A Passive Guy’s Tale of Two Worlds

I don’t normally do this, but after having read Passive Guy’s piece on the vast gulf between the view of trad publishing and the view of independents all I can really say is go read it yourself. Then read the comments thread because PG’s comments are always good.

Some of the gems:

To the extent that the other panelists were representative of tradpub as a whole, PG concludes they’re terrified of Amazon. They believe that Amazon’s commitment to low prices is simply not consistent with their survival and they’re desperate to keep prices up. The idea of changing the way they operate to thrive a lower-price world is not on anyone’s radar. Neither is the concept of making up revenue and profits with higher volume.

Yep, that certainly matches observed behavior.


The larger message, at least for PG, was that a desperate publishing industry has concluded it can’t survive in the marketplace and only government intervention to throttle Amazon will save it. Publishing will have to obtain through politics what it can’t through commerce.

I won’t go into the contradictions built into the publishing industry’s ideas here. I’ve ranted enough about that already. Of course in many ways this little gem of an observation explains the root cause of the publishing industry’s woes:

Another clear impression PG gained was that authors are a bit superfluous in the business considerations of publishers.

If publishers can’t see that authors are to them what brand names are to widget makers, they’re doomed. Simple as that. If they can’t see that they don’t get to decide what makes an author a “brand” worth parting with one’s hard-earned beer money, they’re well through the S-bend and all that’s left is the flush.

And now we get to the bit where they’ve drunk their own ink and got stoned off their tiny minds on the stuff:

At one point, when PG was talking about the financial success of indie authors, the moderator cut him off by saying, “Everyone wants authors to make more money.”

What was unspoken was, “in the right way.” With publishers and agents, not by themselves with Amazon.

PG observed a recurring and, perhaps unconscious elitist attitude on the panel. This group really believes that big and little publishing are the protectors of American literature and the deciders of what people will and will not read. Of course the protectors must be paid for their work, but that is really a secondary consideration.

Ultimately I’m with Passive Guy on the simpler way to do things:

PG prefers a simpler world:

  1. Write a great book

  2. Hire a great editor and cover designer

  3. Put it up on Amazon

  4. Tell people about it

  5. Repeat a few times and quit your day job.

I think it probably takes a little bit more than “a few” times, though. Repeat a lot of times, hold your breath, try not to watch Amazon statistics obsessively, and maybe eventually you’ll get to quit your day job. Other than that, dead on target, PG, and thank you.

48 thoughts on “A Passive Guy’s Tale of Two Worlds

  1. I always enjoy PG’s blog, and even comment on occasion. This was one of those situations where I was partly frustrated for him: what a waste of time and effort! and also really grateful he did it and reported back. Not that it was a surprise, but that we have yet more insight into these people and how they work. The idea that they are going to resort to a government bailout type situation makes me nervous. They jump up and down screaming that Amazon ‘might someday’ cut royalty payments. But for sure and certain, if they can strangle Amazon, they already have cut royalties, and to me that means less income, more stress. Sadly, there’s no way to get rid of them, other than not buying their books, which I already don’t do.

    *stops and looks at that paragraph. I need more coffee.*

    1. This was one of those situations where I was partly frustrated for him: what a waste of time and effort! and also really grateful he did it and reported back.

      But remember: blogs never do original work.

      1. *blink, blink* Um… well, that would make my daily blog a lot easier to write. Hm!

        I have a long list of blogs I check in with – a few daily, some less often. I get most of my news that way. No tv at my house.

        1. Ditto.

          Getting news from blogs rather than TV is an amusing cousin to indy publishing in my book– but almost every time it comes up, someone will insist that blogs can’t replace the news media, because they don’t do any original reporting.

          If offered enough examples of people doing exactly that, they’ll insist that OK, they do the reporter’s job of calling up state records and such, but the original story was from a news story so they couldn’t possibly survive on their own.

          1. My response to the assertion that blogs don’t break stories or do original reporting is “operation fast and furious story was first broken, researched and reported by David Codrea @ War on Guns blog”

              1. Of course it isn’t. It puts their darling in a bad light. (Yes, yes, the sarcasm bulldozer is out again)

            1. “I will now read the summary of the AP line story that our script guys made; names, numbers and quotes may be mangled, even though we’re close enough that we could probably walk over there.”

  2. Prices get higher and higher for smaller and smaller print runs, until the entire industry is waiting for the one person to buy the one book they printed to pay everyone’s salaries for the year.

