Publishing is more broad church than national lottery

The US author Barry Eisler writes very well about self-publishing and what he needlessly refers to as 'legacy' publishing. He is also prepared to debate his points, and does so in good spirit. He recently caused a stir when he gave one of the keynotes at the 21st annual Pike's Peak Writers Convention, which he says led to "a bit of upset here and there" and an apparent walkout. The main points of the speech have now been reproduced at Joe Konrath's blog, A Newbies Guide to Publishing, under the title "Eisler on Digital Denial", with the thriller writer adding some additional comments following the responses to his talk.

Journalist Porter Anderson took a measure of this mood, in his Publishing Perspectives piece, titled "The Establishment Snipes Back". As Anderson notes, Eisler believes that with the changes happening in the sector, self-published writers can publish as effectively as any traditional publisher, except for the bit around "paper distribution". Eisler's point is not that all authors should go this route, but that if they choose to eschew the mass market paper distribution gets to, then they now at least have a choice in how they publish, in a way they didn't a decade ago. "Paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing's primary value-add," he says.

Anderson captures the reaction thus: "The engagement on Twitter of agent Sorche Fairbanks and the associated comments of someone tweeting for Tyrus Books as well as agents Rachel Ekstrom, Janet Reid, Pam van Hylckama, editor Sarah Knight and some others (you need to follow the conversation back to see them) indicates that there is, in fact, a bright line of contention around the idea of hardback and paperback distribution being the last redoubt of legacy publishers."

A "bright line of contention" being an Andersonism, for the hostile heckles that ensued from the side-lines. Or as one tweeter put it: "I've never had so much fun saying bullshit to a table of horrified writers."

As Anderson notes, there is much to commend in Eisler's points, and Anderson is right to highlight the intemperate and unhelpful reactions from "the industry". And though I think both Eisler and Konrath don't help themselves in this debate by using the prefix "legacy" when referring to publishers, they are undoubtedly at the coalface of this shift, and living it in ways others are not.

More importantly, if "the industry" is to counter these statements, it needs to get where they come from, and understand the parameters of the debate. For although it can sometimes appear like we are discussing "all publishing", we are not. Both Eisler and Konrath write commercial genre fiction, as do many other successful self-published writers. However, there are other bits of the market that lend themselves less well to these self-publishing market forces, where publication, if it is to be done, needs a full range of services to back it (not just print distribution). Where publishing's "value-add" is still quite broad.

Eisler's view of the traditional publishing system -- "an editor falls in love with a manuscript, the writer is showered with a large advance from the publisher" etc -- is heavily skewed to the notion of being a writer of bestselling commercial fiction. But there are plenty of books, particularly non-fiction or children's titles, that don't fit this paradigm, and are produced much more in collaboration with a wider team. Eisler's view is that a writer goes to a publisher with a manuscript, but of course this is true only of some titles, and some bits of publishing. In many cases the book originates with the publisher, who then commissions a writer, or it arrives out of collegiate discussions between publishers, agents and writers. Or it arrives unready, mal-formed, and the publisher (heaven, forfend) makes it better.

It is, of course, perfectly possible that digital could change all this too: that a historian who has spent 10 years researching and crafting a biography of Stalin, will find a route to publication outside of the traditional route that will prove equally as rewarding. But it hasn't happened yet, and as I've said before if we are to properly discuss the changes happening to publishing, we need to properly understand what it is publishing actually does.

Similarly, much is made of the streets of gold self-publishing has supposedly paved. In a note below Eisler's blog Konrath writes that many self-published authors are making more of a living now than when they were traditionally published. Writes Joe: "I haven't taken any polls, but I know many former legacy authors who are making more self-pubbing than they ever did, and many authors who were never invited into the legacy industry who are making money for the first time." Some of this is self-evident, but if we are to have a reasoned debate, I reckon those "polls" are important.

Amazon, without which this self-publishing conversation would not be happening, releases too few numbers to make any reasonable analysis possible. I can point to many former self-published writers who now sell more having been traditionally published than they did before: but I haven't taken any polls either. I'd welcome any third-party analysis that had sight of the Amazon numbers, and could map them to the traditionally published world. In the UK at least, those numbers I have seen suggest that self-published writers sell far fewer copies than traditionally published titles, and do so at much lower prices. But of course their royalites are greater. One might think, from reading these blogs (and others), that the choices here are simple, but until those "polls' are more widely taken, I remain dubious that one route is necessarily better than another. Even if comparisons were possible, would we be comparing the same things? The self-pubbed route is a winner takes all approach: if your book doesn't sell you don't make any money. In the traditional world the publisher makes an investment: the risk is shared, and inevitably so are the rewards. Eisler says they are "two kinds of lottery", but that is a reductive view of publishing and not wholly representative.

