Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 29, 2011

By the Time A Self-Published Author Hits it Big, Do They Really Need a Publisher?

"The Money Changer" - Rembrandt
This post title has been sitting in my Draft file for months, well before the news broke that self-publishing star John Locke inked a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster, choosing to continue to self-publish his own e-books.

For now, self-published authors absolutely do need publishers in some form if they want to hit it really big because publishers can get print books into bookstores. But as the John Locke deal demonstrates, they don't necessarily need them to publish the e-books, and in fact, in many if not most cases the authors would prefer to hang onto e-book rights themselves.

And this is a major challenge for publishers as we move forward into a primarily e-book world: By the time a self-published author hits it big will they really need a publisher?

Let's revise that: In an e-book world, by the time any author hits it big will they really need a publisher?

This is an existential question for the traditional publishing industry. What value will they provide authors who already have made a name for themselves?

The Package of Services Publishers Provide

As I've blogged previously, publishers provide these essential services that go into making a book: Editing and Copyediting, Design, Printing and Distribution, Publicity and Marketing, Patronage (i.e. an advance), and Cachet.

While there are amazing editors in the traditional publishing industry, there are also plenty of great freelancers (many of whom used to be quite successful in the publishing industry). Editing can be farmed out. Design can be farmed out. Distribution is a snap in an e-book world.

If you're just starting out, chances are you really do need the Publicity and Marketing, the Patronage, and the Cachet that a publisher provides. This is what I needed as an author, and I don't regret going the traditional route with my debut novel.

But if an author does an end-around and is successful without a publisher, if they have amassed their own funds, they can easily handle their own distribution, and if they are well-known (i.e. they don't need Publicity/Marketing, Patronage and Cachet)... well, what can a publisher do for them then that they can't do themselves? Especially when traditional publishers are offering paltry e-book royalties?

The Nightmare

For publishers, here's the nightmare publishing path for authors of the future: Author signs with traditional publisher for first book, author hits it big, author says thankyouverymuch I got this now and self-publishes from then on out.

Publishers depend heavily on the steady and huge sales of the James Pattersons, Stephen Kings, Dean Koontzs and Danielle Steels of the world. For now, those authors still need publishers because it's still a print world and publishers are indispensable for getting paper into stores.

Ten years from now that won't be the case. What are publishers going to do then? What will make them indispensable?

Stayin' Alive

Well, first off, there will always be authors who want to focus on just the writing, and the package of services publishers provide will keep a certain portion sticking with publishers. It's massively time consuming to self-publish, and not everyone is going to want to pursue that path. This is one of the main reasons, for instance, self-publishing superstar Amanda Hocking cited for choosing a traditional publisher for her next books.

But I think publishers are going to have to think long and hard about what exactly they will actually be providing authors in an e-book world. There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented "You're lucky to be with us" mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented "What else could we possibly do for you" mentality.

No more books that get dropped in the ocean without publisher support. Embracing and investing in new marketing tactics for the Internet era. Becoming an integral part of how consumers find books.

And innovating with new ideas and experiments and models. Some publishers are, yes, but is it enough?

Authors should want to have their e-books published by the traditional publishers, not be forced to grudgingly give them up in exchange for being published in print. Big authors are soon going to have a choice, and publishers are going to need to make themselves indispensable once again.

Disclaimer: Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, which is the parent company of CNET, where I am happily employed. The views expressed herein are completely my own.


Mr. D said...

I would say kudos to the author, and if publishers want in on an author who is no longer a gamble, who can blame them? At that point, it's up to the author, and oh, how the tides have turned.

Ted Fox said...

I like the idea of a shift in the balance of power; who among us authors wouldn't? Hopefully that will make it easier to work with the traditional publishers because I think half the dream of being a published author is having the time just to focus on your writing and not worry (or at least not worry as much) about the business end.

That seems a little too much like work.

Simon Haynes said...

My publisher and I mutually agreed to a split just a few weeks ago. They put out four novels in my series over the past 6 years, but the retail book trade wouldn't take another. (I couldn't bring myself to write it either, which is why it was mutual.)

The thrill of self-publishing and reaching a global audience has fired me up.

Now I'm getting ready to launch my first junior novel, I've already released my other four in kindle editions, I've finished, edited and uploaded a short story just this weekend AND I'm working on that fifth book again.

Tabitha said...

You hit the nail squarely on the head.

I have a fabulous agent and am pursuing traditional publication, but these things still worry me. Especially ten years down the road. I hope there is a shift in mentality before it's too late.

Megg Jensen said...

It's a sweet deal, but I think it will be a while before that trickles down to other authors. Self-publishing has become a proving-ground. Agents are trolling the Kindle Boards, and cold calling authors. Locke's deal is just one more piece of this puzzle. However, Locke is a phenomenon. Will mid-listers ever have this kind of chance?

I think the next five years will be very interesting in publishing and I'm happy to be on the self-pub side for now. My sales averages go up every month so I can't complain. Am I big enough to warrant a call from S&S? No, but maybe someday... It's fantastic knowing that option might there when I am ready.

Megg Jensen

Rick Daley said...

I think in the future publishers will come up with creative ways to provide key services to authors in a manner that will be similar to outsourcing.

I'm not talking tech support in India, but rather a focus on a core competency and the ability to leverage large-scale infrastructure to provide high quality goods at a lower cost per unit (i.e. for book printing and distribution). This model will provide the author the advantage of quality and scale, and the publishers can still make a decent margin on those services provided.

