Joe Konrath

When an author should self-publish and how that might change


There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.

For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.

Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance. The two pretty standard, time-honored exceptions have been cinematic (Hollywood) rights, which are rarely controlled by the publisher, and foreign territory and language rights, which are only sometimes controlled by the publisher.

Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.

And these make up a very good starter list of when even an established author might want to consider an alternative to the conventional publishing arrangement. (It goes without saying that a fledgling author with a completed manuscript might choose self-publishing as a way to start their commercial career in preference to canvassing for an agent and then, if that quest is successful, waiting for the agent to find a publishing deal and the publisher to get the book out. Self-publishing could conceivably speed up the whole process of finding a publisher!)

Although most of the Strum and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear. For authors who don’t earn out advances, it isn’t a real number and the effective royalty is higher than what the contract says. And whatever the difference is in dollars, it doesn’t come without the requirement of work and sometimes costs — like a copy-editor or a cover designer or a marketing advisor — that would otherwise be borne by a publisher.

Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.

In these cases, the loss of inventory-in-place at stores is less of a handicap to discovery than it would be for a new book and the additional margin on ebook sales could well leave the author making much more money, even without a promotional print sale.

But, for many authors, the frustration with publishing the conventional way might not be about money at all. Writers often write just because they have something to say, or a story to tell, and they want both to express it and have people read and react to it. That’s where the “shorter than a normal printed book” or “must get this published in weeks, if not days” barriers publishers have always presented become mere annoyances that anybody with a modicum of initiative would simply brush aside.

All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others. And another way this can work is demonstrated by the Waxman-Leavell Agency, which has spawned a new ebook publisher called Diversion. Diversion followed a path blazed more than a decade before when agent Richard Curtis started EReads (recently sold to Open Road) and lawyer-agent Arthur Klebanoff founded the still-operating Rosetta Books.

In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.

The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores. When that proportion was “nearly all”, the power allocation was “nearly all” to the traditional publishers. During the period when this was shifting quickly and the online share was rapidly depleting the in-store share — a few years ending a year or two ago — there was what felt like a rush to self-publishing combined with the growth of digital-first publishers, the reigning giant among them being Open Road.

The traditional publishers are starting digital-first imprints now that can do deals with different splits and handle both shorter books and faster publishing than the classic model. The upstarts like Open Road, Rosetta, and Diversion have built lists and businesses on the gap — in business jargon, “the delta” — between the traditional deal and pure self-publishing. The hunch here is that gap is going to get progressively smaller. The big guys will figure out commercial models to do shorter books and get to market faster. They’ll raise royalties (or unearned advances, which amounts to the same thing) to keep proven writers in the fold. Eventually, houses will give their acquisition editors the suite of deal templates they need to keep diminishing the incentive for an author to step away from the house to get something done.

And while there will always be an opportunity for a known author to make a bit more per copy if s/he takes on many of the functions of publishing her/himself, the amount of backlist available to be capitalized on in that way will shrink inexorably over time.

Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.

It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals and the more powerful will be any incentives Amazon cares to offer for making the title exclusive to them.

There has always been — and will always be — a great diversity of publishers. But the commercial concentration will continue to be in a small number of big English-language houses for many years to come even if the number of self-publishers appears to continue to grow.

We are really excited at the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting to our new Logical Marketing Agency business. If you have anything to do with marketing books (or brands) online, you’ll want to know about what we’re offering.

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Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue


The announcement late last week that Random House is starting three digital-first imprints was just the most recent example showing that publishers are exploring new business models. Just days earlier we got news of the partnership between Simon & Schuster and Author Solutions making S&S the third major publisher — preceded by Christian publishing titan Thomas Nelson and dominant romance publisher Harlequin — to put their name to an offering in the “author services” sector.

One might say that S&S is the first of the Big Six to take such a big step in this direction, except that Pearson, Penguin’s parent company, actually bought Author Solutions a couple of months ago and HarperCollins bought Thomas Nelson last year. So, in fact, three of the Big Six are now involved with author services and it is four out of six if you remember the other recent big news, that Penguin and Random House are merging. (And that’s not counting more modest initiatives like HarperCollins’s “Authonomy” or Penguin’s “Book Country”.)

I remember being on a panel in Canada a few years ago with Carolyn Pittis, the very smart digital pioneer from HarperCollins, who referred to the way most publishers did business — buying the right to exploit copyrights and then monetizing them — as one possible business model for a publisher’s organization. She explicitly mentioned “author services” as another one. That was before her company had launched Authonomy, a couple of years before “Book Country”. In other words, big publishers have been thinking for a while about “author-pays” models (just as the professional publishers have).

This really all follows the lead of Amazon, which has made a practice for years of selling a la carte every component of its own value chain. I was just reading an ebook called “The Amazon Economy” published by The Financial Times (an example of a non-book publisher adjusting its own business model to include being a book publisher, about which more on another day) that suggested that Amazon actually makes more money making its infrastructure available to others than it does using it to sell stuff.

In other words, there is potentially profit in deconstructing one’s value chain and selling access to it in pieces.

In a sense, publishers have known this for a long time. They’ve made the part of their operation that handles things after the books exist: warehousing, distribution, credit and collection, and sales available to other publishers for years. Some publishers, like Random House, have built distribution into a significant business with its own management structure within the corporation. Perseus, which as a publisher is itself a roll-up of a number of smaller houses, has built a distribution service that has more than 300 clients. Ingram, whose core wholesaling operation combined with the Lightning subsidiary they built in the 1990s to provide print-on-demand and later digital services, has a comparable publisher distribution offering.

But what Author Solutions — and a host of less robust (and largely cheaper) competitors — has shown is that there is also very widespread demand for the services that precede the actual delivery of books ready for sale.

I have no way except inference to know how Nelson and Harlequin are doing with their author services offering powered by Author Solutions, but the fact that Penguin parent Pearson bought them and S&S has now done this deal certainly suggests that ASI has a good story to tell. Of course, they are market leaders because they make money, and they make money by having good margins. And the prices announced for the services for the Archway initiative — ASI’s project with S&S — are higher than those services could be purchased for elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they won’t sell lots of aspiring authors on using them.

This is all very logical, but also very tricky. Most publishers — at least until very recently — would have thought about the services they sold in a distribution bundle as “commodities”, widely available and highly comparable. It is true that any of the major publishers, many minor ones, and distributors even beyond Ingram and Perseus can deliver the core capabilities: active accounts with all the major retailers, the ability to transact with them and collect the money, and placement of the messages of availability throughout the supply chain. Obviously, they all strive to do these things better than the next guy and to justify charging a point or two more because they’re better at it.

But further up the value chain the publishers’ pride and belief in a qualitative difference between what they have and what the next guy has is much greater. Publishers generally believe in their editors and marketers more than they believe in their sales forces and warehouses. (Buddies of mine in sales 20 years ago used to say, with conscious irony, that there were two kinds of books: editorial successes and sales and marketing failures.) They see their time and bandwidth as precious. They are far more reluctant to make that time available for rent and, in fact, it would appear that all three of the big publisher deals with Author Solutions rely on ASI to provide those capabilities. They’re not coming from the publishers themselves.

