Sunday, October 26, 2014

Do Publishers Deserve to Exist?

This week’s screed against book publishers comes from Matt Yglesias at, who proclaims, “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”--a headline that shouts clickbait but fairly reflects his piece. Yglesias, whose work I have often admired, notes that he’s the child of two authors and has published a book himself, so his hatred seems to be honestly earned. Writing of the “fundamental uselessness” of publishers, he says they are going to be “wiped off the face of the earth soon” by Amazon “and readers will be better for it.”

Book-business types rolled their eyes at Yglesias’ hostile tone and ignorance of some key facts, but I saw it cited as smart and “thoughtful” by a number of media people and others who I’d have hoped would know better. So at the risk of repeating points that have been made many times before (but seem still to be widely un-apprehended), maybe it’s worth briefly reminding ourselves just how publishers do add value in connecting writers and readers. So, pace Matt Yglesias, here are some of the services publishers perform.

Curation. The function of choosing what work is most worth presenting to readers is derided by some as a retrograde, “elitist” notion. Why should publishers appoint themselves as selectors of what people ought to read, when everybody can  put their work online and let readers judge for themselves?

For starters, think about the staggering number of books released every year: in 2013 it was close to one million--304,000 traditionally published and more than double that number of self-published books (precise figures are hard to collect because many self-pub titles, including those produced on Amazon, aren’t captured by standard industry measures). A customer going into a bookstore confronts what may seem like a dizzying number of titles. But all of them have been through a multi-step screening process where agents, editors, marketers, and booksellers have determined these books have value. 

When I was a publisher, I probably turned down a hundred books for every one I published--and most of those had already been screened by agents who filtered another hundred for each one they sent me. Imagine the bookstore--more like a mega-warehouse--where all of those titles are on the shelf.  A warehouse choked with millions of books, with no sales clerk to steer you to what you’re looking for--and  no quality control over what got in there. Where for every Michael Connelly novel there were a a hundred Michael Connelly wannabes, which would range from the mediocre to the truly illiterate. To put it another way, the marketplace of books would be one gigantic slush pile stretching as far as the eye can see. 

Some argue that book selection can be crowdsourced, and reader reviews can take the place of editors. But if you have spent much time reading Amazon reader comments, or even reading top-rated self-published titles, you may share my doubt that crowds do as good a job as the people at Penguin, Melville House, or University of California Press. In short, if we ever attain the publisher-less world Matt Yglesias is so eager to embrace, I think readers will readily see what value was added by those old-fashioned “gatekeepers.”

Development. Everybody understands that publishers provide editing—and as I think most authors would agree, it’s a vital contribution, but let’s concede that it might be hired on a freelance basis.  However, editing is only part of a larger process that takes place as the book goes from an author’s proposal to a published work. That development process might include fundamental shaping of the structure at the outline stage, long before there is a manuscript to edit; picture research and clearing permissions (a huge task on some books); line-by-line legal vetting of a manuscript; creating maps, drawings, or tables; and coming up with typographic and jacket designs that will express the essence of the text and attract readers to pick it up or click on it—a whole panoply of tasks that go into presenting the author’s work professionally. Couldn’t authors outsource all these services as well? Maybe. But unless an author is truly an obsessive DIYer, there’s a big advantage in having one “solutions provider” take care of all of this. Publishers have evolved to do this pretty efficiently and effectively.

Investment/Venture Capital. Publishers pay advances against royalties, taking substantial risk that enables authors to undertake time- or money-intensive reporting, or sometimes just to feed their families, while they’re working on their books. Even novels sometimes require travel and research. This point has been made by several other writers (such as Franklin Foer and Evan Hughes) so I won’t go into depth on it here. Suffice it to say that unless someone is willing to risk substantial advances, the only authors who’ll be able to devote months or years to their work will be those who are independently wealthy.

Yglesias suggests that “If advances don’t make financial sense, then they will die off regardless of what happens to Amazon. If they do make financial sense, then they will live on as financial products even as the rest of the industry restructures.” This presumes some other investors would be willing or able to take the risk on projects that might seem pretty unpromising at first glance.

Publishers were willing to take risks on these books for a couple of reasons. (First, they are incurable optimists, but let’s leave that aside.) Second, they have long experience seeing ideas developed into books, even odd-sounding ideas. Third, they are spreading their risk across a wide pool of titles. Even if eight or nine of 10 advances don’t earn out (and they don’t), one or two of them can make up for the bad bets.

If publishers didn’t exist, would this risk/reward ratio attract other investors? The payouts on most books are tiny compared to venture capital returns, though the risks are just as bad. And it’s hard to imagine a Kickstarter campaign funding a multi-year stint in Mumbai or a few decades plumbing the archives of the LBJ Library and interviewing thousands of people. 

Finally, quaint as this will sound, publishers sometimes invest in books that they know won’t earn out, simply because they believe in supporting talented writers. They also know that bringing a promising author to the list may pay off further down the line. This is true even of big conglomerate houses, and even more so of the many excellent independent publishers at work all over the country—the Grove Atlantics, Graywolfs, and Tin Houses—whom Yglesias would cheerfully consign to oblivion. If all these houses are “wiped off the face of the earth,” do we imagine the algorithms that replace them will have the same concern for literary culture?

Marketing. “Publishers are terrible at marketing,” declares Yglesias, but his argument for this assertion is full of strange leaps and assumptions. Referring to the Amazon-Hachette standoff, he says that if Hachette were any good at marketing, they could boycott Amazon and force consumers to buy their books elsewhere. This ignores how consumers really behave and the fact that books are discretionary purchases. If you couldn’t buy milk at your supermarket, yes, you would go elsewhere to shop. But if you don’t find a given impulse purchase at the supermarket when you’re already shopping there--Pumpkin Spice Oreos, or even, say, a book!--you’re not going to leave your shopping cart and walk out. At Amazon your “cart” might already contain office supplies, appliances, or indeed books from several other publishers. You may well be a Prime member, who gets free shipping and 2-day delivery of any book he orders. So if you can’t find a given Hachette title there, maybe you shop for it elsewhere (with all the hassle that might involve of setting up new accounts, etc); maybe you figure you’ll try again another day; or maybe you just choose a different book, with a nudge from Amazon itself (“people who bought The Goldfinch also bought...”). Hachette’s power to manipulate you is limited compared to that of an “everything store” where you are already a committed customer.

Yglesias develops his point with an example that’s meant to show the superfluousness of publishers. When George R.R. Martin puts out a new volume of Game of Thrones,
“If I can buy it as an Amazon Kindle book, I will buy it that way. If he decides that the only way people should be able to read the book is to get Powell’s to mail them a copy, then I will buy it that way. And I am not alone.”
Yglesias says Martin could simply sell the book off his own website, with no need of a publisher-middleman. “Nor is Martin,” he notes, “the only author with the clout to not worry about the terms of distribution.”

There’s no disputing that Martin, or other bestselling authors, could now self-publish with great success. The key word here, and the one that refutes the useless-publisher argument, is bestselling. George R.R. Martin’s --like Donna Tartt’s, or David McCullough’s--status as a bestselling author was built up over years of publishing. It is not solely a function of his undoubted narrative genius, but also the product of the efforts of editors, jacket designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, and others who helped generate excitement about Martin’s books and put them in the hands of millions of readers (long before HBO’s TV series multiplied that fan base).

When authors who have not already captured the public’s attention publish themselves, by and large the results do not prove the uselessness of publishers. The average sale of a self-published title is under 250 copies, somewhat less than the average number of friends on Facebook. (I say this not to bash self-publishing, which is a fantastic opportunity for some authors and demonstrably a route to stunning success and riches for a few. But just because some authors achieve stunning success without publishers does not mean the latter add no value.)

The tragedy of publishing is that publishers are never as good as marketing as they would like to be. Any thoughtful bookperson is all too aware of this, even before disappointed authors like Yglesias remind us. Blockbusters aside, the revenues generated by any individual book are barely enough to cover much more than the cost of mailing review copies, maybe a couple of online ads or a handful of author appearances. That every new book is a unique product, whose audience won’t be quite the same as any other book, means that each marketing campaign is a matter of inventing the wheel--horribly inefficient.  And for these reasons, the time and attention of publishing personnel are also limited resources that are typically stretched too thin.

All this makes it difficult to turn most books into the bestsellers that their authors are always convinced they should be. As an editor, I was constantly frustrated that my own books often didn’t get the marketing budget I thought they should have to reach their fullest potential, and disappointed when I had to tell authors their work hadn’t sold as well as it deserved. Does this mean, though, that those works would have sold just as well without the involvement of me or the house? I have to doubt it.

Marketing a book is a far larger and more complex process than just listing it on Amazon or buying a New York Times ad. In a publishing house, the marketing process begins even before a title is acquired, with an editor kindling enthusiasm among colleagues. As the process gathers steam, word is spread out to the world by publicists, sales reps, e-mails and personal letters, schmoozing, and gossip, plus advertising, review copies and free advance e-books, social media, and paid promotions with bookstores and online sellers. 

