Archives for category: Self publishing

Whatever the merits of Cory Doctorow’s piece on publishing, extracted at The Passive Voice, the Passive Voice‘s commentary is way beyond nonsensical. He informs us that “Traditional publishing simply has not been able to make the transition to an internet-dominated book sales channel” — which means what? Odd coming from a quarter which constantly carps at publishing for being in thrall to Amazon. Still, where animus reigns, look not for logic.

He continues, on a different tack: “Traditional publishers are simply not able to hire and retain very smart people. Does anybody at the top of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher? Does anybody at the bottom of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher?” Nobody of course could possibly object to the opinion that the only smart people in the world are Wharton MBAs! I cannot swear to the Wharton bit, but I’ve certainly worked alongside plenty of MBAs in the past. The thing about MBAs and publishing is that publishing isn’t your normal money business: sure publishers make money, but money’s not the main point of the whole operation, so what MBAs are primarily fascinated by is not provided by publishing in a big way. On the other hand of course some might suggest that MBAs are just smartish people who lack the imaginative spark to do anything other than hide behind spreadsheets and mind-numbing numerical detail in order to look like they are contributing. Not me, of course!

Often have I claimed that publishers all too casually hire inexperienced smartypants and let them loose on the real stuff right away. If they’re truly smart they’ll work out what’s the right thing to do (ask if in doubt is the basic rule); if not, they can always be replaced. In some respects publishing employees are just too smart: everyone has an opinion about everything, and the opinions are usually quite good, so there’s a temptation to keep the debate going for ever and never get to a decision. I remember tumult over whether the type on a book’s spine should read from the top to the bottom or vice verse: this went on for weeks and had finally to be resolved in an afternoon-long meeting.

You might sidestep this Passive Voice prejudice by going straight to Mr Doctorow’s original piece at Medium

Why do people insist on writing this sort of stuff? The book world described by Mr Doctorow is a largely fictitious world. “Every part of the publishing supply chain has undergone radical concentration over the past 40 years, starting with consolidation of mass-market distribution in the 1980s.” But there are more publishers out there today than ever before. He goes on to tell us Penguin Random House, after the proposed merger with S & S might be referred to as “Viking-Putnam-Berkeley-Avery-Ace-Avon-Grosset & Dunlop-Playboy Press-New American Library-Dutton-Jove-Dial-Warne-Ladybird-Pelican-Hamish Hamilton-Tarcher-Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Knopf-Harold Shaw-Multnomah-Pocket-Esquire-Allyn & Bacon-Quercus-Fearon-Janus-Penguin-Random House-Simon & Schuster”. This I suppose he counts as one. Yes, they have the same ownership but who worries about the integrity of football or baseball because the ownership of Liverpool Football Club and the Boston Red Sox is the same? These imprints all compete with one another for content: they share services of course, but anyone looking at Multnomah’s list will easily be able to distinguish it from Dial’s. Besides, nobody not in the business gives a hoot about who the publisher of the book is, or what corporate structure they are part of. Doctorow’s analogy with the health-care industry is interesting but irrelevant. Does anyone imagine that Random House is buying Simon & Schuster in order to raise the price of books? Until there are only a dozen or so books available nobody will ever be able to monopolistically raise book prices. The product of the publishing industry is millions of discrete items. It’s not like insulin which you need to keep on taking. Once you’ve bought a book that’s it: you’re not in the market for another copy.

“The decline in the author’s share of the pie is directly attributable to a decline in competition among publishers” is rubbish. On a book-by-book basis the authors’ and the publishers’ share of the pie has remained pretty constant. Nobody’s paying 2% royalties. On a macro, industry-wide basis, the authors’ share has declined because most books are not selling as many copies as most books (from a much smaller universe of books) used to. Many, many more slices are being cut from a slightly larger pie.

