Thursday, May 06, 2010

Why We Need Publishers

The e-book format and its ensuing business model have everyone talking—and guessing where the book industry is headed. In their respective posts last week, Donis and Peter raised compelling (and somewhat opposing) points regarding the need for publishers as e-books gain traction.

I see the pro and cons of each of my colleagues’ stances.

Peter pointed out that writers could hire independent editors, sell e-books themselves, and thus take the "lion's share" of the earnings. No one can dispute James Patterson’s commercial success or his promotional foresight. Patterson basically challenged the industry’s sales model when Along Came a Spider was released in 1993. Formerly chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America, Patterson brought a career's worth of advertising knowledge to the release his first best-seller. When he saw his publisher’s cover design and proposed advertising campaign, he took over the promotion of the book (including funding TV ads). His marketing theories worked—Harvard Business School now teaches a case study of Patterson’s techniques—and continue to work in large part because most best-sellers are created not written.

Patterson’s success speaks to Peter’s point: we live in a capitalistic society; thus, your book will go as far you (as a promoter) take it. Yet what happens to the upstart, the guy writing his first book in a closet office lit by a single overhead light bulb? No advertising budget for this guy. Does he take out a second mortgage? Maybe he does. Vince Flynn self-published his first book, caught the attention of a major crime-fiction agent, and earned a two-book deal for an advance that guaranteed commercial success. I’d like to point out, though, that Flynn’s publisher saw the potential in his work and that led to a six-figure advance, forcing the house to put its advertising money where its proverbial mouth was. My feeling is that if Mr. Flynn had self-published all of his books, he would certainly not be where he is today.

I'm a guy who has been recently snake bitten by the industry. I walked away from a small press after five books when I wrote the first book in what would be a new series, hoping to cash in on my small-press success (starred reviews and solid sales with limited distribution) at a major house. What I have found was that when economic times skid, NYC puts money into established series rather than purchasing new ones. That’s probably sound business, and if my manuscript was a concept-driven stand-alone thriller that guaranteed flawless segue to film rights, someone would have doubtless picked it up by now.

But I don’t write concept thrillers, and I don’t think about movies when I write novels. And that’s okay. I’m not ready to self-publish. Financially, it wouldn't make sense to do so, but even if my last name was Kennedy, I wouldn't do it. Will it be financially possible to self-publish in the coming age of the e-book? You bet. But I want my work to have passed some sort of quality-control test, to have been deemed worthy.

Before you call me an antiquated literary snob, consider one of Donis’s points last week: who will push for reviews, if one self-publishes? My publisher routinely sent 250 copies of each Jack Austin novel to reviewers. Would I have time to send those review copies? Not likely? And major reviewers don’t like to hear from writers, so another facet of the industry model would have to change. Reviews mean a lot to me. I’m not an egomaniac, probably the opposite: I need to know my work is good, rather than it sells. Sales are not something I have a lot of control over. Reviews, though, are different.

When I go to Amazon, I find over 92,000 books deemed “mysteries.” If we turn the industry into an electronic free for all, both reviews and sales will be harder to come by. Raymond Chandler saw this day coming in the 1930s when he wrote that it was hard to judge the quality of a mystery novel because they all contain similar elements and because there are so many of them. “Even Einstein couldn’t get very far,” Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder,” “if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too.”

I will never forget the day I got “the call” from an editor saying he wanted to buy my first book. That’s a day I will never forget, and I hope every first-time writer gets to experience that feeling. I fear that self-publishing in the age of the e-book might very well lead to the rich getting richer and the upstarts getting lost among their multiplying brethren.


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Rick Blechta said...

Thoughtful and right on the money, John.

Vicki Delany said...

My concern about self-publishing and everyone rushing to put their first draft into e-book is quality. Face it, most books published by a 'traditional' publisher have had a lot of work done on them. Back and forth between editor and writer, maybe even the agent has kicked in, then a copy editor has a go. Usually, not always, this results in a better book. I fear a rush of cheap low-quality books will deminish the publishing industry for everyone.

John Corrigan said...

I agree, Vicki. Christ, my mother still finds typos in my books, after six, seven people have "had a go" at them before publication.

Hannah Dennison said...

This is a good thought-provoking post, John ... I tend to believe that smaller presses seem to support their authors more than the larger houses (unless one is super-successful) ... I guess we just have to keep buggering on (as Winston Churchill would say).

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