As soon as a manuscript enters the publishing pipeline, the house is communicating with retailers, reviewers, media producers, movie scouts, foreign publishers,  and all the other channels by which readers hear about books, telling them what makes this title worth reading. One of the oldest publishing truisms is that word of mouth is the most effective way to sell books, and in some ways a publisher is a large group of people organized to generate word of mouth and amplify it as widely as possible.

Doing this effectively requires framing the book in a compelling way and identifying all the potential audiences for it (tasks that take considerable skill and at which most authors are surprisingly weak). It also depends on relationships with all the aforementioned actors in the marketplace and on credibility with them.  If you were a bookstore fiction buyer, would you rather sift though ten thousand self-published novels or a few hundred published by houses whose track records you know?  If you are a news producer being pitched on a memoir, will you pay more attention to a publicist who works for the author, or one from W.W. Norton?

Distribution is one absolutely critical component of selling books, a fact that Yglesias acknowledges while ignoring its implications. “In the traditional book purchasing paradigm, when a reader bought a book at the store....the publisher...was doing very real work as part of the value-chain. Transforming the manuscript into a book and then arranging for it to be shipped in appropriate quantities to physical stores around the country is a non-trivial task. Digital publishing is not like that.”

He is absolutely right that getting books on shelves--not just in bookstores, but in supermarkets, newsstands, craft shops, school book fairs, and so on--is an essential task performed by publishers, who devote enormous resources to managing the supply chain. When you buy a Dr. Seuss for your niece in a bookstore, or grab a novel at an airport kiosk for your flight, you’re benefiting from all the infrastructure that that put those volumes in front of you--and so is the author whose book you bought.

It’s true, most of that machinery is irrelevant in a digital marketplace. And here is the crux of the matter: most books are still not digital. Most people still love printed books, even those who happily read on their Kindles and phones, and a significant percentage read only print editions. (One recent survey finds that 46% percent of American readers read printed books only; a vast majority read both print and e; and only 6 percent read e-only.) 

All these readers are served by the current ecosystem, where you can instantly download a book you just heard about on NPR, or spend a Sunday afternoon browsing in a wonderful bookstore for a great biography, or pick up a baking book that catches your eye at Williams-Sonoma.  Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, the vibrant market and high visibility of all their printed counterparts is a vital component of the marketing for e-books. In a world where you never saw a printed book in a store, or in a reader’s hands on the bus, it would be harder for any book to gain the kind of “mindshare” that a hot title does today.  

There are many flaws in this system, to be sure, and they result in prices that are higher than they might be in a purely digital marketplace. But book prices, even for hardcovers, are not unreasonable compared to the costs of other entertainment or information goods.

Yglesias, and many other pundits, strike a pose of hardnosed realism by telling us the Amazon-Hachette dispute “is just about price.” (In fact it’s really about profits, which isn’t the same thing. Amazon wants to pry some of Hachette’s margin away for itself. Low prices happen to be part of Amazon's business model.)  But more important, what these pundits overlook is that the dispute is also about what kind of marketplace we want to have.

If lower prices are good for readers, so is diversity in the marketplace of ideas. If Amazon were to "crush" publishers, first of all, book sales would plunge as printed books, and thousands of sales outlets for them, largely disappeared. The publisher-less world Yglesias imagines will also be a bookstore-free world, totally dominated by one seller that will have even greater sway over what gets promoted than it does now.  It will also have the ability to change at whim the terms it offers to authors, in their disfavor, as it already has more than once. That’s my idea of a dystopia, not of readers being better off.

It is naive to imagine that trading many different publisher-gatekeepers for one or a few massive retailer-gatekeepers would result in authors "seeing their total income rise." As for readers, the serendipity of browsing bookstore shelves and of discovering a book you didn’t know you were looking for, or of getting a great recommendation from a clerk who knows your taste, will be nostalgic memories-- replaced by a search function and algorithms completely controlled by one or two companies who make the “giant conglomerates” that own publishers look puny and who may tilt the playing field for their own purposes. 

Amazon is a brilliant company and it has unquestionably done readers and authors a favor by making books available in so many convenient ways. It has also forced publishers and other retailers to up their game.  But admiring the value of Amazon shouldn’t preclude us from recognizing the value that publishers add, at both ends of the writer-reader pipeline. A marketplace where publishers and Amazon compete for authors’ loyalty, and Amazon and physical bookstores compete for readers’ dollars, is a healthier one for all parties.

Images: Wikimedia Commons;   pictureitnow; Genista from  Flickr 


Anonymous said...

Same hackneyed arguments, same poor logic. You lack the perspective most authors have—publishers treat them like shit, all around—and that is the reason, ultimately, publishers will go away.

An anonymous comment won't sway you to disavow your life's vocation, and you may personally have been a great editor. But the tide is turning...

Peter Ginna said...

@Anonymous, you are correct that I would give your remarks a lot more weight if you had the courage to attach your name to your comment. And since you don't identify yourself it's hard to know what basis you have for speaking on behalf of "most authors."

I ackowledge frequently on this blog that publishers fail authors more often than anybody would like. But I stand by my opinion that if "publishers go away" authors will not be better off. Be careful what you wish for.

Jeff Capshew said...

I agree with you, Peter. If Anonymous is an author perhaps he could elaborate how he was mistreated. I mostly agree with Dr. Syntax. Without publishers there would almost no bookstores and only the big bestselling authors would make any money. People with real writing talent would have to use that ability some other way. Amazon has little ability it break out writers.

William Ockham said...

This article is pretty typical of the panglossian attitude of most legacy publishing boosters. We live in the best of all possible publishing worlds because "Publishing!" I am not here to defend Yglesias. His article was flawed, not for the reasons you suggest, but because he assumes that Amazon is crushing publishers when Amazon is saving them. Let's take your points in turn.

Curation is exactly what you originally suggest and then dismiss, a retrograde, elitist notion. Publishers are obviously terrible at this. The crap they publish is no different in any measurable way from the crap they reject. A system that rejects "A Confederacy of Dunces", but publishes Snooki and the Duck Dynasty crowd is failing.

Development, as you describe it, consists of tasks that the vast majority of books simply don't need.

The whole publisher as venture capitalist is so ridiculous that I have to assume that no one in publishing understands venture capital. What publishers do is pretty much the opposite of venture capital. I could list hundreds of authors who are making a living writing without publisher advances. I could point out that virtually no authors get a substantial advance before they write their first manuscript, but nothing will convince people who have bought into as ridiculous myth as "publishers as venture capitalists".

The publishing notion of marketing is even more bizarre. No one outside of publishing would recognize what you describe as marketing. Worse, very little of what you describe actually provides value to the author or the reader. The "marketing" of the publishing world is nothing more than a circle jerk of uselessness.

You claim that the crux of the matter is that most books are not digital. What you fail to do is come with a reason that that should continue to be true. I realize that legacy publishers have a huge investment, both financial and emotional, in the current system. That doesn't change the fact that the current system of shipping wood pulp around the world so that Lee Child's latest thriller is available in an airport is just insane. Print books aren't going away. Bestselling novels delivered as mass produced printed books will go away. Bits beat atoms every time. The more the big legacy publishers collude to slow that transition, the worse it is for everyone.

Peter Ginna said...

@Jeff, thanks for your comment. What I worry about more is cause and effect the other way: if bookstores go, publishers will have a very tough time. I think they'll still exist in some form because a lot of what they provide will still have value, but there will definitely be big dislocations for writers as well.

mj said...

@William Your dismissal of publishers' curation destroys any hope one might have in your argument. An across the board "they're terrible"? I read loads of books published by major publishers and many of them are quite good. Do these publishers also publish what I might consider bad books? Yes. But publishers also are businesses and it would be foolish of them not to recognize the market for a Duck Dynasty book or some other book that I might consider nonsense. I think you'll find, though, that most imprints (despite being owned mainly by parent corps) are true to their vision. You don't generally see literary fiction published on the same imprint as some Kardashian bio. And you should also consider that your opinion is not the only one; plenty of readers are very pleased that a publisher is putting out a book featuring his/her favorite celebrity. And there again, is curation.

Whether or not the decision to publish something could be crowd-sourced is a pretty big question, and I think it raises other questions. Why not publish everything? Every potential book...let's just put it all out there. It's not difficult for me to see how we could make our way from total crowd-driven publishing to a world in which nobody wants to read anything because the noise of the new "publishing" world makes it impossible to locate and enjoy something of potential value.

I am happy to have curation. Thanks to publishers' tastes (and recommendations from friends), I have found all of my favorite authors.

Peter Ginna said...

@William Ockham, your comment is typical, I'm afraid, of the reflexive snarkiness and factual inaccuracy of those who disdain traditional publishing. Your sneering remark about bestselling books suggest that you're more of an elitist than any publisher. And if you actually read "the crap they reject" you would know how wrong you are to suggest that what's published is not better.

Many of your other statements are also simply factually wrong. All books benefit from the development I described, although some need much more of those services than others. Nor is it remotely true that "virtually no authors" get advances before they write their first manuscript. One could debate the definition of marketing, and I said myself that publishers don't do as much as they ideally should. But if you think publishers' marketing is "useless" to the author or reader, you just don't understand what it is doing.

There could legitimately be a debate about whether a bookstore-less, totally e-book marketplace would be better for authors and readers. I believe that such a market would be far more dominated by what you characterize as "crap." You are welcome to write your own blog post making the contrary case. But if you want to comment here in future I'd appreciate a more civil tone. I thought William Ockham's tool was a razor, not a stink bomb.

