There, but for fortune, go you or I.

 On another authors-only list I belong to a few of members (let it be said, mostly younger or fairly minor) authors were whinging about bookstores response to their august presence. It seems that bookstores — especially the big chain ones did not roll out the red carpet, and, um, actually treated them at best with bland indifference and at worst with hostility. The fault, it appeared, were these dratted self-pubs. People boring clerks with asking them for books which were obviously by them or their friend/cousin, and telling them how good they were. And worst, having signings in indies, signings which were always full of people.

How was anyone supposed to know the difference between real books and self-pubbed ones? From this the discussion flowed onto the fact that authors were expected to do all this damned publicity and marketing stuff…

Hmm. There is– as any slush-reader will tell you– a difference between 90% of slush and ‘real books’. Some of that 90% will make it into self-published book ranks. Most of those are so bad, and so unprofessional, that 10 seconds will tell you that they’re rubbish. However… that leaves the other 10%. Now, given that Old Fashioned Publishing takes about 0.1% of that 10%, and, as we all know, their selection process is such that at times we all wonder if they took a particular book from the 90%… so for every 1 book old-fashioned publishing brings out… there are 99 that are as good, or quite possibly quite a lot better, that they don’t. There are enough proofs of runaway best-sellers that were rejected over and over and over by publishing, until they found the right person on the right day. It’s not (especially as a newly published author or one whose success is shall we say ‘tepid’) that actually, between you and the authors of those 99 books, there is a real difference, except that on a given day you were luckier or more persistent than they were. What’s worse, they are getting (outside of brick and mortar) precisely the same amount of that damned marketing and publicity stuff you are — which is to say none that the author doesn’t provide for him or herself. To make it yet more irritating still, these independent upstarts are getting 70% of the sales price… and given the screwy Hollyweird tricks that Old Fashioned Publishing seems in a hurry to imitate, the ‘real author’ will be very lucky to see 10%… for which they’ll put paper copies of your books in a slowly diminishing number of bookstores that are closed to the self-published author. And that is probably it. That’s the difference. Given the real numbers of sales from those – being 1-5K for a noob sans push (ie getting the normal 4-5K advance)…. and therefore 1-5K eyeballs and word of mouth) the Old Fashioned Publisher wants 55-60% of your e-book income for ‘advertising’ very passively to at most 5K of people, a percentage of which are going to recommend your book. It doesn’t seem a hell of a deal to me. Might be worth it to get those 1000-5000 to know your name. But it’s not really grounds for feeling superior to anyone… Unless it is say “I got screwed more than you did.”

My own feeling on this is that resentment is being focussed on the wrong target. It reminds of my own days as a boot, when the Instructor NCO’s would make our lives a misery and then some smart alec Lieutenant would come along and say (and I translate loosely) “This is all the fault of those black #$@*& terrorist scum. They’re one that make you have to sh!t off like this.” And some people were stupid enough to believe him. The real answer for ‘real author’ is not that it’s some self-published self-publiciser that is making them not get the support and respect of the bookstores and even the public. It’s their ‘real publisher’ who isn’t earning his keep. They SHOULD either pay a hell of a lot more, or DO a lot more for their share. Estimates vary, but the actual cost of putting an e-book on the shelf with a good cover, proof reading, and some editing come in at around $1000 according to Konrath et al. You want original art, proper professional graphic art direction, top notch proof reading and good editing? You’ll get change out of 5K unless you pick a major artist .  And trust me, if you’re a noob, you’re not getting that from your publisher. The 1000 dollar deal maybe…. or to put it another way, if your $9.99 e-book (typical oldfashoned publisher pricing) sells more than 835 copies it actually paid all its costs for the 5000 dollar job, and the paper version’s costs too. Oddly the accountants won’t show it as profitable. And their ‘real retailer’–who is getting 40-60% of the income generated by the book–who isn’t earning his share either, with display, availability and hard-selling. So there you go. Next time someone gets poncy (and it won’t be me) about being a ‘real author’ ask them what was so sweet about being ripped off?

