David vs. Goliath: is the best of both worlds possible?

Mike Shatzkin’s unusually long article about Barry Eisler’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract in order to self publish and his ensuing conversation with Joe Konrath about that decision and the direction publishing houses are trending offers some insightful comments on the publishing industry’s future. It’s a little long to get into the full details, but there were a couple of aspects that really stood out. The one that interested me the most was what Shatzkin explains as the reason why an author would choose to self-publish; of an author’s choice to self publish, Shatzkin writes, “This is not about ego or vanity; it is not about hating the publishing establishment. It is a coldly calculated decision […] that says, in effect, “it would not be smart to take a half-a-million bucks considering what I’d have to give away to get it.”” Shatzkin claims it is not about hating the publishing establishment, but in a way, when you use terms like “what I’d have to give away to get it” (in reference to turning down a large sum to publish through a publisher as opposed to self-publishing), doesn’t that connote some kind of negativity towards a publishing house? Is what you’d have to give away worth $500,000? That hardly seems possible. One could (and would) make the argument that giving away/selling the integrity of your work should be priceless, something that would be akin to selling your soul, but then that suggests that signing a contract with a publishing house will in fact corrupt the integrity of your work (which is most certainly not always the case) and IS akin to selling your soul, which sounds a little bit like hating the publishing establishment if you ask this blogger.

Another interesting aspect of this article was the attempt to include print books in the dialogue. Print books are arguably harder to self-publish and market, as the costs are much higher than just creating a digital file. Then there is the question of where do you sell it out in the real world (as opposed to the virtual)? Shatzkin suggests that booksellers and publishers concern themselves with trying to acquire, in terms of self-published ebooks, print rights instead of grouping them together with print and digital and accepting nothing less. It would be smart of a bookseller or publisher to try to get and market a successful self-published ebook in a print version. There is still a market out there (with a ticking clock, Shatzkin seems to think) for print books. Self-publishing a print book can be very expensive, and expecting it to have the same dividends as one published by a publishing house is unrealistic. They have access to marketing teams (usually, especially the case of larger multinationals) that self-publishers simply don’t. They have connections to retailers. They probably get deals on printing, as their print runs can be larger. It is much cheaper for self-publishers to create a digital file and sell their books that way, but print books still sell and it is another possible revenue stream. Deals with retailers or publishing houses for print rights could be a smart idea. I have known a few people who have self published their own print books, none to much success; they could have saved themselves a lot of money if they had just done so digitally. Maybe then the publishing houses would have come calling.

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There is writing on the wall? Let me get my glasses…

The written world is changing. It has changed consistently through the years, but with the recent digitization of the publishing industry and print world, there’s a new word that keeps popping up that’s going to have an effect on traditional publishing houses: “paperless.” Sure, the market for printed works, hard copies, hasn’t died yet, and it may not ever, but some people, like David Carnoy, seem to believe it’s coming. The price of self-published ebooks is what he believes will kill the industry, and he has a point. Traditional publishers can’t keep up with self-published ebook prices, that is a plain and simple fact. Now, they have even further competition from Amazon who is offering other publishing related services along with distribution of their books. Their royalty system encourages affordable prices, and no matter the price chosen, an author will still get a higher royalty rate self-publishing an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle platform than through a traditional publisher. They also allow for fluidity of pricing, allowing authors to manipulate the system to stay on “bestselling” lists longer. And with lower prices come lower expectations, so that edit you’d get at a traditional publishing house? Maybe it’s no longer necessary. Maybe.

So where does this actually leave traditional publishing houses? Not in a good spot, apparently. With authors seeking out their own editors and designers and publishing their ebooks through platforms like Amazon’s Powered by Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, traditional houses seem less necessary for ebooks. Then there’s Amazon’s Encore program that notices popular self-published books and gives them an extra marketing boost. Unless an author really desires to have their book in print, or doesn’t have the time seek out their own editors/designers, why go to a traditional publisher? If there’s a larger push for “paperless” operations due to environmental concerns, and writers can publish ebooks without a publishing house, what will happen to them? They still have an argument of offering the highest quality, but that may not last long if publishers continue to get their editorial work done out of house; authors can start or continue to employ freelance editors just as readily as publishing houses provided they have the necessary funds. Now necessary services like marketing are also being offered by outside sources. Taking all of this into account, Carnoy believes that traditional publishing houses are aging, antiquated, outdated, and nearing being replaced. Can they see the writing on the wall? How long can traditional publishing houses sustain operations with competition from self-publishers and outside organizations? How long will they be able to, in effect, defy gravity?