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Sunday
Aug012010

Do you work for your publisher or...?

In Top 10 Myths About Our E-Book Future, literary agent Nathan Bransford writes:

[Myth] 2. Publishers are going to disappear.

There's more to making a book than uploading it to Amazon. Even in the e-book era publishers offer a range of services that are not easy to duplicate. While they will no longer be the iron-clad necessity that they used to be in the print era, publishers will still be around.

I expect Bransford is correct. Publishers will be around for quite awhile. But my sense is that the dynamics of the relationship between publishers and authors is changing. It may well be that publishers will be working for authors rather than authors working for publishers. And remuneration for "services" will be in play.

In Miles's Library, I offered this scenario:

But it’s Miles’s mom’s reflections about her day as the town's public library director that really interest him.

“I am always surprised at just how popular our “Edit Yourself, Market Yourself, Support Yourself” workshops are – even after all these years of holding them. ... While many creators choose to contract with editors and marketers – often people who once worked for large publishing companies – even more people have added editing and marketing to their own job skill sets. It’s really gratifying to see the public library be an effective community and personal development resource in this way.”

In my experience working with publishers, the most important tasks they perform as a "general contractor" are:

  • providing editing, proof-reading and formatting
  • providing marketing
  • providing printing, warehousing and distribution
  • handling payments
  • financing the project

All valuable services indeed, but ones for which 85-90% of the book price is taken - leaving the author is a small percent in royalties.

What if the relationship were reversed? Let the author be the "general contractor" who hires individuals or small companies to do the editing, formatting, marketing, etc. (I am guessing that printing, warehousing and distribution may be unnecessary before long.) Each of these specialists would receive either a flat payment or a percent of book profits - say, 5%. So, perhaps 15-50% of books sales would go to "publishing," leaving 50-85% in the author's hot little hands.

Self-publishing services (like Beavers Pond here in MN with whom I first published Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part*) have been working on this sort of model for a long time with what I would consider limited success. Most authors have had small marketing and distribution channels resulting in small audiences and small book sales. Self-published titles rarely get reviewed by the established media. And there lacks a certain credibility/status in using a "vanity" press.

But several things are helping shake up this formula. Popular bloggers (even Tweeters, I suppose) have a ready audience to buy longer works. Books can be printed and delivered on demand and payment collections can be done by web sites like Lulu. And electronic book sales via iBook and Amazon seem to reducing the buyers' need to hold a physical copy before buying.

The author-publisher relationship will remain status quo for quite some time - Bransford is right. But as a book author, knowing that there may be other options for selling one's titles has already changed my mindset about writing. For better or worse, I have more control. If I don't like the rules, there are other games available.

* This title is now available either as a free download or in hard copy as a print-on-demand title.

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