Mind the Middlemen

Are publishers inadvertently promoting self-publication?

Back in December I posted a pessimists look at the option of self-publishing. My intention was for this to be the first of a three part series but things got a bit derailed. So, my apologies for the delay, let’s get on with the discussion.

The previous article looked at some of the benefits of publishing with a publisher, rather than self-publishing. These include a measure of credibility, financial investment, protection from financial loss and promotion.

But, are these incentives really there, especially in the context of electronic publishing?

Without the visible cost of paper and ink, a lot of authors ask, “what exactly is this publisher doing to justify paying me a pittance and taking all the profit for themselves?” This is particularly true in the case of anthology and journal publication of short stories and poetry where payment often ranges from token to nothing.

There is less at stake when no capital has been invested into a print run and distribution. If an e-book sells, the publisher makes money, if it doesn’t, they’ve made no loss. They may not even invest time and effort in promoting your book. Many authors will tell you from experience that if you publish electronically with a publisher then the success or failure of your book depends on your own efforts at promotion and marketing.

Authors are not generally offered more for an electronic publishing deal than a paper one, indeed, it may be less. The books often still sell for the same amount as their paper counterparts, so it would seem the extra money is further lining the pockets of the publishers.

In the UK the pricing of e-books versus print books is influenced by the fact that VAT (value added tax), is charged at 20% on electronic media, but not on traditional print media. This is likely to change in the long run as EU regulations governing VAT rates is reviewed. The effect on e-book prices may change market patterns.

For some more information on the VAT debate, check out Futurebook.com

Many would agree that publishing with a publisher offers your work credibility in a sea of hit and miss self-published works. But does it really? Publishers do seem to be picking up works that might have previously been sent back for further editing now that electronic publishing is an option; with less at stake financially, they can afford to take more risks. Publishers which deal exclusively in electronic content are springing up everywhere. Can these newcomers carry the same degree of authority of an established print publisher?

There are hidden costs to producing an e-book; professional, eye catching cover design, including sourcing stock images, registering ISBN numbers and so on. Many do not consider these issues until they begin to look into the matter. A publisher will take these costs out of the authors’ hands and absorb losses, but they are not the prohibitive numbers entailed in a large print run, and are within the scope of self-financing.

It seems that, far from fighting against self-publishing as competition, publishers are gently nudging new writers towards it. And, maybe this is something of an indication that the two sectors can happily co-exist.

The market needs variety, but publishers are businesses driven by the pursuit of profit; they are not concerned about who reads a book or with finding new talent and giving it a chance. As the self-publishing market grows in size and credibility,  it is possible that publishers will deal more and more exclusively with sure fire successes.

It is in the interests of publishers to encourage the world of self-publishing to develop into a proving ground for new authors. It keeps the market healthy while allowing them to cream their share from a narrow sector of lower risk volumes.

One thing is clear; the success or failure of self-publishing as a whole will rely on authors upholding their own high standards.

Part 3 will be taking a look at a much bigger and more important question; what device to read your electronic content on.

8 Replies to “Mind the Middlemen”

  1. There are certainly cons to self-publishing – lack of marketing and lack of editing being two of the biggest. I have been impressed however with the way that self-published ebooks have enabled me to access literature i would never otherwise be able to find for A Year of Reading the World (http://ayearofreadingtherworld.com/).

    My Andorran book was a self-published translation of a novel that had been very successful in Catalan and Spanish but had no way of reaching an English language audience. The translation was a little patchy, but overall it was a good book. And the response from Andorran readers to it getting some wider publicity has been amazing…

  2. Nice to see you back Chrissey, very interesting stuff. As a very new writer, something I have not thought much about.
    Thanks for the information, and your thoughts.

  3. I would say that traditionally published works will have fewer typos and grammar errors. That would be the main distinction. And I’ve encountered typos and grammar mistakes (albeit few in each work) in books that have been published at any time in the past century, including many bestsellers.

    To be honest, a great amount of dreck has always been traditionally published. I’ve read and encountered cheesy novels dating to the early part of the 20th century and every decade in between then and now. Ditto for garish or eye-poppingly bad cover art, quickly dashed-off blurbs on the back, and overwrought language. We tend to look fondly at great bodies of works because we skim the cream off the top of a deep latte grande. The books that remain on shelves month in and month out and are restocked become familiar to us while the overwhelming majority of books follow a revolving door and are consigned ignominious fates in temporary bargain bins and then on to dog-eared used book stacks or garage sales.

