Mark Terry

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Strategic Business Decisions In Publishing

March 13, 2012
William Goldman, perhaps best known for writing the book and the script for MARATHON MAN and tons of other films, is pretty well known for a line he wrote in a nonfiction book called ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. The line is: Nobody knows anything.

So with that as a preface...

I recently let my agent go and have made a conscious decision to write and self-publish my books as e-books, and at least in some cases, also as trade paperbacks via CreateSpace.

I got some pats on the back about it, with people more or less saying, "Well, it's about time."

I suppose.

There's also been a lot of buzzing going on in WriterLand about a recent letter Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild wrote about the Justice Department's investigation of 5 of the Big 6's collusion with Apple for price fixing. Not surprisingly (really, not at all), Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler weighed in with a lengthy, mocking rant analysis of Turow's letter.

[Barry tweeted to say it wasn't a rant. So okay, it's not a rant. But it's definitely mocking. :)]\

My point isn't really to talk about them or the letter or the DOJ investigation (justified, IMHO).

But first I want to give a little context.

There are bestselling authors. These days that's a tricky thing. I'm a "bestselling author." That is to say, several of my books have, from time to time, been on various Amazon bestseller lists. Hey, it's not that hard. It's about sales velocity, not volume, so if on any given day you manage to sell a dozen or twenty or so copies of a book in a short period of time, voila, there you are. I ain't rich. Trust me on this.

By bestselling author, I'm going to use the definition most of the reading public tends to use - somebody everybody knows is a big author: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Lee Child, Sue Grafton, etc.

And for today's discussion, let's just define them as: authors who get book advances that range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars and who routinely sell millions of copies of their books in just about every format.

Then there are a bunch of other writers. For years, quite a few (well, okay, some) writers who wrote books, made a decent living selling maybe 10,000 to 15,000 in hardcover and 200,000 to 300,000 in paperback, which for the uninitiated, probably meant an income of, say, $50,000 to $100,000 or  year. Good money if you can get it. Maybe higher, maybe lower, but for this discussion, they made a living writing a book a year and it was a decent living. They weren't bestsellers, they weren't brand names, but they were working writers.

Sometimes they were called midlist writers. "Midlist" has never really been a great word because it means so many different things, and I'm inclined to think it's meaningless now.

Now, below the "midlist" group is another "midlist" group, at least to my mind. These are writers who make a living writing fiction, but their books probably make between $8000 and $15,000 or $20,000 each year, but by writing several books a year under pseudonyms and getting the occasional movie sale and some foreign rights sales, and maybe by supplementing their income with magazine articles and business writing (or spouses with decent incomes), they too make a living as a writer, although they're working pretty damned hard for it. I'll still call these folks midlist, but in some ways over the years publishers and publishing mavens called them "genre" writers.

Whatever. We're not discussing breakfast cereal here. Mikey's not here to tell you which cereal is "good for you."

And below them were the so-called "literary" writers, which didn't necessarily mean - by a weird definition - that the books had literary merit, but that they sold very poorly. No advances, or advances of $1000 or $2000 and the books sold 500 or 1000 or a couple thousand copies.

With some irony, I've noted that I've fallen solidly into the "literary" category, although my books themselves are largely "genre."

If we go back to what I referred to as WriterLand, it's fairly clear that Mark Terry, Scott Turow, Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, in the past, at least, were living in different areas of WriterLand.

Turow was living in a very rarefied part, the Montauck, Beverly Hills, Hamptons area, where he can write one book every five or six years, it becomes a bestseller, movies got made out of it, and his books never went out of print.

Barry Eisler, to my mind, wasn't quite in Turow's neighborhood, but he was in, perhaps, a nice townhouse in Manhattan, perhaps living in Greenwich Village somewhere, or one of the better areas of Pasadena.

Joe, until recently, was a working class writer, more or less midlist, probably at the bottom of it. He was making a living writing fiction and he was working his ass off to do it, but he wasn't making a ton of money.

I, on the other hand, was writing a book or two a year and was lucky to make enough money to cover my promotion expenses. I was making a couple grand a year.

The changes in publishing, primarily e-publishing and the resulting 70% royalties for books over $2.99 (and about 35% for anything less), the fact the books don't go out of print, and that you don't have to appeal first to an agent, then an editor, then a publisher, then a publisher's sales team before someone grudgingly says, "Yeah, let's give it a shot," have given all writers - even Mr. Turow - options they didn't really have before.

At this stage of the game, if you're a slow writer who produces a book every 5 or 6 years and your publisher puts up with that shit and your readers - a few million of them - wait eagerly for your book and your publisher frontlists you and essentially does all the heavy lifting, then so-called legacy publishing probably still makes sense. You write the book, someone pays you tons of money, you do some promotion on somebody else's dime, then you go off to writing a paragraph a day for the next five years. Good work if you can get it. Not many can get it.