For the John Locke scenario, all he had to do was kill Jacob and get off that island...wait. Wrong Locke.

What Locke needed was printing and distribution. The publisher was able to trim the fat from their contract and provide the requested services as a price that allowed both parties to profit.

The primary thing to change, in my humble-but-totally-speculative opinion, will be the take-it-or-leave-it all-encompassing publishing contract. I think it makes business sense for the publishers to offer an a la carte schedule of services. I'm sure that there will be limits of scale, i.e. no print and distribution services under XX copies, so large publishers will not be competing with small scale self-publishing presses.

Ultimately publishers will be able to provide specific services to meet the demands of a new market. After all, that's what business is all about.

WORD VERIFICATION: untsp. One French teaspoon.

CourtLoveLeigh said...

I like the part where you talk about publishing houses getting really innovative, and I think along with that comes the notion that it benefits editors and agents to have discretion when choosing projects (this is already happening with a lot of people in the publishing industry, but still! there are always those taking in too much at a time, trying to make that money, money, money). I've been working with a non-fiction co-author who specializes in prescriptive memoirs, and I've seen the difference when we work with picky editors and when we work with overbooked editors. When the editor decides to take on only a few projects that he or she truly cares about, the innovation seems to come more naturally. That sounds really simple, but maybe that's what we need. Just plain, old simplicity.

Good post. Makes me think about the potentially exciting shift to an even better publishing industry.

Edward G Grodon said...

I think the day of the big publisher is over: they just don't want to admit it yet.

For aspiring authors like myself I say good riddance. They destroyed more budding careers than they created for no other reason than to maintain control.

I doubt very much that I could ever have passed the slush pile with my style of writing, the way I mix fantasy/Sci fi/mythology and wrap them all up in a YA theme.

I do agree that self publishers need good editors and cover artists and I also believe that we need to improve on the quality of the writing/product that we produce otherwise we are going to waste the opportunity that digital eBooks present us with.

At the same time I think we can do a better job of promoting ourselves than a publishing house can. (At least on a smaller budget)

I just hope that we don't mess it up. The future is here and it's going to be centered around companies like Smashwords and Amazon.

Maybe I'm wrong but at the moment I'm glad of the opportunities that are available today.

D.G. Hudson said...

This is great news for self-pubbed authors, and those contemplating that status.

I like the idea of a menu of publishing services, where the authors can decide on which a la carte items they prefer.

Trad publishing is still the Emerald City at this point, as can be seen by the self-pubs who still jump over the fence on occasion to benefit from what the big guys offer.

Interesting post, and thanks for the reminder to keep watch on that morphing publishing industry.

Scott Hubbard said...

E-books are here to stay. They are the wave of the future, and will become only more important with each passing year from now on.
Print books will still exist, at least for a few decades yet to come, but will be less and less important over time. In the future, physical books will be the possessions of collectors, and rich people who want to show off shelves of books in their houses, and so on, and not the possessions of people who read.
This is very similar to what happened to illuminated manuscripts when Gutenberg invented the printing press. The illuminated manuscripts continued to enjoy a harmless geriatric existence under the patronage of wealthy collectors, for a while, and then were either lost altogether or put into museums.
And so, yes, e-publishing available directly to authors for free poses a mortal danger to traditional publishers, and they just don't (or can't) admit it.
We will live to see the day when college students carry all of those heavy and expensive textbooks around not in a backpack, but on a single e-reader.

Cathy Yardley said...

Great article!

I do think it's limiting to position the argument as "self pub vs. Big 6 traditional." I think that smaller publishers who are able to work more closely with authors, who have lower overhead but still have the capital to negotiate with print distributors (and their 55% discounts and need for returnability, oy!), and who are able to combine NY-level editing and design with personalized publicity and marketing, have a hell of a shot at taking advantage of the current Wild West publishing environment. Especially when they don't need the same numbers to succeed that a large NY publisher would -- and consequently are able to take chances where NY won't. And the royalty structure, while not perhaps as lucrative as self-publishing electronically, will still be a lot more favorable... and since you'd be paying for editing/design/etc. otherwise, I do believe it evens out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do contract work as a publicist for a boutique publisher, Entangled Publishing, but these are my opinions, not theirs.

Anonymous said...

I think authors need publishers because they need good editing. Think of all the free editing you did, Nathan, at the agent level alone in order to prepare someone's ms to submit.

And editors do way more.

That's what scares me about people who choose self-pubbing. There's always that question of -- maybe that book could've been really good (with editing) and instead it's only mediocre.

Darley said...

I guess if you're satisfied with the amount of money you're making then the answer is no. But author's want to reach as many people as possible, and that means print also.

Mira said...

Outstanding post Nathan. Couldn't agree with you more!

I think the biggest challenge for publishers will be to move from the "you're lucky to be with us" stance to a service mentality. The first seems to be pretty entrenched, unfortunately. But for their sakes, I hope they do.

Thank you for your clarity. As someone who is on both sides of the fence - as an author and as a former industry insider - your viewpoint is important.

Jaye Viner said...

Fantastic and terrifying to see how the power has shifted.

Megg Jensen said...

Did Locke have paperback versions of his novels before signing with S&S? I've never read his novels, so I don't know.

