Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #2

UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long. Random House and Penguin have announced their merger. So what will that mean for authors? Agent Richard Curtis has one opinion. So does The Passive Voice.


David Letterman once did a Top Ten list of headlines that would cause a panic. Such as:

“Sometimes When We Touch” Made National Anthem.
Constitution Thrown Out in Favor of Old “Marmaduke” Cartoon.
Willie Nelson Discovered Washing Hair in New York City Water Supply.
That last one is very troubling. And in the publishing industry, it seems there are headlines each week that, if they don’t cause a panic, at least give traditional publishing executives the jimmy-legs at night. Headlines like the following:
Indeed, it was inevitable that the Big 6 would become the Big 5, and maybe even the Big 4, and that soon. I predicted this would happen sometimes in 2013. Well, the talks are happening right now.
“It’s a recognition that they don’t individually have the scale to be able to stand up to companies like Amazon or Apple,” Philip Downer, former chief executive of Borders UK who now runs the retail consultancy Front of Store, told the BBC.
Thus, it seemed apt to file another field report on developments in the e-book revolution. It was a year ago that I filed my first one. Happy anniversary:
1. The Business Cycle as a Funneling Sump Pump
Traditional publishers are in the midst of a horrible business cycle (not necessarily in terms of income, but in terms of sustainability and growth of income). We all know that, and the merger talks are a sign.
Another sign: In an effort to “streamline operations,” Simon & Schuster has reduced its adult publishing divisions from six to four, with accompanying layoffs.
Layoffs, hires and re-structuring are all focused on digital now. For example, Hachette announced changes in its sales force with an appropriate press release: “We are changing our current structure to enable HBG to meet the needs and challenges of our ever-shifting world, where digital has made a deep and lasting impression on the way HBG sells and the customers we sell to, the platforms we advertise on, and the manner and type of content we publish.”
On the other side of the publishing fence (an electric fence, BTW):
• In 2011, 39% of books were sold via some form of e-commerce. Only 26% in bookstore chains. (Source: Bowker)
• The number of self-published books produced annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled, growing 287% since 2006, with 235,625 print and e titles released in 2011. (Source: Bowker)
• And a company that recorded $13.8 billion (with a “b”) in sales this past quarter did not make a profit, but rather a $247 million loss. That company is Amazon. But it is also Amazon’s strategy. As Jeff Bezos puts it:
“Our approach is to work hard to charge less. Sell devices near breakeven and you can pack a lot of sophisticated hardware into a very low price point. And our approach is working – the $199 Kindle Fire HD is the #1 bestselling product across Amazon worldwide . . .The next two bestselling products worldwide are our Kindle  Paperwhite and our $69 Kindle.”
Is this just sound and fury? Or is it, as Forbes magazine puts it, a crafty strategy worthy of Steve Jobs? For it just may be that what Amazon is after now is Apple. As Bezos says, in a shot across the bow from the above release:And we haven’t even started shipping our best tablet – the $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9.”
And this in light of Apple’s disappointing iPad sales this past quarter.
2. The New Vanity?
“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” wrote Solomon the Wise. Was he thinking of self-publishing Ecclesiastes? Or was he hoping to sell it to a big papyrus company? One writer has gone so far as to call traditionalpublishing the “new vanity publishing.”

According to this HuffPo post, many writers “are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the “prestige” of signing on with a ‘real publisher.’” He concludes:
Think about how much you are willing to sacrifice for a “real publisher.” Is the “prestige” of a traditional publisher’s imprint mostly illusory in the context of the new world of publishing? Ask what traditional publishing will do for you in the long run if you don’t get effective distribution and publicity. Which platform is more likely to bring you sizable sales? Which will help you build a large following for marketing future publications? These are critical questions that deserve serious attention, especially if you are planning a career in writing.
Is the imprimatur of traditional publishing the new “vanity” plate? Perhaps that’s not the right designation. Vanity publishing was about paying your way in with a crummy book. Traditional publishing requires a great book (and/or platform, and/or celebrity co-writer who does not really do any of the real writing but is on TV.)
But more and more authors are asking what specific benefits are there for a new writer within the walls of traditional publishing. Especially in light of low advances (or, in the case of digital only, no advance at all), the semi-fixed royalties in the publishers’ favor, the shrinking of shelf space, and the lack of a significant marketing push unless you have a “name.”
If deals are to be made favorable to both sides, they will have to be creative, forward thinking, shared-risk and flexible. This is my message to the Big 6 or 5 or 4, or whoever is left standing when we file our next field report.  

