Unto dust

Ah. Just when you think it can get no more silly, we have an entry from someone who has me thinking that perhaps reincarnation is real. I don’t know if it is the actual ghost of P.T. Barnum, but there certainly seems to be a belief that one born every minute, and they’re not very bright. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, but really this is quite insulting to even luke-warm IQ’s like mine. A more flawed piece would be quite a find, but, as the author resorts to claiming logical fallacy in Howey’s ‘science’… let me point out the one which his entire thesis rests on:

“I don’t say these things because I am in bed with the major publishers. I fight with the major publishers all the time ”

I see. So given the above, and a heaven sent opportunity (via Hugh Howey) to get a better deal for the people he supposedly works for, from the people he fights with for them…
Does he blog… 1) Now there is evidence that self-published authors can achieve the same or better status and sales and a far, far higher income, I will point this out to them and to the publishers (that I fight with all the time) and tell them they’ve had a bumper year of profits, and unless they want to lose their authors, we’d better re-negotiate a much better deal on e-books. Or 2) does he pooh-pooh this analysis as ridiculous, and state that therefore authors had better cling to publishers and, as they’re obviously not going to increase the give to authors, authors should just suck it up. Does he claim without any supporting figures (but lots of handwavium waffle) that the other that e-book income is huge?* That “value of a guaranteed advance ** vs. royalty money that may or may not come along down the road’ is better? That the status quo is unalterable and good for the authors he claims to represent, because the publishers won’t change?

Logic 101 question. If 2) is true, and 1) false: can the statement “I don’t say these things because I am in bed with the major publishers. I fight with the major publishers all the time” be true? And if it is demonstrably false, how much of the rest is likely to be true?

The answer, having looked through it: not much. But as a lesson in how to spin, gyre and gimble The Brillig Blogger is indeed a nonpareil and could have a great future in political speech-writing if the ‘supporting’ authors in self-publishing venture follows literary agent-gatekeeping for traditional publishers down the rabbit hole. For example he tries to spin pricing into a death spiral myth. No one has ever suggested this — what has been said, and is true, is that self-pubs do not carry the vast overheads – New York premises, a lot of staff at NY wages, doing something… that has little bearing on and adds little value to the author’s book, and a need to pay huge advances — which may not be coming your way. Self-pubs can afford to undercut New York Publishing – and can turn a profit from far fewer copies.

Literary agents started as something quite different. They were luxuries that very successful authors had. So when Ernest’s publisher was late paying, either Ernest came back from the Bahamas with a bull-whip or his lackey went into the NY publisher’s office to kick some ass or chew gum during the national gum shortage. The whole ‘gatekeeping‘ lark was like the current venture into ‘supporting’ self-publishing. There wasn’t as much money in the lackey game as there had been, and not enough demand. And besides, they wanted more, had contacts… and you can see how it all flows from there. There are still a few in the old lackey trade, and some do it as a sideline, and use it as a lever. But publishers in general saw them as a great way to 1)get rid of slush readers and the pile, and 2)get out of the awkward personal contact with people you’re screwing over. And the authors get to pay the agents for doing this (if you believe that 15% is coming out of the larger advance they get you, I have some remarkable bargains to sell you. Just send me your bank account details and password. And thank you for proving P.T. Barnum right.) I will point out the relationship I have with my agent is different. It’s more like how JK Rowling started with hers. Mike was a first reader who believed in my books, read some of my proposals and partials, and became an agent to sell them. I backed him because I thought his taste and skill better than most agents.

The chance of ‘your’ agent engaging in a bit of dickering for a better deal with your publisher exists. It’s not high for the average noob, but it exists. The chance of him telling all of his main buyers something seriously unpalatable is non-existent. If he was YOUR agent he’d be in there kicking ass and maybe even wielding the bullwhip. But you are a replaceable widget to him. Authors – at least up recently – were queued up begging to be a widget. Publishers on the other hand were much rarer and getting more so.

Only I think ‘authors as widgets’ is over.

Logic says literary agents will continue to get subs… But who will they get them from and how tolerant and patient these submitters are, is a very different matter. Yes, they’ll still get from: 1) the terminally thick and bad; 2) the uninformed (a dropping number); 3) the vastly insecure and needing validation, 4) the reasonably good but-you’ve-got-four-weeks-and-I-sent-to-all-of-the-agents-at-once – which they at this stage won’t accept. 5) the midlister who fits ‘we got a deal before but never found an audience (PC, message, not much entertainment)’ profile = failures.