“If you don’t get a job at Macmillan, Harpercollins, Hachette or Random Penguin, then you have been rejected by every major publisher” sounds terrible, but I managed about 45 years without ever working for any of them. Maybe they would have rejected me: I never asked. (I did for a short while work for a company which was owned by Simon & Schuster/CBS, strangely omitted from the list, but rejection was never what I felt.) Having told us “There were a lot of startups . . . but apart from some religious publishers, the only one that attained liftoff was Amazon” he goes on to admit “Today’s publishing landscape boasts a very exciting mid-tier of publishers” which although he says they are doing great things somehow fail to make any difference when it comes to criticizing the industry for its boring monopoly status.

Simplification is often a virtue, but Mr Doctorow is way beyond simplification when he tells us “there’s still just one brick-and-mortar chain, one dominant electronic bookstore, four major publishers, and one major distributor. The mass market is dominated by four or five big box retailers”. The book trade is much more varied than that: what about scientific, technical and medical publishing; university presses; journal publishers; academic societies; lots and lots of start-ups; independent bookstores; Bookshop.com.

Though he publishes successfully with a variety of publishers, Mr Doctorow’s lengthy piece all adds up to an appeal on behalf of self publishing. There are lots of reason’s for someone to opt for self publishing, and many writers are very successful at it: but disdain for a caricature publishing industry which, as described, has never existed isn’t the most solid basis on which to proceed.

Mike Shatzkin believes a massive disruption is on hand for the publishing industry. This new development he calls enterprise self-publishing, which involves any kind of organization or business doing its own publishing. “Every law firm, accounting firm, consulting firm, retailer, political campaign, cause organization, charity, and church, synagogue, or mosque is only a bit of imagination and effort away from books that can promote any variety of missions.”

OK, and of course true. But to me this is just another occasion for cocking that skeptical eyebrow. I do have to point out that enterprises called universities have been publishing books for over half a millennium, as also have many learned societies. Nuf sed, in a way.

As always, just because something can happen doesn’t mean that it will happen. Mr Shatzkin, like all of us, sees the book world as central to his world map. News flash: it isn’t like that for everyone. Sure any law firm, with “a bit of imagination and effort” could easily publish a book, and in the past several have. The reason they don’t habitually do book publishing is, surprise, surprise, that they are lawyers — and can make considerably more money doing lawyerly things than they ever could publishing books. It may be fun to Mr Shatzkin to do “publishing” — it certainly is to me — but for many folks it’s just a boring grind. This is fortunate of course or none of us would have been able to get a job in publishing.

Mr Shatzkin continues his argument in his next post. He maintains that all these businesses will “be discovering gradually then suddenly that the distance between publishing a blog and publishing a book is — literally — vanishingly small.” For myself I have failed over the past ten years to discover this vanishing gap. My blog is still a blog. Sure I could edit a selection and set it up as a book — but that, unfortunately isn’t publishing: it’s just getting to the starting gate. Selling the books is the key activity in publishing. Without that all you’re doing is filling warehouses with paper.

Of course Mr Shatzkin is on to something. It is easier than ever to set up as a publisher: the capital requirements are much reduced. The burgeoning world of indie and self-publishing is evidence of this. Might Mr Shatzkin’s enthusiasm may be running away with him as a result of his involvement in a publishing services company?

No doubt lots of companies will realize that they have the capabilities to issue books — but surely these will be rather specialist volumes, not the sorts of things the general public thinks of as books: i.e. trade books. Does anyone really expect Stephen King to go to the likes of H. & R. Block to get his next novel published? After all, if he was fed up with Scribner’s, he could easily do it himself, or snap his fingers and find another publisher. It’s quite possible that H. & R. Block might put together a guide to preparing your taxes which they could use as a customer premium — as in the past many companies have. They could even offer it for sale through Amazon; their business is after all heavily seasonal so such branching out might make some sort of sense. But I really don’t think any publishing house need worry about “enterprises” taking over their business.

