The State of the Industry

Over the last ten to fifteen years, the publishing industry has undergone a massive shift from print to digital and from the east coast to the west coast. Understanding this shift is critical for anyone working in the field or who wishes to. Taking stock can be difficult. All manner of publishing has been greatly disrupted, but it’s often hard to see because what has changed is what’s now missing from our lives. And these missing things have not disappeared all at once. Rather, it’s been a gradual vanishing.

Your glovebox is no longer crowded with maps. The lowest bookshelf in the living room no longer sags under a full set of encyclopedia. There is no phone book in the top kitchen drawer. Manuals no longer come with every device. How-to books have gone away. Cookbooks as well. Driveways are no longer dotted with newspapers. And the daily commute sees far more people staring at screens rather than anything printed on paper.

There are exceptions in every household, of course. But for most consumers, the GPS-enabled smartphone has obviated the need for maps. Wikipedia and Google replaced the encyclopedia. We connect via social media, not phonebooks. Manuals are now online PDFs. The newspaper is our Facebook and Twitter feeds. To learn how to do practically anything, we turn to YouTube. Recipes are searched for online. And well over half of fiction reading has gone digital.

Publishing is all of these things. Publishing was even the little booklets that lined our CD and DVD cases, which have largely gone away. We don’t think of all of these printed artifacts as publishing, but they were. They not only required printing, they required copywriters, editors, and layout designers. Those who used to do these jobs now work in digital spaces. And this has been the great shift in publishing, from physical to digital. And the center of publishing — New York and the east coast — is now the west coast. The Big 5 of publishing is now better thought of as: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.

This doesn’t sit well with those formerly in power, but in just about every measurable way, these have been great developments. Digital is easier to spread, which increases information equality. It’s also better for the environment, not just in paper consumption but in the polluting delivery costs. Ideas are easier to generate, which has increased the diversity of voices. News has become crowdsourced, which reduces the corrupting power of those who formerly had monopoly control of information. With a camera and a broadcast booth in every pocket, the fears of Big Brother have turned into the mediating effect of billions of Little Brothers. We report on abuses of power, taking to Twitterverse to pressure corporations, and sharing videos to police the police. And we are far more accurate and informative taken as a whole than we are on relying on lone experts.

It’s difficult to find anything to complain about with this transition, unless you are a middleman who no longer provides a service commensurable with your cost.

This is an important point, the act of offering a service that matches your cost. It gets to the heart of the disruptive force of digital publishing, and it cuts through much of the confusing rhetoric that gets bandied about. Looking just at book publishing, which has been my domain as a bookseller, a writer, and a publisher, we can see how this plays out. We can even trace the sources of these discomforts back through a trail of complaint. There is much lamenting these days, almost entirely by those who no longer provide a service commensurable with their cost, and understanding this can allow us to see through the rhetoric and understand what is really going on in the industry.

Let’s start with a list of those who are being disintermediated in the modern publishing landscape: Major book publishers, their historic retail partners, their former marketing muscle, the printers, and previously bestselling authors. We should feel empathy with those who are disrupted, as pivoting can be painful. But when the overall benefit to the general public is weighed, we understand that these disruptions are to be applauded. Again, we’re talking about greater access to information, a wider variety of voices, a boon to the environment, and a more equitable share of profits to creatives. This doesn’t make the pain of the formerly entrenched any less, but it should prevent us from making policy and purchasing decisions based on their appeals.

Trade book publishers have been hammered by the shift to digital and the west coast. Growth has only been sustained by acquisitions, job cuts, and the increased profitability of ebooks. Even with a mighty PR campaign waged against digital publishing (carried out in the increasingly insignificant print media), the major publishers have only been able to barely tread water. The number of major publishers has gone down, and several of the largest of the secondary houses have been gobbled up. Print sales are being hammered, even as this trend is spun in the press. In 2015, the only thing that saved print from serious decline was the adult coloring book fad. That craft books are counted alongside novels is revealing, both for the widget and profit-minded nature of the legacy publishing industry, and also the greater concern for sales over the culture of actual reading. 2016 will need another 50 SHADES OF GREY or coloring book phenomenon to stem the bleeding. This is a precarious situation in which publishers find themselves, especially with fewer medium sized presses to acquire. It would surprise me to see all of the Big 5 publishers standing two years from now. It would not surprise me to see a Big 3 five years hence.

