it’s hard out here

August 25th, 2011

Traditional publishing never worked, it was an industry ruled by chance and blind luck. Its demise will be the best thing that’s ever happened to authors as the royalty system is rearranged and bureaucratic fat is removed from the system.

Roth did just fine as a writer before he began penning novels and getting advances, he taught and wrote small pieces on the side – getting an advance isn’t the issue, being paid at all is. Are a lack of advances the issue, or could that be theoretically compensated for by – oh, I don’t know – changing up the royalty system?

Let’s take a quick look at the royalty system, here’s how Wikipedia explains it: “Hardback royalties on the published price of trade books usually range from 10% to 12.5%, with 15% for more important authors. On paperback it is usually 7.5% to 10%, going up to 12.5% only in exceptional cases.”  How does this compare to the sale of e-books?  Well, on Amazon if authors price their books above $3, they take home 70% on every sale, roughly five-times as much money for every single sale.

So instead of eighty to ninety percent of the profits going to people other than the author, authors are now able to take home the vast majority of the profits generated by their work.

That’s what’s going to gut the literary industry – not writers themselves, the industry – the fact that the people who actually produce the art are going to be taking home the lion’s share of the profits, instead of the other way around.  The problem isn’t the emergence of e-books and print-on-demand publishing, it’s that the old system was broken.  A similar structure exists in the music industry, as the producer for Nirvana’s “In Utero” once colorfully explained:

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke”. And he does of course.

In a nutshell, a $250,000 advance would soon turn into a grand total of $4,031.25 for each member of a band consisting of three musicians.   And yet the advent of online file-sharing and torrenting hasn’t made musicians obsolete.  Although the music on your local pop radio stations probably still sucks – you can now find awesomely talented obscure bands everywhere from Pandora to their own websites, where they often give away several tracks of their music for free.

The old means of distribution was choking ingenuity and creativity while enriching the pockets of industry executives who had precisely zero to do with the actual creation of music.

Morrison’s final misconception is about the nature of the long tail:

“The recent enthusiasm for the long-tail market does, however, obscure a very basic economic fact: very few writers and independent publishers can survive in the long tail. Amazon can sell millions of books by obscure authors, while at the same time those authors, when they get their Amazon receipts, will see that they have sold only five books in a year.”

Without pre-selection and mass marketing, Morrison argues, the market can’t possibly function.  But here’s the thing, the market has never functioned rationally – rational and effective systems aren’t hallmarked by the randomness and chance discussed earlier.

Which is the point the rest of Morrison’s article should have but didn’t make: all of the industries he lists – movies, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, video games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the internet – are suffering financial crises of at the bureaucratic management level, which is being mistakenly viewed as a fight for the survival of the artists who actually populate them with art.

Musicians aren’t the ones who’ve been hurt by the evolving open marketplace, it’s the record stores who’ve gotten the shaft.  And the same pattern is already holding true with literature.


With the advent of e-books, authors no longer need the means of production that the publishing industry once had a monopoly on.  And so in the scheme of things, there’s no better time to try and make it as a writer.

People still love reading, so as sales of physical books flow out of brick-and-mortar book stores like rats from the proverbial sinking ship, they’re going to flow into both e-books and print-on-demand options offered by companies like CreateSpace and Lulu.  Maybe there’s no better indication that the publishing industry as we once knew it is good as dead than J.K. Rowling deciding to release the e-book version of all the Harry Potter books from her own personal website.

Obviously Rowling’s situation is worlds different from an author who’s first trying to break into the market, but they do share a common thread.

In a process that’s materially no different at all than being able to casually stroll through a bookstore, taking your time browsing through as many books as you’d like, all an author needs to do is post his work up online so people can read it on their monitors. And then if they want the convenience of being able to it with them – either on their e-reader or by ordering a print-on-demand copy – all they need to do is pay a small fee.

Consumers have never paid for access to books, they paid for the convenience of being able to take the words with them.

Again going back to the music industry, it turns out people who illegally pirated music weren’t just a little more likely to actually buy music, they were ten-times more likely to actually buy music.  And the model of making your writing as free and accessibly as possible has already worked once when it comes to writing.  In 2001 when The Alchemist author Paulo Coelho had been struggling for a few years to break into the Russian market, he decided to take this novel approach: he set up a site where anyone could download a PDF of the book for free.  And how’d that work out for him?

In 2001, I sold 10,000 hard copies. And everyone was puzzled. We came from zero, from 1000, to 10,000. And then the next year we were over 100,000… I thought that this is fantastic. You give to the reader the possibility of reading your books and choosing whether to buy it or not.

Having your sales increase one-thousand fold seems like a pretty damn good business model.

Morrison fundamental lack of comprehension about what’s really going on might be best captured by one of his final points: “In every digital industry the attempt to combat piracy has led to a massive reduction in cover price: the slippery slope towards free digital content.”

The reduction in cover price isn’t a slippery slope towards free, it’s the culling of a bloated and archaic publishing industry whose time has now passed.   As the music industry and Paulo Coelho have proven, the more access potential customers have to art the more likely they are to actually spend money on it. Authors will now be able to glean more of the profits created by their work, instead of having to whore themselves out to an industry populated mostly by people who failed at producing what they’re now selling – quality art.

