On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: There Are Suckers Born Every Minute and They Are Writers

Yup, I said that.


And I am coming to believe it more and more as this transition in publishing goes onward.

As those of you who have followed these blog posts know, my goal has been to educate writers.

I’ve tried to educate by killing as many myths as I can in the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series, and helped a few in the Think Like a Publisher series showing how really simple it is to be an indie publisher. And I hope this series opens an eye or two at times.

But thanks to events this last week, and a comment by a major publisher as to why he will still be in business in five years, I am coming to understand that even my jaded view of writers is way, way too high.

So ignoring the comment by the major publisher basing his entire publishing company future on the stupidity of writers, let me talk about the major events that also happened. And then try to make some sense, if that’s possible, out of it all. (More happened than what I am going to talk about, but let me just stick with these three.)

This Week’s Event #1

Simon & Schuster, in their quarterly report, finally flat out admitted they are making far, far more profits on electronic books then planned.

So much more that they are basically making money even with dramatically reduced paper book sales. And, of course, they are making this because of the writers caving in on the 50% of cover price of electronic rights and allowing publishers to only offer 25% of net instead. A huge windfall for publishers in this new world. And writers sign these agreements thousands of times per month around the publishing field, often for little or no money up front.

Makes me want to go back into publishing as a publisher and owner of a publishing company publishing other writer’s work, since the profit margins are so huge for publishers thanks to the weakness and stupidity of writers. (I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that, so no worry.)

(For a full understanding of how the money is working for publishers, read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s new Business Rusch blog post. She does the math.)

But thankfully, writers these days have an option if they would like to refuse a bad 25% of net contract. If we don’t sign and a publisher won’t cave to our demands for a higher rate, we simply indie publish and get 70% of Gross Income instead. And we control all details of our own books.

So we have options. But sadly, most writers, as I wrote before, won’t take that option for one of a number of reasons I already talked about.

This Week’s Event #2

Penguin Publishing, one of the big guys, announced their new self-publishing imprint, Book Country.

This site (when shifted from what it was before) will allow authors who want to indie-publish a way to pay Penguin an upfront fee and 30% of all money forever for the right to do exactly what the author could do themselves.

That’s right. No added value for the upfront money and taking a percentage. You, the author, still have to do all the work unless you want to pay more and more money. And even then you get nothing really.

In all my years on this planet, in all my years in this business, I have never seen such a play at the stupidity of any group of humans. Usually we get these kind of things by e-mail with someone wanting us to send money to get the money we inherited.

But this is a major publicly-traded corporation offering this “service.”  (And I do think the term “service” is correct in this instance, just not in the way Penguin is thinking. Sort of like a bull “services” a herd is how I am thinking.)

I was so stunned when I saw it while traveling that I just couldn’t think of what to say. And when people kept asking me what I thought of it, all I could say was that I would talk about it later because, to be honest, I knew that because the Penguin name is associated with the “service,” stupid writer after stupid writer, with the desire to be published and no business thought at all, will line up and bend over to be serviced, checkbook ready and willing to pay for the privilege.

So, let me be clear to you fine writers who asked what I thought, knowing I was going to hate the idea. You were right. AVOID BOOK COUNTRY AT ALL COSTS.

This Week’s Event #3

If Book Country wasn’t bad enough, Robert Gotlieb, the head master at Trident Literary Agency, couldn’t stay away from his keyboard and replied to the announcement. In short he said his (agency) company could indie publish writers better than Penguin.

Now, with that comment, I expected a flood of Trident clients to jump ship very publicly. Holy cow, the head of the agency just put his company in direct competition (as a publisher) with a major publisher and called them out. And he has clients who I am sure are going to get “great” deals next time around with Penguin. (Snort, and Trident has a bridge and land in Florida for them as well.)  And that’s assuming anyone at Penguin even returns Trident’s phone calls.

But not one writer that I heard about jumped from Trident. When an agent a number of years back got drunk and pushed the publisher of Bantam Books into a closet, over three quarters of her clients fired her the next day. This is worse, much worse. Yet the response from Trident clients is stunning in its silence.

Over the years here I have bashed the stupidity of writers letting agents get away with things. I have tried to help writers understand that they are the boss, that agents work for them. I don’t hate agents. I hate how writers let agents control them.

And when this entire agent-as-publisher started to come in with Richard Curtis back ten or more years ago, I warned anyone who would listen away from the idea, and when it started to pick up as agents got more and more desperate this last year and more agents said they would become publishers, I got more public with my warnings to writers. Fire your agent if they are becoming a publisher. Period.

And I wasn’t the only one shouting about this new problem. So did a lot of others around the country, from other agents to major writers to lawyers. And right now I am hoping a lawsuit will shut this practice down as the major conflict of interest that it really is.

