Indie vs. Traditional
Lately, I’ve heard a lot of talk over the internet about going indie or going traditional in terms of publishing. More and more people are suggesting going indie, while some people still believe traditional is the best for long term goals.
But I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret: This isn’t an either/or situation. You guys are both on the same team – Team Writer.
I’ve talked a bit before on my feelings about indie publishing (see: My Thoughts on Indie Publishing), and my thoughts haven’t changed much over time.
Here are some other things I’m going to say:
I don’t actually know how my sales stack up other authors. I have a pretty good idea how I compare to other indie authors, but I literally have no clue how many books traditionally published midlist authors sell or even best sellers. No clue. So I can’t actually compare my sales to other authors, because again, I have no clue.
I also know that ebooks only make up a small portion of the number of all books sold. Depending on who you ask, that percentage is as low as 8% or as high as 30%. I don’t know the exact figure, but I do know that huge portion is still paperback and hardcover.
J. K Rowling has no books in an ebook format (she refuses), and yet, I would guess (again, speculation, since nobody sends me print outs of their book sales) that she probably sold more books yesterday than I did. Maybe not, but even if she hasn’t, she has still published less books than I have, and hasn’t published anything new in four years, so even if she did sell slightly fewer books than me yesterday, that’s still impressive.
What that means is A) J. K. Rowling is a very good writer, and B) there’s still a lot of sales in traditional publishing. Print is not dead.
What that boils down to is product placement. Paperbacks get more sales simply because they are there. I run to Walmart to pick up socks, and then I see the shiny cover of a new book staring at me from the end of an aisle, and I grab it.
So here’s my theory on the future of publishing, which may or may not be wrong:
This whole ebook thing is going to benefit everyone in a real big way.
Traditional publishers will not die. Some may suffer, most will adapt. As a breed, they will change, but they will not go quietly into that good night.
Indie authors will also continue to flourish. Some with have great success, some will have no success, but most will do moderately well. Writers will be happier because of this, and readers will be happier with more options.
Midlist authors will go almost entirely indie. I think this move with benefit both the authors and the publishers. In a real way, publishers lose money on midlist authors.
Publishers have for years been in the business of making bestsellers. They put all their money and energy into make best sellers, but the problem is, nobody can actually predict a bestseller. People pretend they can, but they can’t really. So sometimes publishers put money and energy into books that were not bestsellers, and because of this, they lost a lot of money.
That meant that publishers had even less money and energy to give to midlist authors, who suffered because of it and had fewer sales, which meant less money for publishers, who then had even less money, and the cycle goes on.
What’s also hard is that most bestsellers don’t come from first time books. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, like J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. But most authors start out with moderate sales and they become a bestseller by putting out more titles and building a fanbase over time.
Publishers gambled on new authors knowing that their first book probably wouldn’t be a smash hit but they would grow them over time.
Unfortunately, from what I understand, publishers haven’t had the time or money or maybe just the inclination to do that as much as they used to. Many authors, if their first books weren’t smash hits, were then left without a publisher for future books.
What indie publishing allows authors to do is grow the way they used to with publishers. Authors can put out books and build a fan base. (Or a “platform” for those who like terminology). They can become bestselling authors before a traditional publisher ever works with them.
Because of this, for the first time in history, publishers have a real way of being able to tell if a book will be a best seller. Basically, because it already is a best seller or is written by a best selling author.
You may ask yourself, “But if I already have a best seller on my hands and I am a best selling author, why would I want a traditional publisher? Aren’t they just swooping now that the hard part is done?”
The answer: Ebooks are still only 8-30% of the market. People speculate that in five years it will be 50%, maybe in more than. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s right. If you’re already a best selling author in the 8-50% market, why wouldn’t you want to take a chance on being a best selling author in the the other 50-92% of the market?
Let me put it this way: Being Amanda Hocking right now is awesome. But being J. K. Rowling is out of the world. If you’re an author, and you’ve worked your ass off on your books and your career, why pass on a chance at maybe being J. K. Rowling and settle for being Amanda Hocking?
Also – and here’s the best part – there is no real risk.
I’m going to tell you a story about Ann Author (get it?). She has written an ebook called Bestseller Book. To get a bestselling book, Ann Author has epublished a few other titles, like Not-Quite-Bestseller Book and Another Good Book.
Ann Author’s Bestseller Book gets noticed by publisher Big 6 Trad Pub. They offer her an advance – which at this point, may actually be smaller than what she’d make in 3 months off of Bestseller Book – but it will offer more services to her book, like editing, covers, advertising, and shelf space in brick and mortar stores. This will take some pressure off her, since until that point, she’s had to do all the work herself. Ann Author has also managed to create buzz around herself and her book, along with a dedicated fan base, so Bestseller Book will most likely sell well once it hits stores.
