by Dave Freer
“Come gather round people wherever you roam And admit that the waters around you have grown…”
Bob Dylan, The times they are a-changing.
And I am painfully aware that the waters out there are very full of ‘sharks’, some of which do good cryptozoological imitations of literary agencies, publishers etc. All suddenly very keen to ‘help’ you self-publish…
I was going to quote Amanda’s NYT article of yesterday at you, but she beat me to it.
However I will riposte with this one . Please note just where it comes from.
I’m going to deconstruct a little of Brian DeFiore’s rage…
” Publishing folk remember that over a year ago Amazon punitively stopped selling all books, print or electronic, from Macmillian Publishing when Macmillian was the first to change its selling terms to stop Amazon from pricing e-books below cost. Amazon was choosing to lose $2-5 per copy on the most popular books it sold, which gave it a virtual monopoly on e-book sales. No other book retailer could have afforded to lose so much money on e-books, so Amazon was on its way to becoming the only player in the game. Until Macmillian did a little David vs. Goliath act of its own—and Amazon blinked.”
Well, let’s put the record straight here. 1)Macmillian were on the canvas and ready to cave… when their authors (and their author’s fellow author-friends) rode to the rescue. And Apple. The authors and their call to readers, not Macmillian, forced Amazon to blink. And the threat of Apple in the wings making deals with the publishers (not the authors) to cut Amazon out allowed the agency system in. So: no the publishers did not David Goliath. They left that to the spear carriers/meat-heads/cannon-fodder. Macmillian wasn’t rescued by its own courage, skill or acumen. It was rescued by a consumer backlash against AUTHORS being delisted. Amazon could have penalised Macmillian in any other way they liked and won, but it chose to do it by delisting authors, which was a mistake. The big 5 publishers then rode into the breach, slapping each other on the back… counting their profits and celebrating their power. Then the publishers thanked the authors for their rescue by taking 70% of the gross… increasing their take by 25%… and giving their rescuers an offer of a 4.8% increase. Doubt this version? Well, consider then the Amazon counterattack. They made no attempt to subvert or browbeat the publishers. Instead they subverted the force that laid them low: the authors. First they GAVE authors – for free, gratis, for nothing the bookscan sales data that publishers had actively prevented authors or author-groups from even being allowed to buy, let alone given. And then they offered them a chance to cut out the middlemen, offering 70% of gross as opposed 15% of gross. Now, to be sure, Amazon isn’t doing this for love of the common author. Or for the benefit of readers… but then, neither was the publishing industry. The trick is going to be keeping it worth Amazon’s while to treat authors and readers as well as possible, for their own benefit. Actually there is a balance, it works, it’s just that the publishing industry became an oligopoly where their interests and the interests of most authors and readers diverged. And as an oligopoly they could push it their way for a while… it damaged the customer base a lot,
2) “No other book retailer could have afforded to lose so much money on e-books”. Really? The big players in e-ware – Apple and Google, both now entering the fray (as are many others) can match and raise Amazon… if they choose to. The difference is Amazon has shown them that they don’t have to do so with PUBLISHERS, but writers.
“There is enormous value to writers—and to readers—in the professional job that publishers do: the selection, editorial development, packaging, distribution, publicity and marketing of books. Those are the things that turn manuscripts into the prize winners and best-sellers that we all hear about and want to read.”
Welllll…. let’s start with saying that yes, there is enormous value in these things. But really, Brian, the question is: do publishers actually do all of them for their authors? And the answer is: no. For a start, they outsourced selection to agents, who charge their authors 5% extra for this (agency fees went from 10% to 15% when publishers stopped reading slush). So: not only do publishers not do it, but the producers pay for it. Is there really any reason why authors shouldn’t still just pay 5% (a realistic fee on 70% of gross, still more than 15% of 15% of gross) for the same service? “Ah, but they select the best from the agents…” Really? That explains the many perennial best-sellers who got rejected by house after house before finding success. But anyway, they only get it right 25% of the time (1:4 authors makes past 3 books), and of that 25% only 25% survive to make a career. So: 95% wrong. Or there is something wrong with the rest of the list of things they do. And yes, there is. But ‘selection’ is not something that publishers can claim they alone do, or that their small role in this is singly successful. Part of this is that they have not systematised selection, and this would require a new statistic, which, as far as I know no-one collects. And that is ‘sales per unit effort’ – because this would measure quality-to-readers. ‘Sales numbers’ without a measure of effort is near meaningless.