All of this sidesteps another important component of successful publishing: the coordination of all these activities. Successful publishing is the result of a lot of very small decisions: in editing, in presentation (both the book itself and the metadata, like catalog copy and press releases, that support it), and, increasingly, in the SEO tags and signals about “placement” that are included in the book’s digital file or marketing metadata. In the digital age, these things can change over time. Every day’s news — about UN votes or Pentagon sex scandals or anything else — could call for a change in the metadata around a book published a month or a year ago to make it more likely to be shown by the search engine queries being placed today.

(The FT ebook on Amazon, which I recommend, makes it clear that Amazon also sells “coordination” on the retail side as an extremely important, and apparently much-appreciated, value-add.)

Indeed, whether to put more effort into a book or stop paying attention to it is — or should be — based on an analysis of sales and search trends, as well as more old-style measures like the reviews it is getting.

In the old pre-internet days, publishing books was like launching rockets. Most crashed to the earth, some went into orbit. But the publisher’s efforts — most of the time — were limited to the launch. Then the marketing team could move on. This was not a way of doing business that was appealing to authors, but it was consistent with the realities of the marketplace. The big book chains wouldn’t keep a title in stock if its sales appeal wasn’t evident at the cash register within 90 days. Without copies of a title in the stores, there was no point to the publisher pushing it.

That’s something that has changed dramatically in the digital age. With some titles and genres achieving half their sales through ebooks or online bookselling, there is no longer a time limit on marketing effectiveness. In what is a subject we will certainly explore at a future conference, this must be causing traffic jams in publishers’ marketing departments. They can no longer be counting on the older titles making way and clearing marketers’ schedules to work on newer ones.

Open Road is a digital-only publisher that works primarily, but not exclusively, with backlist. (Recently they seem also to be specializing in books brought in from offshore publishers and in helping illustrated book publishers break into ebooks.) What impressed me when I met with them a year ago was that they didn’t distinguish between “frontlist” and “backlist”. They marketed to the calendar and the events and holidays everybody was thinking about, not to the newness of their books. I believe this actually brought increased relevance to their marketing. Obviously, this was also making a virtue of necessity because they didn’t have a flow of “new” books to tout. But it also capitalized on the new situation: that the books don’t suddenly become largely unavailable because retailers throw them off the shelves.

A by-product of the extended sales life of books is that it makes it easier for publishers to cluster them for marketing purposes. Now four books on a similar topic can be pushed in unison, even if they were published months or even years apart. Open Road has made ample use of that reality.

These are challenges and opportunities that compel publishers to rethink the organization of their marketing departments and the deployment of their marketing resources. It is an opportunity for a publisher to extend its value to an author if it pushes an author’s book six months or a year later when a related title hits the marketplace or a news event makes an older book newly relevant. Since authors are increasingly able to do some useful things on their own behalf to capitalize on these opportunities, they will be increasingly impatient with publishers that quit on their books too soon..

There are things the author just can’t do. They can’t adjust the book’s metadata and add tags. They can’t push for or buy promotional screen placement from the retailers when somebody else’s new book makes them suddenly relevant again. Authors also don’t have the benefit of arriving at marketing best practices and rules of thumb by examining performance data across various groupings of titles: large title sets, categorized sets, comparable-selling sets, and others. They’re counting on the publishers to do that.

The publisher’s role in coordinating and managing a myriad of details has always been one of its principal value-adds and it can be even more so in the digital age. But only if they actually do it, and there’s precious little indication that they intend to do it for the titles they’re being paid for.

Jane Friedman (the blogger and expert advisor to writers, not the CEO of Open Road) points out that her alma mater, Writers Digest, and Hay House — the vertical publisher in mind-body-spirit that has done so well interacting with their reading audience — also did ASI deals. She points out that the big successes we all know about among self-published authors — John Locke, Joe Konrath, and Amanda Hocking being the headline names — didn’t go through ASI. Jane takes issue with the ASI promise to help publishers “monetize unpublished manuscripts”. It’s hard to dispute that publishers who are primarily in business to pay authors to publish them could be walking a fine line having a business model right alongside that charges authors for services that are unlikely to lead to them making money.

On the other hand, Random House has made an emphatic statement about the value legitimate publishers can bring with the success of “Fifty Shades of Gray”, originally a self-published story and now, very much thanks to the biggest publisher, the biggest commercial success of all time. No self-published book has come close and it will be a very long time before one does. I see their digital-first imprints (which they are not the first to launch, but seem to be the first promoting aggressively to the self-publishing diaspora) as a step toward a different business model that recognizes the new commercial realities of publishing. It enables lower-investment publishing — the authors in these digital-first imprints are unlikely to receive advances at levels commensurate with most Random House books — and perhaps they’ll get less editing attention too. Marketing is simplified by the fact that print isn’t involved and therefore retail stores aren’t either. So the threshold for profitability is much lower and, as we have learned, they can still decide to give any book in these new imprints the “full treatment” — print copies stacked up in stores — later on if they want to.

It is too early to judge whether the tie-up between publishing houses and author services offers will produce value on all sides. All these publishers now have or will have, at the very least, a stable of self-published authors that are contributing margin to them and in which they have a financial stake (even if they didn’t have to invest to get it). There is definitely inherent conflict between trying to make the most money one can from an author hiring publishing services and recruiting authors and books that will be commercially successful.

But publishers still know how to make books with commercial potential sell better than mere civilians do. Whether ASI and their partner publishers can find the formula that makes the promise inherent in a publisher’s brand productive for authors that hire services under it is a question that will be answered in the months to come.

Having more companies trying to figure it out certainly improves the odds that somebody will (and ASI has every interest in spreading best practices as they emerge). And more and more cheaper services for those aspects of self-publishing that really are commodities means that ASI and all its partners are going to have to demonstrate convincingly that they can add effective marketing to their offering mix if they’re going to be around ten years from now.

Michael Cader and I are doing our first Authors Launch show, in partnership with our friends at Digital Book World, on Friday, January 18, the day after the 2-day DBW 2013 will end. The question of where the line gets drawn between publisher efforts and author efforts is a major topic. We have a great roster of experts to serve as faculty: the aforementioned Jane Friedman, along with Porter Anderson, Jason Allen Ashlock, Dan Blank, ex-Random House marketer Pete McCarthy, co-authors Randy Susan Meyers and M.J. Rose, Meryl Moss, and David Wilk. Among the publishers speaking will be Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Matt Schwartz of Random House. This is a conference really intended for published authors rather than self-published, but it will teach skills and insights for any author willing to invest time and effort to sell their book.

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Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off


When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.

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Amazon’s growth and its lengthening shadow


The DoJ lawsuit and settlement, Amazon’s next giant step of growth in sales,  the Business Week article on Amazon pushing publishers to allow them to print slow-movers on demand, and then this morning’s New York Times story about a book driven down to a price of zero on Amazon (presumably by an algorithm), combine to raise again the questions of whether the traditional legacy publishing model is worth saving and whether it can be saved.

