The Tankers are Turning

I gave a talk at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last week, and one of the questions that came up during the Q&A was whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist. The second part of the question was if I thought the world I depict in WOOL has any chance of coming to fruition.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a variant of this question. Often it’s as blunt as: “Why do you write such depressing stories? You seem like such a happy guy!”

I believe there’s a fine balance between begging for a better future and also being thankful for the progress of the past. If you ask me, the world is getting measurably better for the vast majority of people year after year. I think Steven Pinker’s work on this topic covers it best, especially his excellent Better Angels of our Nature. What’s important, in my view, is to pause in our protestations now and then and give homage to the progress others have made, to recognize the change happening around us before we dust ourselves off and demand one more concession.

This is true of social, ethical, and political progress. But it applies to less important things as well, like book publishing.

Those of us who self-publish are nimble. We can pivot on a dime and publish at the drop of one. If we have an idea, we can implement it the same day, see how it works, share our results, and at the same time learn from others. Not even Amazon moves fast enough for us. We often complain about how long it takes the ‘Zon to implement ideas. To the five major New York publishers, of course, Amazon’s advances must seem like the blitzkrieg.

If the five major New York publishers are like oil tankers, then Amazon is a destroyer, and we are erratic (and possibly annoying) jetskis. We are impatient for progress much as revolutionaries (and visionaries) in other fields often are. But I think it’s important to remember that there are visionaries on the decks of those other ships as well. A lot of smart people see where we need to go. Some of them have even turned over the wheel. It just takes longer for these behemoths to bend their wake.

Before I list a handful of the signs of progress I’ve seen the past year or so, I want to head off the cries of “but they have this and this to do.” Of course they have a lot to catch up on. That will almost certainly always be the case. We race rings around these lumbering craft, but let’s be aware of progress made. Let’s even cheer them on now and then. Stuff I’ve seen in the past year:

  • After years of wondering why publishers don’t sell direct in order to gather customer data and avoid issues with retail partners, Harper Collins launched their own retail site.
  • Something I hesitated to suggest as a distant possibility came to fruition much earlier than expected (last year in fact) when Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint began celebrating and hyping a number of its authors as “Indies.” Rather than be cynical about this, I see it as a positive sign that the stigma of self-publishing has plummeted at major publishing houses. More than plummet, the notion of self-publishers as something to aspire to has become a reality.
  • Publishers are starting to experiment with reasonable ebook prices. Many of the top-selling traditionally published ebooks this year were in the $4.99 range, including John Green’s excellent The Fault in our Stars. (Now back up to $7+, but it was at $4.99 for most of this year.)
  • Backlist titles are also becoming more affordable. I’m buying traditionally published ebooks more often, as the number that I see priced above $8.99 are becoming fewer and fewer.
  • At least three publishers are rumored to be working on moving their operations out of the most expensive real estate in one of the priciest cities in the world.
  • A few publishers are experimenting with subscription services on a limited basis.
  • Random House launched a portal for its authors that in some ways is superior to anything offered by digital retailers. The portal shows sales, foreign rights acquisitions, royalty statements, and includes marketing tip videos.
  • Random House (and I believe others) have worked on creating communities among their authors, including forums where authors can meet and share advice. Tapping into authors as a resource is a very positive sign from the world’s largest publisher.
  • Release schedules are picking up, with books and sequels coming out in the same calendar year. The hesitation to publish two books by the same author in a 12-month span has rapidly deteriorated.
  • Publishers (following Baen’s 2008 experiments) have worked on ways of crowdsourcing the slush pile and opening themselves to general un-agented submissions.
  • More digital-first imprints are giving a wider range of authors a chance to work with a publisher, build a readership, and hone their craft.
  • On the contract side, my agent has seen progress on a number of fronts, including the openness to strike non-compete clauses, better thresholds for reversion, a little movement on the deep discount royalty rate, and other positive signs that show self-publishing is having an impact as a competitive route to publication.
  • Not quite publisher-directed, but there were indie winners at both the Rita’s and the Hugo’s this year. And several conventions saw modest progress in becoming more inclusive to self-published authors.
  • Nook Press and The Bookseller are now working together to highlight 10 new self-published works every month that they believe in.

