I get asked all the time, “What are your thoughts on how the publishing industry is changing?” That’s even the question I was asked to answer with this guest blog post. I know what they mean, but I don’t think many who ask me this understand the question they are asking.
Has the publishing industry changed over the past 20 years? Definitely. But, so what? What business hasn’t drastically changed over the past 20 years? We have moved from the information age to the supercharged, blindingly fast, internet-fueled information age. If you are a businessman in any industry in the world today, technology has changed how you do business. The publishing industry is no different.
What does that mean for authors specifically? Not much… and, well… a lot.
For me, it’s all about following the dollar and understanding why things happen the way they do.
Let me take a moment and qualify what I see as the “business of publishing.” Most of the struggling, up-and-coming authors I meet are clueless about what really drives the publishing industry. They focus on their art, their story, their creativity and nothing else. They say things like, “I wrote an amazing story about amazing things and I will be an amazing success making amazing amounts of money once people read my amazing book.” I think this attitude is the reason why most of the new authors I have met over my career have gone the way of the dodo bird – because they missed understanding the one fundamental fact that is the business of publishing. And that is, this ”business” has nothing to do with talent, creativity or good storytelling.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking how horrible I am to say that. You are thinking that if the book isn’t good, it will never sell. HA! Without naming names, I can think of at least a dozen books published in the past few years that have sold millions of copies, all of which most people will admit that these books are not “well written.” But, you miss my point. I am not talking about the quality of the book when I say, “This business has nothing to do with talent, creativity or good storytelling.” I am talking about the “Business” of “Publishing.” And this is what I think most new authors never try to understand. For the business of publishing is about making money, selling a product, and turning a profit. Just like every other business in this world. Period. So, ask yourself how a “producer of the products that this industry sells” (i.e., author) can ignore how this industry works thinking it’s only about the craft of storytelling and not end up a failure in this industry.
If you are an “artist of the craft,” then you are grimacing and perhaps puking or at the very least ranting about how disgusting I am and how I should never be allowed to publish another book. If so, you are still missing my point. I am not saying you should not try to put out a quality product. Of course your book needs to be well written, creative, and masterfully constructed. That is what the fans want. What I am saying is that the business side of this industry doesn’t care about that. (And even that statement is not entirely accurate. They do care, in a way. But, you would be surprised at how fast a publisher will pass on an amazing manuscript that has the ability to change the world if they think that book will be incredibly hard to market. They will opt instead to publish a mediocre (or even not so mediocre) book that has an amazing hook that they know the general public will latch on to, tell their friends about, and sell a bajillion copies.) I repeat: this is a business.
Is this the correct attitude? Perhaps not. But it is necessary.
Why? Because publishing a book costs money. You do realize it costs money to publish a book, right? And I don’t mean the $35 fee to upload your Word document to Amazon and self-publish. I am talking about traditional publishing, where they spend $3,000 to $5,000 on editorial services, $1,000 to $3,000 on cover art, $1,500 to $5,000 on graphic and web design, $2,500 on typesetting and eBook creation, $25,000 to $40,000 on advanced reader copies and pre-promotion, $40,000 to $100,000 on first print run, $50,000 to $2,000,000 on marketing, and a ton more costs that are just too many to list here.
Why do you think they spend that kind of money? Not for the good of the “art,” that’s for sure. Like every business, they invest their money in a product to “turn a profit.” If they spend $500,000 on a project, they expect to make ALL that money back, plus a surplus of money called “profit.” They need this “profit” to pay for things like salaries, the light bill, the telephone bill, oh yeah, and the next project they want to publish. If you think it is anything else, you are living in a more fantastical fantasy world than I write about in my fiction.
To that end, this industry has not changed by a hair. And if you are a writer who only focuses on the craft and nothing else, ignoring what publishing is really about, you are in for a world of hurt once this industry slaps you in the face and sends you crying to your mama.
An author needs to understand that what they are doing is creating a product to be “sold.” Yes, the quality of the product can and will affect its chances for success. But so will a dozen other criteria that have nothing to do with the story itself and are outside the control of the author’s writing/story telling ability. I think it’s important for a writer to wrap their head around this fact, and to deal with it from the very beginning.
So what has changed?
Many point to the eBook market. But, I don’t see that as real change. Sure, it is a different medium we can now use to get books into readers hands. But, at the end of the day, the fact remains that for this to be a business there must be a model in place to ensure compensation is received by all parties.
What do I mean by that? Remember a few years ago when Google did the stupidest thing that has ever been done in the history of doing stupid things? They said that since books are just information, and information is free, they were going to scan in all books and put them up for free for everyone. Now, in theory, that may sound great. However, this clashes with the fact that people in this industry must make a living or they can’t work in this industry. Call me callous, but I write for money.
And you want me and others like me to write for money. Why? Let’s look at “Fan Fic” for a moment. I have read Fan Fic. There is nothing wrong with it. There is rarely anything right with it. But, it is what it is. It is someone who is very interested in a produced series who wants to expand upon the story. They do not care if they write their Fan Fic story well. And, I don’t care either. I am not paying them for this story, they have put it on the internet for free. They are just happy to write it, and let me read it. I am reading it because I want to see where someone else would take a story I like. However, if I purchased a book that was as poorly written as most Fan Fic I have read, I would be pissed as most Fan Fic is not a professional level product.
I can write, and write well, because I have the time. I have the time because my writing earns me a living. You can purchase my books and know that they will be worth the money because I am a professional, who spends all my effort to ensure that I put out a professional product.
If there is ever a time when the business model collapses, and I no longer get paid for my writing, I will be forced to get a different job so that I can continue to feed my children. If I work a different job, I will no longer have the time to produce a professional product.