It really isn’t hard to appreciate the modernist, digitalist, Amazonian point of view. Trade publishing has historically been one of the least efficient businesses in existence. Most books don’t sell well; most authors are frustrated; and getting into the game requires jumping numerous hurdles to even get to the starting line.

The ebook model and online print distribution really are much more efficient than store distribution of printed books has been in reaching the part of the market that buys online. Returns really can be eliminated. In many cases, perhaps most cases, you really can just print the book when it is ordered, not on a wing and a prayer weeks or months before it is ordered.

If you start from the point that the manuscript is completed, it is easy to see why many aspiring authors would choose self-publishing, primarly through Amazon (because they reach the most customers), rather than take weeks or months to find an agent who will take weeks or months to put a proposal in shape to then take weeks or months to find a publisher. And the publisher will then take months, at least, to put a book into distribution. And that’s if you succeed. Most attempts even to secure an agent — just the first step — fail.

Failures overwhelmingly outnumber successes at every step. But, of course, they do in self-publishing as well.

You look at what the publisher will contribute, which is often described as making the book better and more saleable by copy-editing, putting on a decent cover, listing it for sale in places the industry and public can find it, and — for a while longer — putting print copies into stores. All of those things can be purchased, so theoretically you don’t have to give them up just because you self-publish, if you think they’re worth paying for.

And, of course, the author who goes the self-publishing route keeps a lot more of the consumer dollar than the one going through a publisher.

If you’ve got the manuscript in hand and you have a choice between going that route and having books to show your friends within days at just about no cost, why wouldn’t you seriously consider it? Why wouldn’t you do it? It seems like a no-brainer. That explains the conviction with which writers who have succeeded through this means, even those who didn’t quite do it themselves but instead just agreed to be published by Amazon, are so unsympathetic to the concern that Amazon’s business practices could cripple the legacy publishing business.

Inefficiency gets its just desserts.

But it isn’t yet that simple and it may never be that simple.

There are (at least) four serious qualifiers to the logic advocating self- or Amazon-centric-publishing. One is in these words: “if you start from the point that the manuscript is completed.” A second is the assumption, never explicitly stated but tacit in the recurring arguments from Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath (who are the proud poster boys for Amazon-instead-of-a-publisher), that the print-in-store component already doesn’t matter.

Third is that legacy publishing delivers an integrated business model that bundles all the services an author needs together and also includes a shift in risk from the author to the publisher. Self-publishing shifts the risk back.

And fourth, and not trivial, is that legacy publishers sell ebooks for higher prices than the self-published authors do. Expressing things in percentages might elide realities in dollars.

Requiring the whole manuscript before you start doesn’t change things for most unpublished novelists because most publishers won’t buy a first novel on an outline. And it might change little for the most established novelists because they’ll presumably make money on whatever they do, so they just keep writing.

But most other books published by the existing publishing establishment are financed from a point long before completion, unlike the situation for every self-published author. And that financing model is a risk-shifter that any author who can get it should be reluctant to relinquish.

(Yes, I know that Amazon is now publishing books and paying advances, including a substantial one to Eisler. But, remember, when they do that the royalty differential isn’t four times the legacy publisher ebook royalty rate [70% to 17.5%], it’s double, because Amazon pays 35% to the authors they sign, not 70% as they do for self-published. And there’s still no store distribution, which reduces revenue and marketing. The Amazon retail price will be lower. That may drive up units, but it also confounds the straight percentage comparison of the author’s take. A meaningful comparison between the marketing Amazon can do that nobody else can to the publisher-like marketing Amazon might do but hasn’t demonstrated yet is simply not possible until they publish a lot more books.)

Publishers actually weaken their own case when they articulate their value as “curators”. That makes it sound like they’re squeezing our cantaloupes for us. Who needs that, right? We can be our own judge of what’s ripe and what’s not!

They’re doing much more than that. Publishers aren’t squeezing the cantaloupes. They’re deciding which cantaloupes to invest in before the seeds are in the ground. They’re deciding based on the farmer and the climate and the soil and the weather forecast which cantaloupe growers get to participate in the market. And, if they don’t invest, those cantaloupes don’t get grown and they don’t get squeezed by anybody.

And although I’ve been as Cassandra-like as anyone fearing the creeping trivialization of the bookstore channel, it is definitely not dead yet. In-store sales of printed books still constitute most of the sales for most of them (although, admittedly perhaps less than half for a lot of fiction.) And experts like Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex believe that in-store discovery is still a critical driver of online sales, print and digital.

There is no doubt that a lot of what legacy publishing spends its money on will no longer be necessary in a few years. If the stores are mostly gone, or aren’t critical to discovery or sales, then printing expertise, warehouse and distribution capabilities, and all the investments and workflows required to maintain them won’t be necessary either. However, that day certainly hasn’t come yet (even if the digerati think it has!)

But, even more important, and so frequently elided in the discussions of the value of legacy publishing and whether it is worth an effort to preserve it, are the investments publishers make in books that would simply not be written if they didn’t.

If legacy publishing had been run by modern business principles, much would have changed years ago. For example, the trade would get smaller discounts on the biggest titles. After all, if part of the margin given to retailers is for “marketing” (i.e. “discovery”), they need a lot less of it for Harry Potter or the latest Patterson than they do for a first novel. With today’s computers and business acumen to work with, it would seem silly to offer the same margin across all titles on a list, when some clearly need less than others to get placed and sold.

It is partly the standard treatment across all books that is coming back to bite publishers now. Amazon doesn’t discount all titles equally; nor does any other bookseller. They give back the margin on those where it benefits them to do that, selectively. The publishers could have pre-empted that opportunity, or at least made it much more difficult, by varying the margin they offered by the sales appeal of the book. They adjust margins on the royalty side of the equation by paying advances that don’t earn out to big established names, effectively delivering them a higher percentage of the take. But they give the same margin on every title, regardless of cost or appeal, to the trade.

Sharing media attenton with the accounts of Amazon and DoJ recently have been stories about Robert Caro, who wrote The Power Broker about master builder Robert Moses 40 years ago and leveraged that success into a life’s work series of books about Lyndon Johnson. Caro was working on negative cash flow — selling his house and with his family being fed on his wife’s paycheck — until Knopf took over supporting him. If they’re printing 300,000 copies of his next book (which they say they are), that’s probably five million in billing on the first printing, plus ebook revenue, in the immediate offing. They’ll get their money back.

But they had to decide to risk it. Publishers do that every day. Sometimes they don’t get that money back.

Yes, there is Kickstarter as the new spec funding source. But how many publishers would fund projects if they couldn’t manage the creative process or understand and control the marketing and distribution that would take place when the project is finished? Even “finished’ is a complicated concept in the world of publishing. It brings to mind the saying I heard once, but can’t attribute, that “works of art are never completed; they are only abandoned.” Deciding when a manuscript is “ready for publication” is a judgment call that is essentially commercial: when will more work no longer lead to more sales?

