Why Would Anyone Publish Traditionally?

The things that happen when you’re head down tail up at work… I discovered today (thanks, Amanda!) that a truly epic discussion spanning multiple blogs and drawing in the CEO of one of the few independent publishers remaining had spawned over the last couple of weeks in response to an author posting what she was getting paid.

It wasn’t much, and within a day or so the post vanished (unsurprisingly).

There’s a decent summary of the whole affair to date over at teleread, with links to most of the salient stuff. Fair warning: bookmark the teleread post because it will take a LONG time to wade through all the discussion and commentary.

The part I find most interesting is the arrival of Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Books, in Passive Voice’s comments – read the whole thread. It’s worth it, but it will take a while. First off, kudos to Mr Zacharius for actually engaging authors indie, hybrid, trad and often rather browned off. Kudos also to him for attempting to answer their questions and not getting into a snit when some of the comments got a bit snippy. He did have a lengthy and rather difficult to follow discussion with Joe Konrath where he mentioned the hostility he saw from the Passive Voice commenters – dude, if you think that’s hostile you ain’t seen nothing.

My takeaways: if Kensington is as Mr Zacharius seems to think, utterly open and honest with its authors, I’ll eat my hat. All of them. I gather from the many, many comments along the way that Kensington is for the most part an improvement on the Big Howevermanyitisnow publishers, but they still have non-competes that prevent their authors publishing elsewhere in the same genre (big fail on the “open” front), he’s been endlessly coy about showing his boilerplate (quit the giggling damn it, for once I wasn’t being rude), and to judge by the comments made by unhappy authors with current contracts, he does not know what is happening in his company.

Frankly, I’d guarantee he doesn’t know how wrong his company’s royalty payments are either – although I’m not going to say anything either way on whether he believes what he says about them. Also, for a business leader he shows an astonishing disregard for mathematics, calling Amazon’s discounted pricing “predatory”. Joe Konrath ate that one for lunch and spat out the bones:

I’d kill to sell ebooks to Amazon for $12 , which they sell to readers for $5 while paying me the full $12. That sounds like a recipe for printing money. I’d be whistling zipideedoodaa all day long.
You do realize that is your complaint, right? The Marx Brothers used to do that. For fun, they would go out into the street and sell $5 bills for $1. Invariably, a policeman would come by and try to figure out how to arrest them, because he was sure it was a scam, even though they were losing $4 each transaction. There had to be a trick. Why else would they do it?

This is NOT predatory from the publisher’s point of view. The publisher still gets every penny of their wholesale price AND sells more book because of the deep discount. What’s more, the idea that Amazon, which sells damn near everything imaginable and probably a fair few things you’d prefer weren’t imaginable, would sell at a loss to boost sales for something else (like, say, Kindles…) does not appear to have occurred to Mr Zacharius.

Um. For a CEO not to get cross-subsidization goes beyond mind-boggling into WTFery of the highest order. It’s like a department store not understanding that by selling sheet sets at a loss (or giving them away with each mattress sale) they introduce people to that breed of sheets, potentially sell more mattresses because of the perceived extra value, and the sales of the bigger ticket item will ultimately make up for the loss taken on the smaller margin item. Basic math, here. If a CEO doesn’t get this he should not be in charge of a lemonade stand, much less a business with the kind of revenue Kensington Books turns over each year. (Micro rant – Baen figured this out years ago. Why is it so damn hard for everyone else in the industry to get?).
So. Go read. Be prepared to lose a crapload of time. And try to be nice to Mr Zacharius, because he’s at least talking to the indie folks which is more than can be said of almost all his counterparts. Who knows, he might even be able to answer Joe Konrath’s question: Why would an author choose to be traditionally published when they’ll earn more per sale through self-publishing, they’ll probably sell more copies (or have their sales accurately reported, more like), and they can be in control of the process themselves and get paid monthly?

I wouldn’t mind seeing an actual answer to that question myself.

49 thoughts on “Why Would Anyone Publish Traditionally?

  1. One hypothetical reason — and it is hypothetical — that popped up in the comments in that discussion was that traditional publishers might be good for a print-only deal.

    I’ve been figuring that the reason the prospect of navigating print was so daunting to me was because I’m very new to this (one book out, second one on the way). Apparently, a few others would like to hand off the print side of publishing to a traditional publisher. Given that they’re Passive Voice commenters they would likely know what to bargain for in such a contract. I would want at least a clear statement of when rights revert, what my print run would be, what would constitute advertising, etc. It would have to be real money, too. There is a clear correlation between a writer’s advance and how much push you get.