Most self-pubs do have print versions of their novels. I do. I have plenty of traditionally published friends who have print editions of their books, but guess what - they aren't receiving any promotion through their publishers. One friend is published by Harper Collins and no one knows about his book unless he tells them. Getting a deal with a traditional publisher doesn't guarantee exposure to the masses.

One of my friends was told a week before her book was published that Barnes & Noble decided not to carry it. Borders is gone. Who carries her print book? Not any physical bookstores.

Locke has a deal many agented and traditionally published authors would kill for. Yes, agents and publishers offer A LOT when it comes to editing. Some indies are able to achieve that level on their own by hiring out. However, I think the big divide here is in promotion.

Locke's deal is huge - not because they're printing some books for him - it's big because he's getting the promotional arm of S&S behind him.

You can print as many paperbacks as you want, but that doesn't mean they'll be bestsellers. Most end up on remainder tables or get returned to the publisher. What matter most here is the promotional aspect of the deal.

I doesn't hurt that he shares a name with an infamous TV character either. ;)


Cynthia Lee said...

I certainly hope that traditional publishers can think of way to stay in business. Thanks for posting this, Nathan.

H.F. "Pete" Grimm III said...

One of the great things about capitalism is that it abhors a vacuum. Wherever there is an opportunity someone discovers it and fills the need. Nathan's post, couple with POD capabilities, suggests an opportunity might arise for there to be distributors of print that are not publishers, servicing authors whose works were discovered first as eBooks.
What does it take to become a distributor? Trust. Trust that the books they distribute are salable, trust that they are capitalized well enough to handle returns and maintain an appropriate service staff. In short, such distributors would need to assume at least a portion of the roles publishers currently perform.
Currently eBook authors enjoy a price niche below that which can be met by traditional publishers. Distribution contracts prevent publishers from undercutting print prices with eBook prices. If (when) non-publisher distributors enter the marketplace, retailers will require these same types of guarantees, and, as compared with eBooks, three additional levels of costs/margins must be fed, printing, distributing and retailing. It remains to be seen whether any distribution model can service these levels less expensively than current publishers do. I suspect independently published print books distributed in this fashion will still need to be priced like mass market books from the big six.
This suggests that the price niche eBooks currently enjoy will continue indefinitely and continue to erode market share for print. It will be interesting to see how/whether the contract John Locke signed will affect the price his eBooks that S&S also prints.
Cheers, Pete

Ava Jae said...

Brilliant post, I'd been wondering about this for a while myself. It seems unless things change, big name publishers are in trouble. The power shift has already started!

Roger Floyd said...

I was just at a fan/writers convention, and was talking to a well-known writer (I won't use his name because I don't have permission) and I told him I was debating with myself about whether to go traditional or self-publishing. He said without any hesitation "publish the traditional way, then later you can self publish." I was a little surprised, but he knows what he's talking about and that carries a lot of weight with me. I still haven't made up my mind fully, but I do like the package of services a traditional publisher offers. The trouble with that is, you still have to market yourself, and if you don't do a good job, you may not get another chance with that publisher again for a second book. We'll see...

jseliger said...

plenty of great freelancers (many of whom used to be quite successful in the publishing industry). Editing can be farmed out. Design can be farmed out.

Question: Do you have a preferred freelance editor, or list of editors?

DG Sandru said...

What does each party bring to the table? The self-published author took all the risk and proved his/her book in the market. The traditional publishers have control over the paper book/ Bookstore market. If the contract and the money are favorable to the author it could be a good alternative to sell more books.

Marilyn Peake said...

Fascinating post. I’ve been dabbling with self-publishing a few eBooks. I’m so happy with the experience that I’ve decided to skip the query process for the final rewrite of my science fiction novel, and have already had an amazing book cover created for this novel by the same artist Amanda Hocking hired for some of her recent book covers. The modern eBook world gives authors control over their work and an array of choices they haven’t had in recent years. It’s an awesome time to be a writer.

Livia said...

Great post, Nathan. I've heard it before, but mostly from strongly indie people. Your article is well balanced, which makes it more convincing.

Margo Lerwill said...

A couple of comments regarding editing. Many self-published writers *do* hire editors. The Kindle Boards threads frequently debate the issues of professional-level editing, cover design, and format (but could do with more emphasis on the actual writing, IMO). The majority opinion at this point seems to be that writers need to bite the bullet and pay for professional editing.

To the person who asked about a preferred list of freelance editors, check the Kindle Boards. Not only is there a 'yellow pages' of service providers, but you can also find other writers who have used those editors, cover designers, etc, and get their opinion of the service.

Which brings me to the point I'd make about Nathan's post...that we might be moving from a percentage deal for a la carte services to a flat fee. It will be interesting to see how that pays with the traditional side of the industry.

Hunter F. Goss said...

Nathan, you made a very important point when you wrote about the need for a shift to a “service-oriented, ‘What else could we possibly do for you’ mentality.

Here’s why.

Indie/self/ entrepreneurial publishing is shifting control of the process from what you called the ‘gatekeepers’ to the producers (that would be writers). And John Locke’s deal with S&S illustrates the magnitude of that shift to date.

It’s going to be interesting to see just what develops as that control shifts further.

Anonymous said...

"While there are amazing editors in the traditional publishing industry, there are also plenty of great freelancers (many of whom used to be quite successful in the publishing industry). Editing can be farmed out. Design can be farmed out. Distribution is a snap in an e-book world."

