A Peek Behind the Curtain

Major publishers are in trouble. Publishers Weekly reports declines across the board at all five major publishers. What is happening here is not new, as much as publishers would like you (and themselves) to believe. For the past four to five years, publishers have found growth almost exclusively through acquisitions, mergers, layoffs, and the largesse of their primary retail account, Amazon. All of those forces have run out of room.

As self-published books took off and began commanding a growing share of the book trade every quarter, publishers were able to weather the storm mostly because of increased profitability as more of their business moved to Amazon. Even as they damned the online bookseller, they profited from lower returns rates on physical books thanks to Amazon’s predictive on-time ordering. (The returns rates at bookstores could be around 40%. Amazon shaved those to under 5%) Publishers also made bank on ebooks as Amazon paid publishers their full amount while discounting to the bone and taking the hit on the retail side. When publishers fought for a return to agency pricing, they fought for an end to this discounting, which has pushed more and more sales to self-published authors. Those sales (those readers) are probably never going back.

Let’s dispel a couple myths: The first is the idea that book sales are languishing because there hasn’t been a breakout hit like (whatever book sold well the previous year). I’ve been seeing this line trotted out for two decades, whenever a publisher has a lull. Usually it’s a single publisher explaining their performance in a quarter due to “Not having a hit like we had in Insert-Book-Title-Here last quarter.” These days, it’s the running excuse for the entire book trade. And it’s absurd. Think about the number of damning things publishers are saying about themselves when they make this quarterly excuse:

• They are admitting that they can’t create a bestseller

• That none of their marketing and promotional tools work!

• That book sales are either all luck, or…

• Completely dependent on the talents of the authors that they have historically abused.

Beyond the weirdly circular reasoning of, “The reason we didn’t make as much money this quarter is because we didn’t have a book sell a ton of copies this quarter,” there’s a lot to be wary of in the above bullets. As a writer (the peeps I care most about), it should be eye-opening. None of the promises a publisher makes to you can be kept. It’s out of their hands.

Whatever they tell you they’ll do to make your manuscript a bestseller, they said to thousands of authors in the past year, and they failed at all attempts. Meanwhile, I know of a dozen self-published authors who have broken out over this time. I had a married couple on the boat for lunch this week who are both deciding when they should quit their day jobs, as they are steadily making 5 figures each month. If you go to writing conferences, you’ll run into dozens of silent success stories like this.

Probably the most damning evidence that publishers can no longer drive sales is the sad excuse for books that have kept them afloat. Last year, it was a rejected rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, published against the wishes of the dying author. This year, it’s a play not even wholly written by JK Rowling. And over the last two years, it has been coloring books hiding the slide in physical book sales. None of these things are books. Publishers are no longer in the book trade; they are in the what-the-hell-can-we-do-to-make-a-buck trade.

The irony here is that for years we’ve heard that major publishers are all about Literature, with a capital L. And Amazon is about diapers, and Google is about data (scanning all books), and Apple is about devices (selling iPads). The reality is that all of these companies are about profits, so their actions should be compared, not their motivations, which are largely the same. Their actions tell us about their philosophies as they pursue those profits.

Major publishers have colluded in order to screw the reader, have offered ever worsening book contracts to screw the writer, and have resisted innovation in an attempt to harm their top retail account. Higher prices, fewer rights to authors, and fewer sales channels have been where they’ve exerted their muscle. Let that sink in.

The actions from the west coast have been quite different. The new publishing leaders (Amazon, Google, Apple), have opened their markets to more voices, have paid higher wages to writers, have passed along greater savings to readers, and have increased choice and availability in formats.

There has been some good news from the smaller publishers, as indie publishing houses figure out how to compete. Some medium sized publishers now offer the print-only deals that the Big 5 are loathe to offer (I’ve signed four more of these deals in the past year, and I know of other authors who have seen them as well). My agent and I have also seen hard terms of copyright with some of these deals, limiting the terms of copyright to five or seven years. And some of these publishers have dabbled with promotional opportunities at Amazon that major publishers have avoided for fear of making more profits alongside their biggest retail account (bizarre).

What can we expect to see next? Well, what if we started from scratch, today? What kind of book trade would we build? It wouldn’t be the large big-box discounters like B&N (which just changed CEOs again, and is probably 2 to 3 years from going under). If I was building the book trade of today, I’d mostly do what I described in this blog post if I was a publisher, and this blog post if I was a bookstore owner. What we really need back today is Waldenbooks, with a small footprint store in every mall and in a lot of strip malls. Like a Gamestop or GNC type of franchise, one that people can buy into and have the freedom to run like a community indie store. Those are the kinds of stores Amazon is building (they just announced another in Chicago). It’s the opposite of what B&N is thinking of doing (selling wine and opening cafes).

The Big 5 are going to become the Big 3 or the Big 0 eventually. Medium sized presses that are doing the right things will eventually overtake them. The first major publisher to go all-in with Kindle Unlimited will make bank and survive (and seriously impact indie sales overnight). Amazon is going to continue to dominate in print, ebook, and audio, because they think about the reader first. Indie stores are going to do well because the world is urbanizing, and people will support local shops and continue to buy books that they never actually read. And writers are going to have new opportunities in gaming and VR spaces, as well as the genres that publishers neglect, until the day that AIs are writing all our books for us.

