Advice to Traditionally Published Authors

alice-in-wonderland-29904_1280I have a number of writing friends who are in one phase or another of a traditional career––still in it, sometimes hanging by a thread, a few dropped by their publishers. These friends all started in the “old system.” You wrote a book, got an agent, signed with a publishing company. Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City was the only game in town.

Of course, that’s all changed. The indie revolution that began in earnest in 2008 has grown from healthy baby to active toddler to good-looking adolescent. It’s driving the family car now. It has some acne, sure, but the teeth are good and the body sound.

From time to time I’ll hear from one of my friends, asking for advice about which way to go. They may be near the end of a contract, or in new talks offering them lower advances and tighter terms. Here is some of what I tell them.

  1. Traditional publishing is still a viable option 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of traditional publishing are greatly exaggerated. Yes, trad pub is in the throes of reinvention due to digital disruption. That process is slow, as it is for any large industry facing a shifting infrastructure. Rapid innovation has never been the strength of large industry. But they’re trying.

Traditional companies are also the only way to distribute print books widely into physical stores, including big boxes and airports. If that’s where you want your books to be then traditional publishing is your best shot.

Just understand that your shot is getting increasingly long. Because big bookstores are closing. There is tighter shelf space within those stores. Big boxes and airports are ordering fewer books, and therefore sticking with the big names like Lee Child and Janet Evanovich. While there has been a nice resurgence in independent bookstores, they can’t replace what’s being lost when a major chain store closes.

  1. I understand your anxiety

Being with a traditional house provides a level of security. When you’ve been working with the same people for a long time, there’s a comfort level. When you’re used to the system—editorial, design, distribution, marketing—the thought of switching to a place where you have ultimate responsibility for these things can be nervous time.

Many writers just “want to write,” and not worry about all that other jazz.

My advice is: don’t let anxiety be the tail that wags you. Think back to when you wanted to break in the first time. How nervous were you pitching to an agent? Getting rejected? Wondering if you had what it takes? Eventually, you broke through. You can do it if you go indie, too, because you have the added benefit of a track record. You know what you’re doing as a writer. You have readers who will follow you.

Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.

  1. Don’t think of traditional publishing as your nanny

Trad pub is about the bottom line, because it has to be. You can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. Publishers have to stay in business, and they will treat you with that in mind.

I tell my writing colleagues that a publishing company is not your nanny. If you don’t make them money they are not going to coddle you, make you breakfast, or tuck you in at night. There will continue to be very nice (albeit overworked) people within the company, who like you and want you to succeed. But it is the counter of beans who will determine your future at said company.

Now, if you’re making midlist money and your publisher continues to offer it, you may want to stay right where you are. One successful indie author misses several things about traditional publishing. Have a look here.

Fight for a fair non-compete clause.  Your business partner owes you that.

But you should also learn to sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” like the orphans in Annie. I have several writing friends who have been “orphaned” over the years when their editor-advocate within a company moved on or was let go.

  1. Traditional contracts are tight

Traditional publishers are taking fewer risks these days. This is reflected in contracts many writers and agents find particularly onerous. Which is why the Authors Guild is calling for fairer terms. It’s a lovely thought. But it is slamming up against harsh reality. Big publishing simply cannot afford to be overly generous or induced to easily revert assets (i.e., books) back to authors.

It’s business. I hold no animus for a corporation that is trying to stay in business.

But you are in business, too. So be educated about contracts. Work with your agent on the terms you can live with, and those you can’t.

In a lengthy piece on this topic, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote:

[W]riters need to know what they’re up against.

They’re not signing up for a partnership with a production and distribution company like they had in the past. Mostly, these days, writers are signing with an international entertainment conglomerate that wants to exploit its assets for as long as possible…

When writers do business with an international entertainment conglomerate, they should be prepared to walk away from what initially looks like a good deal. Because, in most cases, the writers will lose the right to exploit that property themselves for the life of the copyright.

