I love living in the future. Just the other day I was marveling at the fact that I could listen to my favorite football team’s game on a radio station 2,500 miles away, carry it in my pocket while doing laundry, all in crystal-clear stereophonic sound. This very device is also capable of video chatting. Dick Tracy’s wristwatch has arrived, good people.
So it is with great joy and anticipation that I welcome the future, its myriad devices and its impact on the publishing landscape, especially the new opportunities writers have to publish independently. I’m not here to talk about my opinion regarding this whole thing: i.e. how I see things playing out, how useful the changes are, or our how successfully authors might harness the new paradigm. All that will come later on.
Michael A. Stackpole and “House Slaves.”
As an earthquake is the result of the shift of tectonic plates far beneath the surface of the Earth, so are the plethora of arguments surrounding the shift in publishing. In discussions held primarily on the internet, emotions tend to run high and unfiltered, often sparking the fuse to a flame war. It is no wonder someone coined the term, “incendiary rhetoric,” and it abounds, does it not?
In his original post, House Slaves vs. Spartacus, Mike Stackpole was trying to make a point about people staying in a less-than-ideal situation because it provided a measure of comfort. It’s the same concept Dean Wesley Smith and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, have been lamenting in writers who have the attitude where they want to be taken care of. Letting the agents and editors do the hard part while writers focus on writing their stories.
Stackpole has been taking a lot of heat for this comment, and it stands to reason. He has made a reputation of being outspoken, he’s stuck his neck out there about his own publishing difficulties, and is a lightning rod for criticism. For one reason or another people have taken offense to this phrase. Some feel a comparison to slavery of any kind minimizes the evil of slavery, when this is not a case of equanimity but of metaphor. I suspect others are authors who have found that measure of comfort in the current system, and either object to the suggestion that they are less than in control of their career, or object to the insinuation that their editor/agent/publisher don’t have their best interests at heart.
I think the problem for some people is not with what’s being said but how it’s being related. “House Slaves” is just one example. Dean continues to say writers as a class are stupid for allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. His assertion that agents are increasingly irrelevant and unnecessary tends to ruffle feathers, because most authors consider their agent a friend.
My opinion? A lot of people need to put their big boy pants on, (See there? Incendiary, ain’t it?) take the emotion out of it and view things from a business perspective. Friendship has little to do with bad business models.
People like Chuck Wendig have also been weighing in, and in a recent post suggested that we should not add fuel to the fire. His basic point being, I believe, to leave the egos to themselves and stay out of the flame wars (though there was a little “I’m not going to mention his name” dig at Stackpole). Will Entrekin recently made the point that there really is no debate, per se, merely differing options and a plethora of options. Dean and Kris Rusch have consistently said that writers should explore both traditional and independent options.
I think a lot of people don’t want to upset the apple cart. Authors published traditionally may feel secure in the current system. Writers struggling to get noticed don’t want to somehow invalidate their struggle to achieve that recognition. There’s still a prestige to having the Penguin, Bantam or TOR logos on the spine of your book. Perhaps there’s still that stigma to the label “self-published.”
But above all, one of the things I look for when someone tells me that there’s a better way of doing things is evidence that it works. Do you present me with facts, evidence and personal experience? Or do you give me anecdotal evidence, esoteric reasons to pursue a traditional contract, mixed with “so-and-so offended me” when presenting your argument?
Despite your feelings about how Mike Stackpole makes his point, he and Dean Wesley Smith, Kris Rusch, J.A. Konrath and others are doing the math. When it comes to agents, Dean gets a lot of flak for arguing that they are increasingly irrelevant, and possibly entirely unnecessary. I’ve heard it said the argument over agents amounts to sour grapes from authors with bad experiences. But as he says in this most recent post, “I had great agents and no bad experiences with my agents in the old world of publishing.” That’s not the stink of sour grapes.
When you get past the emotion, the tectonic shift and incendiary rhetoric, what do the numbers tell us from a business perspective?
Facts First – The Math
Simply put, the math on independent publishing works. I’m just going with assumptions based on a Mass Market Paperback and a 8% royalty, and Amazon’s %70 royalty rate. All things being equal, If I contract with someone to sell my widget for me at $8 to earn $0.64 or I can sell my own widget at $3 and make $2, which one of these options makes the most cents to me?
“But wait,” you say, “a traditional publisher can do things I can’t,” and you list for me editing, cover art, promotion and distribution including shelf space in bookstores. You can reach more readers this way, you say. Perhaps, but if I sell a hundred copies of my $8 paperback, I make $64. I only have to sell thirty-two copies on my own to make the same $64. If my math is right, I only have to sell at about a 30% clip compared to traditional publishing to make the same amount of money.
