Eye on the Publishing Business

by James Scott Bell

We’re over halfway through the year (ack!), so it seems an apt time to catch up on a few publishing business items. Here are five that recently caught my eye. Additions and prognostications are welcome in the comments.

Traditional Publishing’s Flat Sales

This from Jane Friedman’s Hot Sheet (subscription required; reprinted with permission):

For the first five months of the year, the Association of American Publishers reports that adult book sales are flat versus 2022 across all formats (print, ebook, audio), while children’s and YA sales fell by nearly 8 percent versus last year. The main weakness is in children’s hardcovers; as we reported last year, Barnes & Noble has become reluctant to stock such books due to high returns.


So far Big Five publisher Hachette has seen profits decline 16 percent versus last year; the company blamed a lighter publication schedule, lack of bestsellers compared to 2022, and a downturn in the US market. CEO Michael Pietsch said, “Sales of backlist titles, children’s and Christian books, and general and prescriptive nonfiction faced particular challenges in a down market. … Backlist sales began to grow toward the end of the first half, and we anticipate a considerably stronger second half.”

Layoffs at Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins

Penguin Random House has been laying off staff. Some employees have accepted a “voluntary separation offer” (VSO); others have been given the pick slip. PRH CEO Nihar Malaviya put it this way in an email to the company:

As you know, the book marketplace has had several shifts over the past years. At Penguin Random House, we, too, have experienced these shifts and changes, especially during the last months. We are halfway through 2023, and while the book market has grown, particularly over recent years, we have also faced significantly increased costs in all areas across the board, and we expect these increases, as well as inflation, to continue….

We have been taking various actions over the last months to adapt our business to these market realities, and I’m sad to share the news that yesterday some of our colleagues across the company were informed that their roles will be eliminated. Everyone being affected has been informed directly in individual meetings. We long sought to avoid these actions, but unfortunately could not do so. This was the hardest decision I have had to make as a leader.

The same challenges are happening at Hachette and HarperCollins. HarperCollins is “working toward a 5 percent workforce reduction.”

Kindle Unlimited Payout is Up

In belt-tightening times, a swath of voracious readers opt into a subscription model in lieu of buying books. Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is the largest subscription-reading service, and offers indie authors a cut of the pie, promotional opportunities, larger royalties in certain international markets (when the book is purchased), and preferential placement in their online store. For these benefits, the ebook must be exclusively in KU for a 90-day period.

KU authors are paid by the total number of pages read (KENP) in any given month. The KENP payout has hovered at just under 1/2 a cent per page for the past year. At the end of every month, Amazon sets aside a pot of money called the KDP Global Fund, to be paid out to authors whose titles are enrolled in KU. Each author receives a chunk of the pot proportional to how many pages of their titles were read. The more pages read, the bigger the payout. According to one source, for the first half of the year (H1):

[T]he KU pay-out has reached $278.2 million. The figure for H1 2022 was $251.2 million, so an increase year-on-year of $27 million, or 10.7%.

[It’s] worth adding here that in June 2022 the KU pay-out for the month was $38.1 million. This year, 2023, the pay-out was $47 million, which you can no doubt work out is $8.9 million up, but will perhaps be interested to know equates to a 23% rise. And on past performance we can expect to see a December pay-out of about $50 million if Amazon adheres to that pattern.

This tells me Kindle Unlimited remains a solid option for indie authors who are revenue driven. There has yet to be a strong enough competitor to offset KU’s exclusivity advantages, though Scribd has a footprint, and Rakuten’s Kobo Plus became available in the U.S. earlier this year. We await developments…

Influencer-Driven Publishing

A new publishing model is being rolled out by an outfit called Bindery. Recognizing that internet influencers—or “tastemakers”—are a powerful marketing avenue, the company is setting up a membership platform for these “bookish curators” to monetize their “communities” and use a portion of revenue to become, essentially, a book imprint.

Bindery is a membership platform like Patreon or Substack, but designed for bookish curators. Tastemakers invite core fans into an exclusive community space for access to them and their extended content. Unlike other membership platforms, tastemakers with large communities on Bindery, upon invite, may opt to use a portion of their earnings to fund the publication of new books by authors their community will love. Use your platform to make it possible for an author to get a meaningful book deal, partner with them to bring it to life, and share in the book’s success.

