This blog post is the second in a series in which I analyse an article written by David Rozansky, publisher of Flying Pen Press, regarding the recent decision by literary agent Andrew Wylie to set up his own publishing house and license e-book rights to some of his clients’ works exclusively to Amazon. You can read My Rozansky’s original piece in full here, and my first blog post about it here. All articles in this series are filed under the tag They Had It Coming.
Over to Mr Rozansky.
They Had It Coming [continued]
But this is not just about owning the electronic rights to a few older books. Random House, MacMillan, and the rest of the publishing houses in New York and London are now seeing the result of their greedy, draconian habits, of making money off the work of authors.
Beep! Beep! Rhetoric alert! Why is it greedy to want your business to make money? When a publishing house operates at a loss it can’t pay its staff, its print bills, or its sales reps. It closes down, and then it can’t publish any more books, and no one makes anything at all. How is trying to run a profitable business having “greedy, draconian habits” or unfairly “making money off the work of authors”? When writers sign their publishing contracts they know exactly what to expect, so how is this unfair? And has it escaped your notice that when publishers sell books, the writers of those books earn royalties from those sales?
Because they have squeezed authors harder and harder, authors have had to change to self-publishing business models, and they are doing so rather successfully.
Some mainstream authors have turned to self-publishing, but not many; and very few have been successful. We’ve all heard of Joe Konrath’s recent successes on the Kindle but he wouldn’t have been able to make so many sales had he not already had a large fan-base—which was initially developed by his big-name publisher, which paid him a lovely big advance for what I think was a six-book series. And remember that almost all of those books he’s now selling have been edited by professional editors, which will have improved them. I wonder how successful he’d be if he didn’t already have his brand so well-established.
Mr Konrath has now moved to an exclusively self-published profile as his latest book has, I believe, been rejected by his publisher. I’ve heard a few reports (which I haven’t yet substantiated: I apologise wholeheartedly if this is not the case) that his Kindle edition sales are not as high as he’s claimed, and that his resulting income is lower than he’s suggested: I sincerely hope these reports are wrong. I wish him well, and hope he sells a whole heap of books: but meanwhile, I am watching his progress closely.
Moving on from Mr Konrath, the authors I know who have moved from mainstream publishing to self-publishing have done so because they couldn’t get another mainstream contract, and they felt they’d rather self-publish than not publish at all. Yes, you get more money per copy sold from a self-published book: but you also pay out a lot more money in order to sell and promote them effectively; and good sales figures for self-published books are far lower than poor sales figures for mainstream-published books. I’d rather have a 10% royalty of sales of 10,000 copies than a 70% royalty of sales of just 200.
Publishers are finding that the authors have become their biggest competitors, and to their horror, they are finding that the authors control the industry. Content is king, and only authors provide the content.
The publishers’ biggest competitors are not daring self-published authors: they are the other publishers. Most self-published writers publish too few titles each and sell too few copies of each of those books to divert any significant amount of income away from the big boys. Really: most of the big publishers are barely aware of the self-publishing movement and that’s not because they’re dinosaurs: it’s because the amount of income they lose to self-publishers is miniscule.
The publishers should have seen this coming. At every writers conference I have been to in the last thirty years, someone in the cheap seats at the back of the room asks “So, why do authors need publishers, then?”
I’ll tell you why writers need publishers. Publishers edit, copy edit and proof-read writers’ books; they typeset and design the book inside and out; they market and promote their books (with varying degrees of success and attention, but they do it despite what some people claim); they employ sales people to tout the books to all sorts of retailers, both on and offline, in order to get them in front of their potential readers; they collect all the payments for all those sales and ensure that they’re correct; and then they pass on royalties to the writers, as per their contract. Writers can do all this themselves, of course: but if their time is taken up with publishing, marketing and accounting, when are they going to have time to write?
Of all the self-published books I’ve read for my little review site, not a single one has been edited, designed, printed and bound to the standard of even the cheapest mainstream edition. Some of the books get most of the various aspects of publishing right, but not one has managed it all. Quality shows and while the main part of a book is, of course, its text, if the readers don’t perceive it as a quality product they are far less likely to buy it; and their perception of that book begins the instant they see it on bookshop shelves, before they’ve even read a single word.
Publishers, editors and agents have tried in vain to answer this question, usually with desperation and trepidation in their voices. I know, because I have asked this question as a writer, and tried to answer it as a publisher. The only answer I can give is that authors do not need us publishers. Authors absolutely do not need us in any way!
I disagree that publishers, editors and agents have “tried in vain to answer this question”. I answered it in my point above, and I’ve seen publishers, editors and agents do the same on their blogs, at conventions, and when they respond to submissions. You’re presenting opinion as fact, hoping that layering it with another dollop of rhetoric will hide that.
I’ve looked at Flying Pen Press’s website and with all due respect, I’m very uncomfortable with your business model. You seem determined to publish writers without shouldering any of the responsibility or risk; and in so doing you’re pretty much guaranteeing that the best editors, designers etc. won’t work for you. The details are discussed here at Absolute Write.
Oh, there was a time when publishers controlled the means of prepress production. Setting type was a difficult and expensive process. As presses became gargantuan monsters, it became even more of difficult for authors to reach large numbers of readers without a publisher.
I used to set type when I was at art college. It’s not that difficult, just time-consuming; and it’s expensive only because it is so time-consuming. But I don’t see why the introduction of bigger and better printing-presses made it more difficult for writers who were determined to self-publish to reach their readers: there were still small printing-presses around, and there are other ways of getting books reproduced. This paragraph is at best padding and at worst, a bit of a red herring.
Publishers also had control of the distribution of books. Readers could only buy books at bookstores and news racks, and only publishers had the means to reach those venues.
If you want to be really persnickety about it (and you know I do!), publishers don’t have control of book distribution: book distributors do. They have always been reluctant to work with self-publishers because of the lack of sales that self-published books are likely to make, which eats into the distributors’ profitability. Remember, book distributors are businesses just like publishers are. Self-publishers who can demonstrate a reasonable number of titles in print, and a decent level of sales for each of those titles, can usually find a distributor to take their books on if they’re willing to support their titles with a solid marketing plan and put a decent budget behind it: the point is that most self-publishers can’t do this, and so they can’t get proper distribution.
Even without proper distribution, self-publishers can still sell their books into bookshops: the trouble is that they have to do all the legwork themselves—which means schlepping around all the bookshops they can find, hoping to sell their books in. No wonder, then, that most self-published titles sell so few books.
The third gripping installment of this series will appear on 10 September.