    Editing has always been hit or miss and unevenly applied – it’s subjective anyway, as is taste. Stephen King’s “The Stand” was edited for length by the Accounting group and didn’t suffer for sales and is still considered the consensus fan favorite of his books. Many bestsellers face little editing and sell regardless, even though editing would have made them even better. Some literary books face heavy and agonizing editing and sell few copies, gaining only a wide mix of critical reviews.

    I’m seeing more midlisters – good, solid, experienced authors – turning toward self-publishing because the industry is undergoing another change just as it has done decade in and out for well over a century. There have been upheavals and changes before, and no decade in publishing can really compare to any other.

    What I also see is that there are few outlets for visibility for new authors, or midlisters who sell modestly. With the demise of Borders – after two decades of massive consolidation from publishing houses on down to the few big retailers, as well as shifts toward trade paperbacks to reclaim profitability in a middle ground while eroding mass market paperbacks – the truth is that many authors will see their books appear for perhaps a couple months at Barnes & Noble before being relegated to online sales until they fall out of print. There aren’t enough indie stores with enough shelf space to take enough chances on the volume of work produced each year, let alone maintain what already is capable of sustaining sales and business.

    Promotion falls to authors for the most part in traditional publishing – other than a slim group whose sales keep profitability going and subsidize the majority of other authors.

    Given the current landscape and barring an extremely rare happenstance of being tapped as one of that year’s limited promotion slots, many traditionally published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months in physical stores.

    Self-published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months on consignment in indie stores.

    As you note, indie authors need to distinguish themselves from the greater likelihood of more typos and grammar issues. As far as story editing – a lot of work in both traditional and self-published has never been burdened by a great need for tightening stories, developing characters, eliminating deus ex machina author interventions, Mary Sue protagonists, cliches, and factual mistakes. I can name bestsellers going back decades that have glaring faults in all these categories. The reason any book sells is sometimes intangible because it strikes the right notes at the right time with the right confluence of audience. Sometimes promotion creates a bestseller (and just as often fails). Often success begets success as long as such authors maintain their connection to readers and tastes – but these can slip from the grasp of even very talented authors.

    Snooki was “validated” by the publishing industry because she would sell books. A lot of churned out genre whose author names never reach public awareness in the way King or Patterson or Grafton or many others have done also receive validation, for whatever it ends up being worth (not much for many authors, whose later works end up in different publishing houses or follow the self-published route). This is all simply reality although the debate often triggers resentment from both sides and accusations and recriminations.

    Publishing has to focus on profitability since that’s key to its existence. Ditto for booksellers like Barnes & Noble and especially the indies. So the shift like you noted is toward more the guaranteed moneymakers while even the steady-but-modest authors may be better served in self-publishing, particularly since it no longer holds the stigma it once did.

    (Sorry for the long comment – the blog post touched on some good points and I wanted to share my perspective, which aligns with and supplements many of the ones mentioned).

  4. To be honest Chrissey you have to do self promotion whether you have a publisher or not. The key is getting your title out there and getting people to review it. If a publisher is there, they have a list of blogs and reviewers and make sure they go, if you’re doing it yourself,well you’re on your own.

    Publishers in the UK, currently utilise the paper method for distribution, when they go more for the E-Book then I’ll invest in a reader.

    1. That’s a good point Gareth! I do think some people benefit from having the whip cracked behind them, though.

      I’ve got myself a reader mainly so I can read into that fringe of electronically published works in which many of the writers I know personally write.

      1. I would disagree with one thing. From what I have seen,electronically published authors seldom receive the same per book royalty as writers whose books appear in print.

  5. In response to Diane Girard – from my understanding typically a publisher will offer a new writer about 10% royalty on sales of books, whereas if you price in the $2.99-$9.99 range for an ebook on Kindle you are eligible for 70%, and I believe other ebook distribution channels offer similar rates.

    An interesting post Chrissey. There are an increasing number of accounts of publishers picking up successful self-published indie writers, and offering pretty good deals for on-paper books, or distribution rights for a particular territory. It may be that the market itself will take over the role of the literary agent – from a publisher’s viewpoint sorting the wheat from the chaff.

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