Last month, Forbes asserted that 25 percent of the top-selling books on Amazon, the world’s biggest book retailer, were from independent or self-published authors. The latest self-publishing phenom, Hugh Howey, sold just the print rights for Wool to St. Martin’s Press for six figures, but retained the e-publishing rights for himself, because his book was already a million-plus seller.
This story shows that there is a possibility for a new kind of relationship between the author and publisher. But it also raises a bigger question:
In an age where authors can reach millions of readers by themselves, is there a role for a big commercial publisher?
When readers choose good books without the intermediation of a publisher, is there a market for the gigantic, multinational Big Six publishers?
Or is it the Big Five, now? Whatever, I suggest a short form: “Bix.”
E-books are the driving force of publishing these days. Amazon reported that more than half of its sales are of e-books. And David Gaughran estimates that 25 percent of the e-book market is by independent authors.
When the numbers of independent authors self-publishing e-books started climbing, the commercial publishers said that the self-published just weren’t good enough to get published by a commercial publisher.
The Bix claim that they provide an essential gatekeeping function. The story they tell goes like this:
- Wannabe authors submit manuscripts into a “slush pile.” Most of them are terrible, but a very few might be turned into examples of great literature.
- The Bix editors read through the slush pile and select the few gems.
- They pay the author an advance on their royalties, which allows the author to live while working on turning that raw manuscript into something an audience will read.
- The Bix subject the raw manuscript to rigourous development, involving several iterations or review, critique, re-writing by the author, close work with different editors and finally line-by-line, word-by-word editing.
- During this process, the publisher and its editing staff do all the work, while (as we have seen in countless movies and TV shows), the author drags out the process, whiling away the days in substance abuse, sexual excess and drinking espresso in smoky cafés instead of working on the re-write.
- Finally, the book comes out and the publisher pays for a big launch in the most prestigious bookstore in Manhattan, then a book launch tour across the country, and interviews on TV talk shows and readings in universities.
All those manuscripts that didn’t make it out of the slush pile? The publisher sent their authors polite rejection letters, saying not that the manuscript is crap, but that it “didn’t meet their needs at this time.”
Here’s the reality of the Bix “quality gatekeeping” function which I’ve learned in my years in the publishing industry:
· Acquisitions editors and agents choose manuscripts to publish based on sellability, not quality. Because they cannot tell the future any better than you or me, they look at whether an author has been published before, or whether the story is like a current best-seller from another publisher, to make decisions. Getting selected from the slush pile is due either to blind luck or connections within the industry.
· The quality of editing varies widely. Most copy-editors and proofreaders are right out of university and so badly underpaid that most seek more rewarding employment.
· Authors work very hard. Most have other jobs, and I don’t know any who spend endless hours drinking espresso in cafés. And thankfully, you cannot smoke in most cafés, anymore.
In reality, authors today do most of the work that publishers did 20 years ago: research, check facts, write, edit, copy-edit and proofread. Word processing programs automate most interior design or layout. Hugh Howey and any number of other authors concur that most authors published by big companies still have to do their own promotion. The days of book launch tours are long gone.
What about gatekeeping?
Some of the best-sellers today are from self-published authors. Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking and others making their livings selling books without the intermediation of a big company. Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler famously rejected commercial publishing offers.
On the other side of this argument are the truly awful books from the commercial publishers. Dan Brown’s latest novel is set to become the biggest book on the beaches this summer, and almost every critic has said it’s terrible. The Daily Telegraph even published the “Dan Brown’s Top 20 Worst Sentences.”
Like generals who fight the previous war, the Bix publish new versions of last year’s bestsellers. Rip-offs, in other words. How many sexy vampire series are there? Friendly zombies? Books about women who take long trips to eat good food, have great sex and find themselves?
Readers themselves are replacing the quality gatekeeper role of the publisher. Sites like Goodreads, the Kindle Book Review, Amazon’s discussion boards (although you need a thick skin to participate on these) — and of course, BestSelling Reads.
Every time communications technology reduces the cost of producing and distributing content, it brings content creators closer to audiences. That means there is less room and less of a role for intermediaries.
Do audiences need commercial publishers? There is still room for Bix. They have deep pockets (despite their protestations otherwise and despite the skimpy amounts they pay authors and their own employees), and have the infrastructure for distributing paper books.
But readers are by-passing them. If the Bix want to stay viable over the long term, they’re going to have to respond to what readers are telling the market — they’re paying for the greater variety in all books that the new, independent writers are producing today.
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