About This Series
Things Publishers Fear is an occasional series about the realities of publishing in the modern era. For the record, survival is not guaranteed, nor is it always deserved.
I wrote the bulk of this article across on my personal blog, but it warrants a full exploration here on Green Lamp Media. You might wonder why publishers could fear authors, the life blood of their business? Let me explain the reasons.
Currently the bulk of authors are in a fairly powerless position relative to publishers. Publishers have money, access and publishing slots. Publishers finance the editorial and production work that goes into a book and have the relationships that ensure distribution, advertising and shelf space. This has been changing rapidly over the last few years.
One way it has been changing is self-inflicted, publishers shedding costs by shedding editors (and, some would argue, quality as they do it). But the other more visible way it is changing is in economic terms as the cost of making a text widely available drops very close to zero via effective digital publishing.
[pullquote]Why should you sell a paper publisher your digital rights when there is no need?[/pullquote]
In 2006 when I was only starting to think clearly about digital change (and had only been writing a blog for some 4 months) I wrote a post called Authors Will Drive Change, it was part of a short series of articles on what was changing the publishing industry.
The point is that publishing is no longer just about books and even more it is no longer about waiting for a publisher to decide your work is good enough for print. Options abound and as more and more writers realise that they will take advantage of it.
E-books will push this change even more. There is no reason why authors’ royalties should be the same on e-books as they are for paper books and in many ways there is no reason why the authors cannot sell e-books themselves rather than through a publisher. Why should you sell a paper publisher your digital rights when there is no need?
What I didn’t address back then and what has become clearer now, is how established authors will also drive change and in doing so, make a much bigger impact. After all, if ebooks begin to account for 20-30% of the market (or more) and of that major authors generate the lions share of sales then their departure from your lists will make a huge dent in revenues.
But even authors with moderate (still impressive but not BLOCKBUSTER) sales can see the benefit of direct sales and cutting the publisher out. The most recent example of this is JA Konrath who writes The Newbies Guide To Publishing blog. He has been posting for some time now about his rather impressive success in selling books via Amazon’s Kindle device:
In short, this market is perfect for a one-person operation.
I’d certainly entertain an offer from a large publisher, if they wanted to buy rights for one of my books. But I’m not going to go out looking for the opportunity. Especially since I’ll make more money in the long run if I keep my rights.
I could even make more money in the short run.
According to my recent royalty statement, my horror novel AFRAID sold about 54,000 copies in all formats, earning me around $27k.
If I released a Jack Kilborn ebook on my own, and it sold like my current ebooks are selling, I’d make $20k in a year.
It’s doubtful I’ll make $17K next year on AFRAID, since it’s no longer getting coop on bookstore shelves. But I’m sure I’d make $20k, or more, on a self-pubbed ebook.
So in two years I can make more money on my own on a self-pubbed ebook than a book released by a major publisher in hardcover, trade paper, paperback, and ebook formats, supported by a tour and advertising.
Unless it’s a big offer, I can’t imagine selling rights to my work ever again…
And There Is More
The IDPF released the figures for February ebook sales. They are pretty stunning. I’ve written elsewhere about my skepticism regarding ebooks and the industry’s obsession with price and a single format, but when one sees figures like this, it is almost understandable that they get excited and distracted by them.
Mike Shatzkin writes about what this seemingly rapid shift towards digital means for the print side of the business and it is an interesting perspective:
If by the end of 2012, 25% of sales for a new book are digital, then about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon.)
Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!
Having half the market reachable without print-run risk or inventory storage; having half the customers connecting with their reading through online paths that make them at least theoretically identifiable; and having a quarter of those customers reading through a medium that enables interactivity will make all the changes we’ve seen so far in trade publishing appear trivial. And if the very perspicacious Carolyn Reidy, her unnamed counterpart, and I are right, that disruption is going to take place before many books now under contract reach their publication date.
Personally I caution about moving from current trends towards future results. I’m unsure if the sales will continue at their current level never mind continue to explode in such an impressive fashion. However, even if we allow that Mike and the trends are half right and we see say 33% or 40% of the market reachable via no-risk required methods by 2012, then the savvy authors like JA Konrath will see little reason to work with a publisher at all. Why, if they don’t require the finance that is one of a publishers strongest assets, would they?
[pullquote]as the market becomes more digitally biased, the greater the risk that lead and mid-list authors see first the advantage of retaining their own digital rights[/pullquote]
This is not to say that publishers don’t offer more than finance, they do and in abundance, but for some authors, the skill set that publishers offer is affordable and at a more reasonable cut than they currently allow publishers to keep.
In my view, as the market becomes more digitally biased, the greater the risk that lead and mid-list authors see first the advantage of retaining their own digital rights, then later the advantage of retaining all rights and exploiting them for themselves.
The future, for all that it offers great promise to authors and thus they WILL drive change, may not offer such great promise for publishers and certainly not as they currently exist and hence why publishers fear Authors!