Why Traditional Publishers Should Surrender To Self Publishing

I had a fascinating conversation with Porter Anderson as part of The Booksellers #PorterMeets on Twitter on Monday. The topic was Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings project (after they released the original 7,000 report but before they released the 50,000 report) which has been raising hackles and causing ruckus in publishing the last few weeks. The conversation fired up loads of thoughts about self publishing and I wanted, following that discussion, to write a post that encapsulates the discussion and the reality of self publishing now.

The problem has been presented as an oppositional one, almost a battle between self publishing and traditional publishing. I think looking at it that way is useful in many ways but also obscures other issues too. Even so, in order to make sense of the current situation I’m going to explore self publishing from three perspectives in sequence, first authors, then publishers and finally readers.

 Authors

Well the truth is, if there was a war between self publishing and publishing, it’s over and authors (who are the major self publishers and hence the foot-soldiers, commanders and field marshals of self publishing’s forces) have won it. Yes, many people are still fighting that war, on both sides of the debate, and it may well be some time before the most reluctant publishers realize that their cause is lost, but the gains made by self publishing have been so pronounced, so rapid and what is most important, so irreversible, that it’s time to call it done.

To be fair, authors have had some powerful allies on their side in this battle. Most notable among them is Amazon, but the truth is that victory was in many ways assured before they even realized there was a fight at hand. Powerful forces were driving change and the industry in their direction before self publishing began to grow.

An often ignored precursor to this era of digital publishing was the emergence of cheap or free tools for digital authoring and editing and for digital packaging of content. If we were still using analogue typewriters or paper and pens, then the emergence of this vibrant field of self publishing would be harder to imagine. It might seem a simple and almost ridiculous point, but the revolution in creative tools has had a huge impact in the back office operations of publishers, made them more profitable, more efficient and lead to the creation of databases and servers of content, assets and items.

What’s more it has moved the use of such tools down the value chain from businesses and professionals to ordinary enthusiasts, amateurs and everyday writers. The first manuscript I worked on at Nonsuch Ireland was a typewritten one. We simply scanned it with an OCR scanner and worked on the resulting word file (which was not without its failings, but a hell of a lot faster than retyping it into word!). The cost to create a book in digital form is now very tiny and that means if you don’t want to create a physical manifestation of that book the capital required is negligible. There, of course, remain areas where capital can help improve the final product, but they are not needed in order to create and prepare.

Of course authoring tools on their own would not be worth a huge heap to writers unless they had ways to get their works into the hands of readers and digital distribution and e-commerce tools have made that possible, powered by a second more obvious force, the growth of the web and connectivity.

Without these forces doing most of the heavy lifting (these forces are also partly behind the success of businesses like Amazon, at least the second one if not the first, enabling the retailing giant to develop a business model that undercut existing retailers and took advantage of almost infinite shelf space to appeal to huge swathes of customers) authors and self publishing would still be clamouring for attention not demanding a place at the table.

Yet, despite their sense of achievement, authors will find that victory is not as sweet, as complete nor even as satisfying as it might appear. The main reason for this is that the very forces that are driving change and have swept them into a position of victory are opening up the doors for everyone else. As more and more writers release more and more material, the content space becomes more and more crowded. Where in print, books were as likely to be out of print ten years after publication as they were to be in print, now, with ebooks and digital publishing, they will remain available and competing forever. The reality of competing with everything that has ever been published is not going to be fun.

There will be massive winners, but there will be many, many losers, just as there were, are and will be in traditional publishing. There is simply too much content chasing a limited pool of attention. And reading faces the real challenge of gaming, movie & tv watching, music, email, messaging, social media and surfing the web brought directly onto readers smartphones. Very frequently it will lose in the face of that assault.

So while these changes have empowered authors as a class and will make superstars of a limited number of them, for the majority the reality may very well be that the revenues from their work will not grow to any great degree and in many cases, it will never materialize. Which is not to downplay the massive success of self publishing authors. They have proved that their method of publishing is valid, sustainable and vibrant. They have shown that talent DOES exist in the ranks of the self publishing authors. They have been brash and vocal and they have been part of a rapid change in the industry and they have lured big advances from the pockets of their enemies and for the winners, the field marshals, the time for reaping rewards is ahead. It is simply that in every army, there are very few field marshals and many foot-soldiers.

