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If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you
March 22, 2011 10:35 AM   Subscribe

"Eisler’s decision is a key benchmark on the road to wherever it is we’re going" Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin: I wasnt planning to write a post this past weekend for Monday morning publication. But then Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. Ive read their lengthy conversation about Barrys decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.

Barry Eisler, in the (long-ish) conversation: Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight--but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

I'm leding Shatzkin rather than Konrath & Eisler because he cuts to the chase and raises valid questions. What I don't see any of them addressing directly is what happens once the first-mover advantages dissipate. And I leave the Doctorow references to you...

(Here's the same conversation on Barry Eisler's blog.)
posted by lodurr (59 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan.

Wow, that's just....I don't even know the adjective.
posted by spicynuts at 10:41 AM on March 22, 2011


"contextual" would be a good one to start with.
posted by lodurr at 10:43 AM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


More context for spicynuts quoted section:
To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan.
It's from the first link.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:44 AM on March 22, 2011


Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan.

what
posted by dhartung at 10:45 AM on March 22, 2011


Even in the context, it's ridiculously callous.
posted by spicynuts at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Again guys, context is everything. Let's not derail this right off the bat, yeah?
posted by dejah420 at 10:47 AM on March 22, 2011


TL:DR - self publishing through major retailers (Amazon, maybe Barnes & Noble) will be the way to make serious, instead of first working with a major publishing house. Major publishing houses will fall from this "realization earthquake."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2011


I left my blockquote at one paragraph, to keep from re-posting the majority of the first link. RTFA and all that.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2011


I read the whole thing. And the comments. And I work in publishing. And I would never use that metaphor. Too soon and all that.
posted by spicynuts at 10:50 AM on March 22, 2011


As someone who works in publishing, are "publishing consultants" typically hype-men? Or is Shatzkin just trying to be ultra-edgy/boosting links and page hits?
posted by filthy light thief at 10:52 AM on March 22, 2011


I'm a complete outsider but it seems to me that I'd still want some of the infrastructure publishing houses offer - editing, layout, professionally converting to ePub. I don't need the dead tree part but there still is some use for them. Right?
posted by SirOmega at 10:55 AM on March 22, 2011


Will he act as his own editor too? No reason to share his sales with those greedy people? Will he sell directly to readers without paypal or Visa taking their greedy cut if the action?
posted by three blind mice at 10:57 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


lodurr, thanks for posting and trying to start a thoughtful conversation on the topic. Of related interest is another author going the other way, from phenomenally successful self-publishing to a deal with a traditional publisher.
posted by twsf at 10:57 AM on March 22, 2011


Guess I'm just a callous bastard. I think the metaphor is a bit overblown, but I have to work to see it as inappropriate.
posted by lodurr at 10:58 AM on March 22, 2011


Print publishing is dead! Long live print publishing!

But seriously these "paradigm shift, whither publishing in the digital age?" articles are by now a well-worn genre: cue breathless pronouncements about the immanent death of print publishing and the failure of the big houses to adapt, followed by whatever new publishing business model author thinks will replace old model, rinse, repeat, etc.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 11:01 AM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


three blind mice, to take the first part of your question seriously:

the editorial question is one I wished they'd addressed in more detail. I often hear writers lament that editors don't edit anymore, so self-publishers often retort (though neither Konrath nor Eisler take this tack) that they're not losing anything by not having an editor.

Writers need editors -- I think that's kind of a given. Another potential solution (which would have to evolve, it's not there now) is the professionalization of writers' groups. Or the development of freelance editors (but who would pay them?).

Eisler & Konrath seem to agree that one workable model (from their perspective) is for agencies to morph into digital publishers, since the publishers are doing such a terrible job dealing with the realities of the situation. If that happened quickly I could see it blocking other interesting developments.
posted by lodurr at 11:05 AM on March 22, 2011


Why sell only through "major" retailers?

And why must every discussion of freeing authors from the publishing world bring up the irrelevant canard of editing? First of all, editing is not something that only publishers can do. I can easily imagine an editing service or an open source-style "you write, I'll edit" collaboration or any of a number of things.

Second, I've yet to see a really good reason given for why editors are necessary. Wait! Before you furiously start to type your joke about how badly most people write, pause and reflect. In a post-scarcity, ebook world, is the filtering process really necessary? The improving process, yes. But see above for one solution. Another solution is just teaching writers how to edit.
posted by DU at 11:06 AM on March 22, 2011


The improving process, yes.

The problem is that the improving process is not the same kind of creative process as writing. And a lot of authors do not want to do the kind of thinking required for improvement. It is incredibly time consuming and requires a degree of objectivity about one's own work that most writers don't have. It's the same reason that musicians have producers, painters have patrons or galleries they work with, photographers have photo editors, etc.
posted by spicynuts at 11:13 AM on March 22, 2011


DU, I'd want to clarify what you mean by 'edit' before we get into an argument about whether editors are necessary. It's a loaded term -- any time you see a formulation like "[people who do verb] don't [verb] anymore", you're looking at a loaded term.

