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.


  1. 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.

    Funny, when I shell out my hard-earned cash for a book, that’s exactly the kind of thing I want between the pages. Oh, sure, some exceptions sometimes, but by and large that’s what I want to read.

    If the publishers aren’t giving it to me, I’ll find it elsewhere.

    1. But then we are the unwashed and unenlightened. We like the books Baen publishes and we dare consider what makes a good story and not worry about putting the message up front and being sure it’s the latest politically correct pap.

      What bothers me is that publishers seem to have lost sight of the fact that most people read for entertainment. If we want to learn something, we read non-fiction. But our fiction is supposed to be an escape and most of us want an happy ever after and derring-do. We don’t read to be depressed or told how we should have permanent guilt because of our race, religion, politics, etc.

        1. Possibly it’s because we’ve got the reading comprehension to figure out that calling the use of the word crepuscular self-indulgent and that the essay it is in is elitist does not mean “the article is elitist because of that word.”

          Heaven knows that I use too many big words, but that’s because I’m striving (usually in vain) to say something quite precise.

          Random thought: “crepuscular” would be a great name for a parody/redo of the Twilight series.

        2. I think it’s notable that they don’t link to the actual comment, or even say what article it was on, as well as that they can’t tell the difference between “difficult” and “unusual.”

          Mr. Buckley use to delight in using really obscure, unusual words, and Mr. Goldberg has taken up the habit as well in homage.


          I wonder what the constant instruction that articles should be written at a fifth grade level means, though. I’m always getting “flagged” in “make your blog better” programs for using too complex of a sentence format; my (excessive) fondness for semicolons is probably a big part of it, taken with the parenthetical digressions.

  2. I do enjoy my genre and regretfully quit reading it (sci-fi) in the mid 80s. Thankfully, I have been able to pick it up again and enjoy what I am reading– so whoo-hoo… to the courageous writers who have taken down and crawled over the crumbling gates.

    1. Cyn, that’s when I left it as well. I’m thrilled to see good stories and storytelling returning to the genre in more avenues than just Baen.

    1. Funny, that was always my opinion as well. I didn’t know it was a dirty word. Hmm, maybe the fact I like genre fiction says something about me 😉

        1. To Wesley Morrison, delivery incoming, one Internets, your prize for making me spit all over my keyboard and monitor.

  3. He was agent #2. I won’t go into details, but I wouldn’t go back if dragged. Several of my friends at all levels of publishing had similar experiences with him. One of them — a bestseller — has referred to Maas as “a cat with ADHD.” Honestly, it’s amazing what you can DO (and not do) and still be a “top agent.” This is why I am now unagented.

  4. Sometimes I wonder if fiction publishing has been infected with academic press mentality. Seriously.

    For those that aren’t familiar, academic presses are supposed to lose money. They’re the ones who publish peer-reviewed books written by professors/academics and are dedicated to “advancing the knowledge of humanity.” A successful academic book sells usually somewhere between five hundred and a thousand books, total. NOt the first month. Not the first year. From publication to eternity.

    I wonder sometimes if the Big Five haven’t decided to “advance the cause of humanity” through message fic and literary pretension. If, at some level, they haven’t decided not to worry about profit, but to push message. They don’t seem to be pushing sales they way they used to. They’re pushing message down our throats. Maybe a return to good old fashioned business sense would be helpful.

    1. Oh, I think that’s part of it. The other part is they are making money — just not telling us about it — because we all know the BookScan numbers are shoddy at best. But the publishers are also keeping anywhere from 60% (and I’m being generous here) on up on all monies received from book sales. They haven’t adjusted royalties on e-books to match the outlay they make for them and it’s an open secret they are double charging for things like promotion, editing, art, etc., for print and e-books. Nor have they adjusted their cost formulas to take into account the better printing practices of today. At least that’s my understanding. But why should they when most authors are still too scared, to ingrained with the idea that you don’t ask for nasty little things like audits? Until, as Konrath said, writers start talking to one another and start banding together to stand up for themselves, it is going to continue.