Until then, you can expect publishers to make pretty much every mistake they’re capable of making. Ingrained biases and wishful thinking will continue to lead the way. A recent survey that showed more people prefer print books over ebooks will be taken as gospel, when Amazon knows from their data that ebook readers read an order of magnitude MORE books than print book shoppers. So while publishers mold their business decisions around the people who read two books a year, Amazon will continue to cater to the readers who would consider this a slow weekend. It doesn’t take a genius to sort out who is going to win market share when that sort of lunacy is taking place.

Five years ago, I called for publishers to do whatever it takes to gather data on their readers’ habits, even if that meant giving away ebooks or partnering with Amazon on every promotional opportunity they could (in exchange for some also-boughts data). Instead, they have pushed up the price on the one format they could easily track and use to entice readers to get onto mailing lists. They have fought with Amazon over the discounting that was only hurting Amazon’s profits. And they have resisted subscription services that have seen actual growth (Kindle Unlimited) while dabbling in services that were operating like Ponzi schemes.

These are the same publishers who damned B&N as the devil until it was too late, and then saw B&N as their savior. In a few years, while profits are still plummeting, and publishers are blaming it on the lack of a bestseller like Book X from the year before (probably a rejected rough draft of a play about a paint-by-number artist), they’ll turn to Amazon to save them and have to wrestle with a beast that they created. And all of it was unnecessary.

All they needed to do was treat their authors better, do more for their readers, and pare down their costs. The Amazon formula for success. Instead, they’ve done the opposite on all three accounts. And they wonder why times are tough.


64 responses to “A Peek Behind the Curtain”

  1. Self-publishing is really shifting the control for literature output toward the authors, which is something I don’t think we’ve ever seen in history. I think when we look at market changes, we’ll have to keep an eye on these brick-and-mortar Amazon stores as the big changers for the landscape of book sales, especially considering your second to last paragraph about how traditional publishers vilified B&N and then realized it was only B&N that could save them.

    I know a few authors who gladly self-published after a successful query turned into a giant list of plot changes for their story to make it more salable. I also know of some traditionally published authors who feel like self-publishing might bring them closer to their readers. All in all, the landscape itself is changing–and I think it’s incredibly important for writers on all sides to continue to talk about what they see happened and where they think things are going.

    Perhaps this is the most telling prediction of the future: “The first major publisher to go all-in with Kindle Unlimited will make bank and survive…”

    How true it is that there are those who focus on the market where people read one or two books per year and then there are those who focus on the market where people are reading a dozen or so books per year. It seems that you’re saying the business decision to go against KU is often the *worst* decision a company can make. I’m inclined to agree with you. I wonder, however, what sort of goodwill or relationships exist that people are afraid of tainting by completely neglecting the other ereader markets (like the Nook for B&N publishing partners) and going all-in with KU. Perhaps there are some old friends at B&N and the publishing houses, and they all think that, together, they can compete with Amazon and where it’s going.


    1. They can’t compete. No one (B&N, Google, Apple) has shown a willingness to compete.

      B&N has abandoned the Nook. It’s dead. Apple has some great book people working there, but they have no sway over the company, no room to make real decisions. I’ve worked with these people, and they are in a culture that’s about shiny devices. When all your book sales are through an APPLICATION, rather than a website, you are screwed. Google’s book people make dumb decisions, and when you call them out on it or offer advice, they say, “But we’re Google.” I’m dead serious. Myself and another indie I know were told this on separate occasions.

      Being in KU provides access to far more readers than is lost by not being with these other companies. Despite the rhetoric levied by Amazon’s bashers, they have a deeply ingrained book culture that pervades almost the entire company. The founder is a book nut, and his wife and Amazon’s co-founder is an author. The book division is full of bibliophiles. So when they want to do what’s right, they have sway. It’s a no-brainer.

  2. I’m usually all grins and evil chuckles when reading such a post as this. But recently I’ve been tossing the idea around of querying big publishers again once I finish my current work in progress.
    This post perhaps serves as a slap in the face to me-a wanderer on the trail of a malicious will-o’-the-wisp.

    But I’d be interested to know your thoughts on agents. Especially agents versus lawyers, when it comes to making semi-permanent contracts involving your own IP or books or rights. I’ve always thought a literary agent would be beneficial to me, but a recent article I read made me second guess that. They argue that contracts require an amount of legal jargon mastery agents don’t necessarily have.

    1. Get yourself a drink and some snacks and spend some time reading Kris Rusch’s latest series of posts on agents over at http://www.kriswrites.com. Some real eye-opening stuff there.

    2. Hugh has an agent. He mentions her in this article. There’s your answer.

      However, he was careful to only sign with a good agent. A bad agent is worse than none. At least you have disbarment to hold over a lawyer’s head, or malpractice. Not so with an agent. Choose carefully.

    3. I would be interested in knowing his opinion on agents v lawyers also.
      I’ve recently started querying (for the first time putting my stuff out there) and decided to go the traditional way first. I would prefer to use a lawyer, and yet most publishing houses won’t accept manuscripts except from agents.
      I suppose going indie would solve that, but I can’t afford all the bits and bobs required to make sure my book isn’t one of those terrible ones people complain about (editor, cover artist…)

      Above he suggests that readers prefer digital over physical books, but I recently read an argument that suggests otherwise. There could be many reasons for this through Amazon – cheaper price, some books are not available in print…
      I personally prefer paper to digital unless I have no choice. It doesn’t strain the eyes, it doesn’t go flat. Of course this has very little to do with the actual post.

