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Memo to publishers: Remind us why you exist again?

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As more authors choose to do an end-run around the traditional book business by going the self-publishing route, traditional publishers are finding it harder and harder to justify their existence. While some have risen to the industry’s defence — arguing that a good publisher helps refine a book, or acts as a curator by filtering out the lower-quality content — others are ready to do away with them altogether. In the latter group are authors like entrepreneur James Altucher, who argues that everyone needs to become a self-publisher, and J.A. Konrath, who says publishers are tied to a “broken, outdated and increasingly irrelevant business model.”

Altucher, who has been a financial analyst, a stock trader and founded several technology companies over the years, says that anyone who is in business or is a writer of any kind — including bloggers — should publish their own books. E-books are “the new business card,” he says. And why self-publish? Among other things, Altucher argues that the marketing value publishers provide is virtually wortheless, that writers have more control over their books and keep more of the revenue when they self-publish, and that author advances are going to zero as margins in the publishing industry come under pressure.

Konrath, meanwhile, hits many of the same points in his recent comments about the lack of value that publishers provide — especially for authors who already have an audience and are willing to design and promote their own books. Konrath made his comments in response to a profile of his former publisher, who he said were “dedicated, talented professionals” working in a broken and outdated industry.

Services publishers provide are increasingly unnecessary

Authors who have defended their publishers, including one we wrote about recently who made the decision not to self-publish her novel, argue that good publishers provide a number of services both for authors and for the book business in general — including the “curation” of new books, where publishers discard the dross and focus on the best. But Konrath says this is increasingly unnecessary:

Curation is no longer important. Readers are very capable of finding ebooks that interest them (the same way they can find YouTube videos, websites, and TV shows that interest them.) They no longer need to be told by a publisher, “This is worthy.” They can make that call on their own.

The author also notes that by acting as gatekeepers, publishers miss a lot of potentially good books — including his own. While his former publisher released one of his books in several countries, Konrath says they passed on two subsequent titles: the one that they promoted has made about $60,000 in three years, while the two that the publisher decided not to release have brought in four times that amount in just two years. Konrath and Altucher both note that traditional publishers still take a substantial proportion of the revenue from a book — over 50 percent in many cases — for doing relatively little. Says Konrath:

I understand Grand Central has overhead. But as an author, why should I care? I can hire out for editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design, and those are fixed, sunk costs. Once those are paid, I can earn 70% on a self-pubbed ebook. Plus, I can set my own price. Lower prices sell more copies.

Publishers are still thinking like gatekeepers

Konrath also makes the point that many traditional publishers seem to spend most of their time trying to promote the sale of printed books, and as a result are distorting or not taking advantage of the market for e-books — including pricing them too high, as we’ve pointed out in the past. This kind of behavior, he says, feels more like an industry that is trying to protect its existing business model at the expense of its authors:

Originally, the purpose of a publisher was to connect writers with readers. Lately, publishers are more concerned with selling as many pieces of paper as possible. Ebooks are priced high to protect paper sales. The agency model was forced on Amazon is to protect paper sales. Windowing is to protect paper sales. If publishers truly wanted to connect writers and readers, there is no better way to do it than digitally.

We’ve written a number of times about the disruption the publishing business is undergoing, much of which is coming from Amazon (s amzn) — both through its Kindle-based self-publishing features, and through its increasingly aggressive moves to bolster its own status as a publisher, by signing authors like Tim Ferriss. Every few months there seems to be a new self-publishing success story, whether it’s young-adult author Amanda Hocking with her $2 million in revenue or million-selling author John Locke.

