An Open Letter to Traditional Publishing

James Scott Bell

Dear Traditional Publishing,
You’ve been taking it on the chin pretty good over the last year, so I wanted to write you a little letter and buck up your spirits. You’re an old and good friend. I want you to know that.
We’ve had great times together and they’re not over. We’ve done almost 30 books, you and I, and we have more in the pipeline. You send me royalties and never once has one of your checks bounced. I appreciate that!
But your head must be spinning like Victor Ortiz’s after Floyd Mayweather coldcocked him. With the e-reader revolution hitting harder than virtually anyone predicted, you’ve really hardly had time to get up off the canvas. I don’t want you to be counted out (and I certainly am not one of those in the cheap seats shouting for your demise!)
There is, however, something you need to understand. A lot of my writer friends are suffering right now because you’re dropping them. Yes, this is business, and the cold hard truth is you just haven’t got the dough coming in you used to. This limits the amount you can spend on new and midlist writers.
But there are lots of writers who signed contracts back in the day, before 2005 or so, whose books you’ve let go out of print. These writers would like to bring out these old books as e-books to try and make themselves some much needed scratch, but you are in most cases steadfastly refusing to give back any “electronic” rights. You’re going to hang onto those forever and just let the books sit there in digital land hoping they bring in a few beans.
Can I make a suggestion? Don’t play hard guy on this just because you’re bigger. Don’t pummel the struggling authors. Let them have their books. You’re not going to make a ton of lettuce on these. Being generous at this point would go a long way toward re-establishing some good will.
As for me, I am glad that it’s not either/or with us. I have you and I have self-published books that complement what we’re doing together. In point of fact, I’m doing what you always tell your authors to do: increase their platform, increase their readers. I’m making hundreds of new readers each month with my e-books, and that will only increase. Any author making new readers who feed into traditional offerings is creating a win-win situation. You can use a little more of that, I daresay!
Well, I know there’s a lot on your mind and you’ve probably got meetings to attend (watch out for those three martini lunches, though. Things aren’t that bad), so let me just give you some props and thanks. You let me have my dream. You have treated me fairly, and even though we’ve had a few disappointments, I am grateful that I get to be a working writer because you once took a chance on me.
Which is why I am hoping for your recovery. Of course we both recognize that things will never be the same. Too much has changed and will continue to change. But we still need people who love books —  yes even books printed on paper! — collectively working toward the production of quality literature. You’ve been doing that for a long time and I’m pulling for you to keep on doing it in some form or fashion in the future.
Hope this helps a little. Keep in touch. Maybe next time I’m in New York you can buy me a drink.
Yours truly,
a.k.a. K. Bennett


19 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Traditional Publishing

  1. I don’t see any reason to think that traditional publishing is going away. Part of the reason for traditional publishing is that many authors are not cut out for publishing their own stuff. Technology has made it easier in some ways, but I’m seeing that some people who are attempting to self-publish e-books are struggling with the technology. For them, the choice is to either pay someone who knows what he is doing or to find someone who will take on the risk. So in the end, we’re headed right back to traditional publishing.

  2. Change. Evolution. Ease of use. Huge bandwagon. Not dead, traditional publishing, but growing smaller every day.

    The authors will have to change with the time, and there will be “publishers” as long as there are authors. Never forget it’s the stories, the escape, the information …not the medium. As long as there is money in stories, there will be producers to handle the voids and spaces. I’ve never self-published before, but it’s close at hand.

  3. Though I respect Mr. Fish’ comments, keep in mind that many new writers’ introduction into publishing is digital; they have no concept of the traditional publisher, and with their technological savvy they need none. I agree with JSB, either play nice or step aside and watch what little revenue is left pass you (trad pub) by.

  4. I appreciate the sentiments of your note. May they do the right thing. Not good to mess with people just because you can. No one likes a bully.

  5. Nice letter, Jim. I tend to think traditional publishers will not die out. Rather, they will, in my opinion, make the transformation from the book business to the print book business.

    I further believe they might be confined to those print books which don’t translate well to digital, but for which there will be a market in the foreseeable future. Things like coffee table books, almanacs, atlases, and so on.

    Also, trad pub will be there for those few authors who don’t care about making more money. They’re satisfied with what they’re getting and they definitely want no part of cover design, editing, or marketing. They want everything done for them (such people do exist…I heard one at a Bouchercon panel last week extolling such “perks”).

    On the other side of the coin, though, is the first-time author who signs a deal with New York these days. If the book doesn’t immediately set the world on fire, which it almost certainly won’t, that author is doomed. The publisher will give no support, no publicity, no advertising…how can they? The dwindling money available for those services is tied up performing them for the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world.

    The new author’s book will languish on the remaining shelves of the remaining bookstores for a few weeks before disappearing into the pulp grinder for re-use on someone else’s book later on.

  6. Love it.

    And you’re right about traditional publishers helping the struggling authors. Publishers need to establish trustworthy relationships with their authors, totally. And e-rights are something not enough authors are aware of.

