The New Publishing Paradigm, Part Two: What Value Do Publishers Add?

by Jami Gold on August 7, 2012

in Writing Stuff

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Last time, we discussed how our decision about which method we go with for publishing should focus more on our readers’ online versus offline buying habits than on their preference for ebook versus print formats. And we bemoaned the fact that those numbers are hard to come by.

But let’s say we have a vague idea about our readership and their buying habits. What do we do with that information? If our readers are mostly online buyers, is that a clear sign we should self-publish?

Not necessarily. We each have to make the choices that are right for us. Self-publishing is not a good fit for everyone. We don’t all have the entrepreneurial spirit needed to run ourselves as a business.

Also, just like any start-up business, self-publishing requires money—editing, covers, marketing, etc. We don’t all have the ability to invest in ourselves, so traditional publishing’s ability cover the upfront costs can be a determining factor too. Some of us might start traditional to get income flowing to us and then transition to self-publishing. Some might make the decision on a story-by-story basis. Some of us don’t want anything to do with self-publishing no matter what the numbers say.

The New Options Help Traditionally Published Authors Too

However, we can recognize that our power as authors increases as our readership becomes more online based. Whether we want to self-publish or not, that route remains a viable option. Publishers—Big 6 or small—now have to work to keep us. They must provide value in exchange for taking their cut.

I spoke with Bob Mayer about this “must add value” concept during the regional conference I attended back in April. As he recently wrote at Digital Book World:

“The product is the story.  Not the book, not the eBook, not the audio book.  The Story.

The consumer is the reader.  Not the bookstores, the platform, the distributor, the sales force.  The Reader.

Authors produce story.  Readers consume story.  If anyone is in the path between Author and Reader they must add value to that connection.”

The New Publishing Paradigm: The Power Has Shifted

During her Keynote Address at the RWA 2012 National Conference, Stephanie Laurens shared several slides in her presentation that show how the shift from offline buying to online buying makes this “adding value” concept very clear. In offline publishing, we (currently) need help getting our books into the hands of readers:

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You’ll notice authors are a distant third in importance to the publisher. That’s because just as publishers are gatekeepers to authors, distributors and retailers are gatekeepers to publishers due to limited physical shelf space and the possibility of returns. Publishers have changed book titles to make their retailers happy. Without happy retailers, their books won’t make it into stores.

Contrast that linear string of necessary players with the online publishing options:

Click through to view larger image

As Stephanie said in her speech:

“[I]nstead of there being only one way, there are now four – Author to Reader, Author to Publisher to Reader, Author to Retailer to Reader, and Author to Publisher to Retailer to Reader. … [O]nly Author and Reader are essential… Publishers and Retailers, no matter who they are, can never be or make themselves essential.

…[T]o secure a place in our online industry, publishers need to make themselves commercially desirable…to whom? Their customers. But in the online world, who are a publisher’s customers? Who will pay for what a publisher offers – editing, production, distribution and management of sales channels, publicity and promotion? Authors.

…Successful online-era publishers are flexible, responsive, author-oriented providers of publishing services, cost-effectively value-adding to authors’ releases. They are acutely focused on what authors want and provide those services for a competitive fee.”

Publishers placing authors first. Quite different from publishers considering authors a distant third in their priority list, isn’t it? *smile*

Is this wishful thinking? Yes and no. Yes, because most publishers have yet to grasp this change in power. No, because whether publishers realize the facts or not, this is the truth.

Mark Coker of Smashwords reiterated this point in his presentation to the Published Author Network at the RWA conference (that he was kind enough to share on his blog):

All Those Between Authors and Readers Must Add Value

As authors, we have control over our options as never before. Publishers now need us to provide content more than we need them to get our books into the hands of readers. That leaves us in the power position. Especially because I believe the future will offer us opportunities to get our books into bookstores regardless of our publishing method.

Publishers have to prove to us that they can provide value to our publishing efforts above and beyond what we can attain on our own. Publishers need to add enough value to our product to justify their cut.

I hope publishers can make this adjustment. I have stories I still think will be a good fit for traditional publishing, and others I think will be a good fit for a small publisher. I don’t want to see publishers go away.

Successful publishers will focus on things that are important to authors, like:

  • making books better (editing),
  • recognizing that publishing Snooki-type books hurts their brand in the eyes of authors (their credibility/our desire for validation),
  • increasing availability to markets (bookstores, libraries, foreign rights, audio books, etc.),
  • improving accountability and payment flow (transparency and frequency of royalties and payments)
  • and offering promotional opportunities (access to reviewers, book tours, publicity, etc.).

