Thursday, January 26, 2012

Of Whales and Publishers

Big Publishing houses are like whales. They are massive, slow, dominate their ecological niche, and turn very slowly. For most of their history, both have had very little competition, few predators, and not much reason to change.  This was true for whales, until a fast, nimble, clever predator, from a completely different ecological niche (us) came in and decimated them.  Now, whales are in danger of going extinct.  The Big Publishing Houses are in danger of facing the same fate. For traditional publishers, the fast and nimble predator coming out of nowhere from a different ecological niche is the self-published e-book.  Many of you will be scoffing at the idea.  For decades, ‘self published’ meant ‘wanna-be’; it was the last refuge of the failed author. Others of you are saying nodding your heads saying, ‘No shit Sherlock.’  Let’s see why.

Publishing books for a living has it’s happy points and it’s sad bits.

The major happy bits for publishers? Huge demand for books, established sales channels, an aura of infallibility and, best of all, a limitless ocean of writers.  The publishers are so vastly outnumbered by the writers, that they don’t even want to talk to writers. An entire industry of well connected agents has evolved to feed the publishers, the juiciest and most nourishing, writers. Even the agents are overwhelmed by the number of wannabes. This means that authors are cheap – even with agent overhead. It doesn’t get much happier than that.

Unfortunately for publishers, the major sad bits are really sad. 

Book production is expensive – and getting more so.  It costs lots of money to get a book into eager little readers hands. These costs are growing, pushing book prices ever higher. Of course, then you have to factor in the cost of a bricks-and-mortar books store.  For them to make a pittance, they add 30-50% to the price.

 Even sadder,  by some estimates, as much as 55% of a publisher’s book runs are destroyed.  In case you didn’t know, book stores will tear the covers off of all the books that don’t sell.  They send the covers back to the publishers to get their money back and they send the books to the dump.  Really.  It is also expensive to beat awareness of new books into the public consciousness, and, until you reach a critical mass, you, sadly, have to keep beating.

It turns out that the sad points come close to outweighing the happy points. Apparently, most books lose money. That loss has to be covered by the profits from the odd best seller. That is a tough business model. 

That toughness accounts for why it is so very, very hard to make a living as a fiction book writer – why it is so hard to break into the field.  In self defense, the industry has had to put up defenses against the vast number of writers. The needed walls that only high quality or very motivated writers  could climb. They need to maximize the possibility of best sellers. If there are great books that don’t get over the wall, well it’s the price you have to pay to feed the beast. At least that was true until e-books showed up.

Happily, e-books remove the materials and the distribution costs. Even more happily, no trees are sacrificed just to be tossed in the dumpster. If that isn’t happy enough, you can get great marketing for free. So, when e-books took off,  publishers were the happiest people in the world.  Their problems were all solved and they were dancing in the street, no?  No. They were apparently confused. They adopted the ignore it and it will go away defense.  When that didn’t pan out, the more nimble ones decided that e-books were exactly like books, and the ‘e’ stood for extra profits.  Sweet no? No.  It still scares them.

Unfortunately for publishers, now anyone can get in the publishing game – for free.  With that kind of overhead, aspiring authors can charge 10% of the price for their books and make the same profit for each sale. The writer, John Locke, has shown everyone how it is possible. Check out his blog on  He recently exploded (no not literally) onto the publishing scene. He only started his writing career a couple years back.  He used social media to get his name out there and, on a shoestring budget, he sold over 1 million books. If he did it once, it is possible for others to do it too.  With no overhead, a writer can probably afford the small cost of an editor, a webpage, a blog and a twitter account.  On top of that, very happily for the writer, they don’t need to beat themselves against the publishers defenses for years, trying to get over the wall.  

The upshot is that I, and thousands of fellow wanna-be writers, are jumping in to compete with the big boys.  The publishing whales are going to be seeing fierce competition. Their very size requires them to huge numbers of books.  For us peewees, that number is much smaller and easier to obtain. Are our books good enough to compete? Can we attract readers? For the first time ever, the readers will get to decide.

