This week I saw a new item at our local dollar store—hardcover books. Well, actually one hardcover book—hundreds of copies of it, dumped in a big bin. It’s sad enough to see good books remaindered on the sale tables of Barnes and Noble, but these were being dumped for a buck a piece, along with off-brand detergent and dented cans of dog food.
What’s worse, I recognized the title. I'd seen the author interviewed by Stephen Colbert—just a few months ago.
I felt a little sick.
Kind of like the way I felt when the only remaining indie bookstore in our nearest big town closed. And the LA Times killed off their book review section. And the Borders at the mall shut its doors.
What’s going on? Have people stopped reading? Should we give up our dreams of becoming authors and take up hula-hoop decorating? Is the book dead?
Nope. It turns out the opposite is true. In fact, The New York Times recently reported that sales of books are going nowhere but up. In the US, trade titles grew 5.8% in the past three years, juvenile books grew 6.6%, and adult fiction went up a hefty 8.8%—in the middle of a recession!
So the book business isn’t really going to Hades in a handbasket. But it is on one wild ride—a ride that’s moving so fast that even industry professionals can’t keep up.
Here’s a little recap—
Back in the dear, dead days of 2009 B.K. (Before Kindle), book authors had only three options:
Option #1: Go through the long, painful process of querying literary agents, hoping to find one who could sell your work to a big or biggish publishing corporation. From the mid-20th century until the early 2000’s, if you wrote a book good enough to snag a reputable agent, you had an excellent chance of launching a professional writing career. But the agent-funneling-to-the international-publishing-conglomerate paradigm had been developing flaws over the past few years:
- Bullying market departments seizing creative control
- Non-existent marketing budgets, except for superstars (Here’s a link to the great 2009 piece on the subject from the New Yorker for those who missed it two weeks ago.)
- Ever-more draconian contracts, demanding ownership of copyright and preventing writers from “competing” with their own books by publishing anything else, anywhere.
- “Creative” royalty-eating accounting
- Fad-publishing and lemming-like overbuying: giving two or three genres dominance to the exclusion of all others, thus killing off those genres by oversaturating the market. Examples: chick lit and vampire romance.
- Dropping writers who didn’t make the wildly optimistic sales quotas established by the marketing department (as reported by the reliably inaccurate Bookscan.) Your career could be ended by an accounting mistake. The only way you’d ever be able to publish again involved changing your name and never, ever admitting you’d been published before.
Option #2: Submit to smaller, regional presses that read their own slush and don’t require an agent-gatekeeper. This minor-league option sometimes led to the big leagues, but it had major drawbacks.
- No standardized practices—hard to tell the good from the bad.
- Difficult distribution. Usually big chains wouldn’t order from them, and many indie bookstores would order titles only as special orders.
- Tiny profit margins. With the high cost of materials, and small mark-up on paper books, they often went belly-up, owing royalties to writers and back pay to staff (speaking from experience here.)
- No reviews in the big publications like Kirkus, NYT, People, etc.
- Titles unlikely to get the notice of Hollywood.
Option #3: Self-publish
- Oh, pu-leez. You’ve all heard the stories. “I read a self-pubbed book by my hairdresser’s son and it had no plot and typos on every page—and if I ever have to read another 50-page masturbation scene, I’m going to throw myself off a bridge.”
- Unless you wrote something sappy and inspirational like The Celestine Prophecy or The Shack, you wouldn’t even recoup costs.
- The only way you’d be able to publish again involved changing your name and never, ever admitting you’d been published before.
But a revolution started late in the year 2009 A.K.
You can read that as “After Kindle” or “After Konrath”, since mystery author J. A. Konrath sounded the first voice of the Kindle revolution on his blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing
The A.K. era has provided many new paths to publishing, and those paths go in remarkable new directions. Sometimes they even make U-turns.
Option #1 is still the same: query agents and hope for that Big Six contract. Some people will argue with me, but I think this is still the best path to fame and fortune for the writer with a shovel-ready, trending-right-now debut novel. If you write like Raymond Carver and have a YA steampunk zombiepocalypse thriller—all edited, polished and ready to go—and a few more like it in the hopper, you just might be the next superstar. It still happens.