And they will have to recognize that authors will “pay” (royalty rates) only a limited amount for those services. Their inefficiencies are not our problem. We can decide how much their services are worth to us and judge if the offered royalty rates are fair.

Fair. Respect. Partners. We’ve tossed these words around a lot in the industry lately, but many of us haven’t quite believed in them.

It’s easy to continue thinking in the status quo of agents and editors being the gods of the relationship. But it’s time for us to accept that we are the driver in the publishing industry. Without us, there would be no stories. So just as our protagonists must drive their stories, we must accept the opportunity—and responsibility—of driving our story to publishing success.

As Mark alluded to in his presentation and as Stephanie said outright in hers, “Only Author and Reader are essential.” Go forth and be proud of that fact. *smile*

How do you see the shift to online purchasing changing the game? Have you changed your mind about how to approach your publishing options because of this information? Which publishers do you think have grasped this shift in power? What’s important to you when considering how publishers can add value? What things would make the partnership feel fair to you?

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28 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Julia Tomiak August 7, 2012 at 10:20 am

Jami, Thank you for sharing this interesting perspective. I’m new to this business, but I can see that I must keep myself informed. I love the diagrams (thanks to you and Stephanie for sharing); they really help me see what I should focus on, and all of the possibilities out there. Thanks again!

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Hi Julia,

“I must keep myself informed.”

Exactly. The situation is changing so fast, the best option last week might not be the best option for us anymore. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc August 7, 2012 at 11:25 am

I was so upset I couldn’t make nationals, but visiting your blog makes me feel like I was there. THANK YOU, THANK you for sharing your wisdom and also for linking Mark Coker of Smashwords, THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING. I read all 85 pages of his presentation just now and got so much out of it.
I still don’t know exactly which way I’m leaning, but with bloggers like you, I’m getting more informed by the day.
Thank you!
Have a great day!!!
Tamara

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Hi Tamara,

Yes, I’m not a member of PAN, so I couldn’t have gone to his presentation at RWA, but I was so happy to see him link to it on his blog. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda August 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm

My first couple of efforts are on the short side (around 60,000 words) and while I’ve queried a few agents in an effort to go the traditional pub route, more and more I’m thinking I’ll submit directly to the publisher. Many small publishers will allow this, and they seem to be more connected to the readers AND the authors (at least according to my Twitter feed-Entangled and Samhain both pop up pretty often). But the big 6? I think it’ll take them longer to get on board.

Regan Walker shared an a blog post with my local RWA chapter about her decision to epub, and in it, she pointed to the greater control she had over the final product. That’s huge for me. I’ve got one project that’s my baby-my very first MS EVER. If I decide to have it published, I want as much control as I can get without self-pubbing. Going with a smaller publisher seems like the best option.

And I’m going to disagree slightly on your second point about publishers not producing Snooki-books. A friend of mine pointed out how many of her co-workers are reading Fifty Shades of Grey. These women don’t read. At all. So she asked them, hey, if you like dark, tortured heroes, you might like this book. She’s loaned out her copies of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights because she asked that question. If more people took this approach to the books that make you want to cringe that they were even published, we might see sales of legitimately good books go up.

Besides, isn’t the whole point that they’re reading? :)

If you’re interested, here’s the link to Regan’s blog post: http://musingsallie.blogspot.com/2012/08/author-regan-walker-talks-epublishing.html

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, great point about smaller publishers usually taking submissions directly, as well as sometimes giving authors more control over the final product. Yet I know some people who are “Big 6 or bust,” so there’s no one right answer for everyone. :) Thanks for sharing the link–that post gives a great breakdown of some of the pros of the small/epub route.

I understand your point about publishers putting out poor books. The point I was trying to make is that many authors want to go Big 6 because of the sense of validation they provide. However, when a publisher hurts their credibility by publishing “crap,” they can’t offer validation as an added value anymore. They can hurt their reputation–among authors–by producing poor books.

For example, there are some small pubs/epubs/imprints I wouldn’t publish with because–in my mind–they put out crap. A contract from them wouldn’t give me any sense of validation because their products are just as bad as the bad self-published books out there. So why would I go with them when I could produce a better product on my own and not let their reputation tarnish mine?

Of course, the other reason the Snooki-type books are upsetting to us is because these celebrity books often come with huge advances, and the publishers lose money on the deal when they don’t sell as well as expected–which means they have less money for the real authors. :) Celebrity books are not the same as the stereotypical poorly written/edited bestsellers we often throw out as examples (think Dan Brown). Celebrity books get huge advances and usually undersell. Bestsellers–no matter how poorly written–still aren’t an overall loss to the publisher, as they’re selling well.

