starwars.JPGAuthors love their publishers…the way cattle love their farmer.

See the kind farmer, how he feeds and nurtures his cattle. How he takes care of them, protects them from the big, bad predators beyond the confines of the electric fence.

The farmer is looking out for the interests of his cattle out of the goodness of his heart, the cattle all moo to each other…right until they’re shipped out to the big farm in the sky.

Right now, many authors are going on and on about how publishers like MacMillan are just looking out for the authors’ interests in the battle against the big, bad Amazon wolf. (Commentary from John Scalzi, Catherynne M Valente, Scott Westerfield, Tobias Buckell — of the group, I found Buckell’s comments to be the most reasoned and insightful.)

Meanwhile, the publishers are paying authors tiny royalties from their ebook sales.

My fellow authors:

I know the publishing world is a big, scary place. I know many of you are turning to your publishers for comfort, the same way that Metallica suckled up to music labels when it started complaining about music downloading. But remember, the publisher is interested in you only for the money you can make for them.

Don’t be part of the herd. Supply your books directly to ebook distributors. Even sell directly to readers.

Give readers what they want: open, non-DRMd formats, no geographic restrictions, decent pricing. Make decent royalties.

And take your fate into your own hands instead of waiting for the day that Farmer Brown decides you’re no longer economically worthwhile and sends you off to be turned into a baseball glove.

Don’t think it can happen to you? Go ask a midlist author or two whether or not it can happen to you.
Look at the economics:

With a big publisher, you need to sell tens upon tens of thousands of each book to make a living. On a typical 8-10% royalty, that’s maybe 75 cents royalty per paperback sold. Say a target income of $30,000 a year = 40,000 books a year sold. That’s a tough nut to crack in the current marketplace, what with returns, fighting for shelf space, etc.

Now, selling directly through ebook distributors: $2.99 ebook with 70% royalty = a little over $2.00 a book. Same income selling 15,000 books a year.

Yes, 15,000 is a lot of ebooks right now. But bear in mind, no warehouse or shipping costs. No fighting for shelf space, only mind share. Your books are instantly available around the world to anyone who speaks English with an internet connection and $3. Providing books in open, universal formats like HTML, PDF and txt helps, too.

Now, here’s the kicker. Mix sales and giveaways of ebooks to increase awareness of yourself as an author and upsell readers to something really valuable: Write one novel a year and self-publish in a limited edition, autographed hardcover with bound-in CD extras: Interviews, behind the scenes, alternate scenes, etc….stuff you have lying around in your scraps folder anyway.

Sell the hardcover for $25 + shipping. Sell direct only to readers and at cons and appearances, or non-returnable to wholesalers who might be interested. Production cost is about $5, so you make a $20 profit.

Now, you’re looking at a pretty viable business: Sell 1,000 limited edition hardcovers ($20,000), sell 5,000 ebooks ($10,000) and giveaway a whole bunch of freebies to prime the well. Anything above those numbers is gravy.

It’s what’s going to happen anyway…the question is, are you going to do it now and embrace the future…or wait until it’s done to you?



Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say “Amazon good, MacMillan bad.” I’ve made it clear earlier that I believe MacMillan has every right to charge whatever the market will bear and Amazon should have let them…and I suspect Amazon is blocking that pricing because they want to dominate the ebook market.

A couple of points, however:

* I know it is NOT the publishers’ fault for the death of the midlist–not entirely, anyway. Publishers are struggling to get books into stores with limited shelf-space. With the industry dominated by two major bricks-and-mortar retailers, those two companies can dictate a lot of terms.

But publishers, most of them now owned by large corporations, are obsessed with “swing for the fences” results–they want everything to be a big hit and aren’t really all that concerned with nurturing a new generation of writers who can post reliable but unspectacular numbers.

* Amazon needs content to sell and they don’t care if it comes from MacMillan or JoeNewb. You’re not competing for shelf-space online and that is a HUGE issue for authors.

* I’m not blindly saying “trust Amazon.” I don’t trust Amazon. I’m not under any illusion that they’ll pay out that 70% royalty one day longer than they need to, and when they dominate the market, they’re going to whittle it down to something favorable to them.

* I don’t own a dedicated ereader and never expect to own one. I think it’s an interim technology, just like PDAs have turned out to be. Most people will end up reading their ebooks on laptops, netbook/smartbooks or portable media players.

I think dedicated ebook readers with proprietary formats and DRM are just a bad purchasing decision.