The main point both Altucher and Konrath are making, I think, is that traditional publishers who want to remain in business are going to have to reconsider a lot of fundamental aspects of their current model — including their existing fee structure — and try harder to make the case to authors that they serve a purpose at all. As Konrath says: “Writers are essential. Readers are essential. Publishers are not.” And if you are no longer essential to the process, your job just got a lot harder.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users David Daniels and Jeremy Mates

31 Responses to “Memo to publishers: Remind us why you exist again?”

  1. Frosty Wooldridge

    As an author of 11 books, some published by regular publishers and others self-published and all on Kindle, I am thankful for the 21st century and Internet for publishing. For far too long, zinc-hearted and lazy publishers have trashed countless talented writers and did it with relish. Same with agents. Today, great writers will eventually end the publishers’ monopoly. It couldn’t come soon enough from my stand point. My latest book is selling like hot cakes but I couldn’t get one regular publisher to touch it: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World. If you look on Amazon, you’ll see extraordinary endorsements by readers. My book would not have seen the light of day if not for self-publishing and Kindle. To the main stream publishers, I say, “Eat my dust!” Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle adventurer

  2. Renee Pierce Williams

    Even though saying you have been picked up by a reputable publisher still has it’s allure, I don’t think it’s necessary to try and appeal to an industry that is more fascinated with celebrities. Using the social media route will let you know where u stand as a writer and self-publishing allows you to retain the rights to YOUR work.

  3. Why are self-publishing evangelists so intent on continually going on about Publishers being irrelevant or dead. If you truly believe that why not just leave to die out naturally? Why continually ask publishers to justify their existence?

    If publishers are really dead why then have Amazon setup a publishing side to their business and going out to sign well known authors with a very similar business model to existing publishers.

    As a publisher I agree the current business model is out-dated in the face of the changing world of publishing which is why we are changing and constantly examining what we do and how we do it as the new world evolves. I have nothing against self-publishing it works for some but going by the number of submissions and enquiries we receive there are still plenty of authors who value what a publisher can add to their book as a finished article in both eBook and printed form.

  4. Well, hardly. The reality is that most people who publish their own books are not ‘authors’ at all, but creators of dreck. The fact that very few writers have achieved fortune through self publishing, out of the many millions now rushing to hit ‘publish’ prove the rule. Those writers are, to a one, writers of pulp fiction that are mostly poor imitations of mainstream successes (e.g. Amanda Hocking and her rip-offs of Twilight). So far, the great literary talent that self publishing was meant to unleash has yet to emerge.

    And if anybody needed proof that publishers still have clout, the fact that Amazon is looking to buy bricks and mortar should give them pause. The reality is that e-only books don’t have the reach that e-books plus a physical presence, plus the expertise of publishers well versed in dealing with Hollywood, distributors and foreign rights can give them. This whole self publishing hype is just wishful thinking on the part of people who have been excluded because they don’t write very well.

    • Peter Winkler

      Very few writers achieve fortune through traditional publishing either. Amanda Hocking writes what you call dreck, but when her self-published books became successful enough, St. Martin’s Press, one of those beloved curators of which you are so enamored, signed her up in a $2 million deal. There goes your premise. The importance of physical books is fast diminishing, making the distribuive value of traditional publishers irrelevant. You have a very rosy view of what you think publishers do, unsullied by any real experience with them as an author.

  5. orna o brien

    So when do self published authors write?! Managing freelancers, managing finance,being active on social media, selling rights, researching,PR, customer care, and so on all takes time. Oh and that’s why publishers are successful. Most folk can do most jobs (ok brain surgery excepted), but we all choose a career and get expert at it.

  6. johnmarshall

    Caveat emptor folks. Without a publisher what do we get, a manifesto on the topic of choice? Mr. Altucher has obviously taken the hard work from someone else, insert marketing efforts here, to then self publish to the established market. Well Mr. Altucher, it seems to me you are taking others hard work for your gain. Mr Altucher, an advocate of never going to college or owning a home and now, why do you need a publisher. Honestly why anyone would read or listen to this guys amazes me!

  7. Interesting conversation here in the comments. I co-authored a book 15 years ago that has done very well for Random House ever since. Now they want to release an ebook, and are offering us only 25% royalties. As someone who has self-published two books in the meantime for which I’m earning 70% ebook royalties, this is not a negotiation, it’s an F-U from Random.

    Even back in the day we hired our own publicist (and editor), because the publisher was offering us nothing. And now they just seem like they’re living on another planet. I’m not always in agreement with Konrath, but hey, I’m a writer and I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to earn my living that way. It is now more possible than ever, but it doesn’t come easy.