Manuscript acquisitions will happen this way:

To find titles, Bindery will deal directly with literary agencies, approaching them … to solicit manuscripts that fit the interests of individual tastemakers. From there, Bindery will hand over submissions to tastemakers for consideration. Tastemakers’ evaluation process may be “in dialogue with their paywalled community members,” said [co-founder Meg] Harvey…. She added, “Once tastemakers identify a book they’re excited about and want to greenlight, Bindery offers a contract to the agency—between the author and Bindery—and manages the author relationship directly.” Bindery offers a standard $10,000 advance.

When the books hit the market, authors will make 50% of the net earnings, tastemakers 25%, and Bindery the other 25%.

Is Bindery’s vision of scores of micro-imprints “a recipe for an oversaturated market” (PW) or “a return to the days of independent publishers leading the industry: taking risks, uncovering new voices, and igniting a passion among readers who want to see more creativity and diversity in the publishing ecosystem” (co-founder Matt Kaye)? Time, as they say, will tell.

How Readers Pick What to Read Next

Over at Written Word Media, a survey found that the book description and author are the most significant factors for how readers choose a book, followed by book cover and average review score. While all are obviously important, the description is vital. But writing marketing copy is often not in an author’s skill set.

Which is why so many authors are using AI to generate ad copy. I know it’s the shiny new toy, and has some beneficial uses (like brainstorming). But my advice is to learn how to write copy on your own. It’s really not that hard and it’s good exercise for your creativity muscle. You can start with Sue’s post on the subject. Practice, write, show it to friends, get feedback.

Over to you. What have you noticed lately regarding the buying, selling, and publishing of books?

Traditional Publishing Words of Wisdom

Our wonderful family here at TKZ runs the gamut in terms of how we are published. Some of us walk the self-published “indie” path, others the traditional. I get the impression a few are “hybrid,” journeying on both paths.

I showcased evergreen self-publishing words of wisdom last month, and wanted to do the same with traditional publishing today. While I am an indie, I have many author friends who are “tradpubbed.” For almost all of them working with an agent remains a vital part of their careers. For new writers who want to be picked up by a publisher, especially one the Big Five, an agent seems more essential than ever.

So, with that in mind, I found a post on agents by John Gilstrap from 2012, another from 2013 by James Scott Bell, and a 2016 post by Kathryn Lilley on avoiding pitfalls when querying agents. As always, the full posts are date-linked at the end of their respective excerpts.

I also want to highlight that JSB does an annual post on publishing, which is well worth reading.

What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? 
Understand that a lot of negotiation goes into what a publishing contract looks like.  What rights will be sold?  More importantly, what rights will be retained by the author?  Is this a one-book contract, or a multi-book contract?  What will the pay-out schedule be?  If it’s a multi-book contract, will they be individually accounted or jointly accounted?  (Joint accounting means that Book #1 would have to earn back its advances before you could start earning advances on Book #2.  It’s by far the least preferable method, but first-timers often don’t have a lot of heft there.)

The agent is the go-between for all uncomfortable transactions.  For example, in fifteen years, I have never discussed money issues with an editor, and no editor has had to tell me to my face that I wasn’t worth the money I was asking for.  The agent keeps the creative relationship pure.  Beyond that, if everything goes well, the agent doesn’t have a lot to do after the contract is negotiated.

But things rarely go well.  What happens if your editor quits or gets fired?  What happens if you really hate the cover, or if the editor is getting carried away with his editorial pen?  On a more positive note, the agent will continue to pursue foreign publishing contracts, movie deals, etc.

What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? 
Deadlines are part of the negotiation process.  You’ll have to agree to respond to your editorial letter by a certain date with a corrected manuscript, and then you’ll have copyedits and page proofs, all while making your commitment to deliver the next book in the contract if it’s a multi-book deal.  I consider deadlines to be inviolable.  I’ve had to push the delivery date by a couple of weeks once, but I hated doing it because it inconveniences so many people, and it makes me look unprofessional.  Here is another instance where a track record of performance keeps people from losing faith in the author.  For first-timers, blowing a deadline can kill a career.  Remember, by blowing the deadline, you technically violate the contract, which the publisher would have the authority to void.

Writers need to understand that publishing calendars are set 12 to 18 months ahead.  Working backwards from those dates are the in-house deadlines for the production side of things (cover design, copyedits, publicity, ARCs, reviews, and a thousand other details).  If a deadline is blown by as little as a month, publishers may pull the author’s book from the calendar and replace it with another, thus potentially adding months to the publication date.

John Gilstrap—March 16, 2012


Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.

That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other.

What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.

A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.

And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)

I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a post that’s very helpful in this regard.

Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:


When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication. Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter.

Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and still doesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.

So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.

Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.

But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.

James Scott Bell—May 5, 2013

Before there is an Agent and a Publishing Deal, there is every writer’s dreaded obstacle and Final Wall: the Query Letter. Here is  a list of the top five reasons a query letter is rejected by an agent.

  1. Perilous Protocol

Manners and professionalism count. Your query letter will be met with an instant “No” if it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of query letter protocol.

What is “protocol”?

It almost goes without saying, protocol requires you to pay close attention to an agent’s posted Submission Guidelines. Here are some links to excellent discussions about some other how-to basics of crafting a query letter.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That  Get Manuscript Requests, by agent Jane Friedman.

How to Write a Query Letter by agent Rachelle Gardner.

Query Shark (a site where where you can post your query letter for review, discussion, and critique)

  1. Misses and Misdirection

This point sounds obvious, but you must send your query letter to an agent who represents your manuscript’s genre. Do your homework. Research which agents are actively seeking new manuscripts in your chosen genre. (Genre-blending works are frequently problematic here–if you can’t pinpoint which genre your story belongs in, it makes it that much harder to attract an agent).

  1. “Good”, But Not Good Enough

The Truth: Agents aren’t looking for good writing. They’re looking for great writing. They’re looking for compelling, fresh writing that sizzles. “Good” (AKA amateur) writing simply won’t cut it in the current marketplace. So before you submit your query letter, make sure your writing meets that mark. You have to be brutally honest when judging the merits of your own writing. Compare your first chapter to some best sellers in your genre, and then ask yourself: am I there yet?

Kathryn Lilley—February 23, 2016


There you have it—posts on agents and querying them. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  1. Are you traditionally published, or aspiring to be traditionally published?
  2. What advice do you have on finding and working with agents?
  3. Have things changed since 2016 in terms of how advice on query letters?
  4. Do you have any other insights or advice on having a career in traditional publishing, or as hybrid author?

More on the Current State of Publishing

by James Scott Bell

Clare’s recent, thought-provoking post brought up several musings about the current state of the traditional publishing industry vis-a-vis the indie world, especially in light of the pandemic. In one of her comments Clare asked: “I do wonder though whether there will be flow on effects even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease? Are they finding visibility any harder or easier? I wonder about the state of the industry as a whole and how it’s impacting writers.”

This post is an attempt at an answer.

Let’s first take a nostalgic stroll back to the early days of the indie explosion. I’m talking roughly 2009 – 2013. The discussions back then were full of sound and fury, signifying something. What that something was remained to be seen. It was not uncommon for early firebrands of self-publishing to predict, and often cheer for, the death of traditional publishing. Indeed, a few declared the proper term should be “legacy publishing,” which has baked into it the assumption of obsolescence and demise.

But as Twain once observed about his own obituary, reports of trad pub’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Back in 2013, here at TKZ, I likened traditional publishing to the boxer Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta who, though often bloodied, refused to be knocked out. I wrote: “So will this Raging Bull of industry still be around in twenty years? I think so. I’d like it to be. I’m a hybrid, and traditional publishing’s been good to me. But it will have to fight smarter, not just harder.”

Here in 2021, traditional publishing is still around and still punching, though it keeps having to huddle with its corner men between rounds to adjust strategy.

It’s hard to get a handle on how that bout is going. A recent story in the NY Times about sales in 2020 quoted one publisher as saying, “It was harder to get people’s attention around books that didn’t…have a big name attached to them.” There was also concern about the shuttering of bookstores which led to many new books “languishing” as “panicked retailers focused on brand-name authors and readers gravitated toward the most popular titles.”

Then came this little tidbit: [A]bout 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.

Yikes! Now, that has to refer to print copies, because any major publisher that can’t sell more than 5k digital copies either isn’t trying or is so incompetent it deserves to go under.

On the other hand, I see in the industry newsletter The Hot Sheet (subscription required): “Through the week ending June 19, NPD BookScan shows year-to-date print sales up 19.6 percent over 2020. Adult fiction has enjoyed a 31 percent gain over 2020; YA fiction has grown by 68 percent, driven by backlist titles shared and promoted on TikTok.”

Thus, it appears the only thing I can say with certainty about tradpub is that there is no certainty. From the Times story: “One of the most significant things that’s going to change is the re-evaluation of all that we do and how we do it,” said Don Weisberg, the chief executive of Macmillan.