Mental Floss, via Shelf Awareness for Readers, informs us that the ten richest authors of all time are:

  1. Elisabeth Badinter // $1.3 Billion
  2. J.K. Rowling // $1 Billion
  3. James Patterson // $560 Million
  4. Stephen King // $400 Million
  5. Nora Roberts // $390 Million
  6. Danielle Steel // $310 Million
  7. Barbara Taylor Bradford // $300 Million
  8. Nigel Blackwell // $292.5 Million
  9. John Grisham // $220 Million
  10. Jeffrey Archer // $195 Million

Lit Hub has lists of the top ten for the years between 2008 and 2018, plus a list of the top 25 for that decade. How do you disentangle earnings from writing and general wealth: Mackenzie Bezos (now Mackenzie Scott) is reported as having a net worth of $36 billion, but we have no idea how little of this may have come from her writings. Slice has a list of such rich writing folk. I wonder how these figures compare with historical authors. Victor Hugo and George Eliot have previously featured in this blog as recipients of big deals. Dickens presumably did OK. Of course updating exchange rates and the effects of inflation makes it hard to work out who might be the top-earning author of all times.

According to Indeed, the average annual earnings of a novelist are $49,046. It is a job site, but the opinion “This figure can vary from $15,080 to $127,816 per year, depending on experience” nevertheless seems a bit wild — what does experience have to do with it? Where do these numbers come from? There are surely tons of living novelists who are making zero dollars from their out-of-print books, and as we can see from the list above, $127,816 isn’t going to impress anyone!

Jane Friedman writes about How much do authors earn?. She includes links to three pieces giving details. Nate Hoffelder, the source of the link, provides one more, to a Lincoln Michel piece at Counter Craft. Ms Friedman cautions “We all know people don’t go into the writing profession for the big bucks unless they’re delusional.” She is realistic about the question. “Can I earn a living from publishers’ advances and royalty checks, while I focus solely on writing more books? And the answer to that is: for the majority of traditionally published authors, most of the time, no. You should not expect this today. Yes, it happens. But without some other support or income (a spouse, a day job), it’s tough.” If you write more it becomes, with luck, less tough. Surprise to none: if you work harder you earn more (assuming a basic level of ability).

She does emphasize that we are in a time when there are new means of making money opening up for all artists. The Creator Economy is the name for this world — you just have to get out there and hustle. (Or of course settle for making less than Ms Badinter — a perfectly rational attitude be it said.

Chart via Axios

Much of the relevance of these sorts of funding sources applies to self-published authors, but authors with traditional publishing contracts can get busy too. It’s not for me obviously — doesn’t this all seem a bit like business, not so much like writing?

One of the catch phrases calculated to get my goat is “This is not who we are”. This rallying cry gets trotted out anytime anyone does anything bad these days.

Howard Fast lived up to his name, publishing 14 books during the 1940s, while squeezing in service in World War II. In 1943, he joined the Communist Party USA and in 1950, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to disclose the names of contributors to a fund for a home for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War and was given a three-month prison sentence for contempt of congress.

Blacklisting followed naturally. Nobody would touch Spartacus, his next book, which he had begun writing in Mill Point Federal Prison. Publishers, recently referred to as having “their roots as plucky free-speech warriors,” ran for cover — as of course you know they would. This is who we really are. I’m sure, if it were up to me, I’d be refusing to publish books the publishing of which might land me or my staff in jail. And admit it, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, you would too.

Fast’s 1948 The Glorious Brothers and 1950 The Proud and the Free had been published by Little, Brown, and the six books before that by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, who seem to have been close to Little, Brown, though they were New York publishers.* I’ve no idea how many companies this well-established, successful author† pitched his book to, but he ended up publishing it himself. Here’s a note in the back of the book:

The title page and imprints page are shown below. Note the (inevitable, though none the less welcome for that)) union bug on the imprints page.

The book went through seven printings in the first four months of publication. After this Fast established Blue Heron Press to publish his works. The blacklist began greying out by the end of the decade: Crown took on Spartacus in 1958, and a movie was released in 1960. Not too many of us emerge from this witch-hunting frenzy with much credit, and it behooves us to be wary of relapse into similar prejudice. Current “Stop the Steal” ructions should give us pause, especially as one of our major political parties seems intent on disappearing down that rabbit hole.