Since Kickstarter funders won’t have that kind of control, believers in a rational market would also have to believe that projects that many publishers would fund won’t attract the investment they require through Kickstarter. Perhaps a private equity fund tied to authors would work better, but that would require margins to pay authors and acquiring editors and repay the investors. Even then, you wouldn’t necessarily have the integration of services combined with assumption of risk that makes the current system, which is so beneficial to so many authors, also work for the publisher/investor.

Publishers may never have unbundled the big books from the others in how they treat them commercially, but an Amazon-led marketplace is now doing that for them. The less help an author needs from a publisher, the more appealing the fatter margins of self-publishing look. The less value there is in the retail channel for print, the less lost by giving up the retail distribution in favor of an online-only sales outlet.

Despite that, few big authors  have gone for Amazon’s money. Tell the truth: wouldn’t you have expected that with Amazon’s power, deep pockets, and an experienced book acquirer at the helm, they’d have attracted some bigger “gets” by now? I’ll admit that I did.

Besides delivering widespread print distribution and funding projects speculatively within a system that bundles services and accepts risk, there is one other thing that separates publishers from Amazon as a route to the marketplace for authors. It might be the most important thing.

Amazon ultimately only cares about sales made through Amazon and, if they were candid, would admit that any sale not made through them or an affiliate is a target for future growth. Publishers want as diverse a distribution network as possible; it maximizes sales and exposure for the books they’re charged with and, not at all incidentally, gives them a reason to exist.

This difference in perspective has big implications. USA Today, for example, considers the breadth of a title’s sales across retailers as a component of its bestseller calculations. A book that sells through only one retailer (and that would mean Amazon) doesn’t get the same consideration as one that sells the same number in multiple channels. Similarly, how would the New York Times feel about reviewing a book that isn’t available in stores or in all ebook formats? They might legitimately balk at reviewing something that many, if not most, of its readers won’t encounter commercially.

The divergence in point-of-view is illustrated in the conflict over print-on-demand that is discussed in the WSJ piece. From where Amazon sits, it is simply more efficient to print what they need of slow-movers when they need them. They can probably make an offer to publishers that looks “margin-neutral” or even more favorable. But publishers know they have to print for everybody else, and taking the Amazon demand out of the print equation — particularly for slow-movers — would really disrupt the overall economics for any title that weren’t already printing on demand. These overall marketplace economics aren’t Amazon’s concern.

So as Amazon continues, as any commercial entity would, to set prices, seek margins, and adjust practices and workflows in ways that work for its own business, it drives the industry to “efficiencies” that take the margin that finances all publishing activities — those that will fade away like print distribution and those that are indispensible like funding and developing new projects — out of the commercial equation.

That can only really improve things for authors that don’t need or want those functions. Since the most reliable big authors with savvy and competent agents are already getting 60 to 80 percent of the revenue their books produce guaranteed to them, it is not clear that even the notionally higher ebook royalties deliver a better deal than the publishers do now for that group. But  the scads of authors who can’t get, or don’t think it is worth the effort to find, an advance-against-royalties publishing deal will be happy with Amazon. Indeed, they’re probably happy now.

As bookstores continue to diminish, though, it will get harder for the publishers to continue to compete for the big authors, particularly if Amazon is the one picking up the share the bookstores relinquish. That could change the status quo and Amazon might start to get big authors then. If and when enough of the big authors move on, the legacy model will break and we’ll be in a different world.

When that day comes, I’m sure Amazon will recognize it and change their margins and practices to suit. Perhaps the Department of Justice will want to reconsider its thinking then as well.

Remember, the DoJ wants to hear from us about the settlement unfortunately (in my opinion) agreed to by three major publishers. We still have several weeks to get those in. I hope this post contains useful thoughts for some people formulating their response, which I am still doing. Whenever you’re ready, send your letter to:

John Read, Chief, Litigation III Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000, Washington, DC 20530

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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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Would million ebook-selling author John Locke be better off with a publisher? I think he very well might…


The experience of the most successful self-published author I know of, just described in his newest book, makes a powerful but unintended case that authors who want to really make money are still better off with a publisher.

I discovered the author John Locke a few months ago when I was learning a bit about the self-publishing world from Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. I tried one of his 99 cent books and loved it. Now I’ve read four. He strikes me as a cross between the long-dead Jim Thompson and the very current Carl Hiaasen. More sophisticated readers than I have told me his plots are derivative. None of the books struck me that way, but it could well be that savvy acquiring editors would have dismissed him if had no track record of commercial appeal.

Locke has just published a new book explaining (and titled) “How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months”. It reveals a hard-working, tightly-focused, very sophisticated marketer with a clear plan and the discipline to follow it. Every self-publishing author should read it, of course, which is the market Locke identifies. One of his key tenets is to really understand whom a book is intended for so that the content itself and the marketing approach are always aimed at precise targets.

One of the problems Locke sees with publishers is that he thinks that they will always push to broaden the appeal of a book, which he thinks would diminish its appeal to the core niche audience that he sees as the key to successful author brand-building. I’m about to reinforce that stereotype because it is obvious to me that he really missed identifying a key target audience with his new book. Editors and marketers in publishing houses ought to read it. They have a lot to learn from John Locke’s insights and techniques.

His book will help them make better publishing decisions and marketing decisions. His book will help them make more money.

But if John Locke’s also interested in making the most money, he ought to rethink whether issuing his books at 99 cents without a publisher is really the best commercial strategy.

Let’s do the math. Locke has sold 1 million ebooks at 99 cents each. He gets 35% of the revenue, so that amounts to something less than $350,000 (credit card fees are deducted from the net). There are some production costs involved (he hires a cover designer and he gets help formatting his books), so knock off another ten or fifteen grand. That means his net for nine novels averages out to about $35,000 each. He’s getting no apparent revenue from print and he’s getting no print exposure in stores which would further stimulate online sales. At 35 cents per copy, he’s earning less than the per unit royalty he’d get from a publisher selling his books for about $2.99, the point at which the 70% payment from agency re-sellers would kick in, even if the publisher didn’t yield at all on the now-prevailing 25% royalty standard. And if his books were $9.99, he’d be getting $1.75 a copy from a publisher, or about five times what he’s getting now.

Of course, if Locke himself sold the ebooks at $2.99, he’d be taking in six times more per book, or about $2.10 a copy.

But, either way, he seems to be leaving a lot of money on the table. Without a publisher’s efforts, he’s certainly leaving a lot of marketing on the table too. And the print in stores is only the single most important part of it. Selling even a modest 10,000 hardcovers would net him in excess of $20,000 in royalties, or more than half of what he’s averaged so far from each of his ebooks.

It would be facile, and I think it would be mistaken, to attribute Locke’s success primarily to the fact that his books sell for 99 cents. In fact, Locke himself bristles at that notion. He points out in his new “how-to” book that there are a lot of authors selling for 99 cents that haven’t achieved the sales that he’s achieved. He downplays the degree to which that would be due to the appeal of his writing but instead attributes his sales to his thoughtful and systematic marketing efforts.

