Is the “Publishers’ Monopoly” Broken? Writing on the Ether

23 January 2014 iStock_000002468327Small photog zimmytws texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Read It and Tweet
  2. No Anti-Social Scientists, Please
  3. “A Two-for-One Special”
  4. Our “Bifurcating Future”

Read It and Tweet

A funny thing happened to me on Twitter this week.

I “crafted a tweet.” (Sounds so “artisanal” that way, no?) This was the kind of tweet in which I like to mention a new release from an author; its sales page; the fine publisher behind it (unless it’s self-published, no discrimination here); and the number of print copies that Publishers Weekly tells us the publisher plans for the launch. In this case, it was 50,000 copies.

Almost immediately, the author tweeted me. “Thanks for the tweet. But what 50,000 copies?”

I explained my source was Publishers Weekly’s listing and asked if it was incorrect? (Or just typically inflated?)

No, no, it wasn’t that, this author told me. It was just that he had never heard the 50,000-copy figure. Or any other number. Despite the fact that 50,000 copies is a handsome number for a print run—the author was clueless on this point.

Let’s note (as one commenter has brought up quickly today), those print run figures aren’t something you take to the bank. They’re frequently inflated by publishers to make a launch look big and supported. They’re a PR stunt, in crass terms.

And far be it from me to embarrass one of our great publishing houses; I’m not going to tell you which one this was. But this is the fourth time this has happened. Different author, different book, and different publisher each time. I “craft a tweet.” Author tweets me back in happy surprise. Publisher has not shared with author what the announced size of the print run is. The PR line fed to Publishers Weekly isn’t even shared with the writer.

Dana Beth Weinberg
Dana Beth Weinberg

This incident reminded me of something that Dana Beth Weinberg said last week at the Digital Book World (DBW) Conference & Expo in her presentation about the “What Authors Want” survey that DBW and Writer’s Digest (WD) produce.

She talked about partnership. Between authors and their publishers:

This new partnership needs to be genuine, not based in lip service, or it will backfire terribly. The approach is worth a try. If it can lead to better cars, more on-time airline departures and arrivals, and fewer deaths in hospitals, why can’t it also work in publishing?

Main confab panel, largeThat’s from a written edition of her comments she has posted at her site. It’s called Should Traditional Publishers Feel Threatened by the Potential of Self-Publishing? Summary of My Presentation at Digital Book World 2014

And her opening lines are these:

Should traditional publishers feel threatened by the potential of self-publishing? Of course they should.

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No Anti-Social Scientists, Please

Weinberg is a sociologist, sometimes identified in bios as a social scientist. This, one assumes, is better than being an anti-social scientist. We’re looking forward to an actual meeting someday, having found more than a thousand conferees between us last week at the conference in New York.

Weinberg is a full professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. She directs the Sociology MA program in Data Analytics and Applied Social Research.

What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Auhtors by Dana Beth Weinberg & Jeremy Greenfield DBWShe’s been working for some time with DBW’s great team to wrangle elements of the survey for the conference and for other uses. Her and Jeremy Greenfield’s detailed rendition of some of the “What Authors Want” survey’s results is being offered by DBW on its site under the title What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors? A Comparison of Traditional and Indie Publishing From the Author’s Perspective for $295.

Weinberg tells me in an email interview: “DBW and WD embraced my suggestion that we make more of the information from the survey readily availalble to the author community than they have in the past. We have more blog posts and some special reports (likely priced at $2.99) planned.”

That sounds great to me. I look forward to learning more from it and, as she wrote to me this week, “getting a chance to have a real conversation one of these days.” In the run-up to the conference, Weinberg posted three articles relative to the survey at DBW’s site: The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction, Parts 1, 2, and 3.

It’s in those writings, in fact, that Weinberg has specified along with the DBW-WD team, very responsibly, that the survey isn’t scientific. Its admirably large sample is self-selecting—voluntary, not screened or demographically controlled. Drawn primarily from the readership of Writer’s Digest, the survey’s respondent pool comprises more than 9,000 people, some 58 percent of whom say they have completed manuscripts. Put another way, more than 40 percent of them are aspiring authors.

12 December 2013 iStock_000009864589Small photog uyrk texted story image-2To get us all on the same page, a few housekeeping notes: This survey has floated on our gases here before.

You might remember last month’s post (can it only have been last month?) Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go.

It turned on author Hugh Howey’s concerns about the way author earnings are interpreted by the survey’s approach. His own initial piece is You’re looking at it wrong, and he has a follow-up on the matter, We don’t lose. We Create. We win.