You're correct. It is easy for authors to farm it out, especially published authors who've made contacts already. I have a list of editors and cover artists I could use if I decided to self-pub. But a lot of authors don't want the responsibility of doing these things. I think a lot of the changes happening in publishing are going to stick around for a long time. But I don't think self-publishing is going to be anything more than a trend.

And, while there are excellent self-pubbed books out there, most aren't very good. They are horrendously dull, filled with mistakes, and the writing is painful.

I always look at it like the entertainment industry. Comedians do their acts in small clubs, hoping to be discovered. It's the same with authors who self-pub and hit it big. Once they are discovered they don't have to do the small clubs anymore.

Margo Lerwill said...

Anonymous @ 12:02PM: "But I don't think self-publishing is going to be anything more than a trend."

Why? Especially with mid-list traditional authors going self-pub and hitting the bestseller lists *for the first time* in their careers, actually able to write for a living instead of also having a day job, why in the world would they go back?

LM Preston said...

I'd say an author that sees the products they write as something to sell, can pick a different and varied path for their different work. Why close any door to sales? To include selling to a publisher, selling direct to buyer, or selling the book/product anywhere. Why close doors when so many are opening?

Taylor Napolsky said...

Pretty refreshing post to find on this blog, which is usually far more pro-traditional publishing.

I put out my first ebook myself, but for now, it's still a print world, as Nathan always reminds us. That thought has made me heavily consider going through the query process for a book I have coming up.

Vargas said...

Things have certainly changed, and for authors, that change looks good. We have choices now, whereas before there was only on way to get published.

I like the change.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Publishers can re-tool, just like any industry facing a seismic change. The question is will they, or more precisely, which ones will? And how? Will there be visionaries that will find a way to save their companies? I hope so.

M.P. McDonald said...

I pretty much blogged the same thing about a week ago in regards to my own situation. Publishers will be used only by the established authors (and some of them seem to be bailing), but the new author, who hasn't established a relationship with the publishing industry, but instead has been locked out, will go it alone.

Amish Stories said...

Greetings from the Amish community of Lebanon,Pa. Richard from Amish Stories.

SusanGabriel said...

I loved this part: But I think publishers are going to have to think long and hard about what exactly they will actually be providing authors in an e-book world. There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented "You're lucky to be with us" mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented "What else could we possibly do for you" mentality.

I think some publishing houses and editors (not all!) have gotten very arrogant and it's time for the writer to get some of their power back again. I hope I live long enough to see that!

Tres Buffalo said...

I am now self published because I do not have the time and energy to convince a publishing house that I am worthy. This puts that decision in the hands of the buying public.

Roscoe James said...

My first thought after reading about the JL deal was this - who controls final edit and cover. JL has proven he can do it on his own. And, yes, the print publishers can get the paper in the book stores and to a much larger audience (for now). But when he finishes a new book does he wait around for the printing house editing staff to get around to his manuscript? Or does his e-book not match the print book because the pri pub house found something to change or discovered an error? Or is he given the editing service at a pace he's accustomed to (that's the added value) so he can maintain his to-market speed for new release?

Same with the cover? He does his they do theirs? House does the cover but he looses creative control? Or he gets creative control but house gets quality control (by doing it themselves but on his schedule).

These two issues seem to me to be the place where a pub house can really shine and remain relevant. IF they're willing to restructure and let the author drive for a while.

Kristin Laughtin said...

My guess is that traditional publishers will start offering a greater variety of contracts, some including all of the things they do now for a higher commission, and some more a la carte to try to lure the authors that might no longer need all the traditional services.

Donna Ball said...

I haven't exactly "made it big"; I'm just a regular midlist author who has worked for the Big 6 far too many years to count. Just this month I made the difficult decision to publish the long-awaited sequel to one of my biggest books myself. I actually think a Big 6 publisher could have done a better job with distribution and promotion, and it makes me a little sad to think the book is not getting the treatment it deserves, but frankly, I did the math and realized that the chances of a traditional publisher paying me an advance that would compete with what I could make on my own--and compensate for the eternal loss of rights-- were slim. My agent rather snippily agreed. I know I'm not the only author out there with a following, however modest, who has made the same decision.

The English Teacher said...

Well-said, Nathan. I think it is the condescending attitude of so many publishers that has made the many disgruntled writers we see on blogs such as this one. To get more great books into more readers' hands, we need authors and publishers working together, not the latter looking down on the former if the former is not a famous person.

Matthew J. Beier said...

Great post, Nathan! And great comments, everyone. What an interesting time.

I have a bone to pick with something Edward G. Grodon said (though I agree with the rest of what he said!). He said that traditional publishers destroyed more budding careers than they created for no other reason than to maintain control. This is quite harsh and a bit irrational. No publisher destroyed a budding career for an author who either hadn't made it yet, or whose work did not sell well. Publishers are running businesses, plain and simple, and they have to balance their passion with the bottom line. That doesn't mean quality writers haven't fallen through the cracks, but you can hardly blame publishers for stunted careers. It makes more sense to blame the people (or book stores) who did not buy Said Author's books -- which in turn could have been a reflection of Said Author's particular book in the particular marketplace it entered.

Social media has obviously made self-marketing a whole new beast, but unless they were like Stephen King (bless his soul), traditionally published authors have always had to sell their own books, on one level or another. For those who failed, there might have been many spokes that broke on their attempted ride toward success, but it is irrational to place all blame in such situations on publishers.

