The Publishing World Turned Upside Down

A lot of the comments (and some of my posts) relating to the changes in publishing here have been a sort of astonished shock at how slow publishers are at “getting” it. I don’t know if it was here in comments that someone mentioned the tactics designed to “herd the consumer back into hard covers,” starting with delay in publishing ebook, moving on to some really badly formated ebooks, passing through the fact that they’re priced at hard cover price.  These moves actually only seem to hurt both hard cover and ebook sales.

The image in my mind is of Lord Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington, and the song, weaving through the air “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Yes I know, there’s a good chance that never happened. But these folklore moments persist because they capture something profound and revelatory. And at the time, if not now, it would be understood that to Cornwallis this was far more than a simple military defeat. It was the upending of what he had always known about the world and his place in it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Men are social creatures, but the specific kind of social creatures we are is hierarchical creatures.

Those people who posit – or have faith in! – an equalitarian human past, before civilization corrupted us have never read about the social organization of chimps or baboons; or they’ve been mainlining Jean Jacques Rosseau without knowing it; or they cling atavistically to the idea of Eden even though most of them are not religious.

Humans, like all apes were designed to live in a band where social organization had very fine grades. As such, we have finely tuned hierarchicy-sensing devices and certain set ways of responding to certain types of social organization.

What started the idea for this post going was the Passive Voice’s article entitled Your Agent Is Not Your Mommy. He’s talking about how many authors post about “my agent right or wrong.” (He’d probably be really shocked about how some authors talk about their publisher/editor.)

His reaction is this:

To PG, these kinds of reactions seem weird and a little icky, but mostly adolescent, maybe even babyish.

They’re sound like a shy sophomore who has a giant crush on the high school quarterback and slips anonymous love notes into his locker. Bobby can do no wrong because he’s just so cute and wonderful and she knows he likes her because he said hi one time in the hall between classes.

Or (rolling away from sexism), they’re like Napoleon Dynamite after someone agreed to go to the dance with him.

This is a business relationship, not a girls and boys club. The class of trust that speaks to PG in quotes like these is a mommy trust or a clingy best friend trust, a deeply codependent and needy trust. If the agent terminates representation, it will feel like a breakup instead of like switching to a new doctor.

Here I must make a full confession. I never felt this way about Lucienne, because she was my fourth agent. Until we’d worked together for about five years I didn’t believe it was even semi-permanent as an arrangement. And besides, until we worked together about two years I didn’t unbend even to the level that most people do in business relationships (you know, the occasional joke, etc.)

BUT when I sold my first book, and learned the editor has heart trouble, I remember feeling incredibly afraid she would die. Because – see – after thirteen years trying to break in, I had this foot in the door, and if it accidentally closed, I might never be published again.

Was I icky to my editor? I was never particularly demonstrative one way or another in public with any of them, but I know I spent many years in a state of cold fury at one of my editors without daring to be anything other than very cordial in person. (This, btw, is not good for the soul.)

I think I was icky to my agent before Lucienne, agent #3 – perhaps not in public, but in my head. Look, she never sold anything for me. Regardless of the fact I sent her little – she should have asked for proposals, when I was in a strange mood where I thought I should write a book out – what I sent her rarely made it out of her office and what did got rejected so fast it probably caught fire on re-entry. It doesn’t in any way justify the fact that I had a near breakdown when she dropped me. But again, I thought I would be locked out of publishing forever.

And it wasn’t only authors who were icky. The editor who gave me ulcers referred to agent #3 – a very junior, starting out agent – as “the incomparable X.”

I’d been listening to a Heinlein short story when walking before I read that Passive Voice post. And the story I’d been listening to (talking about slavery) said something like “when an economic system is like this, then slavery is inevitable.”

Perhaps that was why I cast about for political/economic equivalents to all the fawning you used to see towards agents and editors. And found them. The one that came immediately to mind was North Korea, where Dear Leader is always referred to as Dear Leader, even though his people are starving, and is acclaimed as a poet, a fashion icon, a dietician, a…. You get my point.

I’m not suggesting any editors or agents are the equivalent of Kim Jong Il, of course, (Oh, please, when is the last time your agent or editor could slam you in jail! I’m not that stupid.)

What I’m suggesting is that publishing as it existed had certain similarities to a totalitarian regime. We knew, or learned very quickly, that if you made the wrong move, you could be shut out of publishing forever no matter how talented. More importantly, we knew that how well we did in the marketplace had less to do with what we put between the covers of the book than how the book was packaged, marketed and pushed, all things over which the writer had no control whatsoever and all things over which their editor (and after the change in model to have the agent be the only way to access the editor, the agent – which makes me wonder for those who are older in the field than I am, if the way agents were treated changed) had power. It became a matter of “upset the agent and your book might never sell to an editorial house or might sell for a low advance and as ‘disposable’ which is, of course, how the editor will regard it too.” Or “upset the editor, and your book will print a thousand copies and be instantly remaindered.” Even worse “Don’t make yourself special to the agent/editor and your book will languish uncared for.”

So… is it any surprise that editors and agents alike got the “dear leader” and the “brilliant aesthetician” “masterful business person” treatment? Hell, most writers I know didn’t say anything else, even to themselves in the quiet of their own heads because they didn’t want to admit to any discrepancy.

This is called Preference Falsification and it explains why once a revolution tips over into “likely to succeed” things change so fast and people will seem to become turncoats wholesale. Because most of them had been lying in public and private and often in their own heads about what they would prefer.

I’d say the epublishing revolution has JUST entered that phase. Even a year ago, I sat on a panel next to a writer heartily defending his poor publisher, who couldn’t survive on $5 an ebook, because it cost far more than that to produce and who would be, against their will, forced to fire him if his hardcover sales didn’t pick up, even though he was selling a lot of ebooks. He was begging people not to buy ebooks. He was full of empathy and defenses of his publisher, and at the time, since I already knew a) how much it costs to produce an ebook b) that more than likely his publisher was making a lot of money off his e-sales, this nauseated me a little and like the Passive Guy I thought “is this Stockholm syndrome? Why?”

Well, because we’re hierarchical by nature and when the hierarchy is not based in meritocracy but on fawning and submission to the leader, regardless of what the leader does, this system results.

So why would the publishing hierarchy react rationally to what’s happening? For years they’ve been making huge errors and were still called brilliant and wonderful. For years, they cut themselves off from the feedback of the market but had authors (and at conventions “fans” who were wanna be authors) tell them how exquisitely correct they were in holding back or pushing the books they did. And now suddenly people are telling them they were wrong? They made mistakes? Suddenly, the levers of power and money they used don’t work? HOW can that be possible?

They’re frozen in error, behind the wheel which just came off in their hands, with the brake pedal and gas dead and the gear shift not responding. Of course they are reacting badly and making bad decisions. People in shock often do.

Meanwhile writers are jumping out the windows (and some from the trunk) to save themselves and not a few are finding more efficient conveyance.

Just like the sick fawning should have told us there was something wrong with the system, the bizarre, lurching decisions of the hierarchy of publishing should tell us they’re in shock and not reacting rationally.

“If ponies rode men and grass ate the cows” “If writers fired their editors and published themselves”

Just What Tune was in the Air when
The World Turned Upside Down?

64 responses to “The Publishing World Turned Upside Down

  1. So true, so true. It’s happening in magazine publishing, in book publishing, and in many parts of life.

  2. I mentioned that concept to the President of Warner Music Canada, Steve Kane, about a year ago on Facebook. He hated the idea. He hates me too EVIL GRIN.

    When Apple opened up the ITunes Store to anyone who wanted to upload music, it pretty well killed the major labels. They are still coasting along on existing contracts, but it is pretty hard for them to sign new acts. There are no record stores, most small acts only sell electronic copies of music, and they get 70% royalties from Apple.

    And the Big Four Record Labels wonder why everyone hates them.

    So the same thing is happening to the Big Six Book Publishers. Give it another five to ten years, and it will be happening to the Big Video Publishers.

    And the small people at the bottom of the food chain will be the ones to benefit.

    Wayne

  3. One wonders, given the human propensity to establish hierarchies, what the new pecking order will look like in the next few years, as more of us find ways to get content directly into the hands of our customers. Ten years ago, when I first sold an e-book to a small press, e-pubbed authors were not even considered published. Now one wonders who will inhabit that necessary lowest slot in the new order.