I agree that his thoughtful and systematic marketing efforts are more important than his 99 cent price. (That’s sort of the point to this whole post!) But there is nothing about what he’s done that couldn’t be just as well done to support a book from a publisher that is in hardback at $20 or more and is a $9.99 ebook. Would he sell as many as the 100,000 or so units he’s averaging per title that way?

Nobody knows for sure, but with the same effort on his part and the additional marketing, exposure, and accessibility he’d gain with a publisher, my own hunch would be that he’d sell more. I’ve read four of the books featuring his major character Donovan Creed and I’m nowhere near sick of him yet. I’m as cautious as anyone about generalizing from my own experience, but I know that if the next one were ten bucks instead of one, it wouldn’t deter me. I pay ten bucks or more for most of the ebooks I read, as do a lot of people.

One of the things that the ebook retailers know for sure but that publishers can only guess about is the degree to which the purchasers of 99 cent books are a market separate from the purchasers of “branded” books at $9.99 and up. Many believe, and I’m among them, that there are distinctly separate groups of buyers here and that people like me, who mix it up, are the exception. If that’s true, there would be some risk for Locke (and to an acquiring publisher) in switching him over to a model which requires that he get his success from a different pool of customers and makes it hard for his existing readership to come along.

But if the markets are distinct, there is also some great potential reward. If there are people who only choose from the cheap books, there are also people who want to choose from the professionally validated books, the ones from the major publishers. The more you believe the markets are distinct, the more opportunity there could be for Locke in using what he’s done to launch himself independently as the springboard to a career as a published author with a major player.

Amanda Hocking succeeded with an independent effort but then signed with a major house. Barry Eisler intended to leave publishers behind and do it himself, but quickly found that Amazon’s publishing program — how long before we start referring to the Big Seven? — actually suited him more than doing-it-himself. Now we do the quick math on Locke and find that it constitutes a weak argument for the economic benefits of self-publishing.

It is important to for us all to remember that we’re still in a world where most of the books are sold in print and in stores; that this is more true outside the US than it is here; and that it will remain true outside the US for quite a while longer than it will here. The challenges of the digital age for publishers are very real and the self-publishing option is much more viable than it was a decade ago, or even three years ago. But there’s still plenty of life in the legacy model. I’d be surprised if some big publishers aren’t preparing offers for Mr. Locke that he’d be obliged to consider seriously if his goal is to make the most money from his writing that he possibly can. If Amanda Hocking could get $2 million for four books, how well is John Locke really doing financially getting less than 20% of that for nine?

The most frequently persuasive argument I can think of for self-publishing is speed to market, particularly for an outsider who doesn’t even yet have an agent. Finding an agent takes time. Getting a proposal up to an agent’s professional standards takes time. Publisher consideration and contract negotiating following offers take time. All of this can often take a year or more; it is rare to accomplish it in six months. And then the publisher will need persuasion to deliver it to the market in less than six months. (This is not irrational on the publishers’ part; maximizing sales in print still requires a long runway because the planning in mass merchant outlets requires assigning specific titles to slots many months in advance. That’s a marketplace reality, not an invention of publishers.)

I think self-publishing as a path to publisher discovery may become a new standard and, if it does, the ebook operations being set up by literary agencies may ultimately be viewed in a different light.

My prediction with Locke is that he will end up getting an offer he can’t refuse from a publisher to create a new character. The Donovan Creed series and his westerns will continue to be issued for 99 cents, but something new will be done the conventional way. And, unless my hunch is way wide of the mark, for the next several years the ones done the conventional way will make Locke a lot more money.

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Amazon’s news of hiring Kirshbaum is a helluva start for BEA


Amazon dropped a shoe last week when they announced their new mystery imprint, Thomas & Mercer Books, and started signing authors, including self-publishing evangelist, Joe Konrath.

Last night they dropped the other shoe, which turned out to be a very heavy boot. They signed former Time Warner Publishing (the company that is now Hachette Book Group) CEO Larry Kirshbaum to head up a new general trade imprint for them.

The next thing to drop will be a few pennies as the industry wakes up to a very new day.

Konrath complained in a blog post over the weekend that independent bookstores planned to boycott the Thomas & Mercer imprint. It would appear Konrath (who, in his pre-ebook-evangelist days worked hard to promote through independents) took very personally what was meant to be resistance to Amazon.

One would suspect that the books Kirshbaum is going to acquire will be very hard for any bookseller that wants to serve and keep her customers to avoid stocking. In other words, the Kirshbaum signing might have cured Konrath’s concern.

Where did this arise before? Many times, many places. Borders stopped buying Sterling books when the independent publishers was acquired by B&N. The relationship between Sterling and Amazon is more complicated, but it would be safe to say that sales of Sterling books were not Amazon’s highest priority and sales through B&N’s biggest competitor were not Sterling’s.

Amazon briefly (for a couple of days) turned off Macmillan’s buy buttons in January 2010 in an fleeting and unsuccessful attempt to persuade the big houses not to go to agency pricing.

When Barnes & Noble bought Sterling, they stated clearly that they did not intend to publish precisely the kind of books Kirshbaum is now going after: “non-fiction and literary fiction.” Although things have changed in what has been nearly a decade since that acquisition, Sterling was a “category” publisher when B&N acquired them and have never stepped aggressively into the high-advance, agented arena that is Kirshbaum’s natural milieu.

I’d say one of the pennies dropping might be at B&N, where they are probably reconsidering their title acquisition strategy. If their biggest retail competitor is going after the biggest authors directly, can they afford not to?

Five years ago we lived in a world where every book that mattered sold more copies at brick stores than it did online. Five years from now every book that matters will sell more copies online than it does in a brick store. The Amazon decision may mark the commercial turning point of that massive shift.

The edge in maximizing online sales revenues will go to the publisher that can manage online pricing and marketing most effectively. That not only means raising and lowering prices dynamically to get the most possible revenue, it might also mean experimenting with free sample sizes to see what delivers the best rate of conversion to a sale. It certainly also means having the best list of potential readers to alert to a book’s publication.

Publishers have a steep hill to climb to develop skills in that regard that Amazon has been honing for years. The announcement of Bookish, a community and information site for readers, seems like a weak counterweight to this Amazon announcement. I would imagine Kirshbaum will have signed away a few books the Big Six publishers wanted before Bookish even opens its doors.

Agents, who have just gotten a big new bidder to drive up the prices of everything valuable they have to sell, are having a very good day. Publishers, as they say: not so much.

I hope I’ll see you at either the memorial celebration of Ruth Cavin’s life tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon at 5:30 at the Salmagundi Club at 5th Avenue and 11th Street or at our “eBooks Go Global” conference at Javits all day on Wednesday, where the topic of this blogpost will surely arise!

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Do ebook consumers love bestsellers, or does it just look that way?