Writers are no longer subject to the whims and vagrancies of faceless executives, the only thing they need now is a little bit of determination and a willingness to hustle the streets a little bit, which is a whole lot better than the alternative of letting a corrupt and dead-behind-the-eyes industry pimp out their dreams.

Category: books, current affairs, e-books, news, publishing, terrorism, war on drugs | Tags: , , , , 8 comments »

8 Responses to “it’s hard out here”

  1. anonymous

    At least publishers have editors… you would benefit

    “which isn’t something you can really knock him for in and of itself, but also a series of incredibly crappy books with his ”

    TtD: In addition to editors Tom Clancy at his worst is much better than me, or almost anyone, at their best. But thank you kindly for the edit!

  2. James Canoy

    Great overview of what is transpiring.

    As a previous commenter pointed out “at least publishers have editors”. Of course this only matters for the first book as any marketable author would be able to use profits to employ several editors.

    There are pro’s and con’s to any upheaval. An additional benefit would be the removal of paper books as a destructive force on the worlds forests. An example of a negative would be the loss of all the jobs involved with the publishing effort such as editors, marketing, and paper mills.

    I was initially surprised by the music statistic until I considered of my own buying preferences. I am much more likely to buy an author who I have previously experienced than I am a random author with whom I am not acquainted. This is especially true when the music/video is fairly priced.

  3. Kieran McMahon

    I’d argue that editors are an important contributory factor in producing good literature, and that suggesting authors ‘pay to employ their own’ is not a satisfactory solution. How do authors know who’s good for them? Quality control of personnel at that level in publishing is also extremely good, the top editors at quality publishers are generally possessed of stellar intellects and rare instincts. What, also, about the artistic alchemy that arises from unlikely partnerships that an author might never choose for themselves? Or the capacity of publishing houses to develop talent, offering two and three book deals to young writers. It’s not efficient by any means and they don’t do it nearly enough but they DO still do it and I don’t see any digital equivalent. There’s also the risk of saturating the market with literature that nobody wants to read; without an effective forum to filter and the presence of powerful, artistically-concerned, players to champion particular writers (which again, doesn’t happen nearly enough in traditional publishing) people could be looking at oceans of literature with little idea of what to read first. I’m not suggesting for one minute that traditional publishing is the only way to do that, just that digital publishing has yet to find a satisfactory solution to a lot of these issues.

    TtD: I definitely think editors play an incredibly important role, but I don’t think someone should be able to make a living just by being an “editor.” It’s something experienced authors can easily do for each other – it’s not brain surgery or something that requires years of schooling and technical expertise to master. Authors can scratch each other’s back when it comes to editing, and finding alchemy.

    I’m not sure of a case when a publishing house has developed talent like that, the only story along those lines I heard from my agent back in the day when I was signed with him, was that Dan Brown’s publishing house was about to boot him because they thought each of his first few books had only sold around 10 million copies… turns out they’d only sold a CUMULATIVE ten million, and the president of the publishing house said if he’d realized that, Brown definitely would’ve gotten the book before he had a chance to write The Da Vinci Code.

    Plus whoever was supposed to be doing quality control for George RR Martin and the Hunger Games clearly shit the bed – the decline in quality in each of their successive novels is pretty dramatic. And that’s both my opinion, and the collective opinion of the Amazon reviews. But then I think Collins may have just been cribbing off Battle Royale and may never really have had a complete universe conceived in her head in the first place.

    It won’t happen instantaneously, but the internet is going to allow talented, skilled, and determined writers to self-organize and edit each other’s work and keep each other on track, like the old school drinking clubs with Hemingway and that whole crew. Might be a long way off, but it’s not impossible.

    And “oceans of literature with little idea of what to read first” sound like every bookstore I’ve ever gone into. Quality works will spread via word of mouth, or keyboard, like they always have.

  4. William McDuff

    I think there will be room for professional editors. I don’t think readers will know who the best are, but writers will, and use them. A new profession.

    Authors want to be writing, not editing, I think.

    TtD: Sure for the most part, but most talented writers enjoy reading the work of other talented writers and are perfectly capable of critiquing it.

  5. Geek Media Round-Up: June 29, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind

    [...] it’s hard out here: “”Traditional publishing never worked, it was an industry ruled by chance and blind luck. It’s demise will be the best thing that’s ever happened to authors as the royalty system is rearranged and bureaucratic fat is removed from the system.” [...]

  6. » Music and art

    [...] the bureaucrats who “manage” it all? There’s going to be a whole lot fewer of them, and this is what the copyright battles and the attempts to censor the internet are all about, of [...]

  7. Wannabe author

    As a wanna be author I have found it disappointing when I received rejection notices.

    Most of the time they are terse, short on words, and vanilla.
    I rarely know why I have been rejected.

    As for the editing, at my level, the total amateur, groups of us edit each others work as a way of getting better at spotting glitches in our own work.

    That it also allows us to cross germinate is wonderful.

    At this juncture though we who are the newbies are left with the lottery of trying for a physical book through a traditional publisher, or a bunch of numbers by going digital with Amazon.

    That is why I like Baen publishing, they give away previews and make their real money on physical publishing and dedicated repeat customers.

    My next submission will be with them.

    Good luck to all those like who dream, never quit dreaming.

    Wannabe.

  8. book publishing

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    My blog is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors
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    Please let me know if this okay with you. Cheers!

    TtD: Go crazy with quoting and citing as much as you’d like, thanks for checking in!!


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