The Liternet was abuzz this week with the news that a New York Times bestselling author, Barry Eisler, turned down half a million bones from a traditional publisher to go E.
Some are calling this a “key benchmark.” Others, a “tipping point.” Whatever you call it, it’s a pretty big deal. Eisler giving self-pub his sanction will increase the number of name authors making the same move. It’s happening even as we read.
Meanwhile, self-publishing millionaire Amanda Hocking has just signed a traditional deal for more than $2 million. Ms. Hocking, 26, explains her decision here. She’s not giving up self-publishing, which is itself news—she has given herself the clout to get a traditional publisher to go along with a tandem track. What’s funny is that she is the one who calls having her books traditionally published a risk—for her.
Interesting times, eh? It used to be publishers were the ones who talked about risk. Where is Lewis Carroll when you need him?
Both Alice and the Mad Hatter would agree, I think, that it’s a good times for writers. As I have put a toe in the water myself, a few thoughts are in order over several current “debates.”
The Rapid Rise v. The Tailing Off Debate
Digital publishing is moving faster than most expected a year ago, and that makes this a good move for Eisler. He can have more books come out at a faster clip. He’s in a position to rake in the kind of dough Joe Konrath is (reportedly that same half a mil per year).
Can this growth be sustained? I think so. It will reach such a scale that any “tailing off” will be insignificant.
The Publishing Establishment v. Rogue Authors Debate
In a looong dialogue with Konrath, Eisler says this:
As a news junkie, it’s been fascinating for me to watch the way the publishing establishment has tried to marginalize you. First by ignoring you, and then, when ignoring you become impossible, by trying to position you as some sort of shrill, bitter, fringe player with nothing more than an axe to grind. The way legacy publishing has tried to de-position you is perfectly analogous to what The New York Times and other establishment media players have tried to do with Wikileaks.
I’m not sure one can generalize about the entire “publishing establishment” being intentional about marginalizing Joe Konrath (Eisler, of course, is ex-CIA, so he may have some intel we don’t know about).
Anyway, this is less about “who’s right” than it is about objective facts and business models. The traditional model is reeling right now. They’re like Jake LaMotta in his sixth bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. And it’s not because “they” are mean and nasty. They simply are not an exception to the inexorable laws of innovation and economics. They have to adjust, but it is extremely difficult for major industries to change course, and especially to do it quickly in response to the sudden reshaping of market forces.
I love traditional publishing. Publishers have been, and are, very good to me and I have many friends in the industry. I’ve also seen friends lose their jobs. I hate that, but I also understand the business angle. Businesses have to do what they must to do to survive. So do authors.
Which is why I see no reason an author might not self-publish and work with a traditional publisher in some form or fashion (this will require two oft ignored business principles, creativity and flexibility).
My novella and short story collection, Watch Your Back, probably would not have seen publication in print. So it went live as an e-book in February, and sold well enough to show me it was worth it.
But for this month to date, March, sales are ten times what they were in February.
To which I say, WHAT?
I’m not sure how this happened. It could be the result of a well placed blog interview, or some cumulative effect of Amazon’s recommend-algorithm (you know, “If you liked this, you may like this”). Or it could be some alchemy no one can reconstruct or replicate. The one thing it does prove is the tremendous potential of E.
And here’s another thing: I am making new readers daily. Isn’t that what publishers and agents are pushing authors to do? Build a platform? This is nothing but positive for an author and a traditional publisher, should they team up down the line. Which brings us to:
The Platform v. Random Acts of Discovery Argument
Konrath has made a good case, backed up by examples, of those who did not have a platform or readership before self-publishing. There are some who have blasted off, others who are doing quite well. (The majority do very little, but this has always been true).
An established base certainly doesn’t hurt, but zero name recognition can be overcome with quality writing, consistent output and marketing energy. Which leads to:
The Quality vs. Persistence Argument
Is it possible for someone to just keep pumping out dreck and make some good coin? Depends on your definition of “good.” A hundred bucks a year may be okay for someone. But if you want to make substantial lettuce, I say you have to produce really good books. So it’s better to wait than to rush in with a lot of bad stuff. That will only hurt your long term results.
The Extinction of Traditional Publishing v. A New Model Argument
Is traditional publishing dead and just doesn’t know it (as some writers, with a bit too much glee, assert)? Or will it find its way to some new equilibrium? Even the ever prescient Mike Shatzkin isn’t sure:
If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that U was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?
Whatever the future brings, it’s still going to be all about the writing. The one thing publishing can’t do without is writers. The one thing readers can’t do without is writers. I’ve worked hard at this craft for over 20 years. I love it. It’s what I do. And I believe any way to make a fair exchange with readers is worthy. E-pubbing provides another way to make that exchange.
So does the Eisler Sanction feel like a “tipping point”? What do you think it means industry wide? What does it mean to you?