Monday, September 27, 2010

More Things Writers (might!) Need from Publishers

Steve writes:
I recently posted here my response to an article in the Huffington Post by writer Philip Goldberg. In his article, Goldberg champions writers continuing need for publishers in the ebook and print-on-demand (POD) age, where self-publishing has become an attractive and available option.  Goldberg based this on two major points, functions the publishers provide, and that he regarded as indispensable, namely advance payments and editing.

I agreed that writers need editing, but questioned what form this editing should take, and that it necessarily had to be provided by editors.  As for advances, well, go back and read the first post if you haven't already...

But these are hardly the only important functions provided to writers by traditional publishers, and it didn't take me long to think of three others that Goldberg's article didn't mention, including one that I (for a while, anyway) considered a possible deal-breaker, a function so important and irreplaceable that it made self-publishing, at best, a highly calculated risk.

Well, turns out I was wrong.  The more I look, the more I see that for every "indispensable" function of traditional publishers, there are alternatives.  They may not be the best options, and they may not even be advisable options for many writers, but they are there for those with the desire and the will to use them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Here's my short-list of additional vital functions provided to writers by publishers:

Publicity/Advertising/Sales Support
Copyright Enforcement
Legal Protection from Nuisance Lawsuits

Let's look at each of these in turn, and see how they have to be reexamined in this new digital age of publishing.

Publicity/Advertising/Sales Support
The clear advantage to writers in selling their own work through electronic and print on demand self-publication is a return of 40-70% of retail vs. the 10% or less (often far less) provided by traditional publishers.  The problem is that this is not a zero-sum game.  Does this dramatic change in royalties mean 4 to 7 times the income for writers?  Not unless the sales and retail prices remain the same, and that seems very unlikely.

We'll get back to this "new equation," but let's deal with the obvious: Traditional publishers have marketing and sales resources available to them that small publishers, much less individual authors can never touch: magazine advertising, trade publications, trade shows, catalogs, television ads, radio.  They have the ability to push a book into the public eye with a force and speed that small-source publishing can never match.

Does this make the question a no-brainer?  Must authors stay with traditional publishing as the only way to maximize their income, no matter how small it currently seems?  Not necessarily.  First, let's look at the weaknesses in the traditional marketing behemoth.

The first problem with the traditional marketing machine is that it isn't applied equally to a publisher's line.  Only a few lead titles get the full marketing push.

While nobody has an infallible way of telling which books will sell and which won't, it's a curious fact that the success of a book is, to some extent anyway, defined the moment the contract is put on the table.  The reason?  A spreadsheet called a "Profit and Loss" statement.  Really, it all comes down to the "advance," the advance payment against future sales royalties.

Negotiations aside, the advance amount is set by the anticipated sales of the book.  The intent of the P&L is that the publisher doesn't lose money on the book, and hopefully makes a profit.  If that projection doesn't work, the publisher has a Bad Day, and possibly so do some of the people who made the decision to go forward with the project.  Asses are on the line.  No matter what the projection of the P&L statement is, most everyone at the publisher has a vested interest in making it come true.

What that means is that, when the advance is plugged into that P&L, a lot of things are predetermined: the print-run size, minimum promotion budget, catalog placement, ad placement, and on down the line.  A book with a huge advance goes to the top of the promotion list because it has to.  It will sell a certain number of copies because the machine will make it sell a certain number of copies.  It will get the best cover, the best cover copy, the best advertising, the best placement, and the biggest push to the stores from the sales department.

Of course, there are limits to the machine.  Once the books are stacked in the front of every major bookstore in the country, the machine can't make people buy them.  Suggest, remind, nag, yes, but they can't be made to buy.  But still, the books are there, right where they can't be missed.  They're there in such quantity that they aren't likely to sell out (and if they do sell out, the promotion department goes into overtime).  And if you build it, usually, they will come.  A good number of them anyway.

But what about books with lower advances?  Well, if the advances are just a little lower, the print run is smaller.  Maybe the display doesn't go right at the front of the store, or maybe it's shared with another book of equal stature, or maybe it ends up on the bottom of a display under that month's lead title.  Maybe it's featured on page two of the catalog, but not the cover.  Maybe there's no TV or radio ad budget.  Maybe it shows up in a house ad rather than having its own magazine ads.  The machine knows that this book needs to make a little money, sell some copies, but not that many copies.  So long as the P&L is satisfied, so is the machine.

At this level, the small publisher simply can't compare.  Not only can't they afford to throw money at electronic media and slick ads, not only can't they position their books in stores, they're at a huge disadvantage getting their books in stores at all.

But what we're described so far covers only the top few percent of a major publisher's catalog.  For the great majority of books, the machine hardly works at all.  In fact, what service it offers is mainly a side-effect of its service to bigger books.  Most books can only hope to surf the wake of the big-machine's passage.

Just to be in the catalog, just to be at the bottom of a house ad, just to have the publisher's logo on the spine offering some endorsement of average quality and professionalism; those things have value.  With those things behind them, it's hard for a book not to sell a few copies.  A few.  Usually enough to satisfy the meager numbers on a P&L.  Usually.

Really, it doesn't concern the machine much.  It isn't likely that anybody's job will hang on the success of a little book with a $5,000, and a major publisher spits out a lot of books like that every month.  The risk on each is low, and what risk there is, is easy to spread around.  One little book is pretty much the same as any other little book.  The machine doesn't care.  Only the author of the little book cares...