 

  1. Know your risk tolerance

Thus, what you really need to assess, right now, is your own risk tolerance. Are you willing to walk away from a sure, albeit smaller and more restrictive contract? Can you do without an advance? Do you have the patience it will take to build up an indie publishing stream?

You are taking a risk either way. Traditional publishing is a wheel of fortune. When you pay to play, you’re hoping your book will be the one on the wheel that comes up the big winner. If it does, it could be worth millions. It could be the next Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or Gone Girl.

That’s what you’re playing for—a #1 bestseller slot, the movie deal, the airport placement, the Today Show appearance.

Of course, this sort of fortune happens to very, very few. Books that deserve to be there don’t ring the bell. Yes, your book could be the one, which is what lottery players say to themselves every time they walk into a liquor store or gas station mini-mart.

If you play and your books don’t make it, the cost may be several years of your writing life and possibly no reversion of rights. So be rational about your gambling. If you are you willing to risk all that for a spin of the wheel, then get the best terms you can and good luck to you.

  1. Know your freedom and creativity valuation

But here’s another thing to consider: how much do you value the freedom to write what you want to write and to publish when you are ready to publish? To try a different genre and not worry about branding restrictions and non-compete clauses?

Do you want to be creative more than you want to be secure?

Another thing: if you decide to stay traditional, you at least need a footprint in the indie world. Work with your agent and publisher about non-competing, short-form work to grow your readership.

It all comes down to making the decision YOU want to make, without letting a thousand anxious thoughts hack away at your dreams. So listen to counsel and advice. Talk things over with your agent, your spouse, your talking cat. Pray, if you believe there is divine benevolence.

How Make Living Writer-online coverJust don’t wait for certainty, because the only constant is change.

Traditional publishing will stick around and try to find its way forward. Indie publishing will continue to grow and diversify, and new options for writers who own their rights will appear. This requires constant vigilance and business savvy, which some writers don’t like. Don’t be afraid. The principles of success are not difficult to understand and implement. I wrote a whole book about that.

Whatever you decide, keep writing. I love what one of my favorite Hollywood writer-directors, Preston Sturges, once said. He was riding high in the early 1940s with a string of hits that still shine today. But he knew Hollywood careers are transient. “When the last dime is gone,” he said, “I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook, and start the whole thing all over again.”

As long as you write, you’re never out of the game.

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Should You Quit Your Day Job to Write?

by James Scott Bell
 
Today’s post is brought to you by FIGHT CITY, the new Irish Jimmy Gallagher novelette. It’s Los Angeles, 1955, and all Jimmy Gallagher wants to do is meet his girl, Ruby, at the movies. But the City of Angels decides to put up its dukes and give Jimmy the fight of his life…
***
Back in the day, 25 years ago or so, when I was starting to pursue writing seriously, I wondered if it was possible to actually make a living at this thing. I know that was the dream of just about every scribe I came in contact with. The ideal was you could live anywhere, maybe on an island where they served piña coladas, and you would write during the day, eat your fill at night and, when needed, withdraw money from your ever-increasing bank account in the Caymans.
Or you could put your feet up on your desk or coffee table, stay in your pajamas if you wanted to, go unshaven for days at a time, and have publishers pay you large amounts because readers would want to buy your books the moment they hit the shelves.
Back then, you didn’t pay much attention to the statistics, which told you that the number of writers who managed to make more than $5000 a year was pretty small. You were going to be one of the exceptions!
When I finally did become a professional, I kept practicing law until I had a few years under my belt where the writing income was steady and growing. I phased out the law only when I had a track record and a multi-book contract in hand.
Thus, I have never been one to tell new writers they should hastily quit their day jobs. There is a lot to be said for a day job, as long as you don’t hate it so much that going to work feels like your soul is being sucked into the vacuum cleaner of dread.
 
But maybe not even then. The day job gives you reliable, steady income. It makes life predictable, financially speaking. It keeps you around people (writing full time is an isolating pursuit that sometimes makes you feel and act–and perhaps even look–like Ben Gunn from Treasure Island).
 
