Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

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

Who is Goliath?

A great piece in the Seattle Times this week about how small publishers can thrive and compete thanks to print on demand and the rise of ebooks. In fact, all of the advantages self-publishers enjoy today are just as beneficial for small presses. You can cut out costly returns, print no more books than those you sell, and small presses can build a backlist that stays relevant and fresh for the rest of time.

Late last year, there were a handful of great reports on the health of independent bookstores. Check out this one at the Washington Post and another from NPR. I’ve been following the rise of indie shops for a few years now, back to when I worked in one. And I’m seriously considering opening a bookstore of my own (I blogged about what it would look like here).

It raises the question of who we should be pulling for as the publishing industry pivots and swerves. Not that we need to take sides at all, but I do find it curious that there is more of an outpouring of love and concern for the major brick and mortar chains and the Big 5 publishers than there is for everyone else. Are we rooting for Goliath? I think we are.

Amazon is often seen as the problem. But “Amazon” is a name for technological innovations that were going to happen whether we wanted them to or not. We might as well shake our fists at gravity. A lot of people are going to choose price and selection over any other concern. Which is why major publishers grew so big and why independent shops shuttered in the first place.

I remember going to see You’ve Got Mail in the late 90s. Back then, the giant and the boy with the sling were clear. Now, not so much. One of those boys-with-a-sling moved to Seattle and went from selling books out of his garage to the largest online retailer in the US. The question is, who is he dinging with his river stones?

It occurred to me a few months ago that perhaps we are slaying giants, and we just don’t realize it yet. Customers who prefer low prices and vast selection are now shopping online. The big boxes are hurting (Borders is gone and many pundits are counting the days before Barnes & Noble joins them). Independent bookstores, meanwhile, are seeing roughly 10% growth, year on year, for the past three years. It reminds me of how Yellowstone National Park restored an ecosystem by reintroducing wolves back into the environment. The wolves keep the deer population in check. The deer were rubbing on saplings, which prevents new forest growth and affects dozens of lifeforms downstream. The wolves were the little guy. The adorable deer were the menacing Goliaths.

Our Author Earnings reports have highlighted the strength not just of self-published authors but also of small presses. The digital revolution is making it possible for mom-and-pop publishers to compete on a level playing field. Look at the system we are bemoaning the loss of: It means five behemoth publishers paying tons of money to control which books greet you as you walk into a cavernous space just as much crammed with toys and gifts as actual books. Are we really going to miss this? Or are we going to welcome the return of bookstores that cater to their communities, where local business owners thrive, and where thousands of individual presses support a lot more authors.

Hollywood’s blockbuster model of low-risk re-makes and sequels has been working its way into publishing, and that has not been a good thing. That is another Goliath being slayed. Replacing this is a world in which every rural town, no matter how small, has a digital bookstore in each living room, bedroom, and pocket. Replacing this is a world in which anyone can hone their craft, publish their works, and find a reader or two. Replacing this is the rise of independent bookstores, the rise of reading, the rise of literature, the rise of working-class writers, and the rise of all those myriad publishers who in a previous age were conquered and consumed by what we now call the Big 5.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope the major publishers survive. The world can’t have enough Davids.

26 replies to “Who is Goliath?”

Hey, perhaps part of the problem is the Big 5 are just that, a mere five companies that could never service the diverse range of reading interests across all genres. Writers like myself see them as stifling new growth, but perhaps that is just the natural consequence of having such a limited ecosystem of five “gatekeepers.” Instead of “keeping the gates,” they’re invariably turning away the majority, allowing only a trickle through. And just like nature, a bit more diversity at all levels leads to a healthy balance. As you point out, that indie book shops and small publishers are bouncing back is the equivalent of Yellowstone being restored.

Small Presses have to fight to stay relevant, too. Or rather, innovate.

We now live in a world where an author can quite easily create and publish their own novel — with professional cover art, editing, and formatting — and market it, too.

So the small presses really need to think about what they can offer authors. They have to provide a model that can attract authors in this new environment. And, in the end, I think that’s great for writers, small presses, and ultimately readers.

I agree with S. Elliot that small presses will have to innovate to remain relevant. Three years ago, my small press experience was still similar to yours, Hugh – there was nothing they could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself (often better) and yet they were writing contracts with terms closer to Big Pub than Self Pub. Small presses will have to offer something with a competitive advantage (say pooled marketing or a true sales force to market to bookstores or distribution advantages) or increase their royalties substantially.

I had something else I was going to comment on until reading Hugh’s suggestion. Wow, that would be something wouldn’t it? Evolved Publishing offers their authors 70%, and claim to be among the best offers out there for small press publishing.

Quote from: http://evolvedpub.com/submissions/
Typically, authors choose not to pay up-front fees, and enjoy a royalty rate of 70-78% of retailer royalties paid, depending on the needs for that project. We believe those author royalty rates are among the highest (perhaps the highest) in the industry.

