Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pretentious, no?

I just created this blog today, and had to think of a name for it. Well, the dragon is my personal totem in a deeply spiritual sense, so I decided to work that into it. I tried "Dragonsmoke" - taken. I switched to "The Dragon Belches," which is perhaps more honest and certainly more amusing in a silly way. Then again, I don't imagine I'll actually be doing any belching here, or if I do it's not something that will find its way into print, and you will never know unless you're watching me type.

But I will certainly be doing a fair amount of talking. I do that a lot, and in fact there are those who say that the hard thing is to shut me up. So although pretentious, "The Dragon Speaks" may be the most straightforwardly honest title after all.

I'll hold forth on just about anything: politics, religion, the occult, and creative writing and publishing being my most common topics. Whatever strikes my fancy will go here, although your comments (whoever you are) may inspire me or move me in directions I hadn't considered before. I'm no expert on anything and will deny being one on principle even if I am; all ideas must stand on their own two feet, without artifical propping-up by people's opinions about their sources, and if I were God writing with a finger of fire on stone tablets, the words that appeared would be "Think For Yourself." Still, it's possible that what I have to say may provoke some thought. If so, I'll have done a good job.

I suppose it's traditional to introduce oneself in the first post of a blog. Very well. My name is Brian. I am old enough to know better. I live in California, but that's only in the flesh; my mind lives everywhere. I am an aspiring novelist; links to my book (or in future my books) appear here ( and you may browse the early chapters for free as if perusing a volume off a bookstore shelf. I should say rather that I am a novelist, and what I aspire to is to be able to make a living off it. These days there's no need to wait for a publishing-company's seal of approval, and if it's finished it can be published; then the reading public gets to decide whether publishing it was a good idea or not, and after all that makes a lot more sense than having some self-important gatekeeper making the decision before anyone has a chance to read a word.

And that brings me to the first topic: publishing, and what's happening to it.

There’s been a certain amount of talk floating around about the “end of the book” as a result of the rise of the e-book. That may ultimately happen, and from a reader’s perspective it makes a difference, but from a writer’s standpoint it’s not really the most important thing happening. Far more significant than whether we will in the future be publishing in print or digitally is the end of three institutions that have dominated writers’ professional lives for a long time: the publishing company, the literary agent, and the bookstore. All three of these are in decline, and there is no reason to believe that the decline will not continue into nonexistence.

Bookstores are an old story and I’ll not retell it. Suffice to say that for purchases of new books, on-line bookstores make so much more sense than brick and mortar that the writing is on the wall. There remains a niche for the used book store, but that doesn’t matter much to writers, except insofar as writers are also readers.

Since the literary agent is a function of the publishing company – an agent’s job is to negotiate with publishing companies on a writer’s behalf – agents will stand or fall by publishers. So from the writer’s perspective it all comes down to the publishing house.

There are three technologies impacting the relationship between writers and publishers. These are e-publishing, print-on-demand, and on-line marketing. The combination of these three technologies makes it feasible for any author to self-publish. Not to succeed necessarily – you have to write well (usually) and appeal to the fickle and unpredictable reading public (always) to do that – but any writer can today put his work before the public absolutely free and without having to meet the approval of a publishing house. It’s wrong to focus the question on the e-book in my opinion, and I say that in spite of the fact that I firmly believe that e-books are the wave of the future in literature. But it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong about that, because what is true about e-books in terms of impact on the writer-publisher relationship is also true about POD, provided that either of them is matched with free on-line marketing, which of course they are.

What services do publishers provide to writers? There are three of them, traditionally: editing, printing/binding, and promotion/distribution. But with respect to any of them, the question arises of whether the author employs a publisher for these services because it’s actually desirable to do so, or because he has no choice. And I would answer that for all of them, a traditional publisher was always employed only because the author had no choice about it. Printing, binding, promotion, and distribution were expensive in the old model, and required a large outlay of capital with no certain return. A writer who did not have a lot of money to spend had no choice but to submit his work to a publishing house, and let the publisher decide whether it would be published or not.

POD, internet marketing, and of course the e-book have changed that equation. The cost per volume using POD is the same as with traditional printing, but since it’s now possible to print only when an order is received, there is no up-front capital expenditure. Of course, e-books have virtually no cost of production at all. And with distribution happening primarily through on-line stores, there is no real need for a traditional publisher’s distribution network, either.
That leaves editing, and this is a genuinely valuable service. I see plenty of e-books on the market that could have used a good editor, not to mention a good proofreader. But does this service need to come from a publishing house? Does the writer need to pay for it by handing over control of whether he will be published or not, and the lion’s share of the proceeds if he is? Not at all. A pay-for-services model of editing (available through most self-publishing outlets) makes much more sense from the writer’s perspective. Or, if the writer doesn’t have the funds for that, he can find another writer on-line and exchange editing services, because all an editor really is, is another literate person seeing things from a different perspective that the author perhaps missed.

Given all of this, plus the decline of traditional publishing and consequent caution of publishing houses, why on earth would any aspiring author ever submit his work to a publisher? The way things are now, with fewer and fewer titles being published each year, the odds against one’s work being accepted are simply monstrous. And if one beats the odds and one’s work is accepted for publication, one still signs a contract giving an enormous percentage of the proceeds to the publishing company. And even then, most books don’t succeed, because publishers aren’t really all that good at predicting the reading public’s tastes and desires. Aside from editing, about the only advantage of traditional publishing is that the publisher pays the author an advance. So you get your up-front money and you roll the dice, and if your book doesn’t sell enough to pay back that advance you won’t publish another. You’ve inadvertently (and legally) swindled the publishing company of funds, at the cost of your writing career.

Does that make sense to you? It sure doesn’t to me.

On the other hand, with self-publishing nobody pays anything up front, except the self-publishing outlet’s overhead costs. The writer gets no advance, but by the same token modest success is not, in that model, the same as failure. Royalties are higher, typically about $4 per volume with print-on-demand, or some 70% or more of the total sale price for e-books. If you publish a traditional book through a publishing company and sell 200,000 copies, you might get $400,000 in total royalties depending on the book's retail price. Do the same with a POD volume (and that’s no more or less likely than doing it through a publishing house, except that you’re guaranteed to have the chance to try), your royalties will be about double that. Publish a traditional book, sell only 1,000 copies, and you’ve flopped; the publisher has lost money on you and will not want to publish anything else you write (however, since the publisher probably paid an advance of at least $5,000, you’ve made that much). Sell 1,000 copies POD, and you’ve made $4,000 and are free to keep writing and publishing. Your return on that one book is less, but it’s made honestly, not by taking unearned payment from the publisher, and your career is not over.
Why, then, would any author ever choose to publish his work through a publishing company? Honestly, I can’t see any reason at all, except that some haven’t figured it out yet, or think that self-publishing is an admission of defeat. It's not. It's a perfectly rational decision. It's the thing to do even if you can get published traditionally.

If you’re a new author, self-publishing is the way to go because (let’s face it) 1,000 sales represents a more realistic projection than 200,000 for a first book, and you don’t want to kill your career. On the other hand, if you’re already successful, and publishers are drooling over the chance to publish your books which are always best sellers – then self-publishing is still the way to go, because of the higher royalties and greater control over the process.

It’s only a matter of time before all authors figure this out and publishing houses can no longer get any business because nobody will submit to them. We will have self-publishing outlets in the future, and we will have professional editors, because that’s a genuine service that’s needed. But the publishing house is going to disappear altogether. And that means the literary agent will go, too.

More next week, on who knows what? Fly free.

No comments:

Post a Comment