The Shatzkin Files


True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare


Getting ready for our eBooks for Everyone Else conferences, I discovered an author named Bob Mayer who impressed me with his self-publishing zeal and apparent success. Bob has written lots of military fiction, science fiction, even a romance novel, and some non-fiction: dozens of books over the years for major publishers. Most of it was mass-market, most of it reverted relatively easily and Bob systematically secured those rights reversions for years.

He caught my attention with the bare bones of his story. He started putting his work up as ebooks in January, when he sold a few hundred books. By July he had more than 40 titles available and was selling a total of over 100,000 units a month. I had long wanted to put an author before my conference audiences who had achieved self-publishing success to talk about how s/he’d done it.

Joe Konrath and, more recently, John Locke had politely turned me down. I booked a 1-on-1 conversation with Barry Eisler at our Publishers Launch Conference at BEA right after he announced his decision to turn down a 6-figure advance to self-publish. Alas (for this objective of mine), the morning of the event Barry signed a contract with Amazon to do his next book with them. Although he has self-published some short fiction. Eisler’s story became that he is an Amazon-published author, not a self-published author. That’s a good story and we had a good session on-stage that the conference audience benefited from, but it was not a a self-publishing report from an author who truly did it on his or her own.

(Eisler’s wife, the literary agent Laura Rennert, reported at eBEE in San Francisco that Amazon is succeeding very well with Eisler’s current book, The Detachment — which I read and enjoyed – and that his substantial advance has already been earned out.)

So I was pleased to learn with a phone call that, not only was Mayer an enagaging talker, but that he was willing to make the journey from his home in Seattle to San Francisco to discuss his success with a conference audience.

But what became clear when I had a further conversation with Mayer the day before our conference, buttressed by what was said by many other participants at the event, is that the Hocking-Konrath-Locke story — an author managing all the pieces of their publishing program and and achieving a totally private success — is a Dodo bird. Unless we consolidate down to an only-Amazon ebook world, which, despite Amazon’s best efforts, doesn’t seem likely anytime soon but would undoubtedly create a whole new rule book if it ever arrived, the work and expertise required for successful publishing will lead inexorably to one of two results.

Either an author will get help to publish their own material — a distributor like Constellation or Ingram or a publisher — or they’ll find what they built to serve themselves would be better and less-expensively maintained with the work of additional authors to go along with their own. There’s enough work and expertise involved in what had first seemed to many such a simple process that it requires building a bit of a machine to do it. And once a machine is built, it is just wasteful to leave it idling between the works generated by any one writer.

This point was made by Mayer when he told me that he is now recruiting other authors to publish. He started out by finding a partner to handle the technology component and mechanics of his efforts. In his already-substantial experience in less than a year, he has learned that proper editing is essential, as are eye-catching covers, as is the right metadata. He told me and our audience that a single complaint from a reader to Amazon about a typo in one’s book can result in the ebook being taken down for a required correction. He has learned, as others have, that maximizing revenue requires changing and re-changing your prices, which is more work.

Bob says he has even fixed plot errors that were pointed out by Kindle readers.

(Another view of this aggressiveness to satisfy customers was offered to me by a Big Six executive a few months ago when he related the story of a book published by his house that had been taken down. There the “culprit” was vernacular language that was interpreted by a reader as poorly copy-edited grammar. There was nothing wrong with the ebook, but one reader thinking there was resulted in a takedown that cost everybody sales for several days until the ebook could be put back up!)

Bob says books can disappear from major retail sites for no apparent reason as well. He says that anybody who believes that ebook publishing is like “sending the book to a printer, after which you can forget about working on it” is mistaken.

And he believes that any author whose work is good and wants to take a self-publishing route would be wise to cede a percentage of sales to him, or somebody else, who has learned what he has and equipped themselves to prepare books properly for sale and manage them after they’re launched.

This is establishing ever so much more clearly that publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world. Amazon itself makes that clear by the difference in the deals it offers self-published authors and authors it signs for its imprints. Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them. The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

There are ebook publishers — the granddaddies eReads and Rosetta, Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books, and the giant in the space: Open Road — who are saying the “right” ebook division between author and publisher is 50-50. (We should make clear that this is the division of the revenue obtained from the retailer or “sales agent”, which would normally be 65-70% of the selling price or 50% of a publishers suggested list which could be discounted, depending on what kind of sales arrangement is in place.) Smashwords, an entirely automated service, and BookMasters, a service provider, provide distribution for 15% of the take. Two agents speaking on our panel in San Francisco, Deidre Knight and Laura Rennert, are capping their agency’s take at 15% of the revenue as well, as they walk the ethical line that is perceived by some to require that they make no more money self-publishing an author than they would selling the rights to a publisher.

Then there are many other service offerings with prices that fall in between 15% and 50%.

Amazon’s rules offer some insight on this. If you work with them through their KDP service, you get 70% (if you set your price within their accepted bands). But, as Mayer and others at our conference made clear, through KDP you can’t even purchase any special merchandising or promotion. But if you are published by Amazon’s imprints, the take is cut in half and the author gets 35% of retail, but you get lots of promotion by positioning. (Deals are private, and the details of Eisler’s deal have not been revealed, but the presumption would be that he earned out his rumored six-figure advance from Amazon at the 35% rate.) Thirty-five percent matches what a 50-50 publisher could deliver if they had an agency-like deal with the retailer.

Amazon agreements also come with the requirement that you participate in their other programs, including library lending in cooperation with OverDrive and, presumably, the new subscription program they have just announed. (It appears they chose not to include all KDP titles in the subscription program; there are only 5,000 titles announced for that initiative and since we know that Smashwords has nearly 100,000 titles, it is likely that KDP has more than that. On the other hand, late reporting by Publishers Lunch on Thursday spells out that Amazon will simply “buy” copies of any non-agency titles it wants to lend. That means they make one purchase for each loan, so it is expensive for them, but it demonstrates again that only publishers with agency arrangements have control of their distribution and how their books might be used to strengthen any one distributor’s ecosystem.)

The comparisons get complicated, but, if a conventional publisher is providing the full range of services that our speakers said is needed to maximize sales: good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, the author wouldn’t be doing badly at all to get 35% of the consumer’s dollar for an ebook. Throw in real print book distribution and sales and the royalties and marketing from that, plus a publisher’s core marketing effort (being part of a “legitimate” list gets attention from reviewers, bloggers, library collection development, and other places that matter), and, perhaps, some dedicated marketing as well, and it can be a relatively profitable exercise for an author to be with a publisher for even less than that.

When agency publishers pay 25% royalties, they are giving the author 17.5% of the paying customer’s dollar. Everybody will draw their own lines, deal by deal, but that doesn’t strike me as totally crazy as long as print sales remain more than half the total and the publisher is paying an advance that carries with it some risk that the actual royalty paid will be higher than what the contract stipulates.

That’s a moving target, of course, I personally don’t expect print sales to remain at half the total very much longer. But if major publishers were paying 50% royalty on a 70% agency sale, they’d be matching the 35% Amazon pays the authors it publishes. Amazon can do much more to promote on Amazon (which panelists at eBEE said is what really moves the needle); but publishers make noise in a lot of other places Amazon (yet) doesn’t. Presumably Open Road and Diversion and eReads and other 50-50 ebook publishers can’t match the agency terms with Amazon (they can get 70% through KDP, but that comes with pricing restraints and required agreement to those other deals we discussed earlier), so only the Big Six, who can apply agency across all accounts, can offer a comparable deal with a manageable percentage payout.

Amazon is demonstrating what they see as the value of securing the loyalty of digital book consumers for its ecosystem by their willingness to pay full wholesale price for an ebook that will then get lent once, as well as their penchant for pricing for sale well below their cost. The evidence that agency pricing is the only wall between a multi-channel ebook business and a single-retailer monopoly continues to grow. But as long as print in stores matters, and it will for a while longer, the Big Six have a legitimate commercial argument to defend ebook royalties between 25 and 50 percent. After that, everybody except Amazon will be hoping that that the Nook, Kobo, Google, and Sony market share is enough to keep it essential to an author to cover them all. And that means of discovery and merchandising will emerge that are a meaningful alternative to what is provided by the world’s biggest virtual retailer.

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  • Juliarachelbarrett

    I was there on Wednesday and heard what you heard.  The biggest pitfall for self-pubbers?  All the work entailed in covers, promo, marketing, formatting, editing…when what you really want to is write.  Yes, write.  And yet, it’s very tough for self-pubbers to afford the services required.  The more you publish, the easier it becomes, but still…promo and marketing are almost a full-time job. 
    Alternatives?  Unless someone discovers you and offers you a favorable contract and you decide to sign on the dotted line, I don’t see an alternative.  At least not yet.  Companies and consultants offering their services to authors are way out of my price range.  And getting the attention of a publishing house or a literary agent who may now style him or herself a self-publisher?  Just as tough as ever.
    I don’t see an option aside from plugging along on my own and sticking with certain, small indie pubs.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      I think all this suggests it is a good time for small indie publishers, *if* they
      pick a niche (another point Bob Mayer stressed in our offstage conversation, and which is underscored by John Locke’s “How I Did It” book) and focus on making it easier for an author to “just write”. (Although some of that writing needs to be self-promotional, not just output for sale…)
      Mike

      • JR Tomlin

        Authors have never been able to “just write” and never will be. You think book signings and convention appearances don’t take time? Ask GRR Martin.

      • Anthea

        Not to mention that EVERY NY-published writer I know is pretty much required by their publishing house to do at least most of these things:

        Tweet
        Facebook
        Have an engaging, oft-updated website
        Blog or participate in blogs
        Maintain a newsletter
        Do book blog tours when releases come out (sometimes arranged by the publishers, often not)
        Often, send ARCs to the non-major review sites
        Pay for their own ads in genre-specific publications (I’m quite serious)
        Set up their own launch parties and signings (Unless they are George RR Martin….)
        Have bookmarks/trading cards/other promo items made( Usually you only get these for free from the pub house if you are already a big-name author. Pretty much everyone else has to hire designers and pay for printing their own)
        Write chatty pieces/teasers for the back of the book
        Write chatty pieces for big-name blogs and genre magazines (RT, Kirkus)
        Deal with pressure to write ‘free’ stories as loss-leader promo for the publisher
        Are encouraged to make book trailers (on their own dime of course)

        Don’t forget the rounds of edits, copy-edits, galley proofs…

        The only people who get to do nothing but write are the people who are not interested in pursuing publication.