Well, they care a little.  Which is why publishers are now increasingly expecting authors to do their own promotion.  In fact, it's a purchasing criteria.  See, traditional publishing has heard about this new thing called the interwebs -- or something.  Anyway, they've heard that Tweety pages and Facespaces are important, and they like authors who have lots of followers and friends.  Because while they understand that social media is now important, they aren't very good at doing it themselves.  That's the author's job.

So for most authors, they're mostly on their own for publicity and promotion.  Does that mean publishers are completely useless unless you're one of the lucky few at the top of the food chain?  Well, that depends on what you consider important, because traditional publisher have one huge advantage that small publishers can't match: the ability to place books in bookstores.

Yes, that door has cracked open a bit.  Small and self-publishers can get print-on-demand books into some of the major distributors that stores order from.  But does that mean they will order books?  No.  No it does not.  If publishing in print books, and selling through traditional stores is your goal, then there's still just one choice that makes a lot of sense.  (Talk to me again tomorrow, this situation is still in flux.)

But if, on the other hand you're willing to go after a different model, if you're willing to look at ebooks rather than print as a primary outlet, or you've got a plan to sell your own print-on-demand, then the picture is much different.  Not only might it be possible to do without traditional publishing's publicity machine, that machine might actually be doing the wrong thing for the non-traditional publishing model.

A Question of Velocity
How can that be?

Well, what do you think publicity is about?  Sales?

When we're talking about traditional publishing, the answer to that question is no.

Well, yes, but...

No.

Actually, it's about velocity.

That's the important part anyway.  Sure, they're hoping they'll sell a lot of books, but to some extent, the number of sales is predestined, by that P&L sheet, by the initial print run, by the publicity budget.  If it sells less than this "destiny," then it's a failure.

If it sells more, it's good, but it means that somebody make a mistake.  It's a mistake which they have limited short-term ability to respond to.  It's a mistake they'll try to correct.  When they print the paperback.  When they print the sequel.  Anything they can do now is just damage control.

What they want to do is sell the predestined number of books very quickly, because that's all the time a book has.  It's only in the stores a short time. The machine of publishing is always running.  It waits for no book.  Each book must march forward at its appointed time, sell its appointed number, and then get the hell out of the way for the next thing.

Everything in traditional publishing is about velocity.  Even best-seller lists, even the sales rankings on Amazon, they aren't about numbers of sales so much as they're about velocity of sales.


Velocity is a necessary part of traditional publishing's business model.  But as a writer, it doesn't have to be a part of yours.  Ultimately, what the writer wants, especially the career writer, is numbers, not velocity.


When you don't have to worry about velocity, the game changes.  You don't necessarily need reviews in major publications.  You don't necessarily need ads.  You can work small, with social media, with readings, with web-presence, with web reviews, with sale-site reviews, with word of mouth.  You've got the luxury of letting sales grow, of letting good work rise on its own merits.

That can be bad, of course, if the book doesn't have those merits, or at least, if it doesn't find an audience.  But that's okay, because then at least you know.  It isn't a matter of some destiny rubber stamped by a sales manager with a crystal ball that doesn't work.  And if it doesn't work, then nothing is lost.  If the book isn't good enough, you still have a change to fix it another day.  If it doesn't find an audience today, maybe that audience will come along later.

In this world, books don't go bad like grocery-store tomatoes.  Time isn't your enemy.  It's your friend.

Books, all kinds of books, need promotion.  But the kinds of promotion that the small and self-publisher needs, even the goals of that promotion, are different than the ones needed by traditional publishing.  The worst mistake a small publisher can make, the worst trap they can fall into, is to dump money and effort in an attempt to emulate traditional publishing's promotional model.

Small publishers and self publishers should play to their strengths, not their weaknesses.  Personal interactions with readers, social media, and small-scale publicity that builds over time, not all at once by brute force.

Leveraging the Numbers
Small publishers also have one other sales tool that traditional publisher can't (over the long term, anyway) match: Price.

Logic would seem to dictate that since a small-source published book might sell less than a New York book, it has to be priced at least as high in order not to make far less money.  But that's not necessarily the case.  It's been demonstrated again and again that low priced ebooks with no publicity can compete effectively with high-priced New York offerings, frequently appearing on Amazon's Kindle best-seller list.  But even if the sales are the same, a cheaper ebook makes for less money, right?

No.  It should be obvious, but it isn't to a lot of writers.  Get three times the royalties, cut the price by 2/3, sell the same number of copies, and you're even.  Get seven times the royalties, cut the price by 5/7ths, sell the same number, make twice as much.  Even if you sell half as many, you still break even.

The point is, the small-source publisher has lots of cost-based promotional room to play with if they don't get greedy.  Probably you've heard the old story of the monkey and the jar.  The monkey reaches into a jar full of treats and takes a whole handful, making their fist too big to take out of the jar.  If they just took the treats one at a time, they could empty the jar, but because of their greed, they get nothing (not even their hand).  That's how too many self-published writers and small-source publishers approach pricing.

That doesn't necessarily mean cheaper is always better.  It just means you can discount over traditional publishers with no strain at all, and you have lots of room to play beyond that.  There are many options and strategies open to you (for example, making the first book of a series very-low-priced or free, while putting the rest of the series at higher price points).  Don't hamstring the strongest promotional tool at your disposal because you're locked into obsolete ideas about pricing.

Okay, this post has run long again, leaving me with two remaining functions provided to writers by traditional publishing: copyright enforcement, and protection from lawsuits.  We'll save those for another post, coming soon.

Stay tuned.

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