Turning Chaff into Wheat

I was overjoyed yesterday to learn that the staff at the Nelson Literary Agency was referring to my agent, Kristin Nelson, as “‘Lil Kris” around the office. I often wonder if my rarely-read blog does any good in the world. Yesterday, it did some good. It resulted in affectionate mockery and belly laughs. I could die happy.

Alas, I’m not dead.* I’m here working on another blog post, all because a Tweet led me to this Issues on the Ether roundup, which led me to this essay by Ian Ellard, which everyone should go read right now before they waste another second with my drivel. Go on. It’s pure genius.

I especially love this bit:

When I write a novel, I own 100% of it.

That’s the gorgeous thing about it. It is unnibbled braincress. I take the seed of my experience of being alive, and water it with the artists’ arrogance that anyone will care, and this thing, this novel grows. And it’s all mine. 100%.

That’s not just a noble sentiment, but a wonderfully expressed sentiment. Ian goes on to suggest that selling all 100% of a novel for a lump sum might not be a great idea in 2022. It might not even be a great idea today. Instead, he sees collaborative publishing with cover artists, beta readers, and editors lending a hand for a cut of proceeds:

People like Bill came along, and John, and Sarah, and my darling Buckles, and they said, “Hey, you’re a writer, I’m an artist” or “Hey, you’re a writer, I can help you in this way or that way”.

And we said: “We can’t pay.” And they said: “That’s okay, give me 2%”; they said: “That’s okay, give me 10%.”



This is similar to the idea I espoused yesterday of agents-turned-producers. But I like Ian’s idea even better. Imagine a world of literary talent scouts. The sports world has them. The modeling world has them. Think of the amount of writing out there, ready to be analyzed for its worth. You have WattPad and scores of fan fiction sites. You have blogs and Facebook feeds. I can easily imagine someone like my editor, David Gatewood, spotting raw talent in the wild and offering to shore it up a bit in exchange for a percentage of future sales. David goes on to recommend Mike Tabor or Jason Gurley for cover art, and they provide artwork worth hundreds of dollars in exchange for some small percentage of ownership. After all, these people have contributed to the final product.

It’s an inversion of Kickstarter. Rather than beg readers for contributions with no idea of the quality of the final product, you have the financial backers begging to be included in something they see as worthy. ACX already offers this financial scheme, so it’s not as outlandish or impossible as you might think. Any self-published author can sign up for an account at Audible’s ACX site and submit their manuscript for auditions. Talented voice actors from all over the world can submit samples of their work. You get to hear people reading your novel. One of the options for financing audiobooks on ACX is a royalty split. This might be how books are produced in the future. One of many ways, at least.

There’s a need for this, because editing and cover art are expensive and writers are often dead-ass broke. It can cost $2,000 and up (way up) to create a polished, professional novel. But what’s expensive in monetary terms for the writer is far cheaper for the cover artist and editor, who might volunteer their time simply because they believe in a product. It’s what investors do. It’s what those voice actors on ACX do. This isn’t a gamble; it’s a calculated risk. For some, it’s the simple joy of collaborative creation. All we need now are the tools to handle the distribution of funds, and I could see Amazon working this into their KDP dashboard quite easily. Here’s what they would need to do:

  • Provide passwords with limited dashboard access to each contributor. This way, each contributor could monitor the sales of the work in real-time and make sure the funds disbursed match the sales tallied.
  • Require that financial changes have authorization from all contributors. In order to update banking information, all contributors would have to okay the change. So no contributor could siphon off funds from any of the others.
  • Set up permissions for each account, so the cover artist can update cover art with an okay from the author, the editor can do the same for blurbs and descriptions, and the formatter can do the same for metadata.
  • Here’s the biggie: Rather than have KDP accounts for individual authors, allow the creation of KDP accounts for individual works or series of works. Not only would this be great for anthologies with multiple authors, it would allow collaborators on single works to have a central dashboard just for that title. The current system of having author-centric dashboards wouldn’t go away, but this would provide a secondary type of account, and that’s one that revolves around the work itself.

A complete overhaul in how books are financed might seem extreme, but it’s already happening. There are panels at most writing conferences these days on crowdsourcing your next novel. But I think this inversion of crowdsourcing to talent-scouting is far more powerful. These aren’t gatekeepers; anyone can still publish whatever they want. It’s curators who know they have something they can contribute to a work of art they believe in.

In his essay on the future of book production, Ian goes on to imagine a world with far fewer outlets for books and what this will mean for midlisters and aspiring writers. Ian warns Porter Anderson on Issues on the Ether (emphasis mine):

We will not truly enter the era of the Centrifuge until all the bricks and mortar stores are gone. Until there really is only one route to market again. If that happens, there will be bestsellers and no-sellers, daily wheat and eternal chaff, and nothing in between. In that situation, the only thing that matters is access to capital; can my investor (my publishing house or my rich aunt and uncle) afford the up-front costs associated with making me a bestseller?