Publishing steps

So, you've written a book: Hurray! (I've written 6) The hard part is done. Now you just need to get it published and watch the money and awards to roll in. You have a decision: to publish, or to self-publish.

If you want to self-publish you need to pay someone to make a great cover and then you format your document into an ebook ( or pay someone to do it ). After that, send it off to Amazon and Barnes and Nobel or Smashwords et al. If you want paper books, then you need to pay an on-demand publisher to get you copies. Now you just have to figure out how to let people know your books is available and worth reading. Twitter, Facebook and Blogger are your friends.

If you want to go the more traditional route, using a publishing company, its more complicated.

Don't bother to send your manuscript to a publisher - they won't read it. Search for an agent - but not one who guarantees you will be published or charges you for publishing! They are mostly crooks. ( or so I've been told )

To find an agent, you have to do the following:
  • Quadruple check your manuscript so there are no flaws in grammar or plot.
  • Write a bunch more stuff:
    • A one sentence summary that will make an agent see enough dollar signs to read your query letter.
    • A one page query letter of 250 words concisely and beautifully summarizing your novel to get said agent salivating. (there are websites dedicated to helping with this)
    • One or more of the following: (probably all of them- each agent has their own preferences)
      • A three page synopsis of your book which conveys just how cool your book is. It has to be concise, but thrilling, funny and moving - and told in the present tense.
      • A five page synopsis of your book which does the same thing with more words.
      • A ten plus page synopsis ( see above )
      • A 2 page, 30 page or a 4 chapter sample of your writing. (as per agents submission guidelines)
  • Send all that out to hundreds of agents - Personalized with their name and why you think their amazing agency should publish your book- unless they don't. ( read their blog carefully to find out ). You can send it:
    • By email - either always use attachments or never use attachments. Noncompliance is grounds for tossing
    • By snail mail package, including a SASE ( read each agents submission guidelines )), if you want to hear back from them.
  • Wait 2 to 60 days without bothering them with pesky inquires. NEVER CALL THEM OR THEY WILL BLACKLIST YOU!
After your wait of up to two months, you will most likely get the following letter:
Dear Author, I'm sure you are a nice guy/gal and all, and I am sure there is someone out there who would love to represent your book, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but it ain't us. Please do not send hate mail or letter bombs because we are nice - but overworked - people and we have children and love dogs too!"
If you you are lucky, one in ten will ask to see the actual manuscript ( or portion thereof ). So send it out, wait 2 to 60 days without bothering them with pesky inquires. NEVER CALL THEM OR THEY WILL BLACKLIST YOU!

Most likely you will get the same letter above. If you hit the jackpot, they will say, OK, you're our dude – sign this 100 page contract ( or maybe that is the publisher. I haven't gotten to this point yet )

For me, the rest of this is hearsay, but this is what I've heard said.

You have a contract! Now you are rocking! Your agent just has to find a publisher that says okay ( another 2 months ) When they find the publisher, then you are only 6-12 months away from becoming a real author!  On the bright side – they pay you somewhere between $1000 and $500,000. Guess which end of that spread you are going to land on?

Whew! Now you can get back to writing right? Wrong. While you are waiting, you need to develop your 'platform'. You have to make your name universally recognized and respected. You might get a few grand of help from the publisher, but they only heavily market the big winners. You have to figure out how to market your book and yourself.

Twitter, Facebook and Blogger are your friends.

Rinse, repeat.

Crowdsourced publishing

I have a follow on post to this one titled Crowdsourced Publishing Take II take a look at that when you are finished with this one.