        And this is why increasing numbers of midlisters are not buying into the “but NY print publisher can do so much for you!” argument.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        What the NY print publisher can do for you that you can’t do for yourself is put printed books into stores. That still matters. Few of us expect it to matter very much longer.

        Mike

      • http://www.antheasharp.com Anthea

        Exactly.  :)  Yes, yes, preaching to the choir here. Thanks, Mike, for the great post that spurred such a wealth of comments~

    • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

      Julia, I sometimes feel the same way. Except then I think about the thirty years between when I sent out my first short story and now. I’ve always had a second job (that ubiquitous “real” job). I’ve only been able to devote myself completely to writing for 2 years out of the 30. Not to mention the children I raised while fulfilling book contracts and working a part time job. Doing the marketing and project management can be my “real” job from now on — if it pays as much as the “real” job, of course. So far, so good.

    • Scott Nicholson

       The notion that anyone will be able to “just write” in the modern era is another one of those cozy, popular myths. In fact, those who follow that myth seem to end up doing less writing than ever–because they are managing and communicating with many people and often have intermediaries and buffers between every single action and decision. They have less control over their own fates as anyone, which practically guarantees you won’t be able to “just write” for long. The way I look at it, no one in the publishing process, and no one you partner with, will ever care as much about your writing aas you do, however well-intentioned they are. Nor should they. Believe it or not, I trade for most of my services. I’ve published nearly 40 books and have spent maybe $200. But I’m weird–I enjoy all of it, not just the writing. Good luck!

      • Chris

        Passion for a business is always a very good way to succeed.

        Sadly, just being a wordsmith ain’t gonna cut it in most cases. Especially if you are coming out of nowhere.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Amen.

        Mike

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I think that there’s a lot of ground between “just write” and “do everything yourself without spending any cash”. I suspect they will be equally rare before long and we’ll see most successful indies have some sort of larger organization handling assigned portions of the details.
        Doing it successfully builds the capability (not in all ways, but certainly in some ways) to do it successfully again. And the more product that is aggregated, the more opportunities to market it open up.

        It’s a little bit of a how-many-angels-head-of-pin argument. All the models will exist. But I think it will be very clear 2 years from now that there is an array of choices for an author to get published well that will seem much more accessible than publishing has always been and a helluva lot easier than just doing it yourself. And more likely to succeed.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        More accessible, definitely.  More appealing to authors who want to just write, or want to avoid the learning curve – definitely.  More likely to succeed?  That’s where I park my large basket of skepticism.  In many ways, you’re defining a small press.  And very, very few of those are making any headway at all in the ebook world.  In my genre, there are plenty of great small-press books languishing in the weeds.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Very early days.

        Mike

  • http://twitter.com/Kennectto Kennectto

    I have self published with a POD publisher,FriesenPress, they have produced a nice looking book for me which I helped design. It is titled,”The Lupine Effect”(see the You Tube video). FriesenPress made it available as an e-book as well as a paperback and hard-cover. It can be ordered from most book stores or at Amazon.com They also provided posters and bookmarks and business cards for the one price. I chose from four prices. They also have extras ala carte. 
    One problem..I have to do the promotion of the book myself. This is tough. This is also why I hope I can attract an agent,or traditional publisher. Crossing  my fingers.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      In my opinion, what will separate a “service” from a “publisher” in the future will be two things: who pays for the production cost and whether the entity does any marketing. I guess that’s what’s always divided “publishing” from “vanity publishing.”

      Mike

      • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

        To be redundant, “any” marketing is a scary phrase to a seasoned author. We don’t want “any” marketing. We want “the right amount” of marketing “for our book” (and yes, to most of us, that means we want all sorts of hoopla…but we are capable of realism, too). Both terms are ambiguous, though I think data is streaming in to indicate what kinds of marketing is successful in the new digital world; we just have to parse it.

  • Barry Eisler

    Hi Mike, thanks for the report from EBEE and wish I could have been there!

    From my standpoint, focusing on a brief and halcyon pure indie age — if such a thing ever existed at all — is misplaced.  I think there are two related developments that matter more.

    First, various functions legacy publishers have always provided (whether in theory or in fact) are and always will be critical.  Editing, line-editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, pricing decisions (in digital, dynamic ones), branding, promotion — all continue to be required for the production of a quality book and to maximize the chances that the book will be discovered by the largest possible audience.

    Second, the primary reason legacy publishing has traditionally been able to take 85% of an author’s earnings is distribution.  Because no author could cost-effectively distribute her books in paper without a distribution partner, legacy publishers have been in a position to charge an 85% monopoly rent for paper distribution.  The other services they provide — enumerated above — are add-ons.  How can we be confident about the relative value of distribution vs the add-ons?  Because if those other services could be disaggregated from distribution, no author in his right mind would pay anywhere near 85% for them, and publishers would not have the negotiating leverage to charge such an amount.

    Today, with the advent of digital distribution, an author can distribute her works 100% as effectively as any publishing conglomerate.  In digital distribution, authors and legacy publishers stand on an entirely level playing field — which is another way of saying that in digital, an author simply doesn’t need a publisher to distribute.  So what legacy publishers are saying to authors today — the new legacy publishing value proposition — is this:  “Before, when we handled distribution plus, we charged you 85%.  Now you don’t need us for distribution anymore, and we’re only going to handle the plus part — and you’ll still have to pay us the same 85%.”

    Obviously, this is unsustainable.

    Now, as you point out, as long as digital doesn’t become too big a proportion of distribution generally, publishers can continue to try to stake their claim to that 85%.  But the bigger the share of digital distribution, and the smaller the share of paper, the more absurd becomes legacy publishing’s argument that it can still make a reasonable claim to that antediluvian 85%.

    Put those two developments together, and what you get is a massive disintermediation and disaggregation play.  Authors still need the same editing etc. functions they needed before, but now we can get them via a variety of emerging business models, many of which have nothing at all to do with legacy publishing.  All of which means that legacy publishing will have to reinvent itself and reprice its drastically reduced list of value-add services if it wants to survive.  Meanwhile, with legacy publishing’s paper lock broken, new entrants, including literary agencies and authors like Bob Mayer, are offering authors various collections of add-on services for various rates of remuneration.  So whether legacy publishing survives or not, today authors have more publishing choices than they ever had before.

    Personally, I don’t think there ever was a time of “pure” indie publishing.  After all, Amanda Hocking needed Amazon’s, B&N’s, and Smashwords’ distribution to get her books to readers — she didn’t sell through her own website.  And even if she had sold through her own website, she would have been reliant on her website hosting company, on Paypal for billing services, etc.  If you think about it, even an old-fashioned paper indie author was reliant on Kinko’s for printing services and on Oldsmobile and a network of gas stations for his distribution platform.  No one accomplishes anything in business entirely on her own, and I’d argue that notional concepts of independence matter are less important than the presence of actual choice.  No man is an island, nor ever was; what matters instead is the effectiveness, desirability, and range of vessels available to carry us to our hoped-for destinations.  For authors, there used to be only one such vessel, which was as expensive and inefficient as monopolies always are.  Now there are many, and we’re living in a different world as a result.

    • Marion Gropen

      Barry, I have a lot of respect for what you’ve been able to do. But I think that there are problems with the math here. 

      Indie and self-publishers often do pay 85% or more for distribution and the production that mainstream publishers offer. (BTW, I think mainstream is less pejorative than legacy).If you want distribution for printed books to the trade channels, you can go to Consortium, or IPB or NBN or whomever. They will charge something like 65 to 70%, after you add in all the fees and commissions. Then, there’s editorial, copyediting, text design/composition, proofreading, cover design and so on. By the time you pay for all of those services,  and THEN PRINTING, unless you’re selling many tens of thousands of copies, you’re paying another 15% of list. You can, of course, use someone like LSI, and go around the distribution chain. If you choose LSI’s distribution option, with full return privileges offered, you give a discount of 55% and you’re in Ingram beside the books from the distributors. But you’re not repped by a national accounts force, or in an e-catalog that reaches to bookstore buyers.And you have a much, much higher cost per copy printed. If you’re selling many copies, this isn’t going to cut your costs, although it does cut some of the risks.Oh, but if you’re published by a mainstream publisher, guess what: they’re taking most of the financial risk, too. That 85% starts to look like a good deal.

      The self-publisher can, of course, go without some of the services that mainstream publishing companies provide. Or they can find less expensive alternatives. Unfortunately, while it’s pretty easy in this business to get what you’re paying for, it’s also unusual to get more than you paid for. A much lower cost usually means that something is missing.

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        “Mainstream” may be less pejorative, Marion; but with over 50% of the top 200 ebooks in virtually every fiction genre self published right now, it’s debatable whether self publishing is more mainstream than legacy/traditional publishing. ;)

        I’m curious where the 85% comes from. Yes, on ebooks, an agented author with a major trade publisher gets 14.9% of the cover price – but the publisher is not getting the other 85%. The publisher is getting 55% of the cover, in general, or about 75% of the net paid by the retailer. It’s still too much for what they’re currently offering, I believe (for precisely the reasons Barry outlined), but it’s not 85%.

        As for expenses? Well. Content editing is increasingly being done by pro writers simply trading ms., but can be had for $1-2k for a book if you want to hire someone. Copy editing is down to $250 a book from many solid sources. Cover art on ebooks is a range, from about $50-250, and yes, quality varies.

        Assuming some high end costs, you might be looking at $2500 in total expenses for an ebook release. And yes, I’m talking ebook-only here (print is another $500 or so to do it right, if you’re paying for everything).  As Mike points out, we’re not far off from ebooks being the majority of the market.

        You have a book selling at $6 that would sell 5000 copies either way – a very modest success story. The publisher would cover all expenses, and pay the author 25% of 70% of $6 times 5000 sales, or $5250. Subtract 15% for agent fees, since most large publishers are still requiring them, and you get $4463.

        The indie publisher earned 70% of $6 times 5000 minus $2500 in expenses, or $18,500.