Why would the successful bestseller keep one, except as a lackey, and why would a midlister with a decent following do so? Why would a go-getter noob put up with years of waiting? If they’re kept waiting they’ll self-publish, and if that succeeds they’ll perhaps need a lackey, but not a literary agent. So of those the agent gets the losers who fail at self-pub. Now of these 2) and 3) can produce some great books. Even the losers at self-pub can, with a bit of help. But 2) will leave as they get clued up. And as the stigma of being agented grows – yes I said stigma grows. It will, given what they’ll get, 3) will desert them too. So they’re left with the untalented and needing help.

Which is why you have the effort, especially from agents, to re-enforce the perception that self-published authors are inadequate and not nearly as good, and that well, publishing is rock solid and inflexible.

“Your advice to publishers is for them to (a) lower e-book publishers (b) give a bigger share of their lower revenue to the authors they publish. Obviously, the publishers are not going to take this advice. There is no business model for them in taking in less money while simultaneously giving more to the authors.”– The Brillig blogger

Really? Well yes. IF self-publishers were an irrelevant failure and not starting to eat the publishers’ lunch and doing much, much better financially than their traditionally published peers selling the same volume. IF authors continue to solicit agents despite this. IF authors (especially the successful ones with a following) are happy with a pittance, while paying agents, and having their publisher take the cream. IF authors ignore Hugh Howey data-trawl. Howey has published an expanded version, with a far bigger data set, and here is a post on it by Mark Coker of Smashwords.

Now that is something one can expect from Mark Coker. It’s his business.

But not in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY.

Two years ago I’d have said there’d be about as much chance of this as of the Pope canonizing Richard Dawkins. But the winds of change are plainly blowing hard, and PW is looking to a future too.
There is a business model in keeping prices competitive (no, that’s not an ever-diminishing sum***), and paying authors a FAR bigger share, and providing a lot more service. It’s called the new ‘Do not follow the agents in bankruptcy’ model. It involves giving up that New York address, and expense account and all those ‘useful’ meetings. It involves really adding a lot more value to the work those incredibly valuable people. To the widgets you call ‘authors’.

As for agents – rather than looking at nice new New York premises — instead of worrying about the small if of contractors, they might want to look at the big IF above. Maybe they’d do better to take Mark Coker’s advice to publishers, and find some way to add value to authors, who can do without them. But that’s kind of down the track. The question is just how far?

* Trust me, to the author, it’s not. Just through webscriptions (a fraction of Amazon’s reach) sales I can tell this.
** Which could be on average oh, as much as $3000, and falling (it was 5K when I started). In three tranches (effectively 1K every 4-10 months. You can live on that, can’t you?), two of which will be late. Like your bi-annual royalties. If you ever see them in the opaque accounting, 12-18 months later. Trust me on this. An advance is good because it ties a weasel down and you may actually get all of it. But it sure is hard to beat that monthly trickle and transparent accounting.
*** “How elastic is the demand for books? Yes, at the margins, you can increase sales some by lowering prices. But after a point, that stops working. There are only so many people who like to read with only so many hours in the day to do it. You can’t have a never-ending price war.” – the Brillig Blogger. We have no idea on either demand via price OR subject/book type. So… we assume you have it right on the present track record? That’s hilarious and totally illogical. A coarse guess is that the traditional industry has lost around 3/4 of the possible market by terrible targeting, and probably another 10% by overpricing. But that’s the subject for another post. It’s not infinitely elastic, but it’s a LOT bigger than now.

22 comments

  1. “How elastic is the demand for books”? Seriously? *facepalm*

    I can’t speak for every reader, but my appetite for books far outstrips the speed of even the speediest writer of good books. I finish a novel, I want the next one right now. This may explain why authors who have more books published tend to have a better sales/larger audience.

    Books are entertainment. Therefore they are in competition with other forms of entertainment, based on taste. I rarely buy alcohol, far less often than books, for example. Do they say of beer, “there are only so many people in the world that like to drink, and so many hours in the day to do it”? *snort*

    As for the “never ending price war,” some major battles have already occurred. Or has the publishing industry forgotten their Great Nemesis, Amazon? They are losing the field, their generals disbelieving their own lying eyes, their conscripts deserting them, their siege engines crumbling with age. Baen excepted, I hold out little hope they can adapt to the changes still occurring.

