Sunday, April 21, 2013

Eisler on Digital Denial

Barry Eisler: This past Saturday, I gave one of the keynotes at the 21st annual Pike's Peak Writers Convention (great conference and I highly recommend it to other writers). During my talk, I shared some thoughts on the choices writers have today in publishing -- thoughts which, judging from some of the Twitter comments I've seen, have caused a bit of upset here and there. Because I think it's beneficial when ideas are pressure-checked by people with differing views, I welcome the discussion, and I hope we can continue it here.

Here's the gist of my talk:
  • Up until roughly six years ago, the only viable means of book distribution was paper. Accordingly, a writer who wanted to reach a mass audience needed a paper distribution partner.
  • The primary value-add offered by legacy publishers has traditionally been paper distribution. Certainly legacy publishers offer many other services (much of which is outsourced) -- editorial, copyediting, proofreading, book packaging, and marketing, to name the most obvious -- but the primary service, the one the others are built on, has always been paper distribution.
  • The advent of digital book distribution means that today, not all authors need a paper distribution partner. Authors can reach (and thousands of authors are reaching) a mass audience in digital by self-publishing instead (a third option, Amazon publishing, combines elements of both systems).
  • The ideal of legacy publishing is that an editor falls in love with a manuscript, the writer is showered with a large advance from the publisher, the publisher expertly edits, packages, markets, and distributes the book, and all the author ever has to worry about ever after is writing bestselling book after bestselling book, while the publisher handles all the marketing and other business aspects.
  • The ideal of legacy publishing is not a fantasy -- after all, some writers have experienced it. But there are very few such writers within the system as a whole. Statistically speaking, therefore, the odds of success in legacy publishing can be thought of as a kind of lottery -- but this is true of self-publishing, as well, where the odds of success are also statistically low.
  • It's important to compare the reality of one system to the reality of the other. Too often, people compare the reality of self-publishing to the ideal of legacy publishing, and such a skewed comparison doesn't yield useful results. The most useful way to look at the choice between legacy publishing and self-publishing, therefore, is as a choice between two kinds of lottery, each with different odds, different kinds of payouts, and different overall advantages and disadvantages.
  • It follows that, in determining which system would be the best personal fit, writers should evaluate their objectives, talents, skills, and inclinations, along with the various differences in the two systems (there's a lot more that could be usefully said on this topic; perhaps in a separate post). There's no one-size-fits-all, and what represents the right fit for one writer won't necessarily be the right fit for another.
  • While we writers do have to choose a single route for a given book (at least initially), it's important to remember that we can choose a different route for a subsequent book. That is, you can do one book with a legacy publisher, another with Amazon, and a third you can self-publish. And so on. It's not an either/or universe.
  • Overall, where writers used to have only one choice (find a paper distribution partner or fail commercially as a writer), today we have many choices -- for any given book, and even more so over the course of a career. If you're a writer, having more choices is a great thing.
Now, I know there are some sensitivities in the establishment publishing world about the changes I describe above, but I didn't think anything I discussed was going to be particularly controversial. In fact, I think most of it is factual (is it not true that, until recently, books were distributed entirely in paper?) or axiomatic (is choice for writers bad?), and I characterized it as such. I think in retrospect I might have done a better job of distinguishing between what strikes me as fact and axiom on the one hand, and what I recognize as opinion on the other (I try to be careful in this regard, but inevitably something slips by when I'm giving a live talk). But still, I don't see much that's particularly contentious in the way I tried to sort out the state of publishing today.

Nonetheless, one literary agent in the audience, Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank, tweeted that I was "offering up bullshit" in suggesting that a legacy publisher's primary value is paper distribution. Because this is an exceptionally important point of disagreement, I'd like to talk about it a bit more.

As I've noted, an author who wants to reach a mass audience in paper needs a paper distribution partner. But an author who wants to reach a mass audience in digital needs no distribution partner at all. It is simply a fact -- a fact -- that a lone author can distribute 100% as effectively by herself as she can with the assistance of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate (again, editing, marketing and all the rest is a separate story; for the moment, we are talking only about distribution).