        If you play with the math a little, the indie can sell a third as many copies, and still make the same income.

        Which means that if a trade publisher cannot average at least three times the sales on the works they publish as those same authors could do on their own, the author is losing money by using them.

        Right now, most major publishers do not seem to be able to manage even *as many* sales of ebooks as their authors can do on their own, let alone three times as many.

        This is the real challenge for publishers. The up front costs I listed are about as expensive as it gets. Most writers are putting out ebooks for quite a lot less than that per title. The up front costs are negligible for ebooks. Distribution is simple, fast, and easy. The one remaining place where publishers can add a great deal of value to the equation is in marketing, and so far most of them are not doing a terribly good job of it.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Kevin,

        The trade publishers may or may not be averaging 3 times the sales in units that indies achieve (pretty hard to tell) but they’re routinely selling at 4 or 5 times the PRICE that indies charge. That counts just as much.

        Mike

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        Pricing is interesting, Mike. It’s constantly in flux. Like Bob pointed out, price managing is an important component of selling books. Dominique, over at Sourcebooks, is doing a LOT in that regard – regularly popping books to free for a week or so, which then generates enormous sales of those books afterward.

        What portion of trade published books are getting that sort of treatment? What portion of trade publishers are playing with prices at all, once the books have been put up? My perception is that it’s a very small percentage.

        Most trade published books seem to be selling for $6-12. Indie books range the gamut; but there’s something distinct going on right now.

        Novices are still mostly at 99 cents or $2.99. But the more audience someone acquires, the higher they tend to raise their prices. Used to be you could tell a self published book by the 99 cent price. Today, it’s much harder than it was six months ago, because so many indies have moved to $3.99, $4.99, or $5.99. It’s VERY hard to tell a small press book from an indie book, in a lot of cases.

        I’m not saying you’re wrong – a lot of writers are still staying at the lower prices. But that’s changing rapidly. Even Konrath, the strongest advocate of the $2.99 price, is raising prices to $3.99.  Others like DWS, Zoe Winters, and BV Larson either always had prices up above $2.99, or have gone there. Larson and Winters in particular both began careers as 99 cent self publishers – and both now have a stack of titles at about $5. They’re not aberrations, I believe, but merely early adopters of what I think will become the normal pattern.

        A trade publisher selling an ebook for $10 pays the author about $1.49 per sale. A self publisher selling the same book for half the price, at $5, makes about $3.50 per sale.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Totally agree that experimentation and price-changing are key, and that publishers who set prices and forget them are leaving a lot of money (and a lot of knowledge) on the table.

        Mike

      • Anonymous

        Mike, I have to join those who take issue with your post, in a number of particulars. Bear with me as I provide a lot of details, but they are necessary to establish my point.

        I joined the indie revolution in June with my debut novel, “HUNTER: A Thriller.” ( http://amzn.to/nocDiX ) I completed the manuscript on June 4. I had the book edited, proofed, formatted, uploaded in multiple formats to multiple platforms, and on sale by June 21. (Uploading to Amazon, Pubit, and Smashwords took about an afternoon.) Less than three weeks, and I was making a return on my investment. And I had the print edition out via CreateSpace in early July..

        What was that investment? About $1,000. $250 for a stellar cover, another $250 for a matching blog header, about $200 for layout and formatting — all from talented contract help that turned around the jobs within a couple of days each. Editing and proofing came free, from literate volunteer beta-reader friends. I registered my business name with the state for $25. Blog hosting, post office box rental, purchase of shipping envelopes, etc., cost me about another $150. I got 1000 stunning, full-color, two-sided, fully coated business cards that I designed myself at an online shop (GotPrint.com) for $12.06, plus $16 rush shipping. The info for obtaining all this help and services is freely available on various indie websites.

        In contrast to your assumptions about 99-cent norms for indie pricing, I entered the ebook market at a list price of $3.99. I charge $15.95 for the trade paperback online, $15 for sales in person, $20 for inscribed copies via my blog. That’s for a debut novel. I clear about $2.60 per sale on ebooks, about $2.89 per print sale via Amazon, and between $6.74 and $7.86 on books I sell on my blog ( bidinotto.com ) or in person, respectively..

        My marketing has been experimental and mostly directed at personal contacts and online social networking. I have spent a fair amount of time at it. The sales now appear to be sustaining themselves via
        word-of-mouth, though I continue to promote.

        I have no agent or publisher to take the lion’s share of my 70% ebook royalties. And, in exchange for an advance, I gained something else: time on sale. Had I gone the traditional route, you and I both know that, under the best-case scenario, it would have taken me at least 2 and more likely 3 years to navigate the query-go-round, get an agent, have the agent get me a publisher, do the contract kabuki dance with the publisher, have the book scheduled, and finally get into print.

        Mike, I turned 62 on June 5. Even assuming that I managed to get an agent and publisher, best case, I would have been 65 before my book would ever have been published. During that waiting time, I would have lost 3 irreplaceable years of sales, in exchange for what most likely would have been a pitiable advance and the surrender of a host of valuable rights.

        Now, how have I done?

        As of this writing, HUNTER has garnered 77 “5-star” Amazon customer reviews, and is one of the “Top Rated” Kindle books in multiple categories. I’ve been averaging between two and four dozen sales per day — around 1,000 per month, which, at my royalty rate, has been producing sufficient income to meet my monthly mortgage payment. For the past three months, sales have consistently been equivalent to those of well-known backlist bestsellers by the top thriller writers in the business.

        Did this take time, study, and effort? You betcha. But has it been worth it? You betcha.

        Mike, NONE of this would have been possible had I gone the traditional-publishing route. I likely would still be shopping around for an agent, with publication a distant fantasy. So, in light of your post, please tell me: How would going the traditional route have helped me actualize my dream of becoming a published thriller writer, with thousands of sales under my belt just 5 months since finishing my manuscript? And, pray, what could Legacy, Inc., have done for my book that I haven’t managed to figure out how to do on my own?

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        You’re having a good argument with yourself, Robert. But not with me.

        I didn’t suggest that one should abandon self- or indie-publishing for traditional. The point I was making, which I apparently failed to get across in some cases, is that people developing the chops to do this will find it sensible to do it for other authors, and that indie authors will find lots of help from places other than the big publishers.

        I quite agree that speed to market is a big consideration arguing for avoiding the traditional route, which takes a long time.

        Congratulations on the success you’ve achieved. Perhaps it will just continue and grow. Or perhaps it will lead to a publisher finding you and wanting to pay you an advance to put you in brighter lights.

        Mike

      • JR Tomlin

        Mike, your last sentence just showed that he is NOT “arguing with himself”.

        You said: “Or perhaps it will lead to a publisher finding you and wanting to pay you an advance to put you in brighter lights.”

        So he isn’t doing real publishing and thousands of readers that have put him that high in the rankings don’t count because he didn’t get an advance or “put him in brighter lights” (whatever that means). Maybe he would take the 70% royalties over rotten royalties paid in advance. Ever think of that? And he is already in bright lights when it comes to sales.

        That he isn’t “in bright lights” until some legacy publisher tells him so is the huge fallacy under which you are working.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Some people have a very strong insistence in interpreting what other people say the way they want to so they can argue with it.

        Mike

      • Marion Gropen

        If we’re going to compare the pure-play indie route to the traditional publishing route, I think we have to cast the author’s percentage as a fraction of the retail price (or at least the list price).

        And yes, you can get some editors to work for a very low fee, ditto copyeditors, and others. Unfortunately, it’s generally a case of “not getting more than you paid for,” in this business as in most others. 

        Given that this is Mike’s blog and not mine, I think I should avoid commenting at further length, though.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jimkukral Jim Kukral

        $2500 to release a digital book? That’s obscenely high. You can get an amazing cover and editing and proofing, and conversion for less than $500 all together if you look around. Take that extra $2k you save and spend on some marketing help.

      • Barry Eisler

        Hi Marion, I think Kevin has already addressed your substantive points, but I wanted to weigh in on the term “legacy publisher.”  I don’t mean it to be pejorative; I just think it’s dead-on accurate.  This is Wikipedia’s definition of “Legacy System:”

        “A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users’ needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available.  A legacy system may include procedures or terminology which are no longer relevant in the current context, and may hinder or confuse understanding of the methods or technologies used.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_system

        Whatever you want to call it — traditional, Big 6, New York, mainstream — old-style publishing still works and is still used, even as more efficient means have become available.  This is the very definition of a legacy system, and that’s why I use the term.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I think whether the word “legacy” is pejorative or descriptive is in the eye of the beholder. There is nothing inherently pejorative to the term, in my opinion.

        Mike

      • Marion Gropen

        That’s the problem with the Net: no non-verbal cues, so you can’t be sure what emotional freight to put on which. 

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Marion, I’m having a problem with the notion that the distributors charge 65 to 70 percent. I take it you are adding in the discount that goes to the intermediary here, but, if so, it isn’t quite fair to lay those costs on the distributor.

        Most of the distributors I know, including those you mention, have charges that range from the mid-teens to the low-30s as a percentage of the net, depending on a lot of factors (how much inventory you store, returns, the average invoice value of what is shipped for you, and others…)

        Of course the “85%” we’re using for the publisher charge is inclusive of the intermediary share, so perhaps you’re just making an apples-to-apples comparison, But it would be confusing to anybody shopping for distribution.
        Mike

      • Marion Gropen

        Mike, 
        You’re right about who is getting what piece, but I’m trying to frame it in the same terms that you hear from those who would have it that publishers are over-charging authors, or that no author benefits from the traditional publishing route. 

        You’re also right that I’m confusing some people with this break out, but at least you offered more info, so maybe we’re not hopeless yet.

        And if anyone IS confused, maybe they’ll post a question in the comments thread!

    • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

      Barry, thank you for pointing out that we all need good service providers — we’ve just added a few new services into the mix.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      I don’t disagree with what you wrote. What is “indie” and what is not must be, in some ways, a matter of semantics. Nobody does it without retailer intermediaries and Amazon, trying to do it without the *other* intermediaries, is cutting itself off from some sales as a result. They can argue they make up for it with the promotion they do to their own audience, and your experience might be evidence the argument is correct, but I wouldn’t define doing it oneself by whether retailers are used. Other than that, we’re pretty much in agreement.

