Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will Authors of the Future Need Publishers?

One of the theories I've seen espoused about recessions is that they are really about a massive reordering of the economy. Lingering inefficiencies suddenly become glaring and are trimmed, weak companies fail, the work force reorders itself, and the strong companies either extend their dominance or retrench. The economy reemerges more efficient and ready for more growth.

The publishing industry has had to weather this storm along with the rest of the economy, and while the industry endured its share of tumult and layoffs, contrary to popular belief it is actually holding up reasonably well, especially when compared to the retail sector as a whole. Sales were off 2.5% for the year as of July, compared to a 9.5% drop in broader retail.

But even along with all of the economic pressures, the industry right now is facing a looming restructuring as e-books become more and more a part of the landscape. And as e-books become more and more common publishers will increasingly see their raison d'etre challenged by digital and self-publishing.

For the last hundred years the publishing industry has been built around one key advantage that no one else could match: distribution. Sure, publishers designed the cover and edited the pages and marketed the books. But the real secret to the dominance of the mainstream publishers, as anyone who self-published knows, was utilizing both their brand and their nuts and bolts distribution to get the books into the stores. Without traditional publishers: good luck. Publishers were the sole gatekeepers.

That's all beginning to change with the Internet and online booksellers, and will change even more if/when e-books become the primary source of book revenue for an author.

Right now, with e-books hovering somewhere around 5% of sales, authors still need publishers. Even the self-publishing success stories almost always involve self-published authors finding their way to traditional publishers. Why? Someone's got to get the books into the stores, and publishers are the best at it.

But what about in the future if e-books become 50% or more of an author's sales?

You don't need infrastructure to distribute e-books: you just need an Internet connection. An unknown, unpublished Author of the Future could do deals with the Amazons and B&Ns and Sonys of the world (or possible a single e-book distributor) and simply upload their book from Wasilla and voila, the book will be instantaneously available just as readily as the new book by Dan Brown of the Future. No warehouses, no catalogs, no print runs. Online vendors, as we've seen, will sell anything.

So, in this scenario, does the Author of the Future, especially one with a built-in audience, really need a publisher?

Well... yes. Maybe.

That's because there are a whole lot of tasks that Author of the Future may not care to deal with, such as editing and copyediting, designing the cover, dealing with all of the zillions of different e-book vendors and their preferred file types, and, of course, marketing. Surely there will also be Co-op of the Future to reckon with - front page placement on an e-book store, for instance.

But most importantly, for the first time basically ever, Author of the Future is going to have a choice: work with a publisher, who takes care of a lot of the dirty work, or tackle the dirty work themselves, possibly with the help of ahem an agent who can help negotiate the e-distribution deals and work on selling the author's subrights and help the author find freelancers to handle aspects they can't tackle on their own.

If e-books-as-majority come to pass, the road to publication will be open like never before, and there will be a very crowded highway bypassing the publishers.

I really don't think publishers are going to disappear entirely. The package of services and expertise they offer are unmatched (when things are running as they should), and it would be extremely difficult for Authors of the Future to navigate all of the complexities of making a bestselling book of the future by themselves. There's a lot more to making a successful book than typing it out, hitting upload, and e-mailing your friends that your book's on Amazon.

But publishers would have to be extremely author-friendly -- they would be providing a service, not relying on their traditional role as gatekeepers and distributors. They'll have to win over authors facing a choice between going with a publisher vs. handling matters on their own. Publishers won't be able to rely, as they have traditionally, on the fact that authors need them in order to reach their audience, just as authors won't be able to rely on publishers losing money on most of the books they publish.

This is why I think the relationship between author and publisher is going to increasingly be more of partnership.

I think it's telling that some of the New Experimenters in the publishing industry, Twelve, HarperStudio and Vanguard, all treat the publishing experience as a partnership. Twelve cultivates the relationship between author and publisher and is able to do so by only publishing a book a month, HarperStudio limits advances but shares back-end revenue, and Vanguard asks the author to forego an advance in favor of transparency in marketing and higher royalties.

If e-books ever take over, the old system of authors and publishers squeezing every possible percentage point out of each other will give way for a system of shared responsibility and transparency. If the author doesn't like the deal they're getting they won't be S.O.L. They can find another one. Or they can do it themselves.

But then there's one more big looming question about publisher-as-service-provider: is there any profit in this?

I think so. My guess is that there will be a spectrum of choices available to authors, everything from no advance/handle everything themselves situation, where the author makes more profits on the backend, to the advance/traditional publisher scenario, where the author receives less on the backend.

But there are looming challenges with e-books, and lots of people are nervous about the $9.99 price point, and rightly so. Amazon is currently taking a loss on many of their sales in order to boost Kindle sales and market share. But some of these price point pressures, I think, will be sorted out by volume as e-book sales rise. Kassia Krozser blogged yesterday about how difficult it is right now for an e-publisher to turn any profit without significant scale.

My guess is that we'll continue to see the mainstream publishing industry focus on the bestselling titles, and there will be a new crop of e-publishing services available for the rest. Some titles will rise up from the morass of author-published works and receive attention from the mainstream publishers, and some big authors will choose to take on the responsibilities of publishing themselves and bypass the publishers.

All of this assumes that e-books become dominant, and to be sure, that's a big "if." But things will definitely be changing.


Joel Q said...

That t-shirt comes in all kinds of sizes. Sweet.

Moriah Jovan said...

Author services abound; you don't need a publisher to purchase quality freelance services for every stage of book production.

What you do need is entre to the shelf, and I see agents filling that role in the future. For a cut, of course.

If the B&M bookstore survives in enough quantity, that is.

Dan Holloway said...

Nathan, it's great to see an agent getting involved in this debate. A lot of us authors have been arguing for a while that as the industry gets flatter, with more direct outsourcing, we'll reach a situation where publishers will need to pitch authors rather than vice versa, and the key question will be one of what they can do OVER AND ABOVE the sum of the outsourcable services.

And of course distribution has been "IT".

I think you need to look at more than e-book distribution (because if you focus too much on that, publishers will get complacent and come back with a retrenchment arguing that paper books will still need distribution networks). The fact is that bokostores will increasingly be showrooms and the bto buy copies will be run off via the next generations of espresso machine - better POD tech will render physical logistics irrelevant.

The key with on-demand availability is that distribution will be driven by demand. And that will come through bottom-up portals of trusted readers. They're nascent if in existence at all at the moment - but they'll get there (I always use the planetary accretion metaphor). And, because that's the way things go - tech will follow demand. The future landscape will be driven by the reader-writer dialogue. Distributory mediums will need to make a pretty loud shout if they want a reason to butt in.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan, I think everything you’ve said here is true. There are lots of ways for authors to publish today. It’s possible to self-publish a best-seller; it’s been done. And it’s especially easy to publish books in eBook format. However, it’s rare that a self-published book becomes a best-seller because most self-publishing doesn’t include access to widespread distribution and enough money to cover the cost of major advertising. That could change, however, if new distribution and advertising channels open up.

Dan Holloway said...

@Moriah - yes, agents will fill that roll - but they will be more like the PR in the music industry than agents as we know them today

Voter said...

But can it core a apple, oh Author of the Future?

Steven Till said...

Authors will have a need for publishers in the future. The percentage of authors self-publishing via e-books may continue to rise, but I wouldn't think publishers would entirely disappear. I agree with you. It may become more of a partnership than previously.

There will still be authors who seek the knowledge of industry experts (publishers) instead of doing it on their own. Publishers will still offer a lot in terms of experience and time/cost savings, which most writers will need in order to be successful.

An example might be in accounting. Sure, there is plenty of new software out there that allows people to do their taxes on their own, but accountants are still in demand and are still being used. You can choose to do your taxes yourself, but how do you know you're doing everything correctly and are computing the right amounts? Professionals still offer experience that is invaluable, regardless of all the new technologies and mediums available to writers.

Marilyn Peake said...

Article in the Boston Globe about a school getting rid of all its library books in order to go completely digital. Includes a rather shocking photograph of the gutted library: here.

Moriah Jovan said...

@Dan Holloway

@Moriah - yes, agents will fill that roll - but they will be more like the PR in the music industry than agents as we know them today

Yes, I agree. I hadn't thought beyond your "showroom" concept (which I sketched up here one Sunday morning when I was bored.

Abi King said...

Very interesting post. But perhaps the question is this: will readers of the future need publishers?

The internet has opened up opportunities for writers, but for readers, it can take a long, long time to sift through material that isn't up to standard in order to find something good ( a point I'm sure you appreciate, being an agent and all ;) )

So, I believe that readers do want gatekeepers. And Authors of the Future will probably not be that great at de-selecting themselves.

So, who should be the gatekeepers? Traditional publishers? Amazon? Google?

Agents? (Cue mwah-ha-ha sinister laugh as possibility to take over the world appears...)

Very interesting. I shall watch this space...

Sean Craven said...

Honestly, between e-books and on-demand publishing I have dreamed about doing the whole thing myself. (As an artist who's done some graphic design it seems like a natural, and as an old school punk DIY sounds like home to me.)