Barry's decisions were a little harder to understand from the perspective of, say, me, but I think it had to do with control and maximizing return. In other words, Barry got tired of listening to editors and publishers tell him what they were going to do, then doing something else and blaming him for the results. Also, Barry, who seems to be a pretty shrewd business guy, felt he would make more money by focusing on something besides legacy publishing. To-date, from what I hear, that's the case.

Joe's case, from what I know of it, is clearly one of someone who's wildly benefited from the e-book revolution. He's a fast writer, he likes to collaborate with other people, he's a monster promoter, and he writes well in several different genres, primarily crime, horror, suspense, and SF. And comedy, which infuses all his books. He's making a ton of money going it alone and I have very little difficulty understanding him saying that legacy publishing doesn't have anything to offer him. At this stage of the game, that seems true. He's doing this his way, writing his butt off, and making a lot of money doing it.

My situation is different. I was willing to hang on for a while to see how the ebook thing worked out and how the legacy publishing thing worked out. Frankly, the legacy publishing thing never worked out all that well. I never did get the support of a large publisher, although I've been published by some very fine independent publishers of small to mid-sizes. I've also been dropped by publishers, gotten minuscule advances, and had some contract terms supposedly negotiated by my former agent that you have to look at and say, "WTF?" I mean, really, 8% ebook royalties? (Think about that for a second if you can without bleeding from every orifice. The Fallen on Kindle sells for $1.99 currently. My royalty is slightly less than 16 cents per copy. I published The Devil's Pitchfork myself as an ebook after getting the e-rights back, and I sell it as an ebook for $2.99 and my royalty rate is 70%, or $2.09 per copy sold).

But still, I'm not entirely convinced that legacy publishing is going the way of the T. Rex. I think some of them will crash and burn. I suspect, unfortunately for all of you (and me) who love paper, that as ebooks take over the market, the prices of paper books are going to rise and rise and rise, which will kill paper books except for collectors willing to pay $50 for a hardcover and $25 or $30 for a trade paperback. And mass market paperback? Dudes, I'm sorry, but that whimper you hear is the last of them expiring.

But I finally took a hard look at where my writing career was. What my options were. How my agent behaved when I gave her new material. How my traditional publisher responded to my book sales and how they responded when we asked them to look at the next book over a year ago. How my agent had done with foreign sales (nada), movie sales (nada), any other subsidiary rights (nada), my advances (ha-ha!), my sales in general (paper - slim; ebook - improving), and my own temperament and approach to writing and publishing and promoting. (I love to write, I love to write in multiple genres, I don't enjoy promotion and have neither the time, money, or energy to do a lot of it, and I make a nice living writing nonfiction, so my livelihood doesn't really depend on the fiction sales, and, perhaps this shouldn't be minimized - having been published in hardcover, trade paperback, won a couple awards, gotten great reviews, my ego can deal with a different approach). I looked very, very hard at the numbers. At the numbers of copies sold, at my royalty rates, and my advances, at my royalty checks and payments.

In other words, I didn't just go all emotional. And I didn't just buy everything Joe Konrath said (although much of what he says is true, it appears to be more true for Joe than for, er, the average Joe). I experimented and looked at my own experiences and tried to remind myself that I may have been holding onto legacy publishing because I'd had a grip on it for so long, not because it was the best place for me to be. That's why I made the decision I did.

And in 2 or 5 or 10 years, if conditions change, I may change my mind again. I'll make a business and creative decision that's best for me as a writer and businessperson.


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Great post. The nearer I get to possible retirement the more I feel drawn to return to my self-publishing "roots." As I'm sure I have already mentioned, over the years I wrote for and published sf fanzines, and mini-comics and even programmed text adventures, all in strictly noncommercial contexts. And in many ways that was a lot more fun.

You say: "...I may have been holding onto legacy publishing because I'd had a grip on it for so long..."

I might say the same, and also that the dream of being published had a grip on me. And not having made it to a large publisher that dream remains unfulfilled. But it's an ego thing. I hate doing publicity, so do I really want to go to a big publisher? And what are the chances that a big publisher is going to pay enough to change my life at this point when I figure I'll be able to retire in a few years anyway? Slim, I'd guess. More and more I think I'd be better off just accepting that nine books co-authored for a quality small publisher is close enough to being a "real author" and go back to writing for pleasure.

Yes, in my case I discount the possibility of making much money from ebooks because I don't think the sorts of things Mary and I write or that I want to write, are likely to attract many ebook readers. But I reckon if it is up to legacy publishers they will never have any readers at all. Will never even get written.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Writer Company said...

Hi Mark,
This is a great learning for me by reading your excellent post. Because the writing experience which you have inserted in this post is outstanding. Thanks a lot.

4:38 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

James Lileks -- Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer/columnist, political commentator, author of multiple non-fiction books, and long-time blogger (The Bleat) -- has recently been working on writing a series of five novels set in Minneapolis. He plans to self-publish them as e-books, with the first one coming out in April.

9:09 AM  

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