    I would hire a lawyer. One of the commenters said that her legal fees were less than what she had ever shared with an agent, and the lawyer was able to negotiate contract terms for her. (Full disclosure: I’m a lawyer, but I’m not that flavor lawyer).

    1. A print-only deal is probably the only viable reason for a successful indie author – and yes, a lawyer to negotiate contract terms is essential. Also to bully publisher for reversion when needed.

  2. I’ve chosen not to be traditionally published, but I can see why it would be appealing. For one thing, until very recently, it was true that even my print books would likely never see the inside of a bookstore. With the changes in Createspace, that is no longer true.

    For another thing, it’s a whole lot of work to publish independently. To do it right, you may have to hire and manage a team of people. Fortunately for you, you don’t and shouldn’t be like that guy, and keep your head stuck in the sand while collecting a paycheck. But you will need to worry about editing, a cover, layout… Trad pub looks deceptively easy, with the lure of not having to worry about those things. Look again. For most of the Kensington authors, it seems, they were on their own when it came to editing. We know that for any trad pub situation, unless you are the creme de la creme, you will be doing your own promotions.

    I just finished my third novel, and I’m taking a deep breath before plunging into the next stage, a multi-level editing of the book that will involve a whole team of people reading it. It’s called beta reading, and I’m so happy I have supportive people who are willing to help with this. I do my own covers, because, well, art is fun. I also know I’m not normal. But I do know that Pixie Noir is doing very well, and I don’t have to worry about contracts, or a publisher discarding me like a broken toy.

    I’m going to stop meandering on now. LOL

    1. I have two words for Mr. Zacharius on the discount book sales: Loss Leader. Look it up, Mr Z. Or talk to a grocery store manager.

      This, of course, is also why Indie authors do free giveaways and/or 99-cent deals, to introduce themselves to other readers.

      1. Apparently someone doing this with stock you supplied at full price is somehow predatory. Sod if I know how that works.

  3. The only reason I trad-pub my non-fiction is prestige. Otherwise I’d go indie with it, too. The gatekeepers for “serious” non-fiction are as stringent in their own way as the agent/publisher system, and if I don’t go trad for my non-fic, it doesn’t count as a real publication. (I understand that literature and poetry are a little different.) FYI, from initial query to book-on-the-shelf, I’m averaging three years for a book that is already written. (That would be two-and-a-half, but someone else’s difficulty pushed one of my publication dates back by 6 months. You still get the point.)

      1. Yes. Academic and related areas. Self publishing is still seen as an admission that your work can’t stand up to the scrutiny of serious professional historians. I could sell a million copies of six books and still not have a publication credit on my CV because the books were not properly critiqued and vetted prior to acceptance by a recognized publisher.

        1. That seems rather short-sighted, especially given the time lag you are experiencing. I hate to ask the next question, but do academic presses pay you?

          1. Academic presses do pay, but not very much. That much being said, I talked to a professor once who told me that her book had sold nine hundred copies and that nine hundred was a respectable number. With sales like that (no offense, it’s nine hundred more books than I’ve sold) it’s no wonder they don’t pay much. What TXRed is saying is also true though.

            In academia it’s “publish or perish”. A lot of schools require that a faculty member publish a book before they can be granted tenure and they DON’T COUNT unless they’ve been published by a recognized scholary publisher.

            Now, keep in mind that I’ve had conversations mainly with History professors and on with a Chemistry prof. I’m not sure how this would apply to a creative writing professor. It may or may not be different for a fictional story. I’d bet everything I own that it would be the same if the creative writing prof were writing a book about writing books, a la Sarah’s May You Write Interesting Books.


          2. Academic presses pay, but not much unless you are a very large name with a track record of selling very well. Someone like me gets very little, and I have to find funding or pay all the expenses (permissions, research costs, illustrations) out of my own pocket. That’s why you almost always see foundations and organizations listed in the acknowledgments pages of academic works, because their grants helped pay for the book. Journals don’t pay anything, so often journal articles are material that will be incorporated in a book at a later date, or are chapters from a dissertation or thesis.

            Scientific writing is a little different, because some science fields only publish articles, or article-length pieces in larger volumes, unless you are writing a text book. So you can end up with a 40 page CV, pages 2-40 being publications, all of them articles and chapters. English lit and other fields are a mystery for me, in that I’m not sure how they “count” novels, poetry, plays and other things. It probably depends on the individual department.