But publishers don't just put books into stores. The most important thing they do is deliver the message that the writer in question is a professional. There are a lot of terrible self published books, and there's no good reason for anyone to assume a given self-published book is worth reading.

There needs to be some kind of gatekeeper, someone who can put an imprint on a book that lets the public know that it's not amateur night. I can see agents taking on this role...

It might not be a bad thing for publishers to go back to their original style, and start regarding themselves as cultural institutions rather than farmers milking the bestselling cash cows. I suspect that if they start nurturing writers early in their careers, provide more editing than they currently do, etc, etc. they'd be in a better position in the long run.

Seriously, it's not just publishing. Look at what's going on in the music industry. They've been ripping off both the public and the artists for so long that now they're facing what amounts to open revolt, and as a result they've taken to indiscriminately suing their customer base.

This isn't sustainable. For any branch of the entertainment industry to thrive they need to provide benefits for both the creator and the public.

It looks as if similar crises are in store for books and films. As a wannabe writer, I'm both scared and hopeful. All I can do is develop the quality of my work and hope for the best...

... and wonder what would happen if Stephan King, Danielle Steele, or Dan Brown were to decide to put their next book up on Lulu.

Judith D. Schwartz said...

It's not an e-book, but I'm exploring this myself and documenting it on my blog:

Thanks for the discussion. So much is in transition...

Charlie said...

Why is "if" in quotation marks?


Novice Writer Anonymous said...

I hope that traditional publishers don't go the way of the dodo. I certainly know I won't be able to traverse the murky world of publishing without an agent and editor to guide me along. If only to be able to have another couple sets of eyes to look at my work and make sure it's the best it can be.

Fran Ontanaya said...

In nature, new species rarely extinct older ones. They only push them into more specialized niches.

I think it could be agreed that publishing as a business did spread a lot in the last decades. It was like Pando: acres and acres covered with the same tree and nothing else. But that wasn't a realistic situation. Most of it was opportunistic rather than a symbiotic relation with the niches.

I expect most of the activity to shift to literary studios. We are used to think that the selection process has to be vertical, with the publishing houses as ladders. But what all that means is just that the more eyes, the better. A studio team can do that aswell.

Travener said...

How am I going to browse for books in the future if they're all digital? I can see e-books being important to the future of the few books that become bestsellers, but people who read books, I'll bet, are like me: they like to wander around in a bookstore looking for something interesting, usually not knowing in advance what they're going to purchase.

Or maybe I've just become an old curmudgeon. It had to happen sooner or later.

Anonymous said...


I just learned that means it isn't really an if. I think.

PatriciaW said...

Kind of like what's happening in the music industry with CDs vs. online downloads.

Publishers will still provide a service. The definition of "bestselling", as murky as it already is, will change. Consumers will demand quality from e-books and self-publishing authors. Big name authors may elect to self-publish as quality book packaging firms sprout up.

Booksellers will have to figure out where they fit into the new equation, if at all, when publishers could simply begin selling in multiple formats directly to consumers. That one may be unlikely but then booksellers had better figure out how to offer multiple formats and what that means to the size and offerings of their brick-and-mortar stores.

It's all very interesting.

Margaret Yang said...

re: gatekeepers. I'm thinking about youtube. We function as gatekeepers for each other. I don't randomly surf youtube, but if a friend points me to a funny/interesting/good video, I will watch it.

Lydia Sharp said...

The thought of doing all that work on my own, without the expertise of a publisher, is overwhelming. And I'm pretty sure I'd not only make zero profit off a piece of writing that might otherwise do well, but I'd also look like an amateur jack-a$$ without the opinion/feedback from an agent willing to put their reputation on the line to represent me, and the help of a professional editor before the thing is published for the world to see (and even in that sentence I'm questioning my comma usage). We have publishers, editors, agents, and writers for a reason: they each have a specific job to do with regard to the project as a whole, so they can present a quality product to the consumer. If everything is left to the writer (the most biased member of the group), it's the readers who are going to suffer. And when the readers suffer, the rest of us are in deep $#@!.

Nathan Bransford said...

Quotes around the "if" signal unusual usage, not emphasis or irony. That sentence wouldn't make sense there weren't quotes around the "if."

See Wiki Paragraph 1.3

Mercy Loomis said...

What I'm interested in seeing is what role small press will play in the future. So far the debate has mostly been publishing vs self-publishing, as if all publishers were equal. But there has long been a stigma against small press in this industry, and I for one am eager to see if this changes.

If a small press can make more partnership-type relationships and still offer access to distribution, they may be well-placed to start picking up authors. Especially since the majority of authors have to do their own publicity these days anyway. As the major publishing houses seem to gravitate more and more to the "sure thing," I can see the possibility of more and more smaller publishers being the ones to find the new talent.

Of course, it's whether the new talent will stick with the small press or will flee to the big houses that's also in question.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think the role of the small press will be as one form of gatekeeping. You'll probably see more McSweeney's style collectives spring up around a certain small press brand.

The challenge is making small presses profitable, and Krozser's article is really instructive here. Without a great deal of sales volume it's really, really tough to make e-books profitable because of slim margins and low price points. And would a small press be able to provide enough of a value add when the author is going to be doing a lot on their own anyway?

Some will probably be able to perform this balancing act, but it will be tricky.

Whirlochre said...

As a writer, the further away I can get from the dirty work (or "dirty work", if you prefer), the better.

And as a potential consumer, the last thing I need is a glut of unfiltered choice.

So — I'm happy to court intermediaries in both instances, simply to make things do-able.

I don't see things changing much in this regard (ebooks, recession or no), but maybe publishers will need to become more intermediariable.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I think publishers of the future will offer the most important things they offer now: professional editing and design, access to distribution channels and marketing. As Nathan says, even in an exclusively ebook world, there will be co-op for front-page real estate on Amazon and whoever else comes along to compete.

Agents will, I'm sure, continue to have a role with contracts and contact with publishers. Who's going to sell my foreign-language, audio and film rights? Me? Not likely.

I shudder at the thought of a world where it's all self-published ebooks. How will I find books I actually want to read?

Paul Äertker said...

Does the t-shirt come in red?

Dan said...


You're operating under the assumption that books will still exist in the future.

YouTube video clips, 140-character tweets, and other 'snippets' of information already dominate the e-channels. And e-books will become e-pamphlets as our attention span continues to dwindle.

But unless you're already a well-known public figure, who will care about what you have to say?

So I believe there will also be gatekeepers, and that includes within publishing.

Randolph said...

As of this month I've been making a living as an independent author and over ninety eight percent of my sales are in eBook format.

What really surprises me about all that is that I do it in fiction. I don't give workshops, I don't have a lifestyle solution, and I'm not going to melt those extra pounds off your bod with my breakthrough diet technique.

I have a great big pile of science fiction and it's an awful lot of fun.

From what I see on Kindle boards, I don't think I'll be a rare breed for long!

Today I'm celebrating having two books in the top ten on Amazon's Mobipocket eBook distribution site again. I love my full time job.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I also think that publishers will begin trying harder to brand imprints, and will market the imprints as styles of books, the way clothing is branded. Some smaller presses have already been successful at this for decades.

Bane of Anubis said...

Price points will come down when there's a greater market share, particularly once advertising is injected into the e-reader market.

Publishers will definitely have to streamline themselves further and will trend even more toward marketing vs. actual publishing.

Anonymous said...

This is really very exciting news the way you see this!
Especially at a time when I think authors are giving up on their writing, I can't tell you how much hope your model offers.

Emilie said...

I think Author of the Future will find they need a combination - An Agen-sher or a Publis-ent. Strange mutant.
After what I learned last weekend at Dragon Con, between the New Electronic Frontiers track and the Writer's Track, Y'all's days are numbered unless you adapt.
Steven King's grumpy old man rant in this week's EW proves the point about the future of e-books, but I don't buy his argument about lacking quality. When people make good stuff, others will find it. There will be E-book experts out there who will lead the literary community in the future, and good works will be in the hands of readers. The question for you, Nathan, is where will YOU be?

Robert McGuire said...

I've been wondering why agents don't make a move toward something you hinted at -- cutting the publisher out of the process. If the publisher has already pushed the selection and the editing processes back onto the agent, and if they are now trying to push the marketing and promotion responsibilities back onto the agent and the author, it wouldn't surprise me if agents started to wonder, "What else is the publisher good for except controlling access to the bricks and mortar market?" If agents can figure out a way to access that market themselves, it seems they would effectively have become publishers. (There are a million other details I know including ISBNs and book design, but it's all expertise that you can purchase or subcontract.) If I were the head of Curtis Brown, I would wondering, "Why do we have X agents knocking themselves out to sell our clients to Y different publishers. We should brand all our authors CB and build our brand and theirs collectively by putting our energy in promoting them directly to the readers instead of to publishers who don't seem to want what we're selling anyway." In that case, your job becomes finding writers who you can partner with who you think you can do a good job promoting to readers and booksellers.

Jil said...

I'm so glad of the "ifs" you put in there. (Note the quotation marks I suddenly seem to be using! You put the idea into my head and, like an annoying song, I can't get rid of it!)