    Or, for that matter, the highest.

  4. One of the problems with the “you too can publish” situation is that, as a reader, you too can read slush. How does one sort out the simply literate (never mind “quality”) from the vast majority of stuff that crosses a typical first reader’s desk. (I worked as one for a while and let me tell you….)?

    With epublishing still in its relative infancy the problem is perhaps small now but it will grow as more people “discover” it. How do we prevent the Kindle store (for instance) looking like my first reader inbox? How does the average reader sort out what they want to read from the deluge of slush.

    It may be different for authors who already have published works in the double digits, who are “known” names with an established readership, but for a beginner who only has the words on the page/screen to differentiate him or her from the flood of others who have different arrangements of words on their pages/screens–some barely literate (if that), some entertaining reads, and a precious few that are “wow”?

    No answers here, just questions.

    • David,
      the same way you do now. Look, few people look at the vast mass of what’s published, but only what they’re in the mood for. And then they cull by blurb, first pages, etc. I keep giving this example, but I read austen fanfic for years. It could be considered “raw slush” but selecting the worth it stories was never hard. I went into more detail here: http://accordingtohoyt.com/2011/07/10/an-embarrassment-of-riches/

      • Longer reply over on maddgeniusclub: http://madgeniusclub.com/2011/08/06/the-publishing-world-turned-upside-down/#comment-14329

        Basically, I think you are underestimating the size of the problem. If a significant number of people who get “filtered” in the submission process now were to go self-published and that was the new norm then well, where now I have to go through say, 5-6 books to find the one I want to 5-6 hundred. Even if I only averaged half a page of reading to check each candidate I’d end up reading more just searching than the book itself once I found it.

        Maybe I’d do that. After all, I went to a PDA and ebooks (long before Kindle, Nook, et al) not because I was a technophile but because I got tired of running out of reading matter while traveling. But how many people won’t do that. They’re the ones to be concerned about.

        Robert Heinlein, I think it was, said that we as writers are competing for people’s beer money. Make it harder for people to find the books they want to read and they’ll buy the beer instead or pick up a video game or rent a couple of DVD’s.

        I could be mistaken but I really do think this is a legitimate concern.

      • This is actually a reply to David, but there’s a problem with WordPress, and I can’t reply to his post directly :) I’ll explain the problem in another reply.

        David, you need to read the post Should Self-Publishers Care about Turds in the Pool? and all of the answers to it. I’m pointing you at that because I covered all of your concerns there. I don’t want to have to repeat everything again, and I’ve laid everything all out in good detail there.

        In short though you don’t need to worry about the garbage. It is a self correcting problem.

        Wayne

      • Wayne,
        Over in your blog you said, “I care about getting my book into the hands of readers who will enjoy them.”

        My point is that when your wonderful, marvelous (from some reader’s perspective) book is surrounded by hundreds to thousands of pieces of utter dreck that all purport to be every bit as wonderful and marvelous as yours (at least to the extent of being the kind of thing the readers who think you book is wonderful and marvelous are looking for) then it becomes harder for them to _find_ your book, let alone get it into their hands.

        I do note, however, that every answer but one in the “no” camp was basically an expression of faith that the readers would somehow find the “good” books out of all the dreck. The one exception was the “ever hear of samples.” The problem with that one, from my perspective as a reader, is that I don’t know _which_ samples will be for the “good” books so I have to look at all of them. And if I’m spending more time reading samples in looking than I spend reading the results of that search I’m going to search for a better way to find my books, one that gives a better return on the investment of time.

        I am not an “established” writer (8 short pieces over 20 years does not an established writer make). I am not a publishing insider. I am, however, an inveterate reader and what I’m talking about here are the problems I foresee as a reader in finding what I want to read in an era when easy self publishing makes it as easy to simply publish oneself as it was to send something over the transom in an earlier day.

  5. David,

    I come at this from a slightly different viewpoint as a newspaper man. But we’re seeing parallels in our industry as well. My newspaper recently cut publication from twice a week to once a week and merged with another small weekly as well. We’ve now gone to daily publishing on the Web. Which is obviously much cheaper than presses, ink, newsprint, etc.

    I think there’s always going to be a place for publishers. To turn out quality products you need an editor. You need proof readers. The thing is, most of the dead-tree publishers aren’t seeing where things are headed.

    As a parallel. In my small town the former publisher of the paper was mightily insensed when he was fired by corporate and replaced. He was fired because he’d been sued twice for libel and lost (and let me tell you, it’s very hard for a paper to lose a libel suit.) So he waited until his noncompete agreement had run out and started his own paper. Now in a town of 4,000 we have two newspapers. He publishes 6 page papers three times a week, has little advertising and no Web presence. Now outside of the advertising issue, even 10 years ago you could get away with that business model. There were enough people who liked to hold the paper in their hands that you could get by without a Web site. These days not so much. Most of the dead tree publishers are hanging on to a business model that’s at least 10 years out of date.

    Baen seems to be an exception to the rule here, they were ahead of the curve on e-publishing and I think will probably survive. Not so sure about the others. But then Baen has never been shy about correcting mistakes, or at least that’s my impression. I note Jim Baen fired the first reader who rejected John Ringo’s Hymn Before Battle.

    Again, I think there will be a place for publishers. If they were smart, they’d start looking at what self-published books are selling well on Amazon and contact those authors and see if they’d like a contract. Isn’t that what more or less happened to Larry Corriea. Hmmm, wait, that was Baen again wasn’t it?

    What it comes down to, in my opinion, is that all of us in the publishing industry have to change with the times or we’re going to get left behind.

  6. Hum… on the TV, there’s the weekly “good books” program, where several readers give their opinions about which books are good here in Japan (we have a flood of books, and someone seems to think having these people do reviewing is worthwhile). That “branding” function — we often don’t highlight that as one of the publishers’ jobs, but it is there. Some genres have had pretty heavy publisher branding (DAW, Harlequin…heck, I’ll admit, in the past I used to look for the Ace Doubles, or for the DAW yellow borders, or ROC, Del Rey…) Seems like that reviewer/reader/branding function may get more attention? I could see cruising by a blog (or whatever the next generation is) to check out what Sarah Hoyt recommends, for example, because I know she’s picked good ones before. Now, how the economics works? Got me. But I’m sure it will sort out in time.

  7. I think there’s always going to be a place for publishers. To turn out quality products you need an editor. You need proof readers. The thing is, most of the dead-tree publishers aren’t seeing where things are headed.

    I think that most publishers are in deep trouble.

    Editor? I can hire one. Proof reader? I can hire one. Cover artists? I can hire one. Layout person? I can hire one.

    Patrick, seriously. Who are you kidding. Why does the average writer need a publisher when they can hire independents to do the work for them, and it will cost them less?

    Now me, well, I’m the writer, and I’m the publisher too. There’s a reason for that, in that I’m publishing my mother-in-law’s poetry, so I have a huge strong of ISBNs reserved, and my own publishing company registered. Between her stuff and mine, we’ll be able to publish about twenty books over the next year.

    Wayne

    • I didn’t say everyone would go the publisher route Wayne, I do think there will be a niche market for them. As for editors, hey, I am one. And once I get a couple more books under my belt I’ll be hanging out a shingle as a freelance editor.

      Not saying every writer needs a publisher. Saying there will always be publishers. What form that will take? That’s what’s interesting.

      • I’m wondering if maybe the publishing houses aren’t going exactly the wrong way. As easy self publishing allows more people to move away from the publishing houses (a move which I still think more benefits the “established” writers who have a readership that can pick their name out of a lineup) what the publishing houses should be doing, IMO, is looking for the new writers, folk who could use a leg up to building that readership. Find new writers of stuff people want to read (rather then writers of stuff they think people ought to read) and make that stuff readily accessible to folk who want to read it.

        A risky approach and one that would have a high turnover in writers but bunkering down with established writers while slamming the doors on newer writers (if I’m not misinterpreting what a number of folk have said on blogs like this one) would seem to be a just about guaranteed “loser” as the established writers continue to leave them for greener pastures.

