in power, often on grounds that a gentlman’s/nobelman’s reputation should not be impugned by the great unwashed.

    And after all of that, seeing the title of Our Gracious Hostess’s entry gave me that Grinchly smile… for our current understanding of “publishing” is itself a rather radical redefinition.

    (2) Except for works made for hire, certain collaborative works, and certain transactions involving transfer of the entire copyright, every publishing contract since 01 January 1978 is a license. Every last one. The publishing companies (and to a lesser extent, the recorded-music and film companies) have tried desperately to avoid acknowledging this… because the law of sales is more favorable to the buyer than the law of licensing is to the licensee.

    The real problem is that the Copyright Act of 1976 (which became effective on 01 January 1978) is extraordinarily badly written and organized. For one thing, it never uses the word “license”; it instead uses the term “transfer of copyright interest” (which, as it turns out, is a literal translation of the German statute effective in 1967 when that part of the US Copyright Act was in the midst of being redrafted). For another, it does not explicitly acknowledge when it uses terms from licensing law to describe a concept in one part of the Act, but a similar term from sales law to describe a parallel concept in another part of the Act.

    In short, this is the sort of mess that results from having lawyers try to write something.

    The key indication that these are all license agreements, though, appears in §§ 203 and 304(c) of the Copyright Act, which concern “termination” of transfers after a set number of years (except for the categories of works I set out at the beginning of this overextended point). Under either UCC Article 2 or the Restatement (2d) of Contracts, you cannot “terminate” (or, more properly, “revoke”) a sale that has been completely consummated. Further, §§ 203 and 304(c) have language in them that prohibits parties from “contracting around” the termination right. Thus, the effective longest term of a publishing contract is not “the life of the copyright,” but instead forty years for newer works (§ 203(a)(3)) or sixty years for certain older works (§ 304(c)(3)). The publisher cannot prevent termination at that time; it is strictly at the author’s option. And that is a license in substance, not a sale… regardless of what the documents, or sloppy language usage, mislabels it.

    1. Did not know the Star Chamber stuff, C.E. As for the whole thing about all of the contracts being a license, yeah, I know. It’s too confusing for that part of the blog post. It’s why I called it a “limited license.” I am so overjoyed that I have to wait until 2035 to get my rights back on a book stuck in Pocket’s horrible system. That ain’t happening again…

      Anyway, thank you for the clarifications. Important all.

  30. Wow, now the only thing traditional publishers were supposed have a lock on; sales, promotions and advertising in this new digital world–they really suck at! Looking at the latest Amazon bestseller top 100 list and seeing the top spot that Hunger Games (Hollywood afterburner mode in full effect, full throttle) once held now displaced by E.L. James’ work (self-admitted fan-fic by the author herself) “50 Shades” series, only makes a writer sit back, shake their heads and laugh. I love the Amanda Hocking example you cite. I frequent sites such as GoodReads and what not–not even a single page advert for any of her work. I guess Hocking’s “platform” was supposed to do ALL the heavy lifting. I’m keeping my eyes on John Locke’s latest collaboration with Simon and Schuster. S&S with their “amazing sales force” (Locke’s own words from blog) is printing and distributing Locke’s “Wish List”. Looks like the once “minor leagues” of self-pub are starting to look more like a full-fledged competing league in its own right. Of course, this is all GREAT and WELCOME news for all of us that once thought the first 5-10 years was the standard time investment/sacrifice in any writer/authors “career”.

  31. So glad I’m comfortable walking from a bad contract. I’ve been eying some small presses for when I finish a novel that would suit one of them. Most don’t offer advances, but I know they’re willing to negotiate and they treat authors like business partners, not chaff.

    I self-published my first novel a year ago. I have another series I’m self-publishing, too. I have good business reasons for that choice with both those series, like the detail that a trade publisher would have to have more excitement than sense to pick them up. Both series do things like, well, change the secondary genre or story tone from one title to the next.

    But I am still a “nobody.” So if I could get a “licensing” contract—which I already know is possible, assuming I write something that would suit one of those small presses—then that could be a 5–10 year “loss leader” to help my career. Makes sense for me. You or Dean? Probably not so much. 🙂

    I bring that up to point out that there are some small presses willing to work with the licensing model, but they’re probably better suited for folks who, like me, are getting started on building our audiences, rather than folks like you who already have a large audience.