Had Google succeeded in making all books free forever, professional writers would have disappeared and in, say, ten years, Fan Fic would be all that was left.
A business model must always be in place. For someone to devote their life to doing a craft, they must be able to make a living. That will never change.
So, we are back to our original question, what has changed in the publishing industry?
In my opinion, there is really is only one major shift in this industry that anyone trying to make a living as an author needs to understand and focus on.
Never before has an author had more control of selling their own product to readers. And this is what the publishers fear when they talk about the “changes in the publishing industry.” Why? Simple. Think back to all those costs a publisher pays to publish a book. Many people think those are the reasons we authors need publishers. But they could not be more wrong – and publishers know this. The fact is, all that is just money. I have money. You might have money. We authors could spend all that money ourselves and do exactly what the big publishers are doing. We could hire the best cover artist, the best editors, the best publicists, the best printers, etc. All we need is the money and we are in like Flynn.
This is why the allure of self-publishing attracts so many authors to their doom. Because, even if you have all the money needed to put out a product in the exact way the big boys do, you will still probably fail.
First of all, I know of no self-published author who actually spends that kind of money to produce a professional level product. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have seen some amazing self-published work. But, I have never seen a self-published work that did it all. And for each amazing self-published book I have come across, I have seen hundreds that are… well… less amazing.
Secondly, because having money to pay for stuff is not what the publishers control, and it is not what makes a book commercially successful. What publishers own is one thing, and one thing only.
Publishers control distribution.
Now, the distribution model has changed with the fact that Barnes & Noble is basically the last great super power. But they are not the end of the line. You still have some 2,500 mom & pop bookstores, 3,000 libraries, a gaggle of other medium and smaller bookstore chains like Books-a-Million and Powell’s Books. The fact is, these book stores and libraries just don’t want to buy books from self-published authors. Why? Because they know that most self-published books are not produced at a professional level. Most authors do not spend the type of money discussed above on their project.
Those resellers want to purchase from the big boys because they trust them.
And without distribution, the self-published author is forced to sell books one at a time, wherever they can find a willing victim (I mean, book reader.) Even if your self-published book is a masterpiece, being forced to sell books one by one is exhausting, time consuming, and rarely financially beneficial.
“What about digital books?” you ask. Sure, eBooks are an easier vehicle for self-published authors to ride. And digital sales are growing. I know several self-published authors who make a living just selling digital books. Still, self-published authors are at a disadvantage even in this market as Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc. all want to advertise the multi-million copy selling books produced by the big publishers on their front pages.
So, why are the big publishers so afraid? I have no stinking idea.
The fact is more people win the lottery than have a commercially successful self-published book. If you want to play the odds, don’t self-publish. Just stick to buying lottery tickets. It’s way less work.
But how does this help you? It doesn’t… directly. But, understanding the hows and whys will help you make better decisions.
So why is the fact that an author has more control over selling their own product to readers so amazing? When you get right down to things, there is only one currency an author has – readers (i.e. fans). The more fans you have, the more chances your next project will be a success. This translates into value for the publishers who own the distribution you need so that you can reach a wider audience. Getting in with a bigger publisher in turn generates more fans for you, meaning your next project has more chances to succeed. You continue to grow and the cycle continues.
That is why it is so important for authors to get outside of their comfort zone and meet people. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, fan conventions, blogs, vlogs, websites, writers’ conferences, library events, interviews, reviews, reader websites like goodreads, book festivals, book clubs, bookstore signings, there have never been more avenues of opportunity for authors to interact directly with readers and fans. And, each time you step out and mingle, you have the opportunity to gain a new reader or fan.
And all those readers become currency you can use within the publishing industry.
So, the opportunity to get out there meet new readers is an amazing new thing for us authors. But, why are there not more successful writers today than there was twenty years ago? Simple. Being able to sell your own product directly to readers is not going to make you a success as a writer. It helps, but it is not the key to success.
What is the key to success? The same as it has always been.
Twenty years ago the best thing you could do to become a successful author was to write your next project. In today’s “drastically changed” market, the best thing you can to do become a successful author is to write your next project.
Building a fan base, (i.e. a readership) is a slow and arduous process for the majority of us. Sure, you have those lucky few who explode – I have already said you have people who win the lottery. But for the rest of us it takes time. I love the statement, “It takes an average of thirteen years to become an overnight success.” Mostly because I am about halfway to becoming an overnight success, and I can’t wait. It’s going to be awesome. But in reality it is a reminder to me that becoming a successful writer takes time, effort, work, perseverance, tenacity, sweat & tears, heartache, and an amazing amount of blind luck.
In closing, I think the reason why so many new authors come and go so fast is they have a false expectation of what this industry is. They enter this industry thinking everything is roses, and that all they have to do is write a book and they will become a gazillionaire. Then, when the reality sets in and they realize it is harder than they thought, they quit.
If your plan is to make a living as a writer, you need to concentrate on learning more than just “how to write good.” You also need to learn how and why this industry works the way it does. If you do, I think you will find that you will increase your chances for success.
About Author Maxwell Alexander Drake:
Maxwell Alexander Drake is an award-winning Science Fiction/Fantasy author, Graphic Novelist and Playwright. He is also a tie-in writer and game story consultant for Sony Online Entertainment. He is best known for his fantasy series, The Genesis of Oblivion Saga. Drake teaches creative writing at writers’ conferences, book festivals and fan conventions around the country. Find out more about him at his website, www.maxwellalexanderdrake.com, more about the Genesis of Oblivion Saga at www.genesisofoblivion.com, and more about his latest graphic novel at www.downfallthecomic.com.