  8. Hmm. I’ve been saying authors suffer from Stockholm syndrome for a long time. One Caveat here, as Bashar al Assad’s father proved, and he is now trying to repeat, you can put down a revolution if you don’t mind indiscriminate violence. I predict contractual, legal, PR and corporate level sweetheart deals to put authors back in their place, all of which will have author body parts scattered about. Your publisher really truly loves themselves far more than they love you. They won’t take this meekly, or wisely. The record labels didn’t. We’ve already seen with publishers cosying up to Apple to stymie Amazon. No I don’t think Amazon are good guys either, actually. They would do precisely what the rest of them do, if we let them. To speak heresy, I think 30% is still quite high for what they’re doing – answer for someone who asked ‘who will be the new top of the pile?’ – e-retailers who have effective display, promotion and browsing.

    This BTW is not saying ‘all publishers and agents are EVUL, crush them.’ I know this is not politically correct, but not even all slave-holders were ‘evul’ – in the sense that a few did a very good job of providing for the welfare of their slaves, and some actually became friendly with and fond of their slaves. But they were still slaves existing at their master’s whim, having to do precisely what they were ordered to do, and accept what they were given, gratefully. And when crisis the master’s plantation, he’d sell them off to whatever fate, rather than fall himself. There certainly is evidence that some freed slaves found life very hard, and missed the certainty of food and shelter, albeit of poor quality (You’ve had the same in East Germany, Russia, and Africa where ‘freedom’ has not always meant ‘better’. I’d still choose freedom) That doesn’t mean I think that slavery was a good thing, or that some people are fit for that, at all. It just means that some publishers did try to look after their authors, in much the same way.

    On the other hand, the game IS inverted, and really I’ve seen no sign at all that the changes in behavior this necessitates have been figured out. Not by authors, not by agents and certainly not by publishers. Let’s take a simple example. Fred, midlist author has an option clause. Fred’s agent will comply with the proposal. The 6 weeks will pass, and maybe at 3 months, Fred’s agent will tentatively inquire. If Fred’s agent gets oh I haven’t looked at it yet… It’ll sit there until it grows mold. Yet if the manuscript has gone to 6 publishers, and two shows interest, and there is the potential for an auction… all or some of of those six will somehow manage to get around to it that day. With the advent of e-books – We’ve gone from the agent telling his author ‘They’re the only game in town, be patient.’ to a situation where EVERY book is an auction. Yes, if you’re a new author with no following, the bidding price might be low. If you are an author with a following in social media, well, the reserve bid is what the author can earn without you. As the publisher you need to know that. And you need to change your game plan to match or better what’s on offer to self publisher. That’s not all about money. You can save the author hassle (cover, format, cover copy, editing , proofs, you can offer as good or better transparency of accounting, you can offer publicity, you can offer reliable quarterly settlement.) But in all the package has to be worth that reserve. The bottom line is that publishers haven’t had to provide any of these reliably or well or at all. And they’ve been so used to being the only game in town, they’re not psychologically geared for comparative shopping. And they may find some things are ‘don’t waste my time unless you have cash, and lots, because I don’t trust you.’ The trouble is… the game just became very much broader-spread, and I foresee publishers who are still cash flush (relatively) buying ‘bestsellers’ for lots and lots (which is what they do now) and then having no cash for the rest (which is what they do now). But unlike now… getting their lunch eaten by the upper mid-list – who will, in a more broad and even market, sell nearly as well as their bestsellers, but can undercut and outspend (on promotion and quality) their bestsellers. Interesting times.

    • Hmm. I’ve been saying authors suffer from Stockholm syndrome for a long time. One Caveat here, as Bashar al Assad’s father proved, and he is now trying to repeat, you can put down a revolution if you don’t mind indiscriminate violence. I predict contractual, legal, PR and corporate level sweetheart deals to put authors back in their place, all of which will have author body parts scattered about. Your publisher really truly loves themselves far more than they love you. They won’t take this meekly, or wisely. The record labels didn’t.

      Hello Dave, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of your books. In addition to writing non-fiction, I’m an independent publisher, and I also own a small independent recording studio. The President of Warner Music Canada is an Internet Acquaintance. He hates my guts. I’ve been telling artists that they don’t need the Big Four music publishers, and that is the last thing he wants me to tell them.

      I’ve been talking to mid-list writers who have contracts, and the contracts that they have are damned near slave labor. When I point this out the writers sound like battered spouses. When I point that out, they usually freak.

      That is what the musicians were doing a five years ago. But the change is going to happen faster to the book publishing industry than it happened to the music publishing industry. And that means that the Big Six Book Publishers are going to get hit harder than the Big Four Music Publishers did.

      It should be interesting.

      Wayne

      • Wayne, when I sat down worked out just how much money that books I’ve written have grossed, and how much of that I’ve seen, I freaked. I’ve used the battered women simile before, but last time I had a bunch of… people use that as a straw-man to attack me as a male sexist pig who could not possibly know how awful men were to women. Only women could ever understand that. How could I cheapen it… Shrug. They’re wrong, it’s an aspect of Stockholm syndrome, but why fight the zombie horde? And I’m sure for example my publisher only sends my books to the wrong address because they love me (I emigrated, I notified every staffer at the publishing house of my new address, and Eric. Eric acknowledged, no one else took that much trouble. And it took me more than a year of nagging to get all them to stop using my old address. Polite nagging of course. Because you can’t treat them like you would any other incompetent ass. So unusual for anyone to change their address. Hard to cope with. And it’s the second time I’ve done it in 12 years. Unreasonable! I should grovel.)

        The pace of change in publishing will wrong-foot a lot of people. E-books won’t be as complete as say LP – CD (more like CD/ digital download I think?) But here is a scary new idea for you as a publisher yourself: hitherto, every crash has been a driver error.
        Henceforth no crash will be.

        There is still good money and a need for publishers (if they actually do the job). The difference is that it won’t run to a NY office, and a lot of das flunkies to see to your consequence, because the margin per book just went from 39% of the cover price to a very much smaller figure. Still potentially profitable, and rewarding. Just different.

  9. Sarah:

    You have an old Word Press installation. The old Word Press installation defaulted to a “three deep” comment nesting. You blog is still set to that. The problem with the “three deep” setting is that it limits discussion on popular posts.

    This can changed easily. In your Dashboard go to:

    Settings
    Discussion
    Enable threaded (nested) comments

    You will notice the check box to the left is selected, and that the drop down box to the right is set at “3″, change it to “10″, that is the best setting.

    If you need help making the change, I can do it for you.

    Wayne

  10. Wayne,
    The problem with that is that the new word press installations doesn’t work with my browser, and that the browser upgrade doesn’t work with my old system. Yeah, there will have to be changes, but it will have to be done after I enter changes into current manuscript.

    (Sounds serious) Please stand by. Upgrading will take place. (Sorry, I know it’s annoying and I’m not trying to make light of it, but the novel MUST get sent to the betas first.)

  11. I’m not much of one for inserting Youtube clips, else I would dredge up and post Mel Brooks from Blazing Saddles as Gov. Lepetomane saying: “We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!”

    As to the publishers’ problem (and related problems of agents) — it doesn’t matter. Things will change, water will run downhill, summer will be hot in Missouri and the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste out of the tube and the milk has been spilled: the old paradigm is no longer valid, the bubble is collapsing and nothing anyone can do will re-inflate it. A number of reactionaries like me will persist in killing trees for our amusement but we are atavisms in a world where the folk will be killing pixels for their reading pleasure (if it pleasures them to read.) Adapt or die.

  12. The finger is moving and Omar Khayam was right, so your problem is NOT how to protect readers from an onslaught of slush, your problem is how to reach those readers through the slush. Mourning the world that was won’t solve your problem. Get over it. Give out free samples at your blog, visit other blogs and write interesting things. Sales sucks, but if you don’t suck it up and sell you best find another line of work ’cause the writing game (without doing sales) is about played out.

    • “Give out free samples at my blog” for all three readers? That’s great for people who already have a following. Maybe I should start a porn site. They get a lot of traffic.

      Sales sucks? Sure enough. And not everybody is good at it either. So do we go from book sales being determined by the “push” a publisher gives it to book sales being determined by whether or not the author also happens to be good at sales?

