On Writing,  publishing

New World of Publishing: Small Press Ego

Self-publishing writers think that big publishing will collapse because the self-published writers now find it easy to put up their own books.

That belief is so silly that I wasn’t sure if this should be a Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing chapter or a New World of Publishing post. The belief is certainly a new myth. But since it is not hurting too many people yet, I figure it’s not enough of a myth to make the “cows” book yet.

Here is the thinking: I can get my own book up now and not have to fight the traditional-publisher’s mess of outsourcing slush to agents and cost-cutting trends, therefore traditional publishers will fail because what can they now offer me?

I have found myself having issues even talking about this topic because it shows a complete lack of understanding of the size and scope of book publishing. But I’m going to try.

First off, let me send you to get more background. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is in the middle of a series of articles on her site about publishing, and she just addressed this topic very clearly and sanely. Go read that post before going on with my little rant. You can find it here. She flat out says that the e-book increase will save traditional publishing, and I completely agree.

Yes, you read that right, save traditional publishing, not destroy it. Go read.

Second, just today the numbers came out for September book sales (put out by the AAP (Association of American Publishers)). Two numbers you will hear from this report is the fact that for the single month hardbacks were way down in sales, something like 40% down over the previous September. Of course, last September had some huge new books in it and this year not so much, but that doesn’t seem to be taken into the study at all, showing how cold, hard numbers can mean so many things that are not in evidence in reality.

The second number is the increase in ebook sales. 158% increase over the previous September to a total sales of $39.9 million. For the month.

That’s right, 158% increase to $39.9 million.

Oh, yeah, that was all self-published writers. All $39.9 million of it. Yeah, and pigs fly.

As I have been saying here over and over and over, most electronic books sold through most major ebook retail outlets are sold by traditional publishers in the price range of $7.99 to $15.99. And that amount grew by 158% in September over the previous September to $39.9 million.

Do small, self-published writers and their small companies make up any part of that $39.9 million in sales? Sure. A tiny fraction, but nothing for anyone in traditional publishing to worry about. And more than enough at the same time for those doing their own publishing to make a nice little chunk of money.

So where did this myth that traditional publishers will fail come from anyway?

Writers making stuff up, that’s where.

Here are some true aspects of this conversation.

1) Electronic publishing has opened the door wide to self-published authors to join in the fun, reach most of the same readers that traditional publishers can get to, and make a little money along the way.

2) Traditional publishers are working hard to figure out the new balance sheets, the new profit and loss statements that account for sales spread out over time versus short time sales limited by shelf space. Electronic books do not have shelf space limitations. Will some traditional publishers make the transition? Yes. Will some fail? Yes. But other medium publishers will grow into the empty slots so fast no one will really notice.

3) Is there a real turning point coming for many companies in 2012 when electronic sales reach a certain level, a certain percentage of total book sales? Yes. Do those in those traditional companies know this is coming? Yes. Are they working to avoid the problem or be ahead of it? Yes. You don’t run multi-billion dollar businesses and be stupid, no matter what the news media wants you to believe.

The Origin of a Myth

Here is why some writers out there are saying traditional publishing will fail.

1) For the longest time traditional publishers were the only game in town.  Going through traditional publishing and all its gatekeepers was the only way for a writer to reach readers and build a career for upwards of sixty years. Suddenly the writers can reach readers on their own once again. So some ask the question: Why are traditional publishers needed anymore? And they don’t get a quick response, especially with traditional publishers making it so difficult to get product to them. (You know, the outsourcing of slush, the cutting anything that doesn’t sell to expectation, only looking for the same old thing.)

2) So when there is no clear answer as to why traditional publishers are needed, the writers jump over about five steps of logic and questions to the conclusion that traditional publishers will fail.

All because the traditional publishers have lost a monopoly on production and distribution. And thus a myth is born. Completely made up in writer’s minds as are most myths.

Some things ignored by the writers making up these myths.

1) Most electronic books are put out by traditional publishers. (Oh, yeah, that tiny little fact keeps becoming a problem in this myth.)

2) Traditional publishers are run by very smart business people who see the problems coming and are moving to shift the balance of their distribution to electronic as the numbers increase. (If they get ahead, they cut their normal sales, if they lag behind, they will fail on the other side. It’s a fine balance for them and most are walking the line just fine at the moment.)