    4. I should do a blog post on this, not because Kris hasn’t covered the topic perfectly and thoroughly, but because I probably get a dozen readers that she doesn’t, and everyone needs to be warned. The gist of my argument would be this:

      A lawyer is better than an agent until you can land the exact agent you want.

      You have to look at your sales to determine what you need. An author with a manuscript doesn’t need either. Self-publish. Write another book. Self-publish. Do this 10 – 20 times before you think about an agent or a lawyer. (If you can’t write 20 novels before giving up, go ahead and give up now. You are Michael Jordan taking jump shots)

      Whoa! Now you’re making a high 4 figures a month, as much as your day job. You’re getting offers from Audible for your audio rights, and someone is emailing you saying they’re a publisher in Croatia, and they love one of your novels. And a friend who says he knows a TV producer wants to play with the rights to one of your works, so can you give him the exclusive for … say two years?

      Now you need a lawyer. And it’s not a bad time to send letters to your top choice agents. You aren’t begging, mind you. This isn’t like the querying of old, where you take whoever will have you (trunk slammers) and go “Yippee” on a writing forum where not a single person is making a living. No, you’re going to send a very short email to the top 10 agents you’d like to work with (assuming you can find even that many), and it’s going to highlight your sales, the interest you have from foreign publishers, Hollywood, and Amazon divisions, and that you are working with a lawyer until you can find the right agent to partner with. PARTNER being the operable word. Warn the agent that you won’t sign a deal with a major publisher unless there’s severe pushback on almost every boilerplate clause.

      Then write your next novel. And again. And when your income goes up, send those agents an update. An author does not need an agent until they have enough sway to get the RIGHT agent. Until then, self-publishing is the best option in almost every case.

      1. Hugh,

        I appreciate your advice. It aligns with my tentative game plan–get several books published as masterfully as I can. I need this reminder occasionally. Working 8-5 with a tucked in shirt under fluorescent lights has a way of decaying my resolve.

        I know about the forums you mention. I did that dance for about a year, while throwing out shitty, desperate query letters in all directions, before realizing my mentors were blindly leading the blind and we were all hungry. In forums such as that, when I mentioned the name Howey or Konrath, I’d get my hand bitten then get witch-hunted out of the conversation.

        I would probably have some regret for my time spent there if it hadn’t motivated the shit out of me. Now copies of my book are on shelves at Barnes & Noble. Query track that, bitch.

        Sorry. Maybe a little bitter, still.

      2. Yes, please do a post along the lines of the “first 20 books then agent” comment above. I think many of us would be interested in some Kentucky windage estimations on what we might expect at, say, 4 books/10 books/20 books points in our careers (assuming basic competence and some readers).

  3. I wish I could figure out where this self-publishing success is supposed to come from.

    I have four books out, two series–one has won a physical award (as in, an award I can put on a shelf) in a voting pool of 25,000+ people, and the other hit the top 10 in one of Amazon’s root genres (Horror, to be specific–outranked Stephen King for a week). I have people cosplaying as my characters, I’ve sold thousands and thousands of copies, but I’m still only making enough money every month to buy my allotment of Ramen and chip in on the power bill.

    I’ve thrown money hand over fist at advertising, and the only thing that seems to work is BookBub. And the sales tail on that is shorter than a duck’s. Where’s the beef, Hugh?

    1. I’ve seen a lot of authors on your trajectory. Four books is just a start, and yet you’ve already had some success. I had 5 novels published, a half dozen short stories, and two novelettes before I had any movement. And I felt like I broke out early. My plan was 2 novels a year for 10 years before I gave up.

      I know what it feels like to write those first 4 novels, and for someone to say, “It isn’t enough” is rough. But that’s what I told myself. I didn’t promote, pay a penny to advertise, did all my own editing and cover art, because I knew that those early novels would be “New” until I broke out. Why rush?

      If you’re frustrated, do something you enjoy with your free time. If you like writing and enjoy the path you’re on, keep at it. I can’t give you that advice, only tell you that what I see in common with all those who make it is that they work harder than their peers and they don’t quit.

      1. Hugh wrote:
        “I know what it feels like to write those first 4 novels, and for someone to say, “It isn’t enough” is rough. But that’s what I told myself. I didn’t promote, pay a penny to advertise, did all my own editing and cover art, because I knew that those early novels would be “New” until I broke out. Why rush?”

        The times have sure changed. I regularly see ads now for Wool in Books Gorilla’s promotion newsletters and many others.

        1. I’ll bet everyone here would find it fascinating and encouraging to know what you’re spending monthly now on these promotions to maintain Wool’s Amazon ranking in the 400-700 range.

          Also of great interest would be to know what the Wool novelettes I through V rankings ranged before you assembled them into the Wool Omnibus.

          1. $0

            I don’t spend money on ads or promotions. I’ve done a few Bookbubs over the years, and that’s it.

            The individual WOOL novelettes were all in the top 10 of Science Fiction for a while. #1 may have cracked the top 100 overall on Amazon. I’d guess they sat in the 200 – 500 area. I was actually really worried when I put the Omnibus together. It was scary to tamper with something that was working. As the Omnibus began to sell, the 5 pieces plummeted. Would the single novel be as “sticky” as the 5 pieces? Or would the novel disappear? I had no idea.

