Publishing As We Knew It Is Called…what?

In the midst of the big e-revolution in publishing, nobody has quite figured out how to characterize publishing as we knew it, way back in the day (2010). Terms like "traditional publishers," "dead tree publishers," "NY publishers," and now "legacy publishers" have been thrown around, but none of them has stuck (though "legacy publishers" seems to gaining traction lately). How do you think we should refer in our discussions of the business to what we used to think of, in a general sense, as "publishers" and "publishing"? 

More Eisler vs. Hocking

There's a very interesting conversation between authors Barry Eisler and Amanda Hocking on literary agent Ted Weinstein's blog today.  Hocking kicked off the interview by sharing some eye-opening numbers:

I have self-published eight full-length novels and one novella since March or April of 2010. I thought it was April 15th, but Amazon emailed me on my "anniversary" and said it was March 15th. I've sold somewhere over a million copies in that time (it was 1,030,768 when I last added up totals last Tuesday). I don't know the exact amount of money I've earned, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 – $2 million. 

[…]I also have paperbacks made through CreateSpace, and those are available on Amazon and my blog. My paper sales are minor when compared to my total. I think it's around 10,000 copies sold in paperback, compared to over a million in ebooks. The royalties I'm getting on my paperback sales are much smaller than my ebook royalties, too. 

As for the St. Martin's deal, I haven't actually signed anything, and I don't know the exact terms of it. What I do know is that the offer was over $2 million for four books world English rights, and the royalty rate is on line with the industry average. 

She went on to say that she formatted books and did the covers herself but hired freelance editors to proof them. She also did all of her own social networking PR. Only recently has she brought on an artist, an assistant and an accountant. She has agents handling the sales of foreign and subrights.

My friend Barry wasn't quite as forthcoming as Hocking about his sales figures and earnings (he's an ex-CIA agent, after all)…

Let's see, eight books total, six with Putnam, the most recent two with Ballantine. Off the top of my head, I don't know how many units sold total (hardback, paperback, digital). How much I've earned… also a little hard to say. Some of the contracts have earned out, some not, and there are foreign sales in at least 20 different languages. But the advances have been six and seven figures and I've been making a good living writing for the last decade or so.

Unlike Hocking, he's been at this a lot longer. And he's had the benefit of publishers handling most of the tasks that she took on herself. He says:

I have a circle of family and friends who are all talented editors, for example, and I would never release a book before hearing from each of them. On cover design, I've been consulted, with different results with different publishers. On publicity and marketing, same. I guess the short way of explaining my experience on working with legacy publishers on various packaging, marketing, and publicity matters would be to say, these are areas I've long wanted to be fully in charge of. I've always carried a lot of the weight when it comes to marketing and promotion, and have been disappointed more than once by my publishers' packaging decisions, so the way I see it, going indie won't represent much work that I haven't been doing myself anyway, plus I'll get to make my own decisions. Plus for me, I think indie will be more lucrative.

A big reason behind Barry's decision to leave "legacy" publishing for self-publishing was the money. It just made more financial sense to go out on his own now.

In a typical legacy deal, the author gets 14.9% of the retail price of a digital book. So when my of my publishers sells one of my digital titles at $9.99, I get $1.49 of that. When the same title is self-published at $2.99, I keep 70% of the retail price, or about $2.10. And if fact, I plan on pricing my first self-published novel, The Detachment, at $4.99, which would mean a $3.50 per unit royalty for me. So I don't have to sell as many self-published books as I did legacy; in fact, I can sell far fewer and still come out ahead.

A big reason behind Hocking's move in the other direction was distribution and name recognition. She wants to reach a larger audience, and become a household name, something she thinks a publisher is better positioned to do for her than she can for herself. She wrote on her blog:

I am fully aware that I stand a chance of losing money on this deal compared to what I could make self-publishing.

I honestly didn't do this for money. But let's not forget that as much money as I've made, James Patterson made $70 million between June 2010 and July 2010. Legacy houses (is that what we're calling them now?) have made a lot of authors very rich.

So what do I actually want out of this deal? What do I hope to gain?

Career stability. As an author, I'll never really have one. Each book I come out with could bomb and could be the one that turns readers off me forever. Any day, my books could just stop selling. And I know that going with a house isn't going to change that. Any author can stop making money any day.