So Fifty Shades of Gray is an entirely different animal. Nothing should be compared to how those books did because outliers that far from the norm don’t help us make logical decisions. :)

Thanks for the comment and the link! (And thanks for letting me clarify that point. :) )

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Julie Glover August 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Fascinating and informative. I especially liked the diagrams. They show exactly how the paradigm has changed. Thanks, Jami.

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, a lot of this information was stuff I knew on some level, but Stephanie’s diagrams really made it clear. Thanks for the comment!

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Renee Schuls-Jacobson August 7, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Jami:

This is the stuff that scares me! I need to find a great agent who will talk very slowly and help me understand the business side of writing. For now, I’m just trying to deliver my product. ;-)

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Hi Renee,

I don’t blame you! Every time I think I know which way is better–for me–new information pops up to make me second guess myself. Nervewracking. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sharon August 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

That line about the “Snooki-type books” got me. So true! The publishers think they are going for the sure thing when in reality, they look like sell-outs, not just to their reading public, but to those of us who are actually working to hone their writing skills. At least 50 Shades of Gray was written by a “real” person. (Meanwhile, Snooki said that she’s only read a couple of books in her entire life–and I don’t doubt that for a second.) I’m still on the fence about self-e-publishing, still hoping to land an agent and go the traditional route, but I may change my mind at some point after reading this great post.

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Jami Gold August 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Hi Sharon,

Yes, they do look like sell-outs–and when they undersell compared to the advance, they look like stupid sell-outs at that! :)

To be honest, I’m on the fence about what the “best” way for me will be too. I’m currently thinking that the “best” approach for me will be different for every book. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena August 8, 2012 at 3:19 am

I love that slide show! The figures and graphs are definitely very encouraging. I dearly hope that the trends will continue and more people will start respecting self publishing and ebooks!

Thanks for the post about Smashwords too. I never knew you could publish for free! And I like their point about saving valuable time (from all the traditional publishing preparation) to actually WRITE and edit our stories, and in improving our skills. This is especially important to those of us who realistically don’t have much time to write query letters, etc, because we have day jobs or school.

Also, you’re right. The Authors and the Readers are the crucial people; not the publishers or retailers. The story and the characters are what matter most of all.

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Jami Gold August 8, 2012 at 8:42 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, I’m a sucker for visual aids too. :)

So far, I’m still taking the time to write query letters because I figure it’s the same skill I’d need for the back of the book blurb if I self-published. In other words, I don’t see it as wasted time. :) But everyone’s path and goals are different. What’s important is getting the story into the hands of readers. Thanks for the comment!

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Gina Fava August 8, 2012 at 6:47 am

Hi Jami,
I agree with your thinking. However, I don’t think publishers will ever stop excreting Snooki-type books, as long as there is a market, and sadly, as long as people read them (much to our chagrin.)
This is a great analysis of an industry in flux. Let’s hope they take notice of your suggestions :)
Gina

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Jami Gold August 8, 2012 at 8:46 am

Hi Gina,

Oh, I agree with you about the Snooki books, unfortunately. What I don’t understand is why they continue to pay huge advances for them when most of them undersell? *shakes head* There are many things I don’t understand about their business strategy–or lack of it. LOL!

And I don’t expect the publishers to take note of this little ol’ post, but I do hope authors take note of it so they feel more empowered when entering relationships with publishers. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal August 9, 2012 at 5:31 am

Thanks so much, Jami, for your wonderful analysis as well as posting the link to Mark Coker’s presentation. It’s so hard to stay abreast of everything going on in publishing, but you always do such a good job of covering the important stuff fairly. Thanks!

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Jami Gold August 9, 2012 at 8:29 am

Hi Susan,

Yes, the link to Mark’s presentation was complete luck. I’d finished this post based on Stephanie’s speech and then came across Mark’s slides. They fit perfectly into what I was saying, so I pasted the link in at the last minute. :) It must be a great minds thing, right? LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Jenny Hansen August 16, 2012 at 9:59 am

I’m late to the party but I love this post! I read Stephanie’s entire keynote speech after someone mentioned it (and I saw her get panned on SmartBitches). I get their point that her publishers were sitting right there, but I really found her brave and admirable for doing this talk. It was a talk that authors needed to hear.

Haven’t seen Mark’s presentation so I’m off to see that now. Thanks again!!

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hi Jenny,

Ooo, I hadn’t seen that SBTB post before. If I’d seen that earlier, I definitely would have commented there. Her speech was about the publishing industry as a whole, and how writers are in the business of entertaining readers, not working for the publishers. She also wasn’t saying that editors and other people aren’t necessary, but that there’s no “One Right” method to making that editing (that marketing, that whatever) happen anymore.