  7. Well put, JSB. While I feel for the authors and employees who are hurt by the recent and current publishing troubles, I have a hard time mustering up much sympathy for the companies and their owners/operators. They’ve acknowledged they have a bad business model, and only change they seem willing to make as it falls apart is to squeeze the people who provide the raw material for their industry, the authors.

  8. Well, wouldn’t you know it, my cousin Leonard, after most of a year with not so much as a quick hello, popped in the other day in the time machine. He had ended his affair with Lindsay Wagner after realising that the bionic woman was just too much for him to handle long term and was recovering in the future, 2139 to be exact.

    Turns out that not only does traditional publishing make a revival after the Chinese/New Soviet Union invasion of North America is beaten back, but the Republic of Canmerica becomes a powerhouse out international publishing in all four major book media, print/ebook/audiobook/cerebook. The last one being a new facet after the micro-tech revolution that allows a book-chip to be introduced directly into one cerebrum and the data injested directly into thoughts as a preset speed. If one likes to get a lot of books in a short time set the speed to high and you can place a books entire contents into your memory within 1.2 seconds, therefore enabling one to read thousands of books an hour, limited only by finances. Those books are of course available via Amazon-BrainBooks for as little as 99 cents a piece.

    I pointed inquisitively to his hands when I realized that he had acquired extra digits and it was then I also noticed he was wearing depends under his clothes.

    “Yeah,” he said, “there was some fine print in the implant contract I should’ve read. The extra fingers are cool, but the incontinence is kind of embarassing when I travel to the past. Every in the future is doing it though, so it’s cool after 2136.”

    “Uh,” says I, “I’ll stick with the other three reading modes then.”

  9. I just don’t see traditional publishing going away. Record labels never went away. I did some research on that debacle with the movie studios that happened like 60 years ago, and even then the movie studios didn’t go away. They just had to change things a bit.

  10. Interesting thoughts, interesting times, and what a great group of readers we have. Think of it. I never would have thought of the incontinence thing but for Basil. That is absolutely something I’ll need to look out for in future contracts.

    It is astoundingly wonderful that writers have the options they do now, as BK notes. Everyone is still processing the ultimate meaning of it. Not the least of which are those human beings managing the big companies. They’re not vindictive, they want all boats to float. Now if they decide they can’t afford to float a particular boat that writer can go out and test his own dinghy.

    So to speak.

    But this is a business, and we all need to think in businesslike terms. Publishers need to see the benefits of authors selectively self-publishing. If they don’t, it won’t inure to their benefit. And authors need to be aware of all the options they have…and if they do go their own way, be prepared to be strategic about it.

  11. I was fortunate to hit the ‘sweet spot’ where my mass market returns weren’t passed by my fledgling eBook sales at Random House and got the rights back to 12 titles. I own 100% of my backlist. I sell more eBooks in one day than Random House could muster in six months with the same titles. No one loves a book more than its author. If publishers are clinging to backlist, but not pushing it, or the author can never earn out on it, it’s a lose-lose all around. Work with the authors, give them a reason to promote.

    I see all the boo-hoo every time a bookstore goes out of business (and I smile at all the moans over Borders when the same people were boycotting Borders back in the day it was the bad guy vs the indies). I have yet to see a single industry article bemoaning a midlist author whose contract isn’t renewed. Not one. After all, we don’t need writers. Much like the scene in The Player where the studio discusses how if they could only get rid of the writers the whole movie industry would work much better.

    I make the equivalent of a “nice deal” every month now. I was even thinking of sending an email to PW Deals announcing it. “Bob Mayer signed with Bob Mayer, a nice deal for his latest novel.” Wonder if they’d run it?

  12. Bob, thanks for stopping by. You definitely were forward thinking in getting that backlist, plus your new stuff is doing gangbusters, too. Well done.

    New authors without previous work to market have to take a long view and understand that Rome was not built in a day (to coin a phrase). But even a moderate selling e-book is beginning the process of building a readership. It’s about consistent production of quality work. Gee, just as it should be.

  13. But even a moderate selling e-book is beginning the process of building a readership. It’s about consistent production of quality work.

    Exactly. The folks that self-publish one book and quit when they don’t get rich are not examples to live by. In most cases, the real successful indie authors either have a large backlist like Bob, or have produced a boatload of books since starting with self-pubbing. Amanda Hocking is a good example of this. People forget she had something like 5 or so books (I think; feel free to fact check me on this) in the same series when she hit it big.

    I’m in it for the long haul. I won’t start seriously checking my sales until I have 8-10 books up. Almost half way there.

    Rob Cornell
    Author of Darker Things

  14. I went out to buy a new player for my wax cylinder records, and guess what? They don’t make them any more. It’s not a shortage of wax, or that there’s no more music to record. It’s just that the technology has had its time and the world moves on. Of course, most of us like the feel and smell of a new book, and I liked the silky feel of a wax cylinder, and its characteristic tinny sound.

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