That said, I've recently started my own business to publish my own books, both in print and electronically. I love the idea of doing it myself, hiring my own editor(s), and being free (finally) to pursue a career in writing. But I don't blame the New York gatekeepers for the fact that I've been working a day job for the last five years. There exists the possibly that I just wasn't what they were looking for, or (worse) that I might totally suck. But now I'll let the marketplace decide! It'll be terrifying but fun.

Simon Haynes said...

There's a lot of noise about the death of publishing, but don't the big houses make most of their money from celebrity bios, ghostwritten celeb novels, etc? After all, when you walk into a store you have to negotiate ramparts built out these books before you get near the shelves.

None of those people are going to bother with self-publishing, although I guess I can see a future where they'd go with an ebook packager for a flat fee.

Anonymous said...

"Why? Especially with mid-list traditional authors going self-pub and hitting the bestseller lists *for the first time* in their careers, actually able to write for a living instead of also having a day job, why in the world would they go back?"

Where are you getting this information? It's wrong on so many levels. Maybe a handful are doing this. But most aren't. A lot have spouses that support them and whatever comes from the books is extra money. And even those that do have a quick flash with great sales, it doesn't last long. I seriously hope no one quits their day job.

I don't want to sound like a dream crusher here, but there's a lot more to selling books and making money than people realize.

And I think all the hype about self-publishing is going to be a trend because people aren't going to work that hard for long without making money.

Mira said...

Anon. 6:29 -

Re. authors working hard for no money, they've been doing that for years. In the current structure, authors make pennies on the dollar of their books with traditional publishers. Royalty rates are pitiable and insulting. Very few traditionally published authors quit their day jobs.

Imho, authors can make much more money in the long run if they e-publish and hold onto their rights. This will be increasingly true as print publishing fades and the e-book market takes over.

I don't think I'd call e-books a trend. I'd call them the future.

Matthew J. Bier -

I'm going to respectfully diagree with you and agree with Edward Gordon. I think that traditional publishers definitely killed careers.

I am not talking about individual people within the system. People don't create the system, they function as best they can within it.

However, here are the ways I believe the system killed author careers:

a. They have blacklisted authors who spoke too freely;

b. At first they only published books based on a nepotistic system of personal referral, then they utilizied a screening procedure (queries) that screened more for author compliance than for quality of work;

c. They have refused to market test authors, preferring to maintain their power by making subjective decisions about what books are chosen;

d. They dropped mid-list authors prematurely;

e. They have systematically screened out anything they didn't personally like or anything that was too controversial that conflicted with their views.

What books are published should not be based on the above. Books are way too important to the advancement of the culture. Much better to have freedom of publishing and let the market decide.

patricefitz said...

Come on over the world of electronic publishing, and you will see how satisfying it is. You control your writing completely. You control your cover. You control the methods and amount of effort put into marketing. It's both fun and challenging -- but the results are worth it.

I published my first novel, a political thriller, on the Fourth of July. Please do check it out (you can download the sample for free) and let me know if it looks professionally edited to you. Let me know if you think it's worth the $4.99 it will cost you, if you decide to go ahead and buy. I challenge you to tell the difference, once it's on your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or other device, between that and a traditionally published eBook.

I have a short story that became available just this morning, and I am excited to report that I've sold a dozen copies today, including one in the U.K. One thing that hasn't been mentioned here is the immediate feedback you get from buyers and readers... and the control you have over your pricing and your marketing.

I write; they read. Almost immediately. Traditional publishers can't touch that turnaround time.

And did I mention the royalties? That 70% of the book price comes back to the author? Even if you don't sell that many, the satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of your creative labor (rather than giving it to someone else) is immense.

My electronic publishing company, eFitzgerald, is going to be representing writers with new books as well as books for which the rights have reverted to the authors. Once we have many books available, the lower prices will still add up to real money.

Now is the time to get in. The game is changing monthly.

Margo Lerwill said...

Anon 6:29:

Where am I getting my info? If you'd like to really learn about this, try reading through the Kindle Boards on a regular basis for awhile. I think you'd be surprised how open people have been about their successes and failures (including sharing sales figures and financial info). The first author who comes to mind is Courtney Milan. Periodically someone circulates a blog post with sales information they've gathered from authors--Victorine Lieke has done this, Konrath (of course). There's a short story writer who is doing it specifically for short story sales. Plenty of info out there.

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

I would certainly rather write than do anything else. I hate the editing, formating, and self promotion,(I like doing my own art) and for that reason a traditional publisher looks good. Oh yeah, and the advance. But more and more I see their authors complaining about the services they recieve. I don't know about that. But I see them out there acting just as desperate for sales as a self published first timer. Not sure what that's about eithier, I'm self published.
What I do know, is I'm sick to death of the query letter being awed over like the damn holy grail. I acually received a response 13 months after I sent it, riddled with spelling errors. and another rejection, who ever sent it, cut my name and adress off my envelope and scotch taped it a the top of the page of a form rejection. Talk about class. And they expect excellence in my query. They want their's just like this or just like that. I could write a novel in the amount of time it could take to perfect 10 diferent query letters and most of them will never get read or replied to and one thing missing, maybe you didn't double space, or maybe you did. One strike your out.
It's such a double standard load of crap.
I have taken a new look at that process because of all the options (and work, yes, but I'm willing) in self publishing. I'll be finishing my third novel soon, and I'll only be submitting to the dozen or so that was kind of enough to respond personaly and or ask for more material in the past. If an editor, agent, publisher have too many submissions to respond to-they shouldn't be open for submissions, but that's just my opinion. Sure I got rejected and yes I turned down a couple of small press', not because they were small, but they wanted all for nothing and that happenin, jus call myself "trad pubd". It's just nice to have options, and take control of buiding your readership, your writing career your self if you want to, have to.
But if Knopf calls and the contract is a good one...I'll will sign.

