Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 14, 2009

Publishing's Winner's Curse

Originally posted in the Huffington Post

In the climactic scene in Frank Norris' classic novel McTEAGUE, the two antagonists find themselves in the desert. Shady San Francisco dentist McTeague has murdered his wife to steal her money (Belated spoiler alert!). He is then pursued by his former best friend Marcus, who wants revenge slash money slash I only vaguely remember this I read it in college and that was kind of a long time ago.

A scuffle ensues in Death Valley. It's hot! Water is lacking! Tensions running high! Bad guy McTeague nearly kills Marcus in the fight. But just before Marcus dies he handcuffs himself to McTeague.

And thus McTeague finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, the keys are back in San Francisco, and Marcus has successfully ensured that even though he has lost the battle, McTeague will also die in Death Valley.


Book publishers are currently in retrenching mode. The slumping economy has not been kind to the print world. It has exacerbated many existing weaknesses (rise of e-tailing, rise of e-books, creeping omnipotence of e's and hyphens), and has forced publishers to examine their business models.

The publishing marketplace has been plunged into a great deal of chaos. And if, as I detailed in my last post, publishers can no longer accurately guess at an audience even for formerly safe categories like adult trade nonfiction, will they continue to gamble so much money on big advances for a small number of books whose success is increasingly difficult to predict?

Well, from a publisher's perspective, they're often willing to pay big advances because their profits hinge on a relatively small number of hits and bestsellers. Thus the authors/celebrities who can reliably deliver an audience become hugely valuable. If a publisher doesn't pay a healthy advance they risk losing their bread-and-butter authors and the most promising new projects to their competitors.

From an agent's and author's perspective, there's not always a strong incentive to move away from traditional advance/royalties either, simply because it's often appealing to bank the guaranteed money and head for the desert.

In economics they call this the Winner's Curse, which is the theory that when you don't know what an object is truly worth (e.g. how many copies a book will actually sell) the winner of an auction will tend to overpay relative to the actual value of the object. The theory goes that someone who wins an auction is often worse off than if they hadn't bid at all. (Was that Gladwellian? I hope it was Gladwellian.)

And so here we publishers and agents are, McTeague and Marcus style, handcuffed to each other in the desert, stuck with the advance and royalty model even if it's ill-suited for a time when success is nearly impossible to predict. (Who murdered whose wife probably depends on whether you work at a publisher or an agency. Also: send water!)

Is it time to think outside of the desert?


Ink said...

Makes me want to read McTeague, anyway.

Patti said...

I've heard of a few publishers skipping the advances and giving their authors the royalties right away.

Malia Sutton said...

It's almost (not totally) impossible to predict how a book will be received. That's why there are so many stories about books that were received well, and weren't expected to be received that way.

It's time for everyone to think outside the desert. I love the way you phrased it.

T. Anne said...

Though the model changes, for the writer, the dream remains the same.
Luv your analogy. BTW, water may only prolong your misery.

Chuck H. said...

I haven't published anything. Can't get an agent. Still gonna write every chance I get. I don't figure I'm going to be instrumental in any changes to the status quo in publishing so that's it. Oh, and water's always good.

WV: shmag - a different kind of shmog?

Laurel said...

Yes. It is time for a change. I'm just not clever enough to figure out what it should be.

Livia said...

I love your Huffington Post essays, Nathan. They're really insightful.

Marilyn Peake said...

Maybe the publishing world should watch the new TV show, PAWN STARS. Those guys, especially the Old Man, rarely pay too much for anything without first doing research to find out the item’s real worth. They even talk about how the current economy might affect an item’s worth, and the Old Man has a fit if the younger guys pay too much for something. After losing a million dollars in real estate, the Old Man turned a $10,000 investment into a multi-million dollar business. Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

Publishers will use Kindle store or sites such as authonomy (their own market test beds) to test the marketability of a work. Why rely on the more expensive agent/gatekeeper system when technology makes it easy (and much cheaper) to find the next Great American Novel? It's American Idol gone to the literati.

The advance (if there is one) becomes an investment in a proven product.

Why are you still blogging about this? The new model is already in play. It seems you agents are the last to get the memo -- perhaps because you are the middleman being cut out of the new system ?

Nathan Bransford said...


I wouldn't be so quick to dance on agents' graves. Authonomy hasn't exactly blown the doors off the publishing world in terms of actual books being published to actual sales. Maybe someday, but it's still way more hypothetical than reality.

Terry said...

Water's on the way, no doubt, from somewhere. We hope.

Meanwhile here's a tip or two:

Some cactuses have water inside, be sure to use lots of sunscreen and watch out for those snakes, especially that last one.

traceybaptiste said...

The issue is, it's hard to know what an author or a book is worth. Many authors take a few years to really get off the ground (personal experience) so yes, in the meantime we all deal with a flawed system. Handcuffed, you are, sir. But the writers are too, only we're always trying to get into the handcuffs...

Rick Daley said...

Hopefully it's not too late to think outside the desert.

L-Plate Author said...

Great post as ever, Nathan. Keep it up Curtis Brown Boy!

Mel Sherratt, England

Marilyn Peake said...

My own prescription for thinking outside of the desert: Bring back respect for mid-listers and reign in the huge corporations with exorbitant executive salaries, all of which would allow agents and publishers to take risks on creative projects that might only result in mid-lister sales. That ain’t gonna happen any time soon, though, if ever, so I’m just planning to write without worrying too much about the big corporations and how they've changed the publishing landscape as well as the overall economy. It is what it is. When the majority of people really want change, things will change, but not before then. In the meantime, we should find creative ways to build desert homes because that’s where we live.

DK said...

I think the most important part of this post is at the end: SEND WATER!

Why doesn't someone come up with a NEW business-model, if the old one doesn't work anymore? How hard can it be?

Anyway: I'm not going to be the corpse being dragged along the dessert.

And for that: why didn't the sucker bring a knife to cut himself loose???