When I use 'edit' to talk about what a writer needs from someone else, I'm talking about an external reality-check on whether there are problems and where they are. If you've spent months or years (or even days, and sometimes especially just days) working on something, you are often by virtue of that not the most qualified person to recognize the work's problems.

I have met very few writers who I thought were at all worth reading who were of the genuine opinion that they were able to effectively edit themselves in that regard.

As you note, there are lots of ways one could imagine finding people to do that and then getting the job done. The one that's most fascinating to me is the idea of professionalized writers' groups. Or even guild-like entities with cooperative obligations between members.
posted by lodurr at 11:14 AM on March 22, 2011


In a post-scarcity, ebook world

A "post-scarcity world?" Is that something like "post-gravity physics?"
posted by Ratio at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's no zero sum game here for publishing models: "publishing" has always been an umbrella term for a diverse range of activities and mediums, and these have often co-existed peacefully.

Editing is only part of what publishers do, and btw publishers are not exactly avoiding electronic mediums (indeed, they are embracing them) as publishing models.

Consider the author in question in the FPP: he's not the first big-name author to try this, and like all of them he is in part motivated by the chance at making more money, but what is always pointed out in these discussions is that a big name author is not really a good test case--since he has already had a reputation built upon the old model, so his audience is ready made. What is interesting about the other test cases (unknowns who self-publish and then become well known) is how often they end up signing up with big publishers in the end (to free them up to focus more on writing and less on the business).

Besides editing there is packaging, marketing, promoting, and all sorts of related long-term ways that authors can be cultivated by publishers in whatever markets said authors are working in. Publishers will adapt and change, and there are many signs this is already happening. And self-publishing will continue to be a growing niche, but it will probably not supplant publishing as a whole anytime soon.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Eisler's last two books were just awful, full of clunky writing, eye-rolling dialogue, political sermonizing, and wafer-thin plotting. In other words, you wondered why the editor let it go out like this. I'd fear for the self-published version.

Good editors have long helped turn marginal writers into readable authors, although writers don't always appreciate it. So while I think self-publishing has its value, it's also easy to look back to earlier successful examples, like James Redfield's boneheaded Celestine Prophecy, to see what self-publishing hath wrought.
posted by grounded at 11:20 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


grounded, if Eisler's that awful, I'd say he's an example of how the publishing industry is squeezing margins at the expense of more time-consuming pursuits like editing.

I'd grant that a lot of the self-published stuff is kind of not very good. (I've been reading a lot of free/cheap stuff on my Nook, because I can and because I'm curious about the de facto quality standards.) But if you were someone who cared about quality and had a reputation to defend -- say, Charlie Stross, to pick a name many of us would recognize -- you'd take steps to make sure you covered your bases on that, even if you were self-publishing.
posted by lodurr at 11:28 AM on March 22, 2011


Re. the idea that publishers are already dealing with the issue: I see very little indication of that. New ebooks often sell for a higher price than the paper version. The rationale for that is that the ebook price represents the cost of publishing the book in all forms, not the cost of publishing it as an ebook, which is kind of odd since the cost of a paperback doesn't represent the cost of publishing the book in hardcover.

Or, to quote the linked article:
Barry: This is a critical point. There’s a huge data set proving that digital books are a price-sensitive market, and that maximum revenues are achieved at a price point between $.99 and $4.99. So the question is: why aren’t publishers pricing digital books to maximize digital profits?

Joe: Because they're protecting their paper sales.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: It's awfully dangerous for an industry to ignore (or even blatantly antagonize) their customers in order to protect self-interest.

Barry: Not that it hasn’t been tried before. Just never successfully outside a monopoly. And the advent of digital has broken the monopoly publishers used to have on distribution.

Joe: In the meantime, I'm selling 3000 ebooks a day by pricing reasonably. There aren't too many Big 6 authors selling that well. And I'm getting much better royalties than they are.

So what’s going on with legacy publishers? It seems like either willful ignorance or outright stupidity. They're irritating their customers, alienating their content providers, and refusing to embrace the future.

Why?

Barry: I think there are a lot of things going on, some emotional, some institutional. Clayton Christensen wrote about a lot of this in a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma. Fundamentally, it’s extremely hard for an industry to start cannibalizing current profits for future gains. So the music companies, for example, failed to create an online digital store, instead fighting digital with lawsuits, until Apple--a computer company!--became the world’s biggest music retailer.
posted by lodurr at 11:37 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


grounded, if Eisler's that awful, I'd say he's an example of how the publishing industry is squeezing margins at the expense of more time-consuming pursuits like editing.

Oh, I agree with you. Even copy editing seems to have fallen by the wayside. Editors are also often hired at the author's expense (editors offer services ranging from editorial notes at an hourly rate to writing the whole thing for you for $50K; just find their website and ask them for a price list).

My point was that sometimes a middleman makes for a better reading experience. I hope some of these self-pub entrepreneurs realize that. It's frustrating to read a book with good ideas and piss-poor execution, no matter who published it.
posted by grounded at 11:49 AM on March 22, 2011


This has already happened to magazines. In the late 1980's there were four pretty well known magazines for pet bird owners and breeders; my wife subscribed to all of them and regularly sold them articles. She made a pretty good chunk of our income selling articles to mid-level magazines like that, catering to different hobby and trade interests, and most of that market is gone. It's hard to sell what others are giving away for free, even if your product is better quality.