Bobby Polo said...


Love how you put that. As someone who has worked with five different publishers, I can speak pretty intelligently on this: They're ALL like that.

Sad but true! Speaking of, I was supposed to get a royalty statement in April from one of them. And now it's August... hmm...

Marilyn Peake said...

I second what Margo Lerwill said. Many self-published authors have started posting and blogging about their sales figures, sometimes including graphs illustrating sales over time. Many of these posts are very exciting! Many mid-listers who were dropped by their Big Six publisher are doing great as self-published authors. Think about it: a mid-lister can keep 70% of their earnings on Kindle sales if they sign up for the sales price that brings in 70% to the author, whereas the big publishers tend to drop their mid-listers after a while.

Taylor Napolsky said...

ha I constantly hear stuff like that. If that is true about the publishing industry, that they say patronizing stuff like "your check will arrive when it arrives," well that is just messed up.

Melissa A.Rosati said...

I think you are being generous and very polite to suggest publishers have 10 years to shift their culture to a service mentality.

By their own actions, the media conglomerates reduced the publishing business to a commodity business. There's no coming back from that now.

The new publishing entrepreneurs lead with digital first and print as the follow-up product. This new business cycle is exciting.

Amish Stories said...

Id like to invite everyone to my blog Amish Stories today to read a post from old order Mennonite Jean of New York state. Jean has taken-in a foster child named Michael whose parents are no longer able to take care of him. He's English and Jeans family is old order Mennonite (horse and buggy) but that makes no difference in the love that this young man is receiving from this family. Thank you folks and i hope to see some of you drop by the blog. Richard

Emily Wenstrom said...

The Internet has generally made audiences more fragmented and specialized … and I think publishers need to find their way to this model. The way I see it, the biggest thing publishers can offer authors is endorsement—we found this worth investing in because we think our consumers will find it worth reading. And I think readers really do need that filter – I find myself overwhelmed by how much is out there. Given these two factors, specialization and filtering, I imagine a publishing future of smaller, nimbler publishers that brand more specifically to a readership niche, allowing readers to build loyalty to a publishing label more easily, rather than major publishers that crank out some of everything. My fantasy for the future of publishing as a reader is to be able to subscribe to publishers I know I can trust in my favorite niches. Get their newsletters, find out about the newest releases directly from them and know that I can expect a certain style and quality when I buy their books. That is the added quality a publisher can offer in the digital age, over a lone self-publisher. Audience, brand endorsement, and connection. Course, that requires them to adapt to the digital era, which many publishers don’t seem to want to do. Sigh.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

And more to the point for you, as a former Mr. Agent Man, is--what place will agents have in the 10-years from now scenario?

Publishers will have to offer "services" to writers to keep them. What will agents offer?

I have consistently said, and keep saying, that the ease of self-publishing and e-book distibution of such books is a boon to the writer, and readers. And was and remains ahead of the curve and the technology, in what amounts in my opinion to a brilliant observation of both the industry as it existed, and the desire for something different.

Perhaps, in the future, agents, if they continue to exist, will remain the "middle-man" between the writer and publisher, helping publishers find writers that make them money, and helping writers find publishers that perhaps do the same.

But more and more publishers these days seem to insist on marketing really being the responsibility of the writer; unless the writer is already well known, they seem reluctant to put money in to making a book not drop into the ocean and disappear.

One service publishers could offer, that they don't, would even be something as un-thought of as health insurance--so the writer who they "take on" to publish, and benefit from, doesn't have to take their own earnings and provide for perhaps a family in need of health care.

Another might be retirement savings.

My point is, publishers may become more "service-oriented" toward writers. Perhaps it's time agents did as well, rather than essentially being the first "gate keeper" of a writer, perhaps more and more of them should be the first friend, or advocate, of an unknown but much-loved-when-read writer. Perhaps the deals they help the writer get with a publisher might suggest "or we'll just publish ourselves...."

Again, a terrific post. Keep 'em coming, Nathan. And keep writing...the world needs more former agents who are writers, and perhaps former writers who are now agents...

Miss Minimalist said...

I’m fairly new to the writing world, and chose to self-publish my non-fiction book to avoid the long time frames of traditional publishing. In the first year since publication, I’ve sold just over 20,000 copies (the majority on Kindle, at a $9.99 price point).

In the past month, several publishers have contacted me to acquire rights to the book (they emailed me through my website, as I don’t have an agent). So far, I’ve rejected two offers—both consisted of four-figure advances and standard royalties.

I certainly understand how a traditional publisher can be a great asset in terms of distribution and publicity. However, I’m not sure that they’d increase my sales enough to offset the dramatic decrease in royalties. At least in my case, signing with a traditional publisher seems akin to buying a lottery ticket. In essence, I’d be trading a respectable income in the hope of landing a spot on The Today Show or a mention in the NYT.