What publishing houses remain will be supermassive, fighting over the big blockbusters. There will be no middling advances.

And once that’s true, what does a non-blockbusting writer need a publishing house for? Editorial excellence? Cover design? A sales force? What’s the point?

I think Ian is spot-on. When publishers are paying more than $10,000,000 (that’s ten million!) for a 2-book series, the day of the blockbuster is well and truly here. That same sum could finance dozens of careers for new authors, resulting in an outpouring of voices and quality reads. Instead, readers are going to get two books. Two. The publisher will profit mightily by selling these two books to millions of readers and pouring all of their advertising might into a single basket. But are readers better served with this miniscule selection? Is the larger writing community? Welcome to the world of Hollywood sequels, spin-offs, remakes, and adaptations, where breaking in is nearly impossible, the rich get richer, and more people are left out in the cold.

Unless, that is, the reader remains in charge of curation. And some of those readers, with talents of their own, become patrons. And only if tools can be put into place that marry the various skills that go into great novels, tools that will allow the disbursement of funds to be seamless and perfectly automated, tools that help establish joint ownership of works of literature. When that day comes, stories will have found yet another path to production. And more of the people slaving away anonymously in large publishing houses will earn full-time careers at home in their pajamas, pounding chaff and making wheat, and readers will never go hungry again.


*Unless you’re reading this many years from now, and maybe you’re laughing, because you know that I am dead, to which I say: Laugh while you can, buddy. Your time is coming.**

**Unless you all have sorted that out in the future, in which case know that I’m sobbing right now, here in the past, while you’re out there in the future, laughing.***

***Hope you’re happy.

16 responses to “Turning Chaff into Wheat”

  1. This is brilliant and I’ve been thinking about gathering editors, cover designers, etc to do the same but the last element is automatically splitting revenue. There are paypal wordpress plugins that do this but nothing from Amazon yet. If there was a third party escrow type of company then it’d work.

  2. Great idea, Hugh. You’re right. Cash-strapped author/publishers can’t always afford the cover art or editing required to produce a great book. The percentage system you propose would be perfect. Great idea.

    On a separate note, I think as far as traditional publishing and non-compete clauses, etc. look at the studio system in Hollywood vs. what we have today. I think it’s a perfect analogy to what we have today in publishing (or should have). Traditional publishers SHOULD be offering per-project contracts with no non-compete clauses. Honestly, I think it’s the only way they will survive.

    1. Exactly Mark. Project-only contracts is the way things need to go.

  3. Very nice article. Let me respectfully point out that you pound wheat to sift and separate the chaff. One does not turn chaff into wheat. You could, perhaps, spin straw into gold though…

  4. Great ideas, Hugh. I particularly like the one about creating an account for individual works or series. I love the way you think outside the box.

  5. My tiny indie press, eFitzgerald Publishing, which I created in 2011, includes this concept. I envisioned “eScouts” who would scour places like Wattpad or the free fan-fiction sites for the next exciting work or author, and buy in to a new career by helping the author edit and prepare her books, as well as market them. In return, the eScout would get a piece of the profit.

    I love all these fresh ideas you continue to bring out, Hugh. Please don’t stop.

    Are you into your third month as CEO yet? I have a feeling you might just disband the company someday because there’s a better way!

  6. I wonder if another wrinkle might be something between a flat fee paid up front and a percentage paid over the life of the book. In that case, if I can’t afford to pay for various services up front, I might agree to a larger percentage with a ceiling that pays out to each of my team members. (So if I’ve paid $1000 to my designer, say, the payments stop once that fee is hit for that book. And it could be a higher or lower ceiling for each service for that same book.)

    Just a thought. It would add some flexibility for those who don’t have up-front cash, but are afraid of eternal profit-sharing.

  7. Thanks for sharing this essay. Love that it reads like short fiction. Some interesting ideas too. Joe Konrath has blogged about similar ideas as well.

    –My guess is publishing companies will become these editing, formatting, artist farms. Their role will shift from distribution (knowing how to get your product into reader’s hands) to one of providing professionalism. In a completely digital world, that’s really the only thing publishers have left to offer.

    I’m not sure it will be % based though. My guess is these gigs will be salaried. The “company” that forms the team will take a percentage.

    –Big name authors will directly employ artists, editors, and formatters. This might be where the % based comes into play. Perhaps a combination of both (I’d personally love to have artists on retainers).

    “It can cost $2,000 and up (way up) to create a polished, professional novel.” That — is extremely cheap for giving away a % of revenue (A lot of authors are doing this for even less — Brenna Aubrey’s cost was ~$1,200 bucks. I’m guessing Joe Konrath’s aren’t much more, knowing who he uses).