As for whatever added value publishers are supposed to be providing, I think they gave up on that long ago. They no longer seek out new and different books because it's safer to put up something else with Stephen King's name or a picture of a vampire (or even better both) on the cover whether it's any good or not. They no longer put much effort into editing. They don't do publicity for you. All they do is draw a cover designed by a marketer who may or may not have even read the book, print the books, ship them to bookstores, and keep most of the money.

Granted it actually costs money to print the books and ship them to bookstores, but when they want to charge similar prices for ebooks and still keep most of the money, there is a serious reality gap at work.
posted by localroger at 12:02 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Second, I've yet to see a really good reason given for why editors are necessary.

I'd say comparing the early Stephen King novels with his later work would be a good place to start.
posted by hippybear at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2011


Editors are also often hired at the author's expense...

This happens now? I had not heard of this as a widespread phenomenon -- I knew about ghostwriting as "editing" (and know a guy who's made a fair chunk of his living off it in some years), but are you talking about fiction markets?
posted by lodurr at 12:37 PM on March 22, 2011


... early Stephen King novels with his later work ...

Didn't he essentially lose editing -- or is that your point? (Not familiar with much King after The Stand & Night Shift.
posted by lodurr at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2011


Didn't he essentially lose editing -- or is that your point?

That's my point exactly. His early works are tight, taut little knots of excellently written fiction. His later works, once he became a superstar, are lengthy, meandering confusing works which have good elements at their core but which obviously really need a good editor to step in and help him polish them.
posted by hippybear at 12:42 PM on March 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is a frustrating thing, as an editor, to have to continually justify what you do, but here we are again.

It's not just typos and grammar. It's making sure that Sue who died on page 47 doesn't get mentioned as alive on page 299. It's helping an author break a massive manuscript up into manageable chunks so their readers don't run out of steam. It's pointing out that it wasn't Edward the Conqueror, but William. It's avoiding those sentences missing a crucial "don't" that entirely change the meaning you were going for.

It makes a difference. Not to your average self-publishing author who just wants to get something out with their name on it, but to authors who actually want a good product at the end.
posted by emjaybee at 1:17 PM on March 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


Barry: This is a critical point. There’s a huge data set proving that digital books are a price-sensitive market, and that maximum revenues are achieved at a price point between $.99 and $4.99. So the question is: why aren’t publishers pricing digital books to maximize digital profits?

First of all, this is a blanket assertion with no reference. Where is the huge data set proving that maximum revenues are achieved at that price point? Anyone? Secondly, maximizing e-book revenue is not the same thing as maximizing profit. They call this "protecting paper books". Another way to put it is "not losing money and going out of business". If you double your e-book revenue but lose even more than that from your non e-book revenue, you do not come out ahead.

Joe: In the meantime, I'm selling 3000 ebooks a day by pricing reasonably.

And this is inane. It's like if J.K. Rowlings made freely available a new Potterworld ebook and said to just paypal her whatever you think its worth, and then when she made millions wondered what all the fuss is about since everyone could just do the same thing.

There are always weird synergies resulting in some people making a bunch of money in ways it is very difficult to emulate. Timing and dumb luck are often involved. 99cent ebooks are the niche, not higher priced ones.
posted by Justinian at 1:25 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This happens now? I had not heard of this as a widespread phenomenon -- I knew about ghostwriting as "editing" (and know a guy who's made a fair chunk of his living off it in some years), but are you talking about fiction markets?

Yup.
posted by grounded at 1:50 PM on March 22, 2011


Grounded:

"Editors are also often hired at the author's expense."

This is not at all my experience, actually. Can you give an example of this? This is very much the sort of things writers organizations like to call out as bad.

On the main topic of the thread, if Mr. Eisler thinks he can do better self-publishing electronically, then by all means he should try.
posted by jscalzi at 2:36 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you double your e-book revenue but lose even more than that from your non e-book revenue, you do not come out ahead.

If you double your e-book revenue but lose even more than that from your non e-book revenue, you are doing something wrong that goes a lot deeper than the low prices you charge on e-books. E.g., making products people don't want to buy for the price at which you're selling them.

And this is inane. It's like if J.K. Rowlings made freely available a new Potterworld ebook and said to just paypal her whatever you think its worth, and then when she made millions wondered what all the fuss is about since everyone could just do the same thing.

I hear this defense a lot (usually Cory Doctorow is invoked in some way), and it deserves a response: No, it's not like that. It's simply one guy telling you this is how it worked for him, where in context it's pretty clear he thinks he's observing a causal relationship based on changes he made to his own books' pricing. It's not a blanket statement -- it's pretty specific.

If it were a blanket statement, I'd have a problem with it. When the people talking are people who know the business (like Cory or, I suspect, this guy), it deserves not to be dismissed as "inane."
posted by lodurr at 2:37 PM on March 22, 2011


I'm seeing a lot of the same tired stuff here. What I'm not seeing a response to is some of the bolder claims, like the claim (made repeatedly) that digital is poised to replace hard copy (i.e., hard copy books will become the niche market to ebooks mass market).