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen numbers on authonomy (fairly new model), but many Kindle self-pubbed authors are experiencing success. Boyd Morrison, Karen McQuestion, John Rector, Stacey Cochran, JA Konrath, Anna Murray, RJ Keller, John Pearson, Eric Christopherson, and Dennis Batchelder come to mind.

I've read many good indie books on Kindle. I'm wondering how the industry missed so much good writing . . . I hope more rejected authors will put work out there so they can be found.

Scott said...

Indie filmmakers have festivals and distributors get to attend them and shop for films they think they can throw their reputation and marketing acumen behind. Again, it's all about selling at every stage now and using your expertise.

That said, it's still a calculated risk. Only, you the filmmaker is getting exposure, not advances. The film's already made. So the author has to put sweat equity in and the publisher has to put in theirs plus cash. Dual risk with marketing behind it could switch the market back to publisher's first. Waiting for something to hit and then jumping on the bandwagon can still happen, but it can't drive the publishing industry anymore than it can the film industry.

Marketing, marketing, marketing. I'll tell you this: if an agent liked my idea, I would totally be up for them throwing their name on it and letting it ride until we're both seeing a profit.

ryan field said...

Great piece.

Anonymous said...

I think the unitentional or deliberate marketing and advance strategem of J. K. Rowling publisher Bloomsbury shows a way to uncuff agents and publishers.

1996 Modest £1500 advance.
1000 copy initial print run.
500 copies distributed to public libraries.
1998 U.S. auction won by Scholastic for $105,000.

And the rest is history. Hundreds of millions of books sold. The first ever billionaire author, a lot of which a consequence of movie rights royalties.

JDuncan said...

The low advance, higher royalties is great for authors who can afford the payment on the back end. Question is, how many authors could afford this? I'm thinking specifically of the midlist author who makes some kind of living from their writing. Could they afford the transition time from little advance until they received it on the backend? I'm guessing no. So, publishers are left starting a new policy and keeping current authors on the same schedule. Minor annoyance perhaps, but probably unavoidable.

Really though, is this even an issue for the midlist and under author? Publishers can afford these. It's the big sellers, celebrities, etc. that want the upfront big time money. If this new model was going to work though, every major publisher would have to agree to do it at once. Could they all come together and agree to this or would greed for the next big seller win out?

They could set auction caps. Then it would come down choosing the best publishing house, editor, marketing campaign, etc. This might be more interesting. What would happen if six publishers put in for the max bid? What would the rest of the package offer be? What could agents look to get beyond the money? Would put a whole new spin on the whole bidding war process at least.

Things are changing for sure. Going to be an interesting next couple of years in publishing.

Anonymous said...

So when does the Kindle store turn into iTunes? Today, I can download quality podcasts that are put together professionally such as Twit and Talking Metal. These are entertaining shows. When will authors put up self-published content in the Kindle store that will rival what publishers put out? It took podcasts a couple of years, so how long will it take authors? Then, where will agents fit in this new world when folks can crowd source good material from the bad like they do on iTunes?

Mira said...

This is a really good article, Nathan. Nicely written and plotted. Extremely good point. Love the last line. :)

I absolutely think the model should change.

Drop the advance. Let's share risk and then share more of the profits. That just makes sense to me.

As an aside, is it just me, or is that is an absolutely depressing novel? Sheesh.

Also, the ending to that depressing novel is bogus. I mean really. I won't go into details, because it would be completely gross, but if I find myself hand-cuffed to a corpse in the middle of the desert, that corpse is going to be missing an important appendage pretty darn quickly. I don't care if I have drag that thing across the desert, dripping blood the whole time, there's no way I'm just going to sit there all 'oh no, now I have to die.' That arm is coming off.

That's what I recommend for the publishing industry. Rip that arm right out of it's socket and head for the hills.

Actually, I have no idea what that meant, but I just couldn't resist. Sorry. apologies.

pjd said...

So... should agents get in the habit of carrying a bone saw? Seems wise.

Publishers, however, are not doomed. It was not that long ago that IBM was written off as the soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur. But astute, courageous leadership allowed them to rethink themselves, and again they thrive. Some companies were unable to redesign themselves (Remember Control Data? Nobody else does either.)

Eventually the landscape for publishing will change, as you've prophesied here. Some publishers will thrive; others will die out, to be replaced by newcomers. It is the way of all things.

But gosh, I would love to see my name on the spine of a book in a good, old-fashioned retail book store. It's not too late yet, but the times they are a-changin'.

Renee Collins said...

To anon 12:53/1:14 (I'm assuming you are the same person.)

I'm willing to bet that the average reader does not even know what Authonomy is, does not own a Kindle, and even if they did they are probably buying the bestsellers.

And when I say average reader, I'm talking the "buy a book every other month or so from Barnes and Noble" readers. I imagine the majority of book sales are coming from this segment of the population.

So, it's a huge stretch to say that there is a "new model in play." Not yet.

JTSHEA said...

Just gnaw through the dead guy's wrist. And drink his blood. Then wait for Erich Von Stroheim to make a 10 hour silent movie about it.

Anonymous said...

Renee -- the "new model in play" has nothing to do with the average 3-book-a-year reader.

I'm talking about the model for selecting what gets to the big boys (the publishers, the "show", the "major leagues" -- whatever you call it). The Kindlers and other eReaders/eReviewers will choose what we read in the future, especially if writers use free eBook publishing as a test market.

There's really no reason NOT to do that . . . it costs nothing to publish to Kindle. Waiting months to go through the traditional query and MS submission process (often several rounds due to rejections), and then (if successful) two years to get the book published is so last century.

Today a writer can finish a book, load it up to Kindle store, and be selling (and making money) within a week. Why would anyone wait two years to get a midlist book to market, especially if it is "hot" (the hot-selling genre, timely themes, etc).

This new model is indeed "already in play". Take a look at the growth of the indie community on Kindle.

Nathan Bransford said...


I do think you'll see more of that in the future, though I don't think it will be the only way, and especially not until e-books comprise more than 5% of the market. For now, the game is still in bookstores, and until that changes the old model will persist.