At this point, the story plays out in two ways. One – it all goes well, she sells millions, moves in next door to J. K. Rowling.
Or two – Bestseller Book is not a bestseller book anymore. It bombs. Big 6 Trad Pub actually loses money on her. It’s a sad day all around… or is it?
Because meanwhile, Not-Quite-Bestseller Book and Another Good Book are still selling like hotcakes in ebook format.
Side note: Big 6 Trad Pub may have a had clause in their contract about having first dibs on future works, and this I’m not a complete expert on. But my understanding is that if Ann Author writes another book, she has to show Big 6 Trad Pub first to see if they want it. If they don’t she can go to another publisher and see if they want it, and if they do, she has to go back to Big 6 Trad Pub so they can counter offer before she can take the deal with the other publisher. But I really have no idea how that would work ebooks (and this is why it’s important to have a good agent to make sure you get the best contract with the least restrictions you can!!!).
Even if you assume that in this worst case scenario poor Ann Author has a complete crap contract and Big 6 Trad Pub has the erights to Bestseller Book for the next gazillion years, and she has to play stupid boomerang with publishing clause about future works (which will go quicker if she has a good agent), eventually she can publish more books.
But her other books, Not-Quite-Bestseller and Another Good Book are still paying the bills. This is even better if Ann Author has more than three titles in her pocket when she signs up. And then, eventually, she can go on to write and publish as many books as she wants. Ann Author can continue to be a best selling author, even if the Big 6 Trad Pub thinks she isn’t.
That was the worst case scenario for Ann Author. But the reality is that an author with a number of titles selling well and a large fan base should continue to be a best seller with a large fan base no matter the platform.
That’s how this becomes a win/win situation for writers and publishers. Publishers no longer have to gamble or put money out on books that don’t earn it back. They can pick best sellers from the indie world and do what they do best – sell best sellers in paperbacks and hardcover.
Indies, of course, can choose to stay indie or take offers from publishing. All authors should weigh that choice themselves, based on their own goals and books, because it varies person to person and situation to situation on what is best for an author and their books. But the point is – they have a choice. Ann Author can say no to Big 6 Trad Pub and still be a best seller.
Meanwhile, authors who couldn’t find a home with publishers or have more midlist sales will continue to have sales without fear of being dropped or ignored by publishers.
And readers, who had authors they loved fall of the face of the earth when publishers dropped them, now get to read new works from them, as well as find back-listed titles of old favorites, and find new authors for cheap.
Indie will be a place for authors to grow and flourish and connect with readers in a way that was never possible before. Publishers will publish fewer books and be more selective about it, but they’ll be able to save money and make more money this way.
In the long run, everybody wins. Authors and readers have more freedom than ever before, and publishers have an easier way to sort through the slush pile.
And as for people who say the slush pile is too much for the reader – readers are not idiots. Most really bad indie books are obvious from the go. Without even sampling, it’s pretty easy to spot a book that will be positively dreadful by the cover and description and the other reviews.
Yes, some indie books will have more problems than traditionally published books, especially with proofreading, but if the story is engaging, most readers will forgive minor errors. Most readers are willing to accept an error here or there in return for an engaging story at a low price (though no author should be lazy or sloppy). What readers will not ever stomach is being bored.
And on a final note – indies still need agents, unless you plan on purely publishing ebooks forever. If you ever want to do foreign, film, audio, or any thing else with your rights, including working with enhanced ebooks, you really, really should get an agent.
And to answer a related follow up question I get a lot – agents do not get money from deals they do not broker or their agency doesn’t broker. Meaning I made the deal to publish my books on Kindle and nook myself, so my agent doesn’t get any of the royalty. So don’t worry about an agent messing with your eroyalties. That’s not how it works.
[…] Feb 8, 2011 – Indie vs. Traditional […]
I love your post and how you present this issue. I do, however, have One thought on publishing contracts: if you find yourself in the lucky position of having to review one, please don’t think your agent is your advocate and there to help you sign a good contract. Your agent is not your advocate–his incentive is to get this deal done, so he can get paid. Nothing wrong with that, but it means authors shouldn’t rely on agents for advice on how the contract terms affect them. Rather, they should engage a lawyer, who is the author’s advocate and has no other function than to look out for the author in this contract negotiation. In today’s legal market, you can engage a good lawyer for a flat fee, so you know you can afford it.
I wish you much success as your amazing career continues!
I’m enjoying reading through your take on publishing. I’ve also followed the “business side” for Shanna Swendson, author of the Enchanted, Inc. series. Here she has a nice explanation of why she *isn’t* going to self-publish or e-publish the next book in the series. http://shanna-s.livejournal.com/423389.html I’m finding it a fascinating contrast between your throughtful argument above.