Retailers have had it just as bad, with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble transitioning away from bookselling and into general merchandise. Independent bookstores are seeing some gains, as the former big-box wolves now find themselves stalked and hunted down by Amazon. And even here, the rhetoric is almost Orwellian in its backwardness. Independent booksellers have blacklisted titles published by Amazon, even as Amazon cleared space for them in the market. And so not only has Amazon been good for small booksellers, the stifling of information has come from the same bookshops, while Amazon publishes and sells the widest variety of offerings for the lowest cost and is accused for limiting the expression of free ideas while doing so.

Controlling this message (or attempting to) has been another outlet made irrelevant by the west coast shift. Newspapers used to matter for book sales. Bestseller lists were checked weekly, as were the arts sections and the special Sunday book review inserts. No longer. Now, the only bestseller lists that move titles are the online sales lists, primarily Amazon’s. I saw this clearly as a bookseller. Even the front page of the New York Times Book Review couldn’t budge sales. But a mention on a late night LA talkshow, or a Tweet from a celebrity, or a recommendation from Zuckerberg, would shoot a title straight to the top. And nothing is more powerful than one of Amazon’s daily promotions. The marketing muscle, the inside access, the exclusive reviews, the feeling of mattering in this grand cultural tradition — all of this has been taken away from legacy reporters. And keep in mind that these same reporters were often aspiring novelists and non-fiction authors. They have done a miserable job of covering the disruption to publishers, because they are too emotionally invested to cover these trends like they cover the rise and disruptive forces of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Google, Facebook, et al.

The authors who benefitted most from the censuring of ideas have also been hurt. When 99.99% of books were not allowed to come to market, and the diversity of voices was culled to obviate risk to publishers, these .01%ers made hay. Mostly white males, there are many of them complaining today because their power, prestige, and incomes have all declined. The new power authors are predominately female, and to cope with the reality of this transition, the media and legacy authors have had to resort to lumping them into a single genre (erotica) in order to stigmatize them. Despite the fact that these authors write romance, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction and other genres. Those who write in one of the hundreds of varieties of romance are today castigated as “smut” writers, when this has never been true.

Lately, these authors have had to team up with their advocacy groups in a PR battle against digital and self publishing. Writing letters to the DOJ, the argument here is that free speech was better served when only .01% of authors could publish their works. The share of income earned by these authors has plummeted, replaced with income heading to self-published authors. Last year, Amazon paid out over $140,000,000 to authors in its Kindle Unlimited program. That doesn’t count the dollars paid for book sales. This would be like publishers announcing a 7-figure advance every two and a half days for an entire year. The overall expenditure by consumers has only gone up a little, while the payout to independent authors has soared. That money came from somewhere. Those authors being hurt are now railing against a system that, once again, is good for consumers, for diversity, for the environment, and for creatives.

Author advocacy groups have joined the lament, as they have been hurt in reduced membership. More writers now seem to be going about the quiet business of earning money rather than paying fees to attempt to break into the industry. Agents have felt the pinch as well. Those who aren’t able or willing to work with authors to hybridize their careers have joined the chorus of voices pining for the days of reduced access to reading material and higher costs.

When we look at the above groups, and consider their complaints, one thing jumps out at me: They no longer offer services commensurable with their costs. A Big 5 published book is not 5 to 15 times better than a self-published book. And yet the difference in cost can easily be as much. Big 5 authors are harmed by the same price differential. Those who are locked in deserve our sympathy. Those who choose to offer higher priced books, and complain as their sales decline, do not deserve our sympathy. That’s a choice. Ebook price ceilings can be negotiated in publishing contracts (I know from personal experience). This means being a Big 5 author does not necessarily mean being hamstrung by high prices. High price is a choice, and the improved offering must be commensurable.

The same goes for retailers. If they are going to charge higher prices, their stores and staff must offer greater service. Some do, and they thrive. Those that don’t are and should go out of business. The same is true of the media that used to curate our tastes. They did a poor job for the price, which is why consumers no longer pay in dollars or attention. They need to reinvent themselves or go under. The public should not be expected to support legacy systems for nostalgia’s sake; adapt or die.

What has remained unchanged, and what dictates at every moment the true state of the publishing industry, is two forces: The overwhelming urge felt by many to weave stories, and the companion urge felt by nearly all of us to be regaled with stories. These are the twin forces that gave rise to the publishing industry in the first place. The book trade is in its infancy by comparison. Storytelling is a critical component of what makes us human. The world of publishing is all about matching up storytellers with audiences, and this power has moved to the left coast and the world of ones and zeros. What matters most is what happens on either end, not in the middle. Can writers write? More than ever. Can they publish? Easier than ever. Can readers find and access stories? Like no other time in human history.

