By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From July 15, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, appearing at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Whom does it benefit if J.A. Konrath sells a lot of books? J.A. Konrath, that’s who.
And what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. But:
No young mystery writer will be the indirect beneficiary of his sales figures. Nobody will.
In fact, this is the point in Williamson’s commentary. It takes her a long time to get there, but it’s what’s meant by the headline, The dead end of DIY publishing.
While detractors who left comments on her piece seem to have read that headline to mean we’re looking at the “dead end” of self-publishing, if you get right through to the final phrases, you realize that it’s talking about a kind of extinction potential — the “dead end” being a DIY-centric publishing community with little nourishment for new work and newcomers.
This is a point of debate about the industry! the industry! that we don’t hear much. If Williamson had spent more time on this issue she might have drawn a more thoughtful crowd.
The underlying assumption here is that in traditional publishing, it’s the blockbuster books that effectively generate what passes for research and development money, R&D. A major house can utilize the revenues of a monster seller to take risks on the young and the feckless, the debutantes and the dodgy, the genre-challenged and the passion players.
In the old publishing system— whatever its many faults — best sellers paid for the equivalent of research and development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors.
Now, here, I’ll offer four quick pre-emptive notes, because I don’t think we can accept Williamson’s premise — that traditional publishing has done this job of R&D — without some reservations:
- No, we don’t know how much money may (or may not) have been spent by a major publisher during any given time period on lesser-known authors and works.
- Yes, if we did know, we’d surely say it wasn’t enough. It is never enough.
- No, the boards and corporate parents of the publishing houses weren’t likely wringing their hands over how many newcomers out there might need their help.
- And yes, we’d be laboring on a different planet if we found out that using revenue to invest in other authors had occurred “for the love of literature” in these for-profit corporations.
Still, as the industry morphs and struggles, it’s the kind of question the best heads need to be ready to answer: In self-publishing, with every writer working for him- or herself, where does the R&D come from?
How many advances, even lackluster paltry ones, can Kickstarter replace?
This new model (self-publishing in general) sounds less like egalitarianism and more like the Bush administration, intent on outsourcing government jobs to private contractors. In both publishing models, somebody’s still paying, and in self-publishing, that someone is the author. That doesn’t seem especially meritocratic.
A Boon for Bidinotto
It won’t surprise regular Ethernauts to learn that comments on Williamson’s article are punctuated by the usual pitchfork-waving, spitoon-dinging dismissals. Gosh, she seems not to have asked the permission of the self-publishing community to write about these issues. Shame on her.
The Ether covered Robert Bidinotto’s own wide-eyed description of his success when Amazon chose him, unexpectedly, for a post-Thanksgiving offer and shot his self-published thriller, Hunter, right out of a cannon.
Now, Bidinotto writes in a comment on Williamson’s article:
Had I followed the stupid advice of Ms. Williamson, the author of this snarky, factually challenged article, I never would have published my debut novel.
The “stupid advice?”
Williamson points out that there are genuine, deep challenges to any DIY route — as there are in traditional publishing — and that the success stories are not something that self-publishing authors in their thousands can all expect to replicate.
She’s hardly alone in bringing to light how difficult self-publication can be. Author Nancy J. Cohen did this, too, as we reported in the Fourth of July week edition of the Ether. Surely, a realistic experience of the digital disruption of publishing should concede that this is easy for nobody.
Meanwhile, in this comment, Bidinotto touts being a “#4 Kindle Bestseller,” a “1 Kindle Bestseller in ‘Mysteries and Thrillers,'” earning “six-figure royalties within two months,” and achieving “financial salvation for my wife and me, and a new career as a novelist, in the wake of sudden unemployment at the age of 62.”
In another comment on this same story (he comes by twice), Bidinotto writes:
I have yet to pay one penny for advertising, yet that hasn’t prevented HUNTER from becoming a bestseller, with over 67,000 copies sold within its first year of release since late June 2011.
And yet in that Ether coverage of Bidinotto’s interview with Jennie Coughlin, he said:
“I had no advance warning that they (Amazon) planned to feature my book as an ‘Editors’ Pick’—in fact, their #1 editors’ selection—for the entire week!”
