Let’s Learn the Right Lesson

By John Gilstrap

NEWS FLASH:  We interrupt this blog post to bring you a special bulletin.  My novel Hostage Zero has been nominated by the Private Eye Writers of America for the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original.  Winners will be announced at a private banquet in St. Louis during Bouchercon in September.  Fingers crossed.

Now, on with the blog post . . .

There’s an old joke about a scientist who amputates the legs from a specially trained jumping frog.  After the wounds have healed, the scientist spends days saying, “Jump Froggie, jump!” yet the frog just sits there.  Based on the empirical evidence, the scientist concludes that frogs go deaf after you cut off their legs.
I thought of this joke several times yesterday, following Jordan’s great post about S&S’s decision to distribute John Locke’sbooks.  Some of the responses troubled me, both in tone and in content.  People seemed to be taking away from that story lessons that I don’t think apply.  Moreover, they seemed to be taking away lessons that could prove harmful to them in the end.
Wrong Lesson #1: Locke’s deal is replicable by others.  Think Amanda Hocking, right?  This is the new wave of publishing.  Joe Konrath, too.  Finally, the authors have the publishing world on the ropes.  A new day has dawned.
Okay, I’ll concede the new day thing, but only to a point.  First, let’s consider how the system worked fifteen years ago, when I was a rookie in the publishing league.  I wrote the book and my agent sold the book.  I cashed the check and started writing the next book, earning back at the rate of $3.25 per copy sold.  The publisher took all of the risk, paid all of the designers, established all of the distribution, handled most of the publicity, and in return might or might not make any money out of the transaction.
In Locke’s case, the publisher waited on the sidelines until a writer took all of the risk, paid out all of the marketing money, and dedicated countless hours to promotion, selling a million-plus copies at $0.99 apiece.  Seeing a sure thing, S&S stepped in to make money with near-zero risk.  This was not a David v. Goliath moment.  It was a sound business transaction that was preceded by the literary equivalent of a lightning strike.  Ditto the Amanda Hocking deal.
To me, Locke’s deal is the equivalent of General Motors telling an untried engineer, “Tell you what, kid.  If you design the car, build the factory, manufacture a few thousand copies, road test them, market them, get them written up in Car and Driver and build a loyal customer base, I’ll let you use a corner of some our show rooms to sell them.”  It’s a sound business decision, but it’s hardly a model for every young engineer.
Wrong Lesson #2:  The smart new author needs to retain his digital rights, granting a publisher only print rights.  Two words come to mind for this one: career suicide.
Let’s take this one from the point of view of a publisher who’s dealing with a brand new author:
I don’t need your book.  I’m awash with books.  No one knows who you are, but I’m willing to try and change that.  The odds are woefully stacked against us, but I’m willing to commit thousands of dollars in designer time, editor time and marketing time to help your book rise above the noise.  Our editors will help you be a better writer than you could ever be on your own.  Plus, I’m going to pay you—not as much as we pay Grisham or King, but that kind of money is there for you when you get those kinds of results.  You get to keep the advance money, too, even if I lose my bet on you. 
But if you want to profit from my expertise, you have to give me the tools with which to earn it.  The print business is shrinking, baby.  The future lies in eBooks, whatever form they’ll take in the coming years.  I’ll put you in catalogues that those eBook originals will never see.  I’ll show you off in Frankfurt at the Book Fair, and I’ll give away ARCs at the ABA convention.  We’ll put you on our website, which is visited not just by readers, but by bulk buyers and libraries.  Think of all of this as thousands of dollars in free services, all because we believe in you.
What’s that?  Still not convinced?  You just want to leave me with what you perceive as the dregs so that you can have only upside?  Run along, young author.
This publishing game is a business, and the author is only a small part of the machine.  I think there’s way too much hype out there vilifying the publishing industry as some kind of parasite, and it’s just not true.  Publishers are the gateway to success.
Fifteen years ago, authors who weren’t very good turned to vanity presses that stoked the fires of artistic egalitarianism.  Every now and then, a Christmas Box phenom broke out and fired unwarranted dreams that ended up in garages full of unsold printed books.  Now, those same authors, or authors like them, are turning to eBooks with irrational hopes.  A few will make it, but many will not.  Of those who do make it, most would have done better if they had pursued the traditional publishing route.
The hook to indie e-publishing is the lure of 70% (or whatever the number is) of the cover price of every book sold, versus the 25% that is quickly becoming the standard in the traditional publishing world.  Ultimately, authors must ask themselves which is better: 70% of 1,000 books sold (or 10,000 or 25,000) at $0.99 apiece, or 25% of 150,000 books sold at $4.50 or $9.00 apiece.  They need to ask themselves if their true expertise is in writing or if it is in publishing.
One thing seems clear to me in all of the self-pub success stories: In every case, the author established a reliable fan base before the Big Deal was closed.  There’s no easy way to do that, but some ways are way easier than others.

