Self-publishing 2011: A year of changes and face-offs
Here’s our round-up of thoughts from 2011.
November 19, 2007–Amazon introduced the first Kindle (was it really that long ago?), and the revolution began. Sure, e-books existed long before that. Check out this Wikipedia article. But most folks will consider November 19, 2007–the introduction of the first Kindle–as the key event that would change the face of self-publishing forever because along with its release Amazon launched what is now Kindle Direct Publishing. In 2008 Smashwords offered indie authors the ability to publish their e-books in formats for non-Kindle devices. As you read the rest of this post, note the recurring theme of “change” here. Change is currently happening at warp speed in the publishing world. with two key points being emphasized: (1) Keep up or you’ll be left behind, and (2) Denying the changes won’t make them go away.
So what did change in 2011? David Gaughran gave a wonderful summary and personalized it on his blog. Meanwhile, the shortsighted Big Publishers, who had tried to convince everyone that e-books were an insignificant entity and that print books were still king, realized they might have a problem and began to resort to some astoundingly negative tactics (more on this below). Amid the chaos, in July, Borders announced the closing of its stores. Independent bookstores, which had already been struggling, struggled yet more. And everyone seemed to be blaming Amazon.
This blogger will be the first to admit that Amazon has made its share of missteps, but they are hardly to blame for the doom and gloom being attributed to it. Online sales have been with us longer than most people realize, and the growth curve is rising, not remaining linear. Amazon, for example, opened its online bookstore in 1995, over 15 years ago, and other online retailers sprang up quickly after that. Escalating gasoline prices, less time to shop in physical stores, and rising retail costs have all contributed to the shift to online sales. Many businesses, small and large, chose to ignore the changes heralded by the digital revolution, and they have paid for their self-imposed ignorance. For example camera and film giant Eastman Kodak years ago projected that digital cameras would not become significant in the consumer market until 2010. And they planned their business strategy accordingly. Now, publishers and retail bookstores all want to point fingers everywhere instead of at themselves for their lack of foresight.
We have also witnessed the changes to digital, each one coming faster than the one before: computers, CD music, TV, cameras, movies, and now self-publishing–all coming in a shorter time frame than the last. The music and movie business quickly embraced the changes to digital. Sound recording went digital (tapes) long before digital playback media entered the consumer market to any degree., but once computers and CD players hit, the change over from vinyl record happened in the space of a few short years. Moviemakers have been into digital effects and computer graphics almost from the advent of personal computers. That industry accepted it and has grown from it. The publishing industry, however, which has remained almost unchanged for a couple of centuries, instead of looking for a way to profit from the new technology, not only attempted to deny it, but actively fought it. Fighting change is not a smart way to do business.
For decades, publishers held all the cards and gloated over their power. They saw authors as something to be exploited for profit, and their business model included keeping their authors happy only insofar as they continued to bring in money. And authors had little choice. If you wanted to be published and have your books in the bookstores, you had to deal with publishers on their terms.
Some contract terms are negotiable, but new authors rarely can negotiate anything other than niggling changes (unless you are a celebrity), and certainly nothing that benefits the author in the long run. Basically, it was sign and be published, or don’t sign and that was it. Needless to say, few authors walked away from a contract, especially if they had been trying for land a publisher for some time.
Worse, most contracts are written such that the publisher always has an out and the poor author has none. Many contracts have a clause that allows the publisher to declare your work “unpublishable” (the definition of which is at the publisher’s sole discretion) if, at any point prior to publication, the publisher changes its mind. This clause has been used and to cancel a contract if the author proves uncooperative or a problem. In other words, once you signed the contract, you kept your mouth shut or that was it. And if your book had already been published, the contracts gave you virtually no recourse–they made sure of that when you signed the contract. The publisher was in control. This has been the status quo for decades.
But now, for the first time in all those decades, authors have viable options. You went with a publisher to get your books into the stores, but once books began to shift to electronic copies, physical stores became less important. Authors didn’t dare criticize their publishers for fear of repercussions that would brand them as troublemakers.
Authors used to believe naively that publishers provided lots of marketing for their books. Well, the Big Publishers haven’t done much of that for years anyway. Unless you were an important person already (i.e. a celebrity), you didn’t get much promo. Ask any midlist author how many promo dollars their publishers allocated to them. And if you thought that publishers arranged things like book signings and book tours for their authors, you’d be wrong again.
Here’s an eye-opening article by author Michael Stackpole contrasting traditional and self-publishing from the perspective of authors’ responsibilities and how myopic Big Publishers look at authors.
For years, authors have suffered in silence. Rarely did you hear their malcontent because publishing was a tight-knit business. If you made waves and alienated even a few people, you signed your own death warrant as an author. The old saying, “You’ll never work in this town again,” was nowhere truer than in the publishing industry where agents and publishers talked together–a lot.
And because Amazon gives authors another option, one that cuts agents and publishers out of the picture and potentially puts more money in the author’s pockets, Amazon is seen as the enemy. Naturally, publishers and agents are running scared: they’ve been fired!
Another shift that’s happened this year has been the change in attitude by some “industry professionals” regarding self/indie-publishing. In the first half of 2011, many still decried self-publishing in every way possible. This blogger heard confirmed accounts of agents and publishers–and even traditionally published authors–at various conventions and conferences actually demeaning and insulting other authors when they declare they’ve self-published. Such name calling has no place in publishing or anywhere.
