The publishing world

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)

  • You put your manuscript (printed in double-space, 12 pt font, nothing else) in a package along with a very well-written query letter and sent it out blindly to all the agents who seemed interesting from that big book of agents sold. You might try and filter for agents who actually represented authors in your genre but from talking to people, I think this part was often ignored. If you Google around, you'll see hundreds, if not thousands of blog posts/books on how to write the perfect query letter, opening and 'hook' the agent since that was so important.

  • On the other end of the package was a often over-worked agent getting hundreds of submissions a month. He or she will probably discard your manuscript after a poorly written query letter or if the first page isn't arresting enough. Not because the agent was some mean person, of course. With that much volume of incoming manuscripts, they absolutely had to filter as much as they could.

  • Most writers would get what is a called a 'form rejection'. If you've ever failed to get through an interview, you have probably seen some of these - a cold, impersonal letter out of a HR-driven template saying you weren't a good fit or some such thing. Some lucky rejections would get a personal touch - some encouraging feedback or some helpful advice. These are treasured by writers, mostly since it can be depressing to get form rejection after rejection and you cling on to any bit of hope you can.

  • If you went past this step and the agent decided to represent you, you were in. It was time to break out the champagne. Now, your agent repeats the process with publishing houses (who will never accept manuscripts directly from unknown writers) and shops around your manuscript. You again face rejections and most publishers will probably reject you.

  • Finally some publishing house (if you're lucky, one of the 'Big 6') decides to pick you up. You negotiate the financial numbers (you typically make a couple of bucks out of every physical book sold unless you are John Grisham, Dan Brown or Lee Child).More congratulations! More champagne is drunk (I suspect a lot of drinking goes on in the writing world). Seriously, you are now in the elite. You are a writer who is about to get published, something most people only dream about.

  • The publishing house gives you an editor who works with you on your manuscript. He or she goes over your book with a fine pencil and suggests changes all over the place - from grammar and tightening prose to big changes (like inconsistent actions from characters poor plotting, etc). You get to make the final call on whether you accept these changes but these people generally know what they're talking about. Quick aside - my O'Reilly editors were great but they assigned me a developmental editor for a period of time (an external contractor) who basically suggested I remove every bit of humor, every colorful anecdote from my Windows Azure book. I declined and almost every reader I've spoken to mentions how much they loved the exact bits that he wanted taken out.

  • Along the way, the publishing house tries to figure out when to release your book. This is a mysterious calculation which involves marketing budgets, other books in the genre coming out this year, the motion of the moon, etc. It isn't uncommon to have to wait a few years after a finished manuscript to see it out in print.

  • The publishing house prints your book! Hooray! You're now a published writer. You can get into associations like International Thriller Writers, Inc. You see your book on Amazon and get that seductive link to creating your own author page on Amazon. You watch your Amazon rankings every hour (hint for writers - there are automated tools for this). Depending on your publisher, you might get a marketing budget to do things like mini-book tours, bookstore signings and maybe even a radio show or two. If you're lucky, some reviews. Mostly, you're on your own since marketing budgets are very limited.

  • You become rich and famous. You have interviews on national TV. Your book gets made into a movie starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Dan Brown and J.K.Rowling are chasing your taillights in the Amazon rankings. Lee Child is lining up for an autograph. Dean Koontz and Jeffrey Deaver want to have coffee with you to learn your secrets. Ok, so this last step might a teeny bit harder than the others.

Bring on the revolution

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

  • The Kindle goes mainstream. Among other things, the Kindle is the ideal Christmas gift for a nephew/niece/grandchild, etc. Surprisingly, both my Kindle and Aarthi's Kindle were gifts we gave each other.
  • Amazon opens up the Kindle to self-publishing by any author. In June 2010, they stunned the publishing world by increasing the author's royalty to 70% (for books priced between $2.99 and $10). This is key since until now, authors had to sell massive amounts of books to make any sort of money back. A typical $30 hardcover book will get the author around $3-$4 and a $12 paperback will get the author around a buck.

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.

  • The first is Amanda Hocking. She made history by selling over a million copies of her book on the Kindle and making over $2m in royalties. She has been held up as the poster child for the self-publishing world. In a surprising move, Amanda decided recently to sign a multi-book contract with a traditional publishing house - St.Martin's Press (as you can imagine, there was a fierce bidding war to get her onboard). In her blog post responding to a fierce outcry, she said "“I want to be a writer,...I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”.

  • The second is Barry Eisler (his Rain books are really worth reading). Eisler raised more than a few eyebrows by turning down a $500K advance from St.Martin's press and getting into self-publishing for himself.

  • The third is John Locke (which is actually not a pseudonym, believe it or not) who recently sold a million books over the Kindle. Locke writes a series of gritty thrillers (I like his hero, Donovan Creed) and westerns on the Kindle. His books are good reading but more importantly, John is like the Tim Ferriss of the thriller world. He knows how to market his wares very, very well (his sales background doesn't hurt). He uses mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook, plugs his websites in his books, uses the right soundbites in interviews and overall, just does a great job of packaging himself. In fact, he even wrote a book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months. Locke realizes the importance of things like high visibility book rankings and pulls stunts you typically see on the iOS AppStore.

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

  • As a technology person and as someone who has grown up with the web, I see the obvious parallels to what is happening here and what happened in the tech world and the web. For example, take open source. When open source first came on the picture, lots of the same arguments were made - how could you trust it? Who ensured quality? All those arguments look ridiculous now. On the other hand, lots of people predicted the death of proprietary software. That hasn't happened either. Both have learned to co-exist and live together. Same with the rise of Youtube. Indie artists can now become famous on Youtube but recording companies have learnt to make use of the Youtube phenomenon (case in point - Justin Bieber's career).

  • I think the argument 'there needs to be gatekeepers' is bogus. History is full of examples of amazing things happening when the gatekeepers were removed and the masses could decide what was good and what wasn't. But that doesn't mean there's no space for informed experts. People who work in the book industry including agents, understand what makes a good read very well. There is great demand for those skills, perhaps just not in their current form. Think about someone like Roger Ebert. Just because there's Rotten Tomatoes out there doesn't mean a Roger Ebert review still doesn't hold importance.

  • I like the fact that writers can spend more time writing and less time on things like writing the perfect query letter. The idea that you had to impress this one person who was too busy to give you more time never resonated with me.

  • The economics of the publishing world are unsustainable. You can't sell a e-book for $9.99 since readers have grown accustomed to cheaper books. And print book sales are being eclipsed by ebook sales. Publishers and agents have to take a long hard look at where exactly they're adding value.

  • This is going to shock people given the rest of the post but...if you're a newbie writer and you have an option of a deal with a traditional publishing house, I believe you should take it before turning to self-publishing. Self-publishing is beating on the doors but the advantages of being mainstream outweigh that just a bit in my opinion. Note that this opinion is current of June 2011 and will probably change soon. If you're someone like Barry Eisler and already have an established platform with traditional publishing, you should really consider self-publishing.

  • Most of all, I'm thrilled that people are still reading books. I love books and have been lucky to grow up surrounded by books. Books as a means of communicating holds a special place in my heart. If people are reading more books and are still spending bored afternoons, plane rides, the hour before bedtime being transported into another world created by the written word, who cares what the medium is? Be it in paper,the Kindle,the Nook, their iPhone or their iPad or on some future holographic display, it's all good.

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

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