Of course, the same can be said of the indie world, because it’s always been that way! Indie writers who do this as a career have, from the jump, been ready and able to immediately shift and transition with every new circumstance (and at a pace the behemoth trad industry simply cannot duplicate).

Indie publishing has moved from the Wild West to the Gilded Age. According to Prof. Edward T. O’Donnell, “The Gilded Age, as the name suggests, was in many ways a golden time. This exciting period saw spectacular advances in industrial output and technological innovation that transformed the United States from a predominantly agricultural nation—ranking well behind England, Germany, and France in 1865— to the world’s most formidable industrial power by 1900.”

The indie authors making bank are those who have embraced change and innovation, and combined them with optimistic energy and consistent output. Many have indeed seen “spectacular advances” (in the career sense).

So what about advances in the publishing biz sense? How are they currently ranging inside the Forbidden City? I’ve not been able to track down any definitive answer. What I pick up is anecdotal and suggests that while there are still large-advance deals being made, it is not nearly so many as back in the pre-Kindle salad days. With the Big 5, first-time authors who don’t score a jackpot deal seem to be looking at a range of $5000 – $20,000 per book.

With small and mid-size publishers, the no-advance contract seems to be quite common.

To answer Clare’s question (“…even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease?”) mileage always varies widely. Personally, my indie sales went up 8% in 2020 as compared to 2019. So far this year, it’s up over the same period in 2020. I attribute this to several things:

1. Production.

2. Taking advantage of KU promotions.

3. BookBub (3 features in 2020; 2 so far in 2021).

4. The ongoing growth and nurture of my email list.

a. A reader magnet that adds 70-100 subscribers a month;

b. Regular (about once a month) communication with my list.

5. The massive shift to online buying during the pandemic.

6. Business-like approach. In truth, every writer, traditional or indie, needs to approach their career as a business (my business plan is laid out in my book How to Make a Living as a Writer).

So, Should an Author Go Traditional or Indie?

In Clare’s post, commenter Ben Lucas asked, “I was also wondering if it would be risky to go with a publisher as a fist time author vs. risk and go indie? Maybe traditional publishing will be shunned some day?”

Ah, risk! That’s the writing life, my friend. Any choice you make involves risk. Your consideration must be, therefore, what risks you are willing to take balanced against your long-term career goals.

If your goal is to be as popular as a Child, Koontz, King, or Steel, then a Big 5 contract is the avenue (with at least a glance toward Amazon Publishing. See, e.g., Robert Dugoni). Naturally there is huge competition for relatively few slots. I liken this to a Wheel of Fortune. You try to get a book on the Wheel, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit the jackpot.

Similarly, you can spend years trying to get on the Wheel and never make it. Or, you finally get your chance and the Wheel comes up goose egg, and you lose your place at the table. Hopefully, someone told you up front that fifty percent of tradpub books  fail to break even.

There used to be a vibrant midlist in traditional publishing, where a writer who was not top-tier could still find a home for the long haul. But according to virtually every expert, the midlist is pretty much gone. According to Publishers Weekly:

As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.”

Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.

And yet there are still careers out there that are building steadily from the mid to the upper tiers. See, e.g., Sarah Pekkanen.

If traditional is your goal, let me offer this advice: be sure you or your agent negotiate a reversion of rights clause tied to a royalty minimum, not some definition of “in print.” For example, if your royalty is below $500 in any given royalty period, you are entitled to reversion of rights. You need this or your publisher will be able, quite easily, to retain the publishing rights to all your hard work. With digital sales and Print-on-Demand, a book never truly goes “out of print.”

Going indie is a risk, too, because you have to be good and you have to be productive. Even so, you may not gain the market foothold you hoped. Still, if you find joy in creative control, can think like a business, and can control your expectations, you have a shot at making readers and dough. (For more on the paths to publication, see my post here.)

And always remember this: people want stories. That never changes. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting pulled into a fictive dream. If you can provide that, time after time, you have a shot to make it in this game, whatever path you choose.

Comments are welcome.

Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke


Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss


…What I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.




Debbie Burke: Thanks for visiting with us, Rick! Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our visionary CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than what it the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful (if anyone), and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910 (which will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted, police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including, Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.


Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!


Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

Kathryn Lilley

The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. 


As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb
Literary Agent
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
(212) 333-1506

Mark Profile at Trident Media Group




Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.

State of the Publishing World 2017

by James Scott Bell

There is a publishing industry. And there is a publishing world.

The Big 5 publishers, along with the Medium However Many, form the industry.