As much as we (aspiring authors) tend to get joy and satisfaction vilifying The System (see my earlier post ) the problem is not really the publishing houses nor the agents that feed them, nor their unhelpful rejection letters. The problem is the sheer number of us. Just about everyone has something to say, a story to tell. Even if you only count the good ones (like mine :), there are simply not enough publishing houses, or agents, to handle them.  Traditional publishing is the dam between the great lake of writers and the vast ocean of readers. 

With the advent of real opportunities in the self publishing world, (see John Locke or Amanda Hawking or Joe Konrath for details) that dam is starting to crack.  When it finally goes completely, there will be a deluge of books flooding the reader ocean. Pushing the metaphor to its breaking point, we are going get the standard bass, salmon and trout - even the ones stuck behind the dam before - but we will also get the catfish (some people like them) the crayfish (same) the bottom slugs (ick),  insect larvae, bits of branches (huh?), and rocks.  Don't forget the mud: this dam break is going to muddy the waters something fierce.   That's going to hamper our fishing for quite a while. If you can't tell if a book is a bass or a rock, you risk going hungry.  So the question is, how do you clear away the mud and bring the good fish to the top where they are easy pickings?

The answer is 'Crowdsourced Publishing'.  OK, so back to our tortured metaphor...  no? OK, we will drop the metaphor. Reality is metaphoric enough all by itself.  Wikipedia is the original, and the most stunningly successful, crowdsourced application to date.  Its store of knowledge is staggering.  It's even got a great definition of crowdsourcing.

So how would this crowdsourced publishing work?  First, you would want it to be open and transparent, second, you would design it to be self supporting, third, you would make it as inclusive as possible.  There should be tools available that will allow any of the hundreds of existing reading/writing/publishing sites to become affiliates with the ability to participate in the crowd.

The goal of this site would be 3-fold, publish and sell high-quality books, create a reviewing and classifying system, let people who help make a little bit of money.

This site would offer membership to anyone who wants one. Any member of this site has an opportunity to participate in the publishing pipeline in one or more roles.  The goal of all these roles is to get a story published. Each person that is involved with a book project will receive some of the revenues from the sale of these books.  The roles and their percentage of the revenues from a sale would look something like this:

Role                                                    Revenue %
Writer                                      base     70%
Critiquer/Collaborator            up to     20% (writer writer can grant from their 50% (agreed beforehand)
Editor  (copy or story)            up to    20% same as above.
Pr-release Reviewers  up to    05%
Post-release Reviewers           up to    10% (anyone who buys and review’s a book gets a discount on                                                                             their next purchase)   
Website                                   straight 15% (money to run site, promote books, publish paper books.
Reader                                     gets great books.

Each member of the website would register for the roles they are willing to perform.  Authors would  put together a team to perform all the necessary roles in the publishing process. All members of the team gain reputation points based upon book sales and upon grades awarded by other members of the team.  Reviewers are graded by book buyers based on the strength of their review and by the number of people who find their review helpful.

As people perform their roles, their reputation will increase or decrease accordingly.  This means that someone can have a high reputation as a critiquer but a low reputation as an editor.  The higher the reputation, the more in demand a person will become.  As time goes on, people will get better and better feels for a book based upon the publishing team who worked on it.

 To make it work I would expect that there would be ratings given to several aspects of a book.
These might include (-5 to 5):  plot, characters, editing, voice, accuracy of reviews.

A vital function for the site would be to make it easy to find books.  People can browse by author, editor, reviews, reviewers, ratings, genre, overall sales and by keywords.  This would allow people to browse through the book lists and find ones that they might like.  This alone would help the good books get publicity.  Then the website would use its 15% to pay for the upkeep, web-guys and publicity for the site and individual books.  It would also serve as a distributor to other sites and channels for the work.

There are details to be ironed out, but something along these lines would likely be a good way to increase the quality of self-published books and allow everyone to (maybe) make a little cash on the side.  It also scales nicely, the more members, the more people who will be willing to fulfill each role, the more books that could be published.   Bottleneck gone.

What do you think?  Is it worth trying?  Any glaring holes?  Let me know.