In theory, the more books are sold online the more sales should move to the long tail. Online bookstores have the advantage of “unlimited shelf space”. Nothing has to be left out of the assortment because of constraints on capital to stock inventory or room to hold it. Furthermore, as Konrath and Eisler pointed out in their extensive discussion of online versus print within the larger conversation about self- or publisher-issued, the differential impact of display when one title has a stack and another has a single spine-out copy is eliminated in the digital world.

But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. While overall ebook sales in the US are still calculated in the 8-10% range of publishers’ revenues, so we’d reckon perhaps 10-12% of unit sales (ebooks generally, though not always, yield slightly less revenue per copy than print) or maybe even 15% for a publisher still drawing big print sales on books not available as or suitable for ebooks for whatever reason, we’re hearing frequent reports of big books selling 50% or more of their units as ebooks, particularly in the early weeks of their life.

So it would appear that ebook sales are even more concentrated across a smaller title band than print.

Furthermore, the occasional reports of enormous unit sales by the new crop of online author-stars like Amanda Hocking (coming next year to the bookstore that remains open nearest you) and John Locke also tend to support the idea that ebook sales are more concentrated, not less, than print sales. Unlimited shelf space and more uniform “display” don’t seem to be having the expected affect.

I recall a recent stat I believe came from Bowker, which tracks a large panel of book consumers, suggesting that bookstores still account for the largest single share, by far, of “book discovery.” What I recall hearing was that thirty percent of people report having learned about a book they bought from a bookstore display, much more than from any online source.

Of course, that’s certainly not true for Locke and Hocking and the books by Joe Konrath that aren’t in bookstores (although, as Joe points out, he does sell in print through Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand program.) I haven’t seen anybody else talk about this subject, but Konrath also says that he gets a wildly disproportionate share of his overall sales from Kindle, much  more than the 50-60% market share one hears anecdotally attributed to them by publishers. I know from private exchanges that Amazon themselves believe they do a better job than the other ebook formats for the self-published author in proportion to their size. We’d certainly want that confirmed by more authors than just Konrath, but if they’re doing that as a strategy, it’s a good one. A self-publishing author won’t need a lot of persuasion to not bother with other outlets if s/he can get 90% of the expected sale from one (which is what Konrath leads me to believe is the case for him, even though he is widely set up among the other platforms.)

Be that as it may, the fact is that none of the online retailers have figured out how to come close to what a bookstore can do in giving a consumer real choices-per-second. And the principal tool that online booksellers could be using to overcome the disadvantage of 2-dimensional presentation — customized choices for each online customer — is very little in evidence (except as top-of-the-page suggestions) in my personal shopping experience (which extends on a regular basis to Kindle, Nook, and Kobo and on an occasional basis to iBookstore and Google).

The impact of presence and display was understood by all in the bricks world. A book that is in the store in which a customer shops has a nearly infinitely larger chance of being purchased than a book not in the store. Sophisticated merchants like Barnes & Noble know how much sales lift to expect from a front table display. We all expect the book that it is faced-out on a shoulder-level shelf to sell better than the spined book you have to bend down to see.

For years, aggressive sales reps would move their books around. In the years before computerized inventory record keeping, it was incumbent on reps to count the books that were on the shelf to coax out a backlist reorder; that gave them ample opportunity to face books out, move books up, and point it out when a book was displayed in something less than the optimal subject section.

Now the paradigm has changed. The default front table is the choice of titles on the screen that comes up first when a store’s program is opened. That’s almost always that retailer’s bestsellers (and, as far as I can tell, it isn’t customized for me at any of these retailers; you or my wife would see the same default screen that I would.)

Then there are a bunch of pre-packaged choices — think of them as “tables” too — for NY Times bestsellers or (at Nook I noticed) “ebooks under $5″ or under menu-driven choices of subject (they’re like “store sections.”) Of course, the earlier and more often a book is presented to a consumer in their online shopping experience, the more likely it is to sell.

The standard technique is that there are a set and limited number of titles a customer sees “at a click.” If you want to see more, you have to click again and (depending on connection speed) perhaps wait for more titles to load, which will usually be another 10 or 12 or maybe 25. If you shop the same sections repeatedly (and who doesn’t), most of what you see will be titles you’ve seen before and either bought or rejected. If you shop often, trying to find something new can be exhausting and ridiculously time-consuming.

Even the simplest assistance that would help avoid this duplication — such as displaying books in reverse order of publication (most recent first) instead of “by title” or “by author” — is not (or seldom) available.

Online shopping is great if you know exactly what you want (by title or author.) The online book shops can find you the most obscure book much more quickly than the average clerk in a brick store, and certainly faster than you’d find it yourself. Searching by title or author also almost always works extremely well.

But when it gets more complicated than that — perhaps you’re searching for “baseball history” or “Civil War economics” — the combination of inadequate publisher-provided metadata and insufficiently-mediated retailer choices will deliver you a menu of options that contains some titles so off base that a clerk would be fired for suggesting them.

The Lockes and Hockings of the world benefit from the same effect. They’re betsellers and every retailer has a button to deliver those, by genre and sometimes by pricing band. Getting bestseller status is so valuable that self-published authors seem to frequently employ the technique of  lowering their price to 99 cents to get bestseller status and then popping back up to a more profitable price like $2.99 until the effect wears off.

So ebook purchasers make their choices from what is presented to them, which is a limited number of titles. Let’s not ever leap to the conclusion that there is something about ebooks or about ebook consumers that is biased to the most popular. It is merchandising practices which create that result, not consumer taste.

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Eisler’s decision is a key benchmark on the road to wherever it is we’re going


I wasn’t planning to write a post this past weekend for Monday morning publication. But then Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. I’ve read their lengthy conversation about Barry’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.

To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan. This self-publishing author will much more assuredly and directly spawn followers.

As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?”

I submit a bit of perspective from another part of publishing: scholarly journals. A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.

I am not alone in having long known that self-publishing would ultimately present big authors with the opportunity to disintermediate their publishers, but I wouldn’t have thought when I asked that question that the sci-tech journal would hold its ground longer. Now I wouldn’t be so sure.

The decision for Eisler, at its core, was pretty simple. On the basis of what he’s learned from his friend Joe Konrath, who seems to be banking in the mid-six-figures self-publishing annually after a career as a non-bestselling author for established publishers, and what Eisler learned himself by self-publishing a short story, he figures he can earn more, much more, in the long run by publishing himself. This is not about ego or vanity; it is not about hating the publishing establishment. It is a coldly calculated decision (by an author who should make those well; he started out in life as a covert CIA operative) that says, in effect,  ”it would not be smart to take half-a-million bucks considering what I’d have to give away to get it.”

In the conversation between them which they just published, Konrath and Eisler touch upon many aspects of the publisher-author interaction and the author’s self interest. The conversation is smart, sophisticated, and mostly entertaining (although it is definitely too long; should they have hired an editor?) It is a conversation that everybody in the industry thinking about its future will likely read more than once (particularly the highlights, which are sure to be extracted by many people from the entire text.) Contained within it are certainly a number of points made to which there are valid rejoinders that could be offered. And certainly some will point out that Eisler’s BookScan figures suggest a decline in commercial appeal. But, in the overall scheme of things, the contentious portions are minor and the fact that his sales through publishers have been declining would mitigate the expectations for him somewhat and make any success he achieves on his own even more noteworthy.