All of them, plus every self-publishing author, form the world.

Here in 2017, what does that world look like? Your humble correspondent now takes his shot.

Self-Publishing is Not Rodney Dangerfield

Back around 2010-2011, the internet was aflame with screeds arguing all sides of the self-publishing boom. Such jeremiads have mostly disappeared. But every now and then, like a California aftershock, we get a fulmination that rattles the furniture.

One such appeared recently in HuffPo, wherein author Laurie Gough referred to the self-publishing enterprise as “an insult to the written word.” As of this morning, the piece has well over 600 comments, and at least one solid “fisking.” What a stroll down Memory Lane! It was like the good old Joe Konrath-Barry Eisler blogosphere of yore.

Ms. Gough believes that “gatekeeping” is essential for the consumer. “Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.”

Is it? Sarah Nelson, Executive Editor at Harper Collins, seems to think so:

There will always be a market for good writing and storytelling, whatever the format, and there are always going to be “gatekeepers,” no matter how much people complain about them. In fact, the more self-published stuff that’s out there, the more imprints, the more books, the more regular people (i.e. people who buy books) are going to need a filter, a curator, a gatekeeper. Nobody can read everything, after all: people still want to hear what’s the best of the bunch.

Methinks this does not reflect how readers actually decide to plunk down their discretionary income. Almost always it’s by some form of word-of-mouth that a book is purchased. These days, word-of-mouth is not only by way of a friend, but also reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

In other words, readers are the gatekeepers.

Besides, attempts to form some sort of new, official gatekeeping locale have been going on for years, without success. Remember Bookish? It started off as a joint venture between the (then) Big 6 publishers to create an Amazon-style footprint on the internet. This was back during the industry fight over Amazon’s increasing dominance, and before the Department of Justice stepped in to stop the brouhaha. In any event, Bookish did not catch on. There was simply not enough incentive or reason to latch onto a new form of “approval.”

Self-publishing continues to get a few slings and arrows from the establishment, but the force of the blows is largely spent. “With my dog,” Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I don’t get no respect. He keeps barking at the front door. He doesn’t want to go out. He wants me to leave.”

Well, self-publishing authors aren’t leaving. And those who keep producing and growing as writers, and who take a business-like approach, will fare nicely.

The Future of Print

Back in 2013 you could find fields of blooming blogsters predicting the imminent demise of traditional print publishing. (I was not one of them, likening trad-pub to the fighter who would not go down, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta.)

Last year Publishers Weekly wrote a story about the Codex Group’s April, 2016 survey of booksellers. The main finding was that “e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.”

What was the cause of the decline (or stagnation, if you’re a half-full kind of person)? It might be “digital fatigue,” especially among the young—the future book buyers.

[T]hough book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print … Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

That’s a bit of amazing, isn’t it? A few years ago all the old codgers were thinking this younger generation was going to be all digital, all the time. Apparently, the trend is the other way! Don’t those Millennials know how to listen to us?

And in another bit of print-preservation news, one of the original indie firebrands, Joe Konrath, announced a print-only deal with Kensington:

I’ve always known that I’m leaving money on the table because my books aren’t in brick and mortar stores. There are a whole lot of readers who shop at bookstores, airports, department stores, and convenience stores, and I’m not available in those outlets. My POD titles are $13-$17, which is pricey compared to my $4.99 ebooks. Wal-Mart won’t ever carry me. Neither will B&N.

This Kensington deal will let me reach an audience I haven’t reached since 2009.

So is this a portend of things to come for self-pubbed authors?

Kensington has shown themselves to be nimble and forward-thinking. I have yet to see any evidence that the Big 5 are smart enough to try something like this, save for that big Hugh Howey deal years ago. Writers waited for more opportunities like that (me included), and none happened.

It will indeed be interesting to see how this plays out. Kensington specializes in mass market editions, a segment of the industry that has been in steady decline. If Kensington can figure out a way to make it work for Konrath, maybe others will follow…but only those with significant ebook success, a la Joe.

Add one more datum, from the aptly named “Data Guy” (the mastermind, with Hugh Howey, behind the Author Earnings Reports). As quoted by Mr. Porter Anderson in the new Digital Book World white paper, Mr. Guy states, “Adult fiction sales in the US are nearly 71 percent digital now, and that is also the category where indie sales have made the deepest inroads: today, 30 percent of all US adult fiction book purchases are of titles self-published by indie authors.”

When it comes to fiction, then, E is eating away at P. And it is voracious.