Peter Ginna said...

@mj, thanks for the comment. Of course it's true that publishers put out mass-market popular books and even sometimes schlocky ones. Successful trashy books, of course, help underwrite the more literary or esoteric titles that are somewhere else on a company's list, even if they're not at the same imprint. There's a legitimate debate on this point too--how much schlock is too much, or how many poetry collections justify Snooki? But even the most literary publishers are always looking for titles that are going to predictably sell enough copies to allow for taking risks on others.

iain said...

Peter, as an ex publisher who now teaches publishing, I naturally agree with what you say, but I think you only tell part of the story. You deal with only trade publishing and authors and the American scene. Arguably, the greatest contribution publishers make (and the largest part of the industry) is independent authentication of STM, professional and indeed non fiction in general. Woukd you trust a self published mefical or law book? I rest my case.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Oh, please, Peter. Let's skip the 'schlock pays for literature' nonsense because that's exactly what it is. There may indeed have been a time when it was true. Now schlock simply adds required money to the corporate bank accounts. Publishers are now nothing but subsidiaries of huge multinationals. That is simple fact.

Now I happen to disagree with Mr. Yglesias's stated opinion that publishers are going to be crushed and with the underlying assumption that Amazon even wants to crush their suppliers. Publishers are taking a hit because they no longer have an effective monopoly but they will survive, or at least some of them will. Print will survive although possibly as only a niche.

But people are doing amazingly well finding what they want without publishers being gatekeepers because Amazon is a better 'gatekeeper' than they ever were by using their algorithms to put people's interests in front of them. Your argument that you have to go through a million choices on Amazon is either a totally specious argument or you've never even been on the site. Anyone who buys books there knows that isn't the case.

Publishers are being dragged (screaming very loudly and rather than kicking being kicked by the DoJ) into the post-print age. And people like you aren't doing them any favors by trying to prevent it.

Arphaxad said...

Curation is the number one argument against publishers. As a reader, I have discovered some great books over the last two years that were rejected by publishers and only became available when the author became their own publisher.

I know what books I like to read and do not need a publisher in NYC to narrow my selection for me.

You are right that comments are not the best way to weed out books. That's why I read book bloggers that I have come to trust and read their reviews. I have also created a trusted network of friends on Goodreads that make recommendations. It's the social aspect of book reading that opens the doors to discovering literary gems. Not a board room of elitists in NYC.

I send a thank you to Amazon, KOBO, and Smashwords for freeing the art of writing so that the creators of the stories can connect to the readers easier.

Anonymous said...

Fear the monopoly retailer more than anything else. More than unscrupulous publishers, more than bad curators and even more than piracy. The monopoly retailer is worse for an industry than any other single thing.

mj said...

@Arphaxad I don't doubt that there is good stuff out there in the world of self-published books and authors, but I think as a reader I need a filter to keep the sub-par from capturing my attention. I don't think that this is impossible in the world of self-publishing (you seem to have means to find good books w/o the help of a publisher), but I think I put my trust in certain publishers specifically because I don't want to wade through the sea of recommendations from others.

To say that you have found good books OUTSIDE of legacy publishing is not an argument against publishers' curatorial expertise. It is simply saying that others aside from publishers can curate book catalogs. This is true, sure, but I still enjoy the selections that my favorite publishers put before me, and I'm up to my eyeballs in great books.

Nirmala said...

Let’s see, if only 1% of 1% of books submitted to agents get published, I wonder what is the average number of sales an author can expect to achieve in traditional publishing if you average in the 99.99% of manuscripts that get zero sales because they were rejected. (Hint: it is a vanishingly small number.) That makes 250 sales per self-published book sound pretty good in comparison.

There is always a huge disconnect when someone argues from the perspective of the publishers versus from the perspective of authors or readers. And since it is authors who decide where to publish their books, the movement towards self-publishing is bound to grow.

I would also like to ask Mr. Ginna to explain how a new author is supposed to get an advance to cover the cost of his writing when he has to submit a completed manuscript (which had better already be very well developed and edited to even be considered) to an agent and then wait for that agent to find a publisher. That process can take years and again still only has a .01% chance of success. The so called advance only comes years after the book is written unless you are an already established and unusually successful writer (or a celebrity), and of course those people often do not really need the support an advance provides in order to be able to afford to write their next book. In addition, the dollar amount of most advances for new and even moderately successful authors has dropped dramatically, and typically 25% of the advance is not paid until the manuscript is submitted and another 25% when the book is released, so the author can only even possibly see 50% of the advance before he or she begins writing in those extremely rare cases where the advance is based on an as yet unwritten manuscript. In the real world, almost no writers are supported for months or years before their book is released by publishers.

Anonymous said...

Not to take sides, but I'd note that most authors write their first book without an advance... thus forgoing the argument that the advance allows the writer to write the book (research, etc)... it could be the case with non-fiction writers, but then again, most of those writers are already published. So that

and I'd be interested if the author of this article would discuss actual numbers in terms of advances for unknown first time authors, and royalties percentages, etc... is there an unspoken ceiling that publishers won't go above, for example, in terms of competitive bids for first time authors... and royalties, etc...

It's about numbers, in the end... what are the numbers?

Which publishing route allows an author a better deal in terms of it from a business stand point?

I mean, it is a business, if a publisher turns down a submission, it's a business decision... an author choosing to submit a book or publish it on their own is also making a business decision...

If first time advances and royalties are low, as seems to be the case unless one is a reality TV star, which is the better option for making a living off of writing?

Let me know and thanks!

Arphaxad said...

@mj: I agree with you. If you like to allow a publisher to screen books for you, then that works for you. But I get the sense that the shrinking5 want to be the only curators in town, and that doesn't work for me.

Gramix Publishing said...

As long as publishers are publishing such things as Snooki's book and giving 14 MILLION dollar advances (that will never earn out) to books by political candidates, the argument that they are doing "curation" fails.
It is not clear what they're doing. Not even clear they know what they're doing, but publishing on literary merit clearly isn't it.

Terrence OBrien said...

Independent market share in both units and dollars is growing. That indcates a substantial segment of consumers like what they see, and have managed to deal with the huge number of books available. We might not understand how they do it, but that doesn't matter. They do it. Publishers don't matter for this market segment.

Publishers may not agree with this consumer behavior. Others may tell us consumers lack the wisdom and understanding to make their own book selections. They will also tell us consumers can't select from all the available books. These consumers don't care. They do it anyway.

For the segment of consumers who do want curation, there is nothing to stop anyone from curating. Critics and reviewers are free to tell us what they find best and why. If the value is in curation, then it is the quality of the curation rather than the agency of curation that matters.

If a sufficient number of consumers want curation, and value it to the point where they will pay for it, then someone will provide it.

Peter Ginna said...

@Iain, you're absolutely right that I only tell part of the story. I thought my post was long enough as it was.... But yes, the publishing industry is much bigger than trade books alone, and STM publishers have specialized capabilities in both curation and development.

@J.R. Tomlin, you too are simply wrong to say "publishers are nothing but subsidiaries of huge multinationals." The vast majority of publishers are small and medium-size independent houses, not to mention dozens of university presses and other not-for-profit enterprises. Even some of the largest, though corporate and multinational, are completely devoted to book publishing, not subsidiaries of other businesses. "Adding money to bank accounts" is what all publishers are trying to do, whether they are big commercial houses or UPs, so they can STAY IN BUSINESS and keep bringing books to readers. If publishers were pure money-grubbers who only wanted to publish schlock, why would they bother with anything else?
I was a loyal Amazon customer for a long time and have used the site extensively. I am also a customer of many bookstores. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that browsing the shelves, or talking to the staff of my local indie, is a more pleasurable, as well as effective, way to shop for books. You may love trusting your shopping to algorithms, but I'm also not alone in having misgivings about a market where there are no other ways to find books.

Anonymous said...

I'd still very much like a specific answer regarding the numbers for advances, royalties, and alleged ceilings for competitive bids for first time authors...

I don't care too much regarding the Amazon search feature... every book is on there if someone wants to look for it, but books are featured on other sites, too...

what I'm interested in is the deal... what's the best business choice for a first time author?

My understand is that an advance is broken up into three parts... signing, acceptance and publication... all of which could take 2 years. And thus if the advance is less than 100,000, that's not exactly a stellar salary (after agent percentage, that leaves 35k or less a year) and that it can take A YEAR for the first royalty to be paid, as that it's six months plus six months.

Also, an author earns out their advance not from the total sales, but from their royalties... which seems tricky and unfair, imo. Espec if royalties are low. Amazon pays 70 percent, as you know.

Now are these things true (and I'm not talking about small presses, but the big five) and what's your thoughts on these practices?

and what's a better business decision for a first time author to make?

Let me know and thanks!

Peter Ginna said...

@nirmala, and the anonymous commenter who follows: I'll probably have to take up the subject of advances in another post. It is often (not always) true that first time fiction authors need to have all or most of a manuscript before they can land a publisher. The picture is quite different for nonfiction, though, which is what I have focused on for a good part of my career. It's typical for nonfiction works to be acquired on the basis of a proposal, even by a first-time writer. That's partly because nonfiction works often have research or travel expenses involved and the advance helps to underwrite them.