      As a reader, I’m not seeing the improvement.

      • Let me provide a personal example here. I’m a scientist in my day job, as is my boss (for most of the time I worked there it was a two person shop. My boss is pretty good at sales and I can hum the tune and dance a few steps.

        Recently we hired a sales guy, a guy who _can’t_ do what we can do (the technical side) but _was_ good at sales. The result was pretty much predictable. Our sales went up. A lot.

        Fortunately we had enough revenue to hire the sales guy and, once we did, we had more revenue to work with. However if it were me, I could not afford that guy out of my own pocket and certainly not out of my writing income.

        Now, I could spend the time getting better at sales. I could spend the time trying to draw more people to my blog http://thewriterinblack.blogspot.com in an effort to have a “following” who might buy my books/stories as they become available, but is that really the best use of my time? Any time I spend on that is time I’m _not_ spending on, say, writing and improving my writing (I have a long way to go there, believe you me). The term is “opportunity cost.”

        Once again I’m not even really disputing that easy self publishing might be the wave of the future. I’m simply saying that I think there are problems with that model that are treated perhaps a bit too cavalierly by its proponents.

        • well, David, in the last ten years, authors have had to do all their own marketing, anyway. Heck, self-published authors got on shelves more than my non-Baen books. I agree with you this is not the best use of our time. And I wish there was another alternative, but…

      • Sarah,

        Back in July, I looked at the Amazon sales rank (as the Proxy for overall sales) of Baen’s releases for the month and Lawyers in Hell, an Independently published piece. The lowest (highest numerically) ranked Baen release was in the low five figures. Lawyers in Hell was well into the six figure range. Since then, as one of the authors in LiH, I’ve been following the Bookscan numbers (Yay! Amazon “Author’s Central”. It’s rank has never been higher than about 38,000, far worse than the _weakest_ Baen release for that month. (As an author in the book, I have the actual Bookscan sales number but I don’t know if the Morris’s would appreciate me revealing them on an open blog.)

        LiH includes folk like C. J. Cherryh, and Michael Z. Williamson who, while perhaps not the biggest names in the field are far from unknowns. The series itself is a known, if old, quantity and everybody involved, including me, have been attempting to promote it. And yet it couldn’t touch the least of Baen’s offerings in sales.

        The traditional publishers may not be promoting the authors (“authors have had to do all their own marketing anyway”) but there you are with the sales numbers.

        Now, I’m not particularly concerned with the future of LiH. I know some of the folk involved personally and have reason to trust their assessment that it can be expected to do reasonably well over time. But this does give me some concern about the difficulties faced by “the exciting new first novel by David L. Burkhead (who?)” as a self published venture.

  13. Replying to @ David Burke from up above here, because I can’t there. David said, “My point is that when your wonderful, marvelous (from some reader’s perspective) book is surrounded by hundreds to thousands of pieces of utter dreck that all purport to be every bit as wonderful and marvelous as yours (at least to the extent of being the kind of thing the readers who think you book is wonderful and marvelous are looking for) then it becomes harder for them to _find_ your book, let alone get it into their hands.”.

    When I bought my Kindle two years ago or so, if you browsed to the Kindle Store on it to Science Fiction there were just under five thousand works listed. Now, browsing in the Kindle Store is an awful user experience, the only sort order is popularity, which basically means ‘recent sales ranking’, with the definition of ‘recent’ evidently being a closely held Amazon trade secret. One day I was curious, and started paging through, and somewhere around the five hundred mark I stopped seeing things that looked like anything but self-published dreck. So two years ago it was 90% (in my view) probable garbage. And yet I had no problems finding things I wanted to read, and there were many, many things that were self-published in that top five hundred, some of which reside on my Kindle today.

    Today there are just under eighteen thousand works listed in SF. And I suspect that the same ratio holds. So your problem isn’t finding your book amongst the dreck, if it’s good it will rise towards the top, and the garbage won’t move at all. The problem is being found among all the other good stuff.

    Pre-kindle days, every single time I flew somewhere I’d make sure and pick up a couple of what I call ‘airport fiction’. When I’m flying somewhere I don’t want to be challenged, to have something I have to stop and think about every couple of paragraphs. I want something entertaining that will make the time pass, and hopefully cover the entire flight. There was a reliable way to find them – they’d be the books sold in the middle spinning racks on the aisle at B&N, or amongst the few books actually sold at the airport. These books would typically not be very good, but they’d do their job, and because of their placement they’d mostly become best-sellers. Now on a trip instead of buying one or two books for each way on the trip, I can snag five or six 99 cent specials from the top 100 in some random Kindle category that sounds good at the moment, and have my travel reading more than covered, for less money. And the publisher has lost the ability to decide that mindless thriller author A becomes a bestseller due to placement, and mindless thriller author B, who’s just as good a writer, never gets off the bottom of the midlist.

    • Ah, but your example with the Kindle just proves my point. How did things get to that top 500 in the first place? They had to have sales. But they didn’t get to be a sale to you unless they got into that top 500 or so. But to get into that top 500 or so they had to have sales. And how many sales did they have to have to get into that top 500? How many copies of the new novel by David L. Burkhead (Who?) would I have to get friends and family to buy to reach the point where someone like you would have even known it existed, let alone have a chance to be considered for purchase?

      And how much worse is that problem going to become as self publishing becomes “mainstream” and a replacement for the slush pile?

  14. Melvyn Barker

    David, I’m not a writer, I’m a compulsive reader who switched from buying pbooks to only buying ebooks about 18months ago. Like most readers I’ve already got a list of authors (inc. Sarah and Dave Freer) I like, but that’s not enough. I’m always looking for new authors to feed my addiction. So, how do I find them without getting bogged down in self published slush? I have several ways. I will look at what Baen publish each month because over the years I’ve found they publish a lot of books I enjoy. I read reviews such as Fantasy Book Critic, and the monthly lists of new SFF books on fantastic fiction. co.uk and recommendations on sites like Goodreads and on boards like Baen’s Bar and I’ll read previews and samples. For example 25 authors recently put together a compilation of the opening chapters of their latest novels and put it as a free download on Smashwords. I downloaded it, skimmed the chapters and as a result bought 7 books. I’d only heard of 1 of those authors before, but I’ ll probably add most of them to my list of authors to buy. Maybe sometimes I’ll buy a dud, but ebook pricing is keen enough that I can afford to take the chance.
    Melvyn in Darlington UK

  15. accordingtohoyt | August 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    well, David, in the last ten years, authors have had to do all their own marketing, anyway. Heck, self-published authors got on shelves more than my non-Baen books. I agree with you this is not the best use of our time. And I wish there was another alternative, but…

    I think that this has always been true, except for those like Steven King, or those who appeared in the magazines when those were still major publishing venues. The magazines had to advertise, otherwise they didn’t sell.

    I can remember when I was a kid the Toronto papers running author interviews. Most of the time it was with people like Louis L’amour, but they ran an interview almost every day. There just aren’t 310 authors as big as that (back then of course publishing on Sunday was, well, just not done).

    Isaac Asimov wrote up his heart attack for TV Guide. Did he need the money? Probably not, but it was good advertising!

    Why do Science Fiction and Fantasy writers do Conventions so often? Advertising.

    Writers have always handled a huge amount of their own advertising and PR. If publishers could have managed it, writers would have paid for all of the advertising and PR, and paid for the costs of printing the books too.

    Let’s face it. If you want to be a writer, you are going to have to do PR work. It is part of the business.

    Wayne

  16. I fear you’re not seeing the forest here. Nobody is saying that e-publishing, self-publishing or dead tree publishing are ideal. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.

    What people ARE trying to say is that the market is changing and if you want to participate there is NO POINT complaining about the change. All life on Earth obeys a simple rule: Adapt or Die. Sure, adaptation is a bitch and we all die eventually anyway, but the rate of change is gonna accelerate before it slows down so either figure out how to surf the wave or drown.

  17. David,
    Amazon ranks can be highly eccentric. And collections ALWAYS rank badly relative to novels. Take a deep breath. I’m not belliteling your concerns — you think we don’t have them too? — but the problem is not “Too much crap” it’s “calling attention to your stuff.” I’ve often said that writers should create co-ops for mutual promotions, etc. that’s in part what Mad genius club was all about. But I suck SO badly at promotion it’s not even funny, so… what do I know?