And if the job includes benefits, so much the better. Leaving all that for the uncertain life of a freelance writer is not a jump to be taken lightly. Ten years ago I would have advised a writer to have positive royalty income plus a multi-book contract before thinking of going it alone.
Of course, we are now in a new, self-publishing age. It is ever more possible to make serious money as a writer. Traditional publishing, undergoing its own uncertainties about the future, is no longer the only game in town–although it is still a game, and it is still in town.
So maybe you’re thinking of “the dream” for yourself.  Here are some things you should ponder before taking the plunge.
1. Do you have the chops?
Let’s be blunt here. Most self-published material is not ready for prime time. In the “old days” (that is, before 2007), the arbiters of what was ready was a coterie of agents and acquisitions editors. To gain their approval, writers would grind their way through a learning process that included lots of words typed, craft studied, manuscripts critiqued (by friends, a group, or a professional freelance editor) and so on. Now, a writer can leapfrog all that and bounce straight into digital publication. But that may not be the right hop.
My advice: Find a way to replicate some of the traditional process before you publish. I’m a craft guy, as you know. In my early years I would try to identify my weak spots and then design self-study programs. Even when it wasn’t that intense, I’d be reading craft books and Writer’s Digest and novels I admired (to enjoy first then take apart). This should be ongoing for you. Since 1988 I don’t think a week has gone by when I did not do some active reading in or study of the techniques of writing fiction. If you’re just starting out to form your own library of craft books, I can suggest a place to begin.
Find a critique group of fellow writers you can exchange manuscripts with. Avoid toxic relationships, however.
Put together an actual proposal for your novel, even if you’re going to self-publish. Try to “sell” it to a friend or family member. This is a grinder, but it makes better writers.
2. Can you live with financial uncertainty?
As promising as self-publishing is, it is still a labor-intensive, up-and-down proposition. To help you live with the risk, I would counsel that you have a savings account with at least six months of living expenses in it. That cushion will soften any blows that come month-by-month. 
Even when your flow becomes positive, you’re going to have to have the discipline to set aside money for estimated tax payments and unanticipated emergencies.
You will need to follow the advice of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
To be a full-time writer, learn to live below your means and sock the rest away: some for taxes, some for charity, some for retirement, some for investment, some in a liquid account.
Or marry a rich person.
3. Does your self-publishing income show a year-long, upward trendline?
Unless and until you can produce new material on a regular basis, and show a steady increase in income over the course of a year (which is enough time to allow for fluctuations), I wouldn’t advise quitting your day job.
 
Further, your average monthly income at the end of the year should be hitting four figures. If you make under that much, but show a strong upward line, and know you can increase your output if you have more time to write, you might consider giving yourself a year of freedom from the day job to see what you can do. Everyone will have a different calculation about this. Commitments and financial needs will vary. If you are single and living in Tulsa or Fargo, your income needs will be less than if you are married and living in San Francisco or New York.
Make sure the people you care about most are okay with what you’re doing, unless it’s just your brother Arnold who thinks you’re crazy to be a writer anyway.
4. Can you operate a business?
This is going to be your job. You have to have a certain amount of business acumen to do it well. Some of my writer friends admit that they don’t have that kind of mind. For them, the day job or a working spouse is essential. They just want to write and hope for the best. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But the strategies for setting up a self-publishing business are not difficult to understand or implement. In fact, it’s little more than what you would have to do as an author for a traditional house. In the trad world you still have to market yourself which requires . . . strategies and discipline. You can put that same energy into setting up a self-publishing stream. You also now have a plethora of options, from doing it all yourself to going through a service (e.g., Smashwords, BookBaby) to choosing a bit of both.
5. What about health insurance?
A final factor is the benefit of health insurance. I have no idea what the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is going to look like in 2014, when it really kicks in. Does anybody? But if it does one of the things it promises, it may mean that formerly uninsurable freelance writers (even with pre-existing conditions) can get health care coverage. (NOTE: What I’m looking for is practical information on what you think the ACA could mean for individuals. Let’s not get into a vitriolic debate about the act itself or its progenitor.)
So those are the thoughts out of the middle of my head. Let’s open it up for discussion. Do you dream of doing this writing thing full time? What advice would you give someone thinking about it?

