Got the I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going Somewhere in a Hurry Blues
So the book business is in for some very big changes that I suspect will move power away from publishers and agents and toward authors. – John Steel Gordon, Contentions
So Gordon writes in reaction to the sales strategy of the current leader of the Amazon Top 100: an indie e-book crime writer, John Locke, dropped the price of The List from $2.99 to $0.99 and sales shot up dramatically. This is much the same phenomenon that’s caused excitement around the case of Amanda Hocking, another indie e-book phenom. She charges between $0.99 and $3.99 per novel and sells 100,000 copies per month; her sales apparently topped $450,000 in January. Novelr looks at her case and concludes:
The good news is that writers can now make a significant amount of money, if they’re hardworking enough, and smart enough, to take advantage of the digital tools available to them.
And this, for a moment, is probably true. There will be a very, very small number of independent authors who will make a killing by stumbling onto the right combination of e-book savvy, authorial skill, and sheer luck. But this will be neither pervasive nor permanent enough to be termed a trend. There have always been best-sellers; it’s just that the rules for how to sell have changed.
If we’re talking one-buck books, people can now by around twenty-five for the same price that a new hardcover, on average, costs. That e-books might cause an increase in volume of book sales should come as a surprise to no one who’s been paying attention to publishing, or even just Kindles, Nooks, and iPads over the past few years. Nor should lowering prices as a means of competing with publishers, big or small. An independent e-book is one published, in essence, by a single-person. Of course it should cost less.
In Amanda Hocking’s case, she has achieved by turning herself into a one-woman publishing house. Amazon takes care of distribution—and takes its 30% cut—but providing editorial oversight and sales promotion now fall squarely into the lap of the author. Yes, a publishing house, no matter the size, takes a far larger share of the revenue than does Amazon—but they also provide more services. As Hocking herself notes:
This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me. [Bolding mine – JLW]
Traditionally, a publishing house has handled sales promotion, editorial assistance, and printing/distribution, leaving the author with one basic role: to write. Sales promotion involves authors going to signings and promoting on their own, yes; but the details of book tours are typically handled by publishing houses, as is the effort that goes into making potential readers aware of a book before going into a store. Publishing houses send out review copies, and reviewers choose which books to bother reading and reviewing—because they get far more than they could ever have time to cover—based in large part on the publisher’s sales pitch.
Amazon (and, I assume Barnes and Noble with the Nook) already handles part of this along with distribution; as they take on a larger role—and they will, becoming, in some sense, a de facto publishing house, minus editorial assistance—it will feel perfectly reasonable to charge more than a 30% distribution royalty, even for the non-bestseller. As the major e-book distributors solidify their control on the market, there will be fewer incentives to demand a limited royalty share. This is to say: authors keeping the lion’s share of their royalties is not to stay. This ignores, also, that a one-man (or woman!) publishing house can’t offer advances—where most authors make all the money they’ll ever see from a book.
This is, of course, before traditional publisher begin to lower their e-book prices to compete. Perhaps they won’t, but “One for the price of ten!” is inherently less appealing than “Ten for the price of one!” Sure, some books will be better from a publishing house, but the risk is a buck and it’s not like your basement floods if you place the wrong bet. At this point, those writers who are already with publishers, or who choose to, for any one of a myriad of reasons—a day job (plus the task of writing!), preference for better/more consistent editorial assistance, preference for an advance over uncertain royalties, wanting to focus on writing rather than publishing—begin to make significantly less than they were at $9.99, even accounting for larger author’s shares of royalties due to lower distribution costs. (I know I’m saying that without offering evidence, but I did quick back-of-the-envelope math during an in-class argument about a year ago; the notes, however, are in Louisville. Well, the average author could make more, but this requires everyone to sell more books once prices fall.)
Changes are afoot in publishing, yes. The traditional publishing industry is only at the beginning of an era that’s going to re-shape it. Many of these changes are tremendously exciting—precisely because we don’t know where they’re going. But this is no purely democratic revolution. Publishing houses, for all their sins, provide the services that allow authors to write and to receive worthwhile feedback on what they write. (God knows my blogging could use an editor most of the time.) An e-book price crash won’t mean more powerful authors—it’ll mean the successful authors are successful for slightly different reasons, while the non-bestsellers, even when they’re producing lasting work, earn less. I’m even skeptical that this is good for the reader, if not the writer. The biggest loss with the loss of a publisher is the loss of an editor; and for that, whether you want to read romance, sci-fi, or The Next Great American Novel, the reader will also suffer.