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Is Traditional Publishing an Increasingly Bad Deal?

Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Steerpike, Jul 16, 2014.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    Another thing to remember is that this report talk about "median" income - in other words, the average. What may be (probably be) having some effect is the fact that the advent of the Kindle Revolution and self-publishing has allowed so many authors into the pot. So everyone is being counted - the best-sellers on everyone's shelves, as well as the thousands and thousands of books that only sell a couple of copies.
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think that's the case. The report is based on a survey of around 2450 writers, of which some were identified as "professional writers," meaning people who spend the majority of their time writing. Those were predominantly, if not entirely, people in the traditional-publishing sphere. Around 1/4 of the respondents did have at least one self-published work, but it isn't clear whether any of those were among the ones considered "professional writers." The median income provided was just for professional writers.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  3. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    I'm with Steerpike and Devor. Re Steerpike, you're right, if the money's roughly equal, then the decision's about the control. No reason not to try self-publishing. But to Devor's point, as entrepreneur's have to learn first thing, having a product doesn't make a business.
  4. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    All these income from writing surveys are badly flawed. The last one I saw that even came close to something I would accept as realistic, claimed that indies on average earned somewhere in the 0 to 5k range US dollars, trade published in the 5k to 10k range, and those who do both earned in the 10k to 15k range on average. That is about what I would expect given that there are so many non earners year upon year in each camp.

    But in making the decision to go indie vs trade it's important to realise that the money is in your hands at least for the indie. If you produce a poorly edited, badly covered book you can expect to earn nothing or not much more. That's what brings the average income down drastically for the indies. So many produce substandard works and then wonder why they aren't overnight millionaires.

    For those who go trade the biggest hurdles they face are first getting an agent and a deal, then the glacial pace at which their books are published. I tend to ignore the issues about royalties because I expect the trade published to earn perhaps a quarter the royalties per sale as the indie, but then sell four times as many books. My thought - and it's purely guesswork - is that the royalties debate balances out.

    However the key thing here is to realise that these income figures are medians and averages. If you go indie you do have far more power to control your income. Write more books, make them quality products and it should be easy to match at least the earnings of the trade published. If you go trade the power is in the agent's hands - whether to accept your book and then how to market and publish etc.

    The other thing for people to realise is that the chances of anyone striking it rich by taking either route is small. This is not an easy profession to make a lot of money at. Some have and we all know their names. But the fact that we know their names should tell you something - they are unusual.

    Cheers, Greg.
  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    I'd like to know where your data is coming from. Or is it just "common knowledge"?You need to pay attention to the actual data being collected at Author Earnings and elsewhere.

    Sure, there are a huge number of indies that don't make it. Perhaps it's because they aren't being professional about their writing business, perhaps it's because they get lost in the flood, perhaps it's because they just aren't very good writers. But at least they had a chance. Those self publishers who fall down the lists into oblivion are not comparable with authors who are traditionally published, but to the thousands of authors who query and query and query and submit and submit and submit but never get accepted. Most authors going the traditional path will never get picked up at all and never sell ANYTHING. Their books never see the outside of their hard drive. Even the unsuccessful self publishers usually sell SOMETHING, and as long as their books remain available for purchase (which can theoretically be forever) there's a chance they'll pick up some sales.

    But you need to stop focusing on the unsuccessful indies and focus on the real story of self publishing: the constantly increasing numbers of authors who are making good money. No, not J.K. Rowling or James Patterson money, but good money nonetheless. The numbers of writers who can make a good living as an author because of self publishing is growing all the time and no one wants to talk about it because the publishing industry has been telling authors for decades that only the very, very lucky get stay-at-home-and-write money. No one worth listening to is claiming that self-publishing will get you rich quick, though obviously that does some times happen. What they are claiming is that if you are professional and treat your writing like a business, keep control of your work and make smart decisions, and most importantly, write good books that readers want, over time it's far more likely that you will eventually start earning a living through self publishing than through traditional publishing.

    The data supports this assertion. You can't continue to ignore it.