Image: Mollie Howey
Image: Mollie Howey

The kind of committed, cool-headed, and enjoyable commentary he wrote there shows you why Howey has become, as I wrote at Publishing Perspectives in If Hugh Howey Ran HarperCollinsperhaps our most articulate champion of professional self-publishing.

Howey and our Ether-eal host here, Jane Friedman, are the keynote speakers at the April 16-18 PubSmart Conference in Charleston.

If you’d like to join us, your discount code is PS14PA30 and early bird prices end January 31.

Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman

Friedman’s new online Scratch Magazine (on writing and money paid for it—or not) is produced with Manjula Martin and will publish its first full quarterly edition very soon.

And for some intriguing parallels in Howey’s and Friedman’s observations, see this 2012 piece from John Warner at Indie Book SpotInterview: Jane Friedman on marketing and building an author platform.

In her comments to Warner for that interview, Friedman suggested that publishers:

Create a private online community for the publishers’ authors. Inventory who is strongest and smartest online/digitally and study why. Create opportunities for authors to help each other market and promote when audiences overlap. Run free educational webinars for authors on marketing, promotion, and platform development. Dedicate one staffer to harness the power of authors’ reach online. Create financial reward pools for authors who drive sales.

It sounds almost like a publisher-author partnership, doesn’t it? And, lo, how easily we return to our new material at hand. I said publisher-author partnership. So did Weinberg.

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From Dana Beth Weinberg's DBW 2014 presentation
The title slide from Dana Beth Weinberg’s DBW 2014 presentation

“A Two-for-One Special”

As a hybrid author—an author who has both traditionally published and self-published—and a social scientist who studies the book industry, I am something of a two-for-one special at Digital Book World 2014. My remarks draw from both perspectives.

Dana Beth Weinberg is a nonfiction author published by ILR Press at Cornell. This slide is from her DBW 2014 presentation.
Dana Beth Weinberg is a nonfiction author published by ILR Press at Cornell. This slide is from her DBW 2014 presentation.

How quiet the Metropolitan Ballroom at the Sheraton Times Square seemed as Weinberg took her turn onstage a week ago. What the audience was learning is that Weinberg had arrived with more than “data-driven” urgency:

This conference has focused on the changing technologies in publishing, and I am going to focus today on the human equation, specifically the relationship between authors and publishers.

In correspondence, Weinberg tells me that her own connection to this work is, of course, personal as well as professional.

Dana Beth Weinberg has just self-published for the first time, starting a work of serial fiction with the pseudonym D.B. Shuster. This slide is from her DBW 2014 presentation.
Dana Beth Weinberg has just self-published for the first time, starting a work of serial fiction with the pseudonym D.B. Shuster. This slide is from her DBW 2014 presentation.

“As a novelist,” she says, “my own personal interest in pursuing better data was to understand the market and my own prospects.

“On the other hand, the data mattered not at all. Whatever the odds, every writer has to believe they have the potential to beat them–to get an agent, or find a publisher, or rise to the top of a bestseller list, or whatever the dream is. Publishing itself–putting your work out for others to read and evaluate and criticize and hopefully love–takes an immense amount of courage.

“It requires that authors have faith in their writing and in the stories they’re compelled to tell. ”

Many times I’ve said (to people tired of hearing it from me) that one of the remarkable aspects of traditional publishing is that it’s wholly dependent on an outside, free-range workforce to turn up and hand it the creative foundations of everything it does. This time, Weinberg said it for me.

In this slide for DBW 2014, Weinberg parses the distribution of volunteer respondents to the Digital Book World / Writer's Digest "What Authors Want" survey.
In this slide for DBW 2014, Weinberg parses the distribution of volunteer respondents to the Digital Book World / Writer’s Digest “What Authors Want” survey.

She put it more expertly than I’ve done, and to a hall filled with people engaged primarily in various aspects of traditional publishing:

What publishers do is related to content provided for them by a contract workforce, namely authors. When we think about authors as a contingent labor pool, we open the possibility to consider the similarity between publishing and other industries and learn from them.

The point she would outline there, briefly and without dwelling on it, is that in industries including air travel and auto production, making partners of employees has proved valuable at times in generating success. Partnership may be something, she is telling us, that traditional publishing wants to consider in its author relations.

This slide is from Dana Beth Weinberg's DBW 2014 presentation.
This slide, showing the kind of calculations an author may do in weighing traditional and self-publishing, is from Dana Beth Weinberg’s DBW 2014 presentation.