  4. Amen to everything you said. And I predict your predictions will be eerily correct, and we will all want to know where your time machine is.

  5. Yeah, every word you say sounds right, but it’s all been said before, and it’s been wrong. Konrath wrote blog after blog about this, using the same logic and facts, and look at the world we live in. Publishers are still here. Authors still sign deals. Print is still selling. Indies are still signing publishing deals… Etc.

    I’ve followed just about every major self publisher for years. I’ve spoken with countless names. I’ve seen the numbers. I’ve self published several books. And you know what? Nothing has really changed.

    The grass is green on both sides. Both are viable options. Publishers aren’t dying. Paper books are very alive. Maybe not as alive, but no going anywhere anytime soon, despite what these epic posts have claimed for 6 or so years.

    And as a side note, it’s important to tell future Indies the big FACT of self publishing… It’s pay to win in 90℅ of cases.

    1. It’s pay to win for 99% of traditionally published authors. Most never even get an agent or a book deal, even after paying for editing, going to conferences to network, buying worthless MFAs, etc. This tired comparison is worn out. Let her sleep.

  6. The traditional publishing reminds me of the company Kodak. They saw the trend coming (e.g. digital cameras) a long time ago but had invested so much into their old business structure that changing meant short-term loss, thus they didn’t do it.

    Instead of becoming tech data companies like Amazon and Netflix, they still know nothing about their customers and will likely go the way of the dinosaur.

    On the other side, what are they supposed to do? They can’t build a successful Amazon clone, their expenses are wasted on classy buildings and too many employees in Manhattan and like you said, their inability to produce hits will end in diminishing returns.

    1. They had time to pivot instead of colluding; they chose not to. Read THE INNOVATOR’S DILEMMA for a perfect account of why publishers didn’t change.

      I keep hoping one of the more independent of the Big 5 will wake up and realize that lots of money is to be had by going all-in with Amazon. Let them lower the ebook prices, put everything into KU, embrace POD, and let Audible produce more of their audio (with participation and feedback from the authors). Move out of Manhattan (to Iowa), pay 50% net on ebooks, lower advances, and treat authors like valued partners.

      Any one of the Big 5 could do this and win. I’m betting they won’t.

  7. The parallel is tv networks vs netflix and amazon hbo and etc. The best television is happening outside the traditional three and they seem dull-witted into understanding their declining numbers. Game of thrones , stranger things, mr. Robot, breaking bad etc have all excelled in quality and found audiences but were shut out by dinosaur networks that are not nimble enough to understand their own market.

  8. Hugh, can you clarify what you mean here: “My agent and I have also seen hard terms of copyright with some of these deals, limiting the terms of copyright to five or seven years.”

    The term of copyright is set by statute, and in most cases is life of the author +70 years.

    What I think you’re saying is you’ve seen deals where the publisher is only acquiring rights to a work for a fixed term of years, rather than for life of the copyright (which is what most big publishers seek). So the term of the publisher’s copyright *license* is what is being limited under these contracts. The rights the publisher licensed are returned to the author after that 5 or 7 years ends. But the author’s copyright in the work would persist for the full term of copyright set by law.

    If that is the case, it is a positive development for authors and a trend I hope will continue!

    1. Yes, sorry, that’s what I mean. It’s a limited term of license. The rights revert on a set date, no matter what the sales are at the time. I could have a print book on the NYT list, and the rights would come back to me (in reality, if that were the case, we’d renegotiate an extension. I wouldn’t shaft a partner I’m having success with).

  9. I’m curious about the deals with the publisher only getting paperback/hardcover rights while the writer retains the ebook rights. I can’t imagine the publisher being happy to do editing and such on a book and then just handing an epub/mobi version over to the writer to use with their own rights, but on the other hand I can’t imagine a book having slightly different edited versions between the ebook and the hard copies. How does this work?

    1. Usually when you get a deal like this, it’s because you have a polished ebook out there that doesn’t need much editing. Maybe a light pass for house style and lingering typos. This doesn’t cost the publisher much (why would they want to change something that’s selling well?), and the author can update their ebook file with the new draft, so the two formats agree.

  10. I actually really wish publishers would get it together. They hold a lot of resources that could be extremely useful to authors. I found my best editing and cover design from people laid off by traditional publishers. I don’t think “Big Publishing” is going to be a thing in the future, but I’d love to have the option to hire a team to handle marketing and formatting for me that had resources I didn’t even know I needed.

    I love the freedom of indie publishing (how else could I publish a book with a character named “Sexy Jesus”), but I’m having to pull together my own team. I’d love it if there was an existing team that handled publishing business so I could focus more on writing, provided they offered fair terms and treated me respectfully and not like a chump.

    Great post as always. I’m spreading the word on social media now.

    1. I think we’ll see more boutique publishers emerge who offer these services without wanting to own rights. There are a few out there now, but they haven’t quite hit the right formula yet.

  11. Another great article, Hugh. None of this is new to those of us who have been paying attention, but to have it all written up in a single concise post is wonderful. I’ve been referring lots of other authors to your blog. THANKS & continued best wishes!

    BTW, what kind of internet connection do you have when sailing your boat?

    1. If I have cellular, I use a T-Mobile hotspot. Offshore, I have nothing (which is so damn nice).

      1. I’m surprised. As in-touch as you are with your fans I assumed you had some sort of fancy satellite thing to send in your drafts and things and to keep up your social media.