    Furthermore, are you claiming that self publishing has shifted negotiating power between publishers and authors toward the publishers? That is patently false. Just the fact that the option to self publish exists gives authors much more power than they've ever had before in such negotiations. In the past, the only authors who had negotiating power were big name bestsellers. Now, every single author has the power to walk away from a contract and still get their books out to readers. This is enormous power. Only authors who refuse to exercise this power will continue to be exploited by publishers.

    No, but having a product and being able to put it up for sale in the biggest bookstore on the planet does.

    That's why people need to pay attention to these Author Earnings reports. They aren't surveys. They aren't self selected. They are just straight data collected from the Amazon website (and other reports have looked at Barnes and Noble and Bookscan numbers) that shows exactly how well indies are doing in comparison with traditionally published authors. Look at the numbers. Indies are taking a huge share of the market. And the numbers for indies will only continue to get better over time while things will get worse and worse for any trad pubbed author who doesn't manage to score a big hit. This is the future of publishing.
  6. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    Mythopoet, you misunderstand me exactly. When I say having a product doesn't make a business, I mean that putting a book up for sale, however big the store, doesn't mean it will sell and make money anymore than stealing underpants will automatically result in profits. Publishing is not just the putting up for sale part. Publishing is about getting people into that store to your book's page, your store within the store. It's about generating enthusiasm that inspires sales. It's about creating buy moments. It's about cultivating customers so they keep coming back.

    Again, how well indies are doing against publishers is great news, and I'm one of the latter, but the data doesn't scale down to the individual just as the Dow hitting 17,000 doesn't mean America's roughly 16% institutional unemployment has gone away.
  7. acapes

    acapes Sage

    I agree - but would add, it's a great future for writers who are either willing or have the capacity to take advantage of the changes.

    Some folks don't have the skills to self publish (and it's a broad skill-set needed) and some don't have the inclination. Some want to be a writer who writes, rather than be a writer who must also be a publisher. I publish in both worlds, and being personally responsible for everything - every single detail - is a lot of work, a serious commitment. But very satisfying too.
  8. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    I would add that not "having" the skills is not really a good excuse. Some of the skills necessary can easily be learned (formatting, uploading to websites, etc.), some are harder to learn and you might have to have a natural inclination for them (cover art, self editing, etc.) but anything than an individual writer can't learn can be obtained from a freelancer for a set fee. And despite what many articles claim, it doesn't have to be wildly expensive. I've seen articles claim that good cover art costs thousands of dollars, but this is not true. You can get very good cover art for something around $100 if you know where to look. Professional proofreading can be more expensive, but this is something you don't necessarily have to pay for. Many indie writers trade services and writers are often very good proofreaders for others' work.

    The fact is, that if you want to self publish, that doesn't mean you need to go it alone. You can hire help, you can trade services, you can get help from others to learn the skills yourself, and in general there's a vibrant and extremely supportive indie community that's willing to offer help and advice to anyone interested.

    Those writers who just want to write and nothing else and want everything to be taken care of for them... well, there's probably nothing that can be done for them. But it's in the nature of being an author that you are a business and anyone not willing to treat it like a business isn't likely to do well in the industry no matter what they do.
  9. acapes

    acapes Sage

    Actually, that's the other problem - some folks don't have the capacity to learn some of those skills, or the capital to pay others to do it, which is where the trading comes in handy. (I am deeply indebted to the generosity of my friends.)

    I personally don't see any problem with a writer only wanting to be a writer, and to have someone else do the rest of the job. That's their choice, no probs. In fact, it's probably a big part of the reason traditional publishing survives. They have skills and capital I will never have access to, for instance.

    Unless I win a lottery of some sort, of course.

    ETA: And I guess I've gone off on a bit of tangent, but re: the OP - traditional publishing might not be a bad deal if the publisher is flexible and committed to your work, sometimes the case with smaller publishers.

    And I wonder if financial remuneration is the best yardstick to say whether trad publishing is a bad deal now? For instance, what about the importance of creative control? For me, having that taken away can be a big negative against the trad system. (which is not to say I never want to be paid for my work, of course)
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2014
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    What data?