Publishers

Ten years ago I worked for a local history publisher. We published books that were image heavy and relied on local sales to make a good return. It’s probably these early days in publishing that gave me the expectation that self publishing and authors were set to triumph.  Back then, a well-connected self publisher, with decent local knowledge was our worst nightmare. Often we would contact a potential author only to have them say no, take the idea and do it themselves. They would often make more money doing it that way, if they were willing to risk a little capital up front that is, the tools for creating everything up to the point of physical printing were cheap, easy to use and widely available, the only advantage we really held was the working capital to print, ship and distribute books (and for local books, the shipping and distribution was not THAT important). Having seen locally published books outsell books we produce two or three to one I developed a healthy respect for savvy self publishers. There’s still money to be made in professional local history publishing of course, advantages of scale that even the best local self publishers cannot respond to, but it’s a tight line to walk.

The truth, one that publishers have been reluctant to admit, is that self publishing is a real threat to their position. It is the manifestation of the growth of author power that has been fostered by cheap digital creation, growing availability of digital distribution and increasing internet connectivity. These things have reduced the wrinkles of inefficiency in the book publishing industry, the very wrinkles upon which our major publishers have built their businesses.

Publishers still serve the huge slab of the market that is not digital, the market for print books, more efficiently and more effectively than self publishers can (even with the help of their allies and third-party services – which makes you wonder why more publishers don’t offer sales and distribution to self publishers and take a chunk of self publishers’ cash while they are at it) or will in the near future. There is certainly some fear that the largest chains are facing difficulty but there is clearly no real fear that print books will disappear in the near future suggesting that regardless of the exact shape of the print market, existing publishers will be best placed to reach it for the next while. Of course, keeping a shrinking chunk of the market is not exactly a fun proposal.

The good news for publishers is that change has been a near constant in the industry and when circumstances change, while some publishers fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, others adapt with glee and thrive. Right now the biggest publishers are making the most of their remaining power to grab great margin from the ebook revolution. I don’t expect that to last forever. They will be forced by reality to cede a greater share of that margin with their big name authors which will probably force them to cede greater share of the bounty with smaller name authors.

However, and playing to publishers strengths for adaptability, there is one big problem for everyone in the digital space, reinforced by digital trends towards more of everything, obscurity and competition for attention (as was correctly identified by Tim O’Reilly as far back as 2002!). One thing online marketing needs is hours something that can be best applied at scale. Another is depth (scale again) within and across verticles/genres/niches. One further advantage for online marketing is influence or the ability to drive conversations. Book publishers are exceptionally well positioned to use their superior capital, market knowledge (because most publishers publish more books than most single authors and so can gather data across a broader sweep) and influence to the advantage of their authors.

There is no doubt that certain brand name authors far outpace their publishers in recognition and attention stakes, but in general, for the vast majority of authors that is not the case, and even for those authors who do surpass their publisher, when the publisher can do such things more effectively, more efficiently and has a competitive advantage in doing them, the sensible thing to do is to trade some margin and let them do it. I expect as this process of digital change continues publishers and authors (some of them self publishers, some of them hybrid authors who both self publish and use traditional publishers and some of them pure line traditionally published [though I expect these to be a smaller and smaller band over time]) will work together not less frequently, but more frequently and in multiple ways rather than in the more straightforward ways of the past (the emerging value web I discus here).

Despite what is being said about them, the major traditional publishers are in the process of changing (many of the smaller and mid-sized ones are too). I expect them to become much sleeker beasts in the decade ahead, concentrating more on the biggest authors than they even do now. I could be wrong but I’d see the industry leaders becoming more like studios than they currently are, applying capital to produce and market content as best they can, at scale, it will simply be more efficient.

There will be considerable casualties for certain and it may well be some people feel that the industry that emerges from this ongoing change is so altered as to be unrecognizable. There are unknowables too, like the prospects for continued conversion from print to digital. The quicker that happens the more bloody the change will be, in particular for the smaller and medium-sized publishers, the slower it happens and, with that slower pace, the longer bookstores survive in numbers, the better it will be for all publishers. What self publishing has done is show publishers that the rules that they have worked by for a while now, are broken or are breaking. They should know when to throw in the towel and accept that and accelerate the process of change that many have already begun.