    1. And when [gazillionaire of choice] decides he’d rather buy electronic the whole thing falls flat on its face.

  3. Amazon really doesn’t matter. This is like blaming department stores for the death of the little corner ma and pa stores.
    It was the automobile and suburbia that killed the little corner store. People wanted more variety and better prices. The car took them there when they became common. When the car sent people to the suburbs and the population density went down that cemented it. It doesn’t matter if you go to Kroger, Costco or Walmart. They all must share a lot of the same business plan to survive in the current world.
    Similarly the traditional publishing world was toast once the PC got powerful enough to have a graphics interface that could support commerce.
    The details of what company would be smart enough to combine modern distribution systems and software to put the product on your screen were details. If Amazon had not done it somebody else would have. Perhaps better or perhaps not. The rise of smart phones and tablets sealed the deal without even needing e-readers. Amazon is not without competition. If they don’t keep their edge – particularly in distribution given delivery costs then somebody will eat their lunch.
    I sell on Amazon. So far with minor squabbles. They treat me very well the way that matters – money. I’d have to write a book every two months to make as much money from a traditional publisher. I’m merely human not Chris Nuttell. When they don’t pay well or otherwise serve the authors you can be sure there are lots of people just waiting for them to slip a bit to open up opportunities to take some of that market. Indie authors have it within their ability now to publish outside Amazon if they should get the foolish idea they can cut the author back to 10% or less of the action like the old publishing houses.
    I suspect the next stage is to get print on demand smaller and cheaper until it makes no sense to ship a book across the country. It will be sent electronically and printed within fifty to a couple hundred miles of the customer. Fuel costs dictate the necessity of it.

    1. Next time someone whines at me about other people staring at their phone instead of “interacting,” I’m going to ask them what the person was reading.

      “Well, most smart phones have an e-reader. Did you ask what they were reading?”
      “Of course not!”
      “Did you hassle anyone that was reading a newspaper or physical book?”
      “So, no. Stop whining.”

      1. Hehehe. You don’t hassle newspaper readers for doing the crossword, right? (I do, but that’s because I want to get my paws on it before the other sod finishes it… er… compulsive puzzle freak. Sorry)

    2. No, Amazon doesn’t really matter. They’re just what happened to get there first and do a good enough job to make them better than the other choices.

      Australian bookstores *hate* Amazon because Aussies figured out a while back they could order a bunch of books, pay the extortionate postage, and it still cost less than buying the same books in Australia. If those books were even available in Australia. Never mind that Australian bookstores are the chains that killed what used to be pretty decent local stores. They don’t like having their own tactics used on them and done better.

      There is nothing (other than the combination of time and potentially local laws) stopping anyone opening their own ebook business. Not one damn thing. Capital investment is “a decent web host” and there’s no shortage of prebuilt widgets to handle the web store if you’re not a programmer. Or even if you are and don’t want to deal with the complexities.

      1. Actually, Amazon wasn’t the first online bookstore. I think that Powells and Barnes and Noble had online presence for a least a year earlier than Amazon existed. Where Amazon has thrived is aggressively pursuing constant improvement and streamlined distribution.

  4. IMHO, the Big Five, barring massive management and attitude changes, are on their way to becoming academic presses: dependent on a captive pool of academics [desperate and/or well-connected writers] and a small group of guaranteed purchasers [rabid fans of best sellers, art-book buyers, literary mavens, et cetera] and subsidized by the larger institution (university) and government (for public universities) [the best-seller-writers and desperate would-be-midlist and/or in-house vanity service users {Author S0lutions et al}].

    1. If they think I’m going to pay textbook prices for entertainment reading, they aren’t connecting with reality at all.

      1. Speaking as someone who objects to paying textbook prices for textbooks, AMEN!

      1. Well, in Tor’s case, it’ll have to wait until Orson Scott Card dies. He makes them a lot of money.

  5. Right now on Twitter, Natalie Luhrs (a fairly peripheral participant of all the fandom controversies of the past year) is having a full-bore meltdown about Amazon, self-publishing and Hugh Howey.

    She *loves* Big Brother, just like Winston did.

    1. One wonders what they had to do to her to get her to this point. Then decides that even if it was just nonstop brainwashing, one would really prefer not to know.

  6. I couldn’t make myself watch the whole thing. I kept stopping it argue with thin air.

    “Well, it’s so _nice_ of you to publish that unknown poet. You know what? Amazon will do it too. Ulysses? They’ve got multiple versions listed, from straight up to study guides with various annotation. Why would they stop selling it? And some new Whatsit that’ll be even better? They’ll sell that one too.”

    “Oh, you think it would be horrible if Amazon turned tyrant and dropped their royalties to 5%? Tell me how many writers get 5% from you, once you’ve played games with Bookscan, and then their agents skim off 15%?”

    1. Or even reported *fewer* sales than Bookscan – which is physically impossible.

      Clearly this is a case of trying to paint the unknown as an even bigger ogre.

  7. Howdy,

    I’m a reader not a writer. I am rapidly making the conversion to supporting Indie. Love Baen. Right now I’ve finished all of Sarah’s books, reading Dandridge, Grant and so on.

    Now, there is a lot to be said for a professional editor taking a swipe at a book before it gets published. The indie books all have errors. Love them despite it, be nicer if they were scrubbed better.

    I wonder if there isn’t a job niche now for non-publishing house editing ….