And don’t let us forget about the fastest-growing medium for “reading” books: audio. According to one source, audio book downloads increased by a whopping 38.1 percent in 2015. An executive of Audible, Inc. is quoted in the story thus: “Audible members globally listened to 1.6 billion hours of audio content in 2015 (up from 1.2 billion in 2014).”

So A now encroaches on both E and P. That’s the alphabet soup of current publishing.

However, print will hang in there. As one editor told me, “Flat is the new up.” And there’s some good cheer for print in the mini-boom of independent bookstores. As Borders closed down and Barnes & Noble cut back, mom-and-pop bookstores started springing up. According to one report, 550 indie bookstores have opened since 2010. That makes me happy.

The Rise of Amazon Publishing, and How it Affects Indies

Amazon continues to expand its own imprint publishing program. They now have thirteen (13) imprints, ranging from mystery & suspense (Thomas & Mercer) to StoryFront, a venue for short fiction. Wow.

This expansion has been the subject of interest to many pure indie writers, who have reported a downward trend in their sales. John Ellsworth, for example, a bestselling legal thriller authors, wonders if APub is the major reason behind this decline.

Well, APub is an arm of the world’s largest bookstore, and therefore it makes sense that it would use the power of its algorithms to feature titles it publishes. It’s like front-of-store placement.

Amazon Publishing is turning out a high-quality product, and so will continue to expand. Heck, Amazon is even opening up physical bookstores to shelve them!

Writers, as the corks atop  the roiling sea of change, will continue to adjust. Indies are always experimenting with things like Kindle exclusivity versus “going wide.” There are also scads of startups who want to partner with authors for publication and distribution. All I can say to that is, caveat scriptor! Do your homework before signing over your life’s work. For while there are top-notch companies like Brach Books, there is also a cautionary tale in the shuttering (and withholding of royalties) by AllRomance.

Are We All Part of The Gas Lamp Industry Anyway?

The larger question is whether book publishing itself is in its last phase as a human enterprise. There was a need for gas lamplighters 120 years ago. Electricity killed that need. Human beings were out of jobs. Fast food franchises are moving to ordering kiosks, with more jobs lost.

Will the same thing happen to authors when AI starts churning out books? What Patterson does with co-writers now, AI will do by itself, a million times faster and perfectly tailored to the various market niches.

Hugh Howey predicts that AI will become “the holy grail for readers, the end of writing as a profession, and I give it anywhere from 50 – 200 years.”

Entire novels will be written from scratch by machines, a million novels spurting out in the blink of an eye, and they will be tailored to individual readers, win major awards, and be as sublime and moving as anything we’ve ever read before. We balk at the idea now, but just as manually driving a car will seem insane one day (unless on a closed track by daredevils with death wishes), a handwritten novel will also seem bizarre. Why do with long division what a calculator on our phone can do for us? Sure, people will still write, but very few will read these works. And the process will happen so gradually that hardly anyone will understand what has happened.

Sure, machines will try to take over. We’ll Sarah Connor them! And we’ll keep writing. Because what we do. Never despair over trends. We are the storytellers!

With apologies to Dylan Thomas, let me adapt his most famous poem for our purposes:

Do not go gentle onto that good page,
True writers burn and rave at gloomy news;
They type, and never think to disengage.

They know it’s hard to make a living wage.
But harder still it is to mute the Muse
Or keep their heart’s desire in a cage.

So writers, though they are of drinking age,
Will not allow surrender to the blues!
They’ll up the heat, and burst the pressure gauge!
They won’t go gentle onto that good page!

So what are your thoughts about the state of publishing-writing-print-reading these days? Any predictions for the year ahead? 

What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.


Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.


For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:


What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?

2016 Publishing Trends

Jordan Dane


I recently received an email from a reader fan who complained about not having access to my Amazon Kindle Worlds (KW) digital books in Australia. I’ve heard this complaint before regarding the difficulty of obtaining US books in other countries. You’d think that in this digital world, it would be easier to satisfy markets all over the globe (especially with digital books), but not so. In the case of Kindle Worlds, the division is separate from Amazon and has to build upon its infrastructure and distribution resources. KW will be in Australia eventually—things are changing—but online retailers restrict certain markets because of their selling platform limitations. Yet the world is becoming borderless and more universal, so it got me thinking about trends in the publishing industry that have changed how books are created, marketed, and distributed.