      Mike

    • Max Alexander

      Let’s not forget that in the case of someone like Bob Mayer who is re-publishing his previous books as new e-books, he already HAS benefited from the services of legacy publishers: his books were initially edited, copy edited, and proofread by professionals. So the issue of rights reversion is somewhat different from the issue of self-publishing original works.

      Going forward, this gets into an interesting question of the conditions required for rights reversion, which seems to be a moving target. An e-book is always available, so when is it “out of print?”

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Max, many agents (and big publishers) have long ago gone to a minimum sale per year rather than a literal “not available” to trigger out of print provisions. You’re quite right about ebooks preventing ever being out of print. Pair that with POD and it really becomes true in spades.

        Mike

    • JR Tomlin

      Preach it, Barry. 

  • Ellen Hopkins

    Something important to note here is ebooks being “taken down,” presumably not by the author, for content “readjustment.” There have also been instances (at least one major one I can remember) of books with certain kinds of content being removed totally from (a) major database (s). I think authors should be very careful of straight to ebook publishing, with no guarantee of content remaining as the author intended, and the books being available AS THE AUTHOR INTENDED. I also think we all need to be vigilant against any one company assuming to take over all distribution, pricing, etc. Competition is a good thing. I’m all for alternative methods of publishing, but writers need to understand that rushing straight into indie publishing is not a guarantee of success. Not only does it take a lot of work, but it also takes writing books readers want to read. If you can write those, you will be successful, using whatever platforms.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Ellen, let’s be clear that while content has been taken down over various kinds of disagreements, nothing (as far as I know) has been altered and left up so no author is being abused by having something sold that isn’t what they intended.

      Mike

  • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

    Mike, I think there’s a flaw here in your chain of reasoning. Maybe two flaws, actually.

    The first is that you talk about “publishing success” on one hand, and Barry, John, and Amanda on the other, like the two are the same thing. And they might be – from a publisher’s perspective. But from the author’s perspective, “success” is food on the table, roof over the head, and family comfortably supported by one’s trade – which doesn’t require anything even vaguely close to that superstar level of success.

    OK, that said, I’m not sure why you’d suppose that the self-working indie is a dodo bird. ;)  Right now a writer can hit 90% or so of the ebook market simply by uploading to KDP and Pubit. If you want most of the other 10%, you can either use Smashwords (and pay them their 15% of net) for those smaller markets, or you can spend the extra ten minutes to upload the book to Apple and Kobo as well.

    Four place to upload, worst case scenario right now. Twenty minutes. Not kidding; done this a bunch of times, for my own work and to help clients.

    So Bob is going out there as a full fledged publisher. And I think that publishers like his shop who obviously DO “get” ebooks and how to market them are probably a good deal for the writer. Hey, if Bob takes half my income, but makes me three times as many sales as I could have gotten on my own because he understands ebook marketing better, then it’s a *great* deal for me.

    The ebook production end of things is EASY. Distribution? EASY. The marketing and promotion? Harder. Publishers who are able to make the marketing end of things happen in a big way will still have a powerful role, even in an ebook world. 

    But I don’t think we’re going to see less Amanda Hocking stories, simply because we’re going to continue to see thousands of writers putting excellent work out there, same as she did, and some of them are going to get lucky as well as work hard. And those folks will be break-out successes. 

    • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

      Good point Kevin. An author’s success # is different than a publisher’s. My out of print historical romance backlist has been successful for me in the last year (making, with the 5 books I have the rights to, as much as I made with all 7 in the series when they first were published over a decade ago). This is a point that will make a big difference in the future (thinking back to my pre-published days, I may have considered it worthwhile to take a chance on spending $2500 and seeing if I could find an audience for my books — always with the hope that the sales would be so phenomenal, publishers would sit up and take notice). It is hard to say, because I was raising children back then and $2500 buys a lot of tutoring, sports equipment and jeans to replace those so quickly outgrown. But we persistant writers have to believe in ourselves, even when agents/publishers and the general public haven’t yet given us our shot.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        This is a good point. The self-published author will believe in their own work even when a publisher who does so is hard to find. But as the number of publishers able to make the decision to put a book out grows (gradually including authors who have built the tools for themselves but find they can offer them to others), it will be easier for authors to find somebody who believes in them. These are likely to be no-advance deals, but somebody who can provide the expertise to improve a book and market it can improve the fledgling author’s chances and, perhaps more importantly, allow the author to focus on writing rather than learning a whole new business.

        Mike

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Kevin,

      What’s “easy” for you isn’t easy for everybody.

      And the marketing, including metadata management and price adjustments and covers, matters. That’s more work for the author, or more expertise required.

      And as more and more authors and small publishers gather that expertise and develop the capabilities to do these things, they’ll intercept more and more of what would have been the authors working alone. And those who do will face tougher competition from authors managed by people like Bob (and many other small publishers.)

      There IS a flaw in my logic, but I don’t think that’s it!

      Mike

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        Mike, I have twin daughters. They’re five right now – but last spring, when they were four, one of them wanted to “help Daddy” with his writing. So I let her watch a video on how to use a conversion program.

        Then I let her convert the book for me.

        I had to read some of the long words for her; she had trouble with a couple of them.

        She produced a flawless MOBI book in under five minutes (more time was involved to check to see if there were conversion flaws, of course, but the conversion itself was fast).

        She was FOUR YEARS OLD, Mike. And did it after watching one video.

        I’m not saying this is easy for me. ;)  I’m saying this is so easy that a child can, quite literally, do the work.

        Marketing and book management, like I said above, are another matter. But ebook production and upload to retailers? They’re just not difficult.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Smart kids, smart daddy. And no fear of technology.

        Thanks for the insight.

        Mike

      • JR Tomlin

        Sorry, Mike, but not only are they easy, if I just plain don’t want to bother to do it myself, I can pay someone a VERY few bucks and have it done for me.  Can someone else do the marketing for me. Heck, a quick review of Big 6 marketing campaigns would lead me to doubt that THEY know how to do it. But I can put ads on KND or PoI just as well as anyone else. It would be DARN hard to convince me to turn over a percentage. Like… impossible.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I’m not trying to convince you. If you’re doing it, keep doing it. But not everybody thinks the way you do. Remember that Amanda Hocking succeeded * wildly* but still chose to go with a publisher when she got the chance. Who’s more typical? Her or you? I’d say she is.

        Mike

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        Remember though that Amanda Hocking has repeatedly said she plans to self publish 2+ books per year in addition to the one per year she is trade publishing. And to be honest? I think that’s a POWERFUL model. At least for right now.

        She’s got a large company that just paid her $500k per book for four books, and wants to recoup that investment, so they’ll be pushing her books hard, which will give her name a great deal of media brand recognition in places she might have had a harder time reaching herself. That, in turn, will boost sales of her old and new self published books.

        It’s an excellent model.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Kevin, I wasn’t clear on the fact that she’ll continue self-publishing while doing the St. Martin’s books. Interesting that *they* agreed to that since publishers can be finicky about what authors do to their own brands with their own publishing. Of course, in her case, they bought her because of her self-publishing efforts, so I guess they know she’s okay that way.
        Yes, very powerful model. It will be interesting to see how the two different models are priced in the marketplace. Will she continue to be $2.99 or so and will they try to sell her for three or four times that?
        Mike

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        Her May release was/is $2.99, so it seems she’s staying with that model, at least so far. Who knows, though?

        As for the publisher letting her do it… I think she had some sorta, kinda, decent bargaining power. They wanted her, badly enough that there was a bidding war. She could easily have just kept doing what she was doing. As she pointed out in her blog, she probably LOST money by taking the $2 million, over what she could earn herself. I agree. But she felt the marketing boost she would get from a major publisher would be worthwhile. I agree there as well.

        More and more, I think we will see writers flat out refusing to sign contracts which have a non-compete clause in them. Publishers who insist on these clauses will survive a while, but as writers continue to educate each other, the number of quality writers willing to take these deals (and I’ve seen the contracts – some of these clauses are HORRIBLE) will diminish.

        One of the best things the indie publishing revolution did, even for writers going the trade publishing route, is to give the writer a bargaining chip they never had before: the ability to walk away from a bad deal and earn money from the work anyway.

      • Chris

        I think John Locke has the right idea with the S&S distribution deal. That’s a great ebook/print split model.

        But… if the books don’t resonate with the public at that higher print price then the returns are going to send that business model into cardiac arrest. 

        Of course, S&S wins no matter what. Unless the distribution cut is only on sold units.

        I think if I were someone like Chris Culver I would look for a similar ‘Locke’ on ebooks with traditional print distribution. It would probably fly quite well with his genre.

        Maybe a good non-fiction title could do it successfully too.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Amazon, of course, makes it easy for authors to also sell print to online customers. My understanding from very little anecdata is that print works proportionately better for non-fiction than for fiction.

        But a guy like Locke having sold a million books: a lot of people have heard about him. I’ve certainly told lots of friends who aren’t ebook converts yet who might well buy on his name if they saw it in an airport. You’re right: good model all around.

        But you have to wonder what would happen if he did one book in hardcover with an agency-priced ebook.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Well, I’m not John Locke :).  But I have ebooks at $3.99, and POD books at $7.99, which is a very competitive paperback price in my genre (this is all only on Amazon).  I sell more than 98% ebook, and I don’t think most of that is due to the price.  I think right now, most online shoppers in my genre have ereaders or apps.

    • JR Tomlin

      Exactly, Kevin. I will never be a blockbuster writer because blockbuster matieral is not what I want to write. But I get a fair number of sales and make decent money at it.

      One of the BEST things about indie publishing is the death of the “everything has to be a blockbuster” mentality. And it is not going to be zombiefied and sicced on us.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Excuse me? You’d rather *not* write a blockbuster success?

        Well, indeed, you *are* an unusual writer!

        Mike

      • Chris

        It’s alright, Mike, I’m here to set you at ease. Us wannabe blockbuster writers are still here… full of envy and hate praise and admiration for our fellow scribes who have found success!

          

      • Chris

        Well, I stuffed that strikethrough shit up didn’t I now?