      1. They know the phrase that must not be said, lest writers increase their talking to one another: “preference cascade”.

  5. Apparently he doesn’t remember that, before “Thrones” George RR Martin was a midlist author. In fact “thrones came out in paperback first, I believe. The biggest reason that the midlist has declined is that in the face of declining sales, the publishers RAISED prices and took the paperback out of the impulse buy range.

      1. I have to tell you that Book Off in NYC has been a savior to me the last couple of years. MMPPs, $1.00. Unfortunately that’s used. I go in there because they are a Japanese bookstore and I get anime soundtracks and artbooks. The PPs are for the train home. The problem is that I run into the glittery hoo hahs and dahlings, who aren’t woth reading at any price and Baen books don’t seem to show up on the used piles very often for some reason.

          1. The resentment at the cost of new MMPP’s (as well as non-availability of backlist) makes me quite willing to mail-order “very good” used, even when book cost + shipping is very nearly the same as new. Wonder how many others feel the same?

    1. That’s when I stopped buying most mmpbs. I stopped buying most hard covers when they started costing $30. So did most of my friends. And publishers don’t understand why we buy from Amazon or discount stores. (rolls eyes)

    2. ” … the publishers RAISED prices and took the paperback out of the impulse buy range.”

      Absolutely the case in our household. I won’t pay for new fiction paperbacks very often any more — can’t bring myself to pay that much. Back in the 80’s, we bought 3-5 paperbacks per week; when we moved to another state, the moving guy told us we needed to get out more — we had more than 40 boxes of books. Then prices started going up faster than our income, and I became a power user of the public library. I also joined Paperback Swap. Thanks Be for e-books, which I will buy for a low enough price (not 9.99).

      I’m sorry if all this disappoints you authors who want me to buy, but it’s an economic factor in my little world. A book I’ll read in a day, or a bottle of wine I”ll drink in longer than that … mmmm …. gotta think about it!

  6. I have the impression that Mr. Maas is unfamiliar with both culling cattle, and with the colloquial term “pick up freight.” Because out here, when one “picks up freight” it means that you are leaving for a better situation. 😀

    1. Eh. My reaction precisely. Culls are those not fit to keep, to breed, to grow. The trash. And this is a ‘literary’ agent? Knows his farming nearly as well as his English.

      1. Urbanite. Sophisticated (in a meaning truer to the root of the word). And completely out of touch with the dirt and muck of reality. Much like the editors who keep cutting out the midlist.

  7. There are practicable breaches.

    Some of the outer fortifications have already been overrun.

    The besieged will not parley to discuss terms.

    The fanfic sappers should keep at it.

    Form some of the others up for assaults.

    Attack, Attack, Attack!

  8. Ms Green,
    A bit off-topic, but I sent a story submission and a question about policy to Naked Reader via the submissions@ address a couple of weeks ago. I sent another question via the contact page. Were they received? If you’ve been too busy to reply then I’m sorry to sound pushy. I was unsure how else to get in contact. Thank you.

    1. AFAICT — and I’m a member of the board — NRP is closed to submissions and has been for a few months. Amanda, can we get an announcement on the page? Sorry, Amanda and I were left holding the baby, and we have a massive backlog and a change in corporate policy.

    2. Bob, thanks for asking. I just checked the account because I didn’t remember seeing it and it didn’t get there. As Sarah noted, we are currently on a hiatus from accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I need to check to make sure the website shows that — I know it did but sometimes the server burps and puts up an old page. Thanks again and I wish you luck with your writing.

  9. “Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil.”

    I’m puzzled at the equating of these elements with “freight class” or amateurish writing. The classics of literature as far back as Gilgamesh and Biblical texts all feature these themes. They are the foundation of our civilization. How do they make a work lesser?

    1. Oh, that’s easy – all those classics of literature were written by Dead White Males (even when they were written by the ancestors of people now counted as chic minorities, by women, or both).

      Double plus ungood. Thought Crime. As is any attempt to write like ’em.

      I do – sometimes – pay attention to the literary darlings. That way, I know which authors and publishers to avoid unless someone I trust recommends a specific book.