  12. I’m one of those five-figures-a-month writers — and a formerly trad published guy — who has happily ridden the KU train to more readers and more income than I’ve ever enjoyed before — but I keep waiting uneasily for the other shoe to drop. Amazon is all about change and who knows what’s coming next? I’m not worried about competing in terms of my writing. It’s keeping up with the marketing curve that’s the challenge. I still wish Amazon would pick up on an idea I’ve suggested before: Amazon Max(imum). You pay a fee, Amazon looks at your titles, reader reviews, ranking histories and gives you expert guidance about the best ways to reach and broaden your reading audience.

    1. I like this idea. The feedback I’ve gotten from Amazon for years when offering something that I think would work is that they like the idea (more often: already had the idea), but their teams are limited in size and scope, and they have to prioritize. For a while now, it’s been focusing on worldwide expansion. So the decision is to better integrate CreateSpace and Kindle, or launch in India. Serving a billion new customers wins out.

      Indie authors really need to think of themselves as stockholders during Amazon’s early years. For a long time, Amazon was building out distribution centers instead of showing profits. That expansion paid off in the long run. Once they build out their Kindle services worldwide, and get their major projects at coasting velocity, they’ll be able to handle the tweaks that will make our lives much better. It’s early days.

  13. When the tide goes out, you see who’s been skinny dipping.

    As you consistently point out in your blog posts, it’s the trad publishers that are swimming in the nude.

    I love indie publishing as it’s afforded me so many wonderful opportunities to meet readers and grow as an author. The biggest problem, though, is still discoverability. I’m selling less books now than I have at any point in the last two years, and I’ve written eight more books since then—books readers consider my best. The allure of trad publishing is REACH (even if it is largely an illusion). It’s the achilles heel of indie publishing.

  14. AI written novels? I forgot you were a sci-fi writer.
    Hopefully I’ll be long gone by then.
    Or maybe novels written by people will be novelties for sale on ETSY.

    Seriously, my only comment is that I am NOT a fan of KU because of the exclusivity clause, not because it’s a subscription service. Exclusivity is not author friendly. Until Amazon does away with the requirement for exclusivity, many, many authors and publishers will not go there.

    1. That’s understandable. But Amazon has to get something back for its investment. It has to be win-win, not author-take-all. Two subscription companies tried the latter, and one is gone while the other has crippled itself.

      1. I suspect what we will eventually see when a viable competitive subscription service exists is a two-tier payout system for KU. x¢ per page for KU exclusives and maybe 1/2 x¢ per page for non-exclusive. We already see similar for direct sales with some etailers offering higher percentages for exclusive content.

  15. I wouldn’t bother with little bookstores into shopping malls. Apart from the Christmas holidays, people don’t visit a mall that often, and Amazon is moving into that space. They do, however, shop for food at least once or twice a week. Put those small bookstores there.

    As Apple did with their Apple stores, I’d look for an appealing layout for a bookstore in the larger supermarkets. And I wouldn’t just have racks of books scattered hither and thither. I’d treat it like the wine or cheese departments at my local and recently greatly enlarged Krogers. I’d have knowledgable people staffing it.

    I’d go to great trouble to stock, at an Amazon-level discount, bestselling books from popular authors. I may loathe James Patterson & Co., but if he has a new book coming out on a Thursday, that morning there’d be a display of it ready for purchase at every store. The selling point would be “Why wait for Amazon, when you can pick it up as the same price at the local supermarket you visit twice a week?

    I’d also look into tapping the goods distribution system of major supermarkets. Readers could order books online or at their supermarket and there’d be an efficient Ingram-to-warehouse-to-store system to get them that book quickly.

    Think Starbucks, but for books, and go where the shoppers are twice a week not once a month.

    1. I love this idea, actually. As a customer, I think it’d be great to have something like that right next to the coffee area. I don’t go to a bookstore super often, but I do go to my local supermarket usually several times a week. If they could offer a nice environment for the book area (rather than just having a books and magazines aisle), have a bigger selection than just a couple racks, and offer discounted prices, I’d probably have a hard time not buying a lot more physical books.

  16. This weekend, while attending a birthday party for a friend of my youngest son, I had a conversation with someone who is trying to publish traditionally. I’ve read some of her manuscript, and it’s not bad. Not my cup of tea, but well written. She’s even won a prize or two with it, which she readily admitted meant that it rose to the top of the slush pile.

    She asked what I’d been up to, and I told her that I published shorts twice in August — once with Samuel and a second independently through Patreon.

    Her response went something like, “That’s the kiss of death. You’ll languish in obscurity without the reach and muscle of a publishing house.”

    Since our conversation, I’ve been re-evaluating my publication strategy and examining my current five-year plan mostly because she could be right. What if she is right? Anxiety producing conversations like this usually bite me and hold on for about a week before I realize that I’m still on track, still building my audience, and now making more for shorter works than if I’d gone to a traditional periodical or small press.

    Hugh, I love that you periodically gaze into your publishing crystal ball. Your insights are informative, and they reassure me for certain. One of the problems that ebooks/Amazon does not solve for the independent authors out there though is the issue of reach. We are, in fact, inundated with snake oil and voodoo from people who would lead us to believe that they have the secret formula necessary for reaching new readers.