I don’t read most of the genres they publish, but those that I’ve read have been very well edited… though the covers mostly haven’t been top notch. Another small press I like is Ragnarok Publications. (http://ragnarokpub.com) They publish in my genre, dark fantasy and horror, have solid editing and some of the covers are very good. They appeal to me as an author because I’m seeing the healthy amount of reviews on Amazon, the low ebook prices with effective deals, and a community online. I don’t know what their percentage is, but I’m at least tempted to submit because I’ve spent the money on a freelance editor that I never recouped because the story either wasn’t ready or the editor and I just don’t see eye to eye. With all the benefits long term that I see in self publishing, the upfront cost is the hardest hurdle for me to jump over.

Did you mean that sarcastically, or as the total fee small presses would charge for their services?

Total fee. Some agents are already taking on the role of “publisher” by offering editorial suggestions and helping with the publishing mechanics. And taking a small fee from eventual sales. I think this will be a valuable and viable service in the future. We’ll stop seeing it as publishers paying authors and more of authors paying their support personnel.

I’m doing this with my Laugh Riot Press imprint, an intimate, genre-specific, social media marketing and self-publishing company for funny writers of funny books, including me, of course. I’m not charging an agent’s fee, however, I don’t want any of the writers’ revenue. Instead, there is a yearly fee to be part of the LRP digital marketing movement. (I don’t view that as writing revenue. I consider it to be part of the writers’ capital investment in themselves and their work.) I think what you mean by working-class writers, Hugh, are folks with full lives in progress–jobs, families, communities they’re tied to–who may not even aspire to be full-time professional writers, but want to self-publish and promote their work in the most professional way possible. They’re happy where they are in life, but wish they could spend more time writing and less time marketing themselves and their books. I think there are a lot of us working-class writers in that boat. Laugh Riot Press offers self-published writers the pooled marketing aspect that Susan mentioned. Great to talk about this stuff out loud. In its soul, self-publishing is about writers feeling awesome about their writing lives. This blog and the smart folks who comment really help push the rock. Can’t thank you both enough.

This blog is very timely for me – a friend sent me the link to your website! I was just wanting to research options for self publishing or small publishers – thank you for all your links!

The problem with the Big 5 (at least one of their problems) is that they’ve already pissed in their own pool. Instead of embracing the ebook and independent publishing movement, they turned their backs. So when people wanted books from markets that the big 5 couldn’t reach, those people went around the big publishers. The Big 5 should have been expanding not conglomerating.

In my area there’s a small mom and pop book store. This place thrives because it caters to readers by hosting signings from authors that they can actually connect with (indies). they sell used books, they’ll order hard to find books, they have books from obscure niche’s. They have found a way to make the most of the publishing environment.

First of all, bless you for writing “It raises the question” and not “It begs the question.”

Second, caveat scriptor for writers going with small presses. They can sometimes be flaky and poorly run, and go out of business before a book comes out. Be sure contract terms include a favorable reversion clause.

Third, the indie bookstore resurge is a wonderful thing.

Increasing accessibility to publishing tools and spreading the profits around to self-publishers, small presses, and indie bookstores means more variety for readers and a more inventive, evolving literary culture. This is what innovation and creativity is all about.

Thanks for all the efforts you’ve put into shining a light on the current state of book writing and publishing.

Long live the revolution!

Thank you for this timely article, Hugh. I can provide a perfect example of a thriving small press. Though given the size of community I’ve found myself calling my new family, it’s anything but small. The first thing you see on Booktrope’s website is a quote from the CEO, Ken Shear: “Booktrope team publishing is transforming the way books are published.” I wondered if it could be true when they asked me if I’d be interested in having them rerelease my previously self-published women’s fiction novel. I signed on with fingers crossed. Now, after having my book professionally edited and proofread, with a gorgeous new cover and improved layout, I’m a believer. My Booktrope book manager is a dream. She works tirelessly to promote her authors’ books and help them understand how to build a following. As I write this, I’m in the top 7,000 on Amazon due to advertising she set up for me. I haven’t shelled out a penny. Everyone involved is invested because they get a cut of sales. This makes sense. It works. I’m happy. Everyone I’ve met on the Booktrope team seems happy. We support each other and promote each other’s work, even when it’s in the same genre, because that’s the spirit Booktrope promotes. When one of us wins, we all win. I’m proud to partner with David, not Goliath.

Goliath wasn’t even Goliath. Have a look at he TED talk from Malcolm Gladwell on the subject. Google ‘The Unheard Story of David and Goliath.’

I think the idea that there is a side of business that’s dominating because of its overpowering presence is a myth. The rise of the Big Five happened as a result of consumer demand. We gave them the power, and we did it happily.

Price and selection are part of the equation, but the key component is convenience. Amazon is winning that game right now, and will continue to win until someone finds a way to do it cheaper / faster / better. Voting with dollars was responsible for that as well.