But this traditional road is an even rockier path than before, because:
- The big bookstore chains who worked in partnership with the Big Six to create bestsellers are going belly-up. Borders is dead, indies are evaporating, and the book shelf space in supermarkets and drugstores has shrunk drastically.
- The mass market paperback is disappearing. Publishing Perspectives gives it three years to live . Mass market publisher Dorchester went bankrupt, transferred to an all e-book format—and has yet to pay royalties to its former mass market authors.
- As the Big Six acquire fewer and fewer non-celebrity titles, agents are unable to sell books they adore, and being “on submission” can be an emotional Bataan Death March.
- Now less than 1% of books published by the Big Six are by debut authors
- The Big Six are pricing ebooks higher and higher, thwarting sales of even their bestselling authors.
- As marketing departments insist on “guaranteed sales numbers,” agents are looking less at their own queries and more at the Kindle bestseller lists.
- Big Six authors are getting tiny royalties on ebook sales, and their paper books are being pulled from shelves within weeks of launch (and sent to the Dollar Store, apparently.) The average advance is about $5000, and most authors never see any royalties. You have to write really, really fast just to make minimum wage.
Option #2: Submit to Small Presses. This is the same, too. Except it's a much more appealing option than it used to be. Technology has decreased overhead and Amazon and other online retailers have leveled the playing field.
- Small companies, which have fewer cogs in their wheels, can move faster. Most are pricing their ebooks under $5.00. Most also use POD technology for paper books, so they only print as many books as they have orders for. This drastically reduces overhead, so they’re much more likely to stay in business than in the past.
- Because of low overhead they often pay much higher royalties than the Big Six.
- With online retailers dominating the book market, distributors are no longer essential to sales numbers. Every book is available for browsing with a few clicks on Amazon. A book from a tiny press has equal space with one from Random House.
- Ebook-only presses are mushrooming all over the ’Net. They are willing to take chances on new authors and innovative genre-bending because they have very little overhead. This also means they can afford to keep retail prices low.
- Genre-specific small publishers can service neglected niche markets and connect writers directly with fans looking for a particular type of fiction.
- Small presses offer professional book design, coding, paper book distribution and sometimes, more publicity than a Big Six publisher.
- But you’re still not likely to get that call from Stephen Spielberg.
Option #3: Self-Publish. With the phenomenal success of self-pubbers like Amanda Hocking and John Locke, the stigma has been lifted. Self publishing isn't for rejects any more. It's for rebels and literary innovators. And anybody can join this wild-west gold-rush sparked by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his little Kindle. (You can also now self-pub paper copies quite cheaply through Amazon's Create Space.)
- This is no longer the “I’ve been rejected everywhere, so I guess I have to…” option that hairdresser’s son took.
- Fortunes are being made, and even mid-listers are making a living.
- Self-publishing an ebook costs next to nothing, especially if you can design your own cover and get a fellow writer to exchange editing/proofing duties with you.
- New companies like Smashwords and BookBaby provide self-epublishing services at very reasonable prices, and also supply helpful things like ISBNs.
- Agents, publishers and filmmakers are ignoring their own slush piles and trolling the Kindle self-published lists for new clients. (Yes, I mentioned this above, but my point is: although that’s not so good for queriers, it’s great for self-pubbers.)
- Big Six publishers are offering self-published stars the kind of huge advances usually reserved for literary superstars and members of the Rolling Stones. Self-pubbed Kindle stars like Amanda Hocking and Mark Edwards and Louise Voss have taken this U-turn route back to Option #1.
- This week, Amazon opened a Kindle Indie Store just for self-pubbers, so you don’t have to compete with the Big Six guys to become a bestseller. (I’m not entirely sure this isn’t ghettoizing the indies, but we’ll wait and see.)
