Let’s End the Author vs. Publisher Feuding and Indie vs Trad

There’s a lot of back and forth in publishing going on.  Especially between “traditional” publishing and non-traditional.  The latter would include not only the indie authors, but also non-traditional publishers flexing their muscles, such as Amazon.

I posted a blog a while back saying I felt like traditional publishing died in March 2012, we just haven’t realized it—with the emphasis on traditional not publishing.  Surprisingly, it received little reaction.  Then I posted a reply to an interview with Simon & Schuster’s Chief Digital Officer from an author’s perspective.  That got some attention from inside the industry.

Sometimes it appears that the Big 6 and Amazon are locked in a strange struggle, much like Don Cheadle and his ex-wife in an early episode of House of Lies, where they’re screwing each other in an office bathroom while at the same time choking each other to the point where they both pass out.

After all, Amazon needs content right?  And the Big 6 provide it.  And the Big 6 are earning money off eBooks, making up for declining print sales and the majority of those e-sales come via Amazon.  Right?

And both Amazon and the Big 6 need writers.  Right?

Why?

Because readers want books.  So the reader wanting the book is the destination.  How and in what format the reader gets that book can vary greatly.

The reader has always been someone that writers were very focused on.  But publishers, not so much.  Distribution was the focus.  Giving the reader access to the book.  That’s changed drastically and thus we have position like Chief Digital Officer in a publishing house.

So we have the writer creating content and the reader consuming content.  Everyone else is in between.  The question then becomes are they facilitating that relationship or hindering it?

A fundamental problem in publishing has always been a disconnect between publishers and writers/readers.  I see authors getting press for championing publishers and the way the system works (Scott Turow, strangely as president of the Author’s Guild, a misnomer, Malcolm Gladwell and others.).  But they are the 5%.  If we have Occupy Wall Street, perhaps the indie author movement is Occupy Publishing?  The midlist author has, frankly, been treated poorly by publishers.  Not out of meanness or spite.  But because of lack of resources and lack of return.  The publisher didn’t have the editors, publicists, etc to support them and ultimately, the bookstore didn’t have the shelfspace.  And the ROI for the vast majority of those authors wasn’t worth it with around 90% of novels “failing”.  Of course, the argument could be made, and I’ve made it for years, is that this is a classic chicken/egg situation.  Was the lack of ROI because of the lack of support, which was because of the lack of ROI?

So on the other end of Turow/Gladwell, the well-curated who naturally want to protect a system that is working just fine for them, we have some indie authors wishing hellfire and brimstone on the traditional publishing world.  I know from whence his rage comes.  Every midlist, low list and unpublished writers does.

I think what really needs to happen is that the vast majority of authors need real representation with publishers.  At least be listened to.  If 90% of novels published, “fail” then we need to really rethink the business model.  The people who have the most vested interest in those novels not failing are the author.  Instead of having an adversarial relationship we need to go in the other direction and make the author-publisher relationship much closer than it’s ever been.

Your thoughts?  What can publishers do to help midlist authors sell books?

 

And, as an aside, Jen and I are teaching a Self-Publishing Options on-line course in April and May.

About Bob Mayer

West Point Graduate, former Green Beret and NY Times bestselling author Bob Mayer has had over 50 books published. He has sold over five million books, and is in demand as a team-building, life-changing, and leadership speaker and consultant for his Who Dares Wins concept. He's been on bestseller lists in thriller, science fiction, suspense, action, war, historical fiction and is the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll. Born in the Bronx, Bob attended West Point and earned a BA in psychology with honors and then served as an Infantry platoon leader, a battalion scout platoon leader, and a brigade recon platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division. He joined Special Forces and commanded a Green Beret A Team. He served as the operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and with Special Operations Command (Special Projects) in Hawaii. Later he taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, the course which trains new Green Berets. He lived in Korea where he earned a Black Belt in Martial Arts. He's earned a Masters Degree in Education.

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Attacking “trad” is not productive, but we should wear “indie” or “POD” or ??? as a badge of honor. By eliminating (or reducing) overhead we can return to a more interactive relationship with readers.

    The good stuff will start with POD. Innovation will live in POD. We’re dangerous. We’re where it’s at. It’s a branding issue.

    How did the early pulp sci-fi magazines go mainstream? Was there an event, or was it organic?