    Either that or little guys like me are dismissed with a nonchalant “Just keep writing.” So here’s my challenge to you: for independent publishers and writers alike, what are the right things you think we should be doing? I’m not asking for your formula or even a formula, just some hints. Ideas to pursue. Ways to experiment.

    Give it some thought and as always, thanks from the B-list.

    1. It’s a great question, and several commenters here ask something similar. What would I do if I was starting out right now?

      “Write more” really is the answer, but that can only be part of it. The other part is “Get people’s attention.” How you do that depends on your talents and personality.

      I think it was Scott Sigler who broke out by doing a podcast where he read his books and put up chapters for free every week. I got eyeballs by doing unboxing videos of my POD editions (I would leave a webcam on the box for hours, with a countdown of post-it notes, and arrange Star Wars and GI Joe figurines around the box). I’ve also danced in public, taken on dares from readers (when I had 3 readers), and anything else I could think of that no one else was doing.

      I worked in a bookstore, which meant getting to shelve my books there, talk to readers and hopeful writers, and when I met teachers offer to come speak to their classrooms. I joined an in-person writing group. I participated in online forums and tried to be helpful. I went to writing conference that were nearby (affordable), and I went to learn and meet people, not to annoy people with copies of my books. I put ebooks on USB business cards, designed to look like artifacts from the worlds I was making up. I Tweeted in the voice of my first character. I also did 20 things that didn’t work.

      We are writers. We’re supposed to be creative and entertaining. All the promo stuff I’m talking about was fun on some level, and also practice for what I wanted to do with my life. There is no easy recipe here, except WANT THIS more than you want anything, and enjoy the struggle until you get there. Some of the happiest days of my life were those years of writing in obscurity and working in a bookstore.

      1. Thanks Hugh,

        Right now I’m staying on top of my self-doubt/sabotage with some of these ideas. I write every day and my backlist is getting bigger. My long term strategy is to Jack London the hell out of this thing, but between now and then, I’m going to continue to fish for eyeballs and know that I’m the best at the wordsmithing I do.

        Thanks for the tips!

  17. It’s all the quiet success stories that convinced me to self-publish a series. After querying, it’s been refreshingly fun to publish my own work. As someone who works in STEM and whose SO has patents, it’s also shocking to me how little author’s value their own IP.

  18. “Self-publishing is really shifting the control for literature output toward the authors, which is something I don’t think we’ve ever seen in history.”

    Actually, this pretty much already happened to the music industry, led by Apple iTunes. Not a perfect analogy, but close. You see Tower Records on the corner anymore? Indie bands can build followings without a contract and release their music digitally. And the “industry” shrank, though frankly they have adapted better than Big Publishing.

  19. Hi Hugh

    I want you to write that play about the paint by numbers artist! You don’t even have to finish it…

  20. All the data points to authors needing to be entrepreneurs. Whether 100% traditional, self-publishing, or hybrid, authors must continuously strive to grow their readership so that they have control over the success of their next book. Do this and it won’t matter whether there are Big Five or Big Zero; Amazon or B&N; indie book store or Waldenbooks PtII.

  21. On the surface, I agree with every statement here. The Big Six (oops, Big Five now, Random Penguin) have pretty consistently nailed a foot to the floor in order to run faster in circles. They’ve responded to change by doing exactly the wrong things at every turn, which is what anyone does who didn’t actually build their business, but merely inherited a thriving concern. They haven’t a clue how to grow in the current environment and it shows. And yes, they’ll be replaced by the smaller houses that can figure it out. Goes without saying. If we’re going to have a monetary-based culture of cyclical consumption (which, I believe is doomed to fail eventually, but that’s another issue) this is as certain as season’s change.

    My point of contention is with the statement “The first major publisher to go all-in with Kindle Unlimited will make bank and survive.” Might be true for the next quarter or the next year or two, but with all due respect (I’m a guest here), we’re forgetting KU isn’t the only path, it’s only one path, and every book that goes into KU is a vote to put Kobo, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, and libraries out of business. And what a wonderful, author-friendly world we’ll have if Amazon can shove those upstarts off the map and grab the other 40% of the market (I’ll use what our big buddy did to audiobook royalties as an example).

    Amazon is our business partner, it is not our friend, any more than a cobra is a snake charmer’s friend. The notion that all-out competition and economic warfare could result in friendly cooperation is patently absurd. In a world of “bigger, faster, cheaper”, the ultimate goal is crappy, pressed-board books, written in Chinese sweat-shops that break after two weeks, but cost twelve cents (except, if we can’t sell any books because we can’t work that cheap, we can’t afford to buy them, either – but again, a reasoned argument for another day). I think I would prefer the path of a diverse, thriving infrastructure in which to sell my product.

    So, yes the Big five will evolve or die. They’ll be replaced by the next generation of publishing houses or not. B&N will marginalize itself as a book seller through bad corporate decisions or it won’t, and Zon will crush its competition, pushing Walmart aside on its way to world domination, or it won’t. I suspect if indie authors focus too closely on “us versus them (New York publishers),” in favor of the longer view, one day we’ll wake up stiff and sore in an ice-filled tub, and wonder where one kidney went. Just a thought.

    1. I’ve always seen Amazon as a business partner, not a friend. But everyone else spends a lot of time acting like my enemy.

      The big publishers wouldn’t have to go exclusive to join KU. Worrying about how to lose money to prop up failed competitors is a weird way to do business. Stockholders would probably be upset if they knew.

