Eisler’s decision is a key benchmark on the road to wherever it is we’re going
I wasn’t planning to write a post this past weekend for Monday morning publication. But then Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. I’ve read their lengthy conversation about Barry’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.
To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan. This self-publishing author will much more assuredly and directly spawn followers.
As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?”
I submit a bit of perspective from another part of publishing: scholarly journals. A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.
I am not alone in having long known that self-publishing would ultimately present big authors with the opportunity to disintermediate their publishers, but I wouldn’t have thought when I asked that question that the sci-tech journal would hold its ground longer. Now I wouldn’t be so sure.
The decision for Eisler, at its core, was pretty simple. On the basis of what he’s learned from his friend Joe Konrath, who seems to be banking in the mid-six-figures self-publishing annually after a career as a non-bestselling author for established publishers, and what Eisler learned himself by self-publishing a short story, he figures he can earn more, much more, in the long run by publishing himself. This is not about ego or vanity; it is not about hating the publishing establishment. It is a coldly calculated decision (by an author who should make those well; he started out in life as a covert CIA operative) that says, in effect, “it would not be smart to take half-a-million bucks considering what I’d have to give away to get it.”
In the conversation between them which they just published, Konrath and Eisler touch upon many aspects of the publisher-author interaction and the author’s self interest. The conversation is smart, sophisticated, and mostly entertaining (although it is definitely too long; should they have hired an editor?) It is a conversation that everybody in the industry thinking about its future will likely read more than once (particularly the highlights, which are sure to be extracted by many people from the entire text.) Contained within it are certainly a number of points made to which there are valid rejoinders that could be offered. And certainly some will point out that Eisler’s BookScan figures suggest a decline in commercial appeal. But, in the overall scheme of things, the contentious portions are minor and the fact that his sales through publishers have been declining would mitigate the expectations for him somewhat and make any success he achieves on his own even more noteworthy.
The overall thrust is that an author has just made an entirely rational decision to turn down half-a-million bucks of big publisher money to self-publish. And what is said in their dialogue, but perhaps not emphatically enough, is that the direction of change makes this decision likely to make more sense to more authors each successive week than it did the week before.
What we do here at The Shatzkin Files is try to provide insight about the implications of news events rather than be the best reporter of them. If the implications of self-publishing to the business models of established publishers interests you (and what are you doing here if it doesn’t?), then you need to read the entire exchange they’ve published and the reporting others will do of it. I will limit this post (longer than mine usually are as it is) to a few points which for the most part are intended to extend their discussion, rather than contend with or correct it.
1. They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it.
One of the themes that I’ve been working on for some conferences I’m planning (more on that upcoming later this week) is how the arguments about rights, royalties, and publisher leverage change as the balance between digital and print sales continues to shift. What this conversation can make you forget is that far more than half of most books’ sales, perhaps more than 70% for the majority of titles, are still print copies selling because they’re on-hand in a physical retail location. And that’s in the US. The number is higher in the UK and is almost certainly more than 90% in most other places in the world. So even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.
But, having said that, the shift to digital seems to be increasing in speed worldwide. The percentage of print sales will keep declining. Eisler would have been signing a contract for a book that would come out a year from now and digital will be more important then, perhaps twice as important then, as it is now. And, as he points out in the conversation, the book a publisher would put out a year from now will have been selling and delivering revenue for a year before the publisher would have had something in the marketplace. To paraphrase the great author and publisher, Mark Twain, “the self-publisher will be halfway round the world before the legacy publisher can get his boots on.”
And that leads me to…
2. I’d be amazed if Barnes & Noble doesn’t detect an opportunity here to do a completely different kind of deal. What if B&N went to Eisler and said, “we’d like to buy print rights to sell your books just to our own customer base”? I can’t see why he wouldn’t just say “yes.”
What I’m envisioning here is something like a book club deal. B&N pays an advance and licenses the right to print its own copies for display and sale through its own stores and dot com. This could work many ways, but one might be for them to pay a royalty based on the actual selling price for every copy shifted. That would allow them to manage their downside risk on the printing because they could cut the price when sales slow down.
That might lead (or even trail) a wholesaler like Ingram or Baker & Taylor or Charles Levy to make a similar offer to print copies for sale through other retail outlets. The big publishers have taken a firm position (which, in my opinion, they’ll be figuring out how to walk back in a year or two) against buying print rights only, but one has to figure that a smaller publisher or a trade book distributor, looking at lots of underutilized capacity to handle print in the coming months, might see commercial merit in handling the print side of a major ebook bestseller.
Konrath does tout his sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which enables his books to be available in print for their online customer base. But he doesn’t talk about B&N’s PubIt program or setting up his title at Lightning Source, which would make it available as print online more broadly. None of these solutions put speculative inventory in stores, though, and that’s necessary to get the full marketing and sales impact for any book today (and probably for a few more years to come.)
