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.

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