Publishing 2010: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

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 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.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

12 thoughts on “Publishing 2010: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?”

  1. Dave, I’m honored that my circumstances helped bring about this post — it’s expertly written, hella resonant, and represents precisely the kind of progressive dialogue authors and new media entertainers should be having right now.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful examination, and for sharing it with your readers.

  2. Allen Sale says:

    This post really hits the nail on the head and shows where much of the fault for Hutch’s reactionary decision comes into play. (This is the fault of people who halfheartedly backed him and thus, put him in a corner.) When I interviewed Hutch for my podcast, (an interview that seems out of date now), he expressed disappointment with how sails were going, how he was promoted (or lack there of). Personal Effects: Dark Arts was, (by my estimation), a subject he wanted to forget. He was proud of the product but not proud of the fact he was burdened with shouldering the load of busting down the doors in publicizing it. To his credit, he did it all, put in the hours to get things done, and now is at a point where some self observation is in order.

    In the case of Scott Sigler, Crown Publishing did more to help him promote Infected and Contagious; allowing him to keep doing what brought him to the dance in the first place (podcasting his fiction for free). They seemed more vocul about their support and the backing they put behind each release shows in the sales. Also, there were the various postcards, pdfs, etc. So to say that all publishers don’t see the value in a new generation author would be an inaccurate assessment. It’s all about negotiating and a bit of self-made luck.

    The fact that an eternally optimistic author like J.C. is burnt out is a sucker punch to be sure, but just because there are ashes doesn’t mean the phoenix will not rise again. Self publishing may be the way going forward, but it will take new innovative ways to produce and market a product that will ensure the success of what podcasting novels started in 2005. The only way to find out what that “next big thing” is to simply take the ball and run with it. Hutch has handed it off for now, and we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t turn what would be a play with negative yardage into an out of nowhere score.

  3. Jason Pitre says:

    I find your reasoning sound, these are indeed several of the reasons why I founded my own RPG publishing business. The costs of self publishing have dropped rather significantly over the last two decades. Furthermore, it has actually moved from stigmatization of the self-publisher to lauding them in my opinion. There is a certain level of street credibility and respect earned by those who go it alone rather then doing work for hire. Perhaps it’s the fact that the authors passion is laid bare for all to see in that model.

    That being said, the big publishing houses to provide a number of tangible benefits, especially for dead-tree books. Firstly, they should normally provide some kind of screening so that the absolute disasters don’t get published. They can provide editing expertise, pay the capital costs for the book production (which can be significant) and fill a marketing role. Even more importantly, they ensure the books receive the necessary distribution.

    The major problems with the poor payment for authors is that there are so many middle men. At least for my particular niche, I have some baselines for the costs. Approximately 1/3rd of the final cost goes to the brick and mortar merchant. Approximately 1/3rd of the final cost goes to to the distribution chain, though this also includes all of the import/export costs if applicable. This means that the publisher only receives the remaining third of the cover price. After accounting for the editing, marketing, printing and admin costs, the margins are pretty slim on the publishing side as well. As a result, the big houses depend on quantity and even the “commercial flops” resulted in significantly more people with books in hand.

    Ebooks might be a way to reduce most of the costs and possibly improve the total income of authors, but I still think it is a touch too early to see. The technology is not yet completely mature.

  4. Suzanne Hartwick says:

    I think you hit the nail right on the head with the fact that JC did all that he could, but St. Martin’s press, no offense to them, did not provide the support that authors have been using publishers for in the past. I understand that the distribution channels are smoothed over by the big machines of publishing, but if authors like JC are going to be doing the jobs of both writer and publicist they should be paid the salaries of both, not going broke trying to promote it out of pocket. At least broker a deal where the expenses of promoting, printing costs, internet time spent on spreading the word, and so on, and considered in the publishing deal and are paid efforts. I think the publishing industry needs to catch up on this model, because it seemed to me letting someone as talented as JC Hutchins hang like that is irresponsible and a waste of good material.

  5. dave says:

    Let me stress extra hard that I think neither JC nor St Martins did anything incorrectly. I’m pointing out that for the first time in publishing history, we’re seeing a place where the standard model of costs, payments and division of responsibilities breaks down hard. For a new kind of content creator with their own direct connection to fan base, it might be the wrong move to try to insert a third party in the middle of that relationship unless there is an amount of money sweetening the pot to make it worthwhile.

  6. Ken Kennedy says:

    Very well written, Dave. I agree with you pretty much 100%. A point to note…I thing that not only is the “standard model” breaking down, but that people like you are Yet Another Niche. You are willing to market yourself, but in addition, you’re basically in it for just the one book.

    The Old School publishing industry might very well never never be interested in you, as Charlie Stross (who’s also writing on this, but from his viewpoint; an successful author in the current system who also happens to connect with his fanbase) has noted: “Publishers want to buy author careers, not individual books.”

    Yet now there’s a way for you to publish just one book, and make some money to boot. I think that’s fantastic.

    Cory Doctorow’s experiment with his new short story collection “With A Little Help”, is another data point. I look forward to buying his book, and watching that experiment unfold.

  7. Mark Forman says:

    Well written-very concise and prescient. Alarmingly similar to what is happening in the music industry. We each need to do our best to make the public aware of our work and let them decide whether it merits purchase or not. No need to go the middle man route here any more than in music.

  8. Evo Terra says:

    And what’s this “probably” bullshit? If you podcast your novel and *don’t* put it on, I will find a voodoo doll and stick needles in its eyes until you comply. Or I cry myself to sleep.


  9. Evo Terra says:

    Oh, and good post. Spot on. Let’s go make the future.

  10. dave says:

    Evo, just to be clear: The “probably” is not about whether I would serialize in audio and do it at or somewhere else, it’s about whether that happens at all. Which is probably in the 98-99% probability range. If it happens, it’s with you.

    Let’s do make us some tasty tasty future!

  11. Mike Luoma says:

    My first thought after reading this well thought out, well written piece? “Who is this Dave Slusher and how does he know what I’m thinking?”

    Pretty genius… but maybe the evil lies in the increasingly irrelevant middlemen? Traditional publishers are now “signing” authors without paying them advances. They do provide publicity, might have an intern set up a book tour- but of course they expect the author to pay the expenses of that tour. And most other promotional costs. So, then, what does the publisher provide? Distribution – Into dead tree stores, sure, but then with what sort of placement, what featuring? A print run – whose actual numbers are inflated in most reports, but a run that is still, all the same, an overrun and waste of paper? As the TradPubs look for cost savings, they are already contemplating moving to POD models; some are for back catalogue. And if the publishers can maintain that keeping your book available POD means they are keeping it “in print”? You’ll never get those rights back. Ever.

    So, yeah, about the evil…

    Once again, Dave, a well thought out piece at a time when circumstances are making us all take a look at this Podcast fiction thing we’re doing.

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