    As a rule I try not to use data. It's unreliable, difficult to engage with in sound bites, and condescending, like "Here's a bunch of data to discredit you." Can't people discuss and even disagree without trying to prove themselves?

    Good data tells a story. Most of the time it's usually better to skip to the story, and rely on the rational logic behind that story instead of the highly processed, easy to mischaracterize data.

    First, do you really think they have a chance? I think a lot of people are wasting their time chasing an illusion of a chance when the reality is that they're unprepared and unequipped to handle the challenges of preparing and selling a book. We can help equip someone, a little bit. But we can't expect to change attitudes.

    Most of the time failure is determined from the beginning. I don't think it's a service to people to encourage them to fail.

    Second, you're implying that there's no chance with traditional publishing? Why? Because you have to rely on someone else to approve you? Those kinds of relationships are the nature of business. Self-Publishing doesn't remove that. It only hides it a little.

    I also want to mention control. At least with a traditional publisher you're relying on their reputation and networks. Ever work with an artist, have them give you exactly what you asked for, only to find that it's still hideously wrong? It happens all the time, and they still bill you. Only by building a relationship with someone can you learn what to expect from them, and learn what to ask of them. Traditional publishers have those relationships. They work with you long enough to try and build those relationships. Finding the right editor, cover artist, web designer, and more might be very frustrating for someone who needs "control."

    I can only speak for myself, but I'd rather have a publisher tell me "no" than a book online that never sells.

    I don't understand your comparison. As long as you keep working to revise and submit to a publisher there's still a "chance." But I don't think an abandoned novel has a chance to randomly just make it. You've got to work to have a chance. There's no "Hey, I posted it, gave up, and today I'm making sales." Life doesn't work that way. People who figure out what they're doing and work for it have a chance. People who expect it to just happen, don't.

    What are you even arguing with?

    I said that self-publishing is a flawed industry:
    - There's no quality controls.
    - There's too many publications available for the consumers to sort through.
    - There aren't enough places for all of these authors to market themselves.

    These are real problems with the self-publishing industry. Nobody should pursue self-publishing unless they are prepared to deal with them.

    How can you demonstrate quality? How can you brand your work to your readers? How can you find or build the marketing channels to reach those readers?

    These are difficult questions. Can people do well self-publishing? Absolutely. But only by finding a way to address these questions. And it is not possible for everyone who is pursuing self-publishing right now to answer them effectively. That makes the industry deeply flawed.

    Traditional publishers tackle that problem through a venture capitalist model, investing in many books so that the handful of successes will fund the rest, while shutting down those that will obviously fail. That's the right business model for dealing with these types of risks, maybe not for each individual, but for the industry.

    Which leads us to:

    If it's patently false, then why are advances going down?

    There are two parts to a negotiation:

    BATNA - Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.

    ZOPA - Zone of Possible Agreement, the difference between the BATNAs of both sides.

    You're looking at the author's BATNA. Authors can say "I'll go self-publish, I don't need you." But you're not looking at the ZOPA. With publishers, ZOPA has shrunk against the author.

    A new author has less power with publishers than ever before. The obvious cause is that a new author has a smaller chance of making sales than ever before. And self-publishing did that.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2014
  11. acapes

    acapes Sage

    In terms of negotiation with traditional publishers one thing has not changed and remains in their favour I suspect - any author walking away from a contract (good or bad contract) will instantly be replaced by another author.

    A big publisher especially can pick and choose. If one writer turns something down, the publisher will have no trouble finding someone else to sign on the dotted line.
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Wait, what? Are you serious? I... don't even know what to say to that. That's possibly the most illogical thing I've seen anyone say here so far.

    Ok. So obviously you're not going to click on those links.

    The simple story is that hundreds of indie writers are achieving enough success to be full time writers and support themselves. Thousands more are earning enough supplemental money to be life changing. And you seem intent on ignoring this (you and everyone in the industry), instead focusing on the reliable canard about how "most people who self publish don't sell anything" naturally without any sort of evidence to back up this assertion, because data is unreliable! (If you say it often enough, it might just become true.)