Readers

Sometimes wars benefit people who have never even taken part in a single battle and so it is with readers. Occasionally readers were caught in the broadside, like when they were stung by higher ebook prices during the agency agreement idiocy, but for the most part the emergence of ebooks, the rise of self publishing and the growth of digital creation, distribution and access have been more or less unqualified goods for them. More writers are producing more content for them at a faster pace. The price of that content is dropping and the method of accessing that content is getting easier and slicker by the year. Despite the prices decreases, there is still more than enough money in the business to attract talent into it and more than enough talent to deliver quality content of all kinds.

The only readers who face problems in the years ahead are those committed or locked into print for some reason who might face the risk of bookstores closing more rapidly than anticipated and loosing easy access. However, with Amazon and other marketplaces likely to take up the slack in such a case, it wouldn’t seem to me to be the largest of risks.

About the biggest problem readers will have is deciding what to read next, not because they won’t be able to find something they will like, but rather because they will have too many things they like to read at one time. Choice is proliferating. It’s a problem, but not the worst one in era of copious reviews and free sampling.

So the real winners of this war, the beneficiaries of the unwrinkling of the inefficiencies of the book trade, are not the booksellers (who are by far the biggest losers)  not publishers (who have lost some, but not everything), not Amazon or its fellow tech companies (though they have surely done well out of this shift) nor even the writers (who have gained as a class but less clearly on an individual basis) but the readers who are saving money, time and frustration as well as increasing their enjoyment and happiness. Sounds like a decent outcome for them.

Conclusion

The self publishing war wasn’t and isn’t real. Just like Amazon, in many ways the growth of self publishing is an inevitable outcome of the forces that are powering digital change. Unless we want to dial the industry and society back 20 or 30 years and forgo the benefits of the technologies that are facilitating these forces then we have to accept that someone was going to take advantage of the inefficiencies unleashed by the internet and authors were going to take advantage of new distribution options. That is just how it goes.  Equally you don’t have to like these changes (though personally I’m enjoying them for all they do occasionally cause some stress) but you will have to roll with them, even if the scenarios I’ve envisaged don’t pan out, change is coming, that much is true.

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34 comments

    1. Sure, that’s a great service, and everything else too (though much of the editing, cover design etc is now available outside of publishers of all sizes). Readers are showing that it isn’t the most valuable thing publishers do though, by choosing so many self published books.

    2. Gill, I find the argument that publishers provide gate-keeping/quality control overblown. They absolutely do ensure a minimum quality threshold (spelling, punctuation, layout etc). Beyond that, they offer a specific curation service that says “books from us are worth reading”. In the process, though, you lose so much: books that mainstream opinion says won’t sell, books that don’t appeal to a narrow set of English Literature Graduates, books that only exist because they have a celebrity attached to them.

      I believe that the gatekeeping argument is one that publishers tell themselves to make themselves feel good about all the dross they protect the public from. I would be much happier that there were other ways of filtering out the dross that didn’t involve preventing an enormous amount of content, which may or not be good at a subjective level, from being published.

      1. What is also ignored is that for savvy readers, they can act perfectly well as their own gatekeepers, and they have been given the tools to do so. There’s author websites that offer sample chapters, Amazon’s look inside the book feature, there’s Google Books offering the same service for some books as well.

        Basically, the exact same thing readers have done: walk in, pick up the book, look at the cover and read a few pages. It’s getting to that point where they say “I choose you, Pikachu,” instead of any other author that’s a key issue.

    3. I think readers do the quality control for themselves very well. When I come across a book first I have a look at the reviews, then I download a sample. Having decades-long reading experience I can easily decide if I will like the book or not. I frequently check out self-published authors searching for new voices. Many times I delete the sample after a few pages, because the writing isn’t good. I rarely buy books I won’t enjoy.

  1. Brilliant summary, Eoin. What’s missing is distinguishing among types of books. Your analysis is most apt for genre fiction and loses relevance the further you get from it. That’s particularly important in evaluating winners and losers, particularly among readers.

