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  • Phil Parker

Why Self-Publish? The facts.

This post is a summary of an article written by best-selling author, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. You can read the entirety of her article here. You can read more about the author herself, here. I've tried to condense the material Ms Rusch has provided so I can make this point - the traditional publishing industry is dying. Self-publishing is the phoenix rising from the ashes.


So many authors, me included in the past, have spent huge chunks of their writing careers preparing submissions for agents and publishers. We have grown up with the "traditional" idea that, to be a proper author, you need a contract with a famous publisher and have an agent who will take you out for lunch from time to time. That's what happened for me when I had my non-fiction books published over 20 years ago. As I've found out since, that world has come to an end. The reasons are shown below.


Therefore, this article attempts to illustrate why we should dispense with this publishing idyll and enter the real world in which authors must exist. It's one that dispenses with publishing and agents. It involves being an #indieauthor. A title which we should stop feeling embarrassed about. Here goes.


The Traditional Publishing World and Money

Earlier in 2022, The US Department of Justice sued to block a merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, the biggest publishers in the world. In effect the merger would have created a mega-powerful publishing cartel. This article by Vox explains the background and the verdict - the merger was blocked. In this article it states, "Everything is random in publishing,” Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle told the court during his testimony. “Success is random. Bestsellers are random." Other CEOs lined up to claim that publishers depicted the industry as one of chaos and romance in equal measure, a hazy and lovely space in which publishers routinely hand out large sums of money for great works of literature, unable to either predict or care whether they would ever make their money back. Futhermore, “You have to work just as hard on every book, because you have no idea which one is going to break out,” said Simon & Schuster, CEO Jonathan Karp during his testimony."


The commentary from the DoJ showed that it suits publishers to describe their industry as illogical, quirky, or romantic. Such a depiction of publishing gives cover to the status quo, in which the industry is 76 percent white and 95 percent of books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white people. No new publisher has been able to successfully break into the ranks of the Big Five in over 30 years. The big publishers are now so big, with such extensive backlists and such deep pockets, that it’s nearly impossible to compete with them at scale. Regardless of their claims, they wield enormous power in the industry.


With this in mind, the trial required statistics to prove arguments - figures provided under oath. They make interesting reading, it's taken from this article by Jane Friedman:

  • Of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles “sell fewer than one dozen books." Just get that figure in your head, around 29,000 books don't sell beyond a dozen copies.

  • 90% of titles sell fewer than 2,000 units

  • Regarding author advances, a chunk of money paid to the author in anticipation of the book "earning out" this sum in subsequent sales:

  1. $250,000 advances came from the Big Five publishing houses in all but 10% of cases. It's expected 70% of these advances will see a return. But these advances are reserved for Big Named Authors whose sales record prove the viability of risk. Or, an author whose celebrity status does that.

  2. $50,000 to $250,000 is where many of the successful authors can expect to be paid an advance. If the book becomes a best seller, they can bring in a profit.

  3. Below $50,000 is where those beyond The Big Five operate or where they will give an advance to a 'possibility', a limited risk option. This is where the figures quoted above sit. It's where most debut authors will find themselves. Remember, this figure needs to be "earned out". The trial also showed that this category is where marketing and promotion is almost non-existant. In other words, they don't expect the book to do well enough to invest in promoting it. As one CEO said, "If we’re doing something and it is seemingly having no [sales] results, then we’re going to stop throwing good money after bad. So we’re adapting in real time based on the results.”

  • The trial revealed that from 2015–2019, PRH (Penguin Random House) had a 42–44 percent market share of the top end of the fiction market (authors selling more than 500,000 copies a year), while non–Big Five publishers had about 5–6 percent market share. PRH had a share of 31 percent of authors outside of that top-selling category, compared to the non–Big Five share of 27 percent.

  • PRH also said, "We were acquiring hundreds of books for very little advance. We were investing no marketing money to support them. We were putting covers on them that were very, very old-fashioned … while we were printing these and in some cases shipping a couple of hundred, we were getting most of them back.”