In other words, the services publishers provide are essential, but authors have choices about where they will get those services. The publishers can’t dictate the terms of those services because it’s not essential that we get the services from them. Her speech was about the power shift due to choices, not about the services themselves being inessential.

So I certainly didn’t see this as a slam on those who she’s worked with over the years. Her tone of voice was impersonal to the extreme. This was about the business, not the people working in that business. I’m not sure if she warned her publishers first, but from Stephanie’s straight-forward attitude, I’d guess they’d heard about this power shift from her before. :)

After hearing her speech–and I’m including her tone-of-voice here–she strikes me as a take-no-prisoners kind of woman, and I think anyone who assumes that she hasn’t already had this conversation with her publisher to give them the heads up that she wants the best contract terms possible is diminishing her and her business sense. If publishers in the audience had any reaction to the speech, I’d guess it was more a mixture of a) Damn, now we’ll have to deal with this issue from more authors, b) Ha! Let’s see a non-bestseller try to take this attitude with us, and c) *pshaw* There are always more desperate authors who are too stupid to realize this power shift, so we can keep doing what we’re doing.

So I think the publishers already know about this power shift on some level, but some of them are still in various stages of denial. Yes, there are plenty of authors who don’t realize how the game has changed, so there are “more fish in the sea” for the publishers to feel they can say “no” to authors who make demands. But that tide is turning more every day, and with the self-published bestsellers list becoming a new slush pile, they will encounter more business-savvy authors than ever before. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Pauline Baird Jones September 4, 2012 at 6:36 am

Have you been reading The Business Rusch? Perhaps your next blog on this topic should be on agents. When I finished my first book, back in the early 90’s, I went looking for an agent, so I wouldn’t have to do the business part of this stuff. I found a very nice agent. Who had the misfortune to work for a thief. Yeah, I was lucky I didn’t sell anything, because I wouldn’t have gotten any of my money. What I did lose was time, because I let that agent manage the submissions. Let’s just say, that in hind sight, I would have submitted a bit differently.

Fast forward to my next adventure with an agent. Did a better job second time around and got a great agent. We ended up parting ways, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with me and what I wanted. LOL! But again, I learned some important lessons.

I know more about me, about what I write than anyone else.
I’d gotten “uppity” ideas while managing my own writing business. I’d learned about contracts and rights and fair percentages and prompt payment. About royalty statements that made sense. I had this “unreasonable” desire to get paid more often. And the most egregious “sin,” was a desire to write the books I wanted to write.

What was good for my agent was for me to focus on building an audience in a single genre and building that.

What was best for me was following my heart and writing the books I had to write.

The changes hitting the industry are hitting agents, too, and authors need to be even more savvy so they know when an agent is working for THEM and when they aren’t. Don’t get me wrong, an agent has every right to manage THEIR business, but if you are a small to mid-list author, that managing will tend to be more about what is best for their more famous authors.

Let me repeat, before you sign with any agent, go read The Business Rusch, particularly her columns on royalty payments for digital sales. It’s pretty eye opening stuff. She’s over their begging authors to realize they are a business and how important it is to manage that business.

GREAT blog post, Jami!

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Jami Gold September 4, 2012 at 11:23 am

Hi Pauline,

Yes, I love The Business Rusch! She shares fantastic information in a no-holds-barred way. :)

And you’re right that agents are having to adjust as well. It’s easy for us to believe that our “partners” (whether in life or business) are always working in our best interest, but they’re individuals with their own goals and dreams too. We’re the only ones who can truly decide what’s in our best interest, and we have to take responsibility for what we want.

I do worry about finding an agent who will let me pursue my goals the way I want. Many agents want their fingers in our self-published works even if they have nothing to do with them, or they won’t sign you if you want to be a hybrid author, or they won’t sign you if you don’t agree with their advice.

Personally, I have stories that I hope will be a good match for certain publishers, and if those publishers aren’t interested, I don’t want an agent to pressure me to submit that story to publishers on my “D” list. At that point, I’d rather go indie with the story. Some agents would respect my desires and some wouldn’t.

On the one hand, I wonder if I’m being too difficult/unreasonable/picky, but on the other hand, publishers are on my “D” list for a reason–I’ve judged them to not be a “value add” for me. And agents have to get used to authors going hybrid (traditional AND self-published). It’s not my problem if they want to restrict their authors from that route because they have different goals from me.

You’re right that there’s probably a post in there, but I’d have to figure out how to write about it in a balanced way (as I do worry about being too “difficult” :) ). Thanks for the comment!

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