  2. Major League Baseball is a game where players “fail” most of the time. Getting a hit 30% of the time makes you a “300 hitter” and an excellent baseball player (especially if you are a Designated Hitter) even though you are technically “failing” 70% of the time. Major League Baseball has no room for “100 hitters.” Failing 90% of the time means you can sit and watch… on TV, or you can buy a ticket, but you are not welcome on the playing field.

    If 90% of books published by traditional publishers “fail,” doesn’t that imply that traditional publishers are just very bad at the business of publishing? That is their primary function, right?

    If 90% of an ad agency’s campaigns failed, they’d go out of business in short order, no? If 90% of a software developer’s products failed… etc…

    I published my first novel last fall. I’m lucky, I admit, but nevertheless, I’m batting a thousand in terms of turning a profit. But if my next 9 books are failures, I doubt I will be able to remain in the publishing business. In fact, it seems unlikely I would even get to 9 failures out of ten before the need for food and shelter intervene. But something tells me I can do a lot better than “traditional” batting average on my own.

    • Look at the entire MLB metaphor. A tiny fraction of baseball players make the bigs, but there’s plenty o’ baseball available for everyone. In fact, it’s fair to say that everyone that wants to be a baseball player can find a place to play. It’s also fair to say that most of the players with the skill and drive to play in the bigs make it there.

      I enjoy going to minor league games, esp. A and AA. The kids play harder and the game is more sport (vs. theater). Let’s embrace the farm team model. Publishing is a process, not an event.

  3. I think the problem is the Big-6 McFranchised the publishing industry … and paid the price when readers grew tired of reading nothing but McAuthors. In a day and age when many former book readers are easily amused by reality television, twitter, and web-surfing, those who grow tired of those distractions are looking to sink their teeth into something a little more meaningful than McStory. A mass market McBook grabbed on the go is a fast, tasty treat to kill time while waiting on the subway, but once you curl up in that wing-chair to unwind, you want something a little more substantial than McBook. McPublishers have been so focused on profit that they forgot why our founding fathers held freedom of speech and press so highly it was the first amendment of the Constitution. The printed word is meant to be important, dammit!

    I, for one, scoped out the publishing landscape (especially the rise of e-book and POD) and asked myself why would I want to subject myself to the arrogance of agents/publishers when they no longer provide much of value to an aspiring author. Editors … you have hire one yourself if you want anything other than a perfunctory read-through. Platform … you have to build it all yourself. Customers … you have to find them all yourself. Marketing … you have to do it all yourself. With Amazon, B&N, and even small, local paper-and-press publishers jumping on the self-published bandwagon as ‘business partners’ for aspiring authors instead of McOverlords, why on earth would any fairly well-educated author want to give away such a huge percentage of their profits to an industry which provides little value?

    Or as Diane Keaton said in the movie ‘Baby Boom,’ “If FoodCorp can put Country Baby on every supermarket shelf in America … then so can I…”

  4. We are on the left side of the learning curve with many miles yet to travel before we see to the other side of this issue. Forget the dust settling, the kicking up has just begun. With all due respect to so many in your position (that of more “knowing” than not) … this is a new experience.

    Instead of an answer, which I honestly don’t have … I’d like to ask: What is the percentage of books published that are indie and what percentage are traditional? Do we count in the traditional number all those e-only publishers, the small genre press? Do we leave out of the count literary small press, university press … ie literary novels? All together, is there a total percentage of books that are pub’d in any fashion in the traditional mode (not only with the Big 6) and a total of those pub’d “indie” in whatever fashion? Thanks.

  5. “Instead of having an adversarial relationship we need to go in the other direction and make the author-publisher relationship much closer than it’s ever been.” Amen. This will require big change for both author and publisher, but I think publishing is finally making its way out of the 19th century. :-)

  6. I like the positive slant. Better to join forces rather than fight one another, when the goal is the same, to get good books into the marketplace. I like that old quote: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

  7. If we’re not going to wind up with a chaotic system where every author becomes his own publisher, we need new kinds of publishers. If the traditional publishers die, we’ll wind up with gatekeepers like Amazon. At some point, if indie authors, many of whom are not very good at what they do, pile down the system with material that’s painful to read, providers like Amazon will get start to get more aggressive about the review and rating process.