    1. Mike, that’s a totally valid criticism actually, I ought to have made clear that this was most true for fiction and to a much lesser extent narrative non-fiction (which is facing the more real threat at the moment from free content online). Thanks for the comment!

      1. When you think about it, there’s really no difference between the self-publishing “revolution” of the 90s (aka, blogging) and the current ebook boom. The former disrupted traditional “narrative non-fiction” models before becoming a channel used by all, to varying degrees of success, with some of the most prominent independent voices signing up with traditional publishers. Fast forward to ebooks, it’s the exact same thing happening in genre fiction. SSDD.

      2. Great point, both Eoin and Guy. My book-centric view of the world had me missing this analogy, which is quite apt. So what happened to newspapers and well-funded non-fiction journalism one and two decades ago has its parallel here now. And just like the other-funded efforts to replace journalism are digital dimes replacing analog dollars, so will it be the case with long-form non-fiction. The biographies of major figures that authors used to be able to take five years or more to write will largely become things of the past. Mike

        On Fri, Feb 21, 2014 at 9:41 AM, Eoin Purcell’s Blog wrote:

        > Guy LeCharles Gonzalez commented: “When you think about it, there’s > really no difference between the self-publishing “revolution” of the 90s > (aka, blogging) and the current ebook boom. The former disrupted > traditional “narrative non-fiction” models before becoming a channel used > by all, to” >

      3. Or, the purveyor of the BEST of such books will resort to high prices and walled content like the WSJ, the NYTimes and the Times in the UK.

        I expect we’re seeing that emerge from two angles right now. On the one hand the well regarded shorter form non-fiction creators (the gigaoms, the guardians and the nyt) are creating ebooks targeting specifc topics whereas new start ups are seeking to curate long form non-fiction and coordinate communities of fans of such content (Byliner comes most readily to mind but there are others – Medium is attempting something a little like this I sense).

        I wonder what a publisher like PRH could do if it pooled its biography, history and current affairs titles (judiciously curated of course) and provided unlimited access or maybe tiered access, downloads of entire ebooks and the ability to make notes, cross reference and collate notes. It would be a formidable product.

      4. YES!
        It took me a little while to realize that the reason that non-fiction did not fly like genre fiction did in ebook form was not because the demand for digital form was not there, but that newspapers, magazines, blogs and publications of many varieties were soaking up the attention and the demand for these topics already. Why pay for access to content when you don’t have to, especially when the quality of the content is so routinely high.

        In recent years I have noticed that the trend is away from easy access to such high quality content (paywalls, closures, metered reading, paid apps etc) it doesn’t seem to have made a huge impact because rivals keep popping up in the free space (many for every one site that goes behind a wall of some kind) but the average quality seems just a little lower (in some specific cases much lower) I do wonder if there won’t at some point be a better market for paid non-fiction ebooks (or paid non-fiction content generally) as more of the best stuff resides behind walls of some kind.

    2. I think that you will still be able to sell biographies on the strength of potential readers’ connection to either the subject or the biographer. It will become more about building relationships with the types of reader who want to read these sorts of books, and potentially even getting them to pre-fund some of the advance.

      The important thing will be to move away from the concept that every reader will pay the same amount of money for the same experience of the book. That is what the web and connectivity has already damaged.

      1. Well, yeah. That will happen. Just like Byliner and other things have happened to subsidize journalism that dozens of daily newspapers paid for in the past. Unfortunately, we don’t get 1-to-1 replacement. The new regime has its advantages but it does not improve matters in every conceivable way. Mike

  2. Thanks for a great analysis Eoin. I don’t agree that genre fiction is the only winner in the self-publishing revolution. Genre fiction comes out on top of any commercial analysis but self-publishing is serving a number of our members (at The Alliance of Independent Authors) who write mid-list fiction very well indeed in comparison to trade pub. And members who write nonfiction too.

    They are making a living from their writing which is all that most working authors want. In general, it’s non-writing others (money men and dreamers) who are most interested in making a killing.

    The genre fiction argument holds true only if you focus on the top earners but in many ways, what’s happening further downstream is far more interesting, and will have further-reaching effects for writers and readers and the literary culture.

    With regard to nonfiction, what the web has done is ensured that being a successful non-fiction author (one worth paying for) will mean having to offer more than what’s freely available on the web — authoritative content, yes, but in a distinctive voice, with a creative slant.

