Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Business of Writing: Ebooks—The End of Publishers?

If that’s not a title that says, “Troll the Internet,” then perhaps my measure is a bit off. It is a question that begs to be asked. I’ve been reading this argument numerous times for the past year or two, as many independent authors have been demonstrating remarkable successes by selling their stories directly to the public as ebooks. Even successful, traditionally published authors were turning their backs on traditional publishing channels in favor of publishing themselves via ebooks.
Is this the end of publishers? No, not by a long shot.
But it is the end of of the way the business has been conducted for many years in the publishing industry.
Digital publishing and the rapidly growing number of ebook readers in the public have given authors a new path to reach the reading public without having to go through the approval gauntlet created by the publishing industry as a whole. Traditional publishing companies are no longer the gatekeepers of the literary world. People have found a hole in the wall they can squeeze through.
Publishers still have a lot to offer a writer. Editing services. Typographical services. Production. Distribution. Promotion.
A successful author isn’t so much an excellent writer as he or she is an excellent storyteller. Grammatical errors and spelling errors still creep into the narrative. Sure, spell checkers on computers catch errors and even autocorrect them on the fly. But a misplaced homophone (They’re/Their/There) won’t trigger an error condition. Nor will an awkwardly or poorly worded passage cause an alert with a grammar checker. If you like to write stories, how often do you catch yourself going off on a tangent that steers away from the plot? This is where you need a good editor. Someone who helps you keep your story readable and enjoyable for the general public. If a reader has to struggle to understand what you are trying to say, your story will not be successful.
A well-written and well-edited story won’t be read if it is hard to actually look at the printed words on the page. If it is printed in some obscure font, the letters are sized too small to see without reading glasses, or the letters are too far apart or too close together, it is going to be unpleasant to read. If someone has to struggle to make out the words of your narrative, it is highly unlikely that they are going to even try to read your story. This is where the science and art of typography come into play. The best way I can suggest you understand this would be to copy this text, paste it into a word processing program and mess with the fonts, change the paragraph, line, word and character spacing and try and read this. You will understand very quickly just how important it is to have everything look good! If you know how, mess with the CSS settings of this web page and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m stating.
Publishers have been publishing books for a long time, and they have set up strong relationships with numerous printers. As a publisher typically orders in large volumes, printers can offer a publisher excellent volume rates. An individual author trying to break out on their own will have difficulty affording the setup costs and production costs of just a small run of a few hundred books. Regardless of how large or small the print run, the same effort must be made to prepare for the printing. Some printers are recognizing that there is a growing market in independent authors and are starting to cater to this. But, an independent author had better have their editing and typesetting done, because it isn’t a printer’s responsibility to take care of this for you. Their job is to put ink on paper and bind it into a book.
Publishers already have many connections with distributors, the very stores that would sell your book. The publishers also have the resources to absorb what product the distributors could not sell. When a book doesn’t sell well, the publisher has to buy back the copies that the distributor could not sell. An independent author is going to have to negotiate terms with the bookseller concerning how many copies are available for sale, and be prepared financially to absorb the copies that don’t sell. If your book is popular, not having enough copies might be a blessing. The printer will sure love you for coming back with more and more orders for printing! But, if your book is not popular and doesn’t sell well, you might find yourself with a house full of boxed books and no money left in your bank accounts because you had to buy all the surplus merchandise.
And last, once the book is cleaned up, printed and sent out for sale, it needs to be promoted. There is an old saying in sales, “A man who doesn’t advertise is like a man winking in the dark. He knows what he is doing, but nobody else does.” You may have written the next great American novel, but if no one knows that it exists, then no one is likely to know to buy it. For the most part, a writer is an introvert, happiest to sit before the keyboard and crank out the story that is in their mind. At a party, most would end up standing along the sides of the room watching, not engaging people at random to talk. Not many are comfortable with standing up in the middle of a room of strangers and shouting, “HEY EVERYBODY! I WROTE A BOOK! BUY IT!”
Step into an elevator? Strike up a conversation. In a bookstore? Pull your book off the shelf and tell someone you wrote it. To an introvert, this is shameless behavior. But these are exactly the kind of things one must do to sell a book. This is exactly what publishers have salespeople to do.
For all these reasons, publishers will not be going away any time soon! The above are all vital services that a publisher can offer to a writer.
The sudden rise of independent writers due to the explosion of the ebook market is creating a paradigm shift for the publishing industry. The very subcontractors that publishers turn to for various editing services are now poised to become their competitors. These contractors—editors for hire, typesetters, printers, etc.—are waking up to the fact that there is a market of independent writers that need their services, and they are starting to make themselves known and available. Now there is an opportunity for all the small, independent presses to gain a stronger foothold in the publishing market, because they can adapt faster and more efficiently to the new opportunities than the large juggernaut corporations that the large publishers have become.
Then there are the writers themselves, the very resource from which the publishing industry exists. Writers are waking up to the fact that they no longer have to kowtow to the draconian conditions that publishers have pushed on them in contracts. If a publisher is interested but won’t negotiate more reasonable conditions, the writer now has the option to just walk away and go it alone.
Of course, the other side of this is that the big publishers can now watch the sales figures on independent authors in the ebook markets, and pick and choose who to offer a lucrative contract in exchange for becoming the author’s publisher. A title that is rocketing up the best-sellers lists is likely to be a good moneymaker for the publisher. This, in my opinion, is likely to become the new paradigm of big-house publishing. Amanda Hocking, wunderkind and poster child of independent authors, had made a fortune publishing herself independently via ebooks. She just signed a deal with St. Martin’s worth a couple million in her pocket.
Why would she do that if she was already wildly successful without a publisher? Because of the above-listed reasons. Doing all that yourself is difficult and tiring. It takes away from the time a writer would rather be writing. Why would St. Martin’s sign her? Because she is already a proven writer. Her stories sell and sell well. So, it is a safe bet that they will make a considerable sum of money on the sales of her stories and through other deals, such as movie rights. An unknown writer is a much bigger gamble.
Publishers will not be going away any time soon. They offer way too many services that are vital for a writer to be successful. But the way publishing business is done is going to change. How and how much it is going to change is anyone’s best guess.