To put it another way: a publisher offering an author digital distribution services is like someone offering me air. I already have it and I don't need to pay extra for it. I know it can be unsettling in some circles to have the matter stated so baldly, but I really don't think the matter is disputable, either. In digital, as Clay Shirky has said, "Publishing is a button."

Legacy publishers typically offer authors only 17.5% of the list price of a digital book, while they keep 52.5% for themselves (the retailer keeps 30%). If distribution is of secondary value, it might make sense that a publisher would continue to offer an author so little even when no distribution services are offered. The theory would be something like, "Author, we only give you about 15% of list price in paper, where we offer distribution services, and because distribution services are a relatively unimportant part of the publishing services we offer you, it makes perfect sense that we would offer you only a smidgeon more -- 17.5% -- in digital, where we don't offer distribution services. You know, because distribution is only worth about 2.5% of what we charge you overall."

If, on the other hand, distribution is the primary, or even just an important value-added service a publisher can offer, then it makes no sense that publishers are offering authors roughly the same amount whether or not they are doing any distribution.

To put it another way: in paper publishing, legacy publishers offer authors services A, B, C, and D, and charge X for all of it. In digital publishing, legacy publishers offer authors services B, C, and D… but they are still charging roughly X, even though service A is no longer part of the package. If service A was an immaterial service, the new pricing makes some sense. If service A was a critical service, it's difficult to understand why a publisher would charge the same even when service A is no longer being provided. If a restaurant stops offering refills of coffee with the dessert it serves along with its steak dinners but doesn't lower its prices, you probably won't care. If it stops serving steak, you might wonder why the bill hasn't been adjusted accordingly.

So the question is, is distribution more like refills of coffee, or more like steak? Fairbank seems to believe it's more like refills of coffee -- that distribution isn't a particularly important publisher service. But does her position make sense? Here's a thought experiment to test her proposition: imagine your publisher tells you tomorrow that it can no longer offer you, say, copyediting services, and that you will have to hire a copyeditor yourself. No worries, though -- of course the publisher offers to charge you less for their overall bundle of services as a result. About how much of a price break would you feel is reasonable under the circumstances?

Now, imagine your publisher tells you instead that it can no longer offer you paper distribution services, and that you will have to engage a printing press, hire a fleet of trucks, lease warehouses, develop relationships with wholesalers, and come up with a system for the delivery, consignment, and return of your paper books. No worries, though -- of course the publisher offers to charge you less for their overall bundle of services as a result. About how much of a price break would you feel is reasonable now?

I imagine different people will respond with somewhat different numbers to my thought experiment. But I also expect that all authors would at a minimum insist on a far steeper discount in the absence of distribution services than they would in the absence of copyediting. And ditto for any other service besides copyediting, or even in addition to it. Why? Because there is nothing more fundamental, more important, or more difficult for authors to acquire on their own in paper publishing than distribution. If a publisher doesn't properly edit your book, or chooses a bad cover, or writes a silly author bio, or even engages in a giant marketing fail, the book can still make money. But if the publisher doesn't properly distribute the book, then the book will be unavailable (or at least its availability will be severely curtailed), no one will be able to buy it, and the author will be hosed. Distribution is the one area where an author is totally dependent on the publisher in paper publishing, and the area where publisher failures will have the most catastrophic results.

For all these reasons, I think it's difficult to argue other than that paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing's primary value-add, and I'm surprised that such an anodyne observation could provoke controversy, let alone consternation. Maybe in some circles, putting it so plainly just isn't the done thing? It's bad manners to depart from pretty talk about how legacy publishers "nurture" authors, and to focus instead on actual value? I'm not sure.

The reactions of other agents and editors were even more surprising. Agent Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Lit recommended that Fairbank "Stop listening! Save yourself!" Agent Janet Reid of Janet Reid Literary advised that it's a mistake to even attend a conference where I'm speaking (apparently it's not sufficiently protective to boycott just me; you have to boycott the entire conference). Agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg of Larson Pomada tweeted that she wanted to walk out, though she didn't. Agent Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary tweeted, "I had to be restrained in my seat. What a douche!" (Goldblatt subsequently retracted the name-calling aspect). Fairbank also claimed that a Random House editor left early, fuming, rather than listen to my presentation.