    Nonfiction writing ups itself a notch and again, readers benefit. All good.

    Self-publishing is now the most creative sector of our highly creative age. Anybody arguing against it is not waving but drowning.

    1. Orna,

      I’m not suggesting that only genre fiction is the only genre in which self publishing works (I might be wrong, but I don’t think even Mike is saying that). Rather that it is the sector of the industry which has seen the most change, most rapidly, to date.

      There are, I think, particular issues with narrative non-fiction that make it less open to rapid change from self publishing (in digital, though in print as per my local history example, that isn’t always true) That will change over time for certain, and some of those issues are simply that much content that might previously have been in a book and read in that fashion is now online and read for free in that fashion. Non-fiction is facing first the massive impact of free content (I suspect over time fiction will feel this pain as services like wattpad and price competition reach new heights and usage levels).

      I wouldn’t go as far as to say that self publishing is the most creative sector in our highly creative age. That seems a little like setting up ides again. Rather I would say that self publishing is facilitating creativity and changing the dynamic which is a good thing to my mind.

      1. yup, that is truth! Unless, for instance, long form sites and publishers finances more pieces that stay that length, many non-fiction books I’ve read were actually decent sized articles bulked out to books!

  3. Thanks for a very balanced post, Eoin. I’d love to republish on my Curve website (www.nicholaslovell.com) if you are happy with that sort of thing.

    I’m a published author (Penguin), a self-published author (one physical and digital, one digital only, a couple of collections of blog posts that didn’t really sell) and just turned down an advance for one book because I’d rather self-publish. It depends on the topic and that audience, but knowing that you could find an alternative route to market is a great leveller in negotiations.

    1. Nicholas, that’s totally cool.

      I think you are spot on re: decisions being made title by title and audience by audience. There are just some ways in which publishing by traditional route will triumph for some books and other ways in which self publishing will triumph for other books, and to ignore that for partisan position seems a little foolish!

  4. While I agree with everything (pretty much) in this post, I’d like to take some time to point out that thinking about capital just in terms of money (e.g. advances) obfuscates a few of the underlying changes in the industry.

    Namely, some of the capital that publishers provide isn’t limited to just money but are also capital goods (durable goods that are used in production) and human capital.

    What publishers provided was access to important capital goods (printers, Adobe Indesign and other expensive tools) and the skills to use those goods (typesetters, Indesign designers, cover designers). So, you can say that a publisher’s sole purpose was to provide capital, distribution, and marketing.

    What has happened over the past twenty-five years is that web services have begun to replace capital, distribution, and marketing. I.e. what’s disrupting the publishing industry is web services.

    KDP and Lightning Press (now Ingram Spark) replace printers and distribution.

    Instead of expensive, centrally located offices, you work with a geographically distributed team of freelancers, communicating over email and chat, or even using specialised web services such as Slack (https://slack.com/).

    Self-serve advertising platforms (e.g. Adwords and Goodreads) and ‘content marketing’ replace traditional marketing.

    The web and email mean that you can look beyond your immediate neighbourhood for human capital. A freelancer you deal with exclusively over the net is, in economic and business terms, a web service with very few capital requirements and no initial outlay of funds.

    The advantage self-publishers have had is that they have no organisational or cultural roadblocks to prevent them to go wholesale in on the web services model. In fact, because they have little capital to invest, they have to. The publishers who, in many case, booted them off their list, are hampered by their organisation’s value networks (http://www.baldurbjarnason.com/valuenetworks/) that limit their ability to adopt new tactics.

    Especially since to take the most advantage of the web services + freelancers model, they’d have to shed a lot of capital (staff, software, processes, and equipment) and would lose their ability to address their existing, but shrinking, markets. Doing something that drastic to an existing organisation is generally untenable.

    If traditional publishers hadn’t had those organisational roadblocks and had gone all in on the web services model when Lightning Press and KDP first started, self-publishing would never have gained traction.

    A new(ish) publisher, or one who is willing to make the necessary sacrifices, has no such limitations and can both compete with traditional publishers and offer a lot of value for authors with much lower capital requirements than those that are still stuck in an Indesign+offset+bookstores+mass media ad posters model. They can use those lower capital requirements to offer advances to get books on their list that address consumer demands that would otherwise be unmet.