    No one ever promised that self publishing would lead everyone to success. But what the people behind Author Earnings are claiming (and backing up with data, but I guess that doesn't matter) is that authors coming into the publishing business are FAR MORE likely to be successful indie publishing than traditionally publishing.

    Yes, I really think they have a chance. Thousands of indie authors are proving me right. I don't know what to tell you, since you won't pay attention to data, except that your conception is built on a myth sold by traditional publishing and their pundits. The reality in the trenches among professional indie authors is very different.

    I implied no such thing. But statistically, your chances of actually selling your book to any readers if you choose to submit to traditional publishers is very, very small. Your chance of selling to readers if you self publish is much, much higher.

    Those types of relationships used to be the nature of the business. Back when it was impossible for writers to achieve large scale distribution of their work by themselves. Now that writers can go direct to readers through a retailer (or more directly through their own websites) middle man publishers and distributors are not necessary. Self publishing didn't hide anything. It made the path between writers and readers much easier.

    Are you serious? Do you realize how many authors have been saddled with awful or inappropriate cover art because they didn't have control? How many authors didn't get any editing or got editing that made their book worse and could do nothing about it because they didn't have control? You can't rely on a traditional publisher to treat your book well because they have hundreds of books in the pipeline and they usually only care about the books by big sellers.

    What you're describing that an indie would have to do is not that difficult. Thousands of indie authors do it all the time. Sure, there's a learning curve. But if you're not willing to learn in this business you shouldn't get into it in the first place. You seem, once again, to be buying into a myth propagated by the publishing industry that publishing a book is so, so hard and expensive and only the publishing companies can do it properly. This is a myth, pure and simple. There are so many professionally produced indie books out there and it didn't kill any of the writers in question to do it.

    There is, actually. There are writers who have gotten discouraged by lack of sales, gave up on writing, and then one day their sales started picking up and they started getting checks from Amazon and, encouraged, got back into the business. It happens. As long as your books are out there, available for readers to buy, success can reach you in any number of ways.

    This implies that there should be quality controls. I disagree. I think readers should be the only ones who decides if a book rises or falls based on its content.

    This implies that readers want less choice. I'm sorry, but that just isn't what readers want. Furthermore, it ignores the many, many tools readers have for sifting through the content. From categories and keywords to samples that allow them to check out a book without having to pay for it first to numerous social media platforms that exist where readers can share their finds with others and more. Readers are not having a hard time finding new books to read and they love the choices. This is another myth put forward by the traditional industry (oh it's so hard to find a book unless we tell people what to read).

    Well, that depends on what you mean by "market".

    Oddly enough thousands of indie writers are dealing with them everyday and are still achieving success.

    I'll have to just disagree with you again because, as I've stressed, SO MANY INDIE WRITERS ARE DOING SO WELL. These things that you think are flaws in self publishing are actually not. Discoverability has always been a problem for publishing, long before self publishing came along. There are more answers to these problems now than ever before, and surprisingly, some of those answers ARE self publishing.

    No, traditional publishers are not actually good at answering these questions, which is why they continue to lose market share to self publishers. (As seen in the data that you think is useless.)

    Reality check, authors NEVER had power. Unless your name is James Patterson or J.K.Rowling you don't have power in the traditional world. That's how it's been for DECADES. Career authors have been attesting to that for years now that they're no longer beholden to the publishers. Writers, especially new writers, take what they can get. Don't blame the authors that have decided to keep control of their work and their careers for the draconian contracts offered to traditionally published authors. It's the publishers that draw up those contracts because they know that there is money in exploiting desperate writers. The writers who reject those terms and self publish are a sign that the industry is losing power, not gaining it.
  13. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    @acapes, yes this is correct:

    It's far harder for publishers, though, to find someone worth having sign on the dotted line. I can go two months without finding anything worth publishing. When I was doing fiction early in my career I would like maybe 1 in 100, 1 in 200 mystery/thriller/lit mss I read, and that doesn't mean anyone else would or that I could then buy the thing.
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I have spent quite a bit of time studying complex marketing data at a top-rate business school in NYC. Yeah, I'm serious.

