Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Publishing After Barry Eisler: What Will the Industry Look Like When Its Bestsellers Go Rogue?

So, we all remember that a month ago Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 deal in favor of self-publishing, right? He certainly wasn’t the first author to have the idea that he could make more money by taking his books’ publication into his own hands, but the numbers made his announcement, as Joe Konrath said, “one for the Twitter Hall of Fame.” It stopped the publishing world in its tracks for a moment. And it got me thinking about the future of publishing.

In conversation, Barry told Joe:
…The new generation [is] looking at self-publishing differently... The question—“Should I self-publish?”—[is] going to be asked by more and more authors going forward. And… over time, more and more of them were going to be answering the question, “Yes.”

This is exactly what’s happening now. I’m not the first example, though I might be a noteworthy one because of the numbers I’m walking away from. But there will be others, more and more of them.

In all honesty, I think Barry’s right—there will be more and more authors who choose to self-publish as time goes on, and especially as digital sales continue to rise. As he and Joe agreed in their interview, it’s a matter of numbers: by self-publishing digitally rather than publishing traditionally, an author makes more money on every single copy sold.

Before you scrap your query letter completely, though, let’s take a look at those numbers. As Nathan Bransford explained in an essential blog post on the math behind publishing decisions, in order to make from self-publishing exactly what he would have made from that six-digit deal, Barry Eisler is counting on selling at least 71,633 ebooks. Can he do it? Probably. Assuming he’s already selling that many copies (if not more) of each of his books, it’s a safe bet that his large readership will stick with him and keep his numbers high.

Well, that’s all well and good if you’re Barry Eisler, or Stephen King, or Dean Koontz, or Jonathan Franzen—especially if you can count on your day of Twitter fame to sell copies of your book for you, the way I bet Barry Eisler can. But what about the little guys?

See, Joe and Barry agreed in their interview that publishers aren't needed anymore. But, as a great many writers and editors alike will tell you, there are some definite benefits to working with a publishing house.

Perhaps the most important, especially as writers’ need for help with cover design, layout and printing decreases, is the benefit of a devoted marketing force. The average writer doesn’t go from a debut novelist to a household name on his or her own. Sure, it happens—you need look no further than Nathan Bransford’s post and his numbers for Amanda Hocking. But it doesn’t happen frequently, or without the author (or a devoted team close to the author) having a very special skill set.

Publishing doom-and-gloomers will tell you that it’s only a matter of time before all the publishing houses go under, that the internet will eliminate the need for "gatekeepers," and that anyone can and will be discovered through the internet. But really, I don’t think that e-publishing is going to save every writer from obscurity. It will certainly increase the number of writers who have access to publishing, but will it increase the number of readers, or even distribute existing readers evenly among all the writers being published?

I don’t think so. If anything, e-publishing makes good marketing and curation all the more important. With more and more books vying for attention, it’s going to become that much harder to stand out. Editors, "gatekeepers" if you must call them that, who have a strong eye for what will appeal to people, and marketers who know how to reach those people will become more important than ever. It’s a hard, hard world for the as-yet-unknown.

So when I think about the future of publishing in the digital era, I wonder not about what will happen to the New York Times bestselling author, but about what will happen to the debut author, the writer of literary fiction, and the quiet novel with a niche audience. Publishers have, for so long, financed their operations through bestsellers and hesitated to take on a riskier project with a potentially small or difficult to reach audience. But if the bestsellers break away from traditional publishing, will the industry fold, or will it redefine itself?

Perhaps the strength of publishers in a new era of publishing will be their ability to devote time and attention to niche audiences, to find new talents and voices, and to develop literary projects for the devoted reader. The profits would be smaller, and the industry would change significantly. It’s hard to imagine that the big four could make this transition smoothly. But it may be that small, independent houses are in the perfect position to consider it.

I don’t really know what form publishing will take in the digital era. I agree with Joe Konrath that “paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm,” whether that takes one year or ten. I certainly don’t want to see my job disappear, or the good work of editors, marketers and designers all over the world become valueless. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that publishers need to be flexible and adapt to their evolving roles as technology changes the media it delivers. And I think, if finding and promoting new talent and literary voices were to become the new role of publishers, I could be okay with that.

But that’s just one theory—what’s yours? What do you think will become of publishing in the digital era?

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