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Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #3: The New Equilibrium

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was all ready to lay down my binoculars high in my observation tower and note that a certain peace had settled upon the land of publishing. Battles fought a couple of years ago, full of fury and bile, seem largely to have quieted down to the level of a spirited discussion. Both sides, traditional and indie, had reached a tentative, though perhaps still wary, acceptance of each other’s existence. And then came the Hydra’s head (see #1, below). [UPDATE: Random House responded to the pressure and has modified its contract terms]

I have a lot to report today, so you might want to bring a snack. We begin with: 

1. Digital Only Contracts From Traditional Publishers

As part of their adaptive strategy, some big publishers are offering digital-only contracts. Thomas NelsonLittle Brown UK and Random House are three examples. I know a couple of authors who have entered into such contracts. Both were no advance and a 50/50 royalty split. The publishers offered an editor, publicist and all the prep work (cover design, formatting, etc.) However, these costs (which are at the sole discretion of the publisher) are borne by the author, deducted from the author’s cut of the revenue right off the top.

NOTE: These types of deals are not the same as “vanity publishing.” That’s a whole other can of sour worms. See, e.g., April Hamilton’s take on Simon & Schuster’s foray. But because the author is expected to pick up costs a traditional publisher used to cover, there’s a certain blurring of lines that is occurring in the new world order.

The natural question is, what is the advantage for the author? The answer has to be a combination of these three: a) the “prestige” of being published by a traditional house; b) the chance to be taken up to the “big leagues” for print and further push with serious dollars; c) some marketing advantage.

That last is the real kicker. Random House’s press release states, “For the first time in history, authors will be able to forge wide-reaching and long-lasting relationships with their audiences, and we at Random House can’t wait to explore and create new opportunities in the digital space. The possibilities are endless, and we’re excited to offer authors the best opportunities to take advantage of this growing marketplace.”

This is the rub that has yet to be proved: can the big publishers offer authors the “best opportunities” in the digital world? Is there some form of marketing they have that authors cannot replicate or surpass on their own? If there is, is it worth giving up a book for the “life of the copyright” (a term in one of the contracts) and half the net income?

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America issued the following note to its members regarding one of Random House’s imprints, Hydra, which is for SF:

SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra cannot be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.
Hydra contracts also require authors to pay – through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher.
Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights. Such provisions are unacceptable.

To this, Random House responded, in part:

As with every business partnership, there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements. These costs could be much higher–and certainly be more stressful and labor-intensive to undertake–for an author with a self-publishing model. Profits are generated once those costs are subtracted from the sales revenue. Hydra and the author split those profits equally from the very first sale.  . . .



[M]y colleagues and I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss the advantages of the Hydra business model, describe the program overall, and respond to any of your expressed concerns. Please let me know a good time for us to set up this meeting.



Unfortunately, there is very little to discuss. SFWA has determined to its own satisfaction that Hydra does not meet our minimum standards for a qualifying market, as its contract does not offer an advance. Additionally, your attempt to shift to the author costs customarily borne by the publisher is, simply, outrageous and egregious. The first of these things alone would disqualify Hydra as a qualifying market. It is the second of these things, however, that causes us to believe that Hydra intends to act in a predatory manner towards authors, and in particular toward newer authors who may not have the experience to recognize the extent to which your contract is beyond the pale of standard publishing practices.

You extol your business model as “different”; the more accurate description, we believe, is “exploitative.” We are particularly disappointed to see it arising out of Random House, a well-regarded, long-standing publishing firm. Bluntly put, Random House should know better.



