On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.

Those people have obviously never written books.

I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).

And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.

Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.

That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.

And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.

And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.

This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.

The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.

Anyone have any ideas?

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4 Responses to On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

  1. johnmburt says:

    I find it a bit disappointing that nobody has, as of the 15th, had any suggestions.
    And I could use some, personally.

  2. latenighter says:

    So the goal is to find a way to make a living at writing? To be honest, I think with there being so many types of entertainment vying for attention, the idea of a “working writer” is becoming the exception and not the rule. Not saying you can not make money at just that it has to be one of several cash streams. The trade off that many “mid-listers” have made is that they surrender to doing “popular” projects (ie media tie-ins) to support the personal ones. And if one is not willing to make those sort of choices, I do not begrudge them not wanting to do that. As someone who has struggled to get people to even notice my own creative works, I can understand your frustration. However it does seem that you have uncoupled your love on the work from the cash side to a certain degree. I think that it is very important to do that. At this point I would like to point out that there are plenty of writers who found success in the field without being a full time media star type writer. Sorry if that is not the message you wanted but I’ve really felt that pain you are currently feeling. Good luck.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      If you think I was talking about being a “media star type writer”, then you’re very much mistaken. I’m talking about a simple problem — mid-list writers will not make money at all if publishing companies go under, and it looks very likely that they will.

      It’s not about how *I* do or do not make money from my writing — I have plans for that, and as I said, I’m doing better in sales terms than 90% of writers — but about how writing in general — and other art-forms like music — is funded.

      (Personally, I can think of few things I want *less* than to be any kind of star. The idea of fame horrifies me. The limit of my own ambitions is to do useful or interesting work and to earn an adequate living from it…)

      • latenighter says:

        I am sorry if I offended with the media star comment. Also I don’t want to sound like I do not think there are “good” people at the publishing houses however there seems to be a Hollywood blockbuster mentality at work in the industry. The mid-list writer doesn’t seem to be a concern to them if they are unwilling to push to that blockbuster level. I’d like to think that the recent merger of Random House w/ Penguin will lead to more chance taking and more fostering of talent. I just don’t see it. A downside of the kickstarter/self publishing is there less chance of that a publishing house being willing to promote and guide. Personally, it seems to me if you don’t nurture to some extent, you are going to be working mercenaries. Mercenaries really don’t rally to save the King. Not that he needs saving. Check out this article from the Atlantic from last spring.- http://bit.ly/HVf0VP
        It talks to what you are thinking about.

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