But what of the future? In Planet of the Apes ( I think) they walk into a long crumbled building and are overjoyed to find books. What would our ancestors find if all we have are e-books and the like? And what if there's no electricity? And the satellites are kaput?
E-books are great but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Mick Rooney said...

What is most relevant here is the term of Traditional Publisher and what it means. Yes it will always be synonymous with quality editing, product and distribution, and I fear this is all that commercial publishers will actually hold on to in the future.

Much of your article, Nathan, discusses how publishers are seen, certainly by general readers, rather than how they are seen within the industry, by authors, who dictate the content and availability of it.

Readers don't understand the gatekeeper mentality in publishing - actually they don't care - but the danger in publishers taking the safe high ground in a vastly changing and more accessible publishing industry (to self-publishing authors)is that they may find themselves run aground and only have the moral ground as a future.

What this means is that authors may more often cut out the gatekeeper and go straight to a service rather than a publisher. There is good and bad in all of this, but ultimately, it is the reader who will decide the destiny of publishing and the format they require their reading on.

The challenge is for publishers to understand this and adapt their business model to reflect this change. If they do, traditional publishers will represent what maybe a 30/70% split in favor of independent authors in the future.

When change comes - you can fight it from the outside or you can decide to become a part of it. There is the challenge.

Christ! You don't know how often I wanted to use unnecessary "quotes" in this post!

I've learned a lesson today, Nathan.

Jen C said...

I don't know. I'm getting kinda sick of hearing about how publishing is going to die and everyone will self publish. I think that's stupid. In what other industry has the so-called e-revolution broken down the corporate side of things? Changed, yes, but not destroyed completely.

I feel like we've had this conversation a million trillion gazillion times.

Nathan Bransford said...

jen c-

Yeah, I'm sick of hearing that too, which is why I said something different than that.

scott g.f.bailey said...

@Mick Rooney: "it is the reader who will decide the destiny of publishing and the format they require their reading on."

I don't know if that's true. I never wanted e-books and e-readers. Amazon's successful marketing of Kindle isn't necessarily vox populi, and I don't see that it's doing the publishing world a favor.

Terry said...

Illuminating post. Thank you.

As far as this future goes with all its options, my one, and maybe odd fear, is that so many terribly written books will be published that it will turn off buyers.

Consumer confidence is so important to our economy and to any industry's success.

Paul Neuhardt said...

It seems to me that the lines between publisher, publicist and agent will blur, at least to some degree.

For instance, why can't a successful agent convince Amazon to put her bestselling client front and center on the Kindle bookstore as well as someone at the publishing house could? I suspect Nathan - glib devil that he is - could make as convincing an argument for that placement as could someone from, say, Random House.

Would an agent be willing to assume more financial risk by paying for editing, proofreading, illustration, etc. up front if they got a bigger slice of the earnings from the electronically distributed book? Maybe, and if they do what distinguishes them from a publisher?

Would authors give the agent a bigger slice of the pie to eliminate the publisher and still have a reasonable expectation of success? I suspect they would.

Who pays the production costs in this brave, new world of e-publishing?

The author? I know that in my current situation I can't afford to do so, and without a publisher to assume that risk I would probably never publish a quality product (assuming I ever do even with publishers).

The publisher pays that now, but will it be worth it to them with e-publishing? Only if they can find a way to capitalize on the market, and to date the economics of e-publishing don't seem to support that.

Agents? Um, I bet not, at least until they get 40+% of the take for books they place with e-vendors.

Jen P said...

The T-shirt is one thing, but heck, what is "this!"

Mick Rooney said...

@Scott G.F. Bailey
I don't know if that's true. I never wanted e-books and e-readers. Amazon's successful marketing of Kindle isn't necessarily vox populi, and I don't see that it's doing the publishing world a favor.

So the most important person in the future of publishing and where it needs to go, doesn't actually matter?


You should try getting a job with a publisher at the moment. You'd fit in perfect with the current business model!

Mick Rooney said...

@Paul Neuhardt
"It seems to me that the lines between publisher, publicist and agent will blur, at least to some degree."

Now, here's a guy who has it sussed.

scott g.f.bailey said...

@Mick Rooney: "So the most important person in the future of publishing and where it needs to go, doesn't actually matter?"

I don't know what you mean here. If you're saying that the "most important person" is the reader, then I'm saying that no, we readers aren't the prime movers in what happens to the publishing industry. Customers driving business practices is a nice myth, though.

"You should try getting a job with a publisher at the moment. You'd fit in perfect with the current business model!"


AndrewDugas said...

Writers don't want to be publishers. They're forced into it because the chances of getting past the umpteen gatekeepers between the agent and the printed book are statistically against them, often for reasons that have little to do with the merits of the book itself and more with the guesswork of individuals who haven't even read the thing.

But writers DO want and need the rigors that the publication process bring to the writing. The editing, the review process, the constant refining.

Hopefully, between the economic shake-out and technological paradigm shift, we'll end up with a model that lets writers write and publishers publish.

Mariana said...

This is a very interesting sociological analysis, coming to think of it: what comes out of an economic crisis and what are the recent social changes influencing the publishing business?

The major players will have to change their positioning towards the authors and their distributors, review their finances in order to adjust to the e-books pricing (as it seems this new paradigm is unlikely to change soon), review their business administration etc.; in other terms, modernize as a whole.

In this process, the publisher’s expertise will have to expand, for instance to determine better on line selling strategies, and even whether a certain book will be published exclusively on line or will have a paper version (as it’s happening with hard covers vs. trade paperback). Thinking of it, will be a bad thing for the future author to be published exclusively on line? (Besides our natural linking for paper books, that is, but will the author of the future share this liking?)

Following this reasoning we could also ask: how will the reader of the future be? Will he/she care about printed books at all? Will environmental concerns influence their choice of purchase?

Now, and finally, will printed books die? If we expand our imagination to the possibilities of future technology, consider neural links, new means of information access on the internet such as direct interaction with the cloud and so many other scenarios that, today, belong to the science fiction realm, but will have to be dealt with in the (near?) future.

Brilliant post Nathan, thanks for the reflection!

Mick Rooney said...

@scott g.f.bailey

You don't understand that the customer demands and needs are the very core requirements of a business should provide?

I'll leave that little conundrum for to you to contemplate. Again, think, where modern publishing is now!

scott g.f.bailey said...

@Mick Rooney: It seems to me that the core requirement of a business is to make a profit. "Should" is an interesting word that, as used here, likely has little place in a discussion of business. You should think about the marketplace and the difference between alternatives and choice. Sales not generated by need but by desire, etc.

AndrewDugas said...

I wonder if book publishing will soon follow the footsteps of the Hollywood studios.

Back in the day, everything was inhouse, just like publishing now. But with the collapse of the "studio system" we actually wound up with better movies and I think the industry makes a lot more money as well.

So maybe the "agent" will play more the role of the independent producer. He'll find a "property" and pitch it to the publishing house, which will play more the role of the studio. They'll put up the money and lend their publishing and marketing muscle.

Of course, there will be independents, just as there have always been independents in Hollywood. (More so in recent decades as the cost of entry has dropped thanks to digital technology.)

All the peripheral players like editors and publicists and designers will be brought in on a per-project basis, as opposed to being inhouse.

Mick Rooney said...

"I wonder if book publishing will soon follow the footsteps of the Hollywood studios."

Thats a really interesting point, Andrew. There are already some literary agents who are courting authors directly. Very tricky ground Nathan will attest to.

In this discussion we are talking about, the future relationships, or dissolution of them, which moves authors closer to the end product/representation of their work, is what places authors at the forefront of publishing itself.

AndrewDugas said...

@Mick Rooney

"what places authors at the forefront of publishing itself"

That's not how it panned out in Hollywood. Of course, filmmaking is a much more complex and necessarily collaborative process than book publishing.

Let's hope we the writers fare better here!

Andrea Cremer said...

Moonrat had a great post about what we should and shouldn't be worried about vis a vis this publishing 'crisis' (there's some quotation marks for you, Nathan!) A question looming in my mind regarding the possibility of e-books and the disappearance of the printed text is about class and access. How many readers can afford a Kindle? Libraries provide open access and reading programs to many underprivileged communities and it seems to me that e-books are still very limited in terms of accessibility. Who really consumes e-books and how can they revolutionize the way books are made without being truly accessible - which I'm not convinced they are?

Mick Rooney said...

"That's not how it panned out in Hollywood. Of course, filmmaking is a much more complex and necessarily collaborative process than book publishing.

Let's hope we the writers fare better here!"
Indeed, I agree, but the writer chooses to become author or screenwriter, or both.

Eric said...

Oh man. Co-op of the Future.

My tummy hurts.

Mick Rooney said...


I'm just on my way to the pharmacy,

You want anything?

jimnduncan said...

The e-market is going to grow, I have no doubt. Technology will see to that as the things we read on become more efficient, multi-purpose, easier to use devices. In my opinion, publishers and folks like Amazon, B/N will still end up controlling that market. They have the resources for it. Authors don't.