The second half of 2011 has seen some change their tune. No longer able to deny the cold reality of significant e-book sales and the demonstrated viability of self-publishing, some former detractors have become less judgmental. Others have embraced the changes, albeit with caution and reservation. Why the shift? For one, several name authors are self-publishing their backlists and new material that their publishers turned down. When J. K. Rowling announced she would self-publish the e-books of her Harry Potter series, what sensible person would dare tell her she was making a mistake?
A number of established authors have had their eyes opened to the realization that what publishers paid them previously for their efforts was sometimes (often?) a gigantic rip-off, and it was the lure of “being published” that blinded them to that fact.
Publishers have reacted in many ways, from calmly trying to affirm their relevance to lashing out against their own authors. Read about Kiana Davenport’s experience–Sleeping with the Enemy. After hearing this story, what sensible author would sign a contract with that publisher? Now, even with all their dirty laundry being laid out on the table, publishers still seem to believe that authors are stupid enough to continue to take crap deals. Maybe that’s what they’re hoping for.
Check this one out as well: Amazon Rewrites the-Rules of Book Publishing
In Kiana Davenport’s case her reason for self-publishing her short stories (that her publisher didn’t want anyway), was to build her name before her novel came out. This, she hoped, would establish her reputation (and boost sales when the novel came out), and would also make some extra money for her while awaiting publication of the novel. It would have been a win-win situation for everyone. I hope Ms. Davenport wins this legal battle, and that once she has her rights back, her books will put a lot of money in her pocket instead of where it would have gone had her publisher acted differently.
What lies ahead for traditional publishing? Presumably Big Publishing will get its act together at some point. The doomsayers who claim that traditional publishing is dead are probably wrong. The Big Houses won’t go down without a fight, but how much further will they push their luck before the outcries from authors begin to do them real damage.
Having covered some of the problems that reared their ugly heads in 2011, here’s a list of self-pub advantages from a blog Dave Gaughran wrote in July. GO HERE to read the whole article.
“Instead, I want to look at all the terrible developments since the rise of self-publishing:”
1. No More Disappearing Genres.
2. Writers have more options.
3. Writers are getting fairer pay.
4. Writers are getting more control.
5. Readers are getting a bigger selection.
6. Readers are getting cheaper books.
7. Writers are trying new things.
8. Writers can write more.
9. Writers can earn more.
10. More people are reading.
Finally, Mike Shatzkin, wrote another telling article titled “Four Years into the e-book revolution: things we know and things we don’t know.” It will be interesting to see the answers to some of the unanswered questions in the months ahead.
Now that Rick has climbed down from the soapbox, I’ll step up there while it’s still warm. I think the best way to examine the changes in the publishing industry (and the reactions by the traditional publishers) is to view it in historical perspective.
For those readers who are close to my age (or older), I’m sure you owned your share of records in your day. I’m talking about vinyl—the LP records, the 45’s, anything you played on a turntable. The LP was such a great advance in technology that it sent the 8-track tape the way of the dinosaurs. Not all at once, mind you, but over time 8-tracks became a relic of the past. When cassette tapes came along, they hurt the sales of LP’s, but not enough to sound their death knell. That would be the compact disk. When CD’s came along, they knocked out both LP’s and cassettes. The music industry did not fight the changes. The industry embraced them. Any record producer who refused to switch to the new technology would have gone out of business.
Home movies are another great example. The picture discs (they were about the size of LP records) never made a huge impact. The true battle was initially fought between VHS and Beta tapes. Although Beta had better quality, VHS was cheaper and had longer play times on each tape. VHS was king . . . until the DVD came along. The movie studios saw the change coming, and they embraced it. VHS is a thing of the past. The advent of high definition pictures, as in the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, evolved the industry a little further. Again, the powers that be embraced the change. Although some held their breath until Blu-Ray emerged victorious, they have all climbed onboard with the new technology.
So why is the book publishing industry different? Changes are not just coming, they are here. E-book sales are skyrocketing while sales of paper books are headed in the opposite direction. Yet the big publishing houses are fighting the change every step of the way. The irony is that their refusal to evolve has made Amazon what it is today. Had the publishing industry embraced e-books right away, Amazon would not hold such a big market share. True, the big publishing houses now offer their books in electronic format. But they charge the same price for an e-book as they do for the print version. And the e-book, which can be ready in a matter of days, sits on a computer for up to a year and a half, waiting for the print version to be distributed. Sometimes, the publisher will sit on the e-book for an extra six months after the paper copy comes out. Obviously, they are trying to maximize their print sales first. But they are leaving e-book sales as an untapped resource.
Like Rick, I don’t believe the publishing industry is in its death throes. I don’t even think print itself is dying. But there is no denying that the market is changing. Electronic media will push print aside, making it more of a niche market. If the publishing industry would embrace the change, just as the makers of music and movies did, they would stand to make substantial profits. Amazon would no longer be the lone giant at the top of the electronic literary hill. Sell e-books when they are ready, not when the print version is ready. And sell them at a reduced price. Would this hurt their print sales? Yes. But their e-book sales would soar, and their profits would increase. The production costs on an e-book, once it has been finalized, are negligible. And e-books don’t go out of print, don’t end up as returns that need to be pulped. It’s simply smart business.
In keeping with the theme of e-books, I would like to announce that my latest novel, Archon’s Gate, has been released and is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com, and a variety of formats at Smashwords.com. The e-book price is $4.50. I will have it available soon in trade paperback, albeit at a higher price. After all, it’s just good business sense…