    This transition away from capital goods and human capital to web services is not limited to the publishing industry. The electronics and clothing industries made the transition ten years ago as documented by books like The Only Sustainable Edge (John Hagel III and John Seely Brown). This is a very well documented disruption pattern and the publishing industry has no excuses for not being familiar with it.

    So, while I think that traditional publishers have probably lost the game in the long run, publishers in general will continue to have an important role, provided they are organisationally set up for the Brave New World.

    1. Don’t disagree with anything there, especially your conclusions! Survival is probably for many publishers, even growth for many, but casualties and structural change is a given!

      I tried to convey the points you’ve made here in my post, but you’ve made them I think with much more clarity, so thanks for that!

  5. Eoin, Thank you for well balanced piece. I also appreciate the comments from Mike and others. So often, these discussions are reduced to entertainment akin to sporting events where each side tries to maim the other instead of coming to any reasonable conclusions.

    I’ve been in the business for a long time, too, mainly as a writer. I’ve been active in a number of writers’ organizations, served on boards, published by large and small and specialty publishers and now own a publishing company with one author — me.

    Over time, what I’ve come to value the most is control. Not just creative control, but control over production, distribution, marketing, profit margins, and more.

    Yes, Amazon, iBooks, KOBO, Nook, Sony and Apple have made my genre writing much easier and more profitable for me. eBooks have expanded my reach around the globe (although my work was translated and published before the revolution also). The internet has made audience connection and growth easier and more sustainable. All of this is true.

    But what I enjoy the most is, with all apologies to Frank Sinatra, I enjoy doing things my way.

  6. Great piece Eoin, and great comments all around.

    Some other changes on the horizon include:

    1. Changes in book length, both up and down, as the need to provide an item of a substantial and regular physical size disappears as print books decline for genre fiction and later other segments.

    2. The change in the role of the author from recluse to accessible with an attendant cultural and diffusion of output impact, which that will cause.

    3. The expansion of the book as an “object” with linked elements online.

    4. The crowd sourcing of research via social media. I am doing this right now. This leads to crowd inspiration and diffuse ownership.

    5. The opportunities for author marketing collaboration still barely tapped by authors getting used to no longer being reclusive cogs. For one stab at this see BooksGoSocial.com

    The future is rolling and will not look at like what we expect.

  7. I look at this whole thing in a different light. When looking at the big picture, I see more of a growing audience of readers, worldwide, who now have access to books like never before. Think about all the countries that Amazon and others now can reach. That access taps into potentially millions of new readers, perhaps hundreds of millions.

    I don’t see the need to constantly stir up bitter rivalries between one group over another, because in the end they will just devour each other with their arguments and insults. And, by the way, lots of readers are paying attention.They may well be turned off by these wars. I know I am.

    Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and pointing fingers at the “terrible publishing houses”, ready to crucify them for the horrid ways in which they treated authors in the past. Okay, their methods are now common knowledge. So I think we should move on. Get over it. If authors want to go that route, let ‘em. If not, then don’t. But don’t assume the authors go into traditional publishing blind when there is all this information circulating. And don’t berate them for going that route. It’s their choice.

    I applaud the opportunity to discover more books than ever before, more books than I could ever read in my lifetime, and I look forward to being an explorer who will find lots of great stories. That is what I think we should highlight and champion, instead of the “millions-of-poor-self-publishers-who-will-never make-it” theme. As world readership grows, so will opportunities, and hopefully for everyone.

    No one knows how all of this will turn out, though a lot of folks seem to write like they do. Don’t miss all the “wonderfulness” that this publishing change has affected for everyone: authors, publishers and readers. It can be good for all, but it won’t be if we all keep attacking our ‘enemy’, whoever that may be.

    Yes, I am an independent author but I hold no grudges against traditional publishers. There will always be room in this world for great and good stories. And there should always be lots of room to publish them in multiple ways.

    Let’s simply move on and leave the wars behind.

  8. I agree that it’s the readers that benefit the most. Without the gatekeepers there are so many more options. Everyone has a different taste when it comes to the books that they like.

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