Some extremely good luck fell on Bidinotto. And we’re all seriously happy for him, of course. Who doesn’t want to see the power of Seattle’s algorithms work so well for authors? But his was a windfall of rare proportion, the combination of being singled out for a “Big Deal” holiday promotion and for an “Editors’ Pick” blessing at once. This is hardly representative of what most authors — self-publishing or not — can anticipate.
Too frequently, the counter to a serious question of stewardship in the industry’s future is the recitation of an anecdotal anomaly.
The rude, the mad, and the ugly
Whether or not she’s dispensing “stupid advice,” Williamson’s biggest sin may be to point out that the vociferous component to the self-publishing community — exactly the sneering, tone she triggers in some of the people commenting on her post. She writes:
Some self-published authors talk about the current developments in militaristic terms: it’s a battle. It’s a war. It’s a revolution that will lead to the death of the publishing industry. Accordingly, the self-publishing sphere has rebranded itself “indie publishing,” even though its venue, Amazon, is the largest, most dominant corporate force in the book world.
And she does bring up the daunting odds:
For every Joe Konrath, there are many thousands of self-published authors who’ll never see much revenue from their books.
The general tenor of the responses to her piece run along the lines of respondent Ty Unglebower’s opener:
The idea that the author of this article got paid to write something so clearly biased, unsubstantiated, outdated and incorrect says more about the problems in the world of writers than self-publishing does.
Shatzkin weighs in
You’ll find that industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has mentioned the same author-investment point, as well, in his talk at George Washington University’s fifth annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing.
Shatzkin is with Idea Logical and the national and international Publishers Launch conferences he mounts with Publishers Marketplace’s Michael Cader.
He has made his slide deck available from that talk, under the title How the DoJ’s misunderstandings could destroy publishing, and why it’s worth saving. Even if you don’t agree with Shatzkin’s take on the overall situation, it’s worth your time to go through his slides because this is a comprehensive and yet concise explication of traditional publishing’s arguments.
Of special interest is the clarity we begin to get from Shatzkin these days on Amazon. In his recent post, Royalty Share CEO Bob Kohn alleges DoJ violates the Tunney Act, he writes that he doesn’t believe, as some suggest, that “I don’t see ‘collusion’ between DoJ and Amazon as the most likely explanation for the suit and the disaster the settlement could engender.”
In fact, referring to the George Washington speech, he writes:
I want to repeat only one point from that speech here. Amazon’s behavior is self-serving, but it is not evil! It is both futile and wrong to blame something in Amazon’s character for the industry’s troubles. Amazon’s shareholders are not primarily interested in the health and well-being of the book publishing ecosystem; they are primarily interested in the growth of Amazon’s value.
And I find some of Shatzkin’s numbers helpful for explaining to folks the sizes of some of the stakes here. For example:
- Big Six publishers each average 3,000 or more titles each year.
- The next 10-largest houses each average some 500 to 700 titles per year.
- An acquiring editor at a traditional house, he says, will do 10 to 15 books each year.
And when it comes to these questions about investment in authors’ new titles and new careers, I don’t see any easy answers.
- Authors working mainly as independent actors, each naturally devoted to his or her own progress and advancement, aren’t necessarily in a position to invest in newcomers and new material from others, however inclined they might be toward mutual support.
- And however ad hoc (and untraceable) as traditional publishing’s R&D function of cycling funds back into development may be, it appears — at least on first look — there’s even less such a mechanism in place in a DIY setting.
So this is where I’d like your input:
Do you see a natural investment opportunity and apparatus in place for supporting new talent and the new works of existing authors in a self-publishing setting? Aside from the individual trial-and-error that each self-publishing author funds for him- and herself, where’s the R&D in a DIY industry?
Writing on the Ether now can be followed not only here at JaneFriedman.com (free) but via RSS at the Publishers Marketplace’s Publishers Lunch Automat, in the section, ePublishing and the Future. (A subscription is required for Publishers Marketplace and its many services — easily worth the cost.) The @PublishersLunch industry news service is led by Michael Cader and Sarah Weinman.
Main image: James Cook, Rome
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