Evolve or Die Revisionism

This has touched on something I’ve talked about before, but I’m always willing to revise an opinion when new information comes to light. Especially if the new information tends to back me up but suggest an important angle that I’ve overlooked. I’ve talked about ebook pricing, but now I think I need to revisit the role of traditional publishers in this brave new world of electronic media. Before I do, you really need to read this article by Kristine Kathyrn Rusch, so hop on over there. I’ll wait.

Ready? Right, then—onward. Back on Livejournal I did a blog post called “Evolve or Die.” I’m going to quote the relevant bit here:

“Publishing is evolving and a lot of the bigger publishers aren’t. Embrace it or deny it, but we’re rapidly approaching a point where the traditional large publisher, rather than being crucial, may become optional, or even irrelevant. What isn’t irrelevant is that readers are going to need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff, and right now the answer isn’t clear. Maybe we’ll replace publishing houses with editing houses. An editorial stamp of approval taking the place of the old publisher colophons, with the editing house either paid up front or taking a cut of the profits, and the corrective on putting out a lot of meaningless approvals is that house’s reputation for quality suffers, and thus their income. Sort of like publishing now.”

Here is where I cheerfully admit I was wrong. Not about the “wheat from the chaff” thing. That’s always going to be important, but rather about the publishing model changing. I whiffed that one. Sure, some publishers were late to the game and are suffering for it. Some won’t survive, but probably the ones that weren’t doing so well in the first place. The ones who got their act together in regard to electronic publishing, as Ms. Rusch’s stats show, are doing pretty well, thank you. The problem with my original position was that I didn’t take into account the insecurities and inertia of the writerly class. The standard royalty rate of 25% of the net, once you break it down by cover price, works out to about 17.5%. The publisher rakes in three times that much. Yes, they’ve got to cover overhead, but even with that they can more than compensate for the diminished sale of physical books. It’s going to be curious to see what happens as paper books become less and less of a factor in the equation, even if they never go away entirely.

So where does that leave you and me? Well, let’s look at the numbers again. Say you “go Indie” on a novel project. What happens next rather depends on a lot of factors. In theory, you could be looking good. Say you’re one of those writers who doesn’t need a lot of editing, and have access to a spouse or friends with mad proofing skills. You find and license some appropriate stock art, learn to use Photoshop or Gimp to lay out a cover, and you can produce a pretty darn decent-looking ebook without a lot of overhead. You post it on Amazon and B&N and rake in 70% of the gross. Not net. Gross. Sounds good, yes? Only exactly what are you “raking in”? Unless you’re a well-known name with an established reputation, the odds are that your ebook isn’t going to sell that well no matter how good it is. A traditional publisher does that same book and the story is a little different. You’re not making nearly as much per book. Let’s even go so far as to say that, on royalties, you’re getting screwed. Yet, even if you’re not a recognized “brand,” your publisher is, and the likelihood is that, in going that route, you’re taking in a smaller percentage of a much larger pie, which more than compensates in both reward and readership. Sure, it’s possible that your Indie project takes off on its own and you quickly become an Indie “brand.” It could happen. It does happen. Will it happen to you?

Most writers I know who have been published in the traditional way simply do not want to be publishers themselves. They don’t want to learn how to create a cover or format an ebook. They just want to write and be read and get paid decently for doing it. Once they’ve become established “brand names” on their own, if that happens, then going Indie won’t mean the same thing for them that it means to Joe or Jane One-shot, and theoretically at that point their publisher would be irrelevant. A lot of them will only do that if forced to, and the publishers know it. There won’t be a lot of “testing the waters” either, because, as one recent case has shown, the non-competition clause in most publishing contracts can be invoked against a writer who shows too much sign of independence. If you have enough clout, you might get around that. Yet how many writers do? So if you’re doing all right going the traditional route, why rock the boat? It’s not an heroic position, but it’s a sensible one.

All by way of saying that I don’t have a clue how this is going to shake out. Maybe the ebook will save the midlist and change the paradigm that way. Maybe not. I just know what I’m doing. It makes sense to me now. Ask me again in six months and I may have a different answer.