The real beauty of “This is not who we are” is that it absolves us from any consideration of whether we might need to think about our conduct, and, honor, horor, actually change it.

__________________

*Wikipedia tells us: “In 1951 Duell, Sloan and Pearce entered into an agreement with Little, Brown and Company for Little, Brown to handle the manufacturing, warehousing, promotion and selling of all Duell, Sloan and Pearce titles. The two firms remained independent, but the books carried both imprints. In 1956, Duell, Sloan and Pearce terminated the arrangement with Little, Brown, and joined the McKay Group, a cooperative selling and manufacturing association in New York. In March 1961 Duell, Sloan and Pearce became an affiliate of Meredith Publishing Company. In 1967 Meredith announced that all affiliated imprints, including Duell, Sloan and Pearce, would no longer be used. The rights to Duell, Sloan and Pearce books were sold by Meredith to the independent publisher Hawthorn Books in 1969. After Hawthorn closed in 1977, the rights to its titles were acquired by E. P. Dutton.” This is quite a nice story to illustrate the toing and froing, inning and outing of book publishing companies.

† Although his books sold well Howard Fast never made it to the top-ten bestseller list. For this he had to look on while his younger brother Julius pulled off the trick in 1971 with the wildly successful Body Language. Howard Fast also wrote under the pseudonyms E. V. Cunningham and Walter Ericson.

The Passive Voice links to Reedsy Blog to tell us that most authors spend between $2,000 and $4,000 to self publish a book.

Do bear in mind that Reedsy is of course in the business of supplying the very services they describe as being needed. They do admit that “if you just want to get your book out there, you can always format it for free and use Amazon’s self-publishing platform to make it available within 72 hours!”

Should we be amazed that there’s a huge range of care and attention in the universe of self-publishing? In the early days, when we were all worrying that ebooks and self publishing might take over the entire world of publishing in general, I did think it probable that we would see a steady reduction in the amount of editorial and design attention given to our books in traditional publishing, as we desperately sought to compete. We are of course still in the early days of the history of digital and self publishing, so there’s plenty of time for change to get going, but up until now this doesn’t appear to be happening.

Of course we‘d never do it! but there are lots of traditional publishers who have issued books without any copyediting or proofreading at all — there are some specialist volumes which can never be polished sufficiently to justify any cost at all. If the text between those chemical bonds and complex equations isn’t ideally smoothly flowing, who cares? The mathematics is the important bit. Then of course there are self publishers who lavish care and attention above and beyond what any traditional publisher would do: Harald Johnson just said in a Comment that he routinely uses Caslon for his print books, but always swaps out the Italic question mark for the Garamond one because he regards the Caslon version as so ugly. You’ll look long and hard to find a traditional publisher with such a house style requirement. And of course most self publishers are never going to think of such things. Compare and contrast the blasé disregard I displayed in getting up the one book I self-published.

The numbers Reedsy quotes are more or less the same numbers as traditional publishers are looking at — after all, if they weren’t, we’d all be queueing up to use the same freelancers as Reedsy does! But remember that these numbers are merely the ones that’ll get you to the starting gate. The hard part of publishing is what follows — getting rid of the books!

David Gaughran (link via The Passive Voice) provides a hugely detailed description of how Amazon’s recommendation and “People who bought this also bought that” systems work in their online store. “Other retailers do have rudimentary recommendation engines, but Amazon is quite literally years ahead of the competition.” They also use the technique in stocking and displaying the books their quasi-showcase bricks-and-mortar shops.

Mr Gaughran has written a book entitled Amazon Decoded from which much of this is no doubt derived. His focus is on self-publishing and how the self publisher can best adapt to Amazon’s algorithms. Surprise, surprise metadata is important.

How much of an effect does this sort of remorselessly placing books and more books in front of your customers actually have? If Amazon does it, I think we can assume it has an effect.