(Apparently, you didn't even have to know what was said to know it was bad: author Lauren Dane offered up a variety of reactions, suggesting talks like mine are "insulting," "condescending," "smug," and "dismissive," before acknowledging, "Oh, I do want to say, I wasn't there. I only saw one quote that I have no other context for so I could totally be reading it wrong." Indeed. Why let a lack of any relevant knowledge get in the way of a chance to offer a string of public opinions?)

These reactions, and the attitudes behind them, aren't just immature. They're also fundamentally unhealthy. How can agents and editors serve writers in a dramatically changing industry if they refuse to listen to new and contrary views? If they believe -- and actually advise others -- that it's a mistake even to risk exposure to contrary views? I mean, I think "Authors Guild" president Scott Turow is misleadingly wrong about just about everything, but I still listen to him and publicly respond (if only he had the integrity to respond in kind, as his critics have done him a great and unappreciated service in consistently pointing out his many errors).

What's also noteworthy is the extremely positive reaction I've received from scores of the writers at the event (which, at the risk of stating the obvious, was in fact a conference for writers, at least as suggested in the conference's name). Of course, it's possible there's some vast, silent majority of writers who despised my presentation as much as the agents and editors did, but I think it's more likely that it was primarily agents and editors who found my thoughts on how authors could make good choices so threatening that they felt compelled to warn people it was dangerous even to listen, or walked out as though I was advocating the slaughter of baby seals or some other beyond-the-pale thing. Which leads to a question: Agents and editors, do you think it's a good sign for your business that your reactions to a talk on what's best for authors would diverge so radically from the reactions of the very authors you ostensibly serve -- authors without whom you cannot make a living? And if it's not a good sign, what might you do to correct course and serve authors better?

One difference I consistently see -- and that consistently concerns me -- between proponents of choice in publishing on the one hand, and proponents of establishment publishing on the other, is the willingness of the first group to engage critics, and the latter's refusal. I know behaviors like sniping to your followers on Twitter, or walking out of a keynote in dudgeon, can offer some brief emotional satisfaction, but what do such behaviors do to help writers? I've tweeted this post to the people I named in it, and I hope they'll come by to offer their thoughts. Why not? Wouldn't writers benefit from such a discussion? And in the end, isn't that what we all want?

Joe sez: I believe Barry's well-reasoned, polite response to his critics and their childish behavior is admirable. It's also spot-on.

But I'd take it further.

Paper distribution isn't just the primary service legacy publishers provide. It's the only essential service they provide. Every other service can be obtained by an author without the need for a legacy publisher's involvement. Editing, cover art, proofing, even marketing, promotion, and advertising--an author can source any or all of these for a one-time, sunk cost. Why pay an editor a royalty forever? Some writers spend months--if not years--writing a book. The best editor in the world shouldn't require more than a few weeks to edit a manuscript--and a few days is probably much more common. So the writer spends months, the editor spends days, and the company the editor works for earns... 52.5%, forever?

But it gets even more lopsided. Because this not just primary, but essential service--paper distribution--has never been provided equally. Some authors get the five-star treatment with books available every place books can be sold. The vast majority of authors are not so lucky. Most of my peers never had their books for sale in a Walmart. Some didn't even get into the chain bookstores. Some who got into the chain stores only had one copy available for sale, and it was spine-out in section.

So the thing that authors needed most from publishers--paper distribution, the ESSENTIAL service publishers were supposed to provide--has always been provided unevenly.

(To agent Sorche Fairbank… still think it's so out-to-lunch to suggest that publishing is a lottery, with only a few big winners out of everyone who buys a ticket?)

When Barry speaks of the ideal of legacy publishing, he's talking about getting a huge advance and having blockbuster sales. It is indeed possible. And I've said, many times, hold onto your e-rights if you get a legacy offer unless they offer you an incredible amount of money. If they do, take it and run.