      1. Oh, golly, yah, I’m such a cretin that I don’t pay so much attention to an author’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as I do to his or her characters.

        1. Tut, tut. You are supposed to buy for 1) message of book, 1a) diversity of characters [if they are the proper sort of diverse], 2) complexity, richness, and shimmer of the writing style, 3) to be seen reading it by the Right Sort of people, and 4) a transgressive author/story/protagonists. “A gripping story about fascinating characters” is not a proper criterion for book selection. Oh, and make sure to keep your pinkie finger extended while lifting and lowering the book.

          1. hmmm … shimmer … I like the sound of that. If I go with the shimmery, do I need as much glittery? 🙂

  10. OK, once the servers settle down, go look at this stuff Hugh Howey and some others put together. ( Then go get something by Hugh to say thank you. As the song says, “The [publishers] might lie/ but the numbers never will.” Joe Konrath has a mirror up, in case the main site gets overloaded again. PG has a discussion, too.

    1. All I can say is wow. Those are some impressive numbers, and Hugh and his partner have done a great job of normalizing between indie and trad by looking at the top 7000 best sellers. That other report that Amanda looked at a few weeks back didn’t account for all the unpublished manuscripts sitting in slush piles.

    2. And this is a Really Big Deal. That data shows some things that even hard-core indie publishing advocates would have placed in the “maybe someday” category. As in, indie writers (collectively) are selling more books than the Big Five (collectively) on Amazon. Perhaps this will start making a dent in the paranoid claims that Amazon will ride roughshod over indies Any Time Now. (and I’d like to think we’re better behaved than the Big Five, too, so why would Amazon want to piss *us* off?) I mean, they *could*, but they could also decide to give up books entirely or go all in to compete with Starbucks, too.

      I can’t wait for the reactions from the usual suspects. (and the running and the screaming…)

        1. Last time I checked, there was a major party underway in the comments section at PG’s blog ( open bar, disco ball, fog machine, loud music, the works. 😀

    3. The one thing that seemed a little odd there was the high indie earnings, but Weren’t there more indies published? So earning per book might have been lower, but there were a lot more of them. Unless I skimmed it incorrectly.

      1. Could be true – a few highly pushed trad best-sellers could skew their avg. earning per book. However – if there’s a lot more indie books published, that likely means the average indie author is probably selling more of their writing production – and that’s a VGT (Very Good Thing), I think.

      2. I believe they corrected for that by it being the top 7k books– doesn’t matter how many are published, it matters how many make that top bracket.

  11. I know I probably shouldn’t do this, but when I read Donald Maass little essay, I was kind of fascinated with the characteristics of his three classes of writing. Let me run down the flavors, okay?

    First, the characters change. Apparently freight strength writing tends to have a lot of character stereotypes, with purple, obvious emotions. The coach riders … Er, writers have appealing characters, with some emotional engagement. The first class stamp means memorable, likable characters who are self-aware and have a singular destiny.

    Next, the plots evolve. Freight writing has heavy-handed plots, with many cliffhangers and time-worn messages and themes. Coach has clever premises and attention-grabbing plot hooks, with themes that resonate with readers. First class? Ah, they have unique premises, gripping plots, and themes that surprise, challenge, and change us.

    In between plots and characters, the freight haulers use external circumstances to push their characters into action, not internal motivations. Coach may have some internal motivation, but their growth is relatively painless. First class? Maass doesn’t seem to say, explicitly, but I suspect it’s tied up with being self-aware and following a singular destiny.

    Maass also points out that freight works usually have few literary flourishes, while first class is likely to have gorgeous writing that makes us whistle in admiration.

    He also throws some accolades on the first class novels, pointing out that they have story worlds that feel instantly real, they shake our thinking, they challenge us to see the world in new ways. They transport us to unlikely times and cultures, and teach us things we knew little about.

    I have to admit, some of that world-building, challenging, and transport part made me wonder if he was going to come out in support of Human Wave writing, but he avoided that. Still, there seems to be a strain of that in his appeal. I mean, memorable, likable characters who learn and grow as they face (I will add, and overcome) significant problems in interesting places and times? Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Comments are closed.