This post is my attempt to distill together many different threads into a common tapestry. There is a lot of turbidity in the publishing, podcasting, music, film, television worlds right now. I have these feeling that every bit of this is all part of a larger whole and I’m going to take a stab at defining it. This post will either be awesome because it succeeds or a miserable failure. There is no middle ground. Off in to it. This will be long, you have been warned.
First, let me inventory the raw materials that got me thinking this way. Recently JC Hutchins posted that he had been dropped as an author by St. Martins Press and that they would not be publishing the 7th Son sequels. The post lives between a gut-check and a crisis of faith from one of the pioneering new media creator/ novelist hybrid guys. He also posted about monetary realities of writers pubishing via ebooks. Not that long before this, I had listened to JC’s Hey Everybody interview with Pablo Defendini and Ami Greko from The New Sleekness blog. It’s a really interesting discussion about the future of book publishing by industry professionals young enough in their careers to be less invested in the status quo and more willing to help a new future emerge. (Side note 1: I met Pablo and Ami at last year’s Dragon*Con in the classic SF con fashion – I wanted to meet them, saw them in a hotel bar, asked if I could sit with them, introduced myself and hung out for an hour. Try it, it works! ) Much in my thinking was informed over the last month by the Amazon/Macmillan ebook pricing wars of far too large a trail to link to anything. In that debate I did first run across Joe Konrath, his fiction and some of his posts with amazingly open and detailed statistics of what he sells and what he makes from digital publishing. (Side note 2: I bought, read and enjoyed his book Whiskey Sour as fallout from the debate).
There are many other bits of thought in the mix, such as my feelings about beginning my own novel during NaNoWriMo and thinking about hiring my friends at Sterling Editing to work on it and what I might choose to do with such a book when)it is finished. That’s enough of a prelude, though. Time to hit it.
JC Hutchins struck a nerve when he basically waved the white flag on his current way of working.
Creating podcast fiction does does not generate direct revenue for me. Based on anecdotal and statistical data, very few people are willing to pay for general podcast content, much less podcast fiction. Since my goal is to make a living wage with my words, the current monetization models — including in-show advertisements — will not deliver this. Dedicating time and effort to my non-fiction podcast projects will deliver equally underwhelming monetary results.
It is also apparent to me that using the Free model to promote a tangible product, such as I did with 7th Son: Descent and Personal Effects: Dark Art, does not deliver sustainable sales results. I have friends — some of whom are my best friends, the most talented people I’ve had the privilege to know and work with – who have absolute faith in this model. I treasure their trailblazing efforts and enthusiasm. My faith, however, has been fundamentally rattled.
Put simply: The new media model viably supports only the most blessed and talented of authors. The time, effort and money I invest in entertaining you for free pulls my attention and talent away from projects that can generate revenue. While podcasting, podcast fiction, and — most importantly — your support and evangelism has positively impacted my life and career in ways I’ll never be able to fully express, I cannot continue to release free audiofiction if I wish to make a living wage with my words.
This is pretty big stuff in the world of podcast fiction. Hutch was one of the pioneers of the form and his getting picked up by St. Martins was considered a watershed and a validation for the medium. So if he can’t make it in this world, what does that say about all the other podcast novelists who are less engaged, have less of a fan base, less sheer horsepower? Does it mean this medium is screwed?
I am positing that Hutch had a terrible misfortune of timing, that he arose as a viable author at exactly the wrong moment in publishing history. As he started down his path it seemed like the end game was to get a book deal with a major publisher. For writers of the last 100 years, this was the reasonable career success path for authors, and practically the only one. In the last few years though a sea change has happened so rapidly and thoroughly to flip that Hutch got his boat capsized in the process and he will be far from the only one. As crazy as it may sound, for a certain kind of author at this point I think a major publishing contract may seem like winning the game but is in fact losing it.
The red flags I got from the JC Hutchins post started here:
Examining the lead up to, and release of, the novel, I cannot see how I could have promoted it any better than I did. I literally went broke promoting this book and Personal Effects: Dark Art (another novel that will not have a sequel; it also underperformed). I conceived numerous brand-new online marketing campaigns that dazzled you and others. I asked you to purchase the novel, and many of you did.
If JC is literally going broke promoting 7th Son and Personal Effects book, I think a reasonable question to ask is “What is St. Martins Press’ role in this?” If JC is willing and able to put so much of his own time and money into the promotion of the books, what value is he getting from the big publisher that is worth giving away 90% of the sale of the book to them? 50 years ago, and 20 years ago and 2 years ago, this made sense. It was pretty much impossible to get a book published and into the hands of the world in any significant way – especially in a way that a writer could make a full-time living – without a major publisher contract, especially one paying advances at a level to be a livable wage. Nowadays, especially due to the markeplace enabled by the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader et al, that’s a different equation.
Joe Konrath’s post about the money he makes from the Kindle store shows a really clear pattern that he summarizes with:
My five Hyperion ebooks (the sixth one came out in July so no royalties yet) each earn an average of $803 per year on Kindle.
My four self-pubbed Kindle novels each earn an average of $3430 per year.
If I had the rights to all six of my Hyperion books, and sold them on Kindle for $1.99, I’d be making $20,580 per year off of them, total, rather than $4818 a year off of them, total.