The game is changing, but it hasn't changed, if you know what I mean.

And even in your scenario where people first self-publish, agents are still going to be needed. If they want to go mainstream they're probably going to need a publisher, and if they want a good deal with a publisher they're going to need an agent.

Anonymous said...

Cash up front is hard to beat. that's where I'm goin'.

Thomas Taylor said...

I'm going to think about my dessert for a bit...

Mira said...

Nathan - question, if you choose to answer...

What would be your solution? What would thinking outside the desert look like to you?

Paul Greci said...

Thanks again for an interesting post. Well written, too!

Nathan Bransford said...


More experimentation with new publishing models, more smaller risks with debuts and the midlist, more transparency/cooperation/author partnerships rather than rights grabs and hostility, and more publishing options for less money up front in exchange for a split on the backend.

Mira said...

Nathan - thanks.

I like what you said, especially about cooperation and partnership. I guess I don't see that aspect of it from the outside. That's a shame, if it's not there already. It seems like the whole point is to be in partnership.

If you're interested, you might consider a follow-up article. I'd love to hear more about your ideas - like experimentation with publishing models, and the rest.

Steph Damore said...

I guess I don't get what the hold up is with exploring new publishing models. If everyone knows there's a problem with the current system, why not change it as opposed to waiting for it to change outside of your control?

Oh wait, this is industry that we're talking about.

I'm just saying that it would be great if a few smaller publishers looked a exploring new models. What a way to make your mark on industry.

As for authonomy, it may sound crazy, but I want to break into publishing the good old fashion way. Even with e this and that, brick and mortar publishing houses, bookstores and yes, real-life agents is still where it's at--at least for now.

Phyllis said...

I'm not so sure the problem is the advance vs. royalties model. Sure, if there are no advances, there's less risk for the publisher. But they will still have to make predictions on whether a book will be successful or not.

And making predictions is the problem, I think. Right now, more than with e-book sales, the internet changes information gathering, and where we get information about the books we are going to read. And it seems the publishing houses have lost track of where the buzz is.

Who are the first readers of a book and make other people read it? And where are they?

If you want a way out of the desert, you need a map (or a compass).

Cary said...

All about platform now for us. Create an interactive web presence beyond blogs. Show the publisher a minimum of 1k registered followers (likely buyers) at the very least. Give your work a life outside the page.

All about effort...

Lisa Desrochers said...

Question for you Nathan. Do you think an imprint's motivation to market a book is directly tied to their investment in it?

In theory, it shouldn't matter if you get an advance or not because, provided you've written a book that will sell, you should earn out and start collecting royalties at some point. That said, I know most books never earn out, so I see publishing's dilemma. My concern is that if they have nothing but their time and publishing costs invested, they may not go to bat for the book.

Anonymous said...

As advances shrink, self-publishing and allowing the crowd to source the quality of books is the potential future. If you're advance is less than 10k, does it make sense to go with a traditional publisher? I'm thinking the future is gonna look a lot like the guys in the Anvil documentary. Writers are going to need to their success in their own hands and persist. Nathan, if you haven't seen the Anvil documentary, check it out. The movie feels like the future of publishing.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan said:
"And even in your scenario where people first self-publish, agents are still going to be needed. If they want to go mainstream they're probably going to need a publisher, and if they want a good deal with a publisher they're going to need an agent."

I don’t think that’s going to happen in most cases. Most authors who self-publish – even really, really good ones; even writers who have been told by literary agents that they’re really good, but they can’t take them on for whatever reason – do so BECAUSE their book was rejected by agents. Literary agents have gotten the word out that "no means no" when they reject a manuscript, so there’s no way most authors will ever re-query after they successfully self-publish. When self-publishing brings in enough money for authors to live on, they’ve already found an alternative way to make money through their writing.

Anonymous said...

if an indepedent author (and I tink that term makes more sense these days than "self-published" which connotes days gone by images of a writer hawking bound books he paid for himself to passersby out of the trunk of his car) can sell sufficient copies online, the traditional business will eventually take notice.

What you'll see hapening will be a shifting from agents-as-filters- to Amazon-as-filter for the agents, where the agents will pick from those "ubpublished" authors whose independent books have racked up impressive online sales and rankings and followings.

Nathan Bransford said...


Even if that's the case I don't know if self-publish/then find agent will always be the norm. Manuscripts can benefit hugely from going through the submission process, first a round of edits with the agent and then a round of edits with the publisher, so that the manuscript that's supposed to catch on with audiences will be in the best shape possible. Also, not all authors are going to have the resources to self-publish.

I don't think this is or ever will be an either/or scenario. And given the obstacles, I have a hard time imagining that unagented/self-published-first will become the norm any time soon.

Mira said...


I'm not so sure. I know if I was turned down by an agent I really wanted to work with, and I successfully self-published, I would go back to that agent with the statistics.

I wouldn't want to pass up an opportunity to get my book into stores, and it's really hard get books into stores with self-publishing.

That said, I think if I had trouble finding an agent, e-publishing looks viable. I like your experiences, for example. But I wouldn't turn down an offer that came in at that point....

Anonymous said...

And then like 10 years from now, there will have to be a filter for the filter--a baby Amazon where you have to prove yourself before you can even sell on Amazon. And so it goes, with ever fine filters being put in place. First we had anyone they want making books. Then we had publishers. Then we had to have agents for the publishers. Now the agents are starting to use Amazon/Web as their filter. Then there will be baby Amazon filter. Then...? Direct-to-brain downlaods?

Anonymous said...

I do not think it is all that difficult to predict the success of a given book -- unless you are a publisher.

A book does well based on one of two things -- it has a built in audience (the celebrity factor) or it is a really good book and word gets around that it is a really good book.

I think the problem is that as the economy crunches down on profits Biz people who see books as a source of profit are finding themselves increasingly unable to predict which are 'good' books.

That happens when you try to apply buisness concepts to something that is essentially art. If you don't love the art you can't tell what it is worth.