1.) Publishers Optimizing Licensing Prospects – Publishers over the globe are recognizing the value of licensing and holding tightly to the rights they have under contract. Licensing, traditionally a subsidiary rights value, could become a larger contributor to a publisher’s cash flow if the house can expand its reach into the global marketplace. International borders would become less important (not an obstacle) and publishers could expand their reach in creative ways by enhancing the book experience for the reader. Plus, larger houses could continue to acquire struggling mid-sized houses to acquire these rights that they could exploit across the globe.

How can indie authors exploit their sub-rights (ie foreign language translations, audio, film rights, serial rights, and merchandising)? They can either sell those rights themselves, or have an agent do it for them, or exploit these rights on their own, such as audio rights for independent artists and authors through ACX, Spoken Word Inc, and Open Book Audio. If the author controls the artwork for their covers or develops a series logo as a brand, they can control merchandising through service providers like Café Press, Zazzle, and DeviantArt. For foreign language rights, some independent authors have worked directly with translators, offering them nothing up front but with 20% of proceeds on the back end. If you’re not daring enough to go directly to the translators, there are ways for author right holders to be matched with publishers willing to acquire such rights through a site called PubMatch. (Pubmatch is free to join but when I input my profile, they asked for money to be paid annually since I was submitting books for consideration. I paid a nominal fee of 19.99 for a year and will see how things go.) The author would create a profile and either wait to be contacted on their offerings or be more proactive by searching the profiles of publishers listed on the site, similar to the way ACX (for audio) is set up.

2.) The Importance of Local POD Providers – There have been some out-of-the-box thinkers who see the value in “local” print on demand (POD) options as a means to get around the international obstacles of limited selling platforms. My reader in Australia could wait for Amazon KW to expand its reach into the country, or some entrepreneurial company (like a more nimble micro-publisher) could simply place an order at any local POD service providers in various countries to create a bigger marketplace. Could this lead to niche POD companies springing up to support a strengthening print sales demand across the world? Only time will tell.

3.) Print Book Resurgence – It wasn’t long ago that people were predicting the death of the print book, but quite the opposite has happened with stronger print sales being reported in 2015. Perhaps this is because publishers now have more control over pricing after the reintroduction of agency pricing through online retailers like Amazon. And with demand strong and the boutique model dominating digitals, larger publishers are optimizing their marketing strategies by attempting to manipulate their print prices up.

How? By offering fewer books for predominantly well-known authors with large readerships—books that are in demand—publishing houses can control how books are launched, pricing-wise. With ebooks priced nearly on parallel with print sales, publishers can create a value-related decision point for readers to evaluate whether they would rather own a print book versus a digital copy. At certain prices, readers will make the choice to own a print copy, even if they are paying slightly more. Would you pay an extra $2.00 to own a hard copy print book?

But it’s not all rosy for large houses, even with the glimmer of print sales being up. Overall, traditional publishers are offering fewer books to the reading public—focusing on big name authors—so they must squeeze profitability out where they can. They won the right to control their pricing through online retail giant Amazon, but Amazon is quietly expanding their reach as a service provider and/or a publisher, working with indie authors and micro-publishers with revenue from all sources. We live in interesting times.

4.) The Rise of Alternatives to Traditional PublishersAuthorEarnings.Com reports that in 2015, nearly half of all ebooks sold on Amazon (the most influential digital retailer) are either self-published, published by micro-publishers, or are generated through an Amazon Imprint. Here’s their ebook breakdown by publisher type:

Big Five Published 33%
• Indie Published 34%
• Micro-Publishers 19%
• Amazon Imprint 10%
• Misc 4%

So this is what I mean about Amazon making money off the competition of traditional houses. As a service provider, and an imprint, Amazon doesn’t have to be in direct competition with traditional houses as their only source of revenue.

5.) The Retail Gorilla – According to AuthorEarnings.Com – the overall market share of US ebook unit sales is dominated by Amazon at 74% with the balance held by other online retailers: GooglePlay, Kobo, Nook, Apple, and miscellaneous others. So if you’re an indie author with a limited budget, where would you spend your ad dollars?

For Discussion:

1.) Have you noticed any interesting trends in the publishing industry that has affected how you do business as an author?

2.) Whether you’re a traditionally published author, independent author, or a hybrid author with feet in both camps, have you been rethinking the value of sub-rights?

Once Again, The Future of Publishing

psychics-1026092_1920It happens every year or so. A bigwig from the traditional publishing world takes a look at the data—usually some sort of downturn in the industry—and writes a piece predicting the future of publishing.

