Print isn’t dead but neither is digital

Dave’s post yesterday was a wonderful image of what publishing could — and should — be. That’s especially true if it wants to make an aggressive step to stop the financial bleeding most major publishing houses are suffering from right now. Unfortunately, it was only an April Fools Day post and not reality. This is driven home by an article in the L.A. Times that shows just how traditional publishing is trying to balance reality with fiction, and not the kind of fiction you read. (Hat tip to Kris Rusch for pointing me in the direction of this post.)

In “The Paradox of Self-Publishing”, it is posited that there is a “myth” surrounding self-publishing: that it is leveling the field for authors. The basic premise is that the traditional publishers love self-publishing because it lets them see who the successful authors are going to be and then they, the publishers, can sweep in and bring these newly successful authors into the fold of traditional publishing. But the article doesn’t stop there. It goes on to say that the publishers love this because it means — and I am paraphrasing here — that they, the publishers, don’t have to do any of the work. The author has already written the book, had it edited, promoted, made all the wonderful sales, etc. Now all the publisher has to do is sit back and sign the author and let the author keep doing what he’d been doing all along. (Like Kris, I’ll let you look up the link. I just don’t feel like sending traffic to their site for such a head-scratching post.)

Now, that may be exactly what the bean counters in their gilded halls atop the publishing buildings think. But consider how that very thought process goes against the argument those same publishers have been giving to their authors — and readers — about self-publishing books. Where is the value added by the publisher if this is their way of doing business? There is none, especially not if they are simply sweeping up the rights for a book that has already been there. The only thing that’s happening is that the author now is getting less money for a book he’d been getting the lion’s share for up until then.

Also, think about the impact it will have for the next book written by the author, assuming it is now contracted to Major Publisher. The author is now thinking that he will have the added value of the publisher actually doing the editing, copy editing, proofing, marketing, etc., of his book. After all, that’s what publisher’s do, right? But the publisher has seen what the author can do on his own so why put out that additional money and effort? So, what happens? You get the problem several of the wunderkind of self-publishing who went on to sign traditional publishing contracts have discovered: a drop in sales and money. You become one of many, too many, in a house where there is more interest in the favorite child than an equal support of all the children. You are expected to be out there earning not only your own wage but wages for “mom” and “dad”. In short, too often you discover than you are doing as much, if not more, than you were when you self-published and for less money.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try for a publishing contract. If that is what you want, go for it. But this new approach by publishing supporters just blows my mind. It’s like they are the little kid out there bragging about mom and dad and not realizing they are telling family secrets in the process. Of course traditional publishing loves to snatch up indie books that are doing well because they don’t have to do the work of promotion, etc. But by saying so in public, you are admitting that the so-called value added aspect of your business doesn’t exist.

Another branch of the argument against e-books is that their sales are flattening and indie bookstores are growing. Well, let’s look at that. Of course e-book sales are flattening. For one thing, they aren’t getting full reports on the sales of indie books. They are using figures from companies that track publishers or members of a certain organization. That’s just about as reliable as bookscan numbers — as in it’s not. As for the growth of indie bookstores, if you go back to the beginning of MGC, you’ll see that’s something we’ve been predicting all along. Of course they are going to grow with the decline of the big box stores. But that doesn’t mean the e-book market is on its way out. What it means is that there is a market for both print and digital books. However, as our society becomes more and more digital and the cost of printing continues to increase, you’ll see digital slowly becoming the preferred means of reading.

In an article linked to in the LA Times’ piece, it was asked why someone like a Stephen King or John Grisham would want to self-publish because he’d have to hire this huge staff to do what his publishers do now. I can’t speak directly about what King or Grisham do, but I know too many authors who have had “best sellers” who have hired staff to do exactly what their publishers are supposed to do. They have editors and copy editors and proof readers and researchers, etc., all because the publishers don’t do the “value added” jobs to the extent they used to do. So what would the difference be between having to hire someone to do that job while you are under contract with a legacy publisher and having to hire someone to do that job when you are self-publishing? Oooooh, I know the answer: the author will get more money. They have already had to hire someone to edit/copy edit/proofread/market/etc., plus they have had to pay their agent a cut of what they get as well as getting only a fraction of the monies the publisher gets on the sales of their, the author’s, hard work.