Anonymous, it's hard to make a cut-and-dried statement on whether self or traditional publishing is a "better deal" for an author. Self-publishers keep more of their sales proceeds than trad-pub authors--but again, the latter receive an advance before publication, sometimes one that winds up being more mone than unit sales generate. If you think you can sell just as many copies as a publisher can, it's a better deal to publish yourself. But a lot of authors, even those who have self-published successfully, still seem to feel that a deal with an established publisher adds value for them.

Anonymous said...

Certainly a publisher has value... but I'm arguing that it comes down to numbers, in the end.

Regarding that, Hugh Howey's breakdown of sales, indie vs trad, as been very illuminating. In fact, there's been MUCH sharing regarding the business end of things...

which leads to a few very important questions:

Is there and unspoken ceiling for royalties and advances for first time fiction authors (big five).

Isn't 70% royalty much better (and the monthly payment) than anything offered by other publishers... especially seeing as that many trad published authors have to do their own marketing anyway?

We know of many, many SP authors who are making a great living off of their books... a number of hybrid authors (both trad and self) have spoken out on how they make more $ from SP than from trad... can you comment on that?

Why do publishers hang onto royalty earnings for a year... it doesn't seem as though book returns justify this... additionally, they're earning interest money off of money that the author earned... do they pay that to the authors too?

Can trad publishing change and evolve to make themselves a more attractive business partners for authors, if so, how and what do you recommend.

I think your specific answers to each would be very helpful to many of us, if you could... let us know and thanks!

Peter Ginna said...

@arphaxad, @Gramix, and @terrence, We may have to differ about the value of publishers' curation. There's no question they are fallible, and sometimes publish duds as well as missing outstanding books. (I believe this happens less often than mythology would have it, but leave that aside.) Nowhere on this blog have I said that publishers ought to be, or even want to be, the only curators of what gets read. I think it's great that such a flourishing self-publishing market has developed, and so does every publisher I know.

Terrence, your comment reinforces my point: not only will nothing stop curation from happening, it *must* happen somewhere if readers are going to find anything to read in the sea of stuff getting written. The fact that publishers bundle a well-developed selection apparatus with other services of development and marketing make them a compelling "solutions provider" from the author's point of view, and also for readers, although readers don't tend to think about that as they make buying decisions.

Anonymous said...

still would very much like specific answers re my questions above.

In addition, I'd note the following...

You make a point that publishers are needed as curators of quality for readers... yet most, if not all, readers that I know (including myself) don't buy a book because of who published it, but because of who wrote it. Lee Child or King could change publishers and no one would notice.

Readers buy books because of the brand the writer sets, not the publisher. And by your own admission publishers haven't been very good at marketing (establishing the brand) which leads one to ask... what do the writers get out of this that's worth what they give up (sizeable amount of royalties and subsidiary rights)...

Writers would argue that they don't need a curator, they need access to readers... the readers that want what they write... publishers used to be that channel, the only channel... but now there's another channel...

If advances are low (for first time fiction writers) and royalties very low (compared to Amazon) and marketing for trad publishing bad to non-existant (trad published writers are expected to market themselves now, yes?) then what to trad publishers offer the first time fiction writer that benefits them, business-wise? If the brand depends on the writer reaching the reader... what does the writer need the publisher for now?

This is an honest question...

Broken Yogi said...

Some good points, but lots of problems with this analysis. Mainly, in that it assumes "crushing publishers" will leave some sort of unfillable vacuum in the publishing world that simply can't be filled by other means. Now, certainly if publishers were instantly crushed this afternoon at four o'clock, we'd have a giant mess on our hands. But if it occurred over the next few decades, not so much. We have to recognize that the current publishing world is itself something that evolved from changing economic and cultural conditions. It replaced a previous paradigm that itself replaced a previous paradigm, ad infinitum. Change is nothing new, even if every change brings fear and shouts of the coming apocalypse for all. It usually turns out that it is indeed an apocalypse for the old guard, but not for everyone else. Intelligent industries adapt, even if the players in them do not.

Which is to say, that there's nothing in the current publishing paradigm that can't be replaced or shifted elsewhere if large publishing companies are "crushed", whatever that means. Two thing are for certain: that writers will keep writing books and that people will keep buying them. Everything in between those two is up for grabs.

The old paradigm of most writers signing utterly emasculating predatory contracts with gigantic corporate publishers in exchange for small advances is certainly dying out. Part of what replaces that will likely be self-publishers, and part will probably be small publishers/agents who fill the gap for authors not much given to running their profession as a small business. But even that may turn out to be a relatively small part of the total industry.

We already have a situation where the people who do most of the actual work in publishing that adds value to the author's book are working independently, for hire by anyone, including authors themselves. That includes editors, copy-editors, artists and designers, even marketing professionals. Currently, the only indispensable role the big publishers play is in their access to print distribution channels. But it turns out that even there, self-publishers can dispense with that and still sell a lot of ebooks. As ebooks grow into a larger and larger share of the market, the need for book distribution will also diminish. And where it doesn't, book distributors have already shown signs of opening themselves to working with self-published authors directly. Over time, that whole distribution channel could be blown open for anyone whose books gain traction in the ebook world.

So what we probably have evolving is a situation in which ebook self-publication by independent writers comes first, and the better-selling ebook writers then contract for print distribution as a subsidiary right without giving up control of their book. They hire their own editors, copy-editors, and designers as needed. If all that is too complicated for them to handle, they hire agents to coordinate all that - again, while retaining the rights to their work, rather than selling them off for an advance.

Some books will indeed require an advance, however, and so authors may make deals similar to the current system in which they sell off their rights in exchange for that advance. That may be to a publisher, an agent, kickstarter, or specialized firms that will handle just that sort of thing. Even philanthropic organizations giving grants to promising or established authors. The future will certainly have surprises for us, but one thing we can count on is that if there's a demand for a certain kind of book, there will be a way to meet that demand. And if there is a need for a certain kind of value-added service, it will be provided. It just may not be giant corporate publishers providing those services, as better services under far better terms become available.


Broken Yogi said...


It's important to understand that everything that happens between the time a writer writes their book, and the moment the reader buys it, is up for grabs. Whatever creates the best deal for writer and reader will win out. So if publishers want to survive, they have to offer those two the best deal out there. If they don't, they will indeed be crushed. I'm just not sure their business model can compete with the one I've just described. We will certainly see.

Broken Yogi said...

As it happens, I agree with Peter and disagree with William on the issue of venture capital. Publishing is very much analogous to venture capital, in that the publisher buys a huge interest in a book, in exchange for putting out capital for an advance, editing, design, marketing, and distribution. The terms of the investment are generally very bad for the writer, unless they have a huge base of consumers to begin with - either because of previous books published, or celebrity status.

The problem comes when there is competition with this model, in the form of self-publishing, which gives far better terms, and allows authors to publish with a fairly limited investment of their own money - in even the most ambitious cases, only a few thousand dollars. Why sell lifetime rights to your work in exchange for a tiny advance and minimal royalties, when you can get far better terms through self-publishing?

That's the question facing authors in this new publishing paradigm. It's certainly not the case that all authors would do better in self-publishing, but it's also not the case that all author do better in traditional publishing. And the tide seems to be moving in one direction, and not the other. The forces of the marketplace are slowly tilting towards self-publishing for more and more authors. Unless traditional publishers offer better deals, it's going to mean that the source of their business - authors - will simply abandon them. Not all at once, not tomorrow, not even next year, but slowly and inexorably. Traditional publishers can't be killed off by Amazon, but they can die of their own greed and inflexibility.

And it's not just Amazon that provides platforms for self-published authors. So does Apple, Kobo, B&N, Smashwords, and plenty of other places. Google probably will too at some point. So it's not as if Amazon will be the only surviving publishing company with a total monopoly that authors have nowhere else to turn to. Digital publishing is so simple and easy to manage that it will always have competition.

The question is, can the current giant publishing companies compete with that? For now, the answer is certainly yes. But in five, ten, twenty years? Probably not. Not as currently configured at least. They will have to change, adapt, or die. Some probably will, some won't. And the new world looks like a very good one for most authors and readers who love books. And that's what's really important.

Terrence OBrien said...

Terrence, your comment reinforces my point: not only will nothing stop curation from happening, it *must* happen somewhere if readers are going to find anything to read in the sea of stuff getting written.

I don't dispute the value of curation. I dispute that publishers are necessary to curate.

In the past, publishers curated fiction by selecting the books that would get to the shelves of bookstores. Since nothing stops any book from getting to the virtual shelves today, curation has to take the form of criticism.

Since criticism does not entail control over what makes it to the shelf, it is open to many more people. So I have little reason to think we will be lacking in available high quality criticism.

Criticism doesn't involve control of production. The barriers to the widespread publication of criticism fell along with the barriers to entry to the book market.

So let the publishers compete in the curation market. Their method is to control production. Other curators will employ criticism and select from what both publishers and independents produce.

In any case, we will not lose the benefits of curation. We will see a net gain as consumers can choose the curation standard that fits their tastes and preferences.

Broken Yogi said...