So what of the rest of rest of DeFiore’s ‘you will lose’ list? Well, these
are the ‘effort’ per book which no-one bothers to quantify. Publishers have
finite resources, and the amount of effort allocated is not equal. Better at some publishers than others, of course, but not equal. Now: for
the best value for the reader and author, these resources need to be
allocated in such a way that as many readers get as good a book as possible.
However the perceived best value for the publisher has been to maximize
profits by a ‘best-seller’ strategy, which means spreading cost allocation,
and narrowing effort so the fixed costs per best-seller unit are low as
possible. Which means, de facto, you empty the butter-boat on the chosen few
(which as we have established are not chosen effectively, and often have no
need of spend – publicity on say Gaiman for example) and chuck-and-chance
the rest – which have to be there, for their capacity to carry costs -with minimal
spend. There are varying degrees of this, some publishers far worse, some
As you can imagine this is not the same ‘best value’ as readers and authors
want. It’s not even in reality good value for publishers. BUT _ALL_
publishers to a greater or lesser degree still indulge in it. As they’re
doing this on guesses, which have repeatedly proved quite inaccurate (or
no-one would have vast print runs and loads of remainders) this is
intrinsically a form of gambling. And like the banks, it’s a kind of
gambling where they privatise their profits, and socialise (to their midlist
and new authors) their losses.
It’s a gamble in which there are very few real winners, and most of the
responsibility for the situation falls on publishing, not authors, agents or
retailers. For example: If you’re a butter-boat author and they ordered a
huge print run, and did the works, and there are large numbers of remainders
of that book to be bought, then they either did their selection wrong —
mis-guessing the popularity, or failed the marketing and distribution – also
their responsibility. If the book sells out (especially if it does so
rapidly) and they fail to reprint – they also got it wrong. If they cheated to make this not happen or appear to happen, well that’s even worse. In all cases,
at the expense not only of that author, but all the other authors in their
stable. The other new authors and midlisters, who got the chuck-and-chance,
and very likely the minimum advance, and very little editing or marketing
etc. are the worst victims.
Even if you were the lucky one, that means little, unless… you were lucky
AND they got it perfectly right, and there were no vast amounts of
remainders, and, in fact, you stay in print for a long, long time, meaning
that profit is real and would have been so even if the company had not
published another book in that month. This seldom happens (most
‘best-sellers’ would be loss making under these circumstances, and are only
profitable because they are not the only book), or publishing would be
vastly more profitable. In the meanwhile the new authors who got
‘chuck-and-chance’… if they succeed (usually by their own effort and skill)
their publisher reaps the bulk of the benefit.
The actual number sales needed to make this a _real_ loss (ie where the
publisher would have been better off to not publish the book at all, as
opposed to a paper loss, where, due to the accounting used, the book loses
money, but the publisher is still better off publishing it than not
publishing) are fairly small. It’s really not much of a gamble for them,
especially when you work out that for that 6% royalty, and minimum advance,
the author had to have a day job, or a supporting partner, de facto
subsidizing her publisher’s gamble (by allowing them to pay far far below
the ‘cost’ of the work), and the ‘lucky’ author who was therefore able to
get all the resources.
So: I am afraid that claiming publishing has done all these wonderful things
that we’ll lose now, is rather like saying Ben Ali/Gadaffi/Mubarak’s
governments were wonderful, because the state was generous to those their
rulers favored – some of whom were indeed deserving of favor. True for those
people, but not plausible in its entirety. And yes, some of these countries, and
some publishers, were worse than others. What follows in those countries,
and in publishing, may very easily be far worse still. But like the curate’s
egg, you can’t really say the industry is good… in parts.
After the Amazon bashing it’s quite… interesting to quote from DeFiore’s last paragraph: “and I’m eager to work with them [Amazon] and see what they can do.”
So: Having talked about serious things, I thought I’d make you laugh. Firstly because it funny to see a monkey’s advice being followed (even by accident).
My favorite quotes have to be: “Publishers didn’t realize the frustration that authors have.”
Closely followed by
“While book publishers say that they openly share information with authors and agents”
and the weasel spin on this, assuming that authors don’t talk to each other, and think it was only them that had trouble getting this blood out of a stone: “,they will sometimes hesitate to do so if a book is not selling well.”
So you only beat us for our own good, because you love us? Really?
For their next trick quarterly payment, at the end of each quarter not years later, would be good to repair those bridges.
In other interesting times developments . I do wonder what they’ll offer to pay?
As Bob said: “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone…” I guess.