Barry-Eisler-197x300Hot on the heels of Microsoft vs. Barnes & Noble vs. Apple vs. Amazon comes another interesting juxtaposition.

Today on J.A. Konrath’s blog, Konrath interviewed pro-published writer Barry Eisler, who has just turned down a $500,000 offer from a mainstream publisher in favor of self-publishing his own book. Eisler explained that this level of advance would take forever to earn out at the royalty rates paid by traditional publishers—and by selling through Amazon, he can charge less and keep 70% of the proceeds.

There’s a lot of discussion about how the traditional publishing market is falling behind the times and failing to keep pace with the electronic world, and how paper is going to recede into a niche market just like LP records, You could fill at least a couple of rows of Scalzi’s bingo card just from this article alone. For example:

Joe: I believe [publishers have] gotten their business model mixed-up. They should be connecting readers with the written word. Instead, they’re insisting on selling paper.

Barry: Yes. There’s a saying about the railroads: they thought they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business. So when the interstate highway system was built and trucking became an alternative, they were hit hard.

Likewise, publishers have naturally conflated the specifics of their business model with the generalities of the industry they’re in. As you say, they’re not in the business of delivering books by paper–they’re in the business of delivering books. And if someone can do the latter faster and cheaper than they can, they’re in trouble.

Joe: You say they’re aware of it, and some evidence points to that being true. The agency model is an attempt to slow the transition from paper to digital. Windowing titles is another one. So are insanely high ebook prices.

Barry: All signs that publishers are aware of the potential for digital disintermediation, but that they don’t understand what it really means.

It’s all very fascinating to read, and I’m certainly not going to argue against the idea that publishers could do a better job connecting with readers, but as often as the same points they make get raised here over and over, it would be a little redundant to recount it in too much detail. And it’s worth pointing out that, due to his existing name recognition, Eisler is one of perhaps a few hundred authors on the planet who are in a position to turn down a half million dollars with the knowledge that they could readily make it back in self-publishing. Not every self-publishing writer is going to be a Barry Eisler—or even an Amanda Hocking.

And speaking of Amanda Hocking, here’s the other half of that juxtaposition: as one well-paid professionally-published author moves into self-publishing, Amanda Hocking—the recent nine day wonder of the self-publishing world—is rumored to be shopping a four-book series to major publishers, with advance bids reportedly in excess of $1 million for worldwide English rights. Undoubtedly, that is going to confuse those fans who saw her as Dorothy vs. the publishing industry’s Wicked Witch of the West.

What are we to take from this? It seems pretty clear that publishing is no longer going to be an “either or” proposition. Just as some authors start in pro-publishing and move to self-publishing (such as Konrath and Eisler), others will start in self-publishing and go pro (like Hocking and, for that matter, John Scalzi). And it’s conceivable that authors could dabble in both.

I’m not so sure that I’d count traditional publishers out of the running yet. Konrath and Eisler make some salient points, but Hocking made some points of her own in her misconception-clearing post the other day:

And just so we’re clear – ebooks make up at best 20% of the market. Print books make up the other 80%. Traditional publishers still control the largest part of the market, and they will – for a long time, maybe forever. Ebooks will continue to gain ground, but I would say that we have at least 5-10 years before ebooks make up the majority.

Saying traditional publishing is dead right now is like declaring yourself the winner in the sixth inning of a baseball game when you have 2 runs and the other team has 8 just because you scored all your runs this inning, and they haven’t scored any since the first.

And all ebooks aren’t self-published. Even if ebooks end up being 80% of the market, at least half of those sales will probably come from traditionally published ebooks. So publishers will still control the majority of the market.

Publishers may be struggling right now, caught between the waning paper and nascent electronic markets, but sooner or later at least some of them will figure out how to make the transition—and will be stronger for it than the ones who end up going bankrupt. As Mike Shatzkin pointed out the other day, paperbacks started as a specialty item and took a pretty long time to catch on in their day—but now everybody does them. It could be the same for e-books.

(Kassia Kroszer also has an interesting analysis of the Eisler vs. Hocking situation at Booksquare.)


  1. I’m thinking the terminology needs tweaking; referring to the old-school publishing channels as pro-publishing suggests self-publishers are amateurs, which the likes of Konrath, Eisler, and Hocking are most definitely *NOT*.

    Also in need of clarification is that the glass-tower BPHs do not represent all publishers and that their sins and shortsightedness should not be attributed to all publishers; there are in fact quite a few “new-age” publishers who do get it and lumping them in with the ebook-hostile glass tower clan does nobody any good. And for that matter, there new business models arising out of the mainstreaming of ebooks are just as applicable to print and audio books; again, there’s publishers out there following lean, integrated strategies that maximize their authors’ reach by precisely targetting the multiple editions at different channels and different audiences. The issues under “discussion” are not really ebooks vs print books.

    In both cases, the muddy terminology confuses the discussion and mis-represents the issues as writers versus publishers or consumers versus producers when the actual division is more along the lines of new publishing model versus old publishing model.

    If the people most famiiar with the industry and the power of words don’t do something about properly framing this “old school” “new age” debate, what hope do we have of arriving at a reasonable common ground?

  2. Excellent to see that self-publishers are getting quality press.

    So much stigmatism surrounds the eBook and self-publishing market in opposition to the traditionally bound markets. Publishing houses and others in the industry still leer at the eBook and self-publishing sector as a sub-par avenue or alley rather than a new kind of motorway/interstate. The business of publishing as a whole has become quite dynamic with change with the advances in technology. As I wonder how the brick and mortar small bookstore will survive, I wonder how the traditionally bound publishing houses will maintain their revenue streams if they do not embrace change.

    It’s good to see more established authors turning to self-publishing even though it means more work for them as an author and entrepreneur.

  3. I agree with fjtorres’s comment above. Language is important.

    Authors are as different from each other as night and day. Some are clued in, other are not. Some are market aware, others not. Some are introverted and want to do nothing but write and eat and sleep. Others don’t.

    So it is inevitable that some will be persuaded to stay in the cocoon of the major publishers where all they have to do is deliver their title and sit back. While others actively explore the financial swings and roundabouts and how the transition to eBooks is going to happen, and chose to self publish. While some do, many authors who’s blog I have read in the last 12 months have no real grasp of the wider financial implications of the two options and are so in love with the old publishing model, the book-on-the-shelf mentality and the I’m-a-published-author image that they will stick with that model for some time to come.

    The point about eBooks only representing 20% of the market (for now) is important however and needs to be taken into account. I am curious to know if Mr Eisler is now only going to publish his new book in electronic form alone ? no paper whatsoever ? If so that is most certainly a strong vote of confidence on what will happen in the next three years. He is clearly looking long term and understand the issues.

  4. I don’t see a juxtaposition here. It’s really the stagnant BPH model that’s under attack in both scenarios. Just different ends of the spectrum.

    Barry Eisler has enough self confidence that he can self promote and make more money by selling fewer books. He now has an option.

    If Amanda Hocking had won a mainstream publishing deal a year ago instead of going on her own then she would be in a much worse position today. If she now switched over to the traditional BPH model and let them set the price of her next ebook at $14 and tell her established readers that if they don’t like it they can go stuff themselves, then she’ll be in a much worse position. If she’s using the mainstream publishing to tap into the 80% paper market while still maintaining control of her new books then she’s demonstrating business savvy.

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