I get all of my ebooks as non-DRMd PDFs, Epubs, HTML or text downloads. If I can’t get it that way, I just buy the mass market paperback. I buy a LOT of used books. Authors and publishers are missing out on a lot of royalties from more frugal readers like me.

HOWEVER, the thing to remember is that Amazon need not be the only game in town. In online retailing, they can be on top of the world this year…and in a heap o’ trouble the next. I see companies along the lines of becoming a major player in publishing. No DRM, open formats, great prices, no proprietary hardware–what’s not to love?

I think a big part of that is the same few points I keep harping on every time: Non-DRM, open universal formats (HTML, PDF, txt…Epub I guess although I don’t see the point), no geographic restrictions, very modest pricing.

With that combination and the freedom as an author to go where the best deal is, you can sell anywhere, anytime, to anyone and make a decent royalty…and give your fans a great product at a fair price. You are not at the mercy of any outside company.

The key is going to be “how to find ebooks you’re interested in”? You’ll see social aggregators like becoming much more important as people turn to them to find new authors, share ideas and catch up on “what’s new and exciting.” You’ll see news and gossip sites dedicated to books and storytelling — like Slashdot or Digg for books. That is where the power in publishing is going to end up.

Editor’s Note: the above is reprinted, with permission, from Bill Smith’s BillSmithBooks blog. Bill Smith is the author of the Outlaw Galaxy series of swashbuckling space adventure novels. He is also the author of Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels for Del Rey Books and Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Second Edition for West End Games.


  1. A publisher, particularly a big publisher, is the platform the author uses to get his words out to the public. The better known and successful the publisher, the taller the platform.

    This platform gives the author a certain respectability because the publisher thinks him worthy of using it, definite visibility, and a nice microphone so his voice can be heard over a good distance.

    A self-published author has no platform. He is a quiet voice in a huge crowd, all clamoring for attention. He may sell his book to a few of those around him, but most avoid eye contact as they rush toward the author on the platform.

    Those who have had that platform provided by a big publisher have a loyal audience who may follow him into the self-published crowd, but the audience will be smaller, and many will stray back to the platform and other speakers.

    Sure, the author will get a higher percentage of the profits, but a small percentage of lots of money is better than a large percentage of next to no money.

  2. Some hard figures from Joe Konrath show that his best single book sales figures (The List) are 5142 books over a six month period (at $1.99 each retail). That’s for an author who’s had several books published in print and got the accompanying exposure to build up a fan base. His other three self-published works sell considerably less.

    Those figures show you’re not going to make $30k writing one book a year this way.

    Any author thinking of self-producing a limited-edition hardcover needs to be sure that their reader base is pretty large (and loyal) otherwise they’ll just end up losing a lot of money. This is rather dubious business advice.

    The self-publishing meme has been around for a long time. The problem is, I’ve yet to see anyone make it work on anything other than a very limited basis. It’s the same with music – all those bands that get big on mySpace end up signing a record contract in order to get real money. Disintermediation is little more than a fantasy if you ever want to get out of the small pond.

  3. The market size simply isn’t there yet for what you suggest – swapping from making the most money from paper books to ebooks instead will only lose you money at this point. Once the ebook market has settled down and everything is in place (formats, readers, market size etc.), it could very well be more profitable for certain authors.

    Keep in mind though that self-publishing is going to cause you to switch from spending most of your time writing a book, to things like promoting and selling it instead. You’ll also have no editor either, so you’ll have to fix that some way as well.

    While you may potentially make more money per written word, you’ll be spending more time on administrative tasks than actual writing.

  4. A lot of misconceptions in the above comments.

    Marilyn says: “the audience will be smaller, and many will stray back to the platform and other speakers.” I don’t know about you, but when I look for specific books I look for authors, and don’t even notice who the publisher is. Steven King could self-publish for the rest of his life and never lose a reader as a result.

    Frode says: “Keep in mind though that self-publishing is going to cause you to switch from spending most of your time writing a book, to things like promoting and selling it instead. You’ll also have no editor either”

    What publisher puts any significant amount of time and money into promoting mid-list authors to readers? Don’t you have to put the same amount of time into promoting and selling these days no matter how you go about publishing? As for not having an editor, that’s easily handled; you can hire editorial services, or you can partner with another writer, since the skill set of a writer includes that of an editor and the only problem with editing your own work is excessive tunnel vision and a love affair with your own words that doesn’t allow seeing the flaws.

    Charles says: “Some hard figures from Joe Konrath show that his best single book sales figures (The List) are 5142 books over a six month period (at $1.99 each retail). . . . Those figures show you’re not going to make $30k writing one book a year this way.”