Recently Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette, took a turn (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015. Link may expire). It’s always good to hear from inside the walls of the Forbidden City. Mr. Pietsch begins thus:

I’ve been hearing about the demise of book publishing since the first day I stepped through the doors of a publisher back in 1978. But here we are still, publishers like Little, Brown, with histories going back 100 and 200 years. What other American industry has companies still in existence after two centuries, evolving and modernizing but still doing much the same work? The most recent variant of the death watch: A digital revolution would cause e-books to replace printed ones, authors would overwhelmingly choose self-publishing, and publishers would follow carriage makers into oblivion.

Mr. Pietsch then notes that e-book revenue for major publishers has “topped out” (this datum has been misreported in the media as reflecting a downturn in the overall e-book market. Such is not the case).

What of the boom in self-publishing? Mr. Pietsch gives it a nod, but also notes:

But writers like to be paid, in advance, for their work. Publishers are investors and risk takers. And a publishing company with longstanding media and marketing relationships is far more capable of getting attention for a new book than a writer working alone.

This deserves a closer look. Writers like to be paid period. And they like payments to be a fair exchange. Currently, big publishing is holding firm with its contracts, the boilerplate of which hearkens back to when the industry was an oligopoly, “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.”

Indeed, the Authors Guild has begun an initiative that seeks more equitable contract terms. But this effort is running into the merciless force field of big business, which is electrified by the need for profit. And an enterprise does not generally increase its profits by raising its own costs.

So a writer looking at a modest advance (the norm these days) must make a decision. Yes, a big publisher can get a book “attention.” But not for every book. Not even for most books. And a book that does not get the big push and doesn’t sell well means the author will probably be let go—without, by the way, retaining the rights to his work.

Still, there are writers who want to spin that Wheel of Fortune. If they win, they win big. If wheel4they lose, there is at least an alternative for them that never existed before. As indies they’ll be starting from square one (or maybe square two or three, with a bit of a readership), but at least they won’t be outside the walls of the Forbidden City, in the cold, blowing on their hands, begging to be let back in.

Mr. Pietsch insists that a publisher’s “essential work” is “identifying, investing in, nurturing, and marketing great writers.” I would ask: how much of an investment? How lasting the nurturing?

Sometimes a deal pays off and a book is a smash and the author moves to the A-list. But this doesn’t happen often. And it doesn’t happen at all for midlist authors who are dropped by their former nurturers for lack of numbers.

Yet many of these midlisters are now making good money by going indie. Some have secured rights to their backlist (though publishers are digging in their heels these days)—or they are being productive with new work on a consistent basis.

On the future of the business, Mr. Pietsch says:

Ever-larger retailers and wholesalers bring significant margin pressure, which will lead to continued conglomeration. Social media will continue to expand the writer’s ability to connect with readers; publishers will deepen their relationships with writers, but they’ll also create content of their own. As runaway books sell ever-larger numbers, publishers will earn more on their biggest sellers—which will keep driving up the advances they pay for potential hits. At the same time, publishers will need to innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.

I would like to hear some details on how publishers can “deepen their relationships with writers.” I have a large number of professional writing friends, and for all of them the relationship with a publisher has been based, over and above all else, on the counting of beans. When the beans are flowing, the author and publisher are a regular Mike and Carol Brady. But when the beans dry up, it’s Al and Peg Bundy … usually ending in divorce.

This, by the way, is not a knock on publishers. It’s simply the way things are, and always have been, for big business. You can’t keep sinking dollars into a widget that isn’t selling. And in this day of market disruption and volatility, there is no longer the patience to hang on to a once-promising author to see if he can make a comeback.

Which is why Mr. Pietsch is correct that the only way forward for the industry is to hope for more “runaway books.” I just wonder about the assumption that they will sell in “ever-larger numbers.” And how many times a big bet can be placed on a “potential” hit.

In any event, I do think a robust, traditional publishing industry is a good thing to have around. When it scores, it brings books and authors the attention they deserve.

But the landscape is now in a permanent state of disequilibrium. Meaning, yes, that big publishers must “innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.”

Kind of like the ever-increasing corps of authorpreneurs who have been writing and innovating for years.

So what is your take on the future of the publishing business? Can the Bigs survive in their present condition? Will self-publishing continue to provide serious revenue to enterprising and productive authors?




Speaking of the present, the first Sister J vigilante nun novelette, FORCE OF HABIT, is FREE through Thursday on Amazon. Get in on the kicks!