2. The Continuing Decline of Physical Shelf Space

Barnes & Noble had a terrible quarter (ending January, 2013). Revenues fell 8.8%, to $2.2 billion, and net loss was $6.1 million. Much of the loss was Nook traceable:  $59 million in additional inventory charges because of unsold goods, $21 million in returns from partner retailers, $15 million in promotional allowances “to optimize future sales opportunities” and higher advertising charges.

James McQuivey offers a cool assessment of all this, including:

On the bookstore side, the big digital obstacle is the decline of the printed book, an inevitability that has to be faced no matter how warmly one feels toward the printed word. We’ve learned from CDs and DVDs that once a physical medium begins to slide, it slides rapidly. Even if readers initially lose only a tenth of their interest in buying physical books, they will end up coming to the store 20% less often, which will lead the bookseller to shrink inventory accordingly, causing even less commitment to physical books, and so on. Play that out several iterations and you end up with a business half the size of the prior business in short order. As happened to Borders, such a rapid decline usually leads to surrender. In that world, the retail unit would have to encourage foot traffic to the store with some other physical product that isn’t so easily substituted digitally. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barnes & Noble sells frozen yogurt in the future — whatever it takes to grab customers and keep them coming back often.

3. The Disappearance of the Midlist Author

This report, about author Mary Doria Russell, evidences the obsolescence of the midlist author. The trads need blockbusters and A-listers, and even if your books earn out, and receive prestigious awards, that may not be enough to continue the relationship.

Just as her new novel, Doc, was being released in 2011, [Russell] got word that her publisher [Random House] was not interested in any more books from her. She had been with Random House since 1996 and published five novels with the New York house. During that time, she had won an Arthur C. Clarke Award and an American Library Association Readers Choice Award. Entertainment Weekly had chosen The Sparrow as one of the 10 best books of year.

But that didn’t matter. Random House was done with her.

“There was no indication that was going to happen,” she said at the Howard County Library Gala on Feb. 23. “It was like having your husband throw you a 25th wedding anniversary party, and then serve you with divorce papers at dessert.”

So where does that leave the midlist author? See #4 and #5, below.

4. The Rise of the Entrepreneurial Author

Outside the walls of the Forbidden City you’ll find the encampment of a new breed of entrepreneurial author. Not just writers who are putting books up for digital sale, but those who are teaching themselves to think like a business and, as a result, are making a profit every month.

These authors know that any successful enterprise requires vision, planning and quality controls. And those who put those practices in place have a much greater chance to rise above the gurgling milk of indie sameness to become some of the sought-after cream.

Having run a successful law book publishing business, and a thriving self-publishing stream, I have put together a one-day seminar to teach these principles to authors. It’s on April 27, in Los Angeles.

5. The Emergence of the Business-Savvy Hybrid

And over here we find the author who is, or may soon be, trucking in both worlds, indie and traditional. And why not? It makes perfect business sense for a traditional publisher and an author who can deliver the goods to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement. There’s even a new literary agency, Foreword,blending the knowledge and skills of traditional publishing with the brash new opportunities engendered by digital publishing.”

What “mutually beneficial” means will vary according to circumstances, but there are three major areas for negotiation:

a. The digital royalty split. Should be up for discussion. Holding the line at an arbitrary 25% to the author is not reasonable. 

b. A meaningful and limited non-compete clause. No author should sign a traditional contract with an overbroad non-compete clause. On the other hand, no author should refuse a clause that restrains him from publishing a similar book that could directly compete with what the publisher is doing (e.g., similar form and genre). But the author should be free to publish other works (to be defined specifically) such as novellas and stories and perhaps even books of another genre. Further, the author owes the publisher his “best efforts,” and that means when you owe the publisher a book, you must give your full attention to that book over and above what you self-publish.

c. A definite term with benchmarks. Giving up rights for the “life of copyright” is a fool’s gambit for the author. Publishers need to see that there is room for creativity here. For example, the contract could be for three years with an option for more. That’s what startup Premier Digital Publishingoffers its authors, among whom are Alan Jacobson, Piers Anthony and the Stephen Ambrose estate.