As for curation, of course publishers do curation, but not based on some sort of intrinsic merit to the book, but on the basis of its projected market value. In other words, based on whether they think it will sell. Snooki got her advance on that rather sound economic basis. So does Jonathan Franzen. It's not a moral matter, it's a business decision. It's the same business decision that venture capitalists make on what companies to invest their money it. So let's get it out of our heads that "curation" is some kind of rarefied artistic decision by bespectacled scholars in frock coats. It's a bean counter's decision, nothing more.

That there are some people who buy books based on literary merit means that publishers will indeed publish books aimed at that niche of the market. But even then, it's still a bean counter's decision. Even literary works are published based on their marketing potential, nothing more.

Terrence OBrien said...

So let's get it out of our heads that "curation" is some kind of rarefied artistic decision by bespectacled scholars in frock coats.

Even if it was, that is just one standard of curation, based on one artistic standard, and it would be appeal to a certain market segment.

If the bespectacled want to give us a list, I encourage them to do so. If Snooki wants to give us a list, I encourage her to do so. Consumers can choose among the available lists.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ginna, when are you going to address some of these very salient points?

Let me know and thanks!

Peter Ginna said...

@Anonymous, there are many place around the web where you can find out the sorts of terms offered by traditional publishers versus self-publishers. I can't attempt to tell you in a short reply what is a a "better deal" for a first-time novelist. As I said above, if you can sell an equal number of books yourself, you'll certainly do better without a publishing house.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there were a number of very specific questions I posed above that I'd like to know what your answer would be.

And yes, there are many other places on the Internet, but you're the one making an argument here, posing a question, so I'm asking you, since you're put yourself here as an authority on publishing.

There are many self publishers sharing information... I'm interested in a publisher sharing their numbers (specifically, the advances / royalties, etc)... it's why I asked very specific questions.

it's important, sir... I'm asking honestly, too...

Nirmala said...

@Peter Ginna: First of all, thank you for engaging with the comments on here. I find it very valuable to hear the perspective of people with very different backgrounds and experience from my own.

You say that it is typical for a non-fiction author (even a new author) to receive an advance without a finished manuscript. Could you be more specific? In your experience as an editor, roughly what percentage of the non-fiction books you worked on received an advance based just on a proposal? And was that percentage the same for new authors, or was it much less for an unproven author? Finally, roughly how many of those advances actually provided enough money up front for a new (or established) author to live for months or even a year, especially considering that the author tends to only get 50% prior to submission of the finished manuscript(which works out to 42.5% after the agent takes their share)?

I am genuinely curious as my wife and I both write and self-publish nonfiction (spiritual) books, and there are fewer nonfiction authors out there that are self-publishing compared to fiction authors. Anonymous has also been asking for numbers, and these might be useful numbers.

However, I still have to consider that by your own admission, 99.99% of manuscripts that are submitted to agents are rejected by the agent or by subsequent publishers. Even if it were certain for a non-fiction author to get a substantial advance, that only applies to 1 in 10,000 nonfiction authors at most. And it does seem from most reports to be extremely rare for a new fiction author to receive any sort of advance based only on a proposal, which makes a lot of sense since a good idea for a novel is not nearly enough to create a good novel. So we are ultimately talking about less than 1 in 20,000 authors as the majority of published books are fiction.

My wife's and my experience illustrates how daunting the tradtitional publishing path is from the author's perspective. About 6 years ago, we were picked up by one of the most successful book agents in the country. He tried for over a year to get us a publisher and finally a medium sized publisher offered my wife a three book deal (with no advance). However, that publisher was bought out by another publisher and the president (who was the one interested in her work) left the company. Her first book came out with serious formatting errors that were introduced after she approved the proofs, and there was no marketing at all. After a year or so, we bought out all of the remaining stock to regain the rights to the book. After all of that, we lost interest in finding a publisher, and are earning about $3-4000 a month from our self-publishing efforts instead.

Was our experience in actually working with a publisher typical or is it typical for a published non-fiction author to be treated well with a meaningful advance and marketing support? Again any rough figures you can provide as to how typical it is or was for a non-fiction author (especially a new unproven author) to be well treated at the companies you have worked for will be much appreciated.

Peter Ginna said...

@Broken Yogi and @Terrence, I never suggested that the curation provided by publishers was a matter of "bespectacled scholars" with stuffy (or highminded, take yor pick) principles untainted by commerce. Publishers make their best judgments, informed by taste, experience, sales histories, and gut instinct, on what books will appeal to what kind of audiences. But they also are, believe it or not, people who love to read and care about books and literature. They have to weigh investments against expected returns so of course they "count beans" in that sense. But acquisitions decisions are not, by and large, cold, purely commercial ones. They start with people reading a book or proposal and feeling this is a book they want to share with other readers. They do, frequently, back works of literary merit with investments disproportionate to their likely sales.

Absolutely, other people or groups can recommend books. Absolutely, publishers bet wrong sometimes. But publishers do have a specific expertise in assessing what kind of audiences will respond to books. Snooki or the Book-of-the-Month Club (now being relaunched) are welcome to compete with that.

But together with curation, publishers help connect those books with those readers in multiple different ways. This is not just about "controlling production" but about editing, marketing, publicity, distribution etc. etc.

Broken Yogi, you raise some very good points about the ways those services might be unbundled or in which some might become less relevant as the retail market changes. I can imagine some scenarios that look like that.

I have never suggested that publishers or the book market are perfect, nor that they won't evolve. They certainly will. The point of my post was, and remains, that these firms do in fact add value and that there are virtues to the current marketplace that will be lost if it narrows down to one or two online sellers.

Anonymous said...

what you haven't done is make the case that the value they bring is worth what an author gives up in return for it (and you admit yourself that they don't market as well as they need to do, which is, uh, kinda important in terms of reaching readers)...

Nor have you addressed what publishers could do to evolve (you say they should, but leave out the specifics) to better serve both the writers and the readers (more affordable books actually serves the readers, do they not? and the authors, too)...

Terrence OBrien said...

The point of my post was, and remains, that these firms do in fact add value and that there are virtues to the current marketplace that will be lost if it narrows down to one or two online sellers.

Let's accept they add value by their curation. That's fine. But if others can provide criticism, what is lost to consumers if they don't get curation from publishers?

There are lots of people who love to read and care about books and literature. It has nothing to do with employment bu a publisher.

And curation via criticism that is uncoupled from financial considerations can identify many good books that would never have made it through the financial filter.

Criticism is also not affected by the number of sellers. We can have many ctritics with many sellers, and we can have many critics with few sellers.

So, even if publishers' curation has value, there are many substitutes sources for it. It fails as a reason to say publishers deserve to exist. Curation through criticism continues on even if publishers do not exist.

Broken Yogi said...


Well of course publishers have some serious skills in the business of picking winners and losers, or they wouldn't be in business at all. And of course they can't be perfect, or even close to it. I have no doubt that many of them even care dearly about writing and books and ideas and so on. But when it comes down to it, they aren't the people who actually buy the books. It's readers who do. So the people to listen to are the readers. A good editor knows that. As do good authors.

In days of yore, there were simply no other choice but to find a good publisher with good editors and marketers if you wanted to be a working writer. Though some talented folks like Mark Twain still published successfully on their own, it increasingly became the exception. But this is not our grandfather's publishing world. These infernal, new-fangled digital watchamacallits have usurped the telegraph and typewriter era of newsprint and corner bookstores. So the necessity for publishers and their curation services is fading fast. Digital distribution cuts through so much of that fat, there's just not enough to feed those old hogs. And it brings readers closer to writers, rather than keeping them apart.

I would certainly agree that for some writers, publishers still add value. For others, they subtract it. So at present, there are no easy answers. One has to examine one's own particular place in the publishing world to evaluate what is best. But that is of course a very new direction for the industry. Self-publishing is by now not some vanity exercise of the illiteratti, but at least a $500,000,000 a year sub-industry. And growing yearly. I'd even suggest that for most new authors, it's by far the best way to go. Of course, if one succeeds there, it may be a good idea to at least entertain offers from traditional publishing. But unsurprisingly, many who are successful at self-publishing have turned down those trad deals, and realized they can make more money by sticking to their guns.

That's a major reason why the curation services of the big publishers are not necessarily needed anymore. For most authors, especially new ones, it's probably better to go out on one's own, rather than take that tiny advance and limited marketing as a fair exchange for lifetime rights to one's work. Unless one can wrangle a fairly large advance, probably in the high five to six figures, it's not a very good bet. In fact, the tables have turned, in that now your standard new author deal with a trad publisher is more a form of vanity publishing than a serious route to becoming a professional writer. It amounts to giving up economic control of one's work in exchange for what is largely a feel-good pat on the back from people one imagines are one's betters.

Which is why traditional publishing may end up being crushed. As the new generation of authors gets in the habit of self-publishing, and sees little reason to keep supporting it in the manner to which it has been accustomed to, there's a limit to how long it can survive, much less flourish. And as self-publishing acquires more steam and more prestige of its own, then there's not much left to keep those old war horses going. The democratic decentralization of publishing doesn't mean the cream won't rise to the crop, but it does mean that critical readers and opinion-makers will become increasingly important. It just won't depend on elite editors at New York publishing houses trying to guess what will sell. Instead, actual readers contributing their own opinions will matter much more. And authors will need to court the approval of those readers, and not publishing house editors. Which is really how it ought to be in the best of literary worlds. The dialog from author to reader and back again is what it's all about after all.

