- May 1, 2013
The choices offered by digital publishing can only be good news for writers, says Barry Eisler. So why are traditional publishers so angry?
Until November 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle, the only viable means of book distribution was paper. Accordingly, a writer who wanted to reach a mass audience needed a paper distribution partner. A writer could hire her own editor and her own cover design artist; she could even hire a printing press to create the actual books. The one service she couldn’t hire out was distribution. And publishers didn’t offer distribution as an à la carte service. If a writer wanted distribution, she had to pay a publisher 85% of her revenues for the entire publishing package: editorial, copyediting, proofreading, jacket design, printing, and marketing, all bundled with distribution.
Was a price of 85% of revenues a good deal for this packaged publishing service? For some writers, it clearly was. JK Rowling became a cash billionaire via the traditional packaged publishing service, and obviously there are hundreds of other examples of authors for whom the packaged service has represented a good value.
But for every author who wanted and benefited from the packaged service, there were countless others who took it – if they could get it at all – only because they had no alternative.
Digital distribution has provided that alternative. And increasing numbers of authors are choosing it.
Digital book distribution is available to anyone who wants it. What in the paper world requires trucks, warehouses, a sales force, and longstanding relationships with buyers at dozens of retail operations, in digital is a push-button à la carte service offered by companies like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, Kobo, and Smashwords. An author so inclined can buy digital distribution for 30% of the list price of the book she’s publishing – the same digital distribution a legacy publisher offers – and outsource all other publishing functions, all for significantly less than legacy publishers charge for their packaged service.
Tens of thousands of writers newly presented with the lower-priced, à la carte choice of self-publishing are taking it. Many others prefer the traditional route. Some are embracing a hybrid approach, doing one book with a legacy publisher, another with Amazon Publishing, and yet another by self-publishing.
Now, there’s nothing unnatural about this, you might think. Or undesirable. I myself have published books with legacy publishers, with Amazon Publishing, and via self-publishing. The various possibilities all have their advantages and disadvantages, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and different routes will make sense for different authors. What matters is that authors make informed choices – because, for the first time, we authors are fortunate enough to have choices to make.
And yet, when I offered these fairly axiomatic observations during a recent keynote at the 21st annual Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, the reaction among some editors and agents in the audience (and elsewhere) was extremely negative, with some walking out; others taking to Twitter to urge others to leave, to boycott my talks, and to boycott conferences where I’m talking; and a fair amount of name-calling.
The hostility is surprising in one sense (we’re just talking business, after all, not politics or religion), but in another sense it’s readily understandable. Because in essence, what I was describing in my talk was how digital distribution has changed the legacy publishing industry from something a writer needed, into something a writer might merely want. Because of digital, legacy publishing, which used to be a necessity, is now only potentially useful.
Bear in mind, “useful” is not at all a bad thing. It doesn’t mean no one will want you. No one “needs” a BMW, after all, and yet BMW manages to sell millions of its cars to people who like to drive them.
But if your worldview, your conception of your rightful place in the universe, has always been informed by the implicit knowledge that you are indispensable, and tens of thousands of authors are now informing you that you’ll have to account for your value or they will take their business elsewhere, it’s not so inconceivable that you might find your sensibilities temporarily shocked.
Hopefully, the shock will lead to action. Necessities in business are rare, after all. They’re called monopolies, and their customers typically revolt at the first opportunity. But businesses without a monopoly position – which is to say, almost all businesses – manage to thrive all the time while being “merely” useful. If so many other businesses are able to thrive because they are useful, there’s no reason to believe legacy publishers can’t do so, as well.
We have to be careful not to conflate publishing services with the entities that have traditionally provided them. The services are essential; the entities are not. This would seem a fairly obvious point, and yet as thoughtful and experienced a person as novelist James Patterson is now calling for a bailout of the legacy publishing industry, apparently because he fears that publishing is dying.
No. Publishing isn’t dying; it is evolving. Authors understand this, and are embracing it. Legacy publishers need to do the same.