All availability aside, even if all aspects of publishing are available to authors, it still has to be paid for. Most don't have the funds to appropriately outsource these things. And most don't have the where-with-all or expertise to become proficient in doing all of this themselves. Sure, we'll always here of the success stories of those who accomplished publication and made money at it all on their own, but we won't hear about the other 99% who floundered and went nowhere. Publishers and agents are in no real danger of losing their position in the industry.

As for the whole gatekeeper effect, I think that as ebooks proliferate more and more, readers will naturally gravitate to places where they can be assured of quality content both in story and in format. People will get tired of wading through stuff that really isn't publishable (I think this may be happening to some degree already). Who is going to create the venues for this? The folks with resources and money. Co-op's and other smaller ventures will come and go, and a few will likely succeed in niche markets, but I believe it will still be the big players who gain control over it.

So, while the changes will certainly make it possible for writers to put their stories out there for the world to see, I honestly don't see it particularly changing the chances for success. It's not like the number of readers is going to grow at the same rate people are able to put books out there to read. People will still want to read quality stories, and they will go where they can most readily and easily find them, and your average writer out there on their own will still find the same roadblocks to work around. All pessimism aside, even the chances are still and will be very slim for the vast majority of writers, the greater number of avenues will be a good thing.

Eileen said...

The other value I see publishers bringing is as a filter for readers. With authors going direct to readers- there will be zillions of books for a reader to choose from. The publisher's mark will be like an "Oprah" pick type sticker. Readers will know if they pick a Simon Pulse book they'll have a sense of what to expect. I predict publishers will be even more "brand" related.

Dawn Maria said...

Very interesting post today. I think the real turning point will be when an emerging writer like myself chooses an e-publisher over a traditional one because they really believe it will be the better choice. For today, I think anyone of us here would still rather go with a traditional publisher.

I'm intrigued by the new compensation models though, that's the area of development I'm watching closely- though I still have to stand by the wisdom of Max Bialaystock's line from "The Producers"- Never put your own money in the show!

Paul Neuhardt said...

@Mick Rooney:

"Amazon's successful marketing of Kindle isn't necessarily vox populi, and I don't see that it's doing the publishing world a favor."

I dare say if the Kindle was doing the traditional publishing world a favor, or at the very least doing it no harm, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

I think the question we need to be asking is, "Is the e-reader doing the reader of books a service?"

If the answer is yes, then it doesn't serve us well to sit and wonder what is going to become of the old world of bound books. It is instead up to us to figure out how to keep getting quality work in to the hands of the highest volume of readers.

Terry said...

Great quote, Dawn Maria!

Paul Neuhardt said...

Perhaps we should all be asking, "What will Authors Of The Future need?"

Marilynn Byerly said...

As of now, the only major e-distributor site that allows self-pubs is Amazon/Kindle.

Amazon, however, has a system that won't allow some small publishers and self-publishers to have their paper books available on Amazon.

Will the distributors continue to block access to a majority of buyers as ebooks become more popular?

History says yes. That's what has happened in the book industry.

In other words, that brave new world of an equal playing field will never exist as long as buyers continue to prefer one-stop shopping and known brands.

Mick Rooney said...

@ Paul
"Perhaps we should all be asking, 'What will Authors Of The Future need?'"

Now, finally we have someone who has the balls to ask the real question about this debate.

I'll qualify id by saying - authors of the future are our readers today.

Randolph said...

"As of now, the only major e-distributor site that allows self-pubs is Amazon/Kindle."

That's already changed drastically. Even Barnes and Noble owned eBook sellers now allow indie books. The big stores are seeing profit possibilities.

AM said...

I believe that for the next decade or so there will be a wide variety of business models that will range from today's traditional model
of author->agent->publisher->public
to author->publisher->public
to author->public.

Within the next two decades independant authors will pay for services (e.g. cover design, marketing, distribution, editing,etc.) as they need them while author conglomerates, such as James Patterson, Inc. , will employ these skills in-house.

As the distribution channel flattens, and the specialized services disperse away from publishers and become more acceptable and available, that's when we may see authors either become employed by an "Author's house" or create their own "house".

I believe there will be in-house agents like large corporations have in-house lawyers today. Agents will be subcontraced or on staff to project manage the development and distribution process.

Mick Rooney said...

"As of now, the only major e-distributor site that allows self-pubs is Amazon/Kindle."

Again, this is a misnomer. Amazon is not a distribution outlet, though that is there pretension. They are first and foremost an on line RETAILER. They do not have a sales force selling directly to bookstores and bookstores do not buy books from Amazon. At best, regarding self-publishing, they are simply facilitating a growing market in digitalized goods and are reciprocating to it.

You may as well say Smashwords are an e-distributor or any on line service who facilitates ebooks or electronic listing of books.

Adam Heine said...

I was thinking about this a few months ago (by which I mean I wrote a blog post).

Even without distribution, publishers provide one additional service that new authors cannot get on their own: credibility. Publishers assure the reader that a bunch of people -- who make a living out of reading books and who know what's Good -- have read this book and decided it's Good.*

It's possible that even credibility will be outsourced one day, at which point Big Publishing may simply be the One Stop Shop to Outsource All Your Publishing Needs.

* I know not everything that gets published is Good, but percentage-wise it's better than what's self-published, and people know that.

Haverford said...

Another point is the accessibility of the e-readers. Can you imagine a toddler turning "pages?" Or kids (and adults) without the couple hundred to purchase a reader? Public libraries?

E-books will never be appropriate for everyone, and authors and publishers will provide for their readers or leave vast segments underserved if they stop publishing nondigitized works. Not too great for agents, either.

Kat Sheridan said...

What I'm seeing here is folks jumbling together a whole lot of related, but different, concepts; there are e-books, small/indie press, POD (which even the big boys do for order fulfillment), and self-pubbing. It all comes down to the distribution channels and ensuring quality product, regardless of producer or delivery format.

Yes, I can see publishers (and some big name authors) lending their name to a brand (look at Harlequin--pick a line and you know exactly what flavor you're getting). And if you really think editors these days actually edit, you have only to pick up Dan Brown's latest ten-ton gorilla (56 pages in and I'm screaming for my red pen!)

I like the concept of brick and morter stores that goes like this: the shelves are full of "sample" products (any author can print a hardback for a few bucks at Lulu or Createspace; it's not brain surgery). There are sections of "recommended", put out by traditional publishers, "branded" authors, or a new breed of "Select and Respected Readerswho know Sh!t from Shinola". You step up to the counter and order a "Nathan Bransford Mondo Hit Megabook and a carmel macchiato to go please." The server says "Would you like that as an e-book or POD,paperback or hardback, and is that a fat or skinny macchiato?" You say "I'll have that as an e-book--here's my latest-i-thingy-device, please download it there and I'll have full fat with extra caramel." Presto bango, your reading material is ready at the same time as your caffeine-sugar buzz goodie.

Who got those samples in the store? Publishers of every stripe, agents-cum-publishers (especially those with the uber-cool CB brand), indie/small presses, e-publishers, and authors who took the time to chat up the manager.

Best of all, no more returns and their evil cousin, the Ponzi scheme known as "reserves against returns". No inventories, warehouses, lots of cool greenie attributes the store can advertise, and a more accurate tally of what actually sells.

Dreamin'? Yeah, I've been accused of worse.

AM said...

Adam Heine,

I read your posting: Spectator's View of Publishing's Future. It was very interesting.

I agree with everything you said about publishing in regards to the changes today. However, taking a longer look into the future, I believe that the authors with the right team of professionals, who have the right connections, will in effect brand their work.

Of course, this is very similar to what we have today, except authors will be CEOs or independent entrepreneurs and the credibility will come from the author’s name (and team) rather than from the publishers (distributors).

I do not think this will happen overnight, but there are and will be bestselling, industry-driving authors that will take advantage of publishing’s collapsing distribution model and keep more control and profits in house.

Steve Fuller said...

I will make this short, but I have decided to self-publish with a twist. I am launching my own promotions company. First, to handle my own books, then expanding in 2011 to take on other new authors.

The twist is in distribution. I have a professional editor to handle copy, a graphic designer to handle covers (the cover for my first novel is out of this world), and I have a marketing agent to handle promotions. Everyone gets a cut of the author's royalties (which are higher through a self-publisher), so it behooves them to get the book sold.

Will it work? Maybe. Will this route be more fun than sitting around waiting for some major publisher to take a chance on me? Absolutely.

There is a new world of possibilities out there for writers. Those of us who creatively step into the future have a chance of making it without traditional publishers.

Erika Robuck said...

Authors will still need agents and publishers, but first we will test the markets ourselves by self publishing. Then we'll show you guys the numbers and reviews. Then you'll take us on if we've met your magic numbers (with modest advances) and we'll all make money the old fashioned way--by earning it based on actual sales. Exciting!

Jen C said...


I didn't mean you. I meant the inevitable comments about the death of publishing that always come with the debate.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, AM. I think you're right, too -- in the long term, it may be far more about the authors than who the authors are with.