It feels a little strange to be rejecting publishers, instead of the other way around. But given what I’ve been offered, staying indie is more financially compelling at this time.

barbarienne said...

"No more books that get dropped in the ocean without publisher support."

-->I'm picking out this line because it's the crux of the problem.

For the last 20-30 years, publishers slowly pushed more and more responsibility onto authors to promote themselves. If forced to do all the promoting themselves anyway, why bother with a publisher?

(Cachet and patronage. But cachet is dwindling, at least in mass market novels, and paltry advances are hardly worthy of the term "patronage.")

So will publishing houses transmogrify into packaging-and-promoting houses? Will they compete with independent packaging-and-promoting companies that didn't start as publishers?

The only other question is who picks up the tab. Self-publishing still isn't cheap. You pay in money or you pay in time, but either way, you pay. The best thing that professional publishers can offer authors is to absorb that cost, but they have to do it for a reasonable rate. Price it too high (i.e. pay the author a pittance on ebook royalties), and it becomes more cost-effective for the author to pay upfront and take his chances.

Anonymous said...

There will still be print books 10 years from now, and still be traditional publishers.

Some of the ills that people blame on publishers actually stem from a decline in book purchasing and reading -- kids and young adults spending spare time on video games is time and money that will not be spent in reading for entertainment. And there was a gigantic collapse in the distribution network that publishers depended on, especially for mass market paperbacks. Also a big blow to publishers.

I agree, though, with this: what it's come to is that agent + publisher percentage takes too much out of a writer's paycheck, often delivering too little benefit to the writer, and given an viable option, writers are smart to take more control. Personally, I think the agent should be the first to go. I would still look for traditional publishing if you can get a decent contract.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Mira: absolutely and well put.

Kristy said...

All the work that goes on with self-publishing - I'm hoping that publishing companies can find a way to keep their business relevant!

J. T. Shea said...

Let's mix some metaphors:-

It seems there are now other games in time!

Publishing optimism:- If we just drop it in the ocean without publisher support it MIGHT just land on a cruise ship in the hands of a passenger who likes reading.

Publishing pessimism:- It might land on the passenger's head so hard they are stunned and fall over a railing into the ocean and drown.

Mr. D, the tide turning may not wash the body ashore. Oh wait, wrong metaphor!

Megg Jensen, agents trolling the Kindleboards and cold calling authors! Good grief!

Rick Daley, there are TWO John Lockes? The plot thickens! But I agree. No more 'take it or leave it'! No more lines in the sand. Washed away by the turning tide. Oh look! A body! Holding a book! Sorry, wrong metaphor again.

D. G. Hudson, a la carte or we find another restaurant! And wasn't Emerald City ruled by a man with an amplified voice who turned out to be much less imposing in reality?

Scott Hubbard, strangely enough I remain unconvinced e-books will ever completely replace print. I know I'm very much in a minority here (a minority of one perhaps!?) and I won't repeat my arguments again but print costs are coming down and I still believe now would be a very good time to invent the print book if it did not already exist.

I do agree regarding schoolbooks though. Don't mind backpacks, some young kids carry their schoolbooks in wheeled trolleys here in Ireland!

Regarding editing etc. I understand S & S are only selling and distributing John Locke's 'Donovan Creed' print books, which are actually produced by Locke's own imprint John Locke Books.

Megg Jensen, share a name with an infamous TV character? Great idea! By happy coincidence my initials already stand for James Tiberius.
So all I have to do is change my last name to Kirk. Though he isn't infamous. Unless you're a Klingon.

Anne R. Allen said...

This is such a great post, Nathan. I think about how you gave us hints at the huge changes about to come down when you spoke to the Central Coast Writers Conference just a year ago. Now you can say something like this:

"There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented "You're lucky to be with us" mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented "What else could we possibly do for you" mentality."

You were right then, and you're right now: It's a great time to be a writer!

jongibbs said...

'There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented "You're lucky to be with us" mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented "What else could we possibly do for you" mentality.'

Somewhere, a nail just got hit on the head :)

neocelt said...

Trenchant post, as usual, Nathan!

My only comment is that they may not need a publisher, but they still need an editor (note that tense does not agree: "A Self-Published Author" and "Do They Really Need"). Good subject for a future post...


J. T. Shea said...

Matthew J. Beier, my thoughts exactly! Well, your thoughts actually, but I agree with them. And even Stephen King had to sell his books at one level or another. He once nearly had a heart attack carrying one of his heavy manuscripts across New York City to a publisher.

Anonymous 6:29 pm, I think you DO indeed want to sound like a dream crusher. And you're succeeding. And you're not alone. Redistributing misery is a very popular pastime.

Mira, I respectfully disagree with you, something that doesn't happen too often. In particular, if there is a blacklist of outspoken authors it does not seem to have worked! On a more general level, people do indeed create the system. If not people, who or what else?

Terin Tashi Miller and Barbarienne, what exactly was it that publishers used to do to market books and promote authors that they don't do now? I've asked that question a number of times in comments and never gotten an answer.

Anonymous 2:02 pm, I second your first 2 paragraphs, but not the last one. Agents are already replacing publishers in some respects.

Neocelt, I doubts all editors would agree with you. Using the plural as a non gender specific version of the singular is a widely accepted practice. Consider the alternatives. He/she? It? said...

