Why We Still Need Publishers
There’s a big storm at the moment over the US Department of Justice going after several of the biggest publishers for alleged price-fixing of ebooks, which they allegedly did in order to prevent Amazon having a monopoly on book sales. Charles Stross has the best summary I’ve seen of the expected effects, here.
Now, a lot of people are cheering Amazon and hoping for the destruction of these publishers, because they see selling self-published ebooks as being a better option. I disagree, for most of them, even though I self-publish myself.
Self-publishing is definitely better for some people. It’s better for me, because I write stuff for a niche audience, among whom I have some kind of name recognition, which simply wouldn’t be of interest to a major publisher. It’s also better for a writer like Dean Wesley Smith, the most articulate and level-headed of the self-publishing advocates I know of, because he’s extremely prolific, writing roughly a dozen novels’ worth of prose in the average year, and he writes in a variety of very commercial genres and has experience running a publishing house.
I’m not sure it’s better for writers or readers, and I have two main reasons for that.
The first is that we’ve been here before. I’ve been in a couple of bands, and around 2000 one of them was putting MP3s on sites like Mp3.com, listensmart.com and dozens of other sites which no longer exist. These worked *exactly* the same way ebook and POD sites work, and they also had message boards, and those message boards were saying *exactly* the same things about music in 2000 that people are saying now about publishing in 2012. Substitute “the Big Six” for “the major labels”, “Amazon KDP” for mp3.com, and you can see the same types of people saying the same types of things. “Hooray for the death of the evil corporations that turn my genius down!” “I’m going to give all my work away for free so I’ll get exposure and become a millionaire!”, “Anyone want to swap reviews? I’ll buy yours if you buy mine, so long as it’s not over a dollar!”, “Aargh! My stats have gone down since ten minutes ago! Must promote more!” and so on.
Twelve years later, all those people who hoped to get rich quick are still nowhere. Bypassing the major labels *does* work for a number of artists — just like bypassing the major publishers works for some writers — but the head of Universal Music Group is not sat on a street-corner with a sign around his neck saying “will be a middleman for food”. Because musicians aren’t generally also cover designers, video directors, PR people and all the other skills that are needed to get music into people’s hands.
So I suspect something similar will happen with publishing. The reason I hope so is that I want writers to get paid.
Because most writers don’t actually earn enough to live off through book sales. I know this because I sell more than most, and I don’t.
I currently average around £100 per week from sales of all my books combined, through all channels (physical books through Amazon and Lulu, ebooks through those plus Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and half a dozen smaller bookshops). That’s tripled in the last couple of months, incidentally, and quadrupled since September — there definitely *is* a self-publishing boom going on.
Now, we’ll be as fair as possible to the anti-publishers here and say that income *only* came from my five full-length books. That makes £20 per book per week. We’ll be doubly fair to them and pretend *all* that income came from Amazon. Amazon make up around 25% of the total books market, so if my books were selling *everywhere*, then they could be up to an average £80 per week.
Now the thing is, my books sell *significantly* better on Amazon than the average. All my full-length books are in the top 50% of all books on Amazon at the moment. On average they’re in the top 25%. My best-seller (the Monkees book) is in the top 2%. And that’s on print sales — I rank higher on ebooks. Significantly higher.
Think about that for a moment. I have a book that is selling better than 98% of all books — not ‘all self-published books’ or ‘all books about 60s pop groups’. *Better than 98% of all books*. And yet I’m nowhere near earning a living wage from my writing. Even if we assume all sorts of weird things — pretend that books sell hugely in their first week then never sell again or something, and I’m the only exception — that suggests that the vast majority of writers don’t make very much from their writing.
So how do they live?
Like record companies, publishers pay an advance on royalties. This means the author may get, say, $5000 up-front for a book, and a 15% royalty on sales, but only start getting the royalty once it’s gone past the up-front $5000. Of course, $5000 is not a huge amount of money, but many advances are much higher than that, and it’s possible for many (not all) writers to write four books a year. Put that together, and you can make a living from selling books that never earn back their advance. Which is good, because most don’t. (I’ve seen all sorts of figures bandied around — obviously, publishers don’t want to say when they’ve lost money on a book, so it’s difficult to get reliable information — but none of them say that more than 50% of books ever earn out their advance).
The reason this works is the same reason that many people scream about the publishers — they keep most of the money. If you’re an author who’s making money, that sounds like a bad idea. But essentially publishers exist to be a redistribution service, taking money from the Dan Browns and JK Rowlings of the world, and giving it in the form of advances to less successful writers.
So the net result of the loss of publishers would be the loss of writers as a professional class. We’d have a few bazillionaires, because the Browns and Rowlings would be keeping 70-85% of their money, a handful of people like Dean Wesley Smith who manage to be fast enough to get an absolute ton of product on the market, a few peiople like me who find a comfortable niche or two and maybe manage to scratch a living, and a whole load of amateurs writing in their spare time with minimal or no editing. What you wouldn’t have is the vast swathe of stuff in the middle, all the mid-list writers who manage to earn a steady living from writing one or two good books a year.
So even though for me as a writer the big publishers disappearing would be a good thing, because I’d lose most of the competition for readers’ money, as a reader I’d quite like people to keep getting paid for writing books I want to read.
(On the other hand, if you want to stick it to The Man and give all your money to independent publishers, you can buy my books from Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords. I am nothing if not greedy. Down with The Man!)