And that is why they fail. Publishers are finding themselves jumping after whatever the hot trend of the moment is -- YA vampire romance! Zombie mash-up! YA everything! -- and then getting stuck with suck-ass sales when those trends burn out.

Which wouldn't have happend if they picked books based on which books were great books and not on what was the 'HOT' trend of the moment.

I think agents are increasingly falling into the same trap. How many Agents have you seen post the words "I can't sell that." in their blogs? If the book was good, you should have been able to sell it, but they are busy trying to chase the same trends and finding themselves always caught on the tail end of whatever is on the way out instead of being the person who created the trend by finding the next HOT property before people even knew it was hot.

Chase quality and that doesn't happen. Chase trends and you will be lamenting the lack of sales and gnawing your fingernails over e-books instead of making a profit.

pjd said...

Anon 3:23, I think you just provided the ultimate "handcuffed in the desert" illustration.

Publishers look for the next home run. Editors talk to agents and say what they're looking for. Agents who only look for what editors say they want are handcuffed to the corpse. I think most agents are more open minded than that, though.

Robin said...

It's posts like this that make me believe that you are a brilliant agent. You have a good read on material and a terrific marketing drive. AND you know how to get people to see what you see.
Great post, thank you.

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, I agree there should be less trend chasing, but you're making something really complicated sound really simple. Determining what is a "great" book is often easy to spot in retrospect, but would you have been the one to say THE DA VINCI CODE would go on to be on of the bestselling books of all time? TWILIGHT? THE LOVELY BONES?

And there's another irony, which is that trendchasing often pays off. After TWILIGHT, guess what's still going strong: paranormal YA.

Ciara said...

maybe i don't get the point but surely if the big authors are the one's getting the big advances then they'd be happy enough to go on royalties instead because obviously they're selling over their advances. and new authors (as an aspiring one myself) should theoretically be happy to go for v. small advance/royalties only too because it makes them less of a risk next time they want to publish?

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, publishers employed readers and literary agents actually read Ms. They made personal assessments of their literary value and publishing/representation decisions accordingly.

Nathan Bransford's Principle #1 appears to be that publishers and agents should think first, second, third and last of the potential market, as a politician might who believes his trade consists solely of pandering to opinion polls.

Did I get this about right?

Nathan Bransford said...


I get the sense you haven't been around the blog too long. You might read around a little bit about my opinions before assuming the worst.

atsiko said...

I'm really tired about hearning all this crap about publishers being the problem. And from "anon". Identify yourself if you're so sure you're right.

Publishers, at least the people who actuall work *for* that specific house (and not the parent companies) love books. Publishing is a not a money business. Why the hell would anyone work in it if they didn't love what they were doing.

Sorry, but "crowd-sourcing" and self-publishing are even worse options for the writers. Say it takes me a year to write a book. I self-publish it and spend months and months losing money on my investment. I probably never actually make any money. Compare that to even a $5000 dollar advance. The hell would I self-publish?

I'm sorry, but I just don't see the benefit to me as an author or reader to dropping the traditional publishing model. I barely have enough time to read the books I buy. Where would I find time to sort through all the crap on the internet? As a writer, how would I make a living while I waited for word-of-mouth campaigns to get going? A publisher brings a much larger base of original buyers to create that buzz.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

McTeague... a simple solution to your dilemma - CUT the dead guy's hand off!

Back to publishing metaphor... (Pub houses, agents, authors) - who's the dead guy?

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm in what is probably a unique (dare I say, novel?) situation. I currently have an agented, debut ms out to two publishers ... and I don't need money up front. In fact, while I'd love the green, cash has never been the exciting part. I believe my book is timely and has the potential of being a hit, if it is ever bought, that is. In thinking outside the box, I considered forgoing an advance but figured there were two problems: 1-the bigwigs wouldn't belly up marketing dollars without a hefty advance inspiring them and 2- my agent is expecting her 15%.
Oh well.

Anonymous said...

I am the walrus.

I don't read. I spear things with my tusks. I'm not open to new ideas, but I will do what I can to survive with my primitive but time-tested instincts.

Anonymous said...

Most people with a modiucum of intelligence and a dash of instestinal fortitude, finding themselves in McTeague's situation, after an initial oh-crap! moment, would come to the realization that the arm and/or hand has to come off.

One way to do this would be to get to a large rock and just bash the wrist to a bloody pulp until the bone breaks, and the cuffs could be slid off.

Pleasant Thoughts, courtesy of Anonytron

Anonymous said...

I do love this. The BIG publishers are going to become micro publishers (no advances, low royalties, no marketing) very soon.

So why are authors still wanting an agent and a big house? I guess it's like wanting the ol' diamond ring and the wedding. You'll probably not be happy with the outcome, but there's always divorce.

Anonymous said...

Some big hits (and best sellers) can be predicted, based on previous success.

New ones can't.

Hence: J.K. did not receive a big advance for her first Harry book.

Best sellers are, pardon the expression,
Black Swans.

And this is one Swan who keeps writing ...

About the dessert, and water: Dylan thought times were achangin'. We ain't seen nothing yet.

In the meantime, a lot of handcuffed chaps will die in the dessert before the rains come down.

Anonymous said...

"More experimentation with new publishing models, more smaller risks with debuts and the midlist, more transparency/cooperation/author partnerships rather than rights grabs and hostility, and more publishing options for less money up front in exchange for a split on the backend."

This is what many e-publishers are already doing. And if you (collectively) really pay attention to certain things, a lot of print books by traditional publishers are now being released as e-books. It's interesting, because the very same people (print publishers) who laughed at e-publishing a few years ago, are now following what they are doing.

Anonymous said...

Publishing is boringly unchanging. It's even more the same now as it was 10 years ago, as it was 15 years ago. it's practically unchanged from 1997!

Big yawn on this entire topic.

Books are written, sold and published every day, as they were 150 years they will be 150 years from now.


Marilyn Peake said...

