The gates have been opened and the walls are crumbling
Yesterday, Sarah sent me a link to a post by Joe Konrath. The post itself is as informative as it is entertaining (and I really need to quit reading him during the work day. As with the Passive Voice, I tend to read all the comments, follow all the links and — oops — there goes an hour or more of the day). Two things, in particular, jumped out at me as I read. The first is that self-publishing is a shadow industry and there ” are no accurate surveys or polls to show how big it is, or how fast it is being adopted.” The second is even more telling. He wonders why, if legacy publishers are so in-touch with what is going on and so sure of their place in the industry, they aren’t coming and challenging what he says about the state of the industry. It’s a great post and I recommend everyone go read it.
One thing Konrath says is that the walls the gatekeepers have built up and continue to tout as their strengths will come crumbling down if writers start talking to one another. That is the first step. The second, in my opinion, is even more important. We have to stop being afraid to rock the boat. Sarah has written before about how writers coming up in the business before self-publishing became a viable option were told that to question your editor was the kiss of death. To publicly cast doubt on your editor or publisher could crash your career. You accepted your royalty statements, even though you knew they were wrong, with a smile and took the kick in the teeth. After all, publishers can’t be bothered with doing anything as difficult as actually tracking sales in this day and age of advanced databases. They are really looking out for your best interests by using some arcane hand-wavium known as BookScan to figure out how much they owe you. Oh, and let’s not forget about the rights grab contracts, especially for new authors, include.
Are you starting to get the picture about why authors need to be more vocal in discussing what’s going on?
But the gatekeepers help us. They tell us they do. They help separate the dreck from the potential best seller. They give us editorial support and take care of all that icky bookkeeping. They promote us and get us into bookstores. They are the gods of publishing.
Except writers are scaling Mount Olympus and the reading public is following them. The myth of editing and proofreading became more transparent with the advent of e-readers. There is something about reading a book on your Kindle or other e-reader that makes errors stand out. Things your eye missed on the printed page seem to jump out at you as you read it on your tablet or dedicated e-reader. Hmmm, that e-book from one of the Big 5 you just paid $10 for has as many, or more, errors in it as the $4.99 indie book. Where’s the editing and proofreading they were supposed to do?
I could go on and on but won’t. Most everyone here at MGC have written about it at length. What I want to do is take a look at what the other side is still saying about the gatekeepers and the evils of self-publishing.
Donald Mass, agent of the old guard, posted his take on the state of the industry here. He uses flowery language that almost makes the self-publishing push sound like a grand, yet failed revolution. Those of us who see it as a viable alternative are termed “true believers”. To read him, e-books have been the salvation of legacy publishing and have been embraced by the industry with welcome arms. Um, has he been following the same reports and comments over the years as I have?
Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games,Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.
That sound you hear is every mid-list writer who isn’t in complete denial screaming in anger. The mid-list was only a money loser for publishers when the publisher dropped the ball. The thing about your mid-list was that you knew there was a built-in audience for those books. You knew that if you didn’t screw it up by bringing books out too close together, by not giving them basically the same cover and by by letting purchasing agents for bookstores know that Midlister A had a new book coming out you’d have a pretty much guaranteed income of X-dollars. The problem is that publishers did drop the ball. They started bringing out mid-list series every few months and with covers that looked so much alike the bookstore purchasers thought they already had that book in stock. So orders dropped and, suddenly, your mid-listers didn’t make the money they used to.
Think about it. How many series have you started, as a reader, and anxiously awaited the next book only to find that after the second or third book the series was dropped? Was it really because interest flagged or because the publishers thought they could skew the system and get money quicker by cutting corners and changing the order paradigm they’d spent years creating?
Now look at those mega-best sellers Maas lists above. Think about how those particular publishers put everything behind that series and then, when the series is over, they have nothing to take its place. Gone are the dollars from the mommy porn despite all the wanna-be clones of it the publisher has bought and brought out. Look at the income reports for the last quarter and see how the 50 Shades publisher is moaning because its income is down now that the series is over. Twilight’s publisher is in the same situation. So yeah, the quick dollar is nice and that is what the publishers cut the mid-listers for. Grab the bucks now and we’ll find another mega hit before this current one is over.