Most of us will never be offered a fortune, though. And most of us will never get the star treatment and a golden ticket to the top of the bestseller lists.

In fact, the vast majority of us who sign with legacy publishers, hoping for the ideal experience legacy can offer, have our expectations dashed.

Imagine going to a restaurant, paying $50 for a steak, and getting a tiny bit of gristle and a single sprig of undercooked broccoli. Wouldn't you be mad at the restaurant?

Actually, if you were starving to death, no you wouldn't. You'd be grateful for the shit they served you, and you'd pray to the universe they would deign to serve you again.

That was how it was in the days of paper-only publishing. Legacy publishers were the only place a writer could hope to get food.

But then a funny thing happened called ebooks. Suddenly, paper distribution wasn't that important anymore. Ebook distribution didn't demand a cartel lock on all retail outlets. Authors could reach readers without gatekeepers.

The ideal of self-publishing--huge success--may be just as elusive as huge success is in legacy publishing. But I believe, as evidenced by my experience and the experiences of many of my peers, that the reality of self-publishing trumps the reality of legacy.

Self-pubbers can bring their books to market much faster, days or weeks instead of months or years.

Self-pubbers have control over things that writers deem important, like editing, cover art, and title.

Self-pubbers get 70% royalties.

Self-pubbers set the price of their book.

Self-pubbers can make changes to their books quickly.

Self-pubbers can reach just as many, if not more, readers with their ebooks than legacy publishers can.

Self-pubbing has no gatekeepers or barriers to entry. It doesn't take months/years of querying with fingers crossed to reach potential readers.

In the legacy system, there are a few bestsellers making a ton of money. It is the same with self-pubbing. But in legacy, there were a lot of authors making very little money. I haven't taken any polls, but I know many former legacy authors who are making more self-pubbing than they ever did, and many authors who were never invited into the legacy industry who are making money for the first time.

Legacy still has the paper advantage. But your chances of leveraging that paper advantage to huge success are slim, and what you're giving up to take that chance--70% royalties--is quite a lot.

Writers need to arm themselves with facts and act accordingly. Is it worth losing 52.5% royalties on every ebook sold on the hope you'll make up the difference in sales selling paper books (and getting 6%-15% per copy sold)?

As I write this, six of my ebooks previously published by the legacy industry are in the Amazon Top 100. None of them hit the Top 100 prior to my getting my rights back. With a combination of pricing and marketing, I managed to sell over 30,000 ebooks in three days. 

I may be an exception. I've always said that luck plays an important role in success, and that your results will vary. My sales aren't a goal to shoot for, any more than Stephen King's sales are (and his sales blow mine away).

But writers should know that there is a choice, for the first time ever. Agents and publishers also need to understand this. While my success may be atypical, more and more authors are finding success (whatever your definition of success is) via self-publishing.

Now, I can fully understand how disturbing this change must be to those whose livelihood is entangled with the prosperity of legacy publishing. Bestselling authors, agents, editors, anyone who works for publishers... these people have a vested interest in the status quo. And newbie authors, raised on a steady diet of legacy mythology, often defend the very industry that continues to exclude them. After all, it's tough to give up on a goal you've been pursuing for so long.

But denying the fundamental changes in publishing doesn't make the changes go away. It just makes you look foolish. And things have changed dramatically. Publishers might still be useful, but they're no longer necessary, and useful and necessary are not the same thing and can't command the same price. Doubt me? As of this writing, five of the top thirty most popular authors on Amazon are self-published (at the moment, I'm #3).

Writers finally have a choice. Some people welcome that. Others are terrified by it and in serious denial.

But maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe Barry's wrong, too. So to all the people who were calling him names on Twitter, or walking out of his talk and advising others to do the same, I say this. Have the integrity to defend your public statements and the courage to respond to people with different views. Stop cluck-clucking about the people you disagree with and engage them. It would be a good way to demonstrate to writers that you're in it for them.