That's really the basis for this whole argument: If that's not true, or not sufficiently true, or not true within a certain time frame, the whole castle crumbles.
posted by lodurr at 2:39 PM on March 22, 2011


I'd say comparing the early Stephen King novels with his later work would be a good place to start.

Or J.K.Rowling. The last Harry Potter books could have been cut in half without losing anything significant. I assume they weren't because (a) Rowling didn't want to be edited and (b) the book is going to sell a kajillion copies whatever happens, so why bother?

I'm not sure how much pricing is really going to affect me with ebooks. I may well be a special case, but if it's not worth reading at $6.99 then it's not worth reading at $0.99. The price isn't keeping me from buying the book - it's the suck that keeping me from buying it. I do object to paying hardback prices for ebooks, but if it's a paperback price then I really don't care too much.

One place where I would be very price sensitive would be for buying electronic copies of books I already have. Terry Pratchett is taking up two shelves in my house. Ellis Peters takes up one. Michael Connelly takes up one. Asimov takes up... well, lots. I can't really justify buying electronic copies of these books if I have to pay full price. At $0.99 a copy I'd probably buy an electronic copy of every book I own (well, not Interview With The Vampire. I hated that book) just for laughs.

Honestly, I think that the demise of bookstores is a bigger problem. I can't count how many new authors I've discovered by prowling the shelves at new (and used) bookstores. Online is great for keeping up with authors I already know, but I don't use it to find new writers.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:51 PM on March 22, 2011


Online is great for keeping up with authors I already know, but I don't use it to find new writers.

I would agree, and say that it extends well beyond just online book purchases.

The experience of chance discovery while browsing is something we simply have not been able to really recreate in an online environment. And yet, that is where a lot of people (at least a lot of people I know) end up finding those true "miracle discoveries" in their libraries or homes.
posted by hippybear at 3:02 PM on March 22, 2011


Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight--but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

I like this a lot. It's -- forgive me -- an illuminating take on what's beginning to happen.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:04 PM on March 22, 2011


The experience of chance discovery while browsing is something we simply have not been able to really recreate in an online environment.

In this unqualified form, as a full sentence, this just strikes me as an incredible non-sequitur. Because to me, "online" is all about the "experience of chance discovery while browsing." (My supporting link.)

Even with regard only to browsing for books, it strikes me as a bit narrow. For years I've used my Amazon Wishlist as a storage mechanism for books I might want to read, based on the "other people bought this" or "you might like" boxes, or by browsing the works of authors I encounter via those 'recommendations'.

It's not the same as finding other books on nearby shelves in a library. Absolutely. It's not what we're accustomed to thinking of as browsing and discovery if we were raised around books. Is it inferior or superior? Well, that depends on what you're looking for. I don't go to library stacks much anymore, but I was in one a year or so ago and I do remember feeling a nostalgic thrill at running across obscure titles on vaguely related subjects (I think I was looking for a book on surveillance and came across a juicy 1980s-era muckraking book on COINTELPRO).

Here's the thing, though: That was a new thrill at the point when people started getting access to libraries, which is a pretty recent historical phenomenon. It was always going to become a past-thrill at some point.

For what it's worth, I think there's a lot to be said for the essential randomness of what a particular library's collections throw up at you when you move your eyes to the right or left from your targeted shelf-location. And we do not have mechanisms at present that give you a similar serendipity. But I can easily imagine several while sitting right here that would be more or less functionally equivalent. Nobody's built them yet, to my knowledge; why that is, I leave for another discussion at another time, except to say that the most prevalent first response is liable to include the holy words "the market". (The last, not intended as an endorsement of such responses.)

(I realize that functional equivalence misses the point [and may even be an insufficient qualifier]; I realize we're unlikely to create something that feels like the same experience as shelf-serendipity. The biggest barrier, to my mind, is the sense in a given library that we're looking at the results of non-random, arbitrary constraint: this library has limited funds, limited shelf space, has been served by these librarians with those collection-management biases, etc., meaning that we get to see this book here at this time six spines away from what we were purposively looking for. That's a mental state we get into when we're in a physical collection, driven by things we think we know about how that collection came to be what it is. We will never have those same kinds of thoughts about automated serendipity mechanisms -- there's liable, for example, to always be something in the back of our brains that says 'This system knows about every book that ever was, I want to see the best serendipitous match that it can give me! I want the ultimate!')
posted by lodurr at 5:59 AM on March 23, 2011


Interesting that you see serendipitous discovery in the context of, well, the context in which you're already looking. Because I certainly wasn't meaning that at all when I wrote the sentence you responded to.

I was more thinking about those times when I've been in a bookstore and was just wandering around, maybe even in a section I don't normally go to (or was just passing through) when a title catches my eye and I take the book out and look through it and realize it might be something I want to read.

Or those huge tables of books which are discounted and soon to be remaindered, so they're all stacked together without any rhyme or reason and I stand there for an hour and pick through them and find things I never would have looked up on my own.