  4. My theory: some people prefer validation to paycheck. (Not a criticism of those people, btw, I’ve been one of them for a long time. Well, it’s as much self-criticism as finger-pointing. Today, I noticed my weariness from insufficient validation paired with insufficient income.)

    If one can afford it, validation uncoupled from income brings a special kind of joy (speaking from past happy experiences). But now, I’d like to experience how well “selling out” pays the bills *just* *once* before I die…. /wry grin/

    1. As the joke goes, dear Lord I’m ready to prove that I won’t be spoiled by winning the lottery…

  5. If some publishers would give guaranteed first class editing to everybody who they sign up – and then also do it, and always do it well – I’d try to get in. That might be one way to go in the future for the smaller traditional publishers. Get first class editors, and first class blurb writers and cover designers, offer decent contracts. And then try to get prestige as the house whose books are always flawless.

    Well, of course they’d better be also good stories, but that ‘flawless’ might be something of a draw also for indies who already know they can sell, but would prefer to just concentrate on telling the stories and leave making them presentable to somebody else. You can of course get that professionally done if you pay for it, but if you combined the ego boost of ‘they think this can sell, and they are professionals’ with ‘they’ll fix any defects’, and yes, add some advertising and some money up front only on the strength of possible future profits, well, very tempting, especially for somebody who is just starting.

    And that is what I’d guess is the biggest draw for new writers going after a traditional publishing contract now, only it seems most get only that ego boost part added to some money, but not the ‘they’ll fix the rough spots’ nor the advertising part, which is not so good because I guess most still really expect also the editing and the advertising when they sign the contract. But if there were firms with which you could be absolutely certain you are always going to get very good editing and at least a little advertising once they sign you up that might still trump even otherwise lousy contracts for many writers.

    1. Good grief! Are you suggesting that trad publishers actually WORK for their huge chunk of the proceeds? Next you’ll be suggesting the offer the author a larger proportion of cover price for royalties!

  6. You know, reading through Mr. Zacharius’s responses, I got a completely different vibe off them than the snarkiest of the commenters.

    He keeps asking about the marketing, and how it’s different. And that tells me he’s an executive of a business with a history of doing well, with economies of scale, with expertise and experience in the field. (No, seriously, hold the snark until I’m finished.) So as a contender with the Top 5’s romance imprints, he’s done pretty darned well – only to see a lot of indie authors shoot past his own books and claim the top of the lists. (Remember, to a man from his viewpoint, sales volumes and top of the lists are the metrics of success.)

    So he’s looking at this from the view of…. of a Subway sandwiches executive, who’s used to competing with Burger King and McDonalds and other fast food chains, and now trying to figure out why this area’s stores draw is low and everyone’s lining up for the food trucks parked in the closed mini-mall’s derelict parking lot.

    We, as indie authors, are just starting to deal with formatting, layout, editing, uploading, cover art, and all the other ephemera involved in getting a story to market. So he assumes that, with twenty-odd years experience, he’s already the market leader compared to our clumsy beginning imitations. What’s left to differentiate us? The only thing he figures is price and marketing. He’s not willing to budge on the price, so whats our marketing secret, and how can he get it from the indie authors and leverage it on an economy of scale to steal a march on Harlequin et al? (His Real Competitors, in his mind.)

    The fact that this is utterly wrong, and he needs to check his assumptions at the door, is hard for him to get – because we’re answering questions he didn’t ask, attacking things he knows are fine, and generally doing so in the internet debating style where points are awarded for sarcasm and panache, and those are easier to craft than informative replies.

    1. I almost get the sense that Mr. Zacharius and the commenters are speaking two different languages. Both sides are trying to communicate, but the idea/viewpoint barrier is too thick. I admire him for trying to see where indies are coming from and what we’re doing right, but as you say, his worldview is getting in the way.

      1. Quite. He doesn’t seem to realize he’s inside the glass bubble as it were. A lot of the ugly realities we deal with all the time never touch him because he’s the CEO – this is nitty-gritty stuff that other people handle (as they should: if the CEO is in the middle of it he doesn’t have time to do his job). The problem is it’s not the industry it was when he started and he doesn’t know he doesn’t know that.