James Patterson has a book out now that has incredibly low reviews, some of the lowest I've seen for any book, and that book is still selling like crazy, and I can find it Target and Walmart. Even the sequel to the book, which the reviews say is even twice as awful as the original, is selling like crazy. Why? Because James Patterson wrote it. (Or more accurately, because his name is on the cover).

I want that. Not the writing bad books thing. I'll always strive to write a product that people enjoy. But I want to be a household name. I want to be the impulse buy that people make when they're waiting in an airport because they know my name.

That, I think, is as close to career stability as I can get. And that's why I took the deal.

Clearly, these are two different authors at two very different places in their careers who, from where I am sitting, have made the right moves for their unique situations.

Barry has been at this awhile and has been doing well. From what I can tell, Barry isn't after Patterson-esque ubiquity, he just wants to make more money from his work than he's being offer from publishers right now. And I am willing to bet that he will, even if he sells far fewer copies than he would have before. 

Hocking is just starting out at a time when publishing is undergoing seismic changes. Beyond being very talented, Hocking is obviously one very sharp young woman. She knows what she wants and what it will cost her to get it. And she's okay with that. But some chide her for it, like Macy Halford at the New Yorker. She says: 

Even though Hocking seems to care about quality, her desire for Patterson-style ubiquity is troubling. She seems to think of herself as a corporation in a way that few writers do, speaking of herself as a commodity with complete ease—she understands that her blogging and tweeting selves are marketing tools, but she doesn’t seem either to mind or to view them as entirely separate from her writing self. 

Which is part of the secret to her success.  What writer out there wouldn't want Patterson's ubiquity? Or for that matter, Stephen King's or Michael Connelly's or Nora Robert's? Kudos to Hocking for acknowledging it and for leveraging her success in self-publishing so shrewdly that she might actually achieve her goal.

There's a lot to learn from Eisler and Hocking. The big lesson? There isn't just one approach to publishing any more. You now can, and must, find your own path that fits your talent, your skills, your experience, your goals and your potential. 

REMAINDERED to The Beaches

Mb_film_festival REMAINDERED has been accepted by another festival (our fifth, since the film was completed in October, for those of you who are counting). We've been selected by the 6th Annual Myrtle Beach International Film Festival, named one of the 25 best festivals MovieMaker Magazine in 2009 for independent film makers. It runs April 19-23 in Myrtle Beach.  We'll post more details as soon as we have them.

This news comes on the heels of us learning that REMAINDERED has also been selected by the Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii, May 11-15  at the Mauna Lani Resort. The Festival was picked by Moviemaker Magazine as one of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the nation and we're eager to find out for ourselves if they deserve it. 

Cover Story

Top Suspense Cover One thing that hasn't changed with the e-revolution in publishing is the importance of a good book cover. One of the best cover artists out there is Jeroen Ten Berge, who I had the pleasure of working with on the TOP SUSPENSE anthology and the upcoming, April relaunch of my JURY SERIES books.  He's also done kick-ass covers for Joe Konrath, Blake Crouch, Brett Battles and J.D. Rhoades.

The Man Eating Bookworm is finally giving Jeroen the attention he deserves with a great interview…which I'm very ambivalent about sharing with you, only becuase it's going to make Jeroen even more in-demand than he already is…meaning he'll have less time to work on my stuff!

Here's an excerpt:


MEB: "Never judge a book by it's cover." What do you think?

Jeroen: Baloney.

A picture tells a thousand words. A great cover should do exactly that – convey the essence and feel of the book in a confident and striking fashion, with a design that stands out, one that hooks you in mere seconds. Once that is achieved the product description hopefully complements the cover, pulls in the buyer even further and a sale is made.

Today, with e-books and Amazon, an effective cover is even more important than before. Unlike traditional bookshops, unknown writers and renowned bestselling authors now share the same shelf, next to each other, with equal opportunity to present their work. That has never happened before and it is a major game changer. But if you're an unknown, and your cover looks crap, a potential buyer will most likely not read the product description, move on, and click and buy someone else's book.