As Jane Friedman (not the former CEO of HarperCollins Jane Friedman, but the publishing world observer Jane Friedman) recently wrote:

In a nutshell, I suggest that—given the changes happening in the industry—traditional publishers will need to be more author-focused in their operations by offering tools, community, and education to help authors be more successful, to everyone’s greater benefit. If publishers fail to do so, then authors, who have an increasing number of publishing options available to them, will depart for greener pastures.
3. Remember Sony Reader?
With all the talk about Kindle, Nook and Kobo, it’s easy to forget the first kid on the block, the Sony Reader. Yes, it’s still out there and people still have them. But if Kindle is Godzilla, and Nook is The Hulk, and Kobo is Mothra, what would Sony Readers be? Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Because at least they are alive and kicking. From a press release this week:
Today Sony Reader Store has announced the launch of its inaugural virtual Book Club, the ‘Sony Readers Book Club.’ Each month, Sony Reader Store will select a book of the month. During each month, Reader Store will host a virtual Book Club meeting, an online chat with the author, on the Sony Reader Store Facebook and Twitter pages, giving participants the opportunity to interact with the author and each other and ask questions related to the book. The Sony Readers Book Club will also offer special discounts and book club extras for download, available to U.S. customers at Reader Store.
Upcoming chats will feature Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Connelly. Not a bad start. I wish them well.
4. Happiness as the New Currency
In Field Report #1 I wrote this: Authors who are succeeding at being completely independent are those who are able to bring entrepreneurial analytics to the task. If you’re going to publish successfully as an indie, you have to think like a business.
Which is why, not long after, I published Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books. I’ve used the formula successfully for going on two years now, and am holding workshops to help others do the same.
Because I want writers to be happy in their work.
I have a friend who is a New York Timesbestselling author. He has found advances decreasing and the publishing lag time of 18 months – 2 years intolerable. So he has self-published his new book, in both e form and POD (Print On Demand). He has set up his own book signings with independent bookstores. And he’s happy about it.
I have another friend who is a successful screenwriter. But he now finds the whole vibe of the business “soul sucking” and longs to get out and just write fiction. He has self-published a thriller, and I’m helping think things through.
You see, sometimes being happy as a writer is worth trading in other things that just don’t matter so much anymore.
Happiness just may be the new currency in the writing game. Make your choices accordingly.

14 thoughts on “Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #2

  1. It is indeed interesting to watch the shift in the magnetic pole as it were. As we tumble through space in Her Royal Majesty’s SkyShip Publishicanus that center of gravity keeps leaping from bulkhead to bulkhead tossing us about like a bunch of Mexican Jumping Beans on a July Guadalajara sidewalk, trying to figure out which side to be standing on when the ship finally slams into terra firma and hoping that we’ll be landing feet first on the part that becomes the bottom instead of learning too late we’re standing on the wrong surface and finding ourselves proiecisset faciem primus into the newly declared ground floor.

    I see a great business ahead for independent editors, proof readers and writing coaches as more and more folks take the plunge and try to make an actual living at this self-pub thingy-McDoodle. In the meantime, I am glad I hopped onto the path fairly early and am finding my niche both in writing and in audiobookifying.

    btw – a couple hrs ago I got that weird feeling I always get just before an earthquake, then suddenly felt a tiny jolt. When I looked up I saw my wife rising from her office chair stretching and I thought ‘Oh, she must’a just thumped the floor.’ So I put it all down to her movements and a bit of gas from that Chinese 5-spice chicken from dinner. 5 minutes later my son calls from across town and says the Tsunami Warning center just issued a Tsunami Warning and recommends folks in low areas, like his downtown Anchorage condo, skeedadle & visit their uphill relatives for a little bit. Turns out that thump & gas was actually a 7.7 earthquake in the ocean halfway up B.C. Lowlanders might be getting their feet wet in a bit.

  2. Wow, Basil, your family sounds like the shifting Sands. Glad you’re all okay.

    And yes, good editors are in great demand right now, but the buyer must beware and make sure to get recommendations, see client lists and the like. Editing is the most expensive part of the self-publishing endeavor, but also the most essential. At the same time, editing from the traditional houses has had to be cut back in favor of digital staffing. So even those under contract need to think about finding outside services.

  3. Jim, You may not have fired the first salvo at “the rude bridge that arched the (publishing) flood,” but you were in the first group across.
    I know you preach this, but let me emphasize it–just because you can self-publish doesn’t mean you’re ready. Polish the work, get good editing help, get a professional artist to do the cover, and be prepared to market, market, market.
    Just this weekend I had an email from an author who had self-published her first book, and then asked, “What do I do now?”
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

  4. Just this weekend I had an email from an author who had self-published her first book, and then asked, “What do I do now?”


    And my answer is simple: write another one.

  5. I’m curious, Jim- does that 26% of books sold in chains star include Walmart and Target? Because the big box stores count for a significant chunk of print sales now.