When I was talking about chance discovery, I was literally talking about those moments when something completely outside my normal sphere of contact reaches out and taps me on the shoulder in a bookstore and says "hey! check me out!" and I do and discover that it's good.

I know what you're saying about recommendation systems and how they have some amount of coverage for this kind of thing. But really, for me, that's not ever going to reproduce a lot of the magic I discover in a quality bookstore.

And really, looking at what I was responding to, it's not really a non-sequitor.
posted by hippybear at 6:08 AM on March 23, 2011


A shelf-serendipity-related anecdote: I worked in libraries a lot in my youth. I spent a fair amount of time shelf-reading.* That's when you really find the unusual and fun stuff. But that's going to go away, too, as the number of actual physical collections (and of the people who realistically have access to them) dwindles.

--
*In a physical collection this means literally reading the catalog numbers of every item on the shelf to make sure that they're in the right order or the right place. In a big library, if something's misfiled, it's basically lost until someone finds it by guesswork or shelf-reading. The really fun thing is when you misfile a microfiche -- then it's basically lost forever, because the sheer size of the collections makes them impractical to shelf-read. One small way we can improve things digitally, I suppose.
posted by lodurr at 6:10 AM on March 23, 2011


I understood what you're talking about. I'm just saying, those things will go away and be things of the past just as they were once things we didn't know would exist. And we'll find new things to replace them. They will be different things.

(W.r.t. bargain bins, I know what you mean. That kind of bargain bin will never really exist in digital. There's no need for it, because there's no need to get the damn paper out of the damn warehouse. The digital "bargain bin" is just stuff that's been priced to sell. It at least feels like a qualitatively different kind of bargain.)
posted by lodurr at 6:14 AM on March 23, 2011


It's Never Lurgi: "I'd say comparing the early Stephen King novels with his later work would be a good place to start.

Or J.K.Rowling.
"

Or Neal Stephenson, bless his heart. I would have loved to red-pen his last five books into something that actually shows what a genius he is.

Let's look at Neil Gaiman; one of the most successful authors in the last decade or so...Neil is a brilliant writer just off the cuff...but even he talks about how his editors are imperative to his ability to turn out good books.

Editors aren't (just) 3rd grade grammar teachers. They help writers maintain a consistent voice, consistent tense, story continuity, character integrity, plotline...as well as checking for typos, misused words or phrases, fact checking, and basic grammatical structure.

And you can tell when a writer has gotten "so big" that editors are afraid to touch their stuff. Because the quality of their art invariably suffers.

Are there writers who never need a second pair of eyes? Sure. But there are a whole lot more who *think* they don't...and they're wrong.
posted by dejah420 at 6:40 AM on March 23, 2011


No, it's not like that. It's simply one guy telling you this is how it worked for him, where in context it's pretty clear he thinks he's observing a causal relationship based on changes he made to his own books' pricing. It's not a blanket statement -- it's pretty specific.

It may be specific, but it would be of interest to no one if it weren't for the implied broader implications, ie, big publishing is dead, writers can have more autonomy and make more money on their own. My feeling is that there is indeed an opportunity, here, esp as old industries tend to move slower than individuals with initiative.

But once that moment of elation passes, you're immediately faced with the next big question: If you don't already have an established fan base, how do you succeed in building your brand, in an environment where thousands if not millions of others are scrambling to do the same thing? It'd be nice to be able to say that quality counts; but really it doesn't count that much.

Also: As writers compete for readers in this new fiercely competitive milieu, how do they maintain their profit margins as prices race to the bottom? Freedom to win can easily turn into freedom to lose.

I expect that the answer to both questions may come in the form of a new breed of middlemen (see Atavist.com, or Seth Godin's Domino Project, or Amazon's Kindle Singles), who vet, brand, and pipeline selected work to the mainstream. With any luck, traditional publishers will soon realize that it's worth cannibalizing their current brick and mortal profits to build long-term digital brands. So long as they don't, we'll continue to see new middlemen appear. And no doubt some needed innovation will come with this.

At which point the question becomes: How big a cut will they take?
posted by Hobbacocka at 6:47 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hobbacocks, now we're talking. What I want to understand about your questions is this: Are you implying that being with a traditional publisher in the currently dominant publishing paradigm solves these issues for writers? Because what I'm hearing people like Eisler & Konrath saying is that some of these are exactly the problems they're trying to solve by going indie.

These are the questions they pass on: what happens when the first-mover advantage dissipates; how do you bootstrap yourself; what mechanism is there for promoting quality; how do you prevent a race to the bottom.

It's not actually fair of me to say that they pass on these questions, but they do pass over them very quickly. Cory doctorow does the same, taking an approach similar to the one I just took in response to hippybear: this is change, it's going to happen, deal with it. That's not a very satisfying answer, and it doesn't deal with the fact that the expectation has been set that you can make a really, really comfortable living as an indie. Well, no, most of you can't.

What I usually bring up as a response here is examples from music -- specifically, people like Steve Earle who make good livings but don't get rich by going out there and working for a living as musicians. (Earle describes himself as making a 'comfortable five-figure income,' and thinks people just aren't willing to work for it.) Everyone I personally know who makes a living as a writer does a shitload of work to make that living, and doesn't make much money. (Two writers I know could probably make this current indie model work, while it's working, and double or triple their income at least -- both are probably orders of magnitude better writers than these guys, and one has a shelf full of awards to back her up.)

