The publishing world

Sriram Krishnan

If you are a Harry Potter fan or even remotely interested in books, you've probably heard of J.K.Rowling's decision to break into e-publishing. After several years of avoiding the e-book world (and rampant privacy), she has done something very interesting - forsake her print publishers and go it alone. A lot of main stream authors have dabbled in self-publishing - Stephen King wrote a short story years ago, for example. But J.K.Rowling is the first 'superstar' to go full fledged into self-publishing and ship her books from her website.


Some background

I've been digging into this space for the last few weeks for a variety of reasons. A bit of it is out of self-interest - I've been making use of my post-Microsoft vacation to pursue a long held dream and work on my first fiction book (a thriller, far from being complete, even further from being any good). Also, I've just been interested in how the publishing world works for a long time.

Backup a few years. For the last several decades, if you were a newbie fiction writer trying to get their first novel published, the process went something like the below.

'The Process' (as it used to be)

Bring on the revolution

All this changed due to two key developments, both caused by Amazon.

All of a sudden, writers could self-publish and not have to go through any of the gate-keepers. Just as importantly, they could now price their books at very low prices ($.99, $1.99) and rely on readers to make impulse purchases. It's much easier to pull the trigger on a $1.99 thriller than a $9.99 thriller. It was a classic low-price, high-volume strategy. The publishing houses couldn't match these prices or these royalty figures of course, since they had their own costs to worry about. Since writers need editors, cover-art, etc, a little cottage industry has sprung up where you can hire an editor, somebody to do graphic art, etc for low prices. A lot of these are still nascent (which is why most self-published books have terrible cover designs) but it doesn't take a genius to see how these might evolve.

Also, the self-publishing world has been seeing their first breakout stars and big writers moving into self-publishing. There are three which are interesting, for different reasons.

If you're interested in self-publishing, J.A.Konrath's blog is a must-read.

How a big house can help you

The publishing world realizes all this of course. However, it is very unclear to me as what they intend to do about it.

There are still several things that only traditional publishers can do. Publishers throw in editing/graphics as part of the deal - you now have to find external people to do it for you. A good editor is invaluable and to be protected and cherished. Only traditional publishers can get you print distribution at scale. This counts since a lot of people still buy only books (I still prefer my books in the paper form). You still can't get a review in the NYT or People magazine if you're self-published, even if you've sold over a million copies. You still can't get into Barnes & Noble or Borders or a small book store if you're self-published. That robs of you precious real estate in book displays, etc (which the publisher often pays for). You can't get other benefits - associations demand that you be published traditionally, you may not qualify for most writing awards, etc. You may not even be able to get your books into libraries. Of course, every author has his or her own priorities as far as these are concerned.

The biggest downside to self-publishing might be the marketing muscle you don't get. Marketing yourself is hard and unlike John Locke, most people are not good at it and don't want to do it. Especially writers, who often tend to be shy creatures who like the privacy of their dens. Selling well with self-publishing means constantly promoting yourself and putting yourself out there and not having a professional PR person line up tours/appearances for you. This is very hard work and work which most people don't know how to do.

Apart from all this, there's still the perception problem. Self-published long meant "Not good enough to be published" and that perception still holds for a lot of people. You will get snide remarks and get looked down upon by a lot of people. Whether that matters to you or not is completely up to you of course.

Make no mistake, traditional publishing is still the established, mainstream way of being a writer.

And the agents

The biggest people at risk right now are the traditional middlemen - the agents. They're not taking this lying down however. Here's a post from Rachelle Gardner, who runs a well-known blog on her life as an agent and the publishing business in general. I really like Rachelle's posts in general but the below made me shake my head sadly. Quoting her

"With no more gatekeepers, no more exclusivity, no more requirement to actually write a good book, won’t published books lose value? If anybody can get a book published, doesn’t that diminish the perceived status of all authors?...Well, I have news for you. If you think the published books are bad now, just wait until self-pubbing becomes the norm. Holy cow. Folks, you don’t see an agent’s daily slush pile. Sure, some of it is good. But let me tell you. At least half of it is seriously not good. As I look at all the books I say “no” to, and then realize these books could be for sale within a matter of months, I get depressed."

If you're in the tech world, you probably see how wrong she is too. The AppStore and probably the web is an example of how this model will work. In fact, that's the beauty of it - that anyone sitting in his pajamas can get their content out there immediately. And the best content will always rise to the top since people will find it and bubble it up.

If you see the comments, you can see how (some) traditional writers are now having to deal with their world upended. Some love the changes and are jumping onto the bandwagon. Some see it but still want their books published by a traditional house. Some of them have spent years (or decades) in the hopes of being published and now all of a sudden, that prize doesn't seem as valuable. Here's a sample comment from the extreme end of the opinion spectrum.

"I think this idea that "everyone deserves to get their book published" is fallacious and insulting to both the good, hard-working writers and more importantly to the readers.Everyone can open their mouth and make a noise. Not all of us deserve to stand in the Royal Opera House and sing to a paying public."

My thoughts

Now, excuse me since I have some unread books beckoning me.

Sriram Krishnan