As a reader, the current state of the industry makes me beam with joy. I carry my Kindle with me everywhere. I have a backup Kindle on my boat in case my primary goes in the drink. I have access to nearly everything ever written. I read more than at any other time in my life, and I spend far less money doing so. As a reader, the value offered to me by the publishing industry has positively soared.

As a writer, the new publishing industry brought an infinite increase in fulfillment. And I don’t mean with income, as I never sat down to write my first novel in order to earn a penny. In the old world of publishing, my stories would have gone unread. There wouldn’t have been a blog to post them to, social media to share them by, or email to send to friends and family. There was no Kindle store to upload them to, or print on demand service to make a real book. No ACX for audio. My voice didn’t exist. Only that of the .01% did.

The old publishing industry was difficult for me as a reader and a writer. Bookstores were distant, and books were expensive. Libraries rarely had what I was looking for. It was hard to find anyone in my home town to discuss books with. Impossible to find reviews and recommendations from other readers. Like the fans of Harry Potter, I spent a good portion of my time as a child reading the same handful of books over and over again. That’s not a healthy industry from my perspective as a consumer. As a writer, it was even worse.

My recommendation to writers was spelled out in this previous blog post, and here’s what I would tack on while considering this industry and any business decisions: Team up with anyone who can add greater value than what they charge for their services. Go with a major publisher if you think the one book a year they’ll allow, and the 1/6th of royalties paid twice a year, will outweigh what you can do on your own. And factor in the time lost to querying, landing an agent, and the delay to market. By my estimate, a publisher needs to guarantee they’ll sell 20 – 50 times the number of books you can on your own before you break even. This takes into account the narrow window in which they’ll promote you and that bookstores will carry your title. If you can sell 10,000 lifetime copies, they need to prove they can sell 500,000 copies. No publisher can guarantee that. Can you sell 10,000 copies over the next 30 – 50 years? Can you write 2 novels a year? The choice gets easier and easier if you believe that you can.

This is not only how I see the publishing world today, it’s where I saw it heading seven years ago. That’s when I made the decision to leave a small publisher and strike out on my own. I’ve been blogging about that decision for a long time. These are not post-hoc rationalizations made by a fortunate individual, but the confirmation of what was then a very unpopular opinion. I’ve been laughed at for thinking authors could do better without publishers, for thinking that we don’t need agents until they come begging to us, for thinking that readers just care about a good story. I can tell you that seven years later, my thoughts have barely budged. Technology is opening up new worlds for storytellers, and readers have been greatly rewarded by our steady adoption of these tools. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. And that’s a great thing.

I keep all of this in mind as I watch readers struggle to find the next great book or series to dive into. Those challenges existed before, but they were worse. I keep all of this in mind when I sympathize with authors trying to make a living with their craft. What they had to overcome in the past was far worse. Just because things are better today does not mean they are easy; they are just easier. No one can be denied their voice. Readers can access books from anywhere in the world, with thousands of classics available for free and many new works also on a cycle of promotion. The only people who have anything to fear are those who are no longer needed or who are charging too much for their services. For the rest of us — especially the two parties who matter most — the state of the industry is rosy. And getting better every day.


58 responses to “The State of the Industry”

  1. Bulls-eye Hugh.

    Same exact situation is happening in film and television and advertising. Anyone not addig value is feeling very uncomfortable and squirmy.

    There used to be huge labs and intermediaries that would transfer film to scanned frames to do visual effects. Then expensive retransfer tests for test screenings to look at the footage. All that is gone. The film loaders on set and everyone up the chain who had their hands in analog film is a dying breed.

    And things are so much better because of it.

    Looking forward to what’s yet to come.

    1. Thing move fast:
      Iron Man 1, shot on film. Lengthy process to transfer and check our work on film.
      MockingJay2, everything digital. I personally didn’t see a pixel on screen until I was crunching popcorn in the theater on release day. So much smoother.

    2. I so look forward to each of your posts…this one doesn’t disappoint! Mentioning your blog and post in my next post on website above. Thanks again Hugh!

    3. This is the best summary I’ve read about the current situation for writers and publishers. As a food writer I’ve had books published and as a novelist I’ve published my own. I’ve never made much money from either but now I have huge satisfaction writing a food blog that goes out to 25,000 followers and have my novels ‘out there’ rather than receiving ‘not for us’ letters from rejecting publishers. As writers we need to focus on what we want from our creativity: to turn it into a paid job, or to enjoy the satisfaction of getting our work to a potentially large audience.