    At some point they’ll provide customers a way to filter out one and two star rated books from their web-searches and then it’ll get ugly. Fake reviews will pop up everywhere and rival authors will snipe each other’s work and we’d all hate to see it come to that.

    I had an author in my own field take a back-handed snipe at my own book because it didn’t include information that he specializes in. He was, of course, hopeing to drive people to his own book, but he knocked off a star on my rating because I didn’t include information that it is his specialty. I deliberately left that to his field. I thought he ought to appreciate it rather than making reading his books unnecessary by handling the subject himself.

    He supposed he was doing his own marketing. In our field (nonprofit fund-raising) you promote your own book or you die. That’s it.

    At any rate, I think you have the right idea on indie publishing. If, as an indie author, I have to go to the trouble of learning the publishing racket, I would start working with fellow authors to get them published as well through some sort of co-op publishing arrangement where the folk that do editing and design (or even marketing) share royalties with the author.

    What I’d like to see is the author taking the lion’s share and letting publishing take the 10-15% royalties. With the rise of the e-book and the publish-on-demand industry, that’s more feasible than ever and it makes the small circulation book more cost-effective and profitable.

    The kind of author-centric publisher you describe, even if it’s a new iteration of the traditional publishing houses, would, I think, soon be swamped with material.

    Tom King

    • “At some point, if indie authors, many of whom are not very good at what they do, pile down the system with material that’s painful to read, providers like Amazon will get start to get more aggressive about the review and rating process.”

      Amazon have little incentive to do that, because unlike many online book retailers, they have very good search capabilities which allow readers to find the books they want and not find the books they don’t want. An e-book that sits at 2,000,000 in the rankings and sells one copy a year at $0.99 has more than paid for its storage costs, and the cost of reviewing it, calling it ‘bad’ and throwing it out would be far more than the cost of just leaving it there.

      As I see it, all Amazon want is to help people find what they want and take their cut in the process. They don’t care whether a critic thinks a book is good or bad, only that someone buys a copy now and again. I could see them eventually throwing out books that never sell over a few years, or where readers persistently complain, but if they’re making money, why would they want to get into the reviewing business? Once you get beyond the unreadable, one person’s crap is another person’s quality.

  8. Supposedly trad publishers put less than 5% of their marketing budget in to promoting each mid-list author. Perhaps they need to redo their budgets? Look at where they can trim costs in other areas. Just the same way a regular reader does in these times, in order to afford to buy the books….
    Yvette Carol

  9. As one of those mid-lists you’re describing, I have to shrug my shoulders and say, “Who cares?” The big six can go their way and I’ll go mine. So long as companies like Smashwords and yes, even Amazon, provide a market for my readers, I’ll be satisfied with my small piece of the pie, and even if the markets disappear, I’ll find another way to reach my readers.
    The self-publishing wave has started some very intelligent people thinking. No longer are they bound by an old, outmoded paradigm. They’ve found a new way to be creative, and that blending of a huge amount of keen minds may yet come up with an even more creative avenue for literary expression.
    Who knows what the future may bring?
    But one thing’s for sure, it’s bound to be stimulating, fun, and very exciting.

  10. I think we’ll see smaller, leaner publishers sprouting up. They already are. Many won’t last. But some will. We’ve had the fortune of my backlist to give us a solid base and have been moving forward from that. Our learning curve has been very steep indeed.

  11. Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    I am glad to finally see the use of the word ‘Hybrid’ as pertaining to writers recently. I’ve been a hybrid artist in many creative forms but it’s nice to see the term taking off within the industry now. The best of both worlds.

  12. I think the days of sitting down in a deliberately shortened and uncomfortable chair before the massive oak desk of some intimidating, cigar chomping publisher in his oak-paneled office and waiting for him to decide whether our work is worthy or not are fast waining.

    My field has been nonprofit fund-raising. One of the revolutionary ideas in fund-raising of the past couple of decades has been what I like to call fund-raising without permission. At one time a cadre of local leaders pretty much divvied up the local philanthropy between a limited circle of anointed charities. I was privileged to be involved in teaching local nonprofits operating outside the circle the fine art of fund-raising without permission.