What About The Content

In all this discussion about the explosion of ebooks, very little is being said about the quality of the work resulting from this newfound freedom, and that disturbs author James W. Hall, who wrote in a comment here:

You know one thing that keeps being left out of this discussion, Lee, is the writing itself. The traditional publishers (I find the term 'legacy publishers' patronizing and silly) served and continue to serve an important function as gate-keepers. They weren't always right, of course. But by and large good books got published and the "tsunami of sludge" that we're seeing now was kept offshore. Book reviewers had their role in all this, steering readers to 'literary' novels and maintaining or trying to maintain some conventional standards. Again, reviewers often got it wrong, and their bias toward a high culture novel often missed the books that people were actually reading and loving. Books like Peyton Place, say, which was an incredible success despite terrible reviews. That list is endless.

Anyway, with the huge sea change underway, neither reviewers nor publishers have the power they once had and many will say we're better off for that. I'm not one of those. I lament the loss of quality writing in this deluge of self-publishing. Being a hustler is now more important than writing well, creating rich, dimensional people, plots that are both full of surprise but are also coherent.

Writers interviews and blog posts are becoming all about cover art and social networking and the masterful manipulation of Internet outlets. I'm trying to learn my way in this new world even as I keep one foot solidly in the establishment publishing world. I read more than half the books I read on my iPad and my Kindle and realize these new delivery systems are inevitable and very positive in many ways. However, in our rush to embrace what's good about the new, there is far too much dismissiveness and self-congratulation by the emerging New Media stars.

In all this discussion about Hocking and Eisler and Konrath, everything seems to be about the marketing and profitability issues. I've yet to see any real discussion of the aesthetic issues, of storytelling, of graceful style, of all those features that writers and readers used to hold dear. Getting a 70% profit on every book sold is fine. More power to all of us. Karen's comment above is right. These are interesting days. I simply hope that what was good in the best books of the past will survive.

And that in our hurry to embrace and celebrate the new forms of delivery, we will not abandon our love for good writing and the well told story and solid, three-dimensional characters. And the discussion of literary values will someday again be about more than 2.99 versus 1.99.

I agree with his concerns about content and over-emphasis right now on money and marketing. The writing is getting lost in the discussion.

As exciting as this new world is for authors, it's creating a new set of obstacles for novelists hoping to stand out and for consumers trying to find the good stuff amidst the preponderance of unreadable, previously unpublishable, self-published crap that is flooding the e-marketplace.

In the near term, the writers who will benefit are those who already have a platform, mostly from having been published by the old guard before the e-revolution, because that's who readers will turn to first…names and franchises they can depend on…especially after they've been repeatedly burned by horrendous crap from writers they have never heard of. 

Even 99 cents is too much when what you are buying is nicely packaged, but unreadable swill.

That's not to say there aren't some great self-published, unknown authors out there…there are many (David Dalglish and David McAfee are just two that I'm happy to have stumbled across). But there's far more who aren't. Far, far more. One need only look at most of the stuff on Smashwords, the aggregator many writers use (including yours truly) to get their books on the iPad, Nook, etc. 

Go on, I dare you. It's not pretty.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke and Amanda Hocking, it could actually get harder, rather than easier, for new writers to break-through the ever-increasing clutter and sell books in this new, e-publishing world than it was in the "old" print-centric one…

I'm still wildly excited about the opportunities for writers now…but I'm not so caught up in my own enthusiasm not to see the pitfalls for writers and readers alike.

A Peek in Barry’s Brain

Barry Eisler, in a Book Beast interview with Jason Pinter, goes into more detail about the thinking behind his news-making decision to turn down a $500,000, two-book deal from Minotaur to self-publish his books instead. He says, in part:

My tendency has been to focus too much on that big, seductive number. But to understand what the number really represents, you have to break it down. Start by taking out your agent's commission: your $500,000 is now $425,000. Then divide that $425,000 over the anticipated life of the contract, which is three years (execution, first hardback publication, second hardback publication, second paperback publication). That's about $142,000 a year.  This is a more realistic way of looking at that $500,000.

But there's more. Some people have mistakenly argued that, for my move to make financial sense, I'll have to earn $142,000 a year for three years. But this is one time when you don't want to be comparing apples to apples. Because the question isn't whether I can make $425,000 in three years in self-publishing; the question is what happens regardless of when I hit that number. What happens whenever I hit that point is that I'll have "beaten" the contract, and then I'll go on beating it for the rest of my life. If I don't earn out the legacy contract, the only money I'll ever see from it is $142,000 per year for three years. Even if I do earn out, I'll only see 14.9% of each digital sale thereafter. But once I beat the contract in digital, even if it takes longer than three years, I go on earning 70% of each digital sale forever thereafter. And, as my friend Joe Konrath likes to point out, forever is a long time.