    The demand for *new* books is far greater than the supply, I believe. Good books. Books that entertain, books to curl up with on a cold day and sip hot chocolate with, books you gobble up like popcorn because you must know what happens next. Perhaps that is an irrational belief to hold.

    In terms of value for entertainment, books are about the best bargain out there. I can’t but think that plays a factor in determining what to spend limited funds on.

    1. From the quote, it appears that the “Brillig Blogger” means, “How much more demand would there be if prices were lowered?” He says, “not much”.

      As near as I can tell, there is little data available for this. When I was in high school, we were taught how to calculate the optimum price for a product, after gathering some data on sales vs. price. However, given the recent price-fixing flap between the big publishers and Amazon, it would appear that they were never taught any of this. Or maybe they are trying to limit sales to the financially secure, rather than making them available to the masses.

      1. Given what I’m seeing in my highly-unofficial economic indicators, there is a growing market for $2.99-$7.99 books and a diminishing market for $15-25 books. But I live in a world where inflation and unemployment really do exist, so YMMV.

        1. And like plastic goods, with infinite price cutting there is a point at which the drop in quality you get is just not worth the saving. So even if 99 cents will get you Joe Neverheardofim’s typo-ridden poorly plotted novel, it is worth $1.99 to get Mary Quitelikeherstuff’s book instead, and probably another dollar or three for Fred RealgoodfunIreademastheycomeout’s book. There are real values on the reader’s time too. I won’t spend three hours wading through turgid boring un-entertaining prose to save a dollar. But I’ll buy 3 of Mary’s and feel I’m winning if Fred’s books are priced at $25

      2. “Or maybe they are trying to limit sales to the financially secure, rather than making them available to the masses.”
        This. When the mobile/cell phones first started up in Africa, their sales projection were essentially the upper middle class and up. Of course that wasn’t how it worked out at all. A friend of mine was putting up mobile phone towers in Congo, in the middle of the civil war. The one site was on a newish volcanic flow, possibly still active, certain to have a landslip sooner or later. He – being a careful-with-money sort of fellow, suggested moving it, because somewhere in the next 10 years it would need replacing. He was laughed at. The tower had a less than 2 month payback. This in a place most folk lived in the bush, and the income per year wouldn’t keep you for a week in the US. The sales reach of publishing is dismal.

    2. There are roughly 237 million adults in the United States (give or take a few million). in 2007, its release year, the seventh Harry Potter book only sold 44 million copies… worldwide.

      There’s a pie chart up on Hugh Howie’s author earnings site that shows hoe the ebook market is presently divided, but it’s the space outside the pie, all the people who could be readers if they found a book that was more entertaining than netflix or videogames, that still dwarfs the current market.

      1. Dorothy, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Even if you assume only the more intelligent 2/3 of adults could read for pleasure (which may be less than the real figure), and I would appeal to 1:10 000 – that’s still near 16000 readers in the US alone, which if I cleared $1 a book (my average through tradition publishing HC, Paperback and webscription) and wrote two books a year – would be a living of sorts. Almost any writer will really appeal to 1 person in 10 000. If you’re able to get 70% royalty and those 1 in 10 000 like you enough to spend $6 dollars a year on you, you have a reasonable income. And that’s just US.

        1. Exactly. It’s called “growing the market” and appears to be an alien concept to the current trad pubs.

        2. As soon as I figure out how to get ahold of that population, trust me, I’ll be excitedly sharing the news all over. Because the population of read-rarely folks is so huge that there’s no way zero-sum economics could come into play for any of us – and more people are learning to read English every day!

          At least, thanks to Bezos and Competition, those who are tied to their smart phone have a book store ability at their fingertips. I wonder if we’ll see a reading demographic change with that availability?

    3. What this guy does -a lot – is conflate things which have almost nothing to do with each other, and base his argument on premises which are pure BS. So for example the how elastic is demand is for books – not books by an author the reader likes. Because authors and books are widgets, see. The elasticity of demand for authors that a specific reader likes ALWAYS exceeds the authors capacity to supply. Demand then spills into less known/liked authors. The premise that market is satiated/the pie is this big is pure BS. The pie is several orders of magnitude bigger, the publishing/retail industry’s ability to get the right book product to the right right reader is dismal. WAY behind most other retail.