There are certainly areas of improvement that I’m leaving out. Make a note in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list. And again, this is a break from pointing out all the places where further progress can be made (even refinements to the items listed above). No doubt there are plenty. But the tankers are turning. We’re just zipping around too fast to notice most of the time.

18 responses to “The Tankers are Turning”

  1. Good points and spot on tanker analogy.

    Publishers seem to be grasping and executing on using new media to sell books, specifically social media and podcasts.

    I’ve seen imprints (especially YA) become very active on twitter talking about their authors, books, and attempting to connect with readers.

    I’ve noticed a few traditionally published authors starting to make the rounds on the Podcast circuit. Whether it was setup by their publishers or not, I think it’s a trend that will continue.

  2. Nice to see such optimism for trad pub. So long as folks like Hugh are out front enjoying success and having fun at the same time, things will keep getting better for authors.

    What are the next great steps for indies? Time will tell.

  3. I often wondered why society accepts that “big companies just move slow” when it comes to business improving ideas.

    They don’t have to be able to “turn on a dime” like an individual … but they could devote departments to just one thing … being nimble in the business world.

    The digital age demands this of our big companies, and their bottom line is suffering because they aren’t nimble enough (generally, there are specific exceptions).

    But hey, there must be a good reason for staying slow, too.

    1. Publishers would do well to create small imprints that are given more freedom to experiment and report back, like Google gives its employees time to dabble on the side. A Wetworks imprint, if you will. Publish anything, anyhow, any way. Here’s your budget. Show us what you’ve got.

      If a publisher gave me two full-time employees and $100,000 a quarter, I think I could hand them 4 new authors every year selling in the 200,000 – 500,000 titles/year range. And that’s a conservative estimate. I could probably do better than that. (I’m counting on the efforts of the authors that my $400,000/year + ideas would wrangle up, because these authors would be the majority of my muscle.)

  4. A few months back the Horror Writers Association announced that they would finally accept self published authors as active members, a point I’ve been criticizing them on for years. Glad they finally listened.

    1. Good point. I think ITW and SFWA have done the same. And the AG is making progress in that arena.

      1. SFWA is still working on it. Hopefully by the end of the year some sort of final decision and membership vote will have been made. SFWA is as much a tanker as a big publisher, with 50 years worth of barnacles on the keel.

  5. Thank you for pointing out the good changes.

    Good news is so rare, and usually not “newsworthy”. I love how even tankers are starting on course corrections. The changes in this industry will remain fascinating.
    Love your blog.

  6. Traditional and self publishing will hopefully meet in the middle somewhere. I think your list shows that this is possible. Fingers crossed it happens soon (this decade anyway)…. (o:

    1. I think you’re right. In a lot of ways, the two paths are converging.

  7. That’s actually all great news. Hopefully it will lead to better conditions for all writers.

  8. […] I’ve added it to my The Tankers are Turning post about all the positive developments being made by traditional publishers and […]

  9. Wow! Some of these are very surprising changes indeed, but so, so welcome. I hope they’re able to turn before they hit the icebergs, but it’s good to see them putting effort into it now.

  10. To be more specific, Random House Author Portal has been active since 2012. I joined in March of that year. There’s about a week lag time in reporting, but I receive information on sales in different formats, as well as cumulative sales since 2001 separated by various sales channels (chains, distributors, online, electronic, special sales, etc. — at least seven different categories). Author Portal also offers live monthly marketing webinars, which are then stored on the website. In the past, executives of Goodreads, Mailchimp, and so on have participated to lead thirty-minute workshops and field questions. Through the Portal, I’m also able to order any Random House print book for 50% off (free shipping).

  11. […] a number of authors started to use the word “pivot.” Hugh Howey, in a piece called the Tankers are Turning, compared indie authors to traditional publishers saying self-published authors “are nimble. We […]

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