    I also have to contest the fact that you need a huge advance for a publisher to put marketing muscle behind your book. I received a respectable advance for my latest, but far south of 100k, yet Harper has been amazingly supportive and creative with their marketing. Sometimes I feel that the big publishers aren’t getting credit for how they gave adapted.

  6. Michelle, I think your Wal-Marts and your Targets would be classified as “nontraditional bookstores” according to Bowker, which makes up 8% of the pie.

    Re: marketing. Agent Rachelle Gardner recently put it this way: “Do publishers market books or not? The answer is: Yes, they do. But not as much as they used to. And they’re not very effective without the author’s involvement.”

    And with marketing budgets slashed authors do need to be proactive on assessing returns on investment.

    In a case like yours, it sounds like a creative partnership, which is pleasing to you. As I said in the post, that’s the new currency. And also the future for traditional publishers thinking forward. BTW, I am not one who says publishers don’t do things well. In fact, I’ve stated quite the opposite. I like traditional publishing, which has been very good to me.

    My role, however, is not to act as cheerleader or Cassandra for the industry. It’s to observe what’s going objectively and help writers make informed decisions.

  7. Jim, now comes the news that HarperCollins’ parent company News Corp is very much interested in purchasing the Penguin Group as well. Let the games begin.

    Again, publishing is following the trajectory of the music industry, which is now down to three major players as the result of mergers, acquisitions, and the like This has occurred following the advent of the digital revolution. It looks as if the publishing industry is moving through the stages more quickly, probably because it is not proceeding through entirely uncharted territory. It doesn’t make it any easier to do so, however.

  8. Thanks so much for that inspiring post, Jim. I’ve now added your Happy Writer quote to my Quote Box.
    “. . . sometimes being happy as a writer is worth trading in other things that just don’t matter so much anymore.”

  9. Alaska Update: Tsunami did hit last night….a massive surge of 1 inch over normal seas. Didn’t even get our socks wet.

    Hopefully my books will create a much stronger tsunami of literary achievement than that quake did water.

  10. Thank you James for another informative post.

    Would you consider devoting an entire blog to editors? I would welcome whatever morsels of wisdom you have about selecting and paying a professional editor.

    Whenever readers tell me they like my first book, I am encouraged to keep going, and obsess less about promotions. I have food on the table, roof over my head, good company, books to read, and time to write. What else do I need to be happy? Finish my second book.

    Sella Pals

  11. I worry that in reveling over the new power of authors in the marketplace, people are losing sight of that fact that what we are doing, in truth, is supporting a burgeoning monopoly. Sure, right now Amazon is offering authors a chance to make more money off their self-published work. And yet recently, there have been clear signs that Amazon is flexing its new muscle. By erasing Kindles that it assumes (erroneously) have somehow circumvented it’s DRM rules. By randomly eliminating legitimate reviews. When you self-pub with Amazon, be aware that you’re signing a contract that is subject to change, unlike what you’ll see with a traditional publisher. Today, you might be making 70% on that book. Tomorrow, it might be far less. They have all the power. I fail to see where, in the end, this benefits authors any more than publishing traditionally.

    Additionally, I fear that people who see the publishing world as a series of insurmountable hurdles are skipping straight to self-publishing without considering the drawbacks. Yes, the music industry can serve as a guide–in that, according to this article, current popular music from the top four record labels still dominates sales; accounting for 85 percent of all downloads. ( So I worry that there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved here. The traditional music industry did not shrivel up and die, ceding to independent recordings. And I suspect the same will be true of traditional publishing. There will be an inevitable consolidation. And yet, those who publish traditionally will still have an edge in the market. I’d like to point to self-pubbed success stories, such as Amanda Hocking and E L James, for proof. They apparently were making a fortune self-publishing, yet eschewed it to sign traditional contracts. Why? I think that’s the question anyone debating the question should ask themselves.

  12. Jim: Congratulations on your anniversary. Interesting points in this article.

    Michelle: I can’t say what drove E.L.James to traditional publishing, but I remember Amanda Hocking mentioning that one of her compelling reasons was how much indie publishing took out of her. She was looking forward to being able to focus more on her writing, and less on other aspects of publishing that were eating up her time.

  13. True, Mark. And Amanda Hocking should probably be dropped out of every conversation on this topic, as she is an anomaly. Her success was based on a number of factors, not the least of which is time: she was one of the early adopters of self-publishing in a market that was just beginning. It’s not that way anymore. Also, she was prolific, priced the books to sell, etc. That kind of reach is now largely gone in the roiling sea if current reality.

    And yes, self-publishing successfully requires some effort and business acumen, but the effort is no more difficult that learning to do all the things a publisher wants you to do to help market a book.

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