The overall thrust is that an author has just made an entirely rational decision to turn down half-a-million bucks of big publisher money to self-publish. And what is said in their dialogue, but perhaps not emphatically enough, is that the direction of change makes this decision likely to make more sense to more authors each successive week than it did the week before.

What we do here at The Shatzkin Files is try to provide insight about the implications of news events rather than be the best reporter of them. If the implications of self-publishing to the business models of established publishers interests you (and what are you doing here if it doesn’t?), then you need to read the entire exchange they’ve published and the reporting others will do of it. I will limit this post (longer than mine usually are as it is) to a few points which for the most part are intended to extend their discussion, rather than contend with or correct it.

1. They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it.

One of the themes that I’ve been working on for some conferences I’m planning (more on that upcoming later this week) is how the arguments about rights, royalties, and publisher leverage change as the balance between digital and print sales continues to shift. What this conversation can make you forget is that far more than half of most books’ sales, perhaps more than 70% for the majority of titles, are still print copies selling because they’re on-hand in a physical retail location. And that’s in the US. The number is higher in the UK and is almost certainly more than 90% in most other places in the world. So even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.

But, having said that, the shift to digital seems to be increasing in speed worldwide. The percentage of print sales will keep declining. Eisler would have been signing a contract for a book that would come out a year from now and digital will be more important then, perhaps twice as important then, as it is now. And, as he points out in the conversation, the book a publisher would put out a year from now will have been selling and delivering revenue for a year before the publisher would have had something in the marketplace. To paraphrase the great author and publisher, Mark Twain, “the self-publisher will be halfway round the world before the legacy publisher can get his boots on.”

And that leads me to…

2. I’d be amazed if Barnes & Noble doesn’t detect an opportunity here to do a completely different kind of deal. What if B&N went to Eisler and said, “we’d like to buy print rights to sell your books just to our own customer base”? I can’t see why he wouldn’t just say “yes.”

What I’m envisioning here is something like a book club deal. B&N pays an advance and licenses the right to print its own copies for display and sale through its own stores and dot com. This could work many ways, but one might be for them to pay a royalty based on the actual selling price for every copy shifted. That would allow them to manage their downside risk on the printing because they could cut the price when sales slow down.

That might lead (or even trail) a wholesaler like Ingram or Baker & Taylor or Charles Levy to make a similar offer to print copies for sale through other retail outlets. The big publishers have taken a firm position (which, in my opinion, they’ll be figuring out how to walk back in a year or two) against buying print rights only, but one has to figure that a smaller publisher or a trade book distributor, looking at lots of underutilized capacity to handle print in the coming months, might see commercial merit in handling the print side of a major ebook bestseller.

Konrath does tout his sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which enables his books to be available in print for their online customer base. But he doesn’t talk about B&N’s PubIt program or setting up his title at Lightning Source, which would make it available as print online more broadly. None of these solutions put speculative inventory in stores, though, and that’s necessary to get the full marketing and sales impact for any book today (and probably for a few more years to come.)

3. Because Konrath has proved to be such a multi-talented combo do-it-yourselfer and finder-of-resources, the conversation doesn’t touch on the range of service providers that can help the potential self-publishing author for fees or for a much smaller percentage than a publisher would take. There’s mention of Smashwords, which is one, and of CreateSpace. But the self-publishing giant Author Solutions and lulu.com aren’t mentioned. Neither is BookMasters, a company we’ve worked with in Ashland, Ohio, which offers a range of self-publishing services, including access to all the editing requirements discussed by Konrath and Eisler along with some human-intermediary handholding that many authors will need. Perseus is building a similar set of services, extending its Constellation service, which began as the means to enable their roster of print distribution clients break into digital publishing. And Ingram has a suite of capabilities that could be extended, if they chose to make the investment, to be an author-service platform. The Scott Waxman Literary Agency is the first to have created a digital publishing arm that, with tweaking, could provide an author with the help they’d need. They won’t be the last.

The single greatest shortcoming of the Konrath-Eisler conversation, to me, was its Amazon-centricity, although there is one place in the conversation that begins to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble’s Nook sales are becoming significant. (Some publishers have told me that Kindle has declined from a share well north of 80% to one in the mid 50s while Nook is now accounting for 25% of their ebook sales in the US.) They don’t mention Kobo, which might have as much as a 7% share now. Sony is still a player. Apple’s iBookstore really shouldn’t be ignored. And Google ebooks is the lifeline for independent bookstores to sell ebooks. No author who wants to stay sweet with independents can afford to ignore putting their books into Google. In fact, Random House executives told us that the growing use of Google by indies was a factor in their decision to level the pricing playing field by moving to agency pricing last month.

And as the build-out of pathways for English-language books abroad continues, these non-Amazon, non-B&N players become even more important.

When Konrath started doing his self-publishing two or three years ago, working exclusively through Amazon made complete sense on an effort-to-reward basis. It is becoming increasingly important to cover more points of distribution, even digitally.

But that doesn’t change the calculation that much for Eisler’s decision. There are already helpers in the marketplace to extend beyond Amazon and there will, undoubtedly, be more. The conversation imagines this kind of service provision. And (if they’re competent) the ones now in the marketplace will be falling over themselves to introduce Eisler to what they can do for him.

4. OK, here’s what these guys really got wrong. They made a mistake about baseball. Their post is full of line drives off the wall, but their interpretation of baseball history is flawed.

I refer to Konrath’s observation about the Negro Leagues in baseball, suggesting that the reason the majors brought in black players was that Negro League baseball had become superior to Major League baseball. Actually, that wasn’t true at all. Although some integrated barnstorming over the years did result in black teams beating white ones from time to time, it was seldom suggested — and certainly no major league owners or fans thought — that the overall level of play was higher in the Negro Leagues. It wasn’t.

Beating a competitor that had somehow demonstrated its superiority was never the motivation for the major league teams to integrate. It was all about them competing with each other and not ignoring talent. The real history might contain a useful lesson for the legacy players in publishing today.

What drove Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson was pure competitive zeal. He wanted to win. He wanted good ballplayers to help him win. If he was missing some good ballplayers by ignoring blacks, he’d stop ignoring blacks.

When he did that, other teams followed. And, in pretty short order, the Negro Leagues were destroyed because the best ballplayers they had were playing in the Major Leagues.

A similar effect has weakened, if not quite destroyed, Christian publishing in the US. A quarter century ago, Christian publishing and bookselling existed in a parallel universe to secular trade: different publishers, different stores, different commission rep groups. Just different. Then superstore expansion and some major Christian bestsellers led to the major chains starting to carry the best titles from the Christian publishers. That weakened the Christian booksellers, who were the ones that carried the wider range of titles from the Christian publishers which, in turn, weakened them.