  32. Wow ! I bet one or two years ago, you would never have believed you were going to write such a post. The radicalisation of contracts will only accelerate the rising of indie publishing. Brave new world indeed…

    1. You’re right, Alan. If you read the Freelancer’s Guide (first edition) in the “Giving Up On Yourself” section, you’ll see how different my thinking was two years ago. I repaired that section here in the free one, and we just put up the second edition electronically. With luck, that’ll be up in the paper as well soon. We may end up waiting until summer, but I want that section Gone! Gone! I don’t think that way any more. It’s someone else entirely. 🙂

  33. The Morrison story reminds me of the “Snakes on a Plane” fiasco in Hollywood.

    Tiny flick with a tiny budget, which got a huge amount of traction online. The title alone made it viral. The suits were uncomfortable with it, and Hollywood sneered… at first.

    But then when it was clear it was a major “meme” and everybody got excited, the suits jumped in and spent a huge amount of money on a slick media campaign. They turned an easily profitable movie into a boat anchor. It never occurred to them that the natural viral campaign the filmmakers were using would, on its own, reach ALL of the movie’s natural audience. Nor did they realize that a slick advertising campaign would only reach people who aren’t interested in movies called “Snakes on a Plane.”

  34. “They seemed to think with their editorial paws on the book…they could increase sales to justify those advances.”

    Aren’t there a slew of Hollywood movies where struggling musicians hit it big on their own overnight but when the suits move in, they get overmanaged and totally bomb? Enough of a slew it’s become a trope, a cliche?

    Careful, indie authors, you’ll end up as “Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters,” too!

    1. Lee & Camille, I hadn’t even thought of those two examples. Excellent points. Thanks for that. You know, the suits don’t understand slow growth, and slow growth is how word of mouth–the only real viable way for things to be discovered–actually works. Hmmm….yet another possible blog post…

  35. Excellent post, Kris. As usual.

    You and Dean provide so much insightful information. I feel like you are both my mentors in my Indie Publishing Adventure.

    Thank you so much.

    Anne Marie

    P.S I left a tip. 😉

  36. Hi Kris,

    Great post as usual – I love reading both your and Dean’s posts about the changing state of publishing. It’s always interesting to see what needs to happen for me to be able to enjoy a new book – and the way things are going now, it becoming easier and easier to find and enjoy new books, both by old favorites like you and Dean, but also by new up-and-coming writers.

    With Kickstarter starting to make waves in other types of start-ups, I was just wondering if that might not be the way future writers would get a kind-of advance for writing a new novel? I mean, for an established series, it would be a simple matter to list on Kickstarter for the required advance for a new novel in a series, and indie-published writers could get the same advantage without REQUIRING a publisher to get an advance. Would you consider something like this? Would writers in general? Perhaps there’s scope for a Kickstarter for books…

    Anyway, just my two cents. Now to hit the button and publish…

    1. Desmond, Anthea answered you before I got a chance. Please check out her response (with links!) I’ve been keeping my eye on Kickstarter. I’m pretty much self-funded, with money in the bank, but I can easily see it being a good system for writers. I’m kinda watching it for the right project for me as well–kinda like what Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer did. Kickstarter might be a good gauge of whether a project is even worth pursuing. I think that’s a value as well.

  37. I rolled my eyes when I heard about the Pulitzer decision. It’s not as if they have been relevant to me as a reader anyway (and the word ‘snobs’ did enter my thoughts more than once).

    What did surprise me was Morrison incident. Surprised, and yet I wasn’t.

    And when I realized I wasn’t really surprised, and that I thought Morrison would be the first of many, it started me thinking. The behavior of the publishers in how they treat writers has been going downhill for a while. I’ve seen it from the experiences of many writers who have been kind enough, and brave enough, to share it with the rest of us.

    I’ve been sub-consciously waiting for some of the former Indies who were picked up by traditional big publishing companies, like a knight on a white horse, to find out the armor on that knight was tarnished and falling apart, and the white horse was a toothless nag with a swayback. Not exactly the romantic figure, and pretty worthless when it comes to deeds of daring-do. You know, doing things like they should: putting out a good product, caring about it, caring about where the product comes from, doing what they say they will. All those horrible things we writers are foolish and stupid to expect, yet we are supposed to put up with their incompetence.

    It’s now happening. The shine is off, the rust is now seen. It’ll happen more. In this day and age, it’s “Writer Beware” in a whole new way, and it isn’t the vanity publishers the writers should be so concerned about. It’s the new vanity publishers, those we call “the big traditional publishers,” who are the new vanity.

    I’m happy to stay away from the whole mess, quite honestly.

    Now, it’s time for me to go get another book ready so I can go push that shiny button. Button pushing is fun!

    1. I wasn’t surprised by the Morrison, J.A. I’ve been expecting it. But not this week, I guess. I keep thinking indie publishing is Brand New–and it is–but it’s been around long enough now for the chewing-up cycle of traditional publishing to kick in.

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