Anonymous said...

Just to repost, Mr. Ginna, these are the questions that I'd love to hear your specific thoughts / answers on.

"which leads to a few very important questions:

Is there and unspoken ceiling for royalties and advances for first time fiction authors (big five).

Isn't 70% royalty much better (and the monthly payment) than anything offered by other publishers... especially seeing as that many trad published authors have to do their own marketing anyway?

We know of many, many SP authors who are making a great living off of their books... a number of hybrid authors (both trad and self) have spoken out on how they make more $ from SP than from trad... can you comment on that?

Why do publishers hang onto royalty earnings for a year... it doesn't seem as though book returns justify this... additionally, they're earning interest money off of money that the author earned... do they pay that to the authors too?

Can trad publishing change and evolve to make themselves a more attractive business partners for authors, if so, how and what do you recommend?"

Peter Ginna said...

@Nirmala and @Anonymous: I can’t answer all your questions about traditional publishing terms in a short comment, and I’d have to make gross generalizations in any case. Here’s what I can say. Of the nonfiction projects I saw published I’d say 80 or 90 percent of them were acquired on proposals. I’ve worked for houses ranging from tiny literary presses to university presses to Random House. The advances vary widely not just with size of publisher but with the commercial expectations for the book. Those expectations are shaped by the subject itself, the compelling-ness (or not) of the proposal, and the author’s credentials or platform. Advances I paid went from less than $10,000 to the hundreds of thousands. Most were less than $100,000, but, Anonymous, there is no “unspoken ceiling” for advances for anybody. Some first-time novelists have collected huge advances.

Royalties, on the other hand, are pretty standardized across the industry. They slide from 10 to 15% on hardcovers, 7 to 10% on paperbacks—computed on list price; and 25 percent of dollars received on e-books. Keep in mind, though, that if sales receipts don’t earn back the advance, the *effective* royalty rate can be much higher. That’s one reason it is difficult to make a comparison between self-publishing terms and traditional ones. Obviously a 70% royalty is better than that, but remember that with that royalty comes no marketing, editing, print distribution, publicity, and so on. Sure, some authors are making good money self-publishing or going the hybrid route. My comment on that is, more power to them. But again I’d remind you that hybrid authors, who often do best, are benefiting, even on self-published titles, from the marketing and visibility of their traditionally published books. That would go away in a publisher-less world.

Nirmala, I can’t gainsay your statement that seeking traditional publishing is daunting. I’m sorry you had such a disappointing experience. Your series of mishaps seems extreme, but many other authors are dissatisfied with their publishers. If you are making $3-4000 a month on a consistent basis via self-publishing, I’d say you are doing very well. I’d be interested to know how many copies sold that represents and what sort of marketing you are doing to achieve those results. You might be doing as well or better as you’d do with a conventional publishing deal.

I can’t speak for all houses or authors to answer whether it’s “typical” for them to be treated well with “meaningful” support. Everywhere I’ve worked we tried hard to treat authors well and support them with money and hard work. But I know not every author was happy with his or her experience or sales results; that’s the nature of publishing, I fear.

Anonymous, there are certainly ways publishers might be more attractive to authors, but they are not having trouble attracting authors as it is. For all the flood of self-publishing—which, to repeat, I think is a fine thing—publishers are not seeing any shortage of writers who want to publish with them. All those authors, presumably, see value in what publishers have to offer.

Peter Ginna said...

@Broken Yogi and @Terrence, you guys keep suggesting I think curation means a bunch of “elite” eggheads “at New York publishing houses” telling people what to read, or “guessing what will sell.” First, as I said before, vast numbers of editors operate outside of the big publishing houses at small presses and university presses all over the place. Curation is not the work of some self-appointed cabal. And for most publishers it involves both making judgments about quality and relevance and educated guesswork about who might be induced to read a given work. This meshes together with the marketing function, because having a sense of who the audience is and how to bring that audience to the book is core to the publication effort. Of course other entities can recommend books, and they already do. You may think that means publishers are no longer necessary, but that doesn’t mean the particular kind of curation they do, and its allied services, don’t add value.

Broken, I simply don’t think that most traditionally published authors, now or in the future, will share your view that working with an established house is “a form of vanity publishing” or that all the things publishers do which I described in my post are simply “a feel-good pat on the back.” Even if we end up with a marketplace where there are no bookstores and self-publishing and Amazon predominate, there will still be a need, and a demand, for the services publishers provide.

terrence OBrien said...

@Broken Yogi and @Terrence, you guys keep suggesting I think curation means a bunch of “elite” eggheads “at New York publishing houses” telling people what to read, or “guessing what will sell.”

I haven't suggested that. I accept publisher curation exists, and presume it adds value.

My point is simply that publishers are not necessary for consumers to realize the value of curation via criticism.

That is relevent if one is askinbg if publishers deserve to exist.

They don't deserve anything because of their curation. And consumers will lose nothing in terms of curation of don't exist.

Broken Yogi said...

Peter, you keep insisting that publishers doing curation is not a small group of elites deciding what people should get to buy. Well, obviously it is. Just because you were one of them doesn't mean it's not a small group of elites. I may have taken some literary license in describing that editorial elite, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And the mere fact that there are small presses around the country doesn't change the fact that most books are published by a small group of giant corporate publishers centered in New York.

There's a huge difference between editors who decide amongst themselves what books are worth editing, and editors who are hired by authors to work on their book. The problem with the old school of curation is that it takes the power in the equation away from authors and readers, and vests it in the curator-editors-publishers who represent a tiny fraction of those who read books. Of course they are an elite, I'm not sure how you can possibly claim otherwise. And like all elites, they tend to think they deserve their positions and power, and that the world depends on that being maintained, that their skills and judgment and taste are essential to the survival of literary culture.

Well, no, they are not. Writers will always write, and readers will always read. Someone, somewhere, will always make recommendations and pass judgments as to which books are worth reading, and other people will buy books on that basis. But no one has ever bought a book based on who the editor or the publisher is. Some books catch on, and some don't. Until digital self-publishing came along, the only books that had a chance to catch on were those that were selected by that elite of editors. Not that's no longer the case. And literary culture is changing to reflect that. It will change even more in the future. And largely for the better, I think, though not for the better of the old elites.

Broken Yogi said...

As for vanity publishing, of course there will be many authors who don't see it that way, but that doesn't mean it isn't becoming so. As I've said, unless an author can swing some rather large advances, the economics of publishing is moving towards self-publishers. Even now, for many authors, it's more profitable to self-publish than to seek out trad publishing. Ask Barry Eisler, who turned down a $500,000 two book deal from St. Martins because he realized he could make more money self-publishing - and did. But the trad houses do offer something self-publishing can't, which is the prestige that comes from being selected by that elite of editors. For some authors, that's more important than the money. And that's what I call the new form of vanity publishing. Choosing the prestige of the elites over the marketplace of readers.

That's not a small thing either. People are strongly motivated by status, and will trade money for it. I read a great interview recently with Neil Stephenson, who had been invited to speak at a literary conference (to bring in the male 18-34 demo). One of the fellow speakers there kept asking him how he made a living, and he kept telling her, "I'm a writer", and she kept asking him yes, but how do you make a living? He couldn't comprehend what she was asking until he realized that she had a position at a university, like most of the other speakers at the conference. He realized that there really were two different worlds out there for writers, one for those who made their money by selling books, the other who made their money from sponsors and philanthropists who supported them through grants and university positions and so on. Another form of "vanity publishing" in some respects, that depends on the approval of elites. He realized that this woman had never heard of him because he was famous. And that the kind of writing one does depends on who signs one's paycheck.

And that's what's changing with self-publishing. Traditionally published authors get paid by the publishing houses, by those elite editors who decide what's worth publishing and marketing. But self-published authors get paid by their readers, with only the retailer intermediary of Amazon or Apple, which is a straight wholesale royalty with only a moderate cut taken out of the retail price. So while trad-published authors write for the approval of that elite group of editors, the self-published authors write for the approval of their readers. And university writers write for the approval of their department heads and the relevant critical thinkers within that world, who decide which writers should get and keep these subsidized university positions.

Broken Yogi said...

Elites will indeed emerge from all these systems, based on competition for status. Even self-publishing has its elites based on sales. And curation occurs because some readers out there are much more influential than others, because they care, and like sifting through that immense slush pile of self-published authors looking for a few gems. So the cream does rise to the top, but through a an only slightly different mechanism. You have to remember that even most traditionally published books don't sell very well, and that their marketing efforts don't really work very well anymore in any case. So even there, it's often word of mouth among readers and critics that boosts a trad book into visibility. It can always help if the publisher gets behind the book big-time, but that rarely happens for authors that aren't already very visible to begin with. It's getting to that point of visibility that's the key factor, and that's where trad publishing has been losing its marketing mojo. And even for them, it's becoming much more about taking advantage of social media and influencing those shapers of the trends than it is about conventional marketing methods. 50 Shades of Grey didn't become a huge hit because of publisher marketing, it did so on the basis of fan-fiction readers talking it up big with their friends. And then a big publisher bought the rights to capitalize on the marketing that had already been done to make the book so visible.