But now here comes Trident claiming they can publish books better than Penguin Publishing. And still writers don’t wake up. Some Trident client who is also selling to Penguin, file a lawsuit, please, against Trident and end this agent-as-publisher insanity.  Please, I beg of you.

Passive Guy, as a lawyer, you’ve done some posts on this conflict of interest on your great blog ThePassiveVoice. Can you point some people to them again?  Thanks?

And writers, if you are with Trident, my only advice is RUN!!!!!!!!  Pretend your name is Logan and you are about to have a birthday. There really is green grass outside those walls. (That reference may be too old for many here…sorry.)

My Suggestions Plain and Simple

Since I am being so blunt, let me try to summarize how I see things at this moment in late November 2011. And how I approach my writing career at this point in time.

1) Avoid agents at all costs.

If you have one, fire them now unless your agent is also an attorney. No reason needed. A writer in this new world needs a good IP attorney on board. And not an agent who has other clients with the same publishing house that you sell to. That agent will NEVER fight for you. Ever. An attorney will fight for you and cost you a ton less money.  (I do not have an agent and can see no reason now to ever bring one back into the picture.)

2) Learn how to Indie Publish

And I do mean learn. Don’t say you can’t and walk away. Be one of the new generation of writers, spend the time and learn how to format a book in word for Kindle, Pubit, and Smashwords. Spend the time to learn how to do a POD book for Createspace. Learn how to do covers in PowerPoint or some other program. It’s scary, yes, but can be learned. And it’s fun and very freeing for your writing.

Why spend the time to learn indie publishing?  So you have options, of course. Until you have the option and see how fantastically easy it is to indie publish, you will never be able to stand up against a traditional publisher for better contract terms.

3) Go both indie publishing and traditional publishing paths.

Keep submitting to traditional publishers while also indie publishing backlist or books that just won’t sell.  You do not need an agent to get a traditional editor to look at your book. Simply send an editor a submission package which consists of a few sample chapters, a short synopsis, and a cover letter with a #10 SASE for a response. Or try e-mailing them the same thing. For novels, keep it out to about five or six editors at once. (For short fiction send the full story to only one editor/magazine at a time per story.)

Until you are doing both, you will limit your options in so many ways. The new normal is both ways, folks. It’s only smart business.

And ignore all the idiots who try to tell you that indie publishing will hurt your chances in traditional publishing. Head-shakingly stupid.  (I do both, folks. I know how to indie publish and I traditional publish as well.)

4) Keep learning and watching everything.

This world is changing so fast, and in so many ways for the better for the SMART writer. But for the dumb writer, the writer who is in a hurry, who wants to give their work away, who just wants to be “published,” this new world is full of major scams. It is frightening that a major publisher like Penguin is running one of the scams under the guise of helping writers. But those e-mails I get all the time promise me a lot of money in my rightful inheritance if I’d just send a few bucks.

Book Country is being done by a major corporation who only has one thing in mind: Make More Money. And right now all major publishing corporations are going to ride through this transition on the backs of idiot writers who allowed themselves to be taken. And on the other side of this transition, when electronic books are 50% or more of all books sold every year, the traditional publishers will be raking in profits that will make oil company profits look pale.

Don’t believe me on that either? Just watch as publisher after publisher (starting next year) adds in new lines and try to get more and more new books and more and more author’s backlists. For them, just as for us, it’s all in the number of books being published. The more books up, the more they make.

And really, that’s what Book Country is all about. Fantastically smart from the corporate outlook. They get the authors to do all the work, they take a fee to punch the upload button to Kindle and the others, and for the life of the book take 30%. Holy crap, their normal profit margins are 4%.

A Couple Last Pieces of Advice.

Advice #1:

If you want to help your 401K and have some money to put into the long haul, start buying publishing corporation stocks. They are doing nothing but going up starting in the middle of 2012.

And all that profit will be on the backs of writers. There are suckers born every minute and they are writers.

And publishing companies like Penguin know that.

Advice #2:

Adopt this phrase: BE SMART. DO BOTH.

The key is to be one of the writers that won’t allow a traditional publishing company to take huge profits from your work. Give them a normal profit, 50% of gross on electronic is a fine deal for a traditional publisher.

But 25% of net just puts you in the sucker camp from this point forward. And Book Country is too silly to even think about.

Learn to indie publish so you have a choice and a fall-back position in your negotiation. Be Smart, do both traditional publishing and indie publishing. And know the rules of both, know what you will or will not settle for and have your attorney in the negotiation hold your line.

And if the publisher won’t budge, find a publisher who will or indie publish the book.

Be smart, have both options at your fingertips.

Advice #3:

Never forget that the stories always come first. Keep focusing on writing better and better stories. If you aren’t spending more time learning how to tell a better story than marketing or mailing, then none of this will matter.

Storytelling is everything and you will be stunned to know what a traditional publisher will give in negotiations for a great story.

For the smart writer, for the great storyteller, this is a wonderful new world.

Be smart.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime