What shoved other news aside this morning was the word from Seth Godin that he won’t be publishing books with publishers anymore. This is another early indication that it is going to get harder and harder for trade publishers to sign up books.
It is not the first one. Thriller writer J.A. Konrath discovered the virtues of publishing through Kindle about 16 months ago. With the help of audience-building through his own blog, plus completed manuscripts that the New York publishers didn’t buy, he was pushed into learning how to monetize his own work without a publisher.
Last December, the news was that S&S author Stephen Covey had taken his backlist to ebook publisher Rosetta which had, in turn, made a temporary exclusive deal with Amazon. The motivations, apparently, were a bigger share of the ebook pie and the unique marketing capability Amazon has to really push something direct to appropriate consumers. That deal seemed to be with the original publisher’s explicit consent. (Agent Andrew Wylie recently formed an imprint to do the same thing with a batch of his clients’ backlist apparently without prearranging consent, although no lawsuits have been filed to date.)
At the last BookExpo, one of the leading agents in New York told me he is working hard to learn about self-publishing options because his authors are asking him about it.
Last week, one of the leading publishing consultants to “brands” told me that the 25% standard ebook royalty was pushing her company’s clients to think harder about self-publishing.
And it happens that right now I’m reading a book about my favorite subject (baseball history) called “A Year in Mudville” (about the Mets inaugural season) that was self-published through Smashwords but which, in editorial quality, exceeds many titles I’ve read from established houses. I don’t know whether author David Bagdade didn’t want to bother with the bureaucracy of pitching trade publishers, was rejected by them, or just chose the control and better margins of Smashwords, but Smashwords rather than one of the established players is dividing with the author 70% of the nine bucks I gave iBooks for the purchase
This way lies destruction.
Many years ago, my friend and sometimes colleague Mark Bide and I were talking about threats to the scholarly journal paradigm. For those not familiar with how journals work, it might be an eyebrow-lifter. Universities pay professors’ salaries and encourage them to write peer-reviewed articles. The journals get the articles for free, operate the peer-review and publication process, and then sell the collection of articles back to the university’s library. So the university both pays for the content’s creation and purchases it in its published form. Since the beginning of the web awareness, it has been predicted that disintermediation of journal publishers would occur.
What Mark told me was “watch the level of submissions.” That is, he believes the first sign that journal publishing is in trouble will be if the professors stop sending in their articles. So far, that hasn’t happened (that I’m aware of.)
But it’s going to be happening in trade.
On an email list I read, you can detect the annoyance of publishers who point out that neither Konrath nor Godin would be where they are today if publishers hadn’t invested in them and built their fame. There’s some resentment that neither Konrath nor Godin emphasize this point and, by not doing so, seem to suggest “anybody can do this.” I’m not sure that they’re saying “anybody can”, but it isn’t necessary to push that idea to do real damage to publishers’ futures, because the authors who can do this are among the the ones publishers need the most.
Starting in the 1990s, publishers started to ask “what’s the author’s platform” when they signed up books. In those days, they were asking whether the author had a radio show, a newspaper column, a speaking circuit, or extensive media contacts that could give them a leg up to promote the author’s book. But with the turn of the century and the development of inexpensive websites and blogs, authors were able to build their own platforms. And, lo and behold, they were able to build them faster and better if they had legitimately published books in the marketplace.
Publishers should have remembered the axiom that you should be careful what you wish for. This was, perhaps, the beginning of the unbundling of the publisher’s suite of services to the author. It used to be that the publication of a book was the platform and the publishers’ publicity and marketing efforts worked to capitalize on it. This was all part and parcel of the package: paying an advance; editing and shaping the book; putting it into a distributable (printed and bound) form; getting it known; and, of course, getting it into a store where a customer could buy it.
Publishers still pay advances although they’re doing their best to scale them back. Many don’t provide the same level of editing services that they used to; they often expect more books to be delivered by each of their editors and they also lean to agents they can trust to do a lot of the work of putting a book in shape. Putting it into distributable form isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be and doesn’t require inventory investment if the form is digital. Getting it known is something that Godin very articulately and accurately suggests he can do better himself. He is not alone and authors who can do this are explicitly what publishers are seeking. And getting the content into the customer’s hands is a drastically different proposition in a digital context than it was in the pure print world of 20 years ago, and digital distribution can be done with far less investment and far less organizational muscle.
So there’s less for a publisher to do for an author than there once was. And the publishers sent that signal when they started to focus on the author’s own ability to promote and then, over time, turned that ability into a frequent requirement for publication. If the publisher is going to do less, the author wants to pay less for it. Joe Konrath is very clear about the advantages he sees in getting the lion’s share of the revenue his books generate, rather than a mere author’s royalty.
But, somewhat more ominously, making more money through disintermediation does not appear to be the primary driver for Seth Godin. What Seth seems to be saying is “I want flexibility. I want to use what I write in whatever is the best way to build my overall career, revenues, and audience. I don’t want to be locked into publishers’ schedules and bureaucracy.”
That’s a massive challenge for big trade houses but it will be of increasing importance to big authors, particularly big non-fiction authors. It is much easier for a publisher to provide real value if they’re vertical. On the same mailing list I mentioned above, we got a comment from a biggish independent publisher who claims that the house is finding more and better ways to work with authors and really investing in them. But, we are told, they are all in verticals.
Godin may be a unique case. There are unique aspects to Covey and Konrath too. But it is not comforting for trade publishers to see that authors have alternatives, that as ebook sales rise the viability of the alternatives grows, and that the authors most likely to strike out on their own or look for new partners are those with the strongest existing connections to audiences.