    • The “Too much crap” and “calling attention to your stuff” are two sides of the same coin. The more crap there is, the harder it is to call attention to your particular piece of non-crap.

      Also, I have to wonder how well I would have developed as a writer if, instead of having for example “The Future is Now” rejected several times (inspiring me to rewrite it and address several serious structural problems), I’d simply self-published it. Something else I have noticed is that on those occasions when editors have given me specific feedback it’s been about “structural” problems with a story. The feedback I get from critique groups has generally been “you missed an apostrophe here”.

      My concern is that professional publishers do provide a number of services for writers (and the gatekeeper function is a service however much it might not seem that way at times) that is harder to do oneself than simply hiring an editor. And sometimes this seems to get downplayed in some of the rah rah for self/e publishing.

      • David,
        I’ve wondered how I’d have developed too. But it is a part of my personality — the tendency to pick at scabs — that I think I’d have ended up more or less where I am in terms of craft, except that I’d have to live down a lot of flawed books. The thing is that you’re basing this on your experience, from this side of the bench as it were. I’ve had a couple of agents (!) who gave me important advice. Agent #1 told me I was too fond of plotting by coincidence. She was right. Agent #2 told me I had to show emotional turmoil with external action. Editors… the editor who edits best for me (and I’ve had two extraordinary ones, one of them in short stories) mostly works on THAT story, so I can’t say I’ve learned general writing from her.
        But again, you’re looking at best case scenario. Are those two tips worth the five years of keep away I got from those agents (who btw, represented me?) Was I doing the craft thing so badly that I needed to wait thirteen years to break in. Uh. No. And, er… no. In fact, after breaking in, I sold every story I’d written before that wasn’t fatally flawed (the fatally flawed ones usually didn’t even get sent out) and I’m now in process of selling my apprentice novels, in a steady trickle. Oh, I’ll never send the first five out, but again, age and maturity. Yes, if they were out there I’d be cringing, but you know what? I don’t read stuff I wrote ten years ago which is traditionally published. It makes me cringe.

        So… are there aspects of editing that will be needed? Heck yes, but David, they haven’t been doing that by and large for ten to twenty years. It’s not even the comments you don’t get on rejections, it’s most publishing houses (Baen excepted) not editing at all beyond copy-edits. Is it needed? Yes. Do they do it? No. And it’s not just that the gatekeepers keep you from publishing crappy stuff. It’s that … they don’t. I invite you to read the samples of the top 100 books in your sub-genre in the field you prefer. Then read the first few pages of new books by unknowns in your bookstore. Then report on the difference. (It would actually be interesting, though I suppose you don’t have time to do 100.)

        As for muck and gold coming from the same shaft and the muck obscuring the gold, we’ll have to agree to disagree. My experience with reading fanfic is that the MORE horrible stuff there is, the faster and easier it is to eliminate it from consideration and the more the gold shines.

        HOWEVER why debate this? The old ways are most assuredly passing away. Is it possible some form of editor/publishing house will be back by popular demand? Sure it is. It’s just not likely it will in any way resemble the ones that are now passing from the stage.

        So… the thing is this: the past won’t come back. The future is as of yet without shape or form. What shape should it have? And what can we do to bring it about?

      • “Why debate this?” You answered that question yourself: “What shape should it have? And what can we do to bring it about?”

        That’s been my whole point. I am not “defending” traditional publishers but pointing out some of the services they have performed is an attempt to point out some issues that I believe need to be addressed.

        Here are a few questions that form a sort of sorities (I don’t expect anybody to actually have answers to most of these; they are mainly to shape some of the issues):

        What is the typical advance for a first novel by one of the standard publishing houses?
        What would initial sales likely be for such a first novel self-published by a complete unknown (that wouldn’t even include me despite my “David L. Burkhead (Who?) jokes)?
        What does cover art at least as good as that provided by Tor/Roc, Ace, or Baen (the only three “major” SF publishers who will take unagented submissions per Ralan) could reasonably be expected to give such a novel (Take a look at http://www.coldservings.com to see why I wouldn’t want to DIY)?
        How much would the author in self publishing have to spend in marketing (in terms of time and money) to get the same “penetration” that the book that it would have published traditionally?
        After including the marketing costs, how much would the self-published book have to sell to make the author as much money as that typical advance?
        In short, how much does the writer have to commit in terms of time, money, and other resources, in order to come out even with just the advance on a traditional contract? And if the writer is the stereotypical “starving artist” type (BTDT–when I was first starting I sold plasma just to have postage to mail manuscripts I was literally that poor) can he or she really trade time for money to achieve the same results?

        Again, my point is not to “defend” traditional publishing but to point out that moving away from it is not an unalloyed benefit without downsides. I’m sure nobody here thinks it is, but sometimes people seem to get so caught up in what’s wrong with traditional publishing that it can give that impression.

        • What is the typical advance for a first novel by one of the standard publishing houses?
          These days? Four thousand.
          What would initial sales likely be for such a first novel self-published by a complete unknown (that wouldn’t even include me despite my “David L. Burkhead (Who?) jokes)?
          First year? NORMALLY? About 400. But the book stays in print forever. And with word of mouth what I hear (none of my stuff has been up that long) it grows exponentially the second year to about 2k sales that year.
          What does cover art at least as good as that provided by Tor/Roc, Ace, or Baen (the only three “major” SF publishers who will take unagented submissions per Ralan) could reasonably be expected to give such a novel (Take a look at http://www.coldservings.com to see why I wouldn’t want to DIY)?
          It depends. You can get d*mn good cover art from places that have no-royalty art. One of my (bestseler) friends just paid a one month membership ($250) and downloaded about fifty art pieces for his backlist. Yes, at least as good — some better — than his main publisher stuff. He SHOWED me this weekend. You can also get decent (though mostly foreign, I’ll grant you) pieces from various fantasy artists from anywhere between $50 and $500 depending on whether they’re working to order or you order one of their already-done pieces. Trolling convention art shows and spying young, promising talent to make an offer to also helps.
          How much would the author in self publishing have to spend in marketing (in terms of time and money) to get the same “penetration” that the book that it would have published traditionally?
          Uh… well, let’s put it this way, all my friends who pushed a book to bestseller (with traditional publishing) without the publisher doing all the pushing (rare these days) had to do a do-it-yourself tour which can set you back oh, 3k or so, even with sleeping on people’s sofas, plus a bunch of time, if you have a day job. My friends who are selling average to well online, do this with a few bookmarks (which at worst set you back about $40) a couple of free short stories on Amazon and… uh, that’s about it. Maybe a blog?
          After including the marketing costs, how much would the self-published book have to sell to make the author as much money as that typical advance?
          Okay, remember I’m TOTALLY sucky with math, off the top of my head. But let’s say you go a goldplated package, instead of converting your book yourself and get someone who’ll do it for you. Packages for that range from three hundred to fifteen hundred. Let’s split the difference and WITH COVER call it seven hundred. Add three hundred for marketing. (I’m not counting short story “price” since that is time and work.) So you need to make, let’s say you’re out a thousand. You need to make five thousand in cash. You go with Amazon and put your book at 3.99. You need to sell 1700 books. AND once you have made that, the book is still out there, and if you’ve written a sequel… Anyway, from what I understand it will take you about two years. Maybe less iwth $300 in marketing, which most of us aren’t doing. If this seems insanely long, let me point out that if you sell a book for 4k these days, you get 2k up front, and then 2k on publication, and with the houses stretching out their payment schedule, that could take a LOOOOOOONG time. And after that first year out, the book is pretty much done. You’re unlikely to get royalties. (Yes, things are different at Baen, but I’m talking the other houses.)
          In short, how much does the writer have to commit in terms of time, money, and other resources, in order to come out even with just the advance on a traditional contract?
          Look, I know skip (?) said something about authors always were expected to do their marketing. Maybe. To an extent. But publishers got you on bookshelves without your having to do much. To push bestseller you had to do more. Now, to just NOT tank spectacularly, your publisher will expect you to commit resources to promotion that are often WELL in excess of the advance. For at least two of my series, I spent the entire advance for the first book in publicity, including but not limited to print advertising, and the series barely managed to get on shelves, because the push doesn’t depend entirely on you, but also on what the house reps do with your books when talking to the bookstore reps/distributors. These days, publishers ABSOLUTELY EXPECT you to do everything from sending out review copies to giving away short stories on Amazon, to homemade tours of varying grandeur.
          And if the writer is the stereotypical “starving artist” type (BTDT–when I was first starting I sold plasma just to have postage to mail manuscripts I was literally that poor) can he or she really trade time for money to achieve the same results? Yes. ABSOLUTELY. If you’re broke, for the price of postage you can get a piece of royalty free art and do the cover design yourself. You can also learn how to — there are a bunch of authors helping each other with this — and do the conversions of your book. You can trade copyeditting with a friend. Or you can sign with one of the indie online houses, who depending on overhead will do all that, not expense it to you, and charge between 25% and 50% of your “received money” for usually a two year contract and get professional cover design and copyeditting. Yeah, it means you have to sell 4k books to be at the same place as with advance, but no money up front, and none of these indies tries to bind you hand and foot, plus you have the advantage of other — hopefully more published authors — working for the same house and maybe helping a little. (I’ll be honest, I’m involved with one of these houses, as well as planning to do some stuff on my own.)
          Again, David, I’m not trying to beat up on you. Your questions are valid and I completely understand where you come from. BUT you don’t see publishing as it has become in the last five years (or ten years, if you’re lucky me.) You’re comparing it to five to twenty years ago. These days, the deal with traditional publishing is A LOT suckier, your distro as an unknown a lot smaller (unless the house for whatever reason thinks you’re the next coming of J K Rowling or Laurell Hamilton and these days maybe not even then.) Am I saying it’s not worth it? Do you see me running from Baen? The up front advance (which, yes, is more than 4k) helps, plus because Baen has the loyalty it has, it gets me readers who wouldn’t otherwise find me. Totally worth it. But for my non-Baen stuff? waggles hand. Eh, a year ago I would not say this, but I’m failing to see advantages to the traditional route.