        Guess if I got a disqus account I could edit it. Oh, well.

  • http://www.antheasharp.com Anthea

    Interesting article, Mike. I think it’s important to clarify that the 25% ebook royalty that trad publishers give is on NET. Not list. Under agency pricing, that comes out, as you said, to about 17.5% – and then subtract the agent’s cut. 

    Also, a number of romance authors are having great success as ‘pure’ self-publishers. Take a look at Barbara Freethy and Courtney Milan (who turned down a nice deal from Harlequin for future books – her first indie novel will be out next year, but she hit the NYT list with her self-published novella). Or does being previously and/or currently published by NY ‘disqualify’ their indie efforts?

    I agree with Kevin that a large number of self-publishing authors are having success and making some decent money, and that there WILL be more break-aways in the future.

    It’s fun to see where this train is taking all of us, at any rate.  :)

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Anthea, it definitely “counts” if an author was published previously. I expect that to be where most of the independent success *will* come from (Konrath had a prior publishing history, Locke and Hocking didn’t…) Mayer was published previously.

      But I think it is another and more interesting question as to how somebody establishes themselves from scratch through ebooks. Locke and Hocking did that. I think in the future authors will break that way, but I think ebook-first publishers will be more likely to make it happen than authors acting on their own.

      Mike

      • Thaddeus602

        me thinks you need to reply to barry and Kevin Mclaughlin instead of picking and choosing….

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Missed them because of devices. Will do tomorrow.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        When I look at Amazon’s “indie” list, which includes everyone using KDP to publish, I see very few small press books.  Most of them are the self-publishing kind of indies.  Larger ebook only publishers might be a different story, but I don’t see many of them making waves outside of romance.

        I agree pure indies might be a small group, but in my opinion it’s because Amazon imprints are gobbling these authors up – authors who have *already* found significant success, most from scratch, on their own.
        Some names for you.  KC May, David Dalglish, J Carson Black, Sibel Hodge, Christopher Bunn, Rachel Astor, Daniel Arenson, me.  Not a complete list by any means (it’s mostly the genres I swim in), but each of these authors sold 5,000+ books last month, with at least some over the $0.99 price point (meaning that we’re all getting a very healthy royalty check in two months).

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Debora, 5000 books at the 99 cent price point would be worth $1600 to the writer. If some of the books were at $2.99, that looks a lot better. If they sell over 5000 *every* month, then they’re making a minimal living.
        I don’t want to minimize the achievement; it’s a real accomplishment to get to that level. But let’s not confuse that with the success of major house writers who are comparably successful. It isn’t nearly as remunerative, except on a per-copy basis.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Several of those authors, myself included, don’t use the $0.99 price for any of the books making up 90% of our numbers (I have two novellas at that price, but they sell bubkas compared to my novels).  I’d guess average royalties last month for the authors on that list will run 10-15K.  And for many of the authors on that list, October was a slow month.

        As for whether we compare to major house authors, that’s moving the goalposts ;).  This series of comments was in reply to the assertion that it is very difficult for pure indies to really establish themselves from scratch.  Sure – it’s hard for any writer to make it as an author.  But it isn’t Amanda Hocking hard.  There are plenty of us doing it.  Your original post kinda made it sound like we’re a hypothetical creature that doesn’t really exist.

        People are welcome to look at the numbers and decide for themselves which road might be more lucrative (or some blend of both).  But I’d encourage them to seek input from someone who can name ten successful indie authors not named Locke, Konrath, or Hocking.  Get input from major house authors too.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Anybody who can tell a writer how he or she can make $10-15k a month reliably over time is certainly putting them in a league where they’d be crazy to waste a moment pursuing agents or major houses. That’s assuming the advice works some decent percentage of the time.

        Bur it sort of goes back to the point of this blog post. Most people who really knew how to turn this or that writer into a $10-15k revenue machine would just do it for a quarter or a third of the take, making the writer very happy and in time making themselves very rich.

        In other words, a writer that really cracks the code in a replicable way about how to sell ebooks successfully will become a publisher unless they are considerably more dedicated to their craft than they are to making money. I’m not saying those people don’t exist, but I would imagine they’re outnumbered.

        Which is what I was trying to say here at least as much as I was suggesting that everybody sign up with the Big Six.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        That’s just it – I don’t know that I could turn anyone else into a machine of any type.  I think it’s mostly about the book finding an audience – and that’s an art.  Figuring out how to do it for my books is plenty – trying to do it with someone else’s book is an idea that gives me hives, honestly.  Most people won’t be that kind of successful, and that’s a fact of life of both indie and trad publishing.

        As for becoming a publisher… Most successful indies are authors – we want to write.  I outsource editing.  Formatting and publishing takes an afternoon, and my readers would be peeved if an intern started answering their emails.  But really, I spend most of my time writing – more than most trad-published authors I know.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        The idea that somebody making book after book of their own succeed doesn’t learn things that have generic application is highly counterintuitive to me. Whether one would *want* to apply that knowledge to somebody else (and anybody who got hives at the thought would of course not want to) is another question.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Sure we learn things – I blab about them all day long on Kindleboards (I’m the resident gazer of Amazon algorithms).  But you need to have a book that will connect with an audience, and that’s a guessing game.  The other stuff is just pieces that will help a good book get visible.  When I see an author that I think has the goods, I often drop them some ideas – but become their publisher?  Nah.  I’m guessing most successful indies would agree with me (or we would have seen a rash of them setting up publishing labels by now), but I could be wrong.  We’ll see!

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Debora, the two key components of commercial success for a publisher are 1) knowing what writers have got “the goods”, and 2) having insight about how to connect them with their audience. The rest of it is just “the work”. If you can do those things, a partner will find you with the money and interest in doing the scut work. And you’ll do exactly what you’re doing now but make you and your partner a lot of money.

        Mike

      • Chris

        Here’s a tip aspiring entreprenerds… Daddy/Daughter incest erotica niche publisher. Go scan the erotica category at AMZN. AMAZING!

        You’ll make a million bucks before you know it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rosanne-Dingli/100001727750190 Rosanne Dingli

    In my view, few indie authors would understand the exact import of this post. From a couple of the comments expressed below, my view is supported. And I wish, Mike, that you had enlarged on what you mean by this : >I personally don’t expect print sales to remain at half the total very much longer. <  Please tell what you think might happen.

    I do agree with the thought that small indie publishers might do well if they figure out their niches properly and sort out distribution. Still, all this is moot if digital takes on the monumental proportions being suggested by people like Eisler and my own publishers, BeWrite Books.Authors like me who have been in this game for some time have seen the benefits of having a boot in both camps.

    As Charles Darwin maintained, it's the most adaptable that succeed to survive and reproduce. In this case, produce, of course. I am planning a fouth novel (BeWrite releases my third soon) and continue with my short fiction quite happily.

    The main thing new authors tend to misunderstand or disregard is the difference between marketing, promotions and publicity. They understand the various processes that can produce verisimilitude with mainstream books, digital or physical, now. But they also must find a handle on distribution other than digital, and also that the word 'publishing', 'published' and 'publisher' have developed a number of different meanings. Finding one's own following of readers has never been more vital: direct and personal interface with one's fans is seen to be essential by more established authors every day. The thing is that even here, there are things that work and others that show deceptive figures without sales results to support them. The hardest thing in publicity and promotions is trying to pin which sales happened after what campaign or strategy. The Twitter energy I expend today might have an effect several weeks down the track, when I am furiously bashing FB, mightn't it, and I might happily attribute one result to the wrong activity.

    Apart from luck and positioning, no one has been able to reliably pinpoint the Hocking / Locke successes to any particular activities or combination thereof. And yes – I agree that incidents of this nature are flukes some tend to take as possible for all new authors, which is entirely ridiculous if one understands the arithmetic of all this. Not all actors can be Robert de Niro, either.

    It has less to do with 'errors in the text' than it does with that je ne sais quoi that all successful books have. Although I agree with Eisler that books do need all the professional attention they can get before they are put up for sale, he would probably agree that some rather badly written and produced books are enjoying some credible success. That's what I mean by je ne sais quoi. You and I might look at each other and wonder why, if Amazon has taken down a book with one typo, it has not taken down a few hundred with several dozen.

    And in response to Gropen's view – although there is a measure of financial risk that mainstream publishers take, they are going to have to devise a means by which what they offer appears to favour authors better. I won't go into the numbers game – but a few examples, and the undeniable fact that backlist publishing by established authors is rife, and much more favourable than entering another contract, proves a lot.

     I won't say another thing.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Rosanne,

      I linked to a prior piece in which I explained the logic by which I think print will diminish to a small percentage of total sales of straight text consumption.

      I agree that figuring out which promotions are responsible for which sales is very hard to discern. People are working on the problem of building dashboards to help connect effort to reward, but even with all the information in the world it might not be obvious. However, I have heard several experienced marketers say that Twitter is among the least effective tools for generating sales. Of course, John Locke spells out in his how-he-did-it book a rigorous technique for recruiting customers that begins with Twitter!

      Mike

    • Marion Gropen

      Backlist re-publishing by established authors is much easier than front-list. I don’t see any reason why that will change. I don’t, however, draw quite the same conclusions from that fact that you do. 

      As for the je ne sais quoi: it is actually something that editors often understand quite well. And I have seen more than one book that lacked it, brought to hold quite a bit of it, under the skilled attention of an editor.  It’s just that sort of expertise that authors will see as important in the future, I think.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        In fact, backlist re-publishing is what I was thinking of when I said in an earlier comment that there was a flaw in my logic. You can’t really compare backlist republishing (a la Bob Mayer) with making oneself from scratch (a la John Locke). The latter is *much* more difficult than the former. This post conflates them. On consideration, I should have been more careful.
        Mike

    • JR Tomlin

      It is no “fluke” that there are successful indie authors. Take a look at the WSJ ebook fiction and general fiction best seller list. Both had indie authors on it. The ebook one is ONE THIRD indies. None of them Hocking or Locke. Fluke?

      Not in the least.  And not all actors have to be De Niro to make a living. Not all authors have to be Hocking to make a living either. 

