Stack of books.

Ignoring Change: Traditional Publishers Unprepared For The New Era Of Independent Publishing

Over the course of the last two months, something akin to a food fight has broken out in the publishing cafeteria. It started when author Hugh Howey offered his perspective on a survey on author compensation conducted by Dana Beth Weinberg for Digital Book World.

Although Simon & Schuster now publishes Howey’s work in the United States, he continues to wear an independent author’s hat. In responding to Weinberg’s study, he made the point that average compensation for self-published authors includes all works, while the averages calculated for traditionally published authors exclude the books that were declined, the ones that never earned any money.

In effect, self-published books reach all the way down the long tail, with a (likely significant) portion earning very little. The averages include all of these titles, potentially shifting the argument made in the DBW-sponsored study that traditionally published authors earn more than those who go out on their own.

A number of people who make a living agenting, editing and consulting for the traditional book industry supply spent a fair share of the next few weeks trying to show Hugh Howey the error of his ways. I’m not sure I understand why it was important to “set the record straight;” Howey’s point was simple and politely made. In any event, after several weeks of persistent cross-talk, the record seems pretty darn crooked.

Stir a hornet’s nest and you’re likely to get stung. In the wake of Howey’s tempest, Barry Eisler, an author generally inclined to see the potential of independently published works, made some supportive comments in an interview conducted by Porter Anderson for The Bookseller. His remarks drew a pointed response from literary agent Robert Gottlieb, who could be considered an advocate for the way publishing has always worked.

Eisler wrote a post to respond at length to each of the arguments Gottlieb had offered. Joe Konrath, a persistent critic of “legacy publishing”, waded in. The posts that followed got longer, more pointed and to my eye less productive. We moved past the point at which people were listening to one another.

There have been many more exchanges than I’ve captured here. As the public debate has grown increasingly toxic, I’ve been re-reading something I wrote in 2009, shortly after that year’s BookExpo America came to a close:

What I don’t quite see in the book business, though, is a sense of the damage done by our consistent use of the three half-truths of publishing: the world is changing; we need to change; and some things will never change.  We pay homage to each of these (often in quick succession), but we don’t typically confront the implications in a way that would, well, scare the hell out of us.…

It would be more than nice, more than fun, more than illuminating, if we as an industry could use events like BEA as less an opportunity to predict the future and more a forum in which to examine the options.  Okay, piracy is bad, but.. what if it helped sell books?  Okay, we love long-form fiction and we think it should survive, but what if the people who read it now just stopped?  Okay, a trade publisher provides value in choosing and curating content, but what if the world turned upside down and everyone were a writer, a publisher, a reader…  Wouldn’t that be really cool?

Right now, publishers are walking away from what is arguably the single largest experiment in the history of publishing. Independent authors are electing to sidestep the supply chain, publish without identifiers, and test new forms and new platforms that look nothing like a book. If they aren’t the farm team, they are a window into what the future might look like.

Rather than engage productively with independent authors, publishers and their intermediaries have been trying to convince themselves that things really haven’t changed that much. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe they won’t.

Then again, maybe they will. In “The opportunity in abundance”, I claimed:

Abundance hasn’t quite gutted the old rules, but it has rendered them inadequate. As Peter Brantley pointed out last year, we’re trying to extend agreements made 40 or even 70 years ago. Yet we live in a time when new entrants, new content forms and new distribution options have created a maelstrom of variety.

Rather than trying to show independent authors the error of their ways, publishers should be looking for ways to invite them in. Small things could help make the system more transparent for all parties. Lower the price of identifiers, to start. Experiment (as Sourcebooks does now) with writing platforms like Wattpad, as well as Medium, Atavist and others.

BISG is already funding a study of subscription models. Publishers should invest more to broaden their ability to understand the impact of independent publishing on the prevailing supply chain. Given that this is the year that more than half of all book purchases in the United States originate online, it might be worth considering the nuclear option of a future without Barnes & Noble as a bricks-and-mortar player.

Publishers can continue to argue that independent authors make less than their traditionally published counterparts. Believe it or not, that’s just not something readers care about. Independent titles represent a collection of experiments no publisher could support or replicate. We should act to take advantage of the small window in which we can learn from them.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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