The question remains though, how will an unknown break into that business? Someone needs to sift through the unknowns and say, "Hey, I found a good one!" It might be publishers, agents, a committee of established authors, who knows?

If all else fails it will be the consumers who have to sift, but I don't think it will come to that. There's money to be made in the sifting, after all.

AM said...


Sign me up.

I'll follow your site to learn how you plan to interview potential partners, and set the buy-in fees(my portion of the initial operational and overhead costs), and if we both agree that we can partner, I'll be ready to sign.

Ah-hem, to enhance my resume, I am a degreed accountant with ten years of information technology and project management experience. I'll even help develop the business’ start-up plan (for investors, partners, banks, etc.). I’ve reviewed you site and I think our genre and writing interests will be compatible.

Heck, if you decide I can't write to your partnering standards, I certainly can manage and offer skills you have not already listed. And like Nathan, I've proven my love of the craft - plus I can afford the buy-in. ;) - which is a nice side affect of us writers who have lucrative day-jobs (or careers).

Who knows, with one mega-bestseller, we could collapse my ten to twenty year projection into the here and now.

Seriously, if you are serious, I will be following your site.

Mark Terry said...

What seems to be missing from your analysis is marketing and publicity. Once upon a time publishers did it, but now they primarily do it with bestsellers. If things shift to e-publishing, that can be a very strong negotiating point for an author (aside from a cash advance, I suppose). "Okay, sure, I'll stay with you guys if you put X number of dollars into print ads, get me a shot on Today, and send me on a 10-city book tour scrawling my signature on the back of everybody's Kindle."

Part of the new experimenters like Vanguard et al., has at least been partly the concept that they'll treat the books special and as you say, "be transparent" in marketing, or at least, let the author know what's really done. Like: not only we going to say on the galley that you have a 10-city book tour and a $100,000 print campaign, but we're actually going to SEND you on a 10-city book tour and spend $100,000 on the print campaign.

Mira said...

Nathan, this is why I think you're amazing. That you'd write a post this topic!

Good for you.

In terms of my contribution to this thread, I can't address the business end of things. Business is not my forte.

But sociological phenomenon - that I can talk about.

My main concern is how downtrodden the author is now. Authors buy into the idea that they are a dime-a-dozen and should be grateful to be given any notice at all. They accept a pitiful percentage of sales and basically do what they are told, don't speak up, or face informal industry blacklisting.

Unfortunately, many of the industry blogs, for the most part (not yours, Nathan, of course), are accentuating rather than diminishing that process by speading fear and yearning. That's just my opinion, of course.

That maybe an unconscious psychological tactic on the part of the industy. I don't believe it's deliberate. But if the industry can keep the author more "oppressed", then in the transtion to e-books, the author will not grab their power.

That is my main concern. That the people who are very good at money and power will continue to be good at it. And authors, who perpetually doubt themselves, will hand their power over to them on a silver platter.

No matter what system is devised, there is a great possiblity that the devaluation of the author will continue.

I do NOT want that to happen. Partnership is wonderful. It would benefit all involved if the author had more power (something I don't believe the industry realizes).

I feverently hope that authors take their opportunity when it is presented to them.

AM said...


What a nice site you have! I've just looked at this week's posting. You even use flow charts for event processing! Are you or where you once a developer, business analyst, etc?

You and your wife are obviously wonderful people and are to be commended!

Laurel said...

Three things regarding the need for publishers:

1. Validation for the consumer. An implied stamp of approval. Publishing houses are not the only places to get this, but right now they are the most recognized. This will not always be true.

2. The cost of eBooks and eReaders will not remain static. Forecasting the future based on the current cost of these items is a mistake since like all technology, they will become more affordable. Furthermore, a dedicated eReader isn't actually necessary. eBooks are readable on computers and smartphones. Sure, not everyone has one of these, but most people do have access to a computer now. Certainly most people who buy books. (No implied slur here, just acknowledgement of reality.)

3. In the current model, the publishing house offers a package of services (in theory). Editing, copy editing, design, cover art. One stop shop.

All the jobs/people currently working at a publishing house will still have jobs after the coming market shake-up. They just not be with the same employer. They may be free lance or under distinct companies for each. Traditional publishers will remain and will be the holy grail for an author since only the most commercially viable books will be supported by them. They won't, however, have a stranglehold on the market anymore.

A couple of people mentioned branding. This would fill the "validation" need (ie: Robert Parker of the wine world but for books) for the consumer. Self-pub will be around and continue to produce a few gems but most consumers will go for the "Great Books Literary Agency/Publishing House/ePub" stamp of approval.

Smaller ePubs have grown so much in the last couple of years. That is the market to watch.

Still, aspiring authors should recognize that no matter what the future brings there will be a judgement of the work somewhere in the process. The biggest moneymakers will be the ones who have escalated the hurdles and are supported by whatever corporate structure is in place.

Adam Heine said...

Wow, AM. That's very kind, thank you twice :-)

I was once a software engineer for a large corporation. Very Office Space, but I learned lots about schedules, tasking, business processes, etc. That, and I'm analytical to the point of neurosis.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks everyone for the great comments. I'm a little surprised that so many people feel that publication by a major publisher is a mark of validation from the consumer's standpoint.

But do people really check the spine before they buy a book? Do people know the difference between imprints?

I agree that this could be a way of building a brand, but I haven't seen much evidence that consumers notice or care much.

Bane of Anubis said...

To me the mark of validation as a beginning author is non-self publication. After that, I would define success solely by sales (and if i had the chutzpah to self-publish and self-market and do well, then publication by a house tiny or tall probably wouldn't matter either, though it'd be nice)

wv: thesisms -- thesis phrase that make no sense to anybody but the writer and his/her advisors (e.g., if a resonant mode is attained during non-linear sliding mode control, bifurcation could result.)

Bane of Anubis said...

I doubt the common reader knows which house published what. Who published TWILIGHT? Who published THE ROAD? Who published THE DAVINCI CODE? I have no clue. Most readers will choose a book based on visibility, cover, snapshot, and the first few pages (or, if you're like my wife, by reading the last paragraph of the book).

Mira said...

I do think that readers like to have confidence that their money will be well-spent, but there are very good ways on the Net to get that information now, that have nothing to do with the 'validation' of a printed label.

I liked what Margaret Yang said about you-tube: recommendations through word of mouth. Also, the Amazon review system, and other review and rating sites, are a great way to build consumer confidence.

I think these will become even more important as the younger generation comes into it's own. Younger generatons are used to getting their information from the net. They most likely trust it more and are more oriented toward finding things through social networking, and review/ratings.

If there ever was any trust inspired by a printed label, it will gradually fade out. That's my prediction, anyway.

Adam Heine said...

That's a good point, Nathan. Right now I don't check the spine, but I also assume that what's on the shelves came through a publisher.

But what if we lived in a world where that assumption didn't hold? What if The Life of Pi and Dune were shelved next to Atlanta Nights and The Eye of Argon? We'd have to have someone's guarantee that a book isn't crap. A publisher's guarantee might carry more weight in such a world.

But I think Mira's right in that ultimately word-of-mouth will be what sells books, publisher's guarantee or no. In which case, publishers may have to beg authors to come work with them. Maybe.

folksinmt said...

Thank you for the link to the awesome wolf t-shirt. So glad to have that and other related items welcome me on my Amazon page. I'm seriously considering buying the purple one--the wolf love shirt--and wearing it to the next writer's conference. I'll get noticed for sure!

AM said...

I've always thought that the books being offered through the traditional retail sources (e.g. Borders, Books-A-Million, Amazon, etc.) have the stamp-of-approval from mainstream publishers, and therefore, are considered professional . Whereas books that are sold through independent, non-traditional distribution sources (websites, off-Broadway-bookstores, etc.), seem diminished somehow.

But you are right, Nathan, if I am inferring your meaning correctly, distribution channels do not determine the quality of the book. Yet, major publishers carry the necessary influence with most of today’s retailers to get their authors’ novels/books displayed, and independent authors do not. And the hard, cold reality is that the access to the mainstream distribution channels to the end consumer (our readers) directly affects a books visibility, availability and ultimately, its commercial success.

Whether intentional or not, and whether deserved or not, a stigma has been successfully associated with self-publishing – as though the author’s work wasn’t up to snuff to be distributed through the mainstream, traditional channels. However, as the industry undergoes the cataclysmic upheaval, where new technology is threatening to knock down the barriers to market, there will be powerful, successful authors who will have the opportunity to change the face of publishing - for example, James Patterson.

I believe that some entrepreneurial authors and/or already successful mainstream authors will have the unique opportunity in the next few years to take advantage of the changing business environment.

This will not mean that authors’ with haphazard, unplanned and unmanaged distribution, marketing and business models will be successful at independent-publishing. And even those that have a successful business plan and a kick-butt, professional team will have to offer TOP OF THE LINE, HIGH QUALITY books if their endeavor is to be taken seriously by retailers and readers.

The more I participate in blogs and read industry trends, the more confident I am that the right entrepreneurs can harness the diverse and powerful skill sets found in the author community, create a vertical supply chain , and change the face of publishing. Overnight? No, but it will be done by someone.