    4. I believe you’re bang on about value for entertainment. George Orwell came to the same conclusion in ‘Books vs Cigarettes’, and while the absolute numbers have changed with inflation and technology, the relative price of books compared to other kinds of entertainment has stayed in about the same range. Orwell concluded then that publishers were completely bungling the job of actually selling their products to readers. I can’t say that they have improved since.

      I did a few back-of-the-envelope calculations a couple of years ago, and came up with the conclusion that the market for good books is so far from saturation that you could regard it as wide open and untapped – the competition is not from other writers, but from things like TV and video games. I hope you won’t mind if I point you at what I said about it in my blog, in a post called ‘Clock share: Writers vs. the competition’.

      1. That’s a good essay, Tom. I suspect you’re right about the shades of grey (as in not black and white, rather than 50) between DWS version and the publishing industry version.

  2. I am amazed at the stuff put out by traditional publishing hacks. My wife reads female detective paperbacks. She is picky and doesn’t like most of the new stuff. So when she finds a older author she missed, we shop at Better World Books for copies that sell for 4 bucks (Including shipping). A new Emily Brightwell is bought from one of the Amazon affiliates for four bucks and four bucks postage- 8 dollars. She won’t pay 7.99 plus four dollars postage. Price is a big, big factor. Going to a movie is ten dollars for one movie or one book; but, Netflix or Hulu are twenty or more movies a month for the same ten. Nobody wants to read the same book twenty times a month. Some people write speculative fiction without a cover.

    1. robfornow -I’m curious: What would your wife consider a fair price for a detective novel? Not a bargain, but what she would pay for a novel by an author she knows and likes?

  3. I have seen a lot about self publishing of fiction. Could anyone point me to a website that addresses similar issues for the non-fiction, and in my case technical writer? I have a small but steady income from a traditionally published book, but am considering how I might handle any future books.

    1. You might take a look at Amanda’s digital publishing workshop webpage.

      It won’t tell you about the specifics of the market, you will have to know what people want to read, but you can use it, however outdated, to get something up and see.

    2. Ray, I don’t think there are any differences at all, except perhaps in targeting the marketing :-). It’s really not hard. Your marketing is probably easier as people interested in that field will know you, and will seach for it in that category.

    3. One thing you might look for is specific info on formatting for technical drawings, tables, and that sort of thing. I know the guys I work with charge a little more for e-books with a lot of graphics and tables, because some formatting quirks can turn into massive messes if you don’t check how the file presents on different e-readers.

      1. Also, from what I can tell, a lot of readers are willing to pay more for non-fiction, especially if it is by an author they know or is about a subject that hasn’t been rehashed a zillion times and the preview shows it is well written and researched, than they are for non-fiction.

  4. Thank you for the encouraging words on self-publishing. I spent many a sleepless night considering my decision to self-publish after getting a form rejection letter from one of the Big Five (one of the couple who would actually look a non-agented submissions). At that point my options were to a) submit to the other big publisher that would accept submissions without an agent (except the wait for a response was 9-12 months); b) submit to agents in the hope one of them liked the manuscript enough to then jump through the hoops for publishers, or c) self-publish. I still get hit by self-doubt: maybe the book just wasn’t good enough, maybe it didn’t deserve to get published at all, maybe I’m just indulging in delusions of adequacy.
    Overall, though, I don’t regret the decision, and the more I hear about the current standards in publishing, the less I regret it. I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that netted me almost as much as an advance would have (and unlike an advance, I don’t have to “pay it back” from future sales). The book has been well-received, and tonight it hit #5 on its paid-for-Kindle category. I’m not getting rich, but I’m making some money doing the thing I love. A few years ago, that possibility didn’t exist, and for one I’m very thankful for it. Thank you for the encouragement (and sorry for the long rant)!

    1. with those numbers, you have nothing to worry about.

      So far, my best selling (but not a bestseller book) seems to be Darkship Thieves. it took me THIRTEEN years to sell it. Two agents who represented me refused to even submit it. So, you see, it has nothing to do with quality.
      Good luck, and may you continue to do well.

      1. Thank you! Reading the horror stories about mainstream publishing here and in your blog make me doubly grateful there are ways to do it oneself these days.

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