And here’s the verbiage that might have sent a few people diving under their chairs at the Sheraton:

Self-publishing has broken publishers’ monopoly on the book industry. While publishers are used to asking what authors can do for them, they are suddenly being asked what they can do for authors.

Before I could get my shoe off to pound it on the DBW Tweet Command Center console, Weinberg deftly had moved us on to some soothing qualification.

Publishers don’t need to worry about all of self-publishing. There are a lot of hacks and hobbyists out there, focused on writing their memoirs or the one book they have inside them. There are also determined entrepreneurs, who are finding ways to make money in self-publishing, and there are runaway bestsellers. The entrepreneurs and bestsellers, rather than being a threat, provide great opportunities to publishers. These authors have demonstrated their market potential without the publishers having to invest a penny, and under the right terms, they may be happy to partner with traditional publishers. Under the right terms.

In this slide for DBW 2014, Dana Beth Weinberg looks at the kind of odds, an author-submission service, indicates are faced by writers looking for traditional publishing.
In this slide for DBW 2014, Dana Beth Weinberg looks at the kind of odds, an author-submission service, indicates are faced by writers looking for traditional publishing.

No one was feeling too comfy, though:

The biggest threat to publishers are the hybrid authors, who move from traditional publishing into self-publishing. While publishers work hard to keep their name-brand authors from defecting with sweet enough deals to keep them happy, midlisters in the past have been neglected. These are the people for whom self-publishing may be increasingly attractive…

And here is when the room erupted in chaos. Just kidding! Everyone remained seated and retained her or his dignity. The emphasis is mine:

Readers’ relationships are with authors and their stories. No one really cares who the publisher is. The traditional author who goes indie quickly becomes the publisher’s competition. In the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, 5% of authors fit this profile or more than a third of traditionally published authors. All indications are that this number is growing.

If anything, an eerie calm had settled over the room, as if we were watching a newsreel from another era, or maybe a family drama on television in an unknown language without subtitles:

It’s no surprise that authors are asking what traditional publishers offer. The results from the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, which Jeremy Greenfield and I compiled, suggested that the contributions by publishers were not as much as the author community would seem to expect. We found strong similarities between what publishers offered and what authors could achieve on their own.

In this slide for DBW 2014, Dana Beth Weinberg indicates the strong (deeper blue) preference for traditional publishing that was expressed by respondents to the self-selecting "What Authors Want" survey in all categories -- aspiring, self-published, traditionally published, and hybrid authors.
In this slide for DBW 2014, Dana Beth Weinberg indicates the strong (deeper blue) preference for traditional publishing that was expressed by respondents to the self-selecting “What Authors Want” survey in all categories — aspiring, self-published, traditionally published, and hybrid authors.

Patiently, politely, the DBW audience heard out Weinberg, emphasis mine again:

I encourage publishers to rethink not only book contracts but the social contract they have with their authors. While income is an important concern for authors (as for all workers), it is not only or even in some cases the primary concern, suggesting that publishers have numerous avenues open to them for improving authors’ experiences and satisfaction with traditional publishing.

Weinberg recommended “partnership, empowerment, and collaboration as a way to retain authors and share in the benefits that new forms of publishing offer.” And in an echo of the survey’s original title, “What Authors Want,” Weinberg advised:

As a start, publishers should ask themselves what their authors need and want; what they can offer their authors; and what mutual benefits are possible.

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Our “Bifurcating Future”

The riot police were wonderfully efficient. Okay, I’m making it up again. No Rite of Spring uprising overtook DBW. That placid bearing remained in place as Weinberg finished her talk and throughout the expertly assembled conference.

Honestly, however, I wished we had seen and heard more reactions “in the halls,” as we call the delightful networking, meet-and-greet fest that a good conference like #DBW14 creates between sessions.

Weinberg confirms my sense for the aftermath in her comments to me: “There wasn’t a lot of reaction after the talk, a small flurry of tweets and retweets and a couple of thank-you’s, especially for the Indie Math slide.”

Jason Allen Ashlock
Jason Allen Ashlock

It’s worth our attention to the relative quiet in instances like this presentation. I wonder if it doesn’t reflect something that Jason Allen Ashlock—literary agent, consultant, and presenter of a lively, unprecedented workshop at DBW this year on new developments in author representation—has just written. More and more, we seem to be seeing tales of two industries. Ashlock:

Last week’s Digital Book World conference was as stimulating an event as one could ask for, with many different perspectives represented, and a remarkable array of tools and trends unpacked. But for the most part, the event choose not to tackle the world outside establishment publishing, which is exploding in ways the establishment cannot fully name or measure, and fragmenting in ways that resist any kind of mapping with the tools we’ve been using. (DBW’s programming was done excellently, of course: for paying attendees looking for programming that equipped and informed them, they found it. You can’t program for those not in the room.)