I recently wondered if these automated recommendation systems might actually be the reason for last year’s uptick in backlist as against new book sales. Any book you choose must be able to provoke the thought, if you liked A you might like B, and the algorithm putting this into action is bound to work with books which have sales large enough to register as good candidates — this means books already published and sold; i.e. backlist. Someone browsing in a store is, on the other hand, more likely to find the new book they are looking at surrounded by other new books. In so far as it’s in the shop, the backlist will be spine-out on a nearby shelf.

See also If you liked the previous post you’ll love this one.

May not be your cup of tea (nor mine) but fan fiction is wildly popular. So popular that Vice’s Motherboard tells us that users crashed one of the main sites, Archive of our own recently. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Apparently fan-fic has been becoming more and more popular all through 2020. Will this end up being one of these lockdown trends which turn into a permanent feature of our lives? Like maybe remote working, Zoom meetings, grocery deliveries and mask-wearing?

What Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes is all pretty sensible, but at an early corner in this outing she almost drives over the edge and reveals her built-in anti-traditional-publishing bias.

To be fair it is difficult to say much about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing sales. Not all “traditional” publishers report sales to the traditional information-gathering sources, and all anyone has to go on with self-publishing sales tends to be anecdote. Amazon, the biggest retailer remains mum. We all assume (on the basis of anecdote) that the large majority of sales of self-published books is in ebook format. This has always been the case, and it makes sense — it’s obviously easier for self publishers to supply their product in digital form only thus avoiding having to mail out physical objects from a large inventory stored in their spare bedroom. Their customers seem fine with this, and we all think it great that this kind of service exists. We all, I think, assume that total unit sales by self publishers are larger than traditional publishing sales. However beyond the possibility of trolling for new authors, I believe that the traditional book publishing industry pretty much ignores self publishing. It’s really a totally different business. It is interesting, as Ms Rausch points out, that Bertelsmann is including some guesstimate about self-publishing sales in order to make their Simon & Schuster takeover look less of a monopolistic threat.

Ms Rusch’s assertion that the traditional publishing industry “did everything it could to destroy the ebook format” is patent nonsense. A person might think that publishers’ actions are wrong, even stupid, but they would just be “wrong, even stupid” if they concluded from that that there is some sort of conspiracy to stamp out ebooks or even to stunt their growth. Book publishing may not be a business to attract the top financial talents, but we do tend to know that selling another copy of one of our books in any format whatsoever is a “good thing”. If people want an ebook we are delighted to sell them an ebook (on terms which we determine, of course). If people want a hardback; ditto; paperback; again ditto. Ebooks are not the wondrous panacea to the traditional publisher that they represent for self publishers. For us they represent just another format.

In my recent post about ebook downloads from libraries I warned about over-interpretation of the data; a trap Ms Rausch fails to avoid. It does seem likely that our coronavirus experiences will bring about some significant changes in our business environment. Remote working looks like a likely candidate, and there’s a danger that the independent bookstore might also fall victim. The way a trade book is published has changed: less of a day one bump, more of a sustained roll out. If bookstores become less common this trend might become permanent. But any big change from print to ebook format seems unlikely to me. It is true I used to have a colleague who only wanted to own paperback books, regarding hardbacks as cumbersome. (He also expressed a preference for cylindrical food.) I offered myself up as a Jack Sprat partner: happy to have all the hardbacks. Although he was a publisher in an executive position nobody however thought of this preference as a policy to “destroy the hardback format”. I can’t imagine that in twenty years we won’t still have hardbacks, and paperbacks, and ebooks, and audiobooks, and no doubt some format we haven’t dreamed up yet.

Jane Freedman provides this infographic setting out the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one route to book publication over another.  Her advice is straightforward and reasonable. She’s even prepared to be a bit spikey: “Authors may not have the experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book”: doubtless driven by years of experience helping authors who think they know best.

Click to enlarge, or if you still can’t read it go to her website to download a PDF version.