Regarding the 'race to the bottom' problem, I don't think it's as bad as people assume it will be, and that doesn't tend to get addressed directly by indie advocates. They say things like 'there's an optimum price-point'; they'd do better to talk numbers. An acquaintance with years of experience getting his work published & who knows many authors (he's been on the SFWA board off and on for years) reflexively runs numbers whenever he sees this kind of story, and he recently pointed out that $.99 is literally about as low as you can go and still charge anything, and you're still making money at that price point -- and significantly more money than you would if you sold a story to the kind of fiction market that most of us actually have access to. The game seems to be that you hook them at $.99, and feed them the sequels or additional work at $2.99 or $4.99. That's Amanda Hocking's model, and from what I can see it's also Joe Konrath's. That's not going to make you rich, but it can put you into the territory of Steve Earle's 'comfortable five-figure income.'

The bottom line for me is that we have had this expectation set that we ought to be able to make a living as writers, when that's really quite a recent and uncommon phenomenon. There was a fairly brief window from sometime in the 19th C. to sometime in the late 20th. (That's a liberal estimate in my view.) It's really a lot like pro sports: most of us will never be that guy who gets to be paid really well to play basketball, and we don't get to be that guy for writing either.
posted by lodurr at 8:09 AM on March 23, 2011


Lodurr: That's a lot of good stuff to respond to.

Starting with the last point: I'm not really interested in whether writers could make a living 20 or 100 years ago. What's relevant to me is whether they should be able to now, given the need for them, and given the unique product they have to offer. Storytelling, and art, of course; but also reporting, a willingness and ability to broach different experiences; and a certain level of thoughtfulness, which I honestly believe there is a demand for, even if that demand hasn't exactly found an ideal way to express itself. (The Amazon Kindle Singles development is very heartening to me, in this respect.)

You illustrate nicely how the race to the bottom issue feeds into the brand-building issue. Ultimately the price issue is somewhat less relevant, if only bc there's not a whole helluva lot anyone can do about it, short of forming branded groups that entail a higher sticker price. As for whether low price is sufficient to build a brand: I kind of doubt it. I expect that may be one tactic among many. Such as: building a blog audience (which is tantamount to setting your price at zero for however many years); building social networks; doing cross-promotional stuff, and whatever the hell else -- all of which takes huge bites out of writing time. I think I read somewhere that Hocking made a point of saying that she lay the groundwork for her current success years before. It wasn't overnight. And even if it was, she is, as you point out, a first mover.

Music is a useful parallel, but of course writers can't really perform. Readings are pretty boring compared to a Steve Earle concert, in all honesty, and will never draw similar numbers. By the time they do, the writer would have to be popular enough that supplementing his/her income isn't an issue anyway. But it's not just music. Recently Netflix signed their own TV show. Within a decade, TV networks are going to be feeling the same kind of threat that publishers are feeling now. (In this case, however, I don't think the talent will be as dramatically affected. Netflix, presumably, will just step in and fill the place of CBS or AMC, or all of them.)

I don't really blame Doctorow et al for passing over the tricky questions. They're the first-movers, they're elated, and their job is to move the thing forward. It is not necessarily their job to slow momentum by thinking too much about the "details." To be clear: I don't think the current publishing regime answers the tricky questions any better than Doctorow et al do. But it used to answer tricky questions, and its existence is the best evidence one could require that these questions do need answers.

Finally, not all writers are the same. It seems obvious but it bears pointing out bc I expect there will be a range of longer term developments in the market that reflect this fact. The vampire writers, I expect, will be more inclined to self-promote. The more literary writers will be less inclined, and so there will be this need for vetters and middlemen. Ultimately, I think, any writer's best advantage is understanding and having faith in the need for his or her product. If you know that need is there, then you should eventually be able, by whatever tools, to make a case that you have the power to answer it.
posted by Hobbacocka at 9:30 AM on March 23, 2011


.... whether they should be able to now, given the need for them...

For writers? Or for writers who make their living writing?

I don't think there's any particular need for writers, per se. There's always a need for story-tellers, in whatever medium is currently workable, and they always emerge, everywhere. Whether it's likely that they can make a living doing that in any given age varies a great deal. If you can provide a convincing argument that life is better in proportion to the number of writers who can make their living by just doing writing, then I'll be with you on that -- but in absence of that, I'm not seeing it.

The point about whether or not writers could make a living 100 or 120 years ago is AFAIAC quite important: It establishes a bar of historical realism, and demands that we do things like assess whether it's good or bad for art and for what art's good for, for writers (or any artist) to be able to expect to make a living doing nothing but art. I don't see it as an unqualified good.
posted by lodurr at 9:40 AM on March 23, 2011


My argument would be that writers can bring a unique level of thoughtfulness and observation to storytelling, and we live in a time where that sort of thing is in high demand.