Now, as to the future, how authors perceive the value of trad publishing depends entirely on the economics. If, or when, those economics swing away from trad publishing and towards self-publishing - and obviously we disagree about the likelihood of that future - even the prestige of the trads will fade, as will the power of elite editors. Their power, after all, has depended on publishing being an elite cartel that as even you admit offers virtually all authors the same royalty structure, and varies only according to the advances given. As advances have been shrinking dramatically for most authors in recent years, and continue to shrink in the future, naturally those authors will turn more and more to SP. Trad publishing will retain mostly the big bestselling elite of authors, largely because of its monopoly on print distribution, which as you note is still a huge part of the industry. So a lot of this depends on how far the trend towards digital reading goes. That will vary by category. For novels and many non-fiction books, that will be overwhelming towards digital. For more specialized books, like textbooks or those with lots of illustration, obviously print will continue to dominate. There will always be a market for print, though it will become a niche market at some point. And as that happens, trad publishing will lose its primary advantage. It's no wonder that even now publishers are trying to protect their print distribution models by agency pricing on ebooks, which gives them the ability to keep ebook price high enough that they don't undermine their print empire.

But that can't last forever. The disruptions of digital will eventually tear down those walls, and lower prices for ebooks will lead more and more people to get their books in that form. Plus, advances in digital tech will make ereaders even more prolific and attractive. The writing is on the wall. So I don't think the old elites can survive, certainly not in their old form. New elites are already rising up. For a while, both will exist in tension and competition with each other. But the basic structure of writing suggests that it is those elites who are most effective in furthering that relationship between writers and readers who will thrive. I don't think that will be trad publishing.

Peter Ginna said...

@Terrence, you shared Broken Yogi's characterization of "bespectacled" publishing curators, but fine. We agree that curation adds value. We disagree that consumers (or authors) will lose nothing if the functions of publishers cease to exist. I think we have now exhausted the subject so let's leave it there.

Peter Ginna said...

@Broken Yogi, you are an eloquent spokesman for your point of view. You should write a book--you are well on the way with these comments. I'm not going to be able to reply at the same length.

In fact, I agree with much of your analysis of how the market works and may evolve.

But you still misunderstand my view of publishers. I have not argued that they "the world depends on that [their power] being maintained, that their skills and judgment and taste are essential to the survival of literary culture." Literary culture existed before publishers and would exist if they disappeared. I believe that if that happened (and all that went with it) something would be lost, for both readers and writers, although what would take its place might be better in other ways. The point of the post was to answer the question, do publishers add value? They do and I've enumerated some of the ways how, which were ignored in the article to which I originally responded.

Nirmala said...

@Peter Ginna: Thanks again. That was helpful information that you shared about the kinds of advances you saw being offered, and how so many of them were offered in response to proposals. It sounds like nonfiction is quite different from fiction in that regard.

I am stuck often by how different the world looks to each of us depending on our experiences and backgrounds. Maybe my wife is unusual in the kind of treatment she received from her publisher, but in reading on many self-publishing blogs, stories like hers seem common enough. But obviously other authors do very well with their publisher.

As for our moderate success self-publishing, the key factors that seem to make it work for us are the following:
1-Number of titles. Between us we have 25 books out there (my wife especially is very prolific).
2-Offering several different formats. While ebooks make up the largest share of our income, we also offer print on demand and aubiobook versions, along with a little income from foreign editions (negotiated by our agent) and online courses.
3-A platform of several thousand people. We have both been teaching and writing for 15-20 years and have developed a following of people who are interested in our work.
4-Doing it ourselves. We do 99% of the work ourselves. We really enjoy cover designing, and my wife has trained herself over several decades as an excellent editor.
5-Marketing is a piece of the puzzle, but probably the least significant. We offer some free ebooks, we do some promotions, we advertise a tiny bit...but it is hard to say if any of that has any profound impact. The one exception is the times we have been accepted for a Bookbub promotion.

In case you are interested, you can take a quick look at our books at:

Thanks again for your responses.

Nirmala said...

PS: Upon reflection, I realized that my 1 in 10,000 figures based on the claim that only 1% of 1% are published can't be right. If 300,000 books were traditionally published last year that would mean 3 billion manuscripts were submitted! Perhaps the success rate is a little higher, and another factor is that many manuscripts are submitted to multiple agents and then to multiple publishers, so that would also reduce the total number of manuscripts involved. Our agent submitted my wife's book to 20 publishers simultaneously.

Terrence OBrien said...

@Terrence, you shared Broken Yogi's characterization of "bespectacled" publishing curators, but fine. We agree that curation adds value. We disagree that consumers (or authors) will lose nothing if the functions of publishers cease to exist. I think we have now exhausted the subject so let's leave it there.

No, I did not share Yogi's characterization of curators as "bespectacled." I commented on it and indicated it didn't matter. You also commented on it, but also did not share it. Commenting does not equate to sharing for either of us.

If publishers did not curate, consumers would indeed lose nothing. There is no non-commercial aspect of curation that cannot be done as well or better by others.

The commercial aspects of the publisher's curation will not be missed because they deal with the publisher's specific needs. If the publisher does not exist, consumers certainly won't miss that aspect.

Broken Yogi said...

The point of the post was to answer the question, do publishers add value?

The title of your essay is "Do publishers deserve to exist?" If you want to go back and change the title, and then rewrite the whole piece to reflect that focus, be my guest. I was responding to the question you actually asked, and the post you actually wrote, and not to what you now think you wrote.

I have no argument with the notion that some publishers add some value some of the time to some books. But not all publishers at all times to all books. And none of that implies at all that publishers deserve to exist. It means they have to earn their keep like everyone else, and when they don't, they don't deserve to stick around.

Broken Yogi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Broken Yogi said...

And Jeez, guys, the whole "bespectacled scholars" thing was clearly satire. If you missed that, it's not surprising you're missing so much else.

Linda said...

Don't underestimate curation by good editors and publishers. For some reason of all the arts, literary art has the most practitioners and yes, I want them filtered by publishers I trust. I admire experienced and good editors and thank you for this article.

andy hayward said...

A good author loves working with a good editor, why do they invariably go with the editor when the editor moves to another publishing house
A good publisher has all sorts of contacts and has good P R and marketing depts to sell the book. As you rightly say EVERY book in an investment. A lot of authors think a publisher have a responsibility to publish them.
As ever, whether you are self published or traditionally published you need to capture the eye of the reading public
Having been in traditional publishing for 30 years I am now M D of Ether which looks to help unpublished authors but also looks to be another route to the market for authors, If Amazon are the sole route to market it will be desperate for everyone

Broken Yogi said...

Publishers don't edit books. Editors edit books. Editors also work for hire, both for publishers and for self-published authors.

In either case, a book is either a good read, or not. Most readers couldn't care less how it got that way. Those that do, are probably missing out on a lot of good reads.

Peter Glassman said...

When I read your comment that “publishers sometimes invest in books that they know won’t earn out, simply because they believe in supporting talented writers" it brought to mind one of my favorite stories along this line.

As a boy, Raynor Unwin used to be paid a token fee (a shilling, I believe) by his father, the head of Allen & Unwin, to read and give his recommendation on children's book manuscripts that the publisher received. The most significant of the manuscripts he reviewed for publication was in 1936, when at the age of 10 he recommended that his father publish The Hobbit.

Some 15 or so years later, as a young editor at his father's company, he received Tolkien's manuscript for The Lord of the Rings. After figuring out how the company might publish this massive work (Tolkien always saw it as a single book, not a trilogy), he worked out the numbers and informed his father that they might lose a thousand pounds publishing it. Stanley Unwin replied that if Raynor thought the book was truly an important work, then he had permission to lose a thousand pounds.

Of course, Allen & Unwin never lost a penny publishing The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that they had no idea at the time when they committed to doing so. And there are literally thousands of new authors published each year who the publishers have no real idea as to whether their books will be a success or not. Moby Dick was a disaster for Harper Brothers during Melville's life.

And while Melville might have self-published if today's technology had been available to him, Tolkien, who saw his writing as a hobby -- not nearly as interesting or important as his scholarly work -- would most likely never have self published even if the technology had been available. For every author out there who has the self-confidence to self publish, there is another author who needs the encouragement and validation of the publishing process to put their words before the reading public.

So here's to all ways of being published -- may they all continue to thrive!

Peter Glassman said...

Correction/Clarification: "Moby Dick" was published by Harper & Brothers (not Harper Brothers). And, of course, it first appeared under the title "The Whale."

JOHN T. SHEA said...

An excellent article, Mr. Ginna. A few thoughts:-

Random House, Wiley and Simon & Schuster didn't market Matthew Yglesias' books to his satisfaction? So why did he deal with THREE big publishers, the last only two years ago?

Barry Eisler is published quite conventionally by one of Amazon's quite conventional publishing imprints.

'Fifty Shades Of Grey' was rewritten by its author, transforming 'Twilight' vampire fanfic into an S & M fantasy trilogy, which she then sold to a small Australian publisher. Only then did a larger publisher buy it for a $1m advance and market it well enough to sell 100m copies all over the world.

