Thursday, October 31, 2013

Who Needs a Legacy Publisher, Anyway?

Lots of interesting things going on in the publishing world this week, both in the general industry and on the home front. This post wound up being pretty long.

Hang with me.

First up . . . (Steve climbs on his soapbox.)

An article by Rachel Deahl in Publisher's Weekly last Friday outlined a growing concern by literary agents that the legacy publishing houses were beginning to shy away from committing to print editions of authors books. Here's a summary excerpt:

". . . with some [agents] expressing concern that the big houses are starting to hedge on print editions in contracts.

While e-book-only agreements are nothing new—all large publishers have imprints that are exclusively dedicated to digital titles—a handful of agents, all of whom spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, said they’re worried that contracts from print-first imprints will increasingly come with clauses indicating that the publisher makes no guarantee on format. The agents say this is a new twist to the standard way of doing business."

I'm not going to go into any more details or comment on the gist of the article; I encourage you to read it if you want more depth and context.


This sets the stage for the uncomfortable possibility that publishing houses will evolve their standard contract language to set up the scenario of releasing titles as (low-cost to produce) ebooks first, and only doing print runs if the book sales justify it.

I have to ask: why the f**k would we (authors) even consider signing a contract with a legacy publishing house at this point? The old guard claims to offer--for a typical royalty rate of about 17%--getting your book distributed to one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores, editorial,  artwork, and formatting services, and marketing.

Let's take a look at those.

Unless your name ends in Grisham, King or Koontz, and your first name is John, Stephen, or Dean, respectively  you do not get a pile of books prominently displayed at the the front of the store or in the window. If you're a "mid-list" author, which most are, you get one or two copies of your work stuck spine-out on a shelf in the appropriate genre section, where a reader on an expedition to those wilds may find it if they look hard enough, and your title or name intrigues them. I ask you, Legacy House, if you take that meager crumb away, what's left?

Editorial services. Have you looked in a legacy-published book lately? The work by the few remaining and over-tasked editors in the industry doesn't exactly shine. Take Dan Simmons or Stephen King's last few books. (Love you guys,  but did you even get read by an editor before going to print?) For a flat fee, an independent author can hook up with many of the excellent editors the death throes of the legacy publishing world is casting adrift. My editor, Rebecca Dickson, is not only a rock star of an editor, she cares about the story, about me and my career, about making me a stronger writer. I'm not just a cog in a machine to her, even though our relationship is contractual, book-by-book.

And that's also key: a flat rate / book contract. I pay her fairly for her time and work, and then I'm free to earn whatever I can from the book--no royalties, no percentages, no ties.

And another thing. It's my work, my book. I'm free to incorporate or discard her changes and suggestions (though I rarely reject any of her edits; I'd say I keep better than 99% of her markup.) With a legacy publishing arrangement, the publisher owns your work. You either write what they want, or your book doesn't get printed. And, again, your relationship is royalty-based; you get the scraps off their table when they say say (or their mystical bean-counters say) their up-front costs are recovered. (Of which you're likely to pay another 15% of that to the agent who negotiated the contract for you.)

Artwork. Again, you can make suggestions. You can hold your breath till you pass out. You can jump up and down and wave your arms and rant and rave. But the publisher will put out the cover they want, not the one you want. This is a big deal to writers, and I've seen a lot of discussions on a lot of forum boards that vent frustration over lack of control in this area, and pure joy and relief over the control and freedom of publishing your own work with your own cover brings.

For a few hundred bucks--or less--you can commission a very talented artist to create exactly the cover you want. Or you can do it yourself. I did the front and back cover for The Winds of Heaven and Earth myself. Will it win awards? Probably not. Does it convey the mood and theme of the book? I think it does. And it was a lot of fun to do. And if I decide in the future I want something different or that the cover is hurting book sales, I can change it. Or hire someone to do it for me.

Interior format, layout. Yeah, formatting for both print and Kindle is a pain, but once you learn to build and tweak templates in Word, it's cookie cutter. And again, at the end of the day, it's what I want.

So what's left? What do we get out of the 83% of the book's revenue that you guys collect?

Those two spine-out editions in the crumbling bookstore up the street. Or, at least, we used to.

Let's do it with some numbers. Just talking eBooks here, to make a point

Let's say I write a novel, and the publisher releases it in digital format, and in the first year it sells 5,000 copies (I wish.) Assume it's priced at $4.99, which is typical for a mid-list author. That's $25,000, of which the publisher gets 83% or more. That leaves me $4,250. My agent gets 15%. I'm left with $3,600. I pay a third in taxes. That leaves me $2,400. Less than 50 cents per copy sold. And, still, no distribution in a bookstore, no control of cover, little editorial leverage.

Now say I publish that on my own. Being transparent here, my royalty earnings from Amazon on that title price are 70% (yup, that's right. 70.) My take-home gross is now $17,500, over four times what the legacy house would pay. My agent's cut is,well, zero, since I don't need one to self-publish. Subtract two grand for editing and cover services, and I have about 15K left, and after taxes about ten.

Now we're talking two bucks a sale versus fifty cents. Even priced at $2.99, I'm making over a buck and a half a sale, for the brow-sweat of a half-year's work.

I feel a whole lot better about self-publishing now.

I ask again, why f**k would I sign with a legacy house?

Moving on.

I'm a big admirer of, not just for their estore and amazing customer service, but for the opportunity they provide for Independent authors to publish and sell their work--they were probably the main catalyst for the self-pub explosion and the death blows to the legacy publishing business. Jeff Bezos rocks.

Now Amazon has come out with an amazing program, a win-win for both readers and authors, called Kindle Matchbook. For authors and publishers that voluntarily opt-in to the program, readers who purchase or have purchased print editions of books can pick up the Kindle edition for $2.99, $1.99, $0.99, or free.

I chose free for my books. Most Idie authors I discussed this with agree; the idea is that if you already paid for my work, I'm not going to charge you for the convenience of reading it in the medium of your choice. A few authors disagree, saying this is no different than charging for hardback and paperback editions of a book. I say that's bullshit; paper costs to print. eBooks cost almost nothing (literally, a penny or two depending on the size) to distribute. Make your digital stuff free if someone paid you. You need to keep the readers happy.

You can see a list of titles eligible for Matchbook on Amazon, so if you bought a print book through them in the past, check it out. (Waves hand in shameless marketing plug.) You can also discover the book's eligibility on that title's Amazon page as well.

Finally, on the home front. The Dark Paths of the World, the sequel to The Winds of Heaven and Earth, stands at about 72,000 first-draft words. It's shaping up nicely, though it's trending to be a lot longer than WHE. Still targeting early spring.

Have a great Halloween, keep it reasonable on the candy intake, and watch out for those Facebook giraffes.

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