  8. Pete Simon

    “Publishing” isn’t a monolithic entity. There are so many nooks and crannies in the world of “publishing” that ANY generalization about the entire ecosystem is bound to be incomplete and thus inaccurate. Having said that, I’ll make a generalization of my own: it’s crazy to assert that “curation” is no longer important. Readers cannot and will not find their way to emerging writers and thinkers without *some* form of curation / advocacy. Maybe it’ll take some other form than the current model, but there are too many writers & thinkers out there who have something valuable to say, or whose manner of expressing what they say is sublime, who nonetheless cannot play the part of self-promoter, as folks such as Konrath, Godin, or Ferris can. Maybe they can’t do it because they’re introverts, or simply because they’re not great public speakers. So, in order to be noticed, and to be read by a wide audience, some sort of advocacy of their work by others will need to happen. And while fan-base fervor sometimes rises to the challenge, more often a publicly-known entity or person making the case is the push that’s needed to transform that work from a worthy-but-forgotten effort to a widely-read and appreciated book.

    And I’m sorry, but any writer who dismisses the value of a good editor so cavalierly has obviously never worked with a good editor. Too bad for him/her, but that doesn’t justify throwing the entire profession under the proverbial bus.

    • Peter Winkler

      Publishers only promote the small number of books that they acquire with six-figure advances. The other titles they publish receive little or no promotion or advertising and are left to flounder. Publishers expect the writer to promote themselves, which they are unable to do. So, publishers do nothing to bring most of their titles to the attention of the reader who might enjoy them. Therefore, all but a handful of authors may as well self-publish.

  9. It sounds like Altucher never worked with a talented editor. Most writers have valuable knowledge or terrific stories but cannot “write.” Brilliant editors make them stars.

    • Peter Winkler

      What a bunch of bloody nonsense. If most writers can’t write and the editors are the real ggeniuses, why not dispense with writers entirely and just let those supposedly fantastic editors write the books?

      • Because different people bring different things to the table. Editors might not be great researchers or creative enough to create fictional worlds, but they can see where writers need to be pushed or held back or encouraged or told to move on so that their vision can be better communicated to a reader. Even great writers need great editors. (Written as someone who has worked professionally as both an editor and a writer.)

  10. Dani Fankhauser

    Being a gatekeeper and only allowing quality pieces through worked when books needed to be mass produced to make any money. Since that is passed, not every book needs to be a blockbuster (just like music, movie) plus, it’s more and more about relevance rather than quality. Many people will read a highly relevant book because it covers something that interests them and it doesn’t have to be the greatest piece of literature. That’s why they’ll go for self-publishing.

  11. Yes, this is something that transcends books to music and movies and more. The problem is, we have industries and their cohorts unable to figure out how to promote themselves, and authors, especially those who feel they above it, simply aren’t willing to share the risk of self promotion. The games have changed and lots of excellent work will never see the light of day because artists often are ill equipped to do the work needed to get the coverage.

  12. Jim Kukral

    Choosing to go the traditional publishing route is just a bad business model. No way around it. As Konrath said in another place, “What happens when there are many ereaders as there are mp3 players?” He’s right. You’d have to be crazy to be locked into a deal with an old-school publisher right now.

    Digital books are the future, and self-publishing will create new opportunities for talent just like YouTube did for comedians, actors and musicians.

  13. Mike Craig

    I disagree on one point. I just purchased a self published book from Barnes and Noble and I have to say it was the most poorly written piece of junk ever! Without a publisher, the reader is left to fend for himself, weeding out the crap from the “I think I know it All” wannabee authors too cheap to hire an editor or even a proof reader. I agree the model needs revising, but to throw the “baby out with the bath water?” Bad idea.

  14. Speaking as a publisher, the main reason eBooks are only slightly less than printed books is because the largest cost to the publisher is generally the author advance (with a bigger name author). The cost of manufacturing a paperback book is only about $ .45 per copy. A hardcover runs about $ 1.50 per copy… the total manufacturing cost is a relatively small part of the cost of publishing a book. The other big costs are promotion; again depending on the level or the title.