Whether or not I am ever published through a mainstream publisher, I would like to be a part of the new model.

Richmond Writer said...

What about gatekeeping? You know one of the things I am most leery about when considering a book that hasn't gone through a publisher is the waste of money/time when I discover the book hasn't had any editing.

Agents sell to publishers that means a lot of eyes and opinions have gone into that book before it hits either the online or real life shelf. You might take distribution out of the power mix but someone is going to have to step in and do the gatekeeping.

Fran Ontanaya said...


If the cover is acceptable, it takes one reader to check the online excerpt and comment any flaws. If the problems are subtler, it takes one reader to buy the book and comment any flaws. If direct comments are censored by the evil author, it takes one blog search for the title. Or the reader can find opinions about previous works. And so on.

No author that self-publishes commercially can afford offering no excerpts and having no public conversation with readers and no presence at all in the social media. It just... doesn't make any sense.

So really, it's virtually impossible to self publish a book and gain exposure without blatantly exposing its flaws.

Donna Hole said...

I don't see it as a question of needing an agent to bridge to an e- publisher. What we need agents for now is to navigate the system, get the best deals possible from traditional publishers. (There, I stopped myself from using quotations.)

If e-books become the norm of the future, then I imagine the conglomerate publishing houses will either have to take over the electronic publishing industry, or agents will be dealing directly with book companines like Amazon.

And if publishing your novel is all you're interested in, perhaps you won't need the agent to negotiate a fair deal at all. I'm sure e-publishers will come up with a standard pay scale.

I do see quality writing deteriorating in that future, however. As with self publishing now, I see e-book publishing becoming something for the impatient to just click on, follow a few standard steps, and see their project in print.

I've seen enough self-published books that were well worth reading, but so many more that were rightly turned down by agents/publishing houses.

And its not like I'm opposed to the electronic industry. I applaud the drive to go paperless, save some trees. Move forward into the future.

Maybe I just can't imagine a world without the current checks and balances.


William Hopper said...

Very good post. Having done both the standard publishing and self-publishing route, I would like to add one very, VERY important reason why traditional publishers will always exist: CREDIBILITY.
Putting a book on AMAZON does not sell it. A book has to be recognized by the readers who will buy it. Unless the author has some degree of personal fame on their side, they will need teh infrastructure and reputation of an established publishing house. Smaller imprints may disappear, but the names people know in publishing will continue because they (unlike the authors) are known and trusted by the buying public.

Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

Inmteresting look into the future and nice shirt!

knight_tour said...

I only have a couple of minutes, so I can't read all of the comments right now - I apologize if someone already asked this.

You mention having an agent help out with the ePublishing process. How would that work? Agents typically make their money from the advances, but there would be no advance if a writer self-published. I would really like the expertise of an agent if I self-published, but I don't know how that would work or if many agents are even considering such query letters.

karen wester newton said...


I think this is the best summation of the possibilities of ebooks that I have seen so far. I even blogged about your post myself.

The thing I use to illustrate this discussion is blogs themselves. Anyone can create a blog; you could call them the first iteration of digital publishing. But how many people-- unconnected to an organization or business-- really manage to make a splash with their blog? I do think digital publishing will make it easier to break into book publishing, but it's not going to be an overnight change and it's not going to make it effortless.

Gordon Jerome said...

In the very beginning of publishing, when the printing press was becoming popular, didn't authors self-publish with a kind-of partnership with the printer?

If that's true, it seems history may be repeating itself, and Mr. Bransford seems to be describing it to a tee.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, the glory of open distribution.

I just grabbed Dan Brown's new book as an ebook. It took about two minutes to find and an extra two minutes to download.

What makes internet distribution so incredible is that I, like thousands of others, paid zero dollars for the download.

Factor that into a P&L statement, author royalty and agent commission.

Welcome to the new world of publishing.

Diana said...

As an author who already gets over 50% of her revenue from ebook sales, does that qualify me as an "author of the future"? :)

I publish with a small press that began as an ebook publisher and now offers most titles in both print and ebook formats (note the plural here). The thought of publishing on my own scares me for the same reasons mentioned in many of the above posts. The time committment to promote my books is already huge; I can't imagine if I had to design the cover, format the manuscript for all the different ebook readers as well as all the other distribution tasks that are involved. I love having a publisher who takes care of all that!

But even though the books are offered in both formats, most readers seem to prefer the ebook format for my genre (erotic romance). As a result, the bulk of my royalty check is from the ebook sales. So I'd posit that the author of the already here!


Firefly said...

Nathan -- you are on a roll this week!

I think the whole idea of publishers who are service providers is a very interesting one. The first question that comes to mind is -- is there a market for this? I think the answer is yes. The next question is -- are the traditional publishers recognizing this, and investing in it? or will this be left to a new flavor of publisher? If the latter then it sounds to me like you have a viable business idea. But I think you may be missing the mark on what's driving the business climate.e-readers are part of it, but not all of it. The underlying change that is occurring is information explosion. Information is driving the need for change. e-readers are just a delivery device.

Thermocline said...

The Author of the Future may need to have more cash in hand prior to getting published if the industry does flatten and more of the tasks done by publishers today (professional editing, cover design, marketing, etc.) are handled by hired specialists.

Anonymous said...

Money -- venture capital -- is the key. What makes most best-sellers is the co-op to get them in B&N's prime spots.

You'd have to pry B&N and Amazon and any other book chain's cold dead hands off that big, juicy pile of revenue.

So, in this proposed Brave New World, your new platform will be how much money you have available to pitch in for co-op.

It will be like today's political candidates -- the first question is not what you believe in, but how much is in your war chest?

Dara said...

Very interesting.

It's certainly something to watch. I'd probably still go the traditional way, at least with letting the publisher make the cover art, do the copyedits, etc. I don't think I'd be up to figuring all of that out on my own.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree that platform and branding will be as important as ever before, but I don't think that will necessarily mean whoever has the biggest pile of cash can buy their way to bestsellerdom. I think fewer people will go directly to a bookseller to browse for a book and will instead hear about books through the websites and blogs they frequent. If that happens, positive word of mouth will be far more important than online co-op in driving sales.

jimnduncan said...

Anon said:
What makes internet distribution so incredible is that I, like thousands of others, paid zero dollars for the download.

If that were the norm, nobody would make any money, and nobody would publish books. Authors can't live off the love of readers for their writing. In my opinion, if you can't respect the author by compensating them for their work, then you don't need to read it. Different story if an author puts their work up for free. I suspect no legit sources however, have put up Brown's book for free.

I also love the comment about getting your book and coffee made to go at the same time. Tech will get us to that point in the not so distant future. The Espresso machine has shown us it can be done.

Nathan Bransford said...

What Jim Duncan said.

There is a major business opportunity right now for companies that specialize in stopping piracy. Just waiting for someone to fill that niche.

Dawn said...

Excellent, thought-provoking piece, Nathan. I was riveted, now I'm mulling it all over.

verification: unclum
Someone who no longer stubs their toe in the night or bangs their shin on the coffee table?

Malia Sutton said...

"I'm a little surprised that so many people feel that publication by a major publisher is a mark of validation from the consumer's standpoint."

This is an interesting point. I see press releases each week in my small local newspaper by authors who are promoting their self-pubbed books. No one ever questions who pubbed the book. And it's never mentioned in the press release that the book was self-pubbed. The titles of the press releases read the same: "Local Published Author..." To me this is sneaky and misleading. But no one questions it.

Most people see that someone wrote a book and they rarely ask who the publisher is. I've listened quietly while friends discuss these books at dinner parties. And the publisher never comes up in conversation.

Adam Heine said...

"Most people see that someone wrote a book and they rarely ask who the publisher is. I've listened quietly while friends discuss these books at dinner parties. And the publisher never comes up in conversation."

That's interesting, Malia. I read The Shack recently because of multiple recommendations. My first thought was that the writing was terrible. But I struggled for days afterwards because I was the only one who seemed to care.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thought this was interesting, in light of the discussion here ... The graphic novel, JACK SAID, was self-published in both eBook and paperback formats at and was runner-up for the Pearson Prize. It’s the prequel to the movie titled JACK SAYS that’s won a boatload of awards. I haven’t read the novel or seen the movie – I just discovered both online yesterday.

Malia Sutton said...

My comment had nothing to do with whether or not self-pubbed books are better than books that were sold to publishers in the traditional way. I'm sure there are many good self-pubbed books and I'm sure that the good ones are worthy of prizes.

My point was that most people don't question who pubbed the book. They take for granted that all books are published in the traditional way and I think it's misleading not to mention this to the public, up front and out in the open. There's an underlying shifty quality that boarderlines on consumer fraud. It's legal. But it's still shifty.

Mira said...

Marla, why is it shifty?

I'm sorry I don't understand. What does it matter who published the book?

The popularity and quality of a book are what matters. Who cares who published it? From what you're saying, obviously not the readers. And they are, after all, the ones who count.

ted said...