So, in other words, because Hyperion has my ebook rights, I’m losing $15,762 per year.
For a writer with an engaged audience, like JA Konrath has and like JC Hutchins has, there may well be more money in their books self-published primarily through the Kindle and other ebook stores. An interesting bit from the Konrath numbers above, that’s from making 35% of the sales price for his direct books. When it changes to 70%, he’ll be making twice as much per book as he posted above for the self-published ones.
Let me say it again: for a writer who is engaged with their audience and reasonably prolific (because you need new books to keep this engine turning), we may be at the turning point where a better living is available through self-publishing than a big New York publisher book deal.
There are certainly authors that this model will not work for. During my preparation for last year’s “Podcasting for Working Writers” panel at Dragon*Con I talked to both James Patrick Kelly and Kelley Eskridge on this topic and they both raised the point that for a number of old school writers, the idea of engaging at the level of podcasting and doing large parts of their own publicity is anathema. A reasonable chunk of authors don’t want to get out in the limelight and picked this career specifically so they don’t have to engage. They write their books, maybe do a few conventions a year, do some bookstore events and that’s it. Back to the keyboard where the serious work happens. That’s fair enough and those writers will always need a publisher to do the parts of this business that would make them unhappy to pursue.
I think of the classic big publisher and big record label model as basically serving the function of the bank or maybe as VC. The manufacturing and distribution of the creative work was too capital intensive for an individual so this company would lend that money to the process, make the books or records show up in the store, do some publicity and keep most of the money. They insulate the creator from the process and from the retailers and fans. What publicity efforts exist, the big media company acts as a semi-permeable membrane to let a little of the public through, but not a lot. Ultimately in this model, the relationship with the fans of the buying public is owned mostly by the retailer and the publisher or label, very little by the writer or musician. For the author that doesn’t want to feed and water that relationship, that’s perfect.
For the other kind of author, a JC Hutchins or Mur Lafferty or Scott Sigler, going with a major publisher outsources to a third party a relationship with their fans that these writers are really really good at maintaining. When Hutch is paying his own money to publicize his books and his his own direct line into his own fanbase, what can the big publishers do for him? They could give him large enough advances to keep his bills paid while future books are written, but obviously they aren’t willing to do that because sales aren’t high enough. JC’s books earn money, but not enough money to keep him in that system. For me, the real question is “Did St. Martins Press do 9 times the work than JC did to get the work promoted?” If not, what did they do to deserve a 90/10 split?
Last November for NaNoWriMo I began a novel that I have literally been thinking about since 1991 when I was 23. While I came nowhere near finishing it that month and am nowhere near finished now, I have a goal to finish this novel in 2010. I’ve already been thinking about what happens when I finish the book. Do I try to find an agent and then try to have them place it with a major publisher? Since I don’t have any plans beyond that one book and thus don’t necessarily have a writing career in mind, how does that affect my decision making? At the moment I’m leaning towards not bothering to place the book with any publisher at all. I’ll pay Nicola and Kelley at Sterling Editing to work with me to get it publishable and hire a book designer and/or artist to hone the final product and then publish it to the Kindle store, Smashwords, the Nook store and whatever else seems reasonable at the time. I’ll probably release it via Podiobooks.com at the the same time, do my publicity via that and the other usual online suspects and let it ride. The key point to me is that the energy I could spend in placing my book at a big publisher could be spent selling the book to readers and I’ll probably make more money that way in the long run. This isn’t the way things worked for the 19th and 20th century and it may not be the way it works in the future, but March 2010 it is the way it looks to me now. The validation of having a “major publisher” decide I’m their sort of writer doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t need the book contract to pay my living, I’d end up doing mostly my own publicity anyway so what the hell does the publisher have to offer me anymore? Rather than have them put out a $15 Kindle book that I see a buck or two from and no one buys with a print version that is on and off the shelves in head-swimming time on a death march to the warehouse remainder store, I’d rather put out a $5.99 ebook version that I see $4 from each one and more people buy. I have a whole rant on how the true function of ebook platforms is to enable impulse buys, but this current post is already too long. That must come later.
When I interviewed Cory Doctorow in 2006, one of the things he said is that the generation coming of age now is the first one to arise “without a stigma attached to self-publication.” Since I’ve been paying attention to the world of science fiction and writers in general, a giant shift has happened. When I joined GEnie in 1992, the notion of self-publishing your work meant that it was unreadable tripe and the very thought of it was risible to any serious author. Nowadays, it might well be the most rational economic choice available. If you aren’t already in the system and earning livable wages from advances on your books, and you are the sort of writer and person with that drive – a JC Hutchins, a Scott Sigler, a Tee Morris, a Mur Lafferty, an Alec Longstreth, someone willing to do more than thrown the manuscript over the wall and wait for finished copies to return – it might be time to take the reins yourself and just do this. The costs are low which means the cost of failing is low. The traditional publishers aren’t paying that much anyway so the opportunity costs are low. Just do it. Lynne Abbey, CJ Cherryh and Jane Fancher did. The writers at Book View Cafe did. I will. Don’t pin your hopes on a big publisher with economic drivers that are different than yours. Just do it yourself, work the people yourself and keep as much of the money as you can.