    I could tell we were succeeding when I overheard a local banker complain that our little fund-raising coop was bringing in too much outside money. We even got a local good old boy nonprofit group slapped down by the feds. They had been stripping more than it’s share of funds from multi-agency federal projects and because we had educated ourselves about the process we caught them at it and everybody bailed out of the project, leaving them with a big fat government check and no partners to write checks to so that they could skim off their cut. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.

    Same thing appears to be happening in the publishing industry. We are “publishing without permission” and several good things are coming out of it. (1) more people are getting published, (2) authors are making more money per book and (c) readers are getting a better deal costwise and a better selection of reading material

    That seems to me to be a good thing all in all.

  13. Okay so… I want to respond but I’m not exactly sure how to put my response into words – it’s an emotional response. It seems shortsighted and counter-productive to give one author a six or seven figure advance in the hopes that that one author will be the next big thing. This is just an observation, I’m not throwing down the gauntlet.
    Why not use a business model, one which looks at trends and niche markets, one that spreads the money around? I’m just sayin’…
    I don’t engage with traditional publishing and they don’t engage with me. I’m happy as an Indie. Am I making those seven figures? Hell no. But I’m happy with what I am making. And I plan to keep on keepin’ on.

    Anna – if you’re listening, there’s something about McAuthors and McPublishers and McBooks in one of my Indie works – Incorporeal. Too funny!

    • All of my fiction books (all published under a pen name so nobody mistakes my non-fiction/trade with my fantasy-fiction works) begin and end with God and Satan playing chess. I think it’s kind of like that with McPublishers and McAgents. Authors are simply pawns in a game of eternal chess. Only all us indies have recently decided to rally behind John Milton’s version of Lucifer and take the plunge. Chaos will rein … but it’s sure a hell of a lot of fun!

  14. Great post, Bob. Great comments too. Here’s what I think. Do we need the Big 6: Yes we all do. They are the major marketers of well edited popular books that actually draw in new readers. However, the Big 6 must learn that times are a changing and get back in the marketing game by offering new authors a chance. If they don’t, in not too many years from now they will be wondering just what happened.
    Indies and small press must give a quality to compete with the big boys(or girls). Very few will sell enough books to retire– but for most writers that’s just not the point. In all of this most of the comments have ignored the ones that are our true life’s blood. The READERS. Bob Mayer has proven that if you offer a good quality, well written, excellent story; then readers will follow your trail of books. And it takes writing more than one book.

  15. I’ve always said its not just publishers who have to change, but writers have to change as well. Many writers are changing with the current trends in publishing. Many are not. Bob once used the analogy that NY Publishing is a big ship and that boat can’t turn on a dime. It takes a long, long while. I keep hearing about these mega advances. This is one area I believe has to change. Writers need to be willing to take a smaller advance, in return however, for larger piece of the pie AND the marketing push. Many publishers are giving smaller advances, but they aren’t giving the author a bigger royalty, paying faster AND really marketing the book. We talk a lot about long tail–sustainability. The magic doesn’t always happen in the first few weeks of release. It happens over time and it happens with more Content. I believe the biggest thing publishers can do to help the mid-list author is to work with as a team member. Sure, lower the advance, but give the author a larger royalty rate. Move more and more toward digital. Help the POD technology. Find ways to fix this broken business model.

    • Yeah really good ideas Jen! I hope someone is listening….
      Yvette Carol

    • Do you know how many new authors would KILL to get a $5,000 advance? Not five-figures. Not six. But low-four … so long as it comes with a -real- editor and a -real- marketing program to give them an honest chance to get their foot in the door. These days, so long as it doesn’t COST them money, most new authors would risk get-paid-as-you-go. They’d take NO advance whatsoever so long as some guru-publisher took that investment and spent it on a decent editor to give them feedback so they could improve their craft. People understand the concept of earning their keep or waiting to get paid until the book sells. We’re not talking vanity publishers, here. We’re talking potentially great authors who just need a little direction from a mentor and aren’t getting it.

      Why do you think authors spend $5,000 per pop to go to these so-called ‘writers retreats?’ You only go to these so-called conferences AFTER you’ve improved your craft as much as you can on your own and bring your perfect end-product in the hope of catching one of the VIP-agents eyes while there.

      Yes … the business model is broken. It’s built on brutal exploitation of the wanna-be’s. It needs to change. It’s GOING to change. E-book/POD has radically altered the playing field and I think you’re going to see new players rising to power in the chaos that ensues.

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