My guess is that eBooks will be priced at about $6 in the not-too-distant future, with the revenue split roughly 50-50 between author and eStore (Apple, Amazon, someone else.)

Dedicated eReaders like the Kindle will be replaced by iPads and Windows tablets, and competition between eStores will ensure that they can't take too big a cut.

$6 eBooks will kill both the book retailers and the publishers that sell to them. Printed books will priced so much more higher than eBooks that fewer and fewer readers will buy them. It just costs too much to print/ship/return books.

eBooks uploaded to eStores by their authors will still need a seal of approval from a credible gatekeeper. So seal-of-approval blurbing might be the new role for agents, since they're the principal gatekeepers today. Or maybe the task will fall to super-reader/reviewers like those on Amazon.

As publishers go under, an ecosystem of experienced freelancers should emerge to help authors with services like editing, graphic design, marketing, reviews, etc. But the author will have to foot the bill for those services... quid-pro-quo for squeezing out today's intermediaries.

Joseph L. Selby said...

Two very important points. Publishers' value isn't limited to just their distribution, but their reputation. If I buy a published book, I assume (and statistically speaking am probably correct) it is better than a self-published title. They're the quality control agent. If I have to choose between a self-published ebook and a Penguin-published ebook without any additional information, I'll pick Penguin first every time.

Second, you are totally and absolutely flat out wrong that epublishing requires no infrastructure. I've been reading this journal for a long time now and I've never seen you be so wrong. Giving away your stories for free requires a modicum of infrastructure. Selling, establishing a business, making money, that requires infrastructure. One of the reasons the industry is slow to embrace epublishing is because the infrastructure necessary to make it profitable isn't built and what is being built doesn't easily integrate with existing models. How many major publishers had ecommerce teams 5 years ago? 10? Everything they're doing now they're doing for the first time (and let me tell you, having helped make the sausage, the first attempts are just as ugly as you might suspect them to be).

Posting your work on the internet has been easy for 15 years now. Earning income as a writer still requires infrastructure. You're building your business online instead of brick and mortar, but so many standard principles still pertain and all that requires infrastructure (the hassle for international sales alone is maddening, let me tell you).

Malia Sutton said...

I didn't say the readers didn't care. I said they didn't ask.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not sure how you're taking away from my post that e-publishing doesn't require any infrastructure. Obviously it does. The difference though is that when you remove the physical barrier of shipping copies, previously afforded only by a publisher, suddenly the author has ready access to the same sales infrastructure that the publisher does, where previously the author relied on the publisher.

The bulk of my post was devoted to what you are calling infrastructure, which is all of the tasks aside from writing that go into making a successful book. And yeah - like I said, publishers will still be around to perform these tasks for writers. But writers will also have the opportunity to go around that process if they so choose and accomplish a lot of those tasks on their own.

Anonymous said...


Lately, I have suspected that all of the publishing houses have laid off their editors to save money.

I'm not sure publishers guarantee anything except the marketability of a story concept and the target readers' acceptability of the book's quality of writing. Beyond that, they mostly offer authors access to the big retailers like Borders and a stamp of industry approval for the critics.

Anonymous said...

Anon@6:31 - You are a thief.

Mira said...

Malia (that's a beautiful name, btw) - so you think they care?

ted said...

Agree that Anon@6:31 is a thief. I forgot to mention in my last post that piracy is another reason eBooks need to be cheap - $6 or less. Low prices diminish the rationale for piracy and make the parasites who steal look infantile.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

"If I have to choose between a self-published ebook and a Penguin-published ebook without any additional information, I'll pick Penguin first every time."

It depends on what you're looking for. I edit one of the few mainstream trade journals that will review self-published books. I do it because these self-published books are often the only ones on the cultural diversity-related topics the journal covers. About a quarter of the self-pubbed titles we've reviewed have gone on to be republished by big presses, but I'd have to say that all of them are of comparable quality to traditionally published books--otherwise we wouldn't waste the space on them.

AndrewDugas said...


Your point about cost point is well taken, but...

The danger of piracy of e-books is way overstated. When college students buy used books or when friends share books among themselves, are they committing an act of piracy? If a hard copy, no. If a soft copy, yes.

The inability to easily share or resell e-books guarantees to boost new book sales, especially if the price point is <$10. Last year a friend recommended The Road and lent me his print copy. If it had been on his Kindle instead, my only option would have been to buy my own copy (electronic or otherwise).

At $9.99, the cost is not prohibitive. So I would have bought it and the industry recaptures otherwise lost revenue.

Yes, I could seek out a used print copy, but in this marketplace (SF Bay Area), I doubt I could find one under $8. I'll forgo the savings of $2 for the convenience of home shopping.

(BEFORE I GET FLAMED, don't worry, I spend many happy hours and many dollars in my local independent bookstores.)

I wrote about this for FMC:

ted said...


I agree that e-book piracy is a marginal concern... and one that diminishes further as eBook prices drop.

And I agree that $9.99 eBook pricing isn't outrageous.

My main point is that Amazon's $9.99 price was set in apposition to traditional print pricing, which reflects the costs of printing/warehousing/shipping/stock-balancing.

If the book industry were starting from scratch with an online-based model, authors and eStores would set pricing to maximize profits based on microeconomic theory, namely price at marginal revenue = marginal cost.

The result would be prices closer to $5 than $10, which would lead to dramatically higher unit sales. Lots of risk-averse readers would take a chance on a $5 eBook.

JFBookman said...

Malia Sutton: They take for granted that all books are published in the traditional way and I think it's misleading not to mention this to the public, up front and out in the open. There's an underlying shifty quality that boarderlines on consumer fraud. It's legal. But it's still shifty.

Malia, I don't really get the paranoia here. The worth of the book is, ... the book, isn't it? Don't you feel people are capable of making a buy/don't buy decision on their own? And do you have any idea how many books have had a "subsidy" of some kind paid to the publisher?

Certainly the flattening of the barrier to entry into publishing has led to many books being published that would not have been published through traditional publishers. On the other hand, serious self-publishers have for many years taken the trouble to hire professionals to produce a book indistinguishable from those published traditionally. Self publishing has long been a good choice for many niche non fiction authors, nothing "shifty" about it. "Consumer fraud"?? Seems a bit ridiculous.

Emilie said...

OK - my response to you yesterday was a bit snarky, but now I have a new angle - read what happened to me as I tried to get a "limited availability" (read - self published) book from my local library.
Before ANY of what you say happens, you will need to change the views of the #1 purchaser of Hardback Books - your library

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Odd that you reference Kassia's post while simultaneously stating, "You don't need infrastructure to distribute e-books."

As I understand it, that seems to have been a major element in Quartet's imploding.

Not having a distribution infrastructure means having to deal with third-party eretailers and a variety of formats, which requires significant scale to achieve profitability, or very modest revenue expectations.

Bypassing the eretailers and going direct-to-consumer requires both an ecommerce AND a digital distribution infrastructure. It's not just emailing out PDFs in response to PayPal notifications, and few DTC publishers can match Amazon's user experience and customer service.

Publishers, like record companies, will be forced to evolve, many against their will, but the vast majority of authors will still need them to get their work out to a larger audience, whether in print or as ebooks.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's mainly a publisher's problem, but not necessarily an author's. An author would (theoretically) be able deal directly with online e-tailers. I suspect that one or more e-distributor/wholesaler will emerge to service authors as a one-stop e-publishing stop, but that wasn't (to my knowledge) Quartet's business model.

The big question is whether it will be profitable for publishers to be a middleman between author and e-tailer. I suspect it will be for the biggest authors, who will rely on publishers for a variety of services, but it will be more challenging for smaller operations.

But this is all kind of beside the point in the present. Right now the e-book market is simply too small for the type of scale necessary to make the price points profitable for e-publishing-only operations, but things will change if the market grows significantly, which was the scenario posed by the post.

Malia Sutton said...

Mira...I think they care when they are given the information they need to make a decision. But that information is not always presented in press releases and promotions.

JFBookman..."Self publishing has long been a good choice for many niche non fiction authors, nothing "shifty" about it. "Consumer fraud"?? Seems a bit ridiculous."

Then I'm sure you'll agree that there's no problem in mentioning that a book was self-pubbed in a press release or promotion. This way consumers can make their own choices. And everyone is happy :)

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...

Actually, I want to say that more clearly.

Malia, I feel like there's an underlying argument here that I still don't quite get. Why would they care if they get the information?

More clearly: what's the positive of knowing that information? How does that benefit the reader?

But I also sense that you may be feeling abit under the gun in this conversation. You used some strong language, but I'm not trying to put you on the defensive. I'm also okay if you just want to drop it.

Malia Sutton said...

"I'm also okay if you just want to drop it."

Thanks, Mira. We're not going anywhere but down with this one :)

Mira said...



Firefly said...

Nathan wrote: The big question is whether it will be profitable for publishers to be a middleman between author and e-tailer.

I agree. The important questions are 1) what is the value chain? (i.e. who makes money where) and 2) where are the control points?

It is indeed the e-tailers that are positioned to win here. Already today, most of us buy books online -- either hardcopy or electronic. I go to the bookstore -- but that's more like a field trip. I go home, read the reviews, and buy from Amazon.