- Plus you just might get that call from Hollywood. The film rights to Amanda Hocking’s initially self-pubbed paranormal trilogy were sold to Media Rights Capital in March for major bucks, and I’m hearing from indie readers of this blog that Hollywood has been knocking on their doors.
Option #4: Query an agent who will help you self-publish ebooks that will stand out from the crowd
- Agents like Andrea Brown are helping their clients self-publish to bypass the high cost of Big Six ebooks. There’s been a lot of noise about this being a conflict of interest, but the authors themselves aren’t complaining. Agents know how to provide editing (which they’ve been doing for years) plus hook you up with top-notch cover and book designers. They can help with publicity, marketing and career management as well as handling film and foreign rights (a biggie).
Option #5: HIRE an agent who will help you self-publish ebooks.
- Yes, hire. Some very reputable agencies like Bookends LLC are forming separate branches that accept all comers and help them through the e-publishing process for either a percentage or a flat fee. A flat fee service—as provided by Laurie McLean at Agent Savant—feels better to me, but both seem to be working.
Option #6: Publish both e-books and paper books with Amazon’s new paper book lines. This is the new holy grail of publishing. You only get in by invitation at this point, but Amazon is making changes almost daily, so stay tuned.
- The first of these was Amazon Encore. This doesn’t provide a huge advance, but your book is printed on real dead trees and you get to sell to the 70% of readers who still don’t have Kindles. Plus your royalties are way better than if you published with the Big Six
- Then came Montlake Romance in June. Amazon lured bestselling romance writer Connie Brockway from Simon and Schuster to debut their new romance line.
- Next to be announced was mystery/thriller line Thomas and Mercer. This is where indie superstars Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath are now, having accepted reputedly huge advances and impressive royalties.
- More are coming—and we will probably be able to submit directly to them at some point.
- Major drawback: these books will be sold mainly through Amazon. Amazon would like other retailers to carry them, but many bookstores are planning to boycott these lines, because Amazon is a rival bookseller.
These options aren’t either/or, as some of the arguing in blogs and forums might lead you to believe. Most of the Big Six published authors I know are also releasing indie books. Some are also using small publishers as well
Yes, it is scary that one corporation--Amazon--is cornering such a huge segment of the book market. Let's hope that Barnes and Noble and Apple and new start-ups will challenge their growing monopoly.
You can get a beginner’s overview of ebook publishing from the ever-reliable Jane Friedman on her blog here
If you want more in-depth information, you can buy a great little book on epublishing from the (incredibly smart) Irish writer David Gaughran on his blog Let’s Get Digital
or in the Kindle store
for only $2.99.
The publishing world has changed irrevocably in the past two years.
The changes came about partly because of the e-revolution and partly because the old system was already in a state of decay. Even though we’re going to miss the corner bookshop (which may be replaced with cool coffee-house/wine bar/print-while-you wait media emporium
s) the good outweighs the bad—for both readers and authors.
As Gaughran says, "[Big Six publishers] have been underestimating readers for years. If you talk to readers, their main complaint is that everything is the same, piles of books chasing one fad after the next. Readers want diverse voices, readers like works of different lengths, readers like writers who play outside conventional genre boundaries. Indie writers have been filling that need."
But the greatest thing to come from the ebook revolution may be the way it empowers writers. We now have choices. Even authors who are still publishing only with international conglomerates know they can walk away if they want to. They can demand more equitable royalties. They can refuse to take orders on what to write and how many books to churn out per year. They can publish novellas and short stories and books outside a specified genre.
And for newbie authors—you’ve all got a chance to make the big time.
So hone your skills, build your inventory, and develop some calluses on your soul. Then set out on whatever publishing path feels right to you. The way things are going, there should be even more options very soon.
So how are the changes in the industry affecting you, scriveners? Are the new possibilities changing how you view your own career goals? Is it affecting how you write?
Labels: Agent Savant, BookBaby, Bookends LLC, Connie Brockway, David Gaughran, Jane Friedman, Kindle, Konrath, Mark Coker, Montlake Romance, Smashwords, Thomas and Mercer