    2. VERY nicely analyzed, Dorothy – I think you make a lot of sense.

      What he doesn’t know is that our (I count myself in because that’s the way I will go in September) marketing is fluid, ever-changing, and adjusting much more quickly to the pace of the technology than his can. So that even if he could learn from us, he couldn’t follow our examples.

      1. Yup. The price of getting bigger and established is losing agility and responsiveness. That can be fatal when things change as fast and as dramatically as they are right now

    3. I love food trucks. I even learned how to get on Twitter so I could stalk my favorite food truck.

      We’re food trucks. I like that. I’ve been thinking of indies as “artisan” writers, but food trucks are more fun.

      1. They make good food, too, even if like sausages sometimes you don’t want to look too closely at what’s going in.

    4. Well, yes. Who knows, maybe some of the things he’s certain are fine aren’t, and some of the things the other folks know ain’t so.

      Not going to happen while all parties concerned are using the same words and meaning different things with them.

  7. What’s more, the idea that Amazon, which sells damn near everything imaginable and probably a fair few things you’d prefer weren’t imaginable, would sell at a loss to boost sales for something else (like, say, Kindles…) does not appear to have occurred to Mr Zacharius.

    Funny, I understood the concept of a “loss leader” back when I was in junior high or so (Episode of Happy Days where Marion runs Howard’s hardware store for a day–sells, um, paint I think it was at below cost but made a killing because of people buying brushes, rollers, dropcloths, and other stuff since they were there anyway to get the cheap paint.)

    1. Yeah, me too. I suspect what really bites is that Amazon’s tactics are a loss-leader he can’t control – and he can’t admit that even to himself because then the careful self-delusion starts to crumble. It’s probably not even a deliberate delusion.

  8. As a businessman (woman) before turning writer, I have been absolutely astounded over the last year and a half as I have come up to speed on the publishing industry. “You’ve gotta be kidding…” keeps running through my mind whenever I focus on their business model (esp. the returns system), their denial over the rather obvious changes to their industry, and most importantly their lack of understanding that their supply (authors) is in jeopardy, their primary customers (stores with books on shelves) are starting to vanish, and they have no plan for replacement customers (e.g., readers). They are busy ceding ever more control over their own fate, and that never has a happy ending.

    It’s like major corporations in the 80s, essentially pre-IT, not understanding just how ubiquitous computing was likely to change their business models and how they were going to have to learn & change in order to survive (or not). So when I look at the trad publishing industry, it’s like a time-warp: I haven’t seen this behavior since the 80s. And I know how that story ends.

    1. Magnify it and you have many of the university presses. If anything happens to the captive pools of buyers (university libraries) and producers (writers who need publication credit), the bottom will fall out. I know some presses are starting to push for less focused works, in order to sell to the general market, but the average “Southern North Dakota at Hoople University Press” started feeling the pinch four or five years ago, and it is creeping up to nibble on “Massive Regents’ University Press” and “Journals-Sind-Wir” too.

    2. I had the same feeling when I started reading about the knots traditional publishing had gotten itself into, when I first started bringing myself up to speed about two years ago – and I’m not even a businesswoman: this stuff makes no sense to an outsider.

      It’s as if someone were introduced to the Ming Emperor by parachuting in to the palace.

      1. Hmm… plane full of paratroopers gets lost in time, and they mistake where the Emperor is traveling for the drop zone.

        Or, figure out some way to get the Ming to resist outside invasion until modern times.

    3. Hoo boy, yeah. Most of the industry seems to be running somewhere between head in the sand with fingers in ears shouting “I’m not listening! LALALALA!!!!” and trying desperately to control what they can still control ever more tightly.

  9. Leaving aside Baen, as is traditional, trolling. Write a book ones knows will appeal to some tastes and not to others. Publish it traditionally and enjoy everyone who goes ‘Why is x published and my thing which appeals to me more not?’

    That said, there are probably much more cost effective ways to annoy people. Plus, anyone who would do all that just to be obnoxious might be a huge pain.

    1. Not leaving aside Baen, I would like for Calmer Half to be published traditionally. Specifically, with Baen. It’s still a traditional publishing contract – I have no doubt they’d want ebook, audio, foreign, film, and all other rights (whether or not they pursue any opportunities), and that they’d pay royalties in line with the other publishers. They’ll still pay a year behind, in six month segments, and there’s little to no flexibility in the pricing.