  2. Awesome. Very true and relevant. The industry has come very far and I can’t wait to see what the future holds. The pay per page read model of Kindle Unlimited seems to be the next big thing and is for sure a way to reward more engaging authors.

  3. Thank you for this, Hugh.

    If new authors are reading this blog and wondering which choice to take, my advice is to listen to Hugh. Save up for a decent editor and cover. Research best practices for publishing and marketing. Keep your day job. Don’t expect to get rich and sail the Caribbean. But know that you can get your story out there.

    In late 2013, I queried 100 agents. Two requested my manuscript. While I waited to hear from them, I began to read articles by Hugh and Joe Konrath. After months of silence, I withdrew my manuscript and self-published. I have never looked back. I’m still working 9 to 5, but hundreds of readers out there have had a fun time with my story. And I’m having a blast with my next book.


  4. Hugh

    This is spot on. I have been in the business only since 2011 but have seen the changes since then.

  5. This is the kind of article EVERYONE interested in selling their writing (in whatever form) should consume. Bravo.

  6. This all boils down to one concept: added value.

    Before the digital age, the big publishers added tremendous value. They were the only way to get into bookstores, which was the only way to be seen and read. Now? Not so much.

    I try to bear the added value concept in mind with anything I pursue in life. Can I add something significant or meaningful to this project/job/idea/relationship? If I can’t come up with anything, then it’s probably not worth my time, or the other parties involved, for me to contribute.

    Creating good stories has value for those who read and enjoy them, so I continue to do it. Maybe someday the number of people who value my words will be enough that I can devote all my time to that, maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. Unless there comes a day when my writing can’t evoke an emotion, or provide an escape, or simply bring a smile to someone’s face, I’ll keep doing it. Little by little.

  7. As I mentioned on Facebook. There is one fatal flaw in this article. What if both Kindles end up in the drink?

    1. Then he’ll have to read kindle app on his cell phone, or tablet, or computer.

    2. If both Kindles end up in the drink, then Hugh would just have to have a new one shipped to his next port of call. All of his books would still be waiting for him in the cloud to be downloaded again.

  8. Such a good post, and leaving me feeling much more positive. Many thanks! Here’s to the future.

  9. “Technology is opening up new worlds for storytellers, and readers have been greatly rewarded by our steady adoption of these tools.” To paraphrase (or just mangle) Churchill: Never has so much been read by so many with the royalties not going to so few

  10. This article is what every new aspiring writer hopes to read who has been working on their book for eight years! I’m done and in editing and will go on to self publish and bring new things to the table that haven’t been done before in marketing. I thrive on new things and authentic real people who tell it like it is. Here is to ADDED VALUE and true STORY TELLING! Thanks Hugh, don’t ever stop putting letters together ~ xo

  11. Interesting piece – I hadn’t really considered that side of publishing before, but I suppose it’s like everything else that gets thrown on the slagheap as new technologies come along.

  12. Perhaps the best article on the current state of the publishing industry that I’ve ever read.

    Thanks so much for all you’ve done to clarify the situation for authors, Hugh.

  13. I want to thank you for all the amazing work you do to provide clarity, insight, and of course, data to the rest of us wandering out here in the wasteland.

    I decided to self-publish based on many factors (your voice was certainly in the mix), one of which being the fact that I don’t believe my 2+ million blog readers really care who puts the book out as long as it’s a quality book. I’ll admit this is a decision I’ve constantly questioned even now at the 11th hour. This post is a great reminder that I’ve made the right choice for me. Thanks!

  14. Excellent industry analysis, Hugh. As a former .1%er in How-To non-fiction moving to Indie Self-Pub fiction, this line is right on: “Team up with anyone who can add greater value than what they charge for their services.” Although you’re talking about Publishers, the same goes for key Indie service providers: editors, designers, formatters, coaches. There are LOTS of them out there (many formerly employed by trad publishers :), and it’s easy to build up freelancer costs that are greater than the values added.

  15. Superb. Thank you.

    One thing to add to your analysis of the .01% authors. (Anyone can replicate this research, by the way.) The majority of best-selling tradpub authors were born into the upper middle class or outright wealth. (Exceptions include King and Evanovich.) And what class do acquisitions editors come from? So of course that’s the voice, worldview, and set of interests that appeal to editors.