As for historical realism, I simply don't feel the need for it, as I feel more proximal means exist to answer the concerns you raise. For me, at any rate.
posted by Hobbacocka at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2011


(W.r.t. bargain bins, I know what you mean. That kind of bargain bin will never really exist in digital. There's no need for it, because there's no need to get the damn paper out of the damn warehouse. The digital "bargain bin" is just stuff that's been priced to sell. It at least feels like a qualitatively different kind of bargain.)

My point about the bargain bins had nothing to do with pricing, and everything to do with random juxtaposition of unrelated books which leads to surprising discovery of interest. Again, something which I have yet to see adequately created in a digital realm. But anyway, it's all just a derail.

posted by hippybear at 10:12 AM on March 23, 2011


No, I got that. Sorry if it wasn't clear from my answer -- I used to work for a company that resold remainders as "bargain bin" packages, so I saw a lot of that juxtaposition, and in my mind it's always connected with "remainder", which gives teh bargain-bin books a kind of rejected-knowledge feel to them, if you will. stuff the concensus reality doesn't want anymore, for whatever reason. sometimes that reason is mundanely valid; sometimes (as with the several palettes of a Bobby Seal autiobio that we re-shipped) with the suspicion it's something people don't want to hear.
posted by lodurr at 11:33 AM on March 23, 2011


Hobbacocks, if that's all you mean by "writers", then I'm not seeing what the problem is -- or how the failure or success of the mainstream publishing industry affects them. Unless you mean that to be called a "writer", you have to be making your living at it.

As for historical realism, I do see a need for it. It has the potential to keep us from repeating mistakes and taking our current preoccupations more seriously than we ought.
posted by lodurr at 11:35 AM on March 23, 2011


Unless you mean that to be called a "writer", you have to be making your living at it.

I was using the occupational sense of the term, yes. Of course, for many people in this category, it's always a struggle to make a living. And that's why this issue is so pertinent.

As for historical realism, I do see a need for it. It has the potential to keep us from repeating mistakes and taking our current preoccupations more seriously than we ought.

I think this is beyond me. As a writer, I take my occupation as seriously as I feel it deserves to be taken, given the various work at hand, and the stakes involved. I guess I don't know what kind of "mistakes" you're talking about here. Also, and I may be unique in this, I don't necessarily identify with a brotherhood of historical writers. Altho I can see the cozy appeal...
posted by Hobbacocka at 12:58 PM on March 23, 2011


If you're not concerned with historical realism because your concern is your occupation, then that's cool. But if you're trying to have a discussion about what's likely to happen, what would be a good thing for professional occupational writers, what would be a good thing for the publishing industry, for the public, etc. -- if you want to think about things that go beyond the significance to your occupation, then as far as I'm concerned you need to be looking at history. Otherwise, you're looking at data points divorced from context, and have no real basis for understanding where things are likely to go from where they are now.

I'm not trying to piss you off -- I've known a lot of people who made their living writing (I don't, right now, but have), and the vast, vast majority of them did it for-hire, not by selling stories or articles or books. That kind of writing work not only isn't going to go away, but the payment model isn't even going to change much. (well, not much more than anybody's payment model.)

It's just that at a fundamental level, I don't think artists ought to have a particularly privileged position in society. When they get that, their vision typically suffers.

Craftspeople -- artisans -- are another matter. When their position becomes less privileged, we all suffer. Most of the professional writers I know are artisans -- working at a job, for hire -- not artists.
posted by lodurr at 1:12 PM on March 23, 2011


Metafilter always has a hilariously anti-journalism/anti-publishing stance that thinks that it's a techy libertarian empowerment that destabilizes large institutions, but it's actually profoundly corporatist, sharing both the CFO's addiction to cutting expenses without looking at value and the social Darwinist's imputation of a moral "ought" from an financial "is" (e.g., arguments that traditional journalism & publishing houses deserved to die, because the new economy doesn't benefit them).

All of which is just an introduction to this curious piece of news: self-publishing wunderkind Amanda Hocking has just signed up with St Martin's for $2mill. Here are some quotes from Publishers Lunch:

"I've done as much with self-publishing as any person can do," Hocking told the NYT Thursday. "People have bad things to say about publishers, but I think they still have services, and I want to see what they are. And if they end up not being any good, I don't have to keep using them. But I do think they have something to offer."

SMP publisher Matthew Shear evidently wanted to win the auction "pretty badly," having first heard of Hocking six months before from her eventual acquiring editor, Rose Hilliard. Shear looks at self-publishing as a way for authors "to perhaps make a certain amount of money sooner rather than later" but a publisher "provides an extraordinary amount of knowledge into the whole publishing process. We have the editors, we have the marketers, we have the art directors, we have the publicists, we have the sales force. And they can go out and get Amanda's books to a much, much bigger readership than she had been able to get to before."

And Hocking, while obviously excited by her new and parallel career direction, is bemused by the reaction: "It is crazy that we live in a time that I have to justify taking a seven-figure a publishing deal with St. Martin's," she wrote. "Ten years ago, nobody would question this. Now everybody is."