Also, a contract ought to require a substantive minimum royalty to the author every six months or a reversion of rights is triggered. This is especially true with a risk-free (to the publisher) no-advance contract.

This is business. The author who is informed can come to the table with more than just his hat in hand. Be informed. Know the key terms of a contract. Search around at blogs like The Passive Voice and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s archive of “Business Rusch” posts, and always check out the twice-weekly Ether columns by Porter Anderson.

In a story about Hugh Howey, the Wall Street Journal states: “Publishing houses that once ignored independent authors are now furiously courting them. In the past year, more than 60 independent authors have landed contracts with traditional publishers. Several won seven-figure advances. A handful have negotiated deals that allow them to continue selling e-books on their own, including romance writers Bella Andre and Colleen Hoover, who have each sold more than a million copies of their books.”

6. 99¢ to Become the New “Free”?

A lot of blogdom in the last couple of weeks had been taken up with the decision by Amazon to limit payouts to its affiliate sites who generate traffic by hyping free books (mostly by authors participating in the KDP Select program). Without going into all the details and consequences (which have yet to play out), many are saying the value of the free book for self-publishing authors (viz., discoverability) has been severely reduced.

I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I think the value of FREE has downgraded naturally over time because all pricing decisions have effects on consumer behavior. My feeling (and it is a feeling, I don’t have data) is that a certain wariness about free books has set in, some readers feeling “burned” by less than quality content.

So where does that leave authors? Well, why not make 99¢ your new “free”? I ran a special for book #1 in my historical series, “The Trials of Kit Shannon.” The first book is CITY OF ANGELS, priced at $3.99. Last week I priced it at 99¢ and got the word out. On March 3 its Amazon rank (at the regular price) was #64,857. The next day, at the special price, it shot up to #283 in the paid Kindle store and #1 in religious/historical. I popped in to check later and it was #112 over all. In addition, sales of all the books in the series received a nice bump.

A good time was had by all.

7. A Challenge to Amazon?

A consortium of German booksellers, plus the world’s largest publisher and one of the world’s largest telecomm companies, have banded together to mount a Euro-challenge to Amazon’s digital territory. As outlined in Digital Book World:

The bookstore chains Thalia, Weltbild and Hugendubel have partnered with Bertelsmann (Random House parent) and Deutsche Telekom, parent to T-Mobile and other huge firms, have partnered to form Tolino, a company that will produce the Tolino Shine e-reader and sell ebooks. It goes on sale on March 7 in Germany for €99 ($129).

Tolino’s stats are formidable. It starts life for sale in 1,500 retail locations around the country and will have 300,000 titles available for purchase at launch (Amazon’s German Kindle store has over 1.8 million titles, however). One of its backers is heavyweight enough to compete with Amazon – Deutsche Telekom had €58.2 billion in revenues last year compared to $61.1 billion for Amazon.

Such challenges in industry are faced with a couple of huge obstacles, not the least of which is being “late to the game.” Plus, Amazon is not the leader without reason. It’s done most everything right, from customer service to innovation. So only an opponent of Bertelsmann’s size, seeking to nab a chunk of territory (and expand later), can possibly make the attempt. But will it be enough? Note: Read Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War if you want to follow the battle plans. Or play a good game of Risk.

8. The Rediscovery of Stoic Joy

I recently enjoyed this book: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William P. Irvine. The Stoics were the first cognitive therapists. They said, Look, most of your troubles are in your mind. If you learn to think right, you’ll feel right. Their wisdom is basic and easily understood, but it’s also an art you have to practice. We are prone to worry and fretting over things we can’t control. When it’s not a “chemical” problem, thinking straight is most often the answer.