The Passive Voice has a piece on the subject of paid reviews. It is extremely frustrating for self publishers to find themselves unable to get their books reviewed in the mainstream media (it’s frustrating for regular publishers too). As a result many self publishers consider paying for reviews. Is this a good investment?

Well it does cost quite a lot. I’ve heard up to $575. The Passive Voice quotes $399 for Publishers Weekly and $425 for Kirkus. There are quite a lot of places where you can buy a review. Publishers Weekly published an article about the pricing at various services a couple of years ago. However the Passive Voice post focusses mainly on the quality/qualifications of the reviewers you’ll get if you pay for a review. This is all well and good, but there’s larger issue: the issue of what might be the value of having a review published at all.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus may well be the leaders in the business of paid review publication, but our writer fails to make the distinction required in analyzing this business. Publishing reviews is a service: a service to a publication’s readers and to the authors and publishers of the books reviewed. But publishing paid reviews is a business. If Publishers Weekly can get $400 from a self-published author to arrange for and publish a review of that author’s book, who are we to say they are wrong to do so? But a paid review, even one by a qualified reviewer who’s actually read your book, carries a different message from a review in The New York Times Book Review, say. We are all conditioned to cynicism by log-rolling on Amazon.

The Passive Guy (PG), as the writer of The Passive Voice likes to refer to himself, wonders what discount traditional publishers get from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus for their pre-publication reviews of their books. The answer is 100%. No regular publisher pays any journal any sum for the publication of a review. There are two sections of reviews in PW: Book Life Reviews where authors purchase the reviews, and their regular review section where reviewing is carried out in the normal (unpaid) way. Reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus tend to have scant detectable effect on the sales of books.

In fact the sales boost from any book review (and advertisement) is something which the public is inclined to exaggerate in the most extravagant way. Only the most enthusiastic review by the most prominent reviewer in the most important publication will generate detectable sales activity. (A radio review on National Public Radio can move the dial too.) Books sell for a whole variety of reasons — and we’re not really certain what they are — recommendation by a friend; luck or serendipity; a topic you need/want to know more about; an author whose other books you’ve enjoyed; eye-catching appearance catches your eye; it’s there and you just want to buy something and get out of the store. Reviews are probably less important than any of these reasons. In the academic world reviews can be more significant — obviously if Professor X thinks it’s good, maybe you should look at it. Maybe we could propose a theorem: “The more non-fiction-ish a book is the more pronounced will be the effect of a good review”. Popular non-fiction books like Barack Obama’s forthcoming A Promised Land don’t need reviews to move them out of the warehouse. A good review of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline in a prestigious journal might double the sale (which of course will be comparatively tiny anyway). Any publisher would regard spending $400 to have review published in PW or Kirkus as nothing but a quick way to throw away $400. Maybe some librarians may glance at these reviews, but mostly they are getting their information elsewhere, like for instance Library Journal (in its unpaid review section).

Now of course, what I’ve just said must be open to exception. It would be interesting to hear from authors who have seen a sales pick-up from reviews they’ve paid for. I have to believe that there may well be one or two. PG notes “some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above [in his piece] say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs [by which I believe he means reviews] still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.” But this isn’t real evidence of value. Just because some authors keep on doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. Frankly I don’t really see how you could ever measure the effect of a paid review. You can’t do an AB test: it’s impossible to publish the book twice, once with a PW review and once without one. Maybe the sales you made would have been made anyway even if you’d kept the $400 in your pocket: correlation is not causation.

There is of course some mathematics available to help a self publisher in deciding whether or not to pay for reviews. You know how much you make on every sale of your book: let’s say it’s $5. If you think you will sell 81 extra copies by paying $400 for a review then go ahead. How you’ll ever know whether these 81 extra sales did indeed result from the review seems utterly opaque to me, but there are clearly quite a lot of authors who think the investment is worthwhile. I say caveat emptor: as The Passive Voice warns, you’ve no idea ahead of time whether the reviewer’s going to be any good, or indeed the review.

See also Sock puppetry and Reviews sell books don’t they?