      • first year about 400? I don’t think the term “exponentially” is what you really want here. “Exponential” growth, given 400 first year and 2000 second year would mean 10,000 third, 50,000 fourth, 250,000 fifth etc., and I don’t think you mean that. ;)

        “none of this stuff has been up that long” and there’s the rub. A lot of what people are saying, on all sides of the issue, are “reasoning in advance of data.”

        Here’s the thing. I’ve got a novel I’m marketing now “The Hordes of Chanakra.” A fantasy novel, first novel if it sells. Being a self described “mercenary scientist” (and equally mercenary writer) I want two things: I want people to read my story. And I want to get paid for it. To eat, or not to eat. That is the question. ;) _I_ need to decide what’s most likely to be most lucrative for me, and, incidentally (for purposes of egoboo if no others) what gets more people reading the novel.

        Trad. publishing, if I can sell it that way, looks to me like being a “safe” approach. There’s the advance, whatever it might be, and if the book goes out of print I can still revert rights and go the self publishing route. Self publishing? Unless you’re Larry Correia, that pretty much shuts off trad. publishing for that book.

        And so I’m asking detailed questions, looking for what evidence I can and trying to get past the rah rah in order to make as informed a decision as I can.

        • Dave, what I’m answering is with is what friends have told me number wise. BTW, I’m getting the same general numbers from known and unknown and all levels of known. I think it’s the “bubble up” mechanism flattening things for now. I could be wrong.

          The stuff I have up is not even my normal stuff. A Touch Of Night, with Naked Reader Press is, frankly, austen fanfic and far more purple than my normal writing. My friend Sofie and I were having a bit of fun with it. It’s also up for free at the fan site in uneditted version. I’d say the numbers are a bit lower than that for the first year, because of that but not by MUCH. I expect, btw, that this flattening will change, which is probably one of the reasons it would be good to get in on the ground floor.

          Now, to correct several misconceptions. Trad publishing was a safe approach… ten years ago. What Wayne told you as a printrun for a first book was WILDLY optimistic (and he meant traditionally published btw.) They are now more likely to be North of five thousand. SOMETIMES substantially North. (Hence the smaller advances.) If the book goes out of print you might get it back or not. TRULY sit down for a discussion with some pros someday. I thought I was the only one having this issue. My first book has been out of print for years. Took me five years to get the publisher to stop putting the ebook up every month, even though they had no rights to it. My Musketeers’ mystery is out of print in any way that matters — no books to be found, the ebook, according to publisher, selling far less than they require by contract to be considered in print — they won’t let me have the rights back. And Amazon needs that quit claim to let me put them up. So, I have the first book and nothing else. Oh, and I’m not getting any money from it. Also, some houses are now asserting life of copyright rights to books whether or not they’re in contract. You want to give that way for 3 to 4k, you go RIGHT ahead. In my case and a few others, it’s going to take lawyers and cost far more than that, just to have the right to put my own books up.
          Now, you get your 3 to 4k advance. You do nothing to promote it, let’s say, or no more than you’d do with a self-published book. I’m going to pop a number from the top of my head, but with Borders gone and from what I’ve seen, your laydown will be around 3k. If you think you’re David who now, wait till it’s on the shelves. You have four weeks for people to find and buy your book, in those bookstores that you get on the shelves on. You won’t in most of them. They’ll tell you they need the shelf space for bestsellers. Your statement will say, let’s see, around 1.5kreturns and 500 reserves against returns, and you sold 1k. They’re taking it out of print after a year, but they’ll continue publishing ebooks in perpetuity. And that’s it for your support from the top and the traditional route.
          What I’ve been trying to tell you is that Larry is NOT the exception. Starting about… five years ago I started running into a different breed of “beginner”. They had 25k and above advances, the houses were a hundred percent behind them. Sometimes they got tours for their first book. The difference? They had self-published that book FIRST. (I’ll note, btw, this was before ebooks.) They had self published and promoted the living daylights out of that book. And one of the big houses got interested. And… They were coming in at waaaaaay above where I was after five years.

          IF Larry Correia had done the same promo as self published as he did with Baen, he’d have sold about as much as he did with Baen, with one caveat — Baen is a REALLY good fit with Baen and it probably opened more audience to him right up front, which would have taken time to find him. But Baen has a distinct personality and imprint. Other houses don’t. Other houses don’t have the same captive audience either. So unless you mean to bring your book out with Baen, caveat emptor.

          Again, David, you’re talking about publishing five to ten years ago. JUST in the last year it’s changed so much I don’t recognize it, much less that long. Read this: http://kriswrites.com/2011/05/11/the-business-rusch-writing-like-its-1999/ Then read ALL of the business Rusch. Read Dean too.

          You’re not going to get solid numbers from anyone. That includes traditional publishing. One of the issues with traditional publishing is exactly that. NO ONE is getting solid numbers. http://kriswrites.com/2011/06/29/the-business-rusch-you-are-not-alone/

          Look, I have nothing invested in having you go indie. To be blunt, I don’t care what you do. But the business model you think is there waiting for you no longer exists, and I think you should know that. I might feel the same way you do if I were starting out now. For one, I’m sorry but you people who haven’t been writing and selling novels traditionally the last ten years have no clue how bad it is out there. I keep thinking I must be exceptionally bad or exceptionally unlucky, and then I talk to other writers and find that I’m G-d’s own precious snowflake. Most people who came in when I did at the same level are now unemployed and name-burned. If not totally burned out as well.

          Is the new business model ideal? Well… for one, it’s not FINISHED. We have to find better ways of doing htis — though some of it will be tech advance. But it has one huge advantage. It’s not in the hands of an ever-collapsing industry whose main goal in life seems to be to “survive another two years and after us the delluge.” Read this: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5052 and btw Dean W Smith and I are as different writers as you can get and still be in the same field. He started out a lot longer ago than I. His career has been totally different. We’re different generations and our outlook on just about everything is completely different. EXCEPT we’re both plugged into (different) publishing networks. And both of us hit the conclusions in that column a couple of days apart. Is this evidence we’re right? Oh, heck no. BUT all the same, two rational people, independently, from different backgrounds… well…
          Does this mean you should listen to us? Eh, David, I don’t even require my KIDS do what I tell them, after the age of reason. People have the right to their own mistakes. I explain what they’re doing wrong. I give incentives for doing it right, then I let go. In this case, I’m not giving you incentives. And I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. You stand a good chance of selling traditionally too — why? Because unless I’m off my rocker (I’m not) the houses are dumping massive numbers of midlisters and even lower-rank bestsellers and buying unknowns by the bushel full. Why? I don’t know. I could give you guesses but libel lawsuits are SUCH pains. I’m just saying this is a movement I’ve observed. I’d just read that contract with a microscope and be ready for the fact the house might collapse with my book caught in it.