    This shows a lack of understanding of the ebook business model, since “over a six month period” is a realistic qualifier only when dealing with physical bookstores. Books have to sell well in the short term in bookstores because they’re competing for limited shelf space. Ebooks can be successful selling over a much longer period of time. If you write one book a year, that doesn’t mean you’re selling only one book a year. After ten years, you’re selling ten books; there’s no burst-and-gone phenomenon and none of them ever go “out of print.”

    There are going to be a lot of things about this new world for both authors and publishers to get used to. I see a lot of the comments above as reflecting unease with radical change more than anything else.

  5. It’s all about branding. The successful authors have it, the publishers don’t. The New York Times bestseller list has it and the publishers have been able to influence it with paper books. They don’t know what to do with ebooks.

    I read that Dan Brown sold 100,000 ebooks in the first month for his latest release. That was $1million at $9.99 pricing. People didn’t buy his ebook because of his publisher (I don’t know or care who it is). He came up with a winning formula to get his name known. Make a religious controversy, get people talking about it, 50 people write books to refute your fictional work. More people hear about you.

    Yes I acknowledge that the publishers helped get him started but let face it, he’s not the best author in the world. The publishers could push an author twice as good and not get the same results.

    I think it’s the authors that already have the established branding that will be the first to leave. I can see them starting up their own small publishing companies with new authors in the same genre. Something like what’s happening with Robert Ludlum branding.

    I agree that the midlist authors have an opportunity to make as much money by selling fewer ebooks (and the market is just going to grow), but they have to have a very good plan for self promotion.

  6. “Publishers” cover two things, which is why the attitudes towards them are schitzophrenic. The corporations themselves are cynical and profit-driven almost without exception. But _publishers_ – those people who are working on the books themselves – are usually/often devoted to the art of the printed word, valiant defenders of their authors, and juggling the mad demands of their corporate masters with idealism and practicality.

    Established authors do have the ability to take their name and leave and self-publish. What this does is shift the up-front costs of publishing to the author, and remove all the promotional support and the ‘gate-keeper’ aspect of “this book is of publishable quality”. The tiny minority of authors who have actually made a small fortune from their work might find it worthwhile to do this. Or they might decide they don’t want to run a corporation, and they’d rather have a publisher do it.

    For mid-list authors and new authors, self-publishing is not nearly the rosy dream it’s so often painted.

  7. Just wanted to note that this blog post was originally written 2-3 weeks ago, on the weekend that the Amazon vs. MacMillan story broke, so some of the observations and references are a bit dated.

    And yes, I agree with the observation about the difficulties of indie publishing — you do have a ton of work on your hands to establish your platform.

    But I also concur with BobW and Brian Rush: Readers follow authors as “brands”; not even the most avid reader pays any attention to the name of the publisher.

    Yes, NOW authors generally depend on shelf space to establish themselves. (And unfortunately, that is often the ONLY way for them to build their platform.) Your book has to sell well as soon as it is released or it disappears from store shelves in a matter of weeks.

    But that it changing…and quickly.

    The era where an independent author writes a few really good stories, posts on the web, generates good buzz and word of mouth to CREATE that platform is not far off, IMO.

    A book can have an extended “shelf life” in digital publishing — it is still available around the world, instantly as a download, six months, a year, five years after it is published. You can afford to sell your book at a very modest price and make a higher royalty.

    A book doesn’t need to be a huge hit to have that kind of longevity — in digital publishing, there is plenty of room for titles that take a couple of years to sell their first 10,000 copies. That freedom does not exist in bricks and mortar retailing…but there are certainly audiences for niche books.

    A modestly popular story on the web can generate tens of thousands of hits. Do that several times — build a reputation for great storytelling — and nurture your audience, build it in time, and you have the potential to generate an income comparable to what authors with traditional publishers earn.

    The online community can take an author who is unknown and make him an internet celebrity overnight via a front page post on Digg or Reddit, good press in review sites, etc. These sites can generate phenomenal traffic.

    As for ebook adoption, the process will be easier if you use common, non DRM formats. Billions of people already own PCs, so write for that market that ALREADY EXISTS instead of focusing almost exlusively on dedicated ebook owners, who number in the low millions. (Sure, go after the Kindle and Sony owners…just don’t leave out the Win, Mac and Linux folks.)

    My personal format preferences are HTML or txt — They can be read on almost any device with the manufacturer’s bundled “out the door” software — PC (Win, Mac or Linux), netbook, smartphone, most dedicated ebook readers, PDAs, WinCE palmtops…even XBoxes, Playstation 3s, Wiis and Nintendo portables.

