Battling Through the Trenches of Publisher’s Row

"I read all of Duane Gundrum's books because he's so dreamy...."

In case you aren’t aware of it, there is a war taking place. I’m not talking about Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq. I’m talking about the war that is currently waging over the publication of books. What war? You say. Well, let me explain.

For years, in order to get published, you sent out your work to a publisher (or an agent in hopes of getting a publisher), and if you were very lucky, you might get a bit of an advance. Sometimes, those advances were for decent money. Around the 1970s and on, they started getting really small. Kind of dismal, actually. Unless you were already a famous author, like Stephen King. So, you would get about $5,000-$10,000, and then the publisher would take 18 months or so to create your book. Then it would get released. If it started to sell, great. You would receive about $1.67 for a $20 book for each sale, the publisher keeping pretty much everything else. After all, they were the publisher. That $1.67 would continue to knock down the amount of the advance you received until you actually started to make what are called royalties, which would be additional money the book made after you paid off the advance. Most books tended to not even make back the advance, so you were generally lucky enough if you made somewhat of a decent advance.

Well, recently, the publishing industry has kind of been turned on its side. E-books are becoming the new “in” thing, and strangely enough, publishers are still maintaining their dominance in the industry, because they are still the power brokers they used to be. In other words, in order to gain any attention whatsoever, you really needed the publisher to get the attention out that you had published a book. So, not surprisingly, publishers have been publishing e-books, too, and still taking that outrageous amount off the top, leaving writers with very little profit, even though the costs for publishers have diminished to almost nothing.

Something new has started to happen, which is turning the whole industry on its side now. Writers are going directly to the readers and selling their books without the publishers. And needless to say, this is causing a bit of a stir in the whole industry. Publishers need the writers to survive, and so they are doing everything possible to diminish the positive experience for writers, so that publishers still remain the power brokers that they have always been. Unfortunately for them, that model isn’t going to last that much longer.

The publishing industry is a lot like the music industry, and its current dynamic is going through a revolution much like the music industry has recently gone through as well. While there are still seriously powerful music leaders in the industry still calling shots, a lot of artists have gone directly to the Internet with their work, and are bypassing the profit model previously established by the RIAA and other such top-down industry leaders. This has caused all sorts of problems for the industry, but it has done wonders to present new opportunities for artists who may never have received an ounce of attention before.

Move this into the publishing world, and you see the same sort of thing happening there. The publishing industry is still in control right now, mainly because the model hasn’t completely developed yet. Online booksellers, like Amazon, Apple, and somewhat Barnes & Noble, are producing their own e-readers that allow writers to push their content to eager subscribers. However, the battle currently waging is who is going to control the process flow from this point forward.

The publishing industry is counting on its enormous clout to push their agenda forward. They have already pushed back against Amazon (which has forced the others to comply) where they forced the increase in the cost of books being sold on the Kindle. You used to be able to get brand new books for $9.99, but now you’re lucky if you can get one for $12.99. The game changer in the first battle was Ken Follett’s new book Fall of Giants, which publishers forced Amazon to sell at $19.99. The backlash against the book has been interesting as Kindle users included all sorts of bad reviews for the book based on the price alone, taking what would have probably been a five or four star reviewed book down to an average of about 3 stars. What’s interesting is that his reviews on this book tend to resemble an upside down bell curve, with 301 5-stars and 327 1-star reviews, with a tiny amount filling in for 2, 3, and 4-star reviews. In other words, the critics either really liked it or really hated it, and there’s no doubt that the really hated reviews come specifically from people who are pissed off at the price.

If this was the end of the fight, you’d think that the publishers pretty much won, but like most great stories, a new sliver has been added to the mix, with writers being that added variable. Writers, realizing that they need to somehow be able to take advantage of this new technology, have started to show up sans publishers (being their own publishers), and they’re starting to include their own novels at much lower cost than the publishers are forcing down the e-market’s throat. Rather than stick it out at $9.99 (or push it up to the publisher’s price of $12.99), writers are now starting to introduce their books at the $2.99-$4.99 range, providing a more comfortable area for readers to purchase on impulse alone. Some of the more prominent writers, instead of using their fame to push for $12.99, like the gas station economic model the publishers are following (one raises the price, the rest follow), are listing their books at $0.99. According to some of the better known writers doing this, they’ve pointed out that because of the amount of people willing to buy a book at that low price, their profit has actually been better than if they tried to sell their books at higher prices. The economic implications are staggering, the more you think about it.

The biggest problems facing the writers right now is how to actually get anyone to pay attention to them in the first place. The one thing publishers have going for them was that their clout actually got books into bookstores, and without that clout, an unknown writer is essentially that, an unknown writer. If no one knows you exist, the chances of selling a book are dismal, at best. So, right now, the battle has halted, as both publishers and writers realize they’re at an interesting crossroad where both can benefit, but neither seems willing to budge. Publishers aren’t interested in giving up their high percentages they receive for “publishing” books while writers are no longer interested in giving up the entire store just to get their work out there. Which means that once writers figure out how to jumpstart the system in their favor, the whole publishing industry is going to go the way of the recording industry.

But what can a writer do to become marketable without already being a famous writer who was selling books already? That’s an important question and one that I’m spending a lot of time studying.

I’ll let you know once I figure it out.

duaneBattling Through the Trenches of Publisher’s Row