Ballantine managed to sell about 10,000 combined digital copies of my last two books at a $9.99 price point (a price point that was earning me $1.49 per unit sold, BTW) in the latest three-month period for which I have data. Call that 5000 of each book for three months, so 1,667 of each book per month. If I cut the Ballantine price in half and still can only move 1,667 units a month, at a $3.50 per unit royalty ($4.99 x 70% = $3.50), that's about $5,833 per month. But unlike paper books and digital sold at paper prices, low-priced digital books sell steadily, so it seemed to me that I could make about $70,000 per year, per book on my own. Assuming nothing changes and digital doesn't keep growing (and that would be crazy–Charles Cummings' critically acclaimed spy thriller The Trinity Six just sold three times as many digital copies as hardback in its first week), I should be able to make $140,000 a year for the two books I could have sold in a $425,000 legacy deal, instead. $70,000 for the first year, then $140,000 for each year thereafter, when I'll be selling two books instead of just one. So if I'm right about all this, and I'm pretty sure I am, I should be able to beat the contract about halfway through the fourth year. And again, all of that ignores the continued growth of digital, the way low-priced digital books reinforce sales of other such books, etc.

It's clear that Barry Eisler gave this decision a lot of very serious thought and his reasoning is strong. The article goes into much more detail, including his pricing plans for his books and his perspective on self-pub phenom Amanda Hocking taking a publishing deal. Fascinating stuff.

Eisler & Hocking

The news this week that Barry Eisler snubbed a $500,000 publishing deal to self-publish and that self-pub phenom Amanda Hocking is negotiating a $1 million+ deal with a publishing company has created a lot of discussion among authors, agents, editors and pundits. Even Hocking herself has weighed in with her reasoning:

I'm writer. I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation. As I said before in my post – Some Things That Need to be Said – I am spending so much time on things that are not writing.


I like writing. I even like marketing, especially when it comes to interacting with readers. And I don't mind editing. I just don't want to run my corporation, because that takes away from writing and everything else that I actually enjoy doing.

Booksquare offered some interesting analysis, crediting both authors for making shrewd moves based on their unique situations in the publishing universe. 

Eisler and Hocking are making the right choices, but, if you were to corner me in a bar and ask me which author is following the right path right now, I’d say Eisler.

He’s taking a riskier path, for sure, and there is no guarantee. His history suggests he has some talent when comes to calculated risks. And while he’s burned some publishing bridges, he also has a track record in the industry.

Hocking, however, is more of a publishing dark horse. She’s done the indie thing amazingly well. I cannot over-emphasize how critical this is, and how well she’s done it. But there is a gap between indie publishing (especially self-publishing, without a lot of professional editorial input) and corporate publishing.

The biggest challenge, and the reason I’m putting my money (virtual because the husband hates it when I bet cat food dollars) on Eisler is that the publisher who signs Amanda Hocking today will likely not have a book on the shelf before 2012, more likely 2013. Note my nouns.

The Hocking zeitgeist is right now. Her audience is right now. Her moment is right now. Can this buzz be sustained a year or more? Can her audience be engaged for that long? Yes, if she’s continually giving them the books they want…at the price point they want.

What's interesting to me is how many editors and pundits still don't see how fast things are changing, in many ways for the better, for writers in this new, digital landscape. The media that covers publishing…Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc… seem to be even slower to get this than the publishers are. Some of the coverage of Eisler and Hocking, and the ways the economics, sales, and distribution of self-publishing have changed in the last twelve months, has been totally inept.

New Media Meets Old Media

From Publisher’s Lunch:

On the same day Barry Eisler turned down half a million dollars from Minotaur Books to self-publish, news emerged publicly that Amanda Hocking appears to be doing the exact opposite. Yesterday afternoon the NYT finally caught wind of what many in the industry have known about for weeks now, which is that agent Steve Axelrod is shopping a new four-book series to publishers, attracting bids “of well over $1 million for world English rights,” according to two unnamed publishing executives who spoke with the paper, and that the auction may be complete by today. Sources in turn tell us that Penguin and St. Martin’s are no longer in the running, and that the series is entirely new an previously unpublished.