3. Because Konrath has proved to be such a multi-talented combo do-it-yourselfer and finder-of-resources, the conversation doesn’t touch on the range of service providers that can help the potential self-publishing author for fees or for a much smaller percentage than a publisher would take. There’s mention of Smashwords, which is one, and of CreateSpace. But the self-publishing giant Author Solutions and lulu.com aren’t mentioned. Neither is BookMasters, a company we’ve worked with in Ashland, Ohio, which offers a range of self-publishing services, including access to all the editing requirements discussed by Konrath and Eisler along with some human-intermediary handholding that many authors will need. Perseus is building a similar set of services, extending its Constellation service, which began as the means to enable their roster of print distribution clients break into digital publishing. And Ingram has a suite of capabilities that could be extended, if they chose to make the investment, to be an author-service platform. The Scott Waxman Literary Agency is the first to have created a digital publishing arm that, with tweaking, could provide an author with the help they’d need. They won’t be the last.
The single greatest shortcoming of the Konrath-Eisler conversation, to me, was its Amazon-centricity, although there is one place in the conversation that begins to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble’s Nook sales are becoming significant. (Some publishers have told me that Kindle has declined from a share well north of 80% to one in the mid 50s while Nook is now accounting for 25% of their ebook sales in the US.) They don’t mention Kobo, which might have as much as a 7% share now. Sony is still a player. Apple’s iBookstore really shouldn’t be ignored. And Google ebooks is the lifeline for independent bookstores to sell ebooks. No author who wants to stay sweet with independents can afford to ignore putting their books into Google. In fact, Random House executives told us that the growing use of Google by indies was a factor in their decision to level the pricing playing field by moving to agency pricing last month.
And as the build-out of pathways for English-language books abroad continues, these non-Amazon, non-B&N players become even more important.
When Konrath started doing his self-publishing two or three years ago, working exclusively through Amazon made complete sense on an effort-to-reward basis. It is becoming increasingly important to cover more points of distribution, even digitally.
But that doesn’t change the calculation that much for Eisler’s decision. There are already helpers in the marketplace to extend beyond Amazon and there will, undoubtedly, be more. The conversation imagines this kind of service provision. And (if they’re competent) the ones now in the marketplace will be falling over themselves to introduce Eisler to what they can do for him.
4. OK, here’s what these guys really got wrong. They made a mistake about baseball. Their post is full of line drives off the wall, but their interpretation of baseball history is flawed.
I refer to Konrath’s observation about the Negro Leagues in baseball, suggesting that the reason the majors brought in black players was that Negro League baseball had become superior to Major League baseball. Actually, that wasn’t true at all. Although some integrated barnstorming over the years did result in black teams beating white ones from time to time, it was seldom suggested — and certainly no major league owners or fans thought — that the overall level of play was higher in the Negro Leagues. It wasn’t.
Beating a competitor that had somehow demonstrated its superiority was never the motivation for the major league teams to integrate. It was all about them competing with each other and not ignoring talent. The real history might contain a useful lesson for the legacy players in publishing today.
What drove Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson was pure competitive zeal. He wanted to win. He wanted good ballplayers to help him win. If he was missing some good ballplayers by ignoring blacks, he’d stop ignoring blacks.
When he did that, other teams followed. And, in pretty short order, the Negro Leagues were destroyed because the best ballplayers they had were playing in the Major Leagues.
A similar effect has weakened, if not quite destroyed, Christian publishing in the US. A quarter century ago, Christian publishing and bookselling existed in a parallel universe to secular trade: different publishers, different stores, different commission rep groups. Just different. Then superstore expansion and some major Christian bestsellers led to the major chains starting to carry the best titles from the Christian publishers. That weakened the Christian booksellers, who were the ones that carried the wider range of titles from the Christian publishers which, in turn, weakened them.
Of course, Eisler hasn’t succeeded yet. He has a book to put out this Father’s Day that he turned down $250,000 to have come out next Father’s Day. If the over-under is whether he’ll have earned his $250,000 by then, which way would you bet? It would strike me as extremely ambitious, but if he can sell at $4.95, not entirely inconceivable. And, of course, you could set the bar at which you’d call it “success” a lot lower than that.
If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that I was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?
Konrath made the point that self-publishing just gives him more time to write. He and Eisler both expressed frustration about living with the long schedules and companion limitations of traditional publishing practices. From their perspective, it is wasteful to not start monetizing IP quickly after it is finished in the digital age and it is unnecessarily constraining sales and income to publish only one book a year, or even one per publishing season.
I’ve tried to recruit Joe to speak at conferences, with a total lack of success, because he thinks the best marketing he can do is just to keep writing. New stories help him market himself more than public appearances do. Since he also enjoys writing more than speaking and would rather be home than on the road, it’s a pretty tough sell to ask him to lose a day of editorial output to have a conversation with a bunch of strangers.
The portion of their conversation about staying focused on generating editorial output was one of the most persuasive elements of it. A publisher would help itself a lot if it focused on that question too and thought of a writer’s time as a valuable resource that should be devoted, as much as possible, to doing what that writer can do that nobody else can. And that’s “write.”