There are of course things that Old Fashioned publishers can and should do to make themselves valuable to authors. The first is of course to stop thinking they’re the only game in town and realise that their ‘suppliers’–if they really are ANY good as authors–will need to become assets to be cultivated and not disposable things of infinite supply (because at the level things of infinite supply, there are tens of thousand self-published competitors- who are as good or better for those customers). This involves a change of mindset and will, per se, not add appreciably to costs (because every time they dump an author who has built a small audience – that’s customers and money wasted). Which leads directly to stage two: if you need a contract that says to the author ‘you are bound with chains of adamantine to me to the heat death of the sun…’ you’re doing it wrong. Authors need to be content to stay, or for every one you trap, 5000 will fly and tell everyone to stay away. You’re not the only game in town. Get over it. If you’re offering two year contracts with the potential for extensions… well, a)you have real incentive to keep the relationship happy, b)if things do change, it’s not impossible to change terms. Yep, I know. Much better to lock them into a deal offering new manacle every twenty years and a transfer to the upper deck of oars if they make you more than two million a year. That was yesterday. Get over it, it won’t work any more. Accept that you will have to offer better incentives than going directly to KDP or PubIt does, for a share of the income. The share will have to be balanced by what you can offer to do: If you are willing to accept 20% then the author will settle for fairly little: Good transparent accounting and statements (which no Old Fashioned Publisher offers at the moment (12-18 months after sales being normal for statements and ‘questionable’ being common too), but Amazon gives day by-day); Rapid, timeous, frequent payment, at least quarterly (which once again they get without you. No Old Fashioned Publisher is reliable and timeous, and six months late is barely late at all). Then you’ll need to provide all the formatting, submission to outlets, proof-reading and covers and some editorial input. And that’s the BASIC. If you want more than 20% you’re going to have to start providing real marketing and promotion. Authors DON’T in general have the time and skill for this. This is what they would be willing to give you a bigger cut for. If you can turn their 1000 readers it into 100 000 readers… you’re golden. But work it out: anyone with a decent book, at a reasonable price (say 2.99) can in time, with effort, and their own push, sell 1000 copies. Sooner-or-later. So if an OFP is to be worthwhile: they must increase the income the author would get off 1000 copies at 70%. So for 20% royalty the author is looking at 1400 copies at least. For the roughly 55% most Old Fashioned Publishers want …. 4700 copies and the author is barely breaking even. If they push the price up (standard modus operandi ATM) … the author gets there faster, but fails to build readership – more valuable than $2093 would be. And the downside is that Old Fashioned Publishers have some skills at selling to book chains or distributors. They don’t have any more than Joe-the-author at selling to the public (which is what publicity and marketing really amounts to in the ebook world). Right now, they can’t offer you a 370% increase on your own efforts. But that is what they need to do. There are levers — other authors, hiring professional publicity people, expenditure on websites authors use and are supported in and fed readers by (not authors who who feed the publisher by), and give-aways, links to other books in their catalogue. But soon, otherwise, it will be very easy to tell ‘real’ authors from self-published ones. The ‘real’ ones will be the ones living under bridges…


  1. Ouch!
    D*****it, I still want to be a “real author” but the math is starting to look really bad. And every time I look it seems to have gotten worse.

  2. Pam… I think what most of these ‘real authors’ wanted (and I suspect you want too) is reassurance that their work is good. A seal of approval as it were. Of course the real seal is how much readers like it (and how many of them there are). At the moment — depending on who you are in name recognition and market segment–Old Fashioned publishing still sells most of its books in paper – where they utterly dominate. (ranges I have heard go from 12% (MG and YA sf) to 30-50% (paranormal romance I believe)). If the e/paper ratio continues to slide toward e, and OFPs make no real move to up their game on the e side, it’s definitely a losing equation for the author.

  3. Hi Dave,

    The publishing industry is certainly at an interesting point. I have the rights back on my first trilogy and am considering releasing it as e-books when my next trilogy comes out.

    That option would not have been viable 10 years ago, or even look so good, 5 years ago.

    1. Hi Rowena, indeed. I think these changes are behind the sudden outbreak of clauses like (in a contract sent to me) ‘in all formats, known or unknown’ and ‘for the life of the copyright’.

      1. Dave, I can see the “in all formats” — don’t agree with it, but can see why publishers want to include it. Look at all the modern classics still in print that have no digital versions out because the author is dead and the publishers don’t have the rights. But it is the “for the life of the copyright” that really gets to me. Are they serious? Do they think we’re that dumb, or gullible, or whatever?

  4. Really the only thing the OFP can offer that you really can’t do yourself is editing and distribution/marketing. And now when you consider that Amazon is going to epub, that SmashWords have now got distribution deals with all the major e-pub distributers and that most midlisters don’t get much/anything in the way of marketing, you are paying a lot just for some editing.

    1. Well ATM they do offer bookstore access with paper copies. But that is declining both in number of stores and number of sales.

  5. Brendan: “. . . you are paying a lot just for some editing.”

    And branding. With the flood of self-pubs cresting over the horizon and heading straight toward us, branding will become ever more important as a way for authors to compete for the consumer’s entertainment dollar. Harlequin gets this, and so does Baen.

    Which means there’s a new niche just begging to be exploited 🙂

    1. Branding has never been a great decider with me in book selection. Probably because I grew up in Australia where, thanks to the Great Division of the World between the US and the UK, the only logos I ever saw on covers were some dogs, a fountain, a guy playing a flute, a bird, and whatever name Grafton was going by at any given moment.

      Occasionally Ace pulps would appear in a bargain bin and a Victor Gollanz would somehow make it to the shelves but that was about it.

      With the concentration of publishing houses into larger entities I think branding is as meaningless now as it was back in the old days.

  6. Dave

    I’m reading this at Mad Genius, and your name isn’t on it. I had no idea who wrote this interesting post until I got to the comments and saw your replies. I think the new MG has a bug, or something was lost in the move. Just thought you should know. Now I’m off to look at your blog and see if there’s any more like this around. Cheers.


  7. Dave,
    I actually don’t mind doing that for short stories, possibly because well… You know, short stories to me are consumables, written in a weekend and used mostly for publicity purposes (this might change with the subscription thing) but with novels? Yeah, I do mind. The mid size publisher I just signed with has a two year and reweable contract, which I MUCH prefer.

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