    So it isn’t just women writers who have benefited from the new ways, it’s all working class and poor writers. A wider choice for readers and Amazon’s more accurate-than-the-Times bestseller list, both are forces for democracy. But this revolution in publishing is handing power–and a voice–to the previously powerless, and of course that scares the .01%. Democracy usually does scare plutocrats.

  16. What a great post. So much resonates, because even after self-publishing, you run across those who occasionally make you think, Did I make the right choice? I know that I did, but I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t look at my decisions, and question them at times.

    I love the idea of looking at things to see where the value is added. That makes it really simple. It’s not a statement of doing things one way or another, but a decision based on your career – what will add value to it? If there’s no value added, it’s a waste of time.

    Thanks, Hugh.

  17. To clarify a possibly fraught unclear antecedent, I suspect Hugh intended the authors in “Lately, these authors have had to team up with their advocacy groups” are NOT the authors just previously referred to in the prior paragraph who “write romance, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction and other genres” ;-)

    Value is not what *you* think you should be paid, but what someone else, with actual money, is willing to pay. When you both agree on the amount there is happiness and kittens, and both parties to the transaction feel they have gotten the better of the deal–and both are right!

  18. Big Publishers have too long had control of the mainstream – epic commercial novels that were well-written and aimed at a mass audience. They can take years to write – because they are complex and layered, end everything is important.

    I’ve prepared to do that in indie for marketing for the past four years – but Amazon doesn’t even have a ‘mainstream’ category! You have to choose General Fiction, Literature and Fiction, or Literary Fiction. I think there are going to be more people like me writing these big books, but polishing and publishing themselves.

    Genre started the trend, and Romance is especially successful and popular. Fantasy is doing very well.

    I want to compete with the biggies. On merit (small ego here). Wish me luck. Book 1 is out. But it is darn hard marketing when you have to compete in genres you don’t fit, with writers who do.

  19. The fact that I can have TOTAL control over what gets published under my name is very important to me. Now that I have been publishing on my own, I can’t imagine going with a traditional publisher.

    Sure, the ego wants a book on the store shelves, but at what cost? That also makes me wonder if physical books will ever eventually go away. I doubt it, because even though I mostly read digitally, I still love my paper books.

  20. Bravo Hugh! Great points and observations all around.

    I just moved last week. When packing I came across my once coveted hardcover dictionaries and thesaurus. I realized I had not opened the cover of either of them in over 5 years because all that info is at my fingertips now. With some trepidation, I donated them to a used book store.

    1. Werner, I can relate. Back when I was in journalism school, once upon a long time ago, I bought the biggest and baddest dictionary I could find. It was the size of three large phone books (another museum item) stacked one on top of another. Now its primary function is as a balance weight inside an end table that supports a swing arm for my laptop. It is basically ballast. So, I guess books aren’t obsolete yet. You just have to be creative.

  21. Great stuff! I was pleased to Tweet your link.

    Just to add: Those of us who’ve eked out a semi-living for decades by publishing genre fiction are thrilled for the chance to publish new work without the hidebound assumptions made by agents and traditional publishers. These include the notions that a) if you’re a midlister, you’ll never be anything more, b) if you have a new idea or twist, readers won’t buy it unless somebody else already hit the big time with it, and c) we (the publishers) don’t care about your genre readers because they won’t read anything else.

    I’m combining my two loves, medical romances and cozy mysteries, in a new series, which I’m self-publishing. Wish me luck!

  22. Fantastic article, Hugh! So much goodness and insight in one piece. Thanks!

  23. Excellent recap and prophecy. I always enjoy your blogs.

  24. Wow. Power to the people!

  25. Brilliant insights. Thanks for sharing them.

  26. You just helped me make a decision.

    And you’re the one on a yacht…only fools would laugh.

  27. “As a reader, the current state of the industry makes me beam with joy.”

    Me too!

  28. Very insightful, as usual, Hugh. Thank you for continuing to take the time to share your wisdom regarding the growing pains of the self-publishing frontier.

    I’ve been an indie author since 2011, and a lot has changed as my own writing has evolved and my ability to position myself in an ever more crowded field has improved. It’s challenging but fun to make all the choices ourselves, from genre to length to cover to time of publishing. We are able to pivot more nimbly than the big trad pub corporations, and we certainly are more willing to reach out and help newer authors break in.

    You’re one of those people who have helped many of us go from complete newbies to full-time indie writers. Thank you!