      The difference is that NOW midlist authors can in fact make a living and that’s just fine with me.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        If lots of midlist authors are making a living, that’s a surprise. The fact that they’re on a bestseller list with a 99 cent book (or even a $2.99 book, depending on how long their run is) doesn’t prove that they’re making a living.

        Let’s remember that John Locke earned about $350,000 from selling a MILLION copies of NINE titles!!! And he’s an enormous success. I say he would have earned more from a publisher. (He’d say no publisher would have let him sell nine books in a year, and on that, he might be right!)

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Lots is a relative term, but there is a pretty good-sized group of us.  And we’re not on the top 100 list.  Top 100 genre lists, yeah.  And we tend to be there with 3-4 books, not one.

        My books are priced at $3.99.  I have 3 novels out, more coming soon, and I am very definitely making a living.  And in the parts I hang out in, I’m not all that noteworthy.  

        I gave you some names in another post here.  The problem is, unless you read fantasy, they probably haven’t crossed your radar – so people keep pointing at Locke or Hocking or Konrath, and not talking about the much more average successful indie.  We’re not big names.  We’re not splashed all over the news.  But we’re not hiding in caves with no Internet service, either… ;)

      • Chris

        No disrespect (yeah, I know, cue disrespect) to John Locke, but I woud personally be disappointed to nett $350G off nine titles at one million unit sales.

        That said, my personal views - as my wife would no doubt concur – often translate as less genius and more moron.

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Right – but Locke isn’t the only indie who has sold $350K worth of books.  Everyone points to him as “indies aren’t making enough money off their books.”  Most of the indies I know who write full time aren’t selling $0.99 books.  We aren’t selling a million books either, but several have earned $350K.  Nobody talks about those writers because a) they don’t trumpet their incomes, and b) they haven’t sold a nice, round, sexy number of books.  Apparently making a healthy income and supporting your family isn’t newsworthy :-P…

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Debora, to be fair, Locke did not “trumpet” his income. He trumpeted that he’d sold a million ebooks and *I* calculated his income. And he earned that money in 7 months, most of it in the last 3 of the 7 months. If things have continued for him at the prior rate, he might be past his second million units by now. Maybe, if that’s true, you’ll allow that the number of writers who has made $700k is small enough to make his success more noteworthy?

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Oh, I think Locke is plenty noteworthy – I’m not trying to take away from one iota of his success.  But the noteworthy part isn’t how much money he made – you’re not at all alone in figuring he could have done better there.  I can tell you that his current ebook numbers aren’t anywhere near what he was flying at in the three months before that announcement – tracking the sales ranks of his books over time will give you a very clear picture of that.

        Locke took advantage of the stickier Amazon algorithms of late 2010 and early 2011, where books moved up more slowly, but stayed up in the rankings for a long time.  The algorithms shifted substantially in March-June of this year, and books now move up faster, and down faster.  My personal guess is that even Locke couldn’t replicate (using the same methods) his own success in this new environment.  He’s a smart guy – he could easily come up with new ways to succeed – but the rules on the ground are changing fast.  What worked nine months ago isn’t necessarily as effective anymore.

      • Scott Nicholson

        Every recent indie success has been a result of Amazon algorithms, with occasional BN spinoff. NO ONE has done it from scratch, launching from their own website and turning a platform into a million readers. No one.

        And I doubt anyone ever will. While the myths are cozy and some people need a lottery ticket to chase, the simple reality is Amazon sold at least 950,000 of those million…maybe even 990,000.

        I just don’t like to see people get disillusioned by what is held up as a holy grail when it’s just luck. That is not a criticism of anyone, because what difference does someone else’s luck mean to me or anyone else? And I say that as someone who has been inordinately and perhaps unfairly lucky myself.

        When someone starts their own Pottermore, without a major publisher, without Amazon or BN, selling their books directly to a fervent fan base, then I’ll drink the Kool-Aid. Until then, I call it a myth.

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        I’ve read some of your books, Scott.  It’s not entirely luck :).  Yes, the algos are key to reaching a big audience – but they’re not enough.  Nobody (trad, indie, hippo) makes it entirely on their own.   And not every good book makes it.  Luck is definitely a factor, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Agreed. I read one John Locke book because of PR. I read six more because I LIKED them!
        Mike

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        You set a very high bar. Every author and publisher relies on intermediaries and, in trade, always has. That’s what defines trade! This is partly a semantic game, not to take anything away from Amazon’s capabilities.
        Mike

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Thanks for your continuing attention, Chris!

        The calculation of Locke’s royalties was done by me but I think it is accurate. Of course, he continues to sell and he’s now got his S&S distribution deal contributing some print income, or about to. Still, I find it amazing that he hasn’t raised his price from 99 cents to $2.99. That would give him six times the revenue per unit sold and I can’t believe his sales would fall to 1/6 of what they are now.

        I guess for him it is not all about the money.

        Mike

      • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

        Chris, if you think about it – most fiction writers only get MMP editions of their books anyway. Which pay, usually, about 48 cents per copy sold. Take away the agent percentage, and you’re looking at about 40.8 cents per copy.

        If 3/4 of your sales are Amazon and the rest are Smashwords (and B&N/Apple/Kobo/Sony via Smashwords), then you’re making an average of 41.25 cents per copy.

        I think it’s EXTREMELY interesting (and telling) that most authors will earn more money per sale from a self published 99 cent ebook than they do from a $7.99 trade published MMP.

      • Chris

        But, Kevin, we’re talking a million sales! On multiple titles. The return buyer market was already built in after the first one or two books. He left money on the table. He probably left 10 bucks in my pocket alone.

        I know John is already wealthy (Note to JL: I’m a huge fan BTW so don’t take my author bashing as anything more negative then me just being envious!) so he may not have been that interested in maximising profit the first time round. Perhaps his strategy is to build longevity in the marketplace.

        But still…. a million units!

        You stupid bloody idiot, John.

        I’m joking. He’s far smarter than me. Richer too.

        BTW, you seem smart too, Kevin. What the hell is going on here, Shatzkin? Is this turning into a blog populated by idealogical publishing geniuses? 

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        The quality of the comment string is a source of pleasure and pride, actually. I’d be inclined to pit the average IQ represented in these conversations against any other I have read lately.

        I am finding that I miss things though; the combination of Gmail and Disqus sometimes skips me past things without my knowing I haven’t read them. As you know, I make a practice of reading all posts and responding to most (sometimes you guys are talking to each other and it’s just as well not to interrupt.)

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Yup.  One of the saner discussions I’ve read in quite a while.  Credit to everyone participating.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

    True DIY success stories are rare for all small businesses. But rare doesn’t mean impossible, it just means you have to be smart, work hard, and be fully invested — something most small business owners seriously underestimate when they begin. I took an amazing state-sponsored 12 week course on small business start-up last year. It was competitive to get in, and we still had several people who did the pre-work of the course and realized they were not going to be successful unless they changed their plans. The instructor emphasized that this was something many businesses realize *after* they’ve begun — much harder to deal with then.

    Most authors are not going to want to be small businesses (contracting out work like cover art/editing/reviews, overseeing production deadlines, being the payrmaster, keeping the books, etc.). However, savvy authors are not going to want to sign away all rights for 35 years to publishers who don’t have a track record for long tail sales. Right now, the major publishers have a short tail model aimed toward finding bestsellers that will become cash cows (not criticizing the model, it is was a good one for publishers and lucky authors for 20-30 years).

    Digital models need to be developed to have a long tail model (price pulsing over years, rather than a six-month build up to a one-time sales drop and buh-bye to anyone who doesn’t make a list or get boosted by phenomenal word of mouth). Just for example, in the romance field, which I have watched for 30 years, time-travel romance has huge spikes and then disappears off the map. Publishers need to be prepared to see the spikes and have a plan to revitalize their time-travel romance backlist.

    Right now, I have the sense that publishers are thinking they’re the short-tail sales experts and the authors can do the long-tail marketing. Which would be fine, if the contract wasn’t for 35 years, and the author had the power to set sales dates/prices and use the publisher’s sales data and clout to do a blog tour, promo, etc. Without these, the author’s reach is going to fall short of what the possible (hurting both publisher and author, but author more because author is already locked in to low royalty rates by contract and marketing efforts take time from the actual writing of new books).

    Long tail marketing is going to require a much more active partnership between publishers and authors. I’m seeing some of that happening (John Locke’s deal, for example), but not as much as I’d like to see.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      I’m not sure the long-tail paradigm holds up as the divider between what a publisher can do and what an author can do.

      Long-tail benefits most from “niche”, or subject-specificity. Seems to me a niche publisher can do that better than an author (or than a general publisher). And the marketing that makes a book take off in the first place can be mightily assisted by the author, no matter what the publisher does.
      Mike

      • http://profiles.google.com/kelly.mcclymer kelly McClymer

        Well, long-tail has always been around — for classics (as distinct from bestsellers, which can come and go within a few years). Publishers (and bookstores) know that Hemingway, etc. will sell best when students are enrolling in the English 100 level classes. Not everybody has a mother with a bookshelf full of classics to hand them on an as-needed basis. I don’t consider classics a niche, but maybe publishers do.

        Looking at the potential long tail niches for every book acquired seems like a new (and critical) job for publishers who ask to contract 35 years worth of copyright license. Niche publishers may do a good job — but so may authors, who have the benefit of direct contact with hardcore fans.I’m hearing very different things than you seem to be hearing from authors on the “mightily assisted by author, no matter what the publisher does” (traditional authors, not indie). If you’re trad published, and your books aren’t in the stores, your author marketing isn’t going to have the impact the publisher needs it to have. And a lot of midlist authors are finding their books are not being shelved in the quantities of the past (or at all).

        The bottom line I’m hearing from other authors is the control issue: if publishers aren’t going to offer more (long tail sales and marketing, shorter contract terms, more advance, etc.), then the author can’t be sure the book will get the best care (niche publishers work for some subgenres like erotica, SF, and literary fiction, but they have their limitations, too).

        As an author who has seen small niche presses come and go (taking author $$ with them when they went), I can guess that some authors would trust themselves first before a niche publisher who hasn’t got a long, strong track record. Upfront costs of $2500 – $3500, with annual business costs of $1000 doesn’t sound too bad when you’re taking in 60-70% of the profit.