23 thoughts on “Let’s Learn the Right Lesson

  1. No argument from me on Wrong Lesson #1. I do not believe Locke’s deal is easily reproducible, for the reasons you cited.

    RE: Wrong Lesson #2: Granted, I’m an unpublished writer, so my only info comes from blogs and writers loops so I am trusting that what I hear is the truth, or some semblance thereof. But in the argument here, essentially, Joe Publisher is saying “Here, I’m going to do all these things for you…” Only problem is, to listen to many authors tell it, publishers don’t do a lot for you (except for a certain strata of authors) and are doing less all the time. And I don’t recall precisely the figure I’ve heard tossed around, but I thought I read even traditionally published books (again, except for a certain strata of authors) don’t sell more than a thousand books, or at least a relatively small #. So again, I’m not perceiving some fantastic advantage in the traditional publishing route over indie—not enough to convince me to give up digital rights.

    Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying I would rule out trad publishing or giving up digital rights. I am saying, as an industry gleaner-of-information, I’m not seeing all the terrific support in the larger balance of things. In the end though, regardless of the route I take with either trad or indie publishing, I realize I can’t just write books. I’ve got to do a lot of the leg work myself and it’s going to be a hard slog.

    BK Jackson

  2. Maybe this would have made sense a year ago, but the publishing business is in steep decline now and can’t afford to do much of anything at all for new authors. And as for traditional publishers doing ebooks well, forget that. They have to price them too high to sustain their overhead. Consumers aren’t going to buy them at those prices (unless it’s by a Lee Child type). The publishers are terrible at marketing ebooks, too. So they’re not going to be selling any 150,000 copies at $4.50. 1500 maybe. An indie author with a good book and some marketing skills can do that in a few months.

  3. The Hocking and Locke deals, as you indicate John, are unique. There are not going to be a lot of these. A new author is certainly not going to get a deal with a major publisher (or even a small one) that retains e-rights. That wouldn’t make business sense from a publisher’s standpoint.

    The real issue for the new writer these days is whether to go indie out of the gate, which is a whole other discussion (involving, not least, the issue of readiness).

    Oh, and congrats on the Shamus nom. Nice.

  4. Congratulations on the Shamus nomination, John. TKZ readers are rooting for you.

    Your post hints at another mistake to be avoided: don;t take too extreme a position in regard to publishers, in either direction. They can do things for a writer he can’t do for himself. If they choose to. You’re right, publishers aren’t going to sign up a writer for the drags; on the other hand, they’re not doing the author a favor. It’s a cash transaction for them, while it may be more than that for an individual writer.

    Know your own definition of success before making any rash decisions.

  5. Congratulations on the Shamus nomination, John. Richly deserved.
    And as always, a great post. You’re right. Few people consider the risk factor in publishing. Great risk will equal either great reward or great failure.

  6. BK,

    You touch on a couple of specific points that illustrate the dangers of the blogosphere. Writers’ boards are packed with frustrated, angry writers who refuse to admit that they’re just not as good as they think they are, and blame their lack of success on a publishing industry that has somehow inexplicably turned against writers. They tout self-publishing as the best route to success because for them it is the only route to see their book on sale somewhere. By spinning up others to follow, they affirm their opinions. They’re not lying, mind you, because they’re recounting their own experiences, but the result in far too many cases is a form of fear mongering.