  29. The thing making me hesitant about self publishing is the complexity of sealing with all the factors involved: formatting, editing, marketing, blogging, web site, social media etc. I have to take all this into consideration, while if I had a publisher they would take care of much that for me. I would still have to blog but it’s a ton of pressure to market your own work, and I find that pressure has a negative effect on my creativity.

    Submitting to an agent is simply one email with a synopsis, query and few chapters in the body of the email. Done, that’s it. Simple. Then I can get back to writing my next project.

    It’s the same with shorts. I can wrote a short, submit it to Asimov’s, and move on.

    By self publishing one has to contend with WAY more competition too. There’s so much content on amazon already.

    I’m kind of lost as to how to proceed.

    1. “By self publishing one has to contend with WAY more competition too. There’s so much content on amazon already.”

      You’ve forgotten that with a traditional publisher, your competition is even greater. At Amazon, you can get equal page time with the likes of Patterson, King, etc. if you write a good book and have a good day of sales (or a great promo). Imagine being on the same page as “Hunger Games” with your YA dystopian novel. All you have to do is write a great book and maybe hope for a little luck (or, again, make your own luck with promotion… there’s a ton of useful guides and helpful information on the vast interwebs).

      Now imagine you are with a traditional publisher. You get what THEY decide is best for you (and they’ll show you exactly where in your contract they get this power). You are competing with not just every author/book on Amazon, but with their own stable of authors. Do you believe that you’ll get the same kind of treatment, editing, covers, and promotion as Lee Child, Evanovich, Kingsolver, or any other top-tier author? They’re already proven best sellers. You, unfortunately, are a nobody to them at that point.

      Sure, it’s a lot of work to self-pub. But if you think it’s more work than the path to traditional publishing (ie: you have to first find an agent willing to take unsolicited manuscripts, then bug that agent to find you a publishing deal, then deal with the editing team at the traditional publisher–and find out the hard way they have final editorial control unless you somehow slipped that into your contract, and honestly, do your own promotion as again, you’re an unproven nobody and they’re much more willing to spend $ on names that sell), I can assure you that it is extremely close in terms of effort required from you.

      But, and this is the BIG BUT, here’s what you get at the end of the day with self-pub:
      1. YOU control the final product. Not some jughead executive who thinks your aliens should be cute Japanime manga girls to sell more copies to teen boys.

      2. YOU control the IP. You want to make changes to your story? Done. You want the aliens to be Japanime manga girls instead of aliens? Done. No one can tell you what to do (or what you can’t do) with your IP.

      3. YOU get to choose what cover is best. No more dog taking a dump in a park for your story about mind-controlling robots because the dog dump art was something the publisher already paid for years ago and it was cheaper than hiring an artist to make something new (again, you’re nobody to them at this point in your career).

      4. YOU get to set the prices. No one wants to buy a traditionally published ebook for $14.99. Okay, some do, but most of us who have grown up with the Amazon/WalMart/BestBuy retail system, it’s stupid to pay that much. We no longer have to buy a whole music CD / album for $16.99, which enraged music companies. The same way reader defection away from $15 ebooks enrages traditional publishers. Especially when there’s a million good stories out there for $5, $2, $.99, $6.99, whatever. YOU choose the price, one you think someone will pay, and if they’ll pay more, you raise it a little. If they won’t pay more, you lower it a little.

      4b. Your price changes take generally 48 hours or less (usually FAR less). Try getting your publisher to lower the price of your ebook within the next 6 months. That’s if you don’t get laughed out of the office for even thinking you could suggest as retail price.

      5. 70% royalties. Think about that for a few minutes, or Google some of Hugh’s previous posts (and a hundred others like those from Joe Konrath) about how many books you have to sell for $2.99@70% to make $10,000 vs how many you would have to sell at $9.99-$14.99@12.5%.

      5b. Oh, did I mention that the digital retailers pay monthly with a 30 day hold (ie: for all the books you sell in January, you’d get your royalties in March). When is the last time a traditional publisher paid monthly?

      5c. Oops, forgot real-time sales figures. No more shady trad-pub accounting when you can login to Amazon/iTunes/etc and see exactly how many books you’ve sold that day. Or that hour. Or that month.

      6. Probably a ton more I could add, but I think you get the idea. Traditional publishers are just as much work to navigate as self-pub. The difference, at least to those of us who self-pub, is that we are in control 100% of the time, other than actual sales (and those can be manipulated, again, by writing a good book, good promotional practices, and a little luck).