Peter Ginna said...

@Linda, @Andy Hayward, @Peter Glassman, and @John T. Shea, thanks for your comments. Peter, that is a great--and relevant--story about Tolkien and the Unwins. John, your point about 50 Shades of Grey is also quite relevant. The book was a runaway success as fanfiction; then a red-hot seller for its Australian publisher in e-book form. But it was the marketing and distribution muscle, and the credibility and visibility of Random House that made it into a worldwide phenomenon. In saying that I don't take away any credit (if that's the word in this case) from E.L James or her original publisher. I simply note that the "legacy" publishing house was able to reach a far, far wider audience than she had before, *even as an online bestseller.*

Peter Ginna said...

@Nirmala, thanks for sharing your experience and sales results. I gather that the $3-4000 a month in sales you spoke of is total for all 25 of your titles in aggregate? That is not small change. An author (there wouldn't be many) who had 25 titles actively in print with traditional publishers would, I suspect, sell a good deal more copies than you have done, but might not be seeing that much more income because of the difference in royalty rates. On the other hand, that author might be reaching more readers than you are, which also has value in a different way.

Peter Ginna said...

@Broken Yogi, i do understand that "bespectacled scholars" was satirical phrasing, but what you were satirizing was "elite" editors, so it doesn't change my response. I did not think you were criticizing editors for wearing spectacles or frock coats.

There was irony in the title of my post too. Of course it's ironic to ask "Do editors deserve to exist?" They do exist, and will continue to, because they do something for authors and readers that other entities in the marketplace do not. You and Matt Yglesias are free to disagree, but not to tell me what I think I wrote. That's going to be my final comment in this exchange.

Nirmala said...

@ Peter Ginna: I would guess you might be right about how an author with 25 traditionally published books might be reaching more readers. However, that author would still have to have overcome all of the hurdles to getting those 25 books through the gauntlet of traditional publishing's gatekeepers. And at the rate of success we have had, we can earn $3-4,000 (probably the average is closer to $4,000 as we have not dropped below $3,000 in about 5 years and have sometimes made 10,000 a month), but we would probably still not be successful enough to attract a traditional publishing deal. So we can get there self-publishing, but probably could not get there via traditional publishing unless we first developed a bigger following.

And one other point, since we have 25 titles, we have always offered a lot of our books for free, and we have reached hundreds of thousands of potential readers that way, which might be more than making up for the reduced number of readers we reach with our books for sale. It is amazing how fast ebooks fly off the shelf when they are free :)

rickchapman said...

What is interesting about this entire struggle between Amazon and Hachette (and the publishers, by extension) is that the battle had nothing to do with indies/self publishing. They had no stake in the outcome and still don't. I cover this in this article:

Amazon vs. Hachette: It's Over and What Really Happened (and AAAG Owes Indies and Authors an Apology)

A web collective I've come to think of as the Aggregated Amazon Ankle Grabbers (AAAG for short) is in a bit of shock. The problem can summed up by this plaintive post on The Digital Reader, a site I rate as being an AAAG member.

+++ One has to ask what happened to the demand for ebook prices to be below $9.99, that was apparently so important to Amazon that we indies were asked to write to Hachette on Amazon’s behalf? +++

Yes, that is an interesting question, isn't it. Here Hugh Howey and David Gauhgran and Joe Konrath and Passive Lawyer and others have spent so much time telling us how awful agency pricing was. Awful, awful, awful. And that $9.99 was a golden number. Of course, anyone who actually believed that nonsense either A) failed math in high school or B) buys bridges crossing the East River in New York.

But, apparently, agency’s not so bad after all if Amazon gets more margin and more MDF. Which it did. Which is what channels always want.

And if you, as an indie, suspect you were being used, you were. Yes, those are bus tracks all over your clothing.The publishers used their writers and Amazon used you. And nothing about the outcome of the fight benefited indies in the least. In fact, you never had a real stake in the fight in the first place. Evil agency pricing is alive and well and will be in the future. Amazon is not going to talk anymore about optimal price points and 1.7 more readers and all the rest of that junk. That’s in the past. Until the new contracts are up.

What Just Happened?

After the major publishers lost the collusion case, Amazon had the whip hand in the negotiations. It decided to swing for the fences. Why not? They had nothing to lose. By forcing the publishers to abandon agency pricing, they would gain control of the E-book publishing pricing model. Channels always like being in charge of that.

Part of their strategy was to proclaim the wonders of $9.99. It’s a price calculated to put pressure on the publishers. THAT’s why they put indies in their $7 pricing box and are keeping us/you in it. If indies are allowed out of the box, some of you are going to find out why that box is bad for you and you’ll talk about it. And once you do, Amazon loses an arrow in its quiver to fire at the publishers.

Amazon overplayed its hand. Hachette failed to break (Hachette, BTW, will get the same basic deal as Simon and Shuster, as will all the other publishers. All that will differ in the deals will be squabbles at the edges about margins and MDF). Playing games with product availability didn't play well in the press. Having highly visible writers dabbing their eyes while muttering about censorship didn't help. I don’t think Paul Ryan noting his book had disappeared off Amazon played well either.

Rest of post up at:

And while I think Yglesias makes some valid points about the current publishing model, again, none of what he writes is germane to indies and self publishers.

Rick Chapman

Author "SaaS Entrepreneur: The Definitive Guide to Success in Your Cloud Application Business"
Author "Rule-Set: A Novel of a Quantum Future."

Broken Yogi said...


There was irony in the title of my post too. Of course it's ironic to ask "Do editors deserve to exist?" They do exist, and will continue to, because they do something for authors and readers that other entities in the marketplace do not. You and Matt Yglesias are free to disagree, but not to tell me what I think I wrote. That's going to be my final comment in this exchange.

Apparently, you do need some reminding about what you actually wrote, since the title of your piece was "Do Publishers Deserve To Exist?" It wasn't about editors, who we both concede perform valuable services for writers. Maybe you wish you'd written a piece on how editors deserve to exist, but you didn't. The subject is publishers, as that was what Yglesias wrote about also.

We certainly agree on the value of editors, but since editors are not owned lock, stock, and barrel by publishers, there's no particular need to sell one's work to a publisher to get it properly edited. There are many, many editors out there who self-published authors can and do hire to edit their books. And one of the many advantages of self-publishing is that the author can find and work with whatever editor they want, and not just with the one assigned by their publisher, who may not be of the best quality or most suitable to their particular book.

And again, you bring up the issue of editors being an elite, the point of my "bespectacled" satire, and blithely dismiss the charge, when clearly the traditional editor in a publishing house is indeed a member of an elite, who determine what books get published and which do not. Stories about the old days of publishing, when fathers and sons ran the old houses, are charming indeed, and would make relevant points if that's how publishing houses were still run. But they are not. Most are owned and operated by gigantic insufferably obtuse corporations only concerned about the bottom line in most every publishing decision. That's what the industry has become, and it wasn't Amazon or self-published authors who made it that way.

What self-publishing does offer is a respite from the dominance of that elite group of editors and publishers who decided who would get published and how, and what terms they would get. Since literally anyone can publish most anything these days, without going through those elite editors, the elites matter less and less. Which certainly must be painful for the elites, but not for most everyone else. In fact, now those authors can hire the editors, and have them work for them directly. Which is an amusing switch. It's not as if good editors will be out of work. Quite the opposite. The best editors will attract the most work, and not be so dependent on publishing houses for their livelihood.

And I can understand why you are done replying to critics. When one does not have good responses, it's best to have none at all.

Nirmala said...

PS: In response to your question, the $4,000 a month is for all of our titles in aggregate, which is why I said we would probably not be of interest to a traditional publisher. Most likely, none of our titles sells enough all by itself to make our next release attractive to them. If one of our titles breaks out and does well, then they might show more interest. Although an imprint owned by Amazon did seek us out at one point, but after a bit of back and forth, they just stopped responding to our emails, which did not help our impression of publishers in general.

Richard Hollick said...

Part of the problem with posts like the Vox one is the tendency to regard "publishing" as one undifferentiated mass. Thus the perceived sins of one part can be spread over the whole industry. There are of course fly-by-night publishers who have treated authors badly. There is a debate about the "appropriate" royalty rate for e-books. There are large publishers, no doubt publishing too many titles, who have failed to give this or that mid-list title the run it might have deserved. Many marketing efforts have failed to catch the public attention: marketing many books is just hard. There are publishers living a lavish life style in luxurious quarters. But the vast majority of publishing doesn't look at all like this at all, and these passionate advocates for "indie publishing" do themselves (and the truth) no good by tarring with their big broad brush. To hear Hugh Howey go on about publishing makes me wonder where my career went: my life in university presses was so different from what he disparages as book publishing.

Peter Ginna said...

@Nirmala, thanks for being so forthright and informative in your comments.

@Richard, I agree that too much of the chatter about "publishing" views the industry as monolithic. Trade publishing, STM, textbook, and scholarly publishing are all quite different from one another. The confusion is perhaps to be expected, because trade books are what the public at large reads and encounters most often. And the most voluble criticisms tend to come from the self-publishing community, who are mostly writing books intended for a trade book readership.