    It’s hard to see a model that uses %s when the overall production cost is so low versus the potential loss of giving away points.

    –For lesser known, smaller authors and artists, and people starting up, I don’t think things will be much different from self-pubbing today. Which is a combination of both. Personally, the author will probably pay upfront because most artists need to eat and 500-100 bucks in hand is better than 1-2% of something that may never happen.

    Most artists I know want a steady reliable income. That’s why I’m not sure that the whole % only would work out.

    If artists can start charging more, then maybe %s will work. But, seriously look on Deviantart.com — there are tens of thousands of extremely talented artists that aren’t getting paid living wages. Right now, it’s just too easy to put down next to nothing and get full rights to a professional cover.

    “Set up permissions for each account, so the cover artist can update cover art with an okay from the author, the editor can do the same for blurbs and descriptions, and the formatter can do the same for metadata.”

    I’d LOVE to have this functionality. I already maintain my workflow in a similar manner, but I have to manually punch in/upload everything. Being able to simply hit “Yes/No” would be amazing.

  8. Where I live, Bainbridge Island, WA. we have a FB group called Buy Nothing Bainbridge (BNB). It’s a simple premise – give and get free things. It’s caught on like wildfire on a GLOBAL scale. The latest being a BNA (Buy Nothing Australia), which sprouted out of the minds of some islanders – a shared economy. I’d love to do that with the book biz. I designed my own jacket art because I used to be an art director. I’d gladly trade that skill for proofing, editing, formatting, etc…

  9. Hi, Hugh! I just finished reading Wool and loved it. Congrats on your success.

    I love your blog. There are so many ideas and insights for writers and aspiring authors. I’m an indie author as well, and made six figures in the first eight months of publishing a contemporary romance series. I’m getting ready to release the final book in the series and the first two books each reached the top ten Amazon Bestsellers in their categories and top 15 – 20 in Romance books. A few months before I self-published, I did the agent-query thing and got polite rejections or no response at all, so I decided to give Amazon’s KDP program a try. Eight months later and six figures in royalties through Amazon and I am now a full-time writer. :) So that’s a bit about me.

    What I am wondering about is the new role for agents and publishers in this brave new world of book publishing. One of the big literary agencies that I queried a year ago approached me to offer representation in trade publishing. Imagine my surprise and utter pleasure. They also have an eBook service and have requested that I sign with them, but I am reluctant to give up control over my eBooks. I see traditional agents and publishers as being the way into print publishing and brick and mortar bookstores, but as for electronic publishing, I am not sure I need someone acting as my agent.

    I’m sure you have written about this already somewhere, but what advice would you give indie authors like me? Stick it on my own as an indie for eBooks? Use traditional publishers / agents for print?

    1. Hey Susan, congrats on your success! That’s amazing. Not sure if there’s any good reason to sign away your e-book rights. Sounds like someone is trying to take advantage of you. What can they do to increase your sales?

      A good agent would only want to make money where they made you more money. Print, foreign, audio, film. Maybe I’m wrong. You might want a second and third opinion. :)

      1. Thanks, Hugh. I’m keeping control of my eBooks for the time being, but I did sign with them for print publishing. Nothing yet on that front as my numbers aren’t yet quite impressive enough to start querying editors despite the six-figure income I received from eBook sales. I’m hoping to go the hybrid route at some point, but if not, I think I can live off my income in eBooks, if I can keep my current readers satisfied and keep getting new ones.

        As to what all this means for agents, publishers, editors, designers, it’s a brave new world. I found a great cover designer, hired an editor for my books, and have a street crew to beta read all my first drafts and subsequent drafts. I really enjoying self-publising, but would also like to see my books in brick and mortar bookstores. I enjoy reading about what’s happening in the publishing world, especially now that it has a direct bearing on my livelihood. Your blog is on my must-read list, as is Konrath’s and and dozens of other indie authors and hybrid authors.

        So thanks again for your very informative blog! Oh, and after finishing Wool, I’m turning my attention to Sand… :)

  10. […] Anyone Put Me in Charge; My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job; Lil’ Kris in da House and Turning Chaff Into Wheat) that, taken together, could be considered a growing, collective position paper for entrepreneurial […]

  11. […] Anyone Put Me in Charge; My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job; Lil’ Kris in da House and Turning Chaff Into Wheat) that, taken together, could be considered a growing, collective position paper for entrepreneurial […]

  12. […] Anyone Put Me in Charge; My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job; Lil’ Kris in da House and Turning Chaff Into Wheat) that, taken together, could be considered a growing, collective position paper for entrepreneurial […]

  13. Are you familiar with Patreon? http://www.patreon.com/

    Content providers can post their projects and get patrons. So if you are writing a series of books, for example, you could get a number of people pledging to pay you when you actually produce your work.

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