    In any case, my bucks are more likely to go to Baen and Indie’s I see recommended here, Corriea and Instapundit.

    Just sharing what a guy who spends money for books thinks.

    1. There’s a big niche, and people jumping into it. We writers are now (1) trying to find the ones who know what they are doing (2) are reasonably priced — as in doesn’t costs as much as the book will make in the first two years it’s out and (3) Timely.

      There’s a lot of floundering and poor communication going on, on both sides. Hopefully it’ll settle down soon.

    2. Geoff, take a look at any major new book from the traditional publishers and you will see the same typos and grammatical errors creeping in. A professional editing job takes time and talent, so it’s an area they’ve targeted as prime for economizing.
      I know of any number of folks making their livings as not only independent editors for hire, but also cover art developers. Some indie authors do it all themselves, usually with a bit of help from first readers, but there is a balance and tradeoff as to whether their time is better spent generating more product, and to some simply lack the necessary skill and talent in those areas.

      1. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Not to mention it doesn’t matter how many times you check something there will be mistakes you miss. One nice thing about indie electronic is that you can *fix* said mistakes without anything like as much hassle as it takes to bring out a new edition of a dead tree piece with the fixes.

    3. I’ve seen some horrible errors from the trad publishers, and my opinion of what they’ve done to books in the name of political correctness is unprintable – having seen some of Sarah’s books for Other Publishers Who Are Not Baen in final draft and in published form. Sometimes the final draft is much better…

      Yes, there is definitely room for a professional editor. And a damn good copyeditor. Those networks are starting to build, but they haven’t solidified yet. It’s a brand new baby industry that’s still figuring things out.

  8. Couldn’t help but think that a really smart publishing house would expand their footprint by incorporating e-books into their sales structure, probably at a significant discount as almost the entire investment is already a sunk cost. Sure would be nice if some clever company in the business did that.
    Oh wait. Never mind, one did.

    1. I have never understood how the rest of the publishing world didn’t look at what Jim Baen was doing and jump right in. Other than the fact that he was breaking all the “rules” and still coming out way ahead. But all the things Jim did, with the Bar, creating a community with his readers, The free library and CD’s and above all eschewing the DRM crap, were done because Jim understood the way things were going to change, whether anybody liked it or not. He knew how things were likely to go long before smart phones, tablets or ereaders even existed.

      1. Oh, but Jim Baen didn’t drink the PC ink. That made him evil, so anything he did must be equally evil.

        Oh. Sorry. I’ll put the sarcasm bulldozer away now.

    2. Oh, but doing that means *losing control*, and we can’t have that, can we?

  9. I am a reader, not a writer; up until recently I’m afraid I paid no attention to the publisher. If I liked the book I got it; the ebook ‘revolution’ has enabled me to find authors directly and so led me further away from ‘traditional’ publishers, in a way. Yes, author blogs do have an effect!
    One comment though, struck me particularly; one person (the ‘moderator’?), where it was said that advances from trad publishers are what enables ‘niche’ non-fiction books to be published, the advance pays for research and materials the author would not otherwise be able to afford. It appears from the comments that her list consists of writers who already have a pretty healthy platform, but it also appears she doesn’t understand the effect the internet has had.
    The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook was published in 2011 by Storey, written by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius. it’s a tremendous source book for those in the spinning/knitting/weaving world (um, yes, I’m part of that niche world, why do you ask? ). Deborah Robson is well known in fiber arts, and is particularly interested in the more primitive sheep, like Shetlands, but couldn’t afford the research/travelling to write the book she wanted. *Last year* her friends put together a pattern book/essays called Dreaming of Shetland and sold it on Ravelry and its own website, the money going to her. Robson is now busy writing, researching, and travelling to write that book. Academic presses will probably always have their place (Anglo-Saxon textiles, anyone? ) but there already are non-publisher ways to manage ‘niche’ books.

    1. That’s exactly the kind of thing that the old model can’t do. It can’t cope with a niche that’s hard to define and doesn’t have all that many people (on a percentage basis – there are enough people in the world that a 1/2% niche is still millions of people).

  10. The one group not represented on that panel, readers. Which tells me that the people in charge of publishing will never actually understand what’s happening to them.

    1. Well, the trad publisher attitude to readers *is* a bit like the old nurse joke – you know, “It would be a great job if it wasn’t for those damn patients”

      1. I’m listening right now to “religious experience” and “I print stuff that Doesn’t sell.” These are the people who want Amazon, and by extension the readers to subsidize them. Sorry guys but I’m voting with my wallet and that’s the end of it. Amazon delivers and that’s why they get my money.

  11. I’m listening to the Panel, and they are so out of touch that I’m not sure that they even understand how a bookstore operates. They keep acting as if Amazon is something that Amazon is not. The stuff about Amazon’s search made no sense. The stuff about how it was OK for the big five to get into a room and fix prices, but not for Amazon or any other retailer to set the retail prices that they sell at is more than a little twisted.

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