Mira –

I wouldn’t turn down an offer from an agent, either; but that’s not the situation I was trying to explain. I’m definitely not talking about me. I tried self-publishing twice, and that was more than enough for me. But I know authors who turned to self-publishing after becoming absolutely exhausted from the querying process. Once they started making money through self-publishing, they usually work very hard to promote their book and write the next one. They just don’t feel they have enough energy or hours in the day to go through the process of re-querying, especially when agents have warned against doing that or risk alienating the agent. Also ... and Nathan can correct me if I’m wrong ... most agents aren’t scouring the Internet looking for self-published mid-list authors to represent anyway, so the authors I know never actually turned down an agent; they just give up looking for one in order to conserve energy and continue writing. A few people approach self-publishing from the opposite point in the process: they self-publish first, before doing any querying at all, and set aside enough money to promote their books. Brunonia Barry first self-published THE LACE READER; then she and her husband invested $50,000 to promote it, in hopes that she would catch the interest of an agent. Her plan worked, and THE LACE READER earned a two-book deal from Morrow for $2 million. Interesting article with a rather sarcastic title about the Brunonia Barry approach: here. I don’t think most successful self-published authors ever attempt Brunonia Barry’s risky approach. I think most of them simply bring in a limited but predictable income and then become so busy with book promotion, they don’t have the energy to step back outside the self-publishing arena.

Anonymous said...

PREACH it! I just hope someone is listening.

Reesha said...

Well penned. Made me smile.
*sends water*

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in negotiation with a reputable Hollywood producer for the TV/Film rights to my indie Kindle novel. The times they have-a changed.

Anonymous said...

@anon 4:45 :

Publishing is like the music biz ten years ago. Once those eReaders costs less than $200 and people start picking them up, book readers will change. It's the iPod thing all over again. There will still be the people who read printed books just like there are still people who buy vinyl. Give it time. The clock is counting down.

And while self-publishing really sucks today. I see that changing as well. All because something sucks today does not mean it will suck tomorrow. Remember when mp3's sounded really, really bad. Well, they improved.

Remember when you actually read a newspaper. Yeah. Change is coming. Let the publishing lawsuits begin.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in negotiations with 2 Hollywood film studios for my indie ebook slasher trilogy. These guys don't give up the bucks that easy though, leeme tell ya. I feel like a stepped-on shrimp at a cocktail party. Maybe I should get an agent or a lawyer? But then maybe I'll be branded "hard to work with"? the kiss of death in this biz.

Meanwhile, I'm hacking out another straight-to-Amazon ebook wonder....

Anonymous said...

Note how all the anon ebookers are always "in negotiations with" someone, but never actually "done deal". Get used to that!

Anonymous said...

Also, above anon, they have to be in negotiations all the time because they're on their own and have no one to do it for them, another pitfall of the indie author. Less time writing, more time doing business. But if I'd wanted to be a businessman I'd have gotten an MBA, not an MFA.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry, but "crowd-sourcing" and self-publishing are even worse options for the writers. Say it takes me a year to write a book. I self-publish it and spend months and months losing money on my investment. I probably never actually make any money. Compare that to even a $5000 dollar advance. The hell would I self-publish?"

I haven't lost any money on self-publishing to Kindle. It cost nothing up front (no fee to Amazon, uploading is free). Cover art was free (got a friend who is a graphic artist? Amazing things can be done with Photoshop).

I started making money right away. After hundreds of hours wasted on queries and rejections and waiting around (literally years of my manuscript sitting and making NO money) for the traditional publishing industry to give me some love, I said, "why the hell WOULDN'T I self-publish to Kindle?"

I'm so glad I did . . . my books have sold over a thousand copies in less than six months on Kindle, and on track to sell 4-5,000 copies in 2010 (maybe more, as sales keep accelerating about 20% a month -- my books sell at the top of the hourly charts in the genre).

Yoss said...

I wanted to leave a name, but when I clicked on 'name', wishing thereby to enter such, the blog automatically named me Anon. I've signed off on this post in case this happens again.

This is a direct quote from your website:-

'But honestly, in today's publishing clime it's just not enough to have written a good book. Treat this business seriously, because it is a business. Explore the links on the right side of this page...'

I did (explore the links) and your point that 'writing a good book' is not what it is about was richly amplified. Also 'It is a business', which I interpret to mean that it is necessary to write an Ms, of whatever literary merit, that will demonstrably generate revenue for whoever publishes it.

A few years ago I tried to find an Agent for a completed Ms. Many moons passed before a plaintive follow up to an agent who at least seemed sympathetic isolated the critical problem. My novel weighed in at 220,000 words. No publishing house, he wrote, would touch an Ms from a no-name author of fiction longer than 150,000 words. So there was no point in an Agent offering to read it.

Reminded me of an ancient UK comedy series entitled 'Never mind the quality, feel the width'.

My latest has great width, so at least one critical barrier is crossed. 50 rejections (to date) suggest, however, that there may be at least one more and when I read your advice, I understand that my query needs improvement.

I'm supposed to be able to condense the essence of my novel into three sentences that spring out of the page and grab you by the nose.


Maybe I created the wrong impression with my previous post. Touch of the rant, there. Sorry. It's not your fault the industry is the way it is and it would be grossly unfair to shoot the messenger.

You're right. I began reading your blog only recently and in case it er um was not obvious, I do find it useful. Thanks for taking the time and trouble.


Tamara Hart Heiner said...

While I'd love to have a huge advance stuffed into my bank account before my book even hits the shelf, it seems hugely impractical to me. The company I'm going with is a small press and doesn't pay advances. I'm totally fine with being paid straight royalties. I can't see how it's anything but a win/win situation, albeit slightly less exciting and immediate.

Of course, for agents, it's a different matter.

Anonymous said...

No advance also means no real commitment. They' haven't actually bought the book.

jmartinlibrarian said...

If publishers are stuck in the Negev, who's Moses?

Who is designing the new model of success?

Anonymous said...

Where should I market my 71K Evil Hedgehog gritty suspense about a (you guessed it) hedgehog that terrorizes a family farm. Not YA. Serious horror, mature audiences only.

Should I go straight to Kindle with this? is Kindle to books as DVD is to movies?