    For instance, your claim is:

    That is a very specific claim. I have not once rejected it, which is why I keep asking you what you're arguing with.

    And at first look, it looks like the evidence supports it. For instance:

    However, "liklihood" is a deceptive and difficult word. Right off the bat the graph above doesn't include base rates: How many people tried self publishing? How many people were accepted by the publishers? How do you control for traditional publisher rejections to people who self-publish and get nowhere? Are there national differences?

    Then there's other factors. For instance, are the books being sold really comparable? You only need an audience of 1,000 people if you can sell them a big enough quantity of books. But that kind of quantity isn't a strategy everyone wants to follow.

    Then there's the fact that traditional publishing debuts at each earnings level have remained stable. That strongly suggests that the market was previously under saturated. But it also defies the notion that traditional publishing is an inherently weaker option. All of the competition hasn't put a dent into their success.

    Finally, there's something wrong here:

    Projected behavior is far and away the best test for whether the data and the story tells ring true. If the above is true, this should happen. Advances and royalties should go up. But they aren't. We see story after story of the opposite happening. That suggests there is something wrong with the data and the story being told.

    And there is. To everyone without our blinders on, it is obvious. It's the missing graph. Debut authors earning below $10,000. Conveniently, your link published all of the earning levels except that one.
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I can just imagine someone saying the same thing about my son's crib or the can of peanut butter on my shelf. Of course people want quality controls, whether they know it or not. Right now reviewers, usually the ones on Amazon, are the only quality-control benchmark available for self-publishers. And the problems with it are numerous. People would love an alternative, more reliable quality benchmark. And in some shape or another, sooner or later it's going to happen.

    In the meantime, it's a problem.

    Information overload is a real phenomenon. Too many choices is also a real problem for consumers, one that researchers study regularly.

    However, we're not looking at this solely from the perspective of consumers. As people selling books, too many choices dilutes your ability to stand out in the market, especially if you're below a certain threshold for quality or differentiation. As authors, too many poor-to-mediocre swimmers in the pool causes problems. And for those poor-to-mediocre swimmers, spending hundreds of hours writing, and many more struggling to sell a bad book (and looking bad while doing it), and not getting paid for it, I think the problems are shared by all.

    What are you disagreeing with? I said that people could succeed by answering the questions. You're saying people are answering the questions. How is that a disagreement? Why are you making the conversation more hostile than it needs to be?

    Unless what you disagree with is the characterization that "it is not possible for everyone who is pursuing self-publishing right now to answer them effectively." In which case, could you respond to that directly? Nothing you're saying suggests that everyone can do it, or addresses the obviously large number who do not.

    Is that what I said? Traditional Publishers used to duck the challenge by culling the losers before they hit the market. It's easier to stand out when you're 1 in 10 instead of 1 in a 1,000 (numbers for explanation only).

    Market share isn't a benchmark for power in these cases. Potential profit is. If authors have no power, they wouldn't get an advance at all. Other things equal, the trend in advances should reflect the sales potential of a new author. If advances are going down for new authors, it's because they expect each author to sell less.

    In all seriousness, the sarcasm and mockery and mischaracterizations in these statements is really indecent, Mythopoet. It's also undeserved, as my opinion has been nothing like the one you're characterizing here. For all your attacks on how the Traditional Publishers have treated authors unfairly, I think you should really evaluate whether or not you yourself treat people fairly.
    Foah likes this.
  16. acapes

    acapes Sage

    Hey Stephen, agreed - I reckon I've had a similar ratio with each of the journals I've worked with, it's pretty hit and miss but they never stop :D
    Hardest thing always seemed to be the subs that were so close but just lacked that something extra.
  17. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    In an ideal situation, any writer who has finished a story will edit it and send it to other people for critique. What practically distinguishes the guy who reviews manuscripts at most publishing companies from your ordinary beta reader? Oh yeah, the latter doesn't have nearly as many manuscripts piled up on their desk and so doesn't take nearly as much time to get to yours.