Of course, Eisler hasn’t succeeded yet. He has a book to put out this Father’s Day that he turned down $250,000 to have come out next Father’s Day. If the over-under is whether he’ll have earned his $250,000 by then, which way would you bet? It would strike me as extremely ambitious, but if he can sell at $4.95, not entirely inconceivable. And, of course, you could set the bar at which you’d call it “success” a lot lower than that.

If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that I was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?

Konrath made the point that self-publishing just gives him more time to write. He and Eisler both expressed frustration about living with the long schedules and companion limitations of traditional publishing practices. From their perspective, it is wasteful to not start monetizing IP quickly after it is finished in the digital age and it is unnecessarily constraining sales and income to publish only one book a year, or even one per publishing season.

I’ve tried to recruit Joe to speak at conferences, with a total lack of success, because he thinks the best marketing he can do is just to keep writing. New stories help him market himself more than public appearances do. Since he also enjoys writing more than speaking and would rather be home than on the road, it’s a pretty tough sell to ask him to lose a day of editorial output to have a conversation with a bunch of strangers.

The portion of their conversation about staying focused on generating editorial output was one of the most persuasive elements of it. A publisher would help itself a lot if it focused on that question too and thought of a writer’s time as a valuable resource that should be devoted, as much as possible, to doing what that writer can do that nobody else can. And that’s “write.”

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Can big publishers compete if the coin of the realm is “names”?


In a conversation earlier this week I learned that the big Hollywood talent agencies have come to the recognition that “audience aggregation”, a component of what I have been calling a “vertical” strategy, needs to be incorporated into their thinking going forward. This was signaled very strongly recently when longtime publisher Steve Ross took his fledgling business offering self-publishing advice to authors with him to the Abrams Artists Agency where he set up a new department for them to represent authors rights to publishers.

What does that mean? It means that the celebrities will start increasingly try to “own” their audiences: to gather them in networks, bind them with various content offers like newsletters or other material from the person they “know”, and sell them stuff. The people managing the careers of movie stars are seeing the writing on the wall. The intermediary structure that connected the stars to their public — studios, producers, theatrical distribution — is suffering the pain of all media: declining prices for content because of the increase in supply and consumption habits changing because of more and more quality screens and digital delivery.

Many authors, of course, are trying to do the same thing. They have web pages; they collect the names of those who want to keep in touch with them; and they are, increasingly, selling them stuff. Sometimes the stuff is content (with a way blazed by Joe Konrath and his successful conversion from published author to self-publishing author, so far almost exclusively through Amazon) and now, thanks to Open Sky, they could be selling anything at all.

So the authors and the movie stars are getting ready for the day when they have to bring real live customer contact to the party if they want to be invited. But the big publishers are lagging behind here. Why? One reason is that the big accounts appear to have intimidated them from selling direct to consumers.

This is the kind of thing you don’t know for sure from the outside. Conversations between publishers and their top accounts, like conversations between publishers and the agents for their top authors, are private and closely guarded. But it has been anecdotally reported in the past that Barnes & Noble is not happy if publishers sell to consumers. And I’ve also heard that Amazon has told publishers that if they charge any price lower than the suggested retail in a direct sale, Amazon will consider that lower price to be the basis of their discounts, not the suggested retail.

That threat effectively prevents any publisher from selling direct unless they operate on the agency model and have eliminated price competition in the marketplace. (Of course, under the agency model, all sales are considered sales by the publisher, except, of course, that they don’t have the names or the customer relationship!)

In a business that is built on the leverage of intermediary trading partners who aggregate customers, which trade publishing is, very few are in a position to gratuitously annoy the two most powerful levers they have.

So the publishers have been reluctant to be seen to be selling direct. This concern also applies, for the same reason, to the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Both depend on bookstore business for their survival and it is, perhaps, an enlightened position not to compete with their core customers so neither company sells directly. But it is very constraining. Baker & Taylor really needs a full-line store to sell their BLIO ebook platform, but they can’t do it themselves. And Ingram — our client but we have not discussed this question with them at all — serves publisher clients as a DAD and as an ebook wholesaler who could use a retailing capability; but it is a very longstanding Ingram policy not to compete with their bookseller customers.

That’s the context in which LibreDigital announced their new SkyShelf service last week. SkyShelf is a direct-to-consumer ebook sales capability for the publishers LibreDigital serves as a digital distributor, but it gives them a certain amount of “deniability” or distance from it.

In my opinion, the big publishers must face some very critical questions fraught with customer relationship management challenges.

On the one hand, publishers — all publishers — must start forming direct relationships with end users. They have no choice. Authors are doing it. The retailers are doing it. The Hollywood stars and politicians and ballplayers they want to write books for them are doing it. Part of what the publisher wants to get paid for is marketing. When the most important marketing asset for any book is the number of likely-interested people who can be emailed about its publication, publishers without any names to offer will have a harder time selling their value.

Publishers who do have names on file — from Digital Book World owners F+W Media to Hay House to Harlequin and including others that grow in number every day — are already benefiting. They’re selling more copies expending less marketing money and they’ve got something important to offer authors looking for a publisher.

But it is hard to collect names and build a relationship with an audience if you don’t sell things to them. That’s one place that big publishers are really stuck at the moment. That’s why LibreDigital built SkyShelf to help them out. At the same time they put their competitor Ingram in a ticklish spot because it is hard for them to offer a similar service for the same reason that publishers need the help!

At the same time, the big retailers are pushing their way up the value chain into the publishers’ territory. Amazon has had self-publishing capability that is aimed at authors for a long time. Barnes & Noble invested in iUniverse, one of the first self-publishing start-ups (now part of Author Solutions), over a decade ago. Now B&N has delivered a suite of services called “PubIt” to compete with Amazon’s offering for authors.

Amazon has such a large share of the online print and ebook businesses that, with the publisher disintermediated and the author able to take a much larger share, they can credibly make the argument that a branded author — or one that otherwise does her own promotion and marketing — can make as much money through them alone as through a publisher serving the entire market.

It is more difficult and expensive for Barnes & Noble to leverage their store shelves for self-published authors but, to the extent they can, it will be a very attractive lure. I’d be very surprised if they’re not thinking about how to do that. Borders did a deal with self-publisher Lulu a couple of years and a couple of management changes ago. How long will it be before they revitalize that arrangement and add more competition for the authors’ attention?

The names of people potentially interested in a book who can be contacted for free will be the most important coin of the publishing realm in a short time; in some cases, it is already. There are publishers who are emailing to millions of names every month right now, but none of them are the biggest publishers. If gathering names is not a major priority at any publishing house, it surely should be. It’s mission-critical; it’s about survival. Seen in that light, it must certainly be worth some tough negotiating with major accounts if that’s what publishers have to do to make it happen.

This post was provoked by new information, about what the Hollywood agents are doing and about the launch of SkyShelf. But we’ve been pounding this drum of direct contact for some time. We did a pair of posts (here and here) with the help of direct response expert Neal Goff a few weeks ago trying to push publishers in this same direction. Those posts were about how. This one is about why.

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