      I just don’t buy the whole “If I let someone else do it, I have more time to do actual writing!” I don’t mean that in a snarky or mean way, either. If you really sit down and think about it, I’m pretty sure you’ll understand why it’s mostly nonsense. After four years of doing this full-time, I find that I have more than enough time to write 3k, 7k, sometimes 10k words in a day, and STILL have 2-5 hours where I hunt down promos, deal with editors, cover artists, upload my bits to the stores, etc.

      You make your own way, regardless of whether you do it yourself or you have a traditional publisher help you. I prefer to do it myself. The beauty of this is that you can do both and see which works best for you. I highly encourage you to go traditional publishing route, but if you do, here’s the most important thing you can ever, ever do:


      This means do not trust your agent to make sure your contract isn’t a sinking ship full of rats, or has so many holes in it you’ll never get anything in return except heartache. Agents are supposed to work for you, but too many of them do not (too many are too friendly with their publishing pals – if this offends any agents reading, too bad, and I won’t apologize).

      Your attorney works for YOU. Not for the publisher. Not for the agent. If you sign a contract that is bad, that’s YOUR fault, not your agent’s fault, not the publisher’s fault.

      Right. I apologize for stupidly long-winded nonsense. I get a lil’ fired up about it sometimes.

      1. Every bit of this.

      2. AngryGames, your “stupidly long-winded nonsense” is a worthy companion to Hugh’s post–insightful, honest, and eye-opening. (Oh, and firm but fair.) Thank you.

  30. Thank you, Hugh!

    I will point everyone who still tries to nudge me towards getting an agent and going trad to this post. It’s awesome. I agree with one of the other commentators that everyone writing books should read this.

    And now I’ll continue writing my next book… maybe one day I can afford to own a horse. ;-)

  31. Pretty nice to read that. The publishers have gone from Talent-scouts to simple middle-men negotiating the selling of the content. When you move away from innovation and discovery, something else will come and replace you. So now they’re struggling, because their attitude created a flock of agents who have no clue about finding talent – they’re not literary people, they’re sales men, so they’re used to take onboard what sells (according to old-school standards). There’s no one to look out for talent anymore.

    We still need curation tho. We still need physical books as objects to gift. I would welcome Amazon as a brick-and-mortar place where you can find, in print, their top 10 books, and you can order any other one in their catalogue in print, if you want. Because we live in a material world.

    Let’s see 5 years from now what the Big5 will do, Hugh!

  32. What you say is so true. My reading has increased ten fold due to the easier and cheaper access to books. I still love the smell and feel of a paper book, but Kindle had opened a whole new world to me. Love reading!

  33. Awesome job of nailing the issue, Hugh! I supported myself in the NY midlist, I work with many self publishing authors today, and writers are so much better going it on their own. More income for fewer books sold! And as a reader, I love the expanded choices!

  34. It appears that published books has gone a similar route as the music industry, where many artists can produce their own music without the need of expensive recording studios and record companies. Similarly this has increased the quality of what needs to be created as compared to the old days when you bought an album for a few good songs and had to live with the rest. Because of space and my commute I prefer buying Kindle books as first choice unless they are technical books, or books with a lot of art work. I bought all of the Wool series on Kindle and really enjoyed them. Now my commute time on public transportation is my reading time when I am not sleeping. Thanks for sharing and best wishes to your future work.

  35. Where most self-pubbed writers today make their big mistake, is that they wait until they have finished and published their book to begin marketing theirself and their book. You can’t do that today! Otherwise, you publish this book, and people don’t even notice it; or they notice it and go, who?. While you’re writing that book, you have to be putting yourself out there and trying to get your name known; so that when you do publish that first book, folks know who the heck you are.

  36. This is fantastic! I really enjoy reading your industry analysis. I published an article on International Read an eBook Day last year about the environmental impacts of both book production and bookselling that heavily influenced my own decision to go digital:

  37. Mr. Howey’s post and its replies contain sensible rationales for self-publishing. I’ve heard it all from members of my critique group–excellent writers and story tellers, with self-published short stories and multiple novels. I’m all for disintermediation and stripping parasites from the value chain. I’m unpublished, but despite ad nauseam urging from my self-published friends, I am currently shopping my novel to agents. Why?

    Because due to my current finances and family obligations, I cannot write full time and do the necessary marketing within a reasonable time frame. I’ve looked at the economics and worn out the 10-key on my keyboard. I sure could use the ONLY added value that agents can get from a trad publisher these days. It’s called an “advance”. Mr. Howey knows about these.