        The more established publishers may benefit from adopting some of the niche publisher tactics (I know Ellora’s cave authors who book sales grow every single year — which shows the potential of long tail for all publishers if they market to the book’s niche audience).

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Just to be clear on terms:

        I don’t consider “long tail” and “backlist” to be synonymous. Long-tail are the books that don’t sell: the ones that move 1 or 10 or 25 copies a year across all channels and don’t make their author any money. Nobody but the aggregators (the retailers and Ingram, printing them at Lightning) really makes any money out of the long tail.

        Niche to me suggests books that can be marketed by audience. Classics are sort-of a niche, but I don’t think we really “market” classics in the same way that we market books about real estate or baseball.

        Mike

      • JR Tomlin

        HOW can a niche publisher do “that” (whatever “that” is) better than an author. I’ll give a percentage to a publisher if and only if they show me something they can do that I can’t. And since most publishers do pretty much damn-all for marketing, it sure isn’t that.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        You definitely sound like an author who would be better off working alone!
        There is no answer in the world that’s right for everybody.

        Mike

  • http://www.danielmcneet.com Scribe

    Good Post, Mike.

    Taking a book down for grammar is a bit ambiguous.  Stephen King in his book, “On Writing” wants the writer to have a racist talk like a racist and a bigot talk like a bigot whether the writer’s friends or readers like it or not. I agree with him. Hard to believe the book went to print without  the approval of dialect, if this was the problem.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      The book in question did print with the dialect. That’s sort of the point. There was nothing wrong with the book but because a reader thought there was, there was a take-down and a conversation, or so the publisher told me.
      Because the conversation was in confidence (and I’m a consultant who makes his living by keeping confidences), unfortunately I can’t reveal any further detail.

      Mike

  • Dave Bricker

    Mike, I think one of the principle differences between indie publishers and traditional publishers is that the latter measures success only in terms of sales metrics. Publishers are book investors who retail book merchandise. Self-publishers often have different goals.

    I have a client who sells about 3 books on Amazon each year—but he has sold as many as 1000 books at a single speaking engagement. There’s no reason for him to share royalties with booksellers when he has direct access to customers in non-bookstore venues. A publisher would hinder his business.

    Other writers, especially nonfiction writers, are able to reach their niche audiences without the help of the generalist focus of a major publisher. Often, there are two or three websites that provide access to those communities; nobody is better equipped than the author to build relationships that sell as many books as are going to get practically sold to that group. What would a writer like that get for his 50% commission? Nada.

    There is this mythological question that circulates constantly: Should I get a traditional publisher or self-publish? As if these are two simple choices. Should I become a clerk or President of the United States? One choice requires a simple decision. The other “choice” requires winning an election; you don’t just decide to get published. My point is that a great many books get self-published that would otherwise not see the light of day. Many are crap but many are brilliant and inspiring life-changers. Could it not be argued that the mere availability of this material in book form is a form of success for both writers and humanity?

    Consider an artist who paints in his garage. He is going to paint whether he ever gets a dime for his paintings—and he should paint. Since when does salability justify artistic expression? Is it any different for writers? I will soon self-publish my third novel that will never make any money. But a publisher would have to knock pretty hard on my door to buy them; I have other logs on my publishing fire and I like my independence.

    Big publishers are book investors. They buy properties they believe will earn popular acceptance, promote them and if they’re smart, they earn more on a few big winners than they lose on the majority of books that don’t go anywhere. In this respect, they’re no different than major record labels. They’re looking for money and talent isn’t always what drives their selections. In the best of cases, they find talented writers AND popular acceptance, but I won’t be buying Snooky’s biography.

    Self-publishers all want to earn money from their writing. Many proceed with unrealistic expectations and zero knowledge of the publishing business. They either burn out or get burned by vanity presses and other scams. But the clever ones do their homework and find success on many planes.

    Ask me about the profitability of my publishing business in three years and I believe I’ll have positive results to share. But ask me about my success as a self-publisher and we can talk today. I have three books out and two on the way. I’ve had (and continue to have) fantastic opportunities to learn a business and polish my writing craft along the way. I’ll have 400 visitors on my blog today. “Success” is a hard thing to define; it means different things to different people, but what little of it I have has survived very well without the blessings of a New York conglomerate. If traditional publishing was the only available route, I’d be photocopying manuscripts and sending them to friends. I love writing. I love designing books. I love educating and encouraging others on the self-publishing path. I love my artistic independence. That’s success enough for me.

    • http://francistapon.com Francis Tapon

      I’d add to Dave’s argument that publishers are just “book investors.” 
      They’re just like venture capitalists (VCs) in Silicon Valley:
      - They place lots of bets.
      - Most fail.
      - A few win.

      A self-publisher is simply a company that has bootstrapped with little or no VC aid. The upside: if he gets sales and market success, then he can command a much higher price for his work. 

      So DIY stories will be rare, just like bootstrapping a company to a billion dollar company is rare. But MANY successful bootstrapped copies get acquired along the way.

      The same will happen to successful indie authors.

      • Terrence OBrien

        Bootstrapping to a billion dollar company is indeed rare, but many have bootstrapped to small businesses that give their owners a very nice lifestyle.

      • http://francistapon.com Francis Tapon

        Agreed. The billion company is the equivalent of a self-publishing NYT bestselling author. There are many more self-published authors who have a “very nice lifestyle” despite not being on any major bestseller list.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Will self-publishing be a farm system? Absolutely! I don’t doubt that at all. More and more smart publishers are looking to it.

        Mike

    • JR Tomlin

      Much of what you say is mostly 10 years out of date. Vanity presses are irrelevant these days. And what do 400 visitors to your blog have to do with anything.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Dave, you’re describing circumstances where self-publishing makes a *lot* of sense. If you have the market in hand — like selling at your own speaking engagements — you’re quite right that a publisher only gets in the way.
      I have a consulting engagement tomorrow with the employees of a famous person with an important book; we’re going to be discussing self-publishing options and the primary reason, in this case, will be “speed to market”. There are a *lot *of reasons to self-publish, but I suspect that the Amanda Hockings and John Lockes of the future are more likely to have had somebody else, even a small publisher, help them.

      Mike

  • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

    Well, let me offer myself up as that rare author you can’t find :).  I’m purely indie – never tried any other route, no backlist, and I’m making a pretty good living off my books nine months after publishing my first.  

    All the editing, formatting, and publishing help in the world couldn’t convince me to sign a traditional contract – I earn back those expenses less than a week after release.  The only reason I’d look to a trad deal (and it would likely be with Amazon) is marketing – and it’s a elephant-sized reason.  Publishers have real clout in getting a book visibility, even in the online world.  Most of them aren’t using it very well yet, but that could change.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Thanks. I think you’re smart to recognize that, even if you’re being successful, with a publisher you might be more successful. I felt that way about John Locke, actually, and wrote a post saying he’d make more money with a publisher!

      Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Sure – most successful indies are keeping their options open for just this reason.  However, I think most of the folks looking at us aren’t considering the possibility that we might be less successful with a publisher.  

        I have a pretty good idea what a book in my main world will make me over the next two years if I release it myself.  I had that conversation with an agent from Trident Media Group a few weeks ago, and her jaw pretty much hit the floor.  As she put it, publishers don’t offer “debut” authors advances like that.  It falls into the “well, anything could happen if they like your book enough” category.  Yeah.  Not holding my breath :D.

        I’m not a big enough fish to get the consideration Locke or Konrath gets.  I’m a successful indie mid-list author.  Would I go trad for the right deal – sure.  Most of us would.  But I don’t think that deal is all that likely, and I think the chances of it coming from someone other than Amazon are virtually nil.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        OK. Makes sense. The rule is not to decline an offer until it is tendered! As long as you’re not doing that, it is hard to quarrel with any path that makes you a living!

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        And yet so many people do :D.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        That’s not what I was saying. For a reiteration of the point I was most trying to make, see the answer to your prior comment.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Yup – I was speaking more generically.  Most people make some pretty big assumptions about indie authors, even successful ones.  

        Assuming we’ll turn into publishers is one of the more interesting ideas I’ve heard lately.  I don’t agree with you, but it’s interesting!  (I don’t think most of us are Bob Mayer, either.)

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Here’s another thought. If there are many of you and you know each other, you could also band into a cooperative to hire some help. Think “United Artists.”

        The point is that a 1-to-1 relationship between an author and a publishing machine is inherently inefficient. Even in the digital age.

        Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        But we don’t have 1 to 1.  My three editors (story, copy, proofreading) are all freelancers.  I’m on their schedule six months in advance, and I produce a lot of books, but I still only use up… dunno 10-20% of their time?  A coop doesn’t change that, it just makes an entity the United Artists need to manage.  With my current system, the freelancers manage themselves, and I make sure I’m a communicative, professional, responsive client, so that they like to keep me around.  I handle the formatting and throwing my books up, but there are freelancers for that, too.  And most groups of authors would want more than one cover artist to choose from, so I suspect covers would always be freelance (they are even for most publishing houses).

        I think there are writers who would like to be part of a collective.  But I think there are far fewer writers who want to manage one.  

        Thanks, by the way.  I’m supposed to be processing copyedits tonight.  You’ve been a terrific distraction :D.

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        But we don’t have 1 to 1.  My three editors (story, copy, proofreading) are all freelancers.  I’m on their schedule six months in advance, and I produce a lot of books, but I still only use up… dunno 10-20% of their time?  A coop doesn’t change that, it just makes an entity the United Artists need to manage.  With my current system, the freelancers manage themselves, and I make sure I’m a communicative, professional, responsive client, so that they like to keep me around.  I handle the formatting and throwing my books up, but there are freelancers for that, too.  And most groups of authors would want more than one cover artist to choose from, so I suspect covers would always be freelance (they are even for most publishing houses).

        I think there are writers who would like to be part of a collective.  But I think there are far fewer writers who want to manage one.  

        Thanks, by the way.  I’m supposed to be processing copyedits tonight.  You’ve been a terrific distraction :D.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Hey, Debora I’ve hardly seen five plays of this football game I’ve been watching during my leisure time!