And so, dear writer, in this new age of publishing anxiety, I commend to you one Epictetus, Stoic philosopher born in the mid-first century, who said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t change the tides of technology, consumer behavior, or industry by the power of your will. You can’t will your book to the top of a bestseller list. Nor should you bear ill will toward, or waste time envying, other authors.

What iswithin your power are the words you write and the discipline you bring to the craft. Put your mind to that, and forget the rest. After you’ve written your quota for the day, put on Doris Day’s rendition of “Que Sera Sera,” open up a nice Pinot Noir and laugh with someone you love. 

And tomorrow? Write some more. 

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Is Traditional Publishing the Raging Bull of Industry?



Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxer who was the subject of the Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro film, was known as the Raging Bull. He’d never stop coming at you, and he simply would not go down.
No matter what punishment was rained upon him (most savagely by Sugar Ray Robinson), Jake LaMotta refused to be knocked out.
Sort of like the traditional publishing industry.
I mean, look at the beating trad publishing has taken in the last few years:
BAM! The Kindle.

BOOM! Amazon offers authors 70%.

WHAM! Barry Eisler turns down half-a-mil from St. Martins.

SMACK! Department of Justice.

OOMPH! Borders goes under.

BOP! Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores on the ropes.
Traditional publishing is reeling! Cut! Blood is on the canvas! The referee steps in to see if he should stop the fight. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“You’re holding up big six fingers. No, five…”
The referee lets the fight continue. We’re in Round 6 of a scheduled 12 rounder. Will traditional publishing avoid the knockout?
That was the question on everyone’s mind at the Digital Book World Conference in NYC last week. Reports are that the publishing executives who attended were remarkably “upbeat” about the future, even as it remains an uncertain and challenging one.
According to a commissioned survey of 53 publishing executives, 85% of respondents were “optimistic” about the digital transition and 64% say publishers are “capable of competing” in the new digital marketplace. A 55% slice were confident that their own companies can compete. However, both of the latter two figures are down 10% from the same survey last year (source: Publishers Weekly). From the same PW story covering DBW, key executives “offered perspectives that ranged from an enthusiastic embrace of the new technology . . .to being a little bewildered over selling direct.”
Direct! That is one of the key areas where publishers must learn to compete. But according to Marcus Leaver of Quarto Group Publishing, “We sell directly to consumers, but I’m not sure we’re good at it or ever will be good at it.”
Former Macmillan president Brian Napack, now a senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, was interviewed at DBW about trad publishing’s future. While admitting that the former “big six” may well end up as the “big three,” he believes “the power of innovation often flourishes in markets during periods of consolidation and new companies.”
That last prognosis is the one we’re all waiting to see show up. Traditional publishing is unsteady on its feet right now. It’s wiping blood from its eyes. But it’s not down for a ten count. 
What will it have to do to survive and, perhaps, thrive again? At the top of the list has to be substantive responses to the needs and concerns of their sole asset: writers.
Reports are mixed on whether, as a whole, trad publishing is getting that message. A surveyof 5,000 authors — aspiring, traditionally published, self-published and “hybrids” (those who are both traditionally published and putting out a self-publishing line) – reveals the following:
One-third of traditionally published authors are interested in self-publishing their next book. Writes DBW online: “This trend should be worrisome for traditional publishers, which are struggling to demonstrate to the marketplace that they add value to the publishing process in an era where anyone can publish a book.”
That’s the key: Add value. Where does that come from? It used to be via distribution to physical bookstores. But as shelf space dries up, how will that advantage compare to the digital platforms that writers are perfectly able to exploit on their own?
The survey did reveal a spot of good news for Jake LaMotta: Not yet published authors hold a high opinion of traditional publishing, showing the “prestige factor” still remains. Publishers can build on this. But it will require some significant changes in practice, as indicated by the responses of those who have been published traditionally:
While outsiders who probably have among them the next generation of best-selling authors believe that publishers can help them and have fairly high opinions of publishers, those who have experienced both publishers and the alternative have a very low opinion of publishers, by comparison.
Perhaps it is because those authors who have both self- and traditionally published are unreasonably bitter as a group by some slight they experienced at the hand of a publisher. Or perhaps they have made a reasoned comparison of what the publishing industry offered them and what self-publishing offered them and were more satisfied with the latter. Either way, it would suggest that traditional publishers could do more to woo and impress published authors.