He’s responding to, as he notes it in his post’s headline, Eisler vs. Gottlieb + the rhetoric of the new publishing economy.

Barry Eisler #PorterMeets 10 January 2014 torn The BooksellerBrief background: I’d done one of my weekly #PorterMeets interviews with backlist-self-publishing author Barry Eisler for The Bookseller in London. When that interview drew the attention of literary agency Trident Media’s Robert Gottlieb, Eisler asked if he could respond in a blog post. The Bookseller’s editor Philip Jones was agreeable to Eisler’s request, and Eisler produced an extended response to Gottleib which ran under the headline, Authors Deserve Better.

The original point-counterpoint attempt by Eisler and following commentary—which includes self-publishing author Joe Konrath in a wrily fun Congreve-worthy interchange with Gottlieb—are a study in folks talking past another.

Barry Eisler
Barry Eisler

Gottlieb seems to believe that Eisler publishes only electronically. That is incorrect, of course. Barry Eisler is published and publishes himself both in print and in ebooks. As he writes to Gottleib, “All my novels are available in digital and paper. Neither format is ‘original’ for me; neither is exclusive.”

But Gottlieb maintains that “Mr. Eisler has chosen to be an original ebook author. Nothing wrong with that.” Of course, Gottlieb then goes on to assert that there is something wrong, or at least unwise, with that, even though “that” is inaccurate.

Robert Gottlieb
Robert Gottlieb

It’s actually somewhat bizarre, at times frustratingly funny. But the darkening truth of it is brought home by Ashlock, talking about the Eisler-Gottlieb exchange at The Bookseller:

For some, this may seem tired territory, but to me, the two radically different worldviews reflected in this back-and-forth represent the point of departure for trade publishing’s rapidly bifurcating future.

“Publishing’s rapidly bifurcating future.” 

Today, I invite you to consider that phrase. As Ashlock writes:

This conversation (if it can be called that, as Gottlieb seems not to be fully engaging most of Eisler’s points) helpfully illuminates the parallel world that spins alongside the establishment conversations. And for that, it’s worth reading and remembering.

And I think Weinberg has opened a chance for us to consider the same issue. Does it seem at times that hopes of happy integration between traditional and new forces in publishing is fading? Is the industry’s future bifurcating? Has it happened already in that “parallel world” spinning “alongside the establishment” with such quickening power?

Weinberg in her comments to me concedes that she hadn’t foreseen the forcefully detailed objections led by the influential Howey to this survey’s author-earnings formulations in her early posts for DBW. She writes to me: “I was perhaps naive not to expect the animosity and anger that accompanied my first blog posts. Just as surprising was what people focused on as the main takeaway–the income gap between traditional and self-published authors.”

And she is an author, too, remember. Of ‘both kinds,” if you will. She’s that “hybrid” we talk about.

Now, she writes to me, graciously, as so many of us call for better, clearer, more openly harvested data:

None of the data I have are perfect; I’m not sure that data ever are. Sometimes the questions we ask and the way we ask them are as important, if not more so, than the immediate answers themselves. When the data change, the answers might too. But when we change our questions, we have the ability to change ourselves.

Howey has pointed out another survey to me, one created by author Beverley Kendall, again (I have confirmed with Kendall) non-scientific, again with a self-selecting sample, but written up with handsome transparency about its limitations and parameters. Such transparency is the least we can ask in the current climate of closely guarded data sets and sometimes veiled shortcomings. I hope to have more for you on the Kendall survey soon, and am glad Howey has brought it to light.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with Weinberg’s comment to me about the experience of self-publishing. If anything, it demonstrates why she went to DBW to speak about a “human contract” with authors. And it shows us that if “publishers’ monopoly” has been broken, that’s not always one big romp through the park. This isn’t that social (let alone anti-social) scientist speaking now. This is the author self-publishing for the first time, emphasis mine:

Putting my Russian mob thriller out for the world was mildly terrifying, except that no one could find it unless they knew where to look…I didn’t feel like celebrating. I thought I was going to hurl. In that moment, I had an intimate understanding of the findings in the survey related to authors’ disappointing experiences. Publishing is a hard, hard business. Still, you can count me in for the long haul.

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Main image – iStockphoto: ZimmyTWS

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