    Most likely I’ll end up self-publishing. A reasonable advance would help me nicely thank you, Mr. Bezos, but you don’t take chances on unproven writers. So I’ll spend the hours writing and shell out the money for marketing and conferences and professional editing and cover design and then I’ll sink or swim. If my books sell, like Mr. Howey’s certainly did, I may be able to get that trad contract with screen options and the mid-six-figure advance that will help me write the rest of my trilogy.

    1. “A reasonable advance would help me nicely thank you, Mr. Bezos, but you don’t take chances on unproven writers.”

      Untrue. Mr. Bezos does indeed give advances to unproven and unknown authors. I happen to be one of them. ( Obviously it wasn’t him directly, but it was from an Amazon Publishing line.) And there wasn’t a single agent involved in the process.

      1. Yep, and Mr. Bezos also just paid out 10million dollars (over Sony!) for all rights to a new movie – Manchester by the Sea at Sundance, 2016 – I’d say he has digital plans…

  38. Joe and Vernadene Cempa Avatar
    Joe and Vernadene Cempa

    Right On Lad!
    Hoist a cold pint for those great words and put on “Son of a Sailor” by Jimmy B. as you gaze at the Southern Cross! Pretty much my personal blueprint regarding the Apocalyptic tome I’m penning regarding Global Warming, and the Chap Book I have together on urban-social-racial-political-illuminati-mafia Gotti-gotta’ potty-human and thinking addressed-society unblessed….words of wisdom! ;) Just have to format it man; just had two poems come out in Peragosa Magazine out of Kenya, would love if you could check ’em out if you have time. Thank you for your great posts Mr. H.

  39. Hugh, your list of those who are being disintermediated notably lacked ‘agents.’ Was that an oversight or do you feel that agents still have a place in the new self-pub economy?

  40. Incredible post, Hugh. Thanks for taking the time (away from your writing and family) to pen it.

  41. Publishing houses they way they are can’t last. It’s just like the blacksmith. Once, they were highly valued for making objects and shoeing horses. Then factories started making objects. And cars replaced horses. The remaining blacksmiths transformed themselves into sculptors.

    A factory can’t put a sculptor out of business, that’s the nature of art.

    And these middle men will need to transform themselves into something too, something more useful.

  42. One of the really enjoyable aspects of Amazon’s KU program is getting an idea of the days of the week and the times of day when your titles get on a roll, the times when readers pick up their e-readers and plunge into your stories. You can check the number of page reads every so often and as they go up you can almost feel the readers enjoying your work.

    The fact that you can make money even while you’re sleeping is cool, too.

  43. Thank you Hugh for telling it like it is. I’m one of the female self-pubbers currently making a very good living from my books. The idea of sharing my royalties in exchange for someone interfering in my stories just doesn’t appeal. Funnily enough, when the trad publishing industry realises you’re selling a lot of books, they soon start emailing.
    I write romance, which they’re snobbish about at the best of times. Perhaps the industry will adapt by widening the spread of books they publish. From what I’ve seen, authors only stand a chance if their writing style comes straight from a creative writing class, as we saw by the insults levelled at Fifty Shades. It would appear that the trad publishing industry is run by English lit graduates for other English lit graduates! It’s a big, wide world of readers out there and maybe us indies are catering for the 90%

  44. Hi,
    I’m in the process of self-publishing my second children’s fairy book. It is in several museums, and is selling quite well (my illustrator has it for sale on his website, as well). However, I find that I’m just breaking even, and am feeling somewhat discouraged by this point. I have been told that I’m very talented at this (especially considering the fact that I started writing just a few years ago), and I am considering going the e-book route, but I just don’t know how to begin. Again, sorry for my ignorance, but Hugh, do you have a step-by-step plan that I can follow? Also, how do I figure in an illustrator? Thanks in advance for any advice you can give me!

  45. I never liked the old ‘gatekeeper’ system, where literary agents bragged on Writer’s Marketplace about their ‘99% rejection rates: As you said, “More writers now seem to be going about the quiet business of earning money rather than paying fees to attempt to break into the industry. Agents have felt the pinch as well. Those who aren’t able or willing to work with authors to hybridize their careers have joined the chorus of voices pining for the days of reduced access to reading material and higher costs.

  46. Thanks for sharing your views. Curious what your think of alternative publishing models such as the Booktrope approach? Does the shift to digital open doors for publishing models other than the old traditional publishers?

  47. Thanks for this. Great analysis. Even if I’m ever offered a contract with a publisher, I don’t think I would sign.

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