    EPub may end up becoming the industry standard someday (if it doesn’t become unfortunate victim of consumer backlash against DRM; WE know Epub and DRM are two separate things but the average reader does not). But right NOW, how many devices ship with an Epub reader out of the box? Outside of the dedicated ebook readers, a handful. But almost every device being manufactured today reads HTML or txt with no additional software needed.

    I think indie publishing has a bright future. Authors will break out and be successful — after all, if it can work for LOLcats and RickRolling, why couldn’t it work for authors who write great stories?

    Bill Smith

  8. Brian said, “Marilyn says: “the audience will be smaller, and many will stray back to the platform and other speakers.” I don’t know about you, but when I look for specific books I look for authors, and don’t even notice who the publisher is. Steven King could self-publish for the rest of his life and never lose a reader as a result.”

    Marilynn spoke from industry information.

    For example, erotica became a major market through ebooks and indie publishers like Ellora’s Cave.

    Once the major publishers entered the market, sales dropped dramatically for indie erotica sales.

    Another example is paranormal romance. PNR was selling like wild fire at the indies, then the major publishers entered the market in a big way. Sales dropped dramatically, and they’ve never recovered.

    Readers, in most cases, will return to the major publishers when offered the same kinds of material.

    As to the platform/brand, the big publisher gives most authors a chance to establish their brand. Once they have that brand, the big publisher is expendable as a distributor. However, In most cases, the brand authors stay with the big publishers.

  9. Brain Rush says: “After ten years, you’re selling ten books”
    Well, Joe is selling 4 books through self-publishing. All are back-list titles that his publisher rejected. “Total money in JA’s pocket[for a six-month period]: $6860.” – you do the math, do you think you can live on that?

    Joe’s certainly entitled to gloat, the back-list that he self-publishes is doing massively better for him than the trickle of royalties he’s receiving from Hyperion, even though he gives the same books away for free (in a different and less convenient format). But this is just gravy.

    Let’s look at this business plan in a slightly more realistic light. What you’re really saying is that after ten years of hard slog, writing your books *and* doing tireless self-promotion *and* still working your day-job fulltime, an author *might* find themselves earning enough royalties from their back-list to live off. Then again, they might not. I can think of better ways to fund a pension plan.

    The fact is, if you’re a new author you need exposure and you need promotion, and if you have the aspiration (and the talent to back it up) to write fulltime before you retire, you need a publisher.

  10. Scalzi and others more or less come out and say it, and it makes sense: authors want to stick to authoring, and let the publishers do the rest. For this they are willing to let go of most of the money.

    So, they have more time to write and live life and fool around. Who would want to exchange that for the rough and tumble world of self-publishing? I’ve made that transition myself, and it’s hateful.

    What we need are NEW PUBLISHERS who know new media, and who deliver royalties in line with what new media production costs will be.

  11. I’ve just published my first novel, through a commercial publisher, in digital-only editions. It sells at the publisher’s online bookstore as a package of seven different, non-DRM formats for a price less than you can get it at Amazon (except in the US) where you get only one, DRMed format. What’s more, I get a royalty on what the publisher gets, not the sale price. So a sale from the publisher’s store is worth four times to me what a sale through Amazon (or Fictionwise, or whoever) is worth.

    Even with worldwide electronic distribution, all the publicity I can give it, no DRM, and a decent royalty, there is no way in this world I will ever make anything like the numbers you have suggested.

    You’re right to point out that publishers and authors have a commercial relationship and, especially with ebooks, the slice of the revenue they take may not be worth the editing and packaging efforts they put in on their side of the deal (because the main thing publishers offer these days that you can’t easily do for yourself, is marketing, and that’s the part they’re busily pushing onto the author.) However, it is the etailers like Amazon, who are taking the biggest slice of the pie by far. Cutting out the etailers is the best way to help commercially published writers make a living. If you want my book, go direct to the publisher, please.

  12. Eh, I’ve done both. Even started a digital press. Every author is an industry unto herself. What works for one won’t work for another. But I fully expect, based on barely seven weeks of data, I will earn more on my first novel THE RED CHURCH as my own ebook this year than I did from its original advance from a mid-major publisher.

    In other words, I will make more money just in the time it took the book to go through traditional production. One thing I’ve stopped doing is trying to explain why authors should think of an entire lifetime of income rather than giving over huge chunks of electronic rights to publishers. I’ve found it’s simpler to just act on what I believe. Every day I don’t, I’m losing money and readers.

    Scott Nicholson

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