          So, what I’m telling you is that you can jump out one window into a lake of fire and out the other into a bottomless pit. I’m taking the pit with this here sheet for parachute. Who knows? There might be a lost country down there. But if you have asbestos underpants going the other way might make sense. Good luck either way.

    • Sarah,

      Fair enough. I dropped out of SFWA several years ago largely because where I was there the only real benefit I got was “entertainment value” and that wasn’t a good return on investment at the time. And, in so doing, I lost my source of contact with what was current in the field.

      I see that that may have been a mistake.

      One of the things that influences my . . . concerns, let’s call them, is that I, personally, tend to be somewhat “risk averse.” In statistics there’s a term called “expectation value” which is basically the sum of all the possible outcomes each multiplied by the likelihood of that particular outcome. Expectation values, however, tend to be driven in most cases not by the few very high values but the far more common low items at the low end.

      And what I’m trying to do is get an idea of the shape of the probability curve behind that expectation value, not just the “average” let alone a set of anecdotes that may or may not be representative.

      If, for example, the novel sells to a “major” publishing house then the advance is there. It may, probably will (no illusions about that either), be all I ever see from that contract, but it’s there. If it doesn’t sell to such a house, it could be for reasons that have nothing to do with how “good” the novel is or it could be that the thing really is dreck* and I would be better served to drive a stake through its heart. (Did I mention insecurity R us?) If it fails to sell, I’m only out postage.

      OTOH, if I go the self publishing route, there’s no guaranteed minimum income from “being published”. And if I “do it right” there are more expenses than if a publishing house does the publishing: cover art, editing, the actual printing of dead tree versions (although I understand that can be done “POD” so that the initial cash outlay need only be for copies one wants/needs to have “in hand”), and so forth. In “worst case” nobody except a few friends and family buys it, I’d be out all of that. in “pretty good case” it sell enough that the PV of the revenue stream outdoes what that advance would have been. In a “really good case” a publisher picks it up and gets it even wider distribution, publishes at least two more books in the same series, and the third becomes a New York Times bestseller (I’m looking at _you_ Larry Correia ;)).

      The catch is that I don’t know how likely any of that is and in the face of that uncertainty “x thousand dollars” _now_ has its attraction. Not saying I’ll go that way in the end (1) no guarantee that I’ll be _offered_ X thousand dollars and 2) despite how it may look since I’m taking a bit of a “devil’s advocate” approach here I am still gathering data in order to consider options).

      * In the critique group I ran it through, I got mostly the third most useless type of critique–only grammar and spelling nits**. “Beta” readers I got one of the second most useless type of critique–utter gushing over how wonderful it is***–with the rest being the most useless type of critique–complete silence****.

      **grammar and spelling nits are generally easy to find and fix and, unless things have changed here too, aren’t necessarily a downcheck on sale so long as they are “occasional”.

      *** Nice to receive, of course, but does _nothing_ to help me make the story better. Am I supposed to believe that the story was perfect?

      *** Should be self explanatory ;)

      • *** this may be less useless than you’re thinking. Utter Silence translates into: your book did not interest/engage me enough to bother responding. If, for example, 3 of 4 Beta readers can’t force themselves to read/react to your book you can anticipate an even poorer reception by the general marketplace, to whom you are a compleat nonentity.

      • “*** this may be less useless than you’re thinking. Utter Silence translates into: your book did not interest/engage me enough to bother responding. If, for example, 3 of 4 Beta readers can’t force themselves to read/react to your book you can anticipate an even poorer reception by the general marketplace, to whom you are a compleat nonentity.”

        Well, it _may_ translate into that. It might also translate into “I got busy with the kids and the new project at work and just forgot about it” or maybe “were you sending that to me? The file must have gotten lost.” or “Was I supposed to comment? I thought you were just letting me see it.” or “Oh, this was Heroic fantasy. I prefer military SF with a high body count.” or maybe….

        I served on the Nebula short fiction jury one year (and the novel jury the next). At the time we had a place on GEnie (a now defunct online service run by General Electric) to discuss stories me might want to add to the ballot. I learned quickly enough _not_ to take the time to comment on a story unless it rose to “I think this might be Nebula level” no matter how much I liked it short of that. And so, from my own personal experience “no comment” really does mean “no comment.”

        Or perhaps I’m just engaging in wishful thinking and the story really is utter dreck.

  18. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comment thread where I agreed with so many people, but there’s one point missing:

    You have more than the 4-5 weeks of traditional publishing to make your name and your sales. That means you can start small, but every sale has the potential to feed other sales (assuming your stuff isn’t the muck :) ) leading to a lovely geometric progression.

    • YES. That is really important. Particularly since, if you read on Kris Rusch and bookstores today (and she was if anything light on them) most midlisters don’t even get that. From the top, my first book, ten years ago didn’t seem to be UNPACKED at most bookstores.

      Kris says that for now people ONLY seem to advance in publishing figures on word of mouth. So it might take four/five years to make a living from it. So? Most people couldn’t at all, in traditional.

  19. David,

    Remember, I used to do Sales and Marketing as a professional. It gives me a different outlook. Now to your post.

    “Why debate this?” You answered that question yourself: “What shape should it have? And what can we do to bring it about?”

    That’s been my whole point. I am not “defending” traditional publishers but pointing out some of the services they have performed is an attempt to point out some issues that I believe need to be addressed.

    Here are a few questions that form a sort of sorities (I don’t expect anybody to actually have answers to most of these; they are mainly to shape some of the issues):

    I might surprise you here :)

    What is the typical advance for a first novel by one of the standard publishing houses?

    About $5000.00

    What would initial sales likely be for such a first novel self-published by a complete unknown (that wouldn’t even include me despite my “David L. Burkhead (Who?) jokes)?

    About 10,000 copies softcover. This would not cover the advance.

    What does cover art at least as good as that provided by Tor/Roc, Ace, or Baen (the only three “major” SF publishers who will take unagented submissions per Ralan) could reasonably be expected to give such a novel (Take a look at http://www.coldservings.com to see why I wouldn’t want to DIY)?

    About $200.00.

    How much would the author in self publishing have to spend in marketing (in terms of time and money) to get the same “penetration” that the book that it would have published traditionally?

    Nothing. That is how much a traditional publisher would spend on a first book under normal circumstances.

    After including the marketing costs, how much would the self-published book have to sell to make the author as much money as that typical advance?

    About 12,000 to 15,000 copies softcover.

    In short, how much does the writer have to commit in terms of time, money, and other resources, in order to come out even with just the advance on a traditional contract? And if the writer is the stereotypical “starving artist” type (BTDT–when I was first starting I sold plasma just to have postage to mail manuscripts I was literally that poor) can he or she really trade time for money to achieve the same results?

    If you are EPublishing, and you are able to trade services with other writers which is what I’m doing, nothing in the way of costs. Time is more difficult to guess because I’ve never been traditionally published. My suspicion is no extra time at all based on the amount of time that traditionally published writers that I know are spending.

    Again, my point is not to “defend” traditional publishing but to point out that moving away from it is not an unalloyed benefit without downsides. I’m sure nobody here thinks it is, but sometimes people seem to get so caught up in what’s wrong with traditional publishing that it can give that impression.

    The problem is that when I run the numbers the only advantage that traditional publishing has is the advance. If you are working full time you can do without the advance. The royalties when you self publish are far higher, and Industrial Economics state that the lower prices you can offer mean you will sell higher volumes. Higher volumes plus higher royalties sounds like a win-win scenario to me. It just won’t come in a front loaded lump sum.