I cann’t thank you enough for this blog! Feel so fortunate to have stumbled upon it. At age 82, and with five published non-fiction books now owned by Random House (they purchased my original publisher Ten Speed Press when owner died) I decided to give the new way a try with my first novel. I’m about half way through the process with CreateSpace and so far totally enjoying the whole adventure. A friend did a perfect cover for me and I feel my own edit is pretty close to perfect. Was most interested in
the statistics in one of the comments that only 25,000 titles roughly sell more than 5,000 copies. My first book SPLENDID SLIPPERS – A THOUSAND YEARS OF AN EROTIC TRADITION published in 1997,which has won prizes and is considered the ultimate source on the subject, has sold over 40,000 copies and Random House has just reprinted again. This has indeed made my day. I am grateful to you and all the people who have made comments. One thing I’ll share, in back of my choice to self-publish this time I must add is fact that at 82 I don’t really feel I have the time or energy for the endless unwanted imput from agent, editors, etc etc!!! My novel incidentally THAT BEAUTIFUL LADY WAS A PALACE EUNUCH is again, as with footbinding, about a subject basically untouched in English language. I take a little boy through all the training to be a great actor in the Forbidden City eunuch’s actor’s department, all the glamour of that mysterious palace of emperors — and it gets into necessary murders and more glamour when having been trained to only play female roles he leaves the Forbidden City when the Qing dynasty falls as a beautiful young woman
in glamorous Shanghai in 1920’s and 30’s.
First, hi Amanda. I’ve been consistently impressed with your approach to, well, life. You’ve clearly been a hugely positive influence on a lot of people, which is awesome. Please keep doing that.
I have to say, though, that I am not nearly as optimistic about the future of traditional publishers. I’m trying to think this through from their perspective.
So. Ebooks will likely become an ever larger slice of the market for two reasons: 1) immediacy and convenience (remember when you had to actually got to a bookstore to get a book that day and pay a few bucks more than you would on amazon? what fools we were), and 2) price point.
Except that 2) is doing a lot of work here. I see an ebook priced for 9.99 and my first thought is “Oh, whatthef*ckever, next.” It’s just not reasonable. On the other hand, those inflated price points are where the publishers get their marketing budgets. I mean, I’m kind of guessing here, but your analysis of the traditional publishing industry above has a whole lot in common with how the music business used to operate, and how the movie business is still operating. They both had/have to pump a whole lot of money into a lot of losers to find a few winning lottery tickets. (You notice how there aren’t original movies out there anymore? Yeah. Their version of using ebooks to tell them who might be popular is buying properties that already have an audience and adapting them. And then making 7 sequels.)
You kind of implied that indie publishing of ebooks will allow publishers to reduce their risks by betting on proven properties. But if a publisher wants to bring Bestseller Book into the paperback market, they still have to market it. They still have to go full throttle on that. That is (usually) expensive. And, from their perspective, they don’t get to reap all the rewards. In your example, the publisher would get a cut of traditional book sales of Bestseller Book. Um, ok. Is Bestseller Book also available as an ebook? At what price point? What cut do they get of that? And what about all the sales of Ann Author’s other books that result from her greater visibility? What about her future sales?
I’m not sure how the publishers can really walk away from this with their shirts intact while also offering Ann Author a non-crap contract. In the end the services they’ll be able to offer are essential brokering services in the context of marketing. (Seriously, at what point are they even necessary to get books in brick and mortar stores? I can see an agent brokering deals between walmart and printers. Digital printing makes this a whole lot easier, from what I understand.) Which should terrify them. And, to be honest, is unfortunate in some ways. We have millions of people who write, but this means we can use a curated list or two. I have no idea how that’s gonna shake out, but my guess is there will always be taste makers. If the publishers don’t pivot themselves into that position, I think they are in trouble.
Actually, that means they are in trouble. So…I dunno. Make popcorn? I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing. Please keep doing it, and telling the rest of us about it. It’s really invaluable.
I’m really enjoying your blog and I am thrilled for your success! It’s always exciting to see people blazing a trail in a new medium, and I’m so glad you didn’t let all of those rejection slips erode your confidence to the point you gave up.
As a fellow traveller on the indie path, I’m inspired to broaden my self-publishing horizons and dabble in e-bookdom.
And I’m also about to buy some of your books! Print (old skool) until I get my iPad 🙂
I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but two authors (that I know of) have posted royalty statements for reference.
One is for a book that hit the NYT list print edition–barely, I think, at 19 or 20, and it’s here: http://i259.photobucket.com/albums/hh289/LynnViehl/TFRoyaltyStatement1.jpg
The other is from a debut author who wrote a trade paperback: http://www.jackiebarbosa.com/2010/06/14/curious-about-print-publishing-royalty-statements/
Despite Lynn Viehl’s NYT status, she is probably upper mid-list, and that gives you an idea of what the numbers really look like.
Hi, Amanda. I think this is a very useful article for writers. Well done, and lots of success for the future.
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