    There’s nothing in my post that is not done by every publisher for every author in their stable. Each is represented at conferences (if not Frankfurt, then others), and each is included in a catalog. Each publisher has easier access to subrights agents, and each takes on the risk of publishing. None of that is reserved for the certain strata, though that certain strata will get more of the above than the newbie, which, as a business matter, is as it should be.

    It may well be that the average book only sells about 1,000 copies (I don’t know, one way or the other), but through a publisher, a newbie has at least some hope for much more. Via the self-pub route, the new author is turns his back on potential greatness, and instead guarantees mediocrity (we’re talking sales primarily, but also quality, due the absence of an editor), all for the sake of avoiding rejection. That makes no sense to me.

    John Gilstrap

  7. Congrats on the Shamus nomination! When it comes to drink buying time I’ll take a Alaska Brewing Co. Baltic Porter…mmm’mmm dark & rich…. Or a Long Island Iced Tea if that’s not available.

    As far as John Locke et al, you are of course right. What a lot of folks may not fully digest is that Locke has about a dozen novels, has worked his but off to sell over 1.3 million copies in the past year (that’s about $350k at $0.99 each during that period of time), and keeps pumping out new books. When the publishers looked at him they saw him not as a new author, but as a tried and tested no brainer low risk author with an established base.

    I do believe it can be replicated, but will take any author who wants it some seriously hard work and diligence. For my own books I am attacking both venues at once in hopes that either the ebook sales will take off or a major publisher will see it and say “Hey, we need Basil on our payroll!” or both.

    Been at it for 5 years now, and I know that either way, it will not be easy.

  8. oops…I meant to say that Locke worked his “BUTT” off, as opposed to ‘but’. ALthough I suppose being a writer, one could technically work one’s conjunctions quite hard.

  9. Anon 03:35,

    I don’t know where your data comes from, but I think you’re painting with way too wide a brush.

    Some publishers (mine among them) do a terrific job marketing eBooks. They’re embracing the future and trying new strategies. Some work better than others, but at least they’re trying.

    As for your statement that publishers have to price eBooks “too high to sustain their overhead,” that’s just wrong. Given that THE HELP, which is #1 on Kindle–its 633rd day in the top 100–is priced at $9.99, the businessman in me suggests that it’s priced perfectly, if not a little low. “Too high”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My own THREAT WARNING chugs along pretty well at $5.19 (it’s #651 as I write this). CJ Lyons, on the other hand, is celebrating her 16th day on the Top 100 at a price point of $0.99. I’m assuming that her book is self-pubbed, but she had a number of successful traditionally-pubbed books before.

    So, where is the right price point? Doesn’t it depend on a number of different factors, down to and including the genre?

    John Gilstrap

  10. John–Way to go on the Shamus nomination. Hope you win.

    The Locke deal is not replicable. Today.

    Tomorrow, however, when Stephen King’s deal is up with his publisher, he might well want the same thing. And he’ll get it. Why should he settle for 25% (or whatever he’s getting on his ebooks) instead of 70%? After all, he’s Stephen King. He knows people will buy his ebooks, just as they’re buying his print books. There’s no downside for him.

    The day after tomorrow, James Patterson will want the same thing. And he’ll get it.

    Next week, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Lawrence Block, and a few others will want the same deal. And they’ll get it.

    By Christmas, what’s left of the midlist will be demanding the same deal. They may or may not get it.

    By Christmas, 2012, it will, IMO, be part of the standard boilerplate in any deal, as publishers recede into the background of the print-only business.

    I would respectfully disagree with your contention that an indie author would be foolish to try to sell 1000 books (or even 25,000) at 99¢, while you seem to assume that a traditional publisher can automatically sell 150,000 copies of that same book at $9 apiece. That’s pretty far-fetched, don’t you think? Will your ebook sell 150,000 copies at $5.19? There definitely is a price breaking point for the consumer. THE HELP is a runaway hit, so it’s hardly the typical legacy ebook.