I'm still not with you that the electroonic media will dominate. People like having books in their hands. I think part of the fiction will go electronic -- but non-fiction (especially anything that people may want to refer) will still be dominantly hardcopy.

The publishers -- if they are thinking strategically -- should be worried and investing in services businesses.

Rachel Starr Thomson said...

So the traditional publisher of the future looks a lot like the vanity publisher of today? Gracious.

Also, the idea of all the hundreds of thousands of self-styled writers out there having equal access to distribution causes the head to spin. I already get overwhelmed when I walk into a Chapters or B&N.

Overall, though, I think partnership sounds like a positive development.

Congrats on your blog award, by the way--you deserve it!

Daniel said...

Nothing like current e-book technology will kill physical books. The e-ink screens on these devices are excellent for displaying text; they're not backlit, so they're easy on the eyes, and the power only runs when the screen refreshes, so the battery can go days or weeks without a recharge.

However, this technology is limited to displaying static text or images. It's not good for web-browsing, or e-mailing, and it can't display video. Multipurpose devices like PCs and Smartphones offer an inferior reading experience.

The device is expensive, and substantial discounts over book prices elsewhere only apply to new hardcover books. Despite Amazon's heavy subsidy, e-book pricing still doesn't beat used bookstores, and eBay for anything except current hardcover bestsellers.

That means ebooks will only reach a market that is passionate enough to purchase a dedicated book-reading device. Even if the price of the Kindle dropped by half, the e-book market would still be only a small fraction of the larger book market.

This is offset, somewhat, by royalties that are potentially several times what authors get from publishers. But the likelihood of an author even selling 1/4 the number of copies on Kindle that he would sell through conventional channels is remote, so it will be difficult to make more money selling an e-book alone.

Kindle does, however, offer an opportunity to sell things like essays, short stories and novellas which are unprofitable to publish conventionally.

Kindle has also proven to be an excellent promotional tool for authors and publishers. Charlie Huston, Joseph Finder, James Patterson and Lee Child have all given away free backlist books to Kindle users to promote their new releases and hook new readers into continuing series. Free e-books go straight to the top of the Kindle Bestseller list, and generate a lot of attention from new readers, for very little cost.

Everyone who has a Kindle says they buy more books because of the device. I think this will prove to be a good thing for the publishing business.

Chrisitna said...

Which will people read?? E-books or books in paper? I know I prefere the comfort of holding a book in your hand, snuggling up on the couch and it taking you away... but, what will the over all public want? Starring at your computer screen or the good, old fashioned way?

Tim Jones said...

I'm with Nathan in doubting that the name of the publisher on the spine makes much difference to sales. My first few books were published by small presses, while my latest short story collection was published by Random House. I'm really pleased by that, and it's been great for distribution and getting reviews, but no-one apart from other writers has commented on the "step up" in publisher, or said that it was a factor in their decision to buy, or not to buy, my book.

Paul Neuhardt said...

Well, speaking as an as yet un-published author just getting started and as a 25 year techo-geek for my day job, let me add two cents more to this:

1. I love technology. I love the Kindle and the whole concept of e-readers and being able to take 100 books with me in the palm of my hand. That said, I hope I never have to give up my bound books. Sorry Amazon, but I simply love holding a thick volume with some heft to it and turning pages. It is just more emotionally comforting.

2. I don't want to self publish. I don't want my name on crap for the whole world to see, and like it or not the current process is designed to filter out the crap. I want to be able to get past an agent, a publisher, an editor, a proofreader, etc. to get my work in print so I have some validation that it is worth the money I am asking someone to spend on it. They may call the do-it-your-self publishing houses "vanity presses," but I look at it the other way around. It plays more to my vanity to be able to say that I ran the gauntlet and got published.

And on top of it all, while I really look forward to readings in front of book clubs, signings and other PR work for my books, I don't want to do it all myself. I want the help of people who know more about it than I do. I want someone else out there advocating for me.

If I've learned nothing else in life, I've learned that a significant percentage of the population is smarter than I am about most things, and everyone is smarter than I am about something. My goal is to get an agent and publisher that are smarter than I am about getting my work out to the highest possible number of people that will appreciate it.

Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: A great post and an excellent question.

Two more questions that need to be asked:

1) What role will the Internet giants play in the evolving publishing landscape?

2) What will the book look like in the future?

We need to accept that Amazon and Google are part of the publishing landscape.

I believe Amazon has made a huge misstep by continuing to use BookSurge as a vanity press for self-published writers and in slapping those poor quality works up on its website next to traditionally vetted books.

It goes back to your concept of the gatekeeper. Amazon is allowing its corporate greed to interfere with its gatekeeping function.

Thus far, at least, Google has remained focussed on its "search engine" business. The reason they are copying the world's books is to advantage that business.

That brings me to the second question above. A digital environment can be instrumental in changing reading from a solitary experience to a social one.

Think about a thousand teenagers reading the next TWILIGHT in a virtual reading room with the author available to talk about the characters and plot.

If I were a publisher, I'd be seeking ways to use Google in my efforts to build online communities for authors and their readers.

Thanks again. Your posts always make me think.

susan piver said...

A fascinating post and an electrifying conversation. It's kind of aamazing to stand together to contemplate an industry that is about to morph/expire/be born.

I'm a writer who worked in the music business for 10 years, ending in 2000. Which is basically the year the industry ended. (No connection!!! Ha.) I worked in various capacities in sales, marketing, promotion, etc. It's eerie to hear how similar this conversation is to the one we had 10 years ago. I'm not saying the future of publishing will be the same, just that the current conversation is almost verbatim. I was at a TOC conference some months ago and walked around mildly in shock. It was like being beamed back 10 years, minus the body piercings and men with phoney-tails.

Two big differences:

1. Traditional books aren't born digitized. (Although manuscripts are...) This is helpful. Music only exists in digital form. Unlike CDs, you can't buy a book in a store, take it home, and bootleg it.

2. Music had more than one retail chain to rely on. I think this prolonged the inevitable and gave more opportunity (unexploited) to cope with the enormous changes. With only one retailer of significance in bricks and mortar retail, well, that's a lot of eggs in one basket.

For what it's worth, here's a link to a post I wrote on the publishing industry going down the same path as music.

PS Nathan, you are awesome! You are majorly thought-provoking and a pleasure to follow on twitter. Thanks for all you do.

Ryan Chapman said...

Great post, lots of food for thought. Also nice to see this issue discussed intelligently and without the vitriol that can appear around these topics.

Maryann Miller said...

Very informative article, Nathan. Thanks for taking the time to gather all the info and post it here. I just Tweeted it, so more writers can read it.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

"This is why I think the relationship between author and publisher is going to increasingly be more of partnership."

Maybe it should have been more of a partnership to begin with rather than publishers finding ways to rape authors and do as little as possible in order to maximize their profits. Cutting out their mid-lists in order to snag that multi-million dollar best seller was another ways publishers shot themselves in the foot.

A. said...

Excellent post!

Is it possible that publishers may also gain a major role in the marketing of books as a primary reason to exist?

For example think of how many websites exist on the internet, finding what you want or finding good information can be easy or difficult depending on what you're looking for.

Search engines help with most of this, but people rarely go through page after page to select a site.

With literally thousands of people wanting to be published, compared to a relative few who are, the quality of books will suffer if anyone can publish one.

People will want to read good books. Quality books. They will need a way to separate the want to be writer who just wants to publish something for fun or ego from the professional writer who has honed their craft.

M. R. Birkos said...

Back in the 70's, folks talked about how soccer would replace football in the national consciousness, once all these kids that were playing soccer grew up, presumably by the 90s. Didn't happen. Have you ever sat through a soccer game? Geez.

Last time I lifted the lid and peeked into the publishing world was the mid 90s. The internet was new back then. Self-publishing would level the landscape, so on, so forth. 15 years later - I can tell you that not one thing has changed. Not even the percentages. Y'all are saying the same stuff.

I believe the fundamental truth, then and now, is that the work must stand on it's own merit, and the author must persevere in pounding the pavement until the break is made.

As Mr. Bransford has turned me down, I gotta go figure out to whom to send my next query. If y'all will excuse me...

M. R. Birkos said...

Seriously though. My generation are the last of the candlelight people, trying to find our way in the age of LEDs. A hardcopy book is real. It will be read by your grand children, without regard to compatable formats. Strive for that.

Larry Hunter said...

Here is what I think will happen in the future of publishing. The big publishers will develop their own print on demand divisions or buy out existing ones, that will be like the minor leagues in baseball where new writers with potential will have their talents honed and developed and the best of the bunch will be promoted to the parent company.This is predicated on the fact that these print on demand and self publishing companies continue to increase market share and e books continue to be more popular.Agents will fill the roll of talent scouts. but who knows, it may be the other way around and the print on demand people buy out the publishers as their demand increases. As for the quality of books available.There are as many reader types and tastes as there are authors to fill them.The demand for the author's work should be the only judge. Who needs gatekeepers,that sounds like censorship to me.

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