Anonymous said...

No clue what this is supposed to imply: "Note how all the anon ebookers are always 'in negotiations with' someone, but never actually 'done deal'. Get used to that!"

But FYI, indie Kindle author Karen McQuestion's "A Scattered Life" was optioned by a film company a couple of weeks ago. First sale of this type on record as far as I know and was advertised as such in Publisher's Marketplace.

Mira said...

Wow, lots of anonymous today.

Anonymous, what I don't get is this: if you really think the publishing industry is dead, and self-publishing is the way to go, why are you still posting anonymously?

Come out, breathe the sunlight, show yourselves, or.....admit the game hasn't changed quite THAT much yet.

Marilyn, okay, I hear you. I guess I'm not worried. I'm not rich, so I won't self-publish. If I e-publish and start selling a thousand copies a month, you bet I'm going back to agents I like. If that forever alienates, why would it? But if it does, well....I just can't see why it would. I'm so charming and sweet, and beside, how could anyone possibly be irritated because I have proof that my book sells, and want to share the profits with them?

In terms of agents, Nathan had 15,000 queries this year. I'm not worried about him either.

I think it's all good.

The danger of these type of threads is everyone gets all scared and/or angry. Times are changing abit, that's all. Nothing new. Change is the one constant.

Authors will have more options, and more freedom. Agents will re-define themselves, and the publishing houses will eventually merge with the booksellers, and become e--sell-publishers.

So, it's all good right? Books will continue to be written and read. More of them, we could find ourselves in a time of artistic blossoming, of sorts. Solutions will be found, probably by Nathan, and people will have food on the table. It will all work out.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how many anons have posted here today, but I"m guessing three or four. I've posted twice today anonymously (now three times) only because I want to stay below radar until my Hollywood deal is finalized. Then you can bet I'll be posting under my own name.

I'm sure there are other good reasons to post anonymously, one being how controversial opinions so often engender bullshit, name-calling, belittlement, ostracism, etc.

Mira said...

Anon - 7:23. I totally get it. I'm not saying people shouldn't post anonymously sometimes.

There was just an inherent contradiction in today's conversation, and I couldn't help pointing it out.

Good luck with your deal! Wow. That's pretty exciting. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mira. It is exciting. I realize Hollywood can be fickle and lose interest fast, but I also can't help debating which actor to play the lead role. :)

Nick said...

Is it sad that the chief thing I'm taking from this post is that I went over to Wikipedia to look more into McTeague and discovered it was adapted into a silent film in 1924 with a total running time of ten hours? Think about that, ten hours long. Sure, it was cut down to four hours, and cut down even further from there for theatrical release. But ten hours? Even films commonly considered epicly long, like Gone With the Wind (about 4 hrs, with overture, intermission, etc.) or films which probably only meganerd fanboys such as myself would watch (lesson: never marathon all three director's cut LOTR films back-to-back with minimal breaks. Awesome as it is, it's just a bad idea) ten hours is an INSANE running time.

So yeah, aside from the fact that my brain is pretty much exploding at the thought of a ten hour long film,

Well, at least you have a carcass strapped to your wrist. You might have to spend a loooooong time in the desert, but blood probably makes a decent drink (hey, vampires dig it) and there's carcass to eat. Ration up and you'll be fine. Or, maybe, you won't spend too much time out in Death Valley at all. Maybe there's a crop duster on the way as we speak. Just be careful. Crop dusters dustin' crops where there ain't no crops can be dangerous.

And now that I've said that I'm off to go watch my favorite Hitchcock film.

Susan Quinn said...

I'm thinking the writers have the water, right? They're providing the raw materials, at least, that both the publishers and agents need to survive.

So, where are the writers in the analogy? Maybe we shouldn't torture the analogy any further.

I do think that writers will find a way to find readers, and readers will find stories, even if they have to go around the "normal channels" of the publishing industry, locked into its current Death Valley form. Whether that's e-books, or micro-publishers, or something different . . . well, my crystal ball is broken right now.

But whatever that "other" path is, savvy agents such as yourself will find a way to leverage it for their clients.

fatcaster said...

Stephen R. Covey thinks outside the desert

Marilyn Peake said...

Mira –

I’m definitely with you in regard to not worrying. It’s not worth it. Might as well just be happy, and write and see what happens. There are all kinds of possibilities out there for writers. I think each writer has to decide what works best for them and then follow that path.

terripatrick said...

As a career writer, who has recently completed both a mid-list romance novel and a "taboo" memoir, I'm feeling rather annoyed at all the hot-air and muscle flexing in the world of publishing.

While there are comparisons behind the books-movies-music traditional business models, from the artist perspective there is a huge difference in connecting to the customer. Musicians, painters and writers all need to invest time and effort into developing their craft to have a marketable product.

A song that lasts 3 minutes, that you can listen to while driving (or reading) is different than a book that requires a time and focus commitment from the reader. Even a painting purchased to grace my home for years does not require a commitment of time and focus from me. A movie only requires two hours of my time and should be totally engaging the whole time.

A book is an entirely different thing.

My opinion of why the world of publishing is hitting tough times is the imbalance between connecting writers to their readers. In the non-fiction market, books from those with a platform are still only going to reach those readers in need of that platform so there is less investment risk from the publisher and the books hit the stands in a timely manner.

In the fiction market, the bottom line profit is determined by marketing gurus, based on the market projections at the time of acquisition. However the actual product is not available for a year or more.

I predict that e-pubs are going to continue to grow exponentially in the fiction market. Especially the mid-list genre markets. It's just common sense. The debut author has already invested the time and talent without any advance from a publisher. They want their book in the hands of readers and available for many years. E-pubs offer that opportunity for a mid-list fiction author to be more involved with their book and readers today. Not a year from now with the potential that, if readers don't find that author (or book) within a few weeks, bookstores will destroy the book.

This is the main issue with publishers business model, they undervalued their mid-list bread and butter and focused on only 10% of their product line. Brick and mortar book stores are not getting the traffic or sales because there is too much product on their shelves, they are too diversified.

