Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

If big publishers had any sense…

They would start signing ten times the number of authors they currently sign. And here’s how it might work:

For every author currently receiving a traditional print/e-book deal, they would sign another handful that were offered an e-book only deal. The advances would be small, in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. The author would receive editing (hired out, not in-house, to provide flexibility and save costs) and a snazzy cover (also hired out). The contract would secure rights for the print book if sales reach a certain figure over a certain time-frame, as well as the rights to the next book, if desired.

I think this would be a boon to the big publishers. What they would get is a near-zero-cost stable of writers whose appeal would be tested on the open market. Whatever hits big gets bumped up to a print deal.

Right now they are scooping up bestselling indies but at a very steep cost. Most of us would have gladly signed with a digital imprint at a big house back when we were just getting started. $1,000 and the promise of editing/cover/prestige would have meant a lot at the time. And the publisher would get the aggregate promotional efforts of all these extra authors while tapping into the long tail of the market.

These would be manuscripts that passed editorial rigor, of course. Let’s say the outlay for each book came to $5,000 after reading/editing/design. At $3.99, that means a few thousand lifetime sales turns a profit. Surely some of these would sell in the tens of thousands, and one or two would do even better. And you’ve got the rights for just about nothing.

Baseball works similarly to this. Think of it as the farm league. If publishers weren’t so terrified to get out of the business of selling trees, I think some sort of e-only plan like this would make great financial sense. It’ll be fun to see who thinks of or implements it first!

8 replies to “If big publishers had any sense…”

The problem with big publishers is that they are convinced that ebooks need to be priced the same as paperbacks, or heaven forbid hardcovers. But a quick scan down the Kindle bestsellers list shows that cheaper ebooks, most from independent publishers/authors, vastly outselling the more expensive books.

The big publishers haven’t realized that there are higher profits to be made by selling a (much) larger volume at a lower price since there is almost no fixed costs on the sale of an ebook, it no overhead and storage costs. But the big publishers want to protect the paper book industry, so they keep selling new paperbacks at $12-15, which lowers profits for the publishers and the authors.

You hit the nail on the head with your title: the big publishers don’t have any sense. They are actively fighting against Amazon, the world’s largest book retailer. They haven’t realized that people will buy 20 books for $2 before they will buy 1 book for $15, especially if they have never heard of the author. There’s plenty of good information out there very similar to your post with lots of good ideas to renew the legacy publishing industry, but they won’t hear any of it. They would rather die doing the same things they have always done than learn to do something new.

I have been reading a lot of self-published, idie authors lately and have found that the quality of writing is generally no better or worse than ‘established’ authors and it costs a fraction of the price for the books. And until the big publishers start competing on cost of ebooks, nothing else is going to help them.

I think you summed up the state of the biz very nicely, Mike. I’m really pulling for these publishers to break new ground. I see innovation everywhere, from Apple to Amazon. The way successful companies stay on top is to be the ones to revolutionize their own industries. They make their own products obsolete. Apple trashed iPod sales with the iPhone, and it was a brilliant move. They are cannibalizing home computer sales with the iPad, another good move. Amazon was in the book business, but became the leading proponent of the e-book movement, more internal obsolescence.

You adapt or you die. I’m pulling for publishers to adapt. I’d love to see one of the big boys pull out of NYC altogether and set up shop somewhere more affordable. They could pass the savings on to readers and share the earnings with authors. There’s no need to be centered in the most expensive real estate possible anymore. Look where Amazon and Walmart shack up. Compare that to Sears and Randomhouse.

Practically all my recent reading has been with e-published indie books from Amazon, originally due to pricing and have found some incredibly great reads (yours at the top of the list!). I simply don’t want to pay $12 – $15 for something I can’t even share unless I want to part with my iPad. Not! I have really awakened to a “Woolenesque” sort of manipulation on the part of publishers attempting to control our reading choices by funneling the same old authors on us. Finding works like yours and at a price that allows me to gobble them up has been so much fun! Free at last!

Great piece, Hugh. I would be all over an offer like that. Indie writing suffers from copy-editing and cover design. There are a lot of great stories that are left behind because of typos. There are a lot of readers that refuse to read indie because of editing mistakes, but I think that’s missing the point. Writers write and editors edit. But it’s just too damn expensive to get a MS cleaned up on your own. It’s difficult to read a bad review because the reader hit his/her fifth typo. But what about the story?

Traditional publishing isn’t going to win without adopting a business model that brings indie writers into the fold. Your idea, Hugh, is spot on. You’re a genius.

But we already knew that.

Couldn’t agree more with this notion, Hugh. I just finished your Wool omnibus last night, enjoyed it immensely…and all I could think about today was, “Why don’t more authors get these kinds of chances?” Then I realized you created your own opportunity. Kudos.

Sure, there’s a lot of self-published dreck out there, but with the opportunities offered by e-books, there should be more good books out there, supported by a modest amount of publisher-subsidized editing, artwork, and just a little promotion — yet the big houses become fewer each passing year, and I rarely see new authors or ideas that aren’t derivative of something else. (For instance, I’m positive we are about to see about a hundred Hunger Games clones in the very near future, and I’ve no doubt Suzanne Collins is being pressured to write nothing other than more HG sequels or prequels). And as I just wrote in my Wool review over on Amazon, even the biggest authors’ work is declining in overall quality. I can handle a few typos or grammatical errors or a word that ought not have been repeated so soon after a prior appearance — but c’mon, to see this in both print and electronic editions from major, famous authors? Clearly all the big publishers care about anymore is extracting the maximum profits at minimum risk…and with no imagination whatsoever regarding the immense potential of the e-book market.

Loved your review. Thanks so much!

I just read an article the other day on the reduced editing books are getting, how typos are abounding, and how readers are getting frustrated. I hope this is something they remedy.

You’re welcome, Hugh, it was my pleasure to write it.

I make my living as a professional writer (technical, but hoping eventually to break into SF/fantasy fiction markets) and editor, and it’s been my experience over the last decade or so that editorial budgets for nearly everything have been cut to the bone. Editing work pays so poorly, it’s almost not worth hanging that particular shingle out anymore, if you know what I mean. What used to be “take several days to make sure this manuscript or book is 100%” is now “just do a quick proof and consistency scan, you have 8 or 16 hours budgeted.”

Anyway — good luck to you. I’m quite enjoying Legacy and look forward to reading more of your work. Cheers! — Becca

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