Where the traditional model struggles is that it’s entire author/publisher relationship is based on a gamble. They may bet $5,000 against the house that you’ll sell about 7,800 copies of your paperback. This doesn’t strike me as a sound business practice, yet this is what they do all the time. If you don’t sell that many copies, earning back your $.64 a pop–in a short period of time–the likelihood of earning that second book is extremely low.
The traditional model is all based on selling quickly. They have no time for the “long tail” philosophy. Sell now, or get out of the game.
Conversely, I only have to sell 2,500 copies of my $3 ebook to make the same $5,000. Can you sell 32 per cent of a midlist author’s goal? Plus, I don’t have to wait around for those 2,500 copies to sell before I know if I can write the next one. They’ll never go out of print, and no one can tell me not to write a sequel. If I have a trilogy, only 833 people need to buy all three for me to make $5,000, while some poor soul’s trilogy is languishing in “I-only-got-to-put-out-one-book” land, because they couldn’t sell one book to nine times as many people. I may have to write three books as opposed to the one, but at least I know I’ll actually get to books 2 and 3.
Writers pursue agents in the hopes that their connections to editors get their books in front of the right set of eyes. The agent, we are told, is supposed to be good at pitching a title to editors. Typically untrained, unregulated by any licensing board and certainly unqualified from a legal standpoint, Agents are supposed to negotiate favorable contracts on behalf of the writer. How can an agent aggressively see to my best interests, while at the same time ensuring their own ability to return to that house or editor with more titles? When does a house stop publishing titles from an agent who consistently wins for his author at the negotiating table?
Further, agents typically receive the money from the publisher before taking their cut and passing the rest on to the author. Authors usually are paid every six months, do not have direct access to any sales figures, and are often paid late. In any other industry, this is grounds for the severance of any business relationship, as most business-to-business accounts are settled every month. Just like your rent or mortgage, your electric bill or your car payment.
How does any of that entitle an agent to 15% of everything generated by the property, even rights they did not specifically negotiate, into perpetuity? Nothing makes that math work! Not if I’m only making 8-10% on something I created. However, hiring an Intellectual Property Attorney, a person trained, licensed, regulated and qualified to negotiate legal matters–and paying a one-time flat fee–makes good business sense from a numbers standpoint.
This has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the agent is a reputable person, is a good sounding board, has experience in the business, is not on Writer Beware, or all the hundreds of positive things you can say about your agent or someone else’s. There are great agents out there who are good at what they do, who come highly recommended by their authors. But the old model is no longer good business. The fact that agents are more than willing to start publishing author backlists should throw up huge red flags about conflicts of interest and the sustainability of literary agents as we currently know them.
Fame or Fortune?
Here is the chief criticism I think I have heard of people such as Mike Stackpole. “Sure Mike, you’re making it work for you, but how did you get here? You built your audience through traditional publishing!” They say this as though it invalidates the math. Pointing to one former New York Times Bestseller making his way independently does not negate the efforts of other largely unknown indies and mid-listers making a good living.
I had never heard of Dean Wesley Smith before this year. I only knew of Kristine Kathryn Rusch from her Star Wars novel The New Rebellion. I had never heard of J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking or Lawrence Block before I began to explore the changes in publishing. Does the fact I’ve never heard of them, or that they may not be mainstream names, negate the fact that they’re making a living at their writing?
Isn’t that the dream, gang? To make a living doing what you love? To write stories while paying your bills? I find myself struggling with this dichotomy that writers, upon hearing how they can take control of their own careers, prefer trying to have a name when they can start earning money. No you’re not going to get rich quick. It’s going to take time to build your pipeline, but you can have more stories out in the market sooner, earning right away.
Writing Star Wars tie-ins launched Michael Stackpole to the top of the New York Times list. That’s fantastic. Chuck Wendig isn’t on that list, yet he’s making his way. David Gaughran isn’t a big name, he’s just getting started publishing short stories independently. Already he is amazed at the supplement to his income just from that. J. Daniel Sawyer, widely known to my podcast audience, is making a nice income from his independent publishing.
On the other side of the coin, people such as Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath are taking independent success and turning it back into traditional publishing deals. They’re doing both. Didn’t Scott Sigler and J.C. Hutchins teach us the power of learning to build an audience first, and translating that into success? Have we so quickly forgotten the power of all the internet and social media tools at our disposal?
You Have the Power
I hear all the arguments about cover design, promotion, copy editing… all the things we look at traditional publishing and say they’re the experts at. I don’t have a real answer for those folks except that stuff can be paid for at a flat rate that won’t take you to the cleaners. Yeah, it may take some cash to get those things, but it’s probably not as expensive as you might think. Look at people practicing the DIY ethic, such as the aforementioned Dean Wesley Smith and J. Daniel Sawyer.
You, dear writer, have ever-increasing power and resources at your fingertips. Welcome to the revolution. Whether you wanted to be here or not.