Where Eisler has it right is that agents and publishers need to "listen to new and contrary views", and understand those shifts in the eco-system. A good agent needs to critique the analysis put forward by the self-pubbers, not deny it oxygen. And the traditional publishing industry needs to get way better at making its case.

But we all also need to get smarter about how we talk about publishing. There is, of course, a big part of publishing that is about distributing the likes of Barry Eisler and creating commercial hits; but there is equally a different part of publishing that is not about this type of writing at all, and to characterise all of publishing in this way is to undermine the quality and veracity of the debate.

We shouldn't deny digital, but equally let's not too narrowly define what publishing does.



Frameworks and Lotteries

Barry Eisler's picture

Philip, thanks for the thoughtful and insightful follow-up to my comments at PPWC and on Joe's blog.  I'm grateful for your perspective for a number of reasons, not least my concern that I don't fall into the trap of engaging only with or even primarily with likeminded and similarly situated authors.  My sense is that part of the reason "Authors Guild" president Scott Turow is wrong about just about everything he says is that he keeps himself in a bubble and performs whatever field research he does by engaging only people who are functionally just like him.  I would never want to make that mistake.  Anyway, I'm particularly grateful for your thoughts about how being a writer of genre thrillers might skew my view of the industry.  A friend of mine -- a top nonfiction agent -- made a similar point to me offline, reminding me that I shouldn't assume that all authors are going to love the "do it yourself" aspects of self-publishing as much as I do.  He's right and so are you.

So I want to reiterate that I definitely *don't* believe self-publishing is the right answer for everyone.  Ditto for the legacy route (or traditional, or big, or New York… for me, all these descriptive terms are largely interchangeable, with varying virtues and shortcomings -- much like the terms self-publishing, indie publishing, and artisanal publishing) and for Amazon publishing, as well.  As I tried to make clear in my talk and follow-up blog post, I don't believe there's any one-size-fits-all solution for authors, and what authors need is a sound framework into which they plug their own particulars to arrive at better decisions for themselves.  Among those particulars, I listed objectives, skills, talents, inclinations, and an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two publishing systems, and how those systems work.  To this, you've added something that I realize I haven't been calling out with sufficient specificity:  the submarket an author is writing in.  In fact, my agent friend made the same point offline:  that for various reasons, nonfiction isn't as well-suited as, say, thrillers for self-publishing.

When I say "framework," fundamentally I'm talking about the right questions to ask.  That is, one important question a writer should ask is, "How important to me is getting an advance (and how big is the advance)?"  If the answer is, "Very important and very big," most likely traditional publishing will be the better fit (at least other things being equal).  Another important question would be, "How much do I sell in paper vs how much do I sell in digital?"  If the answer is, "Almost all my sales are digital," this would weigh heavily in the indie direction.  There are dozens of additional such questions, and I agree that an understanding of the suitability of one's type of writing is one of them, or at least a useful way of organizing them.

So overall, I agree with your points, and I'm grateful that you made them because I think maybe I haven't been expressing myself as clearly on some of this as I'd like.  There's just one point I want to clarify.  You say, "However, there are other bits of the market that lend themselves less well to these self-publishing market forces, where publication, if it is to be done, needs a full range of services to back it (not just print distribution)."The thing I want to clarify is this:  I think *all* bits of the market need the full range of publishing services.  To go from first draft manuscript to finished book (digital or paper) in a reader's hands, a number of tasks always has been and always will need to be performed:  editorial, copyediting; proofreading; cover design; jacket copy; creation of the final product (printing for paper books; formatting for digital); distribution (trucks for paper books; upload for digital); and marketing, to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  Some books might need more of one of these tasks than of others, but overall I think it's clear that a book intended for sale needs some degree of all of them.  I think it's important to spell this out clearly because I believe that the proper problem to be solved isn't *which* books need all these tasks performed (they all do), but rather *how* these services can be performed most efficiently for a given book, and at what cost to the author.  In fact, I think one useful way of understanding the impact of digital on publishing is to look at digital as an agent of disaggregation.  Before digital, legacy publishers aggregated with distribution all the other tasks required to publish a book and presented it all to authors as a one-stop packaged service.  But any author who doesn't need distribution from a publisher (that is, any author whose sales are primarily digital) is free to disaggregate the remaining tasks and have them performed by someone else.But that's a somewhat separate story.  The main thing is, I wouldn't want an author to be attracted to self-publishing because she believes that in self-publishing she won't need an editor.  She certainly will (at least if she wants her book to be as good as it can be) -- but she'll be having that essential task performed in a different way and for a different cost.
As far as my lottery analogy goes, I still think it's sound and useful.  As I said in the comments at Joe's blog:

"The reason I think the lottery analogy is useful is this. Empirically speaking, we know that neither system -- no system -- of publishing is a guarantee of commercial success. Of course skill, craft, persistence, etc. can affect the odds of success, but almost everyone in publishing is trying hard and yet it's still true that only a tiny percentage succeeds. And we know that the number of writers who succeed in either system is tiny compared to the number who don't. It's important to understand this in part because many new writers mistakenly believe that self-publishing is an uncertain enterprise while legacy publishing offers some guaranteed outcome. I think it's more accurate to understand that *both* systems offer wildly long odds of success. Once we accept this, we can start analyzing the differences in the two different types of "lottery" to find which one is better for us. What are the range of payouts in both systems -- how much do the biggest winners make, what's the median and the mean, what shape and range are the bell-shaped curves of success and failure? And -- to your point -- to what extent can our application of skill, craft, persistence, etc affect the odds of achieving success in one system vs the other?"

The analogy isn't intended to be literal (if it were, I wouldn't spend so much time advising writers on how to figure out which route is best for them -- I'd just tell them to flip a coin and be done with it) and I don't think it's unduly reductive.  And it's not intended to be "wholly representative" of publishing, either (after all, what could be "wholly representative of a thing other than the thing itself?), just representative of an important aspect of publishing that all writers would do well to keep in mind when making their decisions.Anyway, thanks again for sharing your views on all this.  I think this kind of exchange makes all of us smarter and better informed.P.S.  Just saw David G's comment -- seconded. :)

Eisler's point has been misunderstood

David Gaughran's picture


Hi Philip, I think there has been some misunderstanding of what Barry Eisler meant - especially by those hearing it second-hand on Twitter.

When he says that "Paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing's primary value-add," he's *not* saying that paper distribution is the only thing of value a publisher can add - a point he underlines repeatedly in the comments of his blog post.

What he's saying is that paper distribution is the USP of a traditional deal for an author weighing up both paths. He's saying that great editing, covers, and marketing can be purchased on the open market by self-publishing authors, but effective paper distribution is something that tends to remain out of reach.

This point is important - and the key to the misunderstanding. When viewed through this prism, his view is hardly controversial.


Publish and be damned?

Stephen Henning's picture

Funnily enough, I attended a writers' ePublishing seminar at the weekend, and it was interesting how several published authors were attempting to go it alone, as they were disenchanted with their publishers (and in some cases, their agents).

Several said that publishers' advances continue to fall (for all but the top authors), and they didn't feel as though the publisher was doing anything to help their book sales, while at the same time they were getting a royalty rate of 15% or lower. Compare that to Amazon's 70%.

The question is, exactly what is the publisher giving an author? Is it just the route into bookshops, and that notion that the publishing process is the gatekeeper of quality?

If so, how long will high street bookshops be around for? The supermarkets will no doubt continue to sell books, but only a limited range of the top, already successful titles.

It is possible that social networking book sites, such as Goodreads, will take over that peer-review process. In theory, the publisher's job is to make sure that what is published is good enough to be read. But maybe Goodreads and the like will end up being the crucible of quality. Self-published books will either rise or fall based on the efforts of the writer and the response of the readership.

Then again, there are thousands of self-published writers releasing books all the time, and without a publisher will they (or rather, we, as I am one) ever reach a wide enough audience? How does an audience find you, and would they want to take a risk on an unpublished author?

If it is of any interest, I have shared a recent experience of mine of using Amazon's KDP select free-book promotion, and how that affected paid sales. There's numerous authors doing the same, with mixed results. Until recently, this has been the self-published author's key marketing tool. But last year Amazon changed their algorithm and it has, without doubt, reduced the effectiveness of such a campaign. So maybe independent authors have just lost one of their biggest friends.

I have included a spreadsheet of the number of free downloads that I received, during a two-day period, and how that translated to paid sales afterwards. Hope it is of some use.

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