And all that non-fiction product is becoming available through the web - for free.

But no worries Nathan, I'm sure you career as an agent will get you to a retirement age.

Anonymous said...

I'd like a model where all rights were included: the author could choose to publish first via hard or softcover, then distribute an e book later, or the other way around. Pubs could see if the e-sales were strong enough to invest in a hard/softcover version. Why not have those options now?

Steve said...

Dear pjd,

As it happens, I remember Control Data because I learned computing on one of their products (CDC 3600). But the more interesting question to me is who remembers Seymour Cray, and for what. Cray knew when to jump ship and which way to jump.

Live like him!


Steve said...

I really need to work at my day job. But that's not going to happen until this comment is done. This discussion "gets down" as we used to say in the sixties. The life and/or death of publishing as we know it (knew it, will know it) is on the line. The situation is fluid.

Observations and thoughts in no particular order.

On another blog I recently said "The dinosaurs are already dead. They just haven't fallen over yet." Okay, I was ticked off and this was hyperbole. Or was it? I want to know if there will still be a Borders in a year. I hope so, as I really LIKE Borders. But I fear not. Then, how much longer does B & N have?

The main advantage of mega-publishing has always been control of the eyeball space represented by bookstores. This is a question of physical distribution. If the two big brick & mortar chains go, will massive physical distribution still be a trump card? Existing publishers could still be players in such a world, but I don't think they would be gatekeepers. Maybe more like a venture capitalist. Agents might morph into PR firms (new school, specializing in online PR).

I think the one Anon person has some valuable insight. There needs to be a mechanism for test-marketing. Whether sites like Authonomy are effective in that role will be interesting to discover.

In looking at the revolution in the music market, I continue to be struck by the genius of American Idol. I have no idea how those dollars flow to and from particular entities within the music industry, but from the viewpoint of that industry as a whole, star-making used to represent a cash outflow. Now it represents a profit center. Get the audience hooked on the DRANA of starmaking, and let them participate. Then monetize the eyeballs. (Of course, TV has always survived on monetized eyeballs, from the very beginning.) I'm eagerly waiting to watch the first episode of "America's Next Best-Seller". Who will produce it for me? :)

Another question? What happens when the generation that will part with bound paper when it is "pried from our cold dead fingers" is finally buried with our favorite book. Will the following generation read bound paper? Will they PAY MORE to read bound paper? Is the "cuddle factor" intrinsic or culturally determined?

Will reading even mean the same things to the newer generations? Maybe the real nemesis of traditional publishing isn't Amazon or Kindle, but Youtube. Is literacy itself dying?

The fundamental paradox of the Internet is that whem everybody can be heard, nobody will be noticed. This comes out in phrases like "drinking from a firehose" and "everybody will be famous to 15 people" and my own "human bandwidth limit." Nobody has yet solved the problem of filtering the Internet. Just when you think you've gotten a grip on it (like, e.g. search engines) it squishes between your fingers to reform elsewhere.

With apologies to unbelievers, let me quote Tiny Tim.

"God Bless Us, Every One!"

I think we're goint to need it.

We live in interesting times.


Anonymous said...

Authonomy is currently bad at filtering, due to aspects of the game played on that site, due to it being agenda-loaded newbie authors instead of agenda-free readers doing the filtering; but Amazon does a fairly good job IMO. I don't think it'll be all that hard to improve upon what Amazon does now and really harness the wisdom of crowds in the coming years.

Munk said...

"I like to watch", Jerzy Kosinski

Claude Forthomme said...

Nathan, that was a great image: Death Valley, corpses and the desert!Well, I guess we all want WATER, all of us, aspiring and established writers, agents and publishers...
But aren't we getting it already? The water, I mean. Why all the scare over e-books? They're the future, they're coming and I'm sure that all this e-technology will do in the end is EXPAND the market, not kill it!
The business model hasn't changed yet, it's not dying, it's merely adapting to a new market (yeah, the e-one...)We'll still need agents to improve and sell the manuscript and publishers to run marketing campaigns. I know what I'm talking about: I live in Italy, and let me tell you, the publishing industry here is a dinausor. Fast asleep. Even the best known writers don't really get supported with a marketing campaign, and I mean a real one. For example, all they did for Dan Brown to promote his Lost Symbol was to invite him last week to an opening opera at the Milan Scala, for goddness'sake!!! Italy is supposed to be the country with the smallest number of readers in Europe, and small wonder!
No,what publishers need to is to continue doing their job of promotion and distribution and agents their job of product identification.By that I mean picking out winners, and that's an art not a matter of technology!

Cam Snow said...

Anon - some of the examples of authors you are citing as being successful e-pubbers, like J. Konrath did it with books that were originally published and then went out of print - his later books fueled the successful sales of his ebooks (that, and his $1.99 pricetag didn't hurt).

As far as authonomy helping to generate hits I did a test. I put out two works - one under my own name that i am serious about, and another one that is a poorly written joke. I went with my joke account and gave a bunch of people rave reviews, and guess what, they did the same to my junk book. That site is incapable of finding the best works... it is all about begging people to give you reviews.

Cam Snow said...

Oh, and now time for out of the box: How about this - I have a book that the publisher is iffy on. I am confident that it will sell b/c I wrote it. I scrap the whole advance, and pay 25% of the publishing/distribution/total costs (up to a pre-defined amount)... However, one the back side I get 25% of all profits + pre-profit royalty (in whatever percentage it normally is).

It makes me a stakeholder in my book. It elminates some of the risk to the publishing company. However, it doesn't remove all the risk - they are still on the hook for 75% of the costs, so the still want the book to sell.

The problem with this is that for people that can't afford the 25% buy-in they are screwed.

But, it is a way to lower risks for publishers and raise the possible reward for authors (you get royalty + portion of profits)

knight_tour said...

I think there are many writers, like myself, who would be quite happy to be published even if it meant a small or no advance. I know that my day job provides enough for me, so I don't need an advance. I just want to be published.