    You don't need data to intuit that the current ease of self-publishing has allowed hacks to flood the market with crud like never before. That doesn't mean that writers who do work to improve should be punished for the sins of others.

    Maybe one form of quality control would require self-publishers to post an excerpt of their story so readers can gauge the writing quality for themselves? I think Amazon already has this kind of preview option.
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Not everything has to be taken as a contrast between Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing. That one has problems doesn't mean the other doesn't. I do feel the criticisms of the traditional editing process are exaggerated. And I'm not sure they're just fixed by self-publishing if one bad review, early on, can do so much to sink a book.

    But I'm not suggesting we go backwards - I'm suggesting the problem has surfaced, is pretty significant, and that the industry is flawed until it gets resolved.

    It's there. It's not a lot. People spend a lot of time polishing their excerpt, and may not spend that kind of time on the rest of the book.
  19. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

    That's a somewhat disingenuous argument. A badly made crib or incorrectly packaged peanut butter could kill you. A badly written book is nothing worse than a waste of time. And readers have devised their own ways to assess whether a book will be a satisfying read or not. Some read the reviews. Some read the samples. Some ask friends for recommendations, or read the blogs avidly. Some won't read self-published books at all. I've worked out my own approach, having been burned once or twice with dire self-published efforts.

    On the subject of declining advances from trad publishers, many people have commented that it's counter-intuitive when authors can self-publish. Surely if SP authors have more options, advances ought to be higher to attract the best? But that hasn't happened. My theory is that a few SP authors have done spectacularly well and have been picked off by trad publishing. That's where all the telephone number advances have gone, to the few top SP sellers who can guarantee sales. Those who go through the slush pile are deemed to be mid-list authors, with modest advances to match. And as long as authors accept those modest advances, they will never rise.

    I don't have any grudge against traditional publishing, but as a business decision it would make no sense for me (even in the unlikely event that they would be interested in me). I'm not prepared to hand over all rights to my work, now and in perpetuity, for a piddling advance, especially with non-compete clauses buried in the contract, as they usually are these days. I can self-publish for a modest outlay, or for free if I were prepared to trade or learn the skills, so the book gets into the hands of readers and maybe, just maybe, there'll be a trickle of money coming in.

    Both trad and self-publishing have advantages and potential pitfalls, and it's up to every writer to decide for themselves which way to jump.
  20. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    If you are going to state that Devor's argument is disingenuous, then certainly yours is equally so...

    An author does not hand over all rights. And they do not hand over all rights for now and in perpetuity, and I guess it depends on what you consider piddling for an advance. It would be wrong to consider an advance is all that an author would earn, especially if it is piddling, as once it is earned out then the author earns royalties. And non-compete clauses can be negotiated, modified or removed, and every clause in a contract is important so buried is of a skewed term to use.

    Then the argument is, well, if you attempt and are successful with traditional, you get a piddling advance and crappy restrictive clauses. But I think it is a disservice to self-publishing to say if you pay for editing and layout and cover art (or trade skills/time to learn, etc.) then one might get a trickle of money coming in. Would a trickle ever repay for the debt incurred to get the cover and editing done? That sets it up as a no win for a writer any direction they might attempt...
    The way you describe it the choices are almost like either jump in the methane-filled bottomless bog or into the thorn-filled gully with sharp rocks at the bottom.

    It's not that way if you write a quality story, or actually it usually takes more than one novel to build success, but it has to be quality--either of the level that a traditional publisher thinks it's marketable and will garner a profitable readership, a niche publisher which believes a narrow scope of readers will be interested--one which they cater to, or self-publish a quality work, one that I guess would probably find a home with a traditional publisher if that was their choice. And there is a bit of luck involved.

    Yes, there are examples of crappy novels that got picked up by publishers. And there are examples of poorly edited and/or formatted novels that are self-published and obtain a large readership. That's just the way it is. Maybe they have more than a bit of luck?

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