  • An indication of the impact self-publishing is having on the market is made clear by this statistic: Thirty years ago, 500,000 titles were available at any one time, almost all of which were controlled by traditional publishers. Now, according to Ingram’s numbers, there are 20 million available titles. This is due, in no small part, to the likes of Amazon. "Bookstores have shrunk in number and in size so that perhaps as little as 20-25 percent (or perhaps as much as 30-35 percent, but no more…) of print book sales are made at actual retail stores. All the rest of it, print and (of course) ebooks, is transacted online."

  • Ms Rusch quotes an expert - Mike Shatzkin - on where this leads the major publishers: The only way to expand a publishing house is to have a larger number of active titles. Publishing new titles profitably has become exceedingly difficult [for traditional publishers]. But publishers can increasingly milk sales out of the long tail of backlist, thanks to the new digital marketing world we live in. So the biggest publishers have grown their title base by acquisition. This decision would appear to cut off that avenue, or at least cut publishers off from the biggest potential additions." In other words, new writers (or those with a track record) are unlikely to be of interest to publishers because they are reliant on their existing stock. New = Risk.

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The Conclusions

Stephen King, in his evidence to the trial, said this: "When I started in this business, there were literally hundreds of imprints, and some of them were run by people with extremely idiosyncratic tastes, one might say. Those businesses were either subsumed one by one or they ran out of business."

In this article the writer references several smaller named publishers who have been subsumed. Invariably, those with niche markets who have found it difficult to survive. They get swallowed up.


One other factor, not mentioned yet, that featured in this article, is the change in the way literary agents work. This has been agreed in the US. How long till it applies in the UK? Agents' income is derived from (usually) 15% of the writer's income. That's changed. Now they can make additional money selling their services as editors etc. Why? They can't make enough money from their current business model. Yep, that's right. Authors aren't receiving enough money for agents to scoop off their 15%.


The conclusion of the article is where the message is very clear. This is what Ms Rusch writes: "The advantage a traditional publisher gives a book these days is, in Shatzkin’s words, “meaningless.”

Meaningless.

It has been for years—at least fifteen for writers, maybe more. It’s become impossible for them to make a living, and as a result, impossible for agents to piggyback off of them…in traditional publishing."


It makes you ask these questions:

  1. Why go through the time, effort and anguish of submission processes when your work will be rejected because traditional publishers won't be interested - for the reasons shown here. (As an observation, the #indiewriters who get agents and contracts do so because of their sales figures)

  2. The money you might receive for your hard work is so low, agents can't live off it.

  3. Advances, which were once the means for the writer to invest in their career, have shrunk.

  4. Even with a contract and your book published, there is little chance of success because the publisher won't promote it. They will expect the author to do that.

  5. As shown above, artistic decisions, such as book covers, are given little attention. It requires investment. Again, another reason why sales may well falter.

  6. Editors compete for work in the trad model. The best get the big bucks deals. Lower down the food chain, editors won't be paid to do much because it requires investment! (Look at any trad fiction novel and spot all the mistakes in it. Did it even have an editor?)

  7. If you think, with a writing career now estalished, you can write full-time, forget it!

Answer these questions and it leaves you asking - why go the traditional route? I've had so many writers say that they aren't business people. They can't market their work. Paying for a cover designer and an editor? Shudder. But that's what writers now need to do, because publishers aren't bothering to do it. They are busy focusing their efforts on the Big Named Authors. If you're Richard Osman, you've got it made.


In comparison, let's consider #indieauthor Amanda Hocking, author of numerous YA paranormal romance novels. Last December she announced she had sold 99,000 books in December. In January this year that figure multiplied by a factor of four! Trad publishers would be salivating if they had those figures! Yes, she is an extreme example but there are other #indieauthors who are doing very well, thank you!


As for the rest of us? The message from this trial and the fall-out is clear - become an #indieauthor. You're wasting your time attempting to navigate a career in the traditional world.


I'd recommend reading Kristine Katherine Rusch's "How Writers Fail No.10: Blame". It is an honest but salutory lesson we all need to understand.

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