The same can be said of the blockbuster formula. People don’t like change. We would rather have the same media with a fresh coat of paint than try something entirely new. All the creative pieces that redefine convention end up earning relatively little for all their disruption.

Homogenizing publishing will cause innovation to plummet. We shouldn’t want too much of anything, whether it’s David or Goliath. The key to a thriving marketplace (and a healthy ecosystem) is diversity. Gatekeepers included.

Because let’s face it, the real wolves… are us.

This brings up the question of whether we as indie authors should be publishing under our own small press. Does having your own press lend more credibility to the general public. Whether we like it or not, there are still a lot of people who will not buy a book unless it has been issued through a publishing house, What do you think Hugh?

I love your posts. I love your Facebook. I love your tweets. I love your videos. I love your appearances in other people’s videos. But most of all, I love your advice to authors to write, write, write.

I’m missing seeing those word counters filling up. Y’know, the ones in the upper left?

D.P.

I haven’t been updating them. I just sent a story to my editor that never appeared over there. And I’ve started another that isn’t up there yet. Too busy writing! :)

That’s what I like to hear. Well done, young man. Now stop replying to my comments so I can get back to work.

D.P.

The things is….economically speaking, publishers are middle-men. So are bookstores to some extent. And middle-men eventually almost always get squeezed out unless they add value.

So for an author, the question is how do publishers add value (and how much value do they add). For bookstores, the answer is more obvious, in that they offer exposure and a platform for buying, but now that print-on-demand technology is arriving, it’s not going to be too long until popular authors with large followings (think Steven King/Tom Clancy/John Grisham types) decide to ditch publishers entirely and retain 100% of their revenues for themselves.

Great insight, Hugh. I’ve been a proponent for the small press for at least the past 10 years, and have never failed to sell to the publisher of my choice. Just recently had a small book auction which my agent handled and I came away very pleased with the advance and contract changes. Things are changing, to be sure. The Hogs (big six and big book retailers) used to dominate the trough and shove the little piglets aside, who couldn’t get their swill. The hogs, bloated from overindulging, have now had to face Amazon, the popularity of e-books and very competitive pricing. Not to mention, some very popular and successful up-and-coming SPed authors.

I’ll tell you where I hurt most–I hurt in paper. I just can’t seem to get enough paperback sales to justify production. The domination of paperback (hard or quality trade) seems to be the last bastion of the Giants, who have no, or little, trouble getting shelved. I would love to see this change. I started some changes by contacting the highest officer in charge of sales that I could find at BAM. She agreed to read my book personally and asked for our publisher’s bio, plan, back-list and sales history, delivered in a nice package. We have hope that something comes of this little venture. These are new inroads that we should be pursuing.

In the meantime, we little guys can reach out to the independent book stores for placement. We can also show our support by patronizing them.

Chris–your benefactor.

Just to add that here in Vermont there is a small local bookstore in every town and they have not succumbed so far… while Borders downtown of course left – a local bookstore opened a second store instead! So I do not think local bookstores will go away. There are still many of us addicted to having physical books in hand! And the local bookstores have panache, flavor, expertise, character… I will take one any day over a box store. That said I also shop at Amazon. I live rurally and it is very convenient! And cheaper. So what can I say?! As an aspiring published author, I am excited by all the new publishing options!

Well, as someone who manages a small press (Evolved Publishing), I appreciate the general thrust of your article. However, when you mentioned 15% for *EVERYTHING*, I blanched. We’ve been struggling with this since we formed 3 years ago, seeking to find with our authors a happy common ground that we can all live with. After all, our editors and artists and marketers and translators must all make money too.

If you want first-rate editing, good cover art, professionally formatted files for uploading, some soft, mostly sweat-equity marketing, and then additional services such as translations and audio books, as we offer, then 15% for EVERYTHING means we’d be making nothing, in the end. As it is, we don’t make much per book, and count on our growing team and catalog – volume – to get us where we want to be, financially. Authors earn a very high royalty, but 85%? After all we do?

Frankly, we’d be out of business, because I could make more money working the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.

In an industry where publishers have traditionally paid most authors crap for their work, and pure-unadulterated-you-must-be-kidding-me-crap on eBook sales, I rather thought our 70-78% author royalty model was pretty spectacular. I suspect if authors want more, AND want their publisher to actually stay in business (this is no small concern when it comes to the small presses), they’re whistling dixie, and need to stick with self-publishing.

I wasn’t thinking that the publisher would offer those services but rather help facilitate finding the freelancers for the author and handling file management.

@ Lane Diamond

Here’s the million-dollar question, especially as far as publishers go: Is there any service you as a publisher provide that an author cannot purchase more cheaply elsewhere?

Talented freelance cover artists are all over the place.

Likewise, there are also more than a few talented freelance editors out and about.

The crux of the matter is that there is an economic point where is makes more sense for an author to self-publish and keep 100% of royalties for him/herself and to pay set fees to a freelancer for the types of services that have been traditionally provided by publishers.

Right now, what everyone is trying to figure out is what that point is…

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