  22. Hugh, good commentary, but you keep repeating yourself (I guess because no one appears to be listening!). Your primary advice for indie writers is to write, write and write some more. All your other advice around discoverability, marketing/promotion are good, but you wisely point out that lots of good content is the best use of time for indie writers. Ninety percent (maybe more?) indie writers are hobbyists and have full-time jobs (or families to raise), and sadly are looking for the “one thing” that will propel them to success. Most have only published one or two books, and are struggling to break out. To your credit, you are quite sympathetic to the travails of these low-output, high-expectation writers. But they would be wiser to follow your simplest advice about writing more, and stop worrying about whether a lawyer or agent is best.

    1. I agree. And something I don’t point out very often, because it makes it sound like I know the secret to writing a gripping story, but the quality of what you write makes all the difference in the world. Writers should spend days and days and days thinking of a plot that they can sum up in a single sentence that makes thousands of people, upon hearing that sentence, WANT to read the book.

      It’s not easy, but it’s possible. If I could do it every time, I would. Hook readers with a sentence, draw them in with characters they sympathize with immediately, make the stakes costly, run the reader and your protags through the wringer, and end with a twist or a reveal or a save that no one saw coming and that leaves people thinking about your story for weeks or years.

      Just do that. And yeah, it’s damn hard. Which is why no one brings it up.

      1. Thanks for saying this Hugh. I agree with you 100%.

        I’ve been following your comments and advice for many years and have always appreciated your keen insights .

        Congratulations on the huge success you have achieved – it is well-deserved. You’re a guiding light and inspiration to writers everywhere.

  23. Every time I decide to go wide and pull my entire catalog out of KU, I read a Hugh Howey blog post that makes me re-think KU. Lol…it never fails.

  24. Holy crap, this scares me a little. Of course, if the major publishing companies go bankrupt, it won’t be the end of the world. But still, I would like to see them reform instead of go under. I’ve always preferred the thought of traditional publishing for many reasons, and I would rather not have to self-publish if I can help it (no disrespect to those who do, just my personal choice). I guess I’m just frustrated because I feel like I’m late to the party and the party’s already ending. Oh well, I guess I’ll get over it, whatever happens.

    Thank you for writing this, as it does help to be reminded about this situation, even if it would be easier to ignore it.

    1. Smart Debut Author Avatar
      Smart Debut Author

      Let ’em go, Liz… :) Just let ’em go.

      Their extinction will make room for innovative new publishing companies and business models that are far more author-friendly and reader-friendly.

      When the floorplan’s dysfunctional and the foundation’s rotten, it’s usually better to bulldoze the old building and start over than attempt some half-assed retrofit.

  25. “They can’t compete. No one (B&N, Google, Apple) has shown a willingness to compete.”

    What about Kobo…? I plan on releasing a handful of short and longer works over the next 12 months (at least three novels and more than a half dozen novellas and short stories) and I find myself once again wondering whether KU is worth it. A few months back I’d made up my mind that KU would be good for short stories but it’d be best to go wide with novellas and novels–but after reading this, I’m not so sure. I’m always thinking long-term (at least I think I am), but if no one else is even trying, does it make any sense to go wide these days?

    Thank you for this post–as usual, very thought-provoking :)

  26. I appreciate every single one of your posts and insight on the world of publishing. I am currently wrapping up my first novel and already planning and outlining my next three. I have been debating for months now about whether or not to query agents and take the traditional approach versus self publishing. I keep telling myself to take the traditional approach. That I am letting fear of rejection drive me towards self publishing. Then I look at your success and ask myself why I would even consider traditional publishing all over gain. I am trapped in this vicious indecisive decision making process and in the meantime accomplishing nothing (well I am writing a lot!).

    You have once again convinced me to stick with self publishing. That self publishing is not a decision made out of failure. That it is a smart decision and in the long run will be the best decision for my career.

  27. Part of the problem in sales for the BPHs is that they think agency pricing for eBooks is a really good idea. They don’t get that people don’t want to pay as much as the pBook version. So people don’t pay. And they don’t buy pBooks so they just don’t buy from the BPHs. The other problem is the BPHs now charge WAY too much for paperback books.

  28. I’ve self published over 20 stories (Novels, Novellas, shorts) over the last 2 years. -Largely because of Hugh’s example and the things he said. – KU has enabled me to quit my evil day job. The things that I have learned about KU are as follows.
    1. Genre is important to success. Some genres, such as Romance and Sci Fi have more voracious readers. These are the people who join KU. They need to read 3 books a month to make KU cost effective. Some of my readers read 5 books a week.
    2. Write stories that people read all the way to the end. You only get paid if they keep reading. This is critical.
    3. KU borrows significantly help with rankings and therefore visibility.
    4. Frequent release schedule helps your other books.
    5. If a book “fails” don’t worry. Learn from it and move on.
    6. You make more money overall on novels vice shorts. It is easier to convince a person to borrow one book than convincing them to borrow 6
    7. I use services such as bookbub and freebooksy to advertise 1 day free versions. KU readers borrow the book. I make enough the first few hours to cover the cost in advertising and then have a 2-4 week tail. Sales, the second day at full price also rise significantly.
    8. Series can be beneficial but they are not critical. Some stand alones can do just fine. Some of my readers have complained that everything is now a series. They want stand alones.
    9. Many readers will not commit to an author unless they know they have a lot of books to read. They don’t want to fall in love with a new author’s voice/style then have to wait a year to read their next book.
    10. I occasionally test going wide, but it becomes a business decision. The increase in revenue because of KU is just to much to ignore.