I think there is a conflict of interests when new publishing divisions open that pay little or no advances, since that is the only way agents make money. Agents should have a way to make their deserved money while still using such publishers. I know that I still want to be considered by such publishers, but I think agents won't want to bother to try them because they won't get their paycheck.

Karen A Chase said...

I find it very interesting that it is the publishers and agents who are handcuffed together in the desert, and that the author is conspicuously missing. Perhaps they are busy searching for the oasis on their own. After all, getting out of the desert is becoming more and more the author's responsibility.

Anonymous said...

And so here we publishers and agents are, McTeague and Marcus style, handcuffed to each other in the desert, stuck with the advance and royalty model even if it's ill-suited for a time when success is nearly impossible to predict.

Who's handcuffed to whom?

Maybe publishers should move agents in-house... and put an end to this notion that agents work for authors.

pjd said...

Karen, good point. I think the author plays the role of the murdered wife. Also conspicuously absent is the distribution chain, which I think plays the part of the desert.

Most conspicuously absent are readers. Perhaps those play the role of the keys to the handcuffs, left behind in San Francisco. (Or perhaps the readers are the water? I could go either way on that one.)

WitLiz Today said...

Am I the only one that wants to break my Kindle into a thousand, jillion pieces when I'm trying to read a book? At home.

On an airplane, ok, got it, I can deal with it. At home, it is a major pain in the ass and it now sits on my faux fireplace top gathering an inch of dust. That's how much I use it.

Ever try reading GWTW on your Kindle? Or Moby Dick? All those lovely white spaces I look for as soon as I start a book? GONE! That's right. GWTK.

Another thing. My thumb, she gets tired. Click, click, click. Can you imagine if you're a speed reader? . . ."Look Ma, no mo thumbs!" . . . None of this delightful tiptoeing through the fine, fine texture of post modern paper using all five fingers.

I can't even begin to explain the horror of losing your place if you put the Kindle down. Yes, I know, it's supposed to power back to the original page. Got news for you. Sometimes, that does not happen. At least on my Kindle. Yes, I can find that page fairly easily, after ten hours of sweat. Or I can go back to the beginning. And click, click, click.

Or, I can get help from somebody who's really good at this electronic stuff. (But I'm not, so don't ask me).

All I know is, if I put a book mark in a 'real' book and it falls out, I can find my place alot quicker than I can on the Kindle. And if I want to read right this minute, I can pick up a real book and start reading. None of this forgetting to charge the battery stuff. Which is like, so irritating.

Ebooks DO have their place.

It will not be in my home. Not now, not ever!

But as an author, yes, I would certainly embrace the technology and publishers must as well. It's part of the future and here to stay. But I don't believe it will consume paper books.

Particularly if there are lots of people who hate to read electronically. As I most certainly do!

As for agents, they may need to redefine their jobs as publishing adapts to new technology, but there will always be a need for them, imo.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Anne Rice is finding her way out of the desert:

Anonymous said...

Oops, here's the tiny for the Anne Rice conversation:

Moira Young said...

Shanna Swendson posted a series of entries on this very subject (I believe there were five) -- she called it "The Publishing Doom Loop".

I honestly think that *something* will happen and things will change out of sheer necessity, eventually, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you what—or how soon it will happen. But it will.

K.L. Brady said...

I had to chime in on the self-publishing issue. There are so many misconceptions that I can't help myself anymore.

I went the indie route after several rejections from agents. As I later found out, my novel was rejected because it wasn't good at the time--plain and simple. But I used all the great feedback from the agents and a former acquisitions editor from a major publishing house to whip it into shape.

I officially released my D-I-Y POD masterpiece on October 6th--yes, POD (the bottom-dweller of the publishing world). And at a very low-cost comparatively speaking.

As of today (two or so months later), my book has been picked up by buyers at B&N and Booksamillion and sits on bookstore shelves across the country as well as online retailers around the world--and sells pretty well on Kindle. It is very well-reviewed (not just by my mother) and I'm slowly building my audience and respect as a new writer. Dang, it's a lot of work but I'm learning things about this business most traditionally pubbed authors will never know.

On top of that, I'm building the ever-important PLATFORM--and pretty quickly too. Rather than throw my vastly-improved manuscript in a drawer and let if fester for years while seeking representation, it is helping me build an audience. So, that when I complete one of the three new masterpieces I'm working on, I will have marketing skills, an audience of several thousand readers, and lots of business savvy--in addition to my well-written 90,000-word manuscript--if I decide to go traditional.

I've just minimized an agent's and publisher's risk in taking me on--and quite possibly the fear of paying me a decent advance.

With that said, indie-pubbing is NOT for everyone. I've loved every minute of it because I'm borderline insane. I can get my book on store shelves but it takes A LOT more work. Nothing compares to getting big house distribution and an agent to help you maneuver the process. But there are benefits that can make you more marketable in the future IF you find some success.

Rich Dailey said...

I suspect a sharp implement will be put into use by the survivor at some point.

Luisa Perkins said...

This is some of your best writing ever.

Book of Matches Media said...

"...creeping omnipotence of e's and hyphens."


Nice article, Nathan, and surely something on which to ponder.

Now where did I set that Dr. Pepper? I'm parched.


Nancy Beck said...

McTeague...didn't that come out as a silent movie (Greed) with, of all people, Zasu Pitts as the leading lady?

(Yup, I was right, according to Wikipedia: )

@Marilyn Peake - I like your idea:
Maybe the publishing world should watch the new TV show, PAWN STARS. Those guys, especially the Old Man, rarely pay too much for anything without first doing research to find out the item’s real worth. They even talk about how the current economy might affect an item’s worth, and the Old Man has a fit if the younger guys pay too much for something.

I love that show, BTW.

Nancy Beck said...


The reason the film version (Greed) ran 10 hours is because Erich von Stroheim directed it, and he was well known to do such things. He fought with studio heads all the time, and eventually was forced out of directing. He got the occasional acting role afterwards (probably most famously as the director in the movie Sunset Boulevard).

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