And that brings up another facet of self-publishing the detractors seem to always forget, or at least leave out. The agent. Most legacy publishers still require an author to have an agent to even get through the door to be considered for publication. If that agent manages to sell your work to a publisher, he’ll get at least 15% of any money you make. Some agent contracts are written so they maintain a financial interest in your work for the life of copyright. That means even if you manage to get rights back from the legacy publisher and bring it out on your own, at least 15% of any monies you make will go to the agent or his heirs. The agent may not have done anything after getting that initial contract signed but they get money forever. I have a problem with that.

Of course, the people who write about how e-books are now showing they are just a flash in the pan and traditional publishing will survive in its current incarnation are also the same folks who think authors are foolish enough to accept the argument that a novel that has already been edited for print has to be re-edited for digital release. Or that it costs as much to make an e-book as it does a print book. I’ve given up hoping they will realize that we aren’t as dumb as they keep trying to convince themselves.

Am I saying self-publishing is the way for everyone? Hell no. It’s got its problems as well. But it is a viable option for an author who isn’t afraid of working hard and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. For me, I like working on my own and with small publishing houses. That said, if I happened to be offered a contract from Baen Books, I’d jump on it, giggling and dancing like in joy like a little kid. But that’s just me.

8 comments

  1. No, it’s not just you. A contract from Baen would make me giddy, too. 🙂 But I don’t see it happening anytime soon, and I would far rather put out the effort, treat my writing like a business, and reap the rewards of that, rather than the empty promises and stale crust of “name recognition.” As a great man in my other line of business says, “exposure can kill you.”

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  3. Dave’s post and this one put in my mind an image of the publishing houses as fading beauties in denial. Once sought after for a smile from their lips, they have failed to acknowledge the effects of the passing years (changing markets.)

    Where once they could bestow fame and fortune with their merest nod, now they are struggling to maintain their facades of being significant. They are being forced to compete with those little tarts, e-books and self-publishing, and incapable of wrapping their minds around the implications they proceed onward with superficial adjustments.

    I had been thinking Miss Havisham or Blanche DuBois, but neither quite seems quite right. Suggestions for others are always welcome. Is Cersei Lannister a better fit the model of the big publishing houses?

    1. Perhaps this is the proper image for the publishing houses: “I am big, it is the books that got small.” Norma Desmond.

  4. Oh yeah. A Baen contract. :: Drool ::

    Other than them, I’m afraid I think I lucked out by not getting an offer from a traditional publisher.

  5. “The basic premise is that the traditional publishers love self-publishing because it lets them see who the successful authors are going to be and then they, the publishers, can sweep in and bring these newly successful authors into the fold of traditional publishing.”

    The reason this belief gains traction is because if publishers were actually running a business model it would make perfect sense (other than why an author would sign with a publishing house if they weren’t getting an of the perks like editing and promotion). The problem lies in the fact that the traditional publishers (Baen excepted, of course) aren’t running a business model, they are running around on a power trip, more concerned with making sure everyone believes, reads, and does, exactly as they want; ergo they despise and disparage self-publishing.

  6. These are the folks who are charging more for ebooks than for the paperbacks? Or in some cases as much or more than the hardback version? And then they wonder why people don’t buy the ebooks? That’s with DRM added so that when I switch devices, as I am bound to do fairly often, I am likely to lose whatever I have bought? Yes, indeed, those ebook sales aren’t likely to do well.

    On the other hand, look at the folks who are treating ebooks right, both in terms of format, freedom from DRM entrapment, and price, and see what kind of sales are going on in that booming segment of the market.

    Sorry, but if you cook your own accounting books, don’t trust the answers you get out of them.

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