I'm posting this in the Hocking thread too.
posted by johnasdf at 9:49 AM on March 25, 2011


... that thinks that it's a techy libertarian empowerment that destabilizes large institutions, but it's actually profoundly corporatist, sharing both the CFO's addiction to cutting expenses without looking at value and the social Darwinist's imputation of a moral "ought" from an financial "is" (e.g., arguments that traditional journalism & publishing houses deserved to die, because the new economy doesn't benefit them).

Wow, that's a mouthful. Care to actually make an argument to back that up, or are you just going to drop it there and let it stink?

I mean, I kind of with you on parts of it. Back in the '90s I was one of the only people I knew calling out the dot.communists on their belief in the existence of a magic money-portal, and I've steadfastly pointed out the fact that disintermediation can be as easily used to empower very large players as it can to empower the very small. (And I've often cited Amazon and IBM as prime examples. Here we could also cite, say, Ingram.)

It does seem to me that there's definitely a tendency on Metafilter -- hell, anywhere that net veterans hang out -- to confuse realism with a moral imperative via pseudo-Darwinist rationalizations, but in my experience (and especially as we've matured and outgrown our rosy-eyed libertarianism) that's as often as not on the perceiving end as on the espousing. Take this case, for example: I see a lot of people saying 'this is how it's going to work, get on the bandwagon because I don't want to see you crushed by it.' You, evidently, see a lot of people saying 'get on the bandwagon or you're a less worthy human being than I am.'

And that corporatist part -- I'm kind of at a loss to see how favoring indie approaches is more corporatist than favoring corporate approaches. I'd really need to see an argument before I bought that one.
posted by lodurr at 11:09 AM on March 25, 2011


Really, I need to add something. This bit is particularly bothering me: ... the CFO's addiction to cutting expenses without looking at value....

I'm wondering what, precisely, you thought those big media companies were doing to big publishing companies over the past decade or so, if not (precisely) that?

This is not about greedy, substandard writers trying to cut value-generating people out of the loop. Those people have been getting steadily and surely cut out of the loop for decades. This is about some writers deciding that if they need those people, they can hire them for themselves and lose the big publishing company overhead in the process. They may be right or they may not be, but to say it's all about some kind of bean-counting impulse is to ignore what these writers are actually saying about their actual experiences.
posted by lodurr at 11:29 AM on March 25, 2011


Hey lodurr, I forgot about this thread and actually haven't read the majority of it. First of all, I think I agree with a lot of what you say and probably should've hedged my comments more. It's hard to feel sympathetic to publishing companies that are divisions of large multinational conglomerates, which have been spending a lot of time razing the publishing houses, which are themselves often incentivized towards dreck. Clearly the shift to ebooks is going to happen and it will destabilize the publishing industry.

Second, I think you pretty much agree with me as well. There is a lot of social Darwinism in both this thread (e.g., editors needing to justify why they exist) and in the NYT paywall thread (e.g., the delusional faith that bloggers will, say, send reporters to Libya).

I think this is the result of an us vs. them thinking that positions the private online citizen as the little guy and the pre-established institutional structure as the evil big guy. While there's some truth to this, I think that this is a highly pernicious way to frame things for a few reasons: 1) the inherent libertarian romanticism does end up becoming an inverted social Darwinism; 2) it assumes an individual-centric frame that is both consumerist and ignores larger institutional structures; 3) such duality also simplifies the picture in highly inappropriate ways (e.g., the NYT thread conflates editorial and direct coverage; ebook threads like this one often conflate several genres of books and authors at different career stages) (e.g., a lot of comments in this thread come from sf communities); 4) its sense of power relations often inaccurate (e.g., one could see Google as the big guys and the publishing companies as the little guys); 5) the power relation is invidiously simplified (publishing down, little guy up); 6) the argument is made with little knowledge of how the publishing industry actually works.

It was probably a mistake for me to call this corporatist, but this dualism does focus largely on the financial model and on our role as a consumer and rarely on what we lose when these larger cultural institutions disappear (e.g., a community and network dedicated to literary culture). This is what reminded me of bean-counting consultant impulse: a focus on costs, with little sense of value. I think it's enough to say (rather obviously) that new media will radically destabilize the publishing and journalism medias--but it's merely nasty rather than necessary to say that editors never did anything anyways or that the Times's infrastructure of foreign correspondents and beat reporters doesn't have more value-added than a Huffington Post armchair regurgitation of electoral horse races. I think an analogy would be to the way that cell phones have made us accept poor sound quality (after years of "you can hear a pin drop" AT&T/MCI ads) and Youtube has made us accept poor image quality. Just because these features have lost some economic value doesn't mean that they stopped being valuable.

To reiterate what I wrote in another thread: We have a number of cultural industries--the university, the publishing industry, and print journalism--that are stuck relying on an economic model that they don't know how to make work. My basic fear is that we're seeing the erosion of an infrastructure that furnished our cultural milieu. People are talking about losing a few English majors here and there [in this case, a few publishing houses], but the overall effect is really losing several institutional supporters of socially desirable, but not-profitable cultural services.
posted by johnasdf at 11:14 AM on March 27, 2011


Sorry if it seemed like I was snapping at you, and thanks for your clarifications.
posted by lodurr at 6:12 PM on March 27, 2011


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