3) Opening up backlist and some new products published by writers for readers to find can only HELP traditional publishing and their sales on the same author’s books, since more readers can find the author. Traditional publishers know this. It is why you are not hearing a huge backlash against self-publishing writers, and in fact why many editors and publishers in New York actively say this new world is a good thing for everyone. You don’t think all the hype about J. A. Konrath helped his traditionally published books sell more? Think again, folks. Those traditionally published series books would be a dead and forgotten series if Konrath hadn’t done what he did with publishing his own books and getting on his crusade.

So What Can Traditional Publishers Do For Writers?

The answer to this question is going to change and change hard over the next few decades. I will agree that with these changes writers are slowly gaining back control to their own careers. Of course, most writers don’t want that control, most want an agent or some publisher to take care of them. Those writers in this new world will more than likely find a small place, but not be the majority they have been over the last twenty years.

In this new world, my gut sense (meaning a wild guess) is that writers will be taking control over more and more aspects of sales, rights, and publishing of their work as they learn how to do it themselves, even when working with traditional publishers. James Patterson and others already do this, and in the future more and more writers will have the knowledge and business skills to actually be a part of the process in traditional publishing.

So to answer the question, here are just a few of the things I believe traditional publishers can still do for writers.

1) Get books to wide audiences quickly. Small publishers and self-publishers must take the long-term-build approach, while traditional publishers still have the systems set up to handle a lay down of a half-million books over ten countries on the same day.

2) Furnish the cash flow needed to write many projects. You know, advances. Many projects will just not get written without advances in the mix. Small and self-publishers don’t pay advances, so the writer must work ahead of the payday. And often the payday is in the long run.

3) Promotion. (Not the type you are thinking when I say that word.) Sure, small publishers can do their own little blog tours and get books to reviewers and all that, but there is no better promotion than having a publisher pay to have your book on the front shelves at B&N so people walking through the door will see it. Having a decent print run of ten to a hundred thousand books spread out quickly over the country in market penetration is worth thousands of hours of self promotion.

(Actually, the authors who will really make money in this new world are those who can write fast or who have backlists they own and sell to both traditional publishers and have other projects up at the same time to take advantage of this promotion.)

Now, to wrap this back to the topic at hand:

Will Traditional Publishers Fail?

Anyone these days willing to learn a few things can become a publisher. Anyone with half-a-lick of sense can get a story or book up on Smashwords and Kindle and Pubit. Does that fact mean that traditional publishers will fail? Of course not.  Most writers don’t want to take the time, or will give the work over to traditional publishers to do.

Will some writers with the ability to learn and to set up their own publishing company avoid traditional publishers and make money? Of course. And that’s a good thing, but that does NOT mean that because a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand writers do this that traditional publishing won’t still dominate that $39.9 million sales of ebooks in September. Or any future month.

And as Kris pointed out in her blog, with traditional big publishers switching over to electronic books and more print-on-demand books, they get out from under shipping and printing and warehousing costs, and that ugly return system gets cut down. So that will make the balance sheets of large traditional publishers better and make them more profitable as well. This new electronic world just isn’t helping new publishers, it’s saving the life of the big publishers by allowing them to streamline and save costs.

A Real Upside

The ability to self-publish will breed a new type of writer, and that’s good. Just from the discussions on this blog and my wife’s blog and other blogs, writers are taking more control of their own careers and their own books. That’s fantastic. Writers are even learning how to do the production of their own books.

Maybe the future of publishing is full of writers who know how to be publishers. Let me say this, that would be a lot, lot better world than the world we find ourselves in now, full of writers wanting to be taken care of and giving all their money to strangers.

—Writers will understand the business.

—Writers will understand the production process.

—Writers will understand how difficult it is to get their work to readers.

—Writers will understand how to handle money and be responsible for their own money.

So I don’t see traditional publishers failing by any means. In fact, I see traditional publishers, the ones able to make changes and grow with the new world, becoming larger and more valuable to writers.

And I see writers making clearer decisions on when to use a traditional publisher. And when not to bother.

And I see this new world helping writers learn the publishing business.

And we will all be better off for that.