    Of course the publishers will scream bloody blue murder because they won’t get any of the money, but who cares about them? Well, they do, but I don’t.

    Wayne

    • Wayne, sorry, you’re overestimating normal first time advance these days. It’s 3 to 4k and some traditional houses have cut it to 1.5. No, I’m not joking. Also, what you gave David in number of copies what “trad houses” I took his question to mean “how much would you have to sell as indie.” Uh… but we’re on the same page.

      • Wayne, sorry, you’re overestimating normal first time advance these days. It’s 3 to 4k and some traditional houses have cut it to 1.5. No, I’m not joking. Also, what you gave David in number of copies what “trad houses” I took his question to mean “how much would you have to sell as indie.” Uh… but we’re on the same page.

        I made the estimate based on numbers I’d heard from writers I know. But a lot of writers I know do non-fiction, which may skew things.

        But that is scary. Totally scary. You’d think that the publishers are doing their best to convince writers that self publishing is their best option with numbers like those.

        Wayne

    • Wayne,

      Sales of 10,000 copies softcover of a typical self published first novel by a complete unknown? Color me skeptical. Did you, perhaps, misread the question? I was assuming that the first novel, trad published, wouldn’t make back its advance.

      That first self-published novel would get into the same stores, on the same shelves, the same reviews, etc. self published with the author spending nothing as a professionally published novel by one of the major houses with the house doing its nothing?

      Spending nothing to make as much from that first self-published novel by a complete unknown to make the same amount of money as that traditionally published first novel’s advance?

      “And Industrial Economics state that the lower prices you can offer mean you will sell higher volumes.” That is an extremely naive view of economics. As one simple case, it doesn’t matter how cheap the book is if it isn’t on the shelves anywhere. It will sell less, in those venues, than books that _are_ on the shelves. Now, as Sarah mentioned a lot of bookstores didn’t even unpack some of her novels, but that’s not the question. The question is what bookstores _did_ put the book on the shelves? And how does that compare with the number of bookstores that put the typical self-published first author on the shelves? Something that’s not on the shelves is going to sell less, in that venue, than something that is on the shelves. And the ability to get something on the shelves in more venues if only by simply by having it in their catalog is an advantage.

      • Wayne was answering with the typical print run by a first book, and he’s totally wrong. The normal print run for a first book is somewhere north of 5k — or was when I was breaking in. Might be lower now.

  20. Clyde Wisham

    David,
    Your concern about gems being lost in a flood of crap books is understandable, but I think quite mistaken. J. A. Konrath calls it the Tsunami of Crap fear.

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/07/tsunami-of-crap.html

    I find that I have absolutely no problem finding good books to read, and I am by no means unique. I hardly ever even see the crap. Why? Because there are already multiple filters in place to help me find what I want to read.
    Example filters:
    1) Recommendations from writers that I like and whose judgement I trust. (Jerry Pournelle (who introduced me to Sarah), Charlie Stross, J. K. Konrath, Tobias Buckell, Walter Jon Williams, Sarah Hoyt, just to mention a few.)
    2) Sites where readers are the primary gatekeepers, sifting for gold as it were. (goodreads.com, the Indie eBook Hall of Fame, and many others)
    3) Quality reviews at trusted sites: For example, John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” reviews are great for finding good books. (http://whatever.scalzi.com/category/big-idea/) Some like Big Al make it a point to seek out and review ebooks by new writers. (http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/)
    4) Data mining provided by book sites. Examples are Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendations and Fantastic Fiction’s “Similar Books by other authors…” lists.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. The problem isn’t finding the gems in the dross, the problem is finding the time to read all the good books that seem to bubble up naturally.
    If you are a writer of course, the problem is how do you get your book to ‘bubble up’. {^_^}

    • Clyde,

      I think we may be coming at this from a bit of different perspectives. As a reader you can find good stuff to read. This is good. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t “good stuff” that you haven’t found (or that isn’t found). As a a reader, I do worry to some extent on how much crap I have to wade through to find the gems. To a lesser extent I give some thought to gems I might be missing because I stopped when the crap got too deep, but for the most part, at least as long as there are some gems I can find before getting too deep in crap, I’m happy.

      As a writer, there’s no guarantee that it’s _my_ gem that will be found. So long as there are other gems that shine brighter (I have no illusions that I’m the Next Great Thing in writing, if anything insecurity R us ;)) or are closer to the surface, folk may never wade deeply enough to find mine.

      Are people able to find gems? Certainly. Are there gems people don’t find? Not so certain, but I consider it likely.

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  22. Just to answer pedantry with pedantry, it depends on what your exponent is, don’t it? For example, if you’re talking exponential growth with an exponent of 0.75, or -0.5 …

    • Well, no actually. An exponential growth curve multiples by the same amount for each unit increase on the time. If it multiplies by 5 over one year, it would multiply by five over each additional year–by definition. Two data points completely define an exponential growth curve.

      • And if it multiplies by 0.5 over one year? And 0.5 each additional year? How many years until a book which sold 1,000 copies in year 1 sells 0 copies at that rate?

      • It never does. Well, actually since with books we’d be talking discrete math vs. continuous math probably 10-11 years (where the curve results in <0.5 so it would round to zero). And yes, that would be an exponential curve with the exponent being -2.

        Is there a reason for the question?

  23. “Is there a reason for the question?”
    Probably. It might be that I was wondering whether you were aware that not all exponential curves have positive slope. It might be that I enjoy posting random math questions to literary discussions. I might have suffered a keyboard spasm that coincidentally produced that particular array of characters. Other possibilities occur but typing them strikes me as tedj’us.

    Why do you ask?

    • There is no math in literature. Well, in this author’s case not good math, unless someone else is rechecking it. Mind you, I LOVE higher math and did quite well at it. It’s the act of WRITING down numbers that will screw me up EVERY time because I transpose digits. Or sixteenth century in my head suddenly becomes the 1600s instead of the 1500s. Without attentive copyeditors my historicals get very funny. Part of what I’m dealing with is cleaning up my “future history” because my dates are er… b*ggered up.

      • Ah, but there is literature in math, nicht wahr?

        Sigh – four semesters of college German and what have I got? Well, aside from the language box checked for the Phi Beta Kappa key, the long-standing conviction that Fitzcarroldo was written in English and translated (badly) into German for the film, and a deep-seated impression that Erich Maria Remarque was a delightful and neglected writer? Random phrases with which to sprinkle web posts in order to falsely imply I am more worldly and literate than is actually the case. With such detritus are egos inflated.

        Beloved Spouse is lexdysic so I’ve some understanding of your disgraphical issues. So long as you KNOW you have a problem I expect those tasked with correcting its effects are sympathetic. DELETE gratuitous rant about political “leaders” who consider themselves incapable of error.

  24. Several points:

    Sarah, the numbers I had came from writers who may have been ashamed of exactly how little they were earning.

    David, I’m risk averse too. To me the risk is in relying on a bunch of companies that have proven to be totally incompetent.

    Clyde, Loved Joe’s Tsunami of Crap post, laughed as it hit over 300 comments, some of which were obviously from panicked publishers.

    Lovely post Sarah, absolutely lovely post. Thank you.

    Wayne

  25. By the way – particularly for David and Wayne – I’ve posted some guess-timate figures here http://coalfiredcuttlefish.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/some-numbers/ to increase transparency on costs and the situation is.

  26. This has been a fascinating thread. I have been reading the conversation as it has evolved for days. Thank you for batting around all the questions I’ve been wrestling with for about a year. If pay-out to a first time author is actually as low as you suggest $1.5K-2K, what is the point in working so hard to get an agent, etc.? I know I could recoup that money in an ebook simply because of the number of friends I have.

    That said, the book would never be “legit.” It would never be in Barnes & Noble. I could never go and see my book on a shelf.

    But then again, pretty soon, there may not be any more shelves.

    So.

    Yeah.

  27. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Sarah,

    You’ve got to watch out for that Renée. She’s dangerous. She might interrobang you.

    You just can’t trust those teachers, can you?

    As for when those writers broke in, none all that recently come to think of it, but I thought that they were quoting current numbers from knowledge. They could have been quoting their old numbers.

    Dave F., thanks for the link. I’ll read it in the morning.

    Someone tell me why I’m still awake.

    Wayne