    Just my thoughts. Of course, other authors will have different experiences/advice. The trick is to write a lot of good stories. Experiment, find what works for you.

    1. Very helpful, GLS. Thanks. JJ

  29. Doesn’t anybody else get anxious about vesting our future in just one single gigantic retailing giant? Maybe it’s just me.

    1. Unless they are doing anything illegal, no. Some companies become almost like utilities. Breaking them up (even as consumers, making illogical choices for this end, with no goal other than to foster diversity) can be a terrible idea. The market just needs to be open and competitive. Market share has nothing to do with that.

      Take Google for instance. They have a massive share of the search market (far more than Amazon has over the book market). Everyone has to strive to be better than Google, which has proved difficult. Google has to make sure they KEEP this difficult by innovating and not getting lazy.

      Apple has lost market share by taking its foot off the gas while Samsung and Google floored it. Didn’t require regulation, just poor management. I think the day to worry about Amazon is the day Jeff steps down. We know his philosophy about Amazon’s management and goals. It’ll be interesting to watch what decisions are made without his guidance. Until then, they are the best thing to happen to readers and writers since Gutenberg

  30. Something missing in the analyses I see everywhere about self-publishing is the dimension of premium vs commodity content. I made television series for twenty years, just when globalisation was happening in media, and the distinction became critical to developing the right business model.

    What happened during that period was that the middle ground in terms of production values, budgets and quality contracted. High-end content with top values did well; low-end content produced quickly and cheaply, and sold by the pound did well.

    It may be important for authors to understand where they mean to be before taking on board the advice that’s here and elsewhere. If they’re in the ‘pile-em-high’ commodity category, they need to do produce fast and cheaply. We already see Mills & Boon-type factories of multiple writers out there, producing at a ferocious rate at low cost. The product is marketed partly on price. This is the right way to set up in the commodity game.

    The premium end of a market is different. Quality in terms of production values and content is everything. This doesn’t come cheap and it certainly won’t come fast. For that reason, it’s wrong for the content creator to aim to churn out material quickly, and it’s wrong to skimp on any part of the production process. A big investment, sure.

    You could say that literary fiction is by its nature at the premium end of the spectrum but it would be wrong to say that commercial genre fiction is always a commodity. Quality genre fiction exists, though commodity fi9ction accounts for most self-publishing, I’d guess.

    This understanding has helped me enormously. As an author, I’m in a genre, sure, but without doubt I’m aiming for the quality end. It would be wrong for me to write any faster or cut corners in terms of production values. Knowing this means I don;t have to beat myself up for not following the common advice to stack ’em high. This understanding also helps with marketing. High-end products will always be harder to market. On the other hand, if you find your market, the pay-off will be large.

    Interestingly, the commodity/premium distinction matters greatly for questions of rights and contracts. A premium product will have a very long shelf-life (I have programmes still being aired that I made twenty years ago). Short-term licences of five years or so make real sense in that situation and were normal for TV. Commodity products have a much shorter life, and it’s rarely worth bothering about what happens to them after the first few years.

    My 2 cents.

    Many thanks for a great blog, Hugh, and to all the contributors. Valuable stuff.

  31. A great piece, as always. I’m a British author and the view from these coasts in the same-but-different. It’s different in that Big Publishing in London is in fact more nimble and more experimental than in the US. Over here, people do experiment with ebook-launch first, or ditching the hardback, or £0.99 type pricing. Those things can & do happen without causing heart attacks. And it isn’t just me who thinks this: I recently spoke to an American publisher who spent most of his career in Manhattan then shifted over to take a very senior post at the London office of a Big 5 publisher. He confirmed my view that there is a lot more experimentation here than there – and he strongly preferred working in the UK for that reason.

    So much for the difference. But the UK industry does still follow its US counterpart in very many respects. In particular, I’m very struck by the number of trad authors in the UK who are now in almost open opposition to the publishers who are still mostly slapping high prices on an ebook at launch. I simply do not understand any rationale for doing this. The conventional justification is that high ebook prices are necessary to defend the value of the book – but Hugh H & Data Guy have pretty much blown that arguments to pieces. More than 80% of the UK top 500 is priced at <£4.00 (think $5.49 or less) . . . so sticking a £7.99 launch price in an ebook is basically dooming that book to insignificance. Crazy.

    I've put a longer rant about all that here – http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/ebook-pricing-big5/ – but thanks, Hugh, for continuing to shout about these subjects. You do a magnificent job.

  32. I’ll chime in from the reader’s perspective….it’s all about price, price, and price.

    I’ve got a “want-to-read” list of a about 200 books. I read about 80-100 books per year, during which I probably discover an equal number of new books which look interesting (meaning that my list never gets shorter). I refuse to buy any book priced over $5….anything more expensive than that I check out from the library or wait until I can find a used print copy.

    To put it simply, the rise of self-publishing has led to an explosion of new content, to the point that the supply of reading material is now growing faster than demand.

    The reason the Big 5 are going down the tubes for the simple reason that they continue to price books as they did twenty years ago, i.e. too high. Why pay $30 for a single hardback when you can get 5-10 good books for the same amount of money?

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