      On the other hand, I know from dealing with their vendors (authors and artists), that they aren’t out to squeeze their profit margin by using and discarding their product suppliers. They have widespread bookstore distribution (and let’s not kid ourselves; that is still a very large percentage of the market. Not as big as it used to be, but still bigger than ebook. Why turn your back on half the market?), they have a brand-loyal following that will buy just based on publisher’s symbol, they’re small enough that they do edit, proofread, and promote all the books they have coming out. Also, they do author pairings – big names with new names, to encourage the authors to grow and the fans to take a chance on a new name.

      In a name: Larry Correia. He did awesome in the pre-Kindle days for a self-pub author, but the difference between what he achieved on his own and what he achieved with Baen’s backing is astounding. It was good for Baen, too – he brought his fanbase into the Baen fanbase (granted, there was already a fair bit of overlap, but it was nowhere near 1:1 – so his fans who had only run into a Baen author here or there then tore through the Baen catalog, while the Baen fans tore through the pages of this new-to-them author.

      I want to build a fanbase, and then I want to come to the table with a strong negotiating position – but despite the IP lawyer that’ll be looking over the contract, make no mistake that I want Calmer Half published by the good example of what a traditional publisher can be. And that’ll boost both his Baen-published titles, and his indie-pubbed titles.

      If any others come to the table, I’ll happily consider them for print-only deals, with guarantee of promotion and limited life of contract, and really intense scrutiny by the best IP lawyer I can get. Because I can get into the bookstore catalog – but I can’t offer co-op and convince the regional buyer to put it on the front tables. Yet. stalks away, muttering plots and data softly to herself…

      1. I left aside Baen, in part, because many of us are or were Barflies, hence we have heard very much from Baen authors about what Baen is like to work with. The general consensus among Barflies, I gather, is that Baen is a solid company, relatively easy to work with if one has a good story.

        I figured I’d let this all go without saying, because it has been said much already, and my only direct experience is as a customer.

        As a customer, I think Baen has a solid grasp of the business, makes solid business decisions, successfully innovates, and provides a good customer support experience. I think it likely they have staying power.

        I think Baen has good qualities for a vendor.

        1. I agree that Baen has good qualities for a vendor. Cedar is not going for Baen and if I ever write anything I won’t either. Why not? Well submitting to Baen, unless they come to you, means a 2 or 3 year wait to get a reply. With their schedule so packed and the number of writers they chave to publish the chances of being selected unless you have an “in” are vanishingly small. Even then it will be another 2 years before you are published. Lets say you have a decent book, good cover and reasonable sales 1 a day. 5 times 365 times $4 = 7K the normal advance for a book is 5K from my understanding. not a really practical exchange do you think?

          1. Oh, no arguments there. My view of Baen is that if they approach me, I’ll say yes for that one piece. I’m not chasing them and I’m well aware that they’re not perfect. Nothing is – Baen is to the best of my knowledge the pick of the traditional publishers. They’re still to a large extent dependent on the same model that’s killing their bigger more PC counterparts.

      2. I too would like to be a Baen author. But I don’t want it to be my sole source of writing income or my be-all and end-all.

    2. Oh, man. Yes, that would be insanely obnoxious, and the kind of person who’s willing to make that sort of effort is not someone I’d want to be. Let’s face it, I still need to be able to face myself in the mirror each morning.

  10. The answer to almost all the publishers woes is they HAVE to start to compete. There are many are many areas of strength they do have, or could have, that Amazon can’t. There are massive expenses they could cut, layers of lawyers and office chair-warmers and meeting attenders that add no value at all to the books, that could go. The overhead needed to publish and allow themselves a profit could be quite small, and if it was hassle free, good quality, efficient and convenient, and improved sales to cover most of the cost, few authors would choose to do a lot of stuff they have no interest in. The reaction to competition seems to have been anything BUT the obvious, provably successful route of competing in way Amazon would struggle to, and keeping the margin small. Selling directly from their food-trucks, using their authors as (paid) advertising. If my publisher said ‘I’ll give you 6.5% of every sale that comes via a link on your site’ – I wouldn’t send customers to Amazon. The publishing company would make more money, and so would I = win:win.

    But no: they try whining, complaining, collusion, lawyering, dirty tricks in contracts, dog-in-the-manger behavior, reducing the editorial value, cutting marketing, ANYTHING but competition.

    1. Dave, Dave… You’re suggesting they work for their money, and actually be honest about it. It’ll never work, you know. They didn’t get where they are now by working.

      Okay. Who left that vat of industrial-strength sarcasm lying around? It seems to have spilled.

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