IndieReader Selects (, a newish service offered by IndieReader, was created specifically to help indie authors get their (paper) books into indie bookstores. IR Selects can't do what Simon & Schuster can (yet) but it's certainly a start. said...

IndieReader Selects (, a newish service offered by IndieReader, was created specifically to help indie authors get their (paper) books into indie bookstores. IR Selects can't do what Simon & Schuster can (yet) but it's certainly a start.

Mignon said...

Shout it from the rooftops. I think this is the single most important thing publishers could do to save themselves:

"There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented 'You're lucky to be with us' mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented 'What else could we possibly do for you' mentality."

They have to make authors *want* to work with them, and there are ways other than money to do that.

Dan Brown said...

One thing that all writers need - traditionally published, Indie or self-published - and that is good reviews. What do you all think of these new services, like The Digital IN, which enable authors to commission reviews @ Amazon and Goodreads and other key book sites? I know publishers have been giving away ARC review copies and other premiums to reviewers forever, but is this different? And how important are these reader reviews anyway?

Nathan Bransford said...


As with Yelp, I personally feel like I'm growing able to scan reviews to pick out the ones that seem rational to me and sound accurate. I don't know how useful it is to try and game those systems because I even take overall ratings with a grain of salt.

Seems like consumers are learning to be critics of reviews almost.

Mockingbird said...

The short answer is no. The more complex answer, it truly depends on what you want. Personally, I have no intention of joining the mainstream. Pare the argument back a second. To get a mainstream publisher, I need an agent. To get an agent, I have to spend a small fortune touting my ms around. Say it takes six months to get an agent. It could take a year for your agent to find a publisher. As the author you are still expected to work hard to promote your own work. Only now your agent wants a percentage, the publisher takes their slice, and you are potentially earning less than the office junior at your publishers. So your finished ms could be three years out from publication, you lose perhaps 50% of its actual sales value to the agent and the publisher, and you come out of it three years older and none the wiser. Personally, my work is all about kicking back and having some fun, I would rather sell it as e-books and maybe a short paperback run, and have a real connection with people who want to read it, than share my hard work with the mainstream. Especially as I really don't admire the mainstream for the identikit rubbish they already sell.

This ain't Kansas. said...

"Trad publishing is still the Emerald City at this point..."
-DG Hudson 8/29/11

Nah, it's more like Bushwick, Brooklyn at this point. But yeah, I agree with Nat of pubbs being arrogant. It's like they published a few accidental bestsellers and started smelling themselves (being arrogant).

Celia Hayes said...

Heck, by the time you have a few books out there, and have worked out the means of getting good editing, cover design, distribution and a marketing strategy -- never mind about hitting it big, even hitting medium is very satisfactory. A while ago, one of the other members of the 'self-help for indy author' group that I belong to, brought out speculation that if you - as an indy author - sold so many thousand copies of your own book, then agents and small publishers would come knocking on your door. One of the other members riposted that if they had sold that many on their own, what did they need an agent for?
I have five historical fiction books out there, and a sixth due out in November. They're of regional appeal, mostly - but even if they suddenly started selling like hotcakes, I'd still stick to self-publishing. I'd rather hire an editor, book designer, cover artist, and publicist, knowing that they worked directly for me... than work with people whose loyalties are to the big company.

Amish Stories said...

Happy fall everyone. Richard

Anonymous said...

If you are self-published, check out The Wishing Shelf Awards, a non-profit making award for independently published authors:

Your Ticket To a Dream said...

This book is nice and amazing. I love your post! It's also nice to see someone who does a lot of research and has a great knack for ting, which is pretty rare from bloggers these days.
Your Ticket To a Dream

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder how this trend will change the literary market. In a world where self-publishing of hard-to-categorize books is becoming more common - while big publishing houses might reject a good book because of its lack of precise genre - the world can't help from gaining the benefit of unusual, innovative literature in the process. It's exciting for someone who doesn't turn out formula books.

Ian McCormick said...

I agree that if you want to generate more impressive sales than your immediate friendship circle you will need to master basic promotional and marketing skills. But you could see that as part of the fun?

In academic publishing *diminishing* returns are already a reality. It's not uncommon to receive a 3% royalty on a $60 book, or even worse, 2 free copies of your own work. In reality I'm now earning three times more on my epubs compared to paper.

Piracy is also a fear, and a reality, as many students (and libraries) won't pay those prices.

E-books are democratising the market, and it is my belief that they may now be the best route for quality fiction, as well as scholarly factual works.

But being a bestseller will always be a dream for the majority (logically, not everyone can be a mass-market winner!). That said, many writers would be happy with several hundred sales. And that's more in fact that a specialist academic hardback where the typical print run for a leading publisher is now less than 200.

Kindle and Smashwords appear to me be viable option for the aspiring writer - and may in time offer a bridge to traditional paper publication. The latter, of course, can also be achieved at no cost through Amazon's Print on Demand Service, Createspace.

John Finningham said...

The big issue I have is with 1st time authors making almost nothing. I have been struggling for almost 4 years on my one and only novel. if it ever does get published I could expect to make £5000 at best.
I am not saying my novel if it ever is finished will be a global hit but what if it were?
This is where I am at a huge loss financially. the reason I say this is I am almost 99% confident I do not have another novel in my head. So I will produce just one novel.
Harper Lee did just one novel and made a fortune so why not any other author who has success.

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