        Mike

  • http://www.facebook.com/authorjames.w.lewis Author James W. Lewis

    The ebook industry is changing so much, I’m curious (and nervous) to see how new developments will affect indie publishers like my company The Pantheon Collective. Will we lose the lion’s share of 70% from the KDP option? Will the flood of ebooks make it that much harder to stand out? I believe the Big Six have something big up their sleevse to resist the Amazon takeover. 

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      I wish I knew what the Big Six had up their sleeve. One thing we know about is “Bookish”, the retailer competitor financed by 3 of the Big Six. But so far Bookish can’t even get into beta testing, so the publishers might be fortunate that Amazon and BN and Kobo got the ebookstores open rather than just leaving it to them!

      Mike

  • JR Tomlin

    I see nothing in your post that convinces me to cede a percentage of my royalties to anyone. I can pay a flat fee for editing. I can pay a flat fee for a cover. I can pay a flat fee for advertising. 

    A Big 6 novel disappeared. Are you saying Bob or anyone else could keep that from happening? No. They couldn’t so it certainly isn’t an argument for the scenario you’re talking about.

    There are other markets other than Amazon as you point out. Do I need to pay someone a percentage for ever and ever until the end of time in order to get my novels on B&N, Apple, Kobo, Diesel, etc?  No. I don’t. Again no argument for that scenario.

    If there is such an argument (and one may exist), you didn’t make it.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      The argument has been made in the comment string: the marketing by a publisher.

      I am not arguing for Big Six in this post; I am arguing for a publisher for most people to do the work, rather than the author doing it. I’m arguing for the cost of publishing expertise to be spread over more writers.

      The Big Six have the advantage of agency, but that advantage has its limits. I wasn’t trying to persuade you to sign with them and if you don’t think anybody could sell more of your books than you do, then you certainly have no reason to change.

      Mike

  • Pingback: For authors there are many roads to the Oz of publishing—thoughts from Publishers Launch | Bob Mayer's Blog

  • Chris

    85 comments.

    Holy Jebus…!

    Guess I best read me some opinions.

  • Chris

    85 comments.

    Holy Jebus…!

    Guess I best read me some opinions.

  • Pingback: True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare | The Passive Voice

  • Scott Nicholson

    Great post, Mike. I always enjoy your thoughts and agree with at least two-thirds of them! As one who has been published in small press and major press, and after two years as an indie, and a signed Amazon author, I would say signing with Amazon pretty much sums up where all those paths have taken me, and why. I signed with Amazon because I love the direction they are moving and because I know I am near the limits of what I can accomplish on my own. No Pottermore here.

    With all the services needed to produce a book readily and widely available, the only value I can see in signing with a publisher/partner is the marketing. Right now, Amazon is the world’s best marketer of ebooks, and it appears they are taking that market worldwide at a rapid pace. As much as I admire what Bob and others are doing, I don’t think Bob’s formula will be so easy to replicate with other authors. Indeed, no author’s formula can be replicated, because each is unique.

    The biggest “indie success” myth is that somehow the breakthrough authors, through sheer force of marketing genius, will, and monumental word-of-mouth, created a tsunami of book sales. The real truth is in most cases, it is Amazon algorithms that did the work, and the resulting publicity fueled the other markets. Certainly, any of those things can set the ball rolling, but without Amazon putting the book in front of tens of thousands of customers, a phenomenon doesn’t occur. To support this, I’d ask how come breakthrough authors don’t spontaneously combust in every market (Apple, Kobo, BN, etc) at once? I do recall Bob talking about a deal he made with BN to get good placement in its Nook store–if he can swing that type of thing for his authors, that’s value.

    But, the way I see, marketing is now DISTRIBUTION. Maybe in some ways the game hasn’t changed so much. You still want your book stacked high in front of the store. And Amazon has the tallest store by far. At any rate, I’ll know more on Dec. after Amazon publishes Chronic Fear.

    There are tons of success stories out there no one hears about. I think it’s cool that we have these choices, these discussions, and these millions of different avenues. I guess I sum it all up as luck. 

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Scott, I agree that it is all about marketing and it is certainly true that for online marketing of books or ebooks, Amazon is the champ. For a while longer there is other marketing that matters — in stores — but the future definitely seems to be tipping more and more towards Amazon’s strengths.
      Mike

      • Scott Nicholson

        When the country’s largest chain is gutting its bookshelves to make digital temples, I respectfully disagree on the “while longer”–unless you are talking months instead of years.

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Agreed.  And any deal signed now has quite a while before those books hit print.  I assume by the time any book of mine had mass-market print distribution, unless I’m hot enough to make it into Walmart and the airport, print sales will be far outstripped by ebook sales.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Sorry I missed your comment, Scott, further up the line.

        I have put a marker out there for “how long print” in a prior post. I think for *straight text* we will be 80% ebook in 2 to 5 years (say 2014-2017.) When we’re at 80% ebooks for straight text, a big part of the rest, probably more than half, will be sold online. So that doesn’t leave a lot for bookstores.

        Illustrated books are a different story. They’ll keep some print outlets alive, but they’ll be niched.

        Bottom line is, yeah, the leverage provided by being able to distribute print is being rapidly diminished. Months or years is the right question. Certainly not more than a few years.

        Mike

    • Chris

      Scott Nicholson = Smart Bastard.

      That is all.

      Actually it’s not. I love prattling on in Mike’s comment section… and this time is no different.

      Going back to your post, Mike: the dodo bird bit. I disagree since I can’t see any reason why a hundred indie’s can’t break out during the next decade. I mean, who has really broken out in the last two or three years … in all of publishing? 

      Kathryn Stocket?
      Stieg Larson?

      We’re talking 5 mil+ units.

      But look at the big (not 5mill) sales on the indie side, Locke, Hocking… watch Culver go large not to mention Darcie Chan, who has ‘Mill River Recluse’. It has been sitting in the top 100 for 112 days!

      (BTW have you noticed that Amazon altered their KDP link to read ‘Independently Publish with us’ instead of ‘self-publish’? Bye bye stigma!)

      Now, back to the author services. Except for editing and marketing any of the other stuff will become easier. Not harder. You don’t need a co-op. I think the world of Bob Mayer. He, like Scott, is a balanced voice of reason in this game. But I do think Bob’s small press time will only be short-lived, simply because the flow of free information and how-to tools will make his service redundant. 

      Take covers: there is going to be an explosion in design services and tutorials in the next year. Already happening now.

      Websites: author-centric design tutorials or out-of-the-box wordpress themes are already showing up. 

      Formatting: you can get it done for 50 bucks now. And, in fact, Scrivener writing software can show you how to do it for free. Ditto tutorials on Calibre and Sigil.

      The real problem lies in what Scott says. And yes, I too will use all caps – DISTRIBUTION. And that’s where Amazon has the lock on an author’s success. Again, Scott, in his lack of greed and narcism understands that the Pottermore dream is not his reality. No one will buy from an author website/store – or very few at the most.

      Here’s an addendum for you: it’s a Dodo bird without Amazon. Not ‘Unless we consolidate down to…’

      I see the real growth in publishing in tech-based products. Not services. Ie coders teaming with smart publishing people to sell a publishing product. What do I mean by that? I mean that the new author stars won’t need publishers because all you need to launch is a well told, unique (Scott, again!) story, some slick products (cover, website) and a whole lot of Amazon exposure. If you take Amazon away from Mayer, Locke, Konrath the model of success looks pretty frail. 

      That said, in 5 years time if you take Amazon away from Lee Child you might have the same impact.

      Apologies for the essay-like length comment.

      • Scott Nicholson

         Don’t apologize for length in a discussion, Chris, unless you’re getting paid by the word! I actually started out as a small digital publisher two years ago and quickly realized my authors were pretty much better off being on their own.

        Yes, it will be interesting to see how the current superstars make the digital transition–will their co-op clout have value in the new era? Were they, like we all know Patterson is, the byproduct of a stacked system, where the bestsellers were predetermined?

        I swear, I was looking at the Amazon Top 100 print bestseller list today and it looked “old.” I mean, sentimental books, stuff for people who remember JFK, nostalgia for older readers. Aside from a few YA bestsellers, it looked like where you’d shop for Grandma’s Christmas present–and I say that as someone who isn’t a young guy. I just didn’t feel a lot of excitement there.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        Maybe this is all about semantics.

        Writers will write and they will have “publishers.” Sometimes that will be somebody that pays an advance and takes on a lot of responsibility. Sometimes it will be an administrator that you hire for a fee or a percentage who will just orchestrate the use of a lot of freelance services. What I was trying to say here is that the age of many writers building and operating their own little discrete publishing operation is likely to yield to a very wide range of service providers, some of whom will call themselves publishers.

        Mike

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  • Ben Dugas

    I think it does take more expertise than the average self published author possesses to successfully manage ones content across all of the significant eBook Retailers currently but I see this becoming exponentially easier as time moves foreword. There will come a point where it requires hardly any expertise at all.

    The eBook supply chain processes were developed in most part to handle a finite amount of publishers with thousands of titles each. As self publishing has grown both in terms of the number of authors and the volume of sales, the industry as a whole seems to be reshaping to accommodate their needs as well.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      To your point: Kobo is apparently going to offer a KDP-PubIt!-type solution shortly. When they do, it will leave Apple as the only ones not making it really easy for authors or small indies to just handle it on their own. Of course, you can get to both of them now through Smashwords.

      Mike

      • http://www.deborageary.com Debora Geary

        Sony doesn’t either, I don’t think.  iTunes is pretty straightforward if you have a Mac and can produce a compliant epub.  I’m glad to here Kobo has something in the works – they’re making some interesting moves internationally, and I’d like to be able to put my books up under my own control there.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I think Sony is now reached through Smashwords. You’re right about Apple; you can do it with a Mac.

        Kobo is going to be doing more and more internationally now that they’re owned by a deep-pocketed and ambitious company.

        Mike

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  • Clive- Book Publisher Company

    Amazon is demonstrating what they see as the value of securing the
    loyalty of digital book consumers for its ecosystem by their willingness
    to pay full wholesale price for an ebook that will then get lent once,
    as well as their penchant for valuing for sale well below their cost.

    thanks for the providing information.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      You’re right that Amazon is willing to pay a heavy price to give customers a reason to stick with their ecosystem. That’s part of what scares the publishers so much!

      Mike