    About royalties, the indie author must price his/her book at a minimum of $2.99 to receive the 70% rate on Amazon. And it’s fallacious to assume a writer will get 25% on his first book from a traditional publisher.

    I believe it’s also fallacious to assume a publisher will go to the lengths you describe for a new author to whom they have paid a minimum advance.

    Any way you slice it, traditional publishers simply can’t call all the shots the way they used to.

  11. It’s Anon 3:35 again. John, your book in the 600s at that price is pretty good, as a matter of fact. But you do realize there are several hundred self-pubbed books way ahead of you, right? Real readers, real satisfaction, real money. All without a publisher.

  12. Congrats John.

    I really don’t think any publisher is going to do me much good at this stage in my career unless i write a HUGE book. That is another story. I have a fan base, or I did last time I looked over my shoulder.

    While your publisher sells your ebooks effectively, they aren’t often able to replicate your success with other of their authors they use the same marketing format on. Good authors sell.

  13. This blog post is clearly just as biased in favor of big publishing, as the other blogging authors are against it. So that’s important to keep in mind.

    Just read Konrath’s blog for the other viewpoint. I know that’s one of the guys Locke is talking about as far as vilifying publishing but still, his posts are so analytical and observant. Those posts are shrewd and forward thinking.

    You shouldn’t just toss aside progressives as fear mongers.

  14. What I love about this post as a new author is all the conflict and tension.

    I’ve learned so much about this industry at this blog.

    Kill Zone Authors Rock!

  15. Mike Dennis wrote: “I would respectfully disagree with your contention that an indie author would be foolish to try to sell 1000 books (or even 25,000) at 99¢, while you seem to assume that a traditional publisher can automatically sell 150,000 copies of that same book at $9 apiece. That’s pretty far-fetched, don’t you think? Will your ebook sell 150,000 copies at $5.19?”

    Mike, I’m not suggesting that all authors are foolish to try to sell independently. I’m suggesting that unless and until a reputation has been established, an indie author is just noise in the marketplace. The quicker route to that recognition is through traditional publishing, provided a publisher will take them on.

    As for whether I expect to sell 150,000 copies, the answer is yes, absolutely.

    Anon redux: Of course I realize that there are indie authors higher on the chart. God bless them. Here are two big differences between their status and the status of a traditionally-pubbed author. 1) The trad-pubbed is making more per copy (in most cases, certainly if they have an agent who knows what she’s doing), and 2) the early sales are earning out money that has been in the trad-pubbed author’s account for months before the book hits the shelves. Once that advance earns out the trad-pubbed author will still be making more money per copy, and he’ll have banked the money for the next book before it’s even written.

    One route is no more virtuous than the other. It just makes no sense to me to reach first for the more difficult, less lucrative route.

    Taylor, this isn’t about bias, it’s about my personal experience. My mission here is to provide balance to much of the bullshit that is spouted in the blogosphere by people who don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never actually sold a book. Too many people *want* to believe that the publishing world is corrupt and failing, when in fact it’s just not true. Because a line of bullshit is commonly accepted among people who want to hear it does not make it any more legitimate.

    Self-pubbing is a fine route for those who have already developed a following. (See John Miller’s post today.) In fact, my publisher is looking at an old manuscript of mine as we speak. If they pass on it, then I will likely throw my own hat in the indie ring. Why not? It’s a good story, but a previous editor didn’t think it fit my brand. (It still doesn’t, but my brand is less fragile now. At least I hope it is.)

    And Taylor, by way of clarification, I was not referring to Konrath’s blog in my post. You read it that way and drew conclusions accordingly. Wrong ones, mind you, but no doubt heartfelt. I don’t “toss aside progressives as fear mongers;” I toss aside fearmongers as fearmongers.

    Especially the ones who are anxious to calm those fears for a fee.

    John Gilstrap

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