The good news for publishers is that aspiring writers still believe in their ability to help them. It’s not too late for publishers to improve their services to authors to attract and retain the next generation of best-selling authors.
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. (One comment made by an editor at DBW shocked the binding out of me. He said at his company “there are 42 people who have to touch a book to get it published.” Unless he was kidding, or answering the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything, that is not a recipe for fast feet and effective counter punching.)
So consider me sitting at ringside, shouting, “Cover up! Watch his left! Work the body! The body!”
What are you shouting to the traditional publishing industry?
Jake LaMotta, by the way, is 89 years old. And he’s still on his feet.


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Enough already.

by Michelle Gagnon

I feel like there’s been an increasingly acrimonious discourse lately on traditional vs. self-publishing, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m seeing it at conferences, online, and everywhere in between. Both camps are equally guilty here, in terms of snide comments and blatant put-downs. Those who are under contract with traditional publishing houses sniff at the fact that self-published authors skipped over hurdles to publish what they suspect (but rarely say publicly) must be drivel, or what one writer friend of mine referred to as a “tsunami of swill.”

In the other camp, the self-published authors extol the fantastic revenue returns they’re receiving, a far greater percentage than what they would have gotten from a standard publishing contract. They make lots of references to an archaic business model, implying that anyone who still partakes in it is a fool.

Enough already.

I don’t really care how someone is published, or how many books they sell, or how much money they’re making. But the overall nastiness that’s becoming commonplace is off-putting. The prevailing attitude used to be, “we’re all in this together” among writers, whereas now there’s a schism. And that’s a shame, because both models have their merits.

To those (like me) who are still publishing with the major houses: I’ve read wonderful novels in the past few years that failed to find a home. Sometimes the reason for that was clear–the book was aimed at a very niche market, one where publishers couldn’t envision making a profit. Other times, I was at a loss to know why a particular book didn’t sell. One was an amazing YA novel written by a friend of mine, who ended up self-pubbing on Wattpad. After reaching an extraordinary amount of downloads, she moved it to Amazon and started charging for it. And it’s doing well- IMHO, the publishers lost out on this one. 

To self-published authors: The traditional houses aren’t going anywhere. People frequently point to the music industry, which is a fantastic example. What they fail to take into account is that musicians still aren’t, by and large, self-producing music. Eighty-five percent of the music sold worldwide is still produced by the same music companies that were producing it a decade ago. Many of those companies have merged and/or consolidated, sure. But they’re still around, for the same reason that the big 6 will still be around in a decade. Like it or not (and I’m not, personally, a huge fan of this, but so be it), most of the houses are part of much larger conglomerates. And News Corp and CBS aren’t going anywhere; they’re also unlikely to shed an industry that still feeds into their film and TV franchises. So, no, people who still follow the old model aren’t going to be shoved out, by and large. The midlist might diminish further, but books will continue to be released by those companies well into the future.

There are pros and cons to each model. Self-published authors don’t have the benefit and protection of a contract, so if Amazon decides tomorrow to change those royalty rates, they’re well within their rights to do so. It’s also far more difficult to secure foreign and film/tv rights when you self-pub, and that tends to be the bread and butter of traditional authors.

Traditional authors, meanwhile, do lose out on some royalties that they could potentially be getting. They also have to wait months, and occasionally years, for a book to finally appear on shelves. And advances are not what they once were.


But there’s no right way and no wrong way. Write your book. Publish your book, however you prefer. But please, stop with the mud slinging. At the end of the day, we’re all still pursuing the same dream.

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An Open Letter to Traditional Publishing

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell

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

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