Except that rarely happens and, because you cut the mid-list, you have even cut off that guaranteed income you would have otherwise had.
Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd.
In one sense, he’s right. But only in one very narrow sense. Authors are “voluntarily” building an audience ourselves because we’ve been told we have to. Even those who want to go the traditional route are told we have to build our “brand”. When you try to find an agent, you are often asked — even before you are given the opportunity to query — what your marketing plan is. Those who do have agents are told they need to blog, be active in social media. Oh, and those book tours and marketing efforts publishers tell you they’ll do? Those are on your own dime unless you’ve been tagged as the latest dahling or you are one of the special few. The fact that authors are choosing to “voluntarily” build an audience before getting a publishing contract isn’t o help publishers. It’s because most of us have decided we’d be better off spending those dollars and recovering them from our higher self-publishing or small press royalties than lining the pockets of a publisher and agent. And as for those authors the publishers “cull” out (and don’t you just love being compared to cattle? Sort of give you an idea of what agents and publishers think of us, doesn’t?), how often do you hear about them after the “culling”?
According to Maas, those of us who self-publish or small press publish are the freight class. We bear all the costs and rarely succeed. According to him, the problem with this is that:
Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.
Um, WHAT? Funny, as a read, I like books where justice is done. If I read a romance, I want to see that love wins out. And what the heck is wrong with good v. evil? Oooh, I see. It’s the “G” word. Genre. Genre is evil. Sigh. Can you say, “over-generalization?”
Next is his so-called “coach class”. Literary fiction and fiction that sells best in soft cover and as e-books. He even admits that marketing, if it happens from the publisher, isn’t effective. The “if it happens” is key here because — duh — it doesn’t, as a general rule. This is, whether he wants to admit it or not, where the mid-listers fell. But, since the publishers see them as expendable, the former dahlings, the literary writers, are now filling this niche. Guess what, literary fiction doesn’t sell as well. The publishers see this new mid-list as confirming their claims but all it does is confirm what we already knew. Mid-listers of five or ten years ago did sell but these new ones don’t, not to the same level.
Finally, there is his “first class”. These are the lucky ones anointed as the the next best great thing. They are the ones who get hard and soft cover runs. The ones the publishers invest big bucks into in order to make the book a success. These are also, all too often, the authors who have been chosen to write the next Twilight or Hunger Games, or whatever. The problem is, they are all too often poor copies and the reading public has already moved on to something else.
In a way, Maas is right. The so-called revolution hasn’t taken down legacy publishing. But it has led to changes. Maas has to support the old guard because that is where his money comes from. But it always bothers me when someone who is supposed to have the best interests of his clients — writers — at heart continues to support a system that actively works against those interests. Instead of seeing why we should be embracing the old ways, I want to know what he’s doing to prevent publishers from trying to grab rights to a book for the length of copyright without any out clause. I want to know that his agency doesn’t have a similar clause in their contracts as well because, let’s face it, agency contracts are looking more and more like publishing contracts. I want to know what he is doing to increase the royalty rate given to authors, especially on digital books, whether the author is just breaking in or has been around for years. I want to know what he is doing to get accurate royalty figures for his clients instead of relying on the very unreliable BookScan numbers.
You want to convince me, and those who feel like me to go the traditional route, show us that you don’t really think about us as cattle or interchangeable cogs. Oh, wait, they can’t because that is exactly how they feel. Until that changes, I’ll stick with my freight class and laugh all the way to the bank.
Oh, I’ll also hedge my bets and try the trad route too — but not with one of the Big 5 and not with an agent who would probably fight me tooth and nail on my choice of where to send my work and then happily take their 15% or more of what I might make. Nope, I’ll take my chances one day with Baen, the one publisher I know at least listens to their readers AND their authors.