Publishing, Between Revolution and Revolt: Writing on the Ether

30 January 2014 iStock_000001433232Small photog GregAIT texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Lit
  2. Smart Rebecca
  3. Hugh and Cry
  4. Combat in the Community
  5. If You See Us Running…


Follow that burning fuse. It runs between these two curiously different words. We may need to think about which of them is closer to us.

Revolution. Pretty comfortable. Thanks to Madison Avenue, we nowadays say “revolution” for every change, from geopolitical alliances to bathroom tissue.

Revolt. Not so comfortable. More acute. Something or someone feels out of control. It’s an uprising, not a downfalling. Dangerous.

It seems to me that the phony war is over. Publishers are now looking at a market that will no longer drive itself, but needs to be driven, whether that is through product development, author acquisition, price promotion, consumer marketing, or international expansion. The game is on: and these changes are speeding up, even as the growth curve flattens.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

I’ve started at the end of Philip Jones’ meditation The World Is Not Flat at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook site. Jones opens by acknowledging that “thinking of this as a flat market seems spectacularly unhelpful.”

And having surveyed various assessments of market trends, he cautions, rightly, “We should be careful about the conclusions we draw from all this data gathering.”

Jones references one of Mike Shatzkin’s recent posts,  The Future of Bookstores Is the Key to Understanding the Future of Publishing, and he deftly steps aside just as the sparks of our lit fuse go by, emphasis mine:

Mike sees bookstores as the canary in this particular mine. Others look to the steady drip-drip of successful self-published writers as the true indicators of how difficult the future might become for publishers: that some indie authors believe they are leading a revolution should worry everyone in the trade.

Matthias Matting
Matthias Matting

And one day later, we have word from another journalist, our good colleague in Munich, Matthias Matting—emoticon his:

Der 29. Januar 2014 müsste eigentlich in die Geschichte eingehen – heute kommen die zehn meistverkauften eBooks bei Amazon erstmals alle von unabhängigen Autoren. Das erste Verlagsbuch hat es gerade einmal auf Rang 11 geschafft. Glückwunsch allen Beteiligten 🙂

In his short squib in The Self Publisher’s Bible, headlined Ein Tag für die Geschichtsbücher: Die Amazon-Kindle-Top-10 komplett von Self Publishern belegtMatting is telling us that the 29th of January marked the first time that every one of Germany’s Top 10 Kindle sellers on Amazon has been a self-published book.

He offers congratulations to everyone involved. And a smiley face.

Match struck. Fire to fuse.

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Smart Rebecca

Until recently we had good reason to push all our ‘product’ down the same shaped pipeline, because that was all we had as a route to our readers…This pipeline is a cracked, crumbling edifice that reinforces our siloed existence and stifles innovation, and yet we are locked in by the need to maintain legacy revenue.

Rebecca Smart
Rebecca Smart

Just posted by The Bookseller in London, you’ll find those powerful words in Harder, better, faster, stronger, a compassionately intense essay from Rebecca Smart, the eloquent CEO of the UK-based Osprey Group, an independent publishing company.

As I said in my #PorterMeets interview with her (also in Friday’s edition), when Smart speaks hard truths like this, she always includes her own company’s issues. No dodges, nothing holier-than-thou about her.

Rebecca Smart's team is in beta with a new enthusiasts' hub for nutrition, food, and diet.
Rebecca Smart’s team is in beta with an enthusiasts’ hub for nutrition and diet.

This is one reason she is listened to when she talks from experience of the “15 to 18 months’ worth of books at any given point” in that long, old pipeline. She writes:

Let’s allow books to find their readers in a time frame that is most appropriate for the author, the book and the readers, not our sales process and teams. We need increased flexibility in deals between publishers and authors. Marcello Vena has talked about what RCS Libri [based in Milano] are calling ‘co-publishing’, hinting at the idea of different service levels for authors, with different types and levels of remuneration.

Link piece from online to issueThere is much more to Smart’s essay.

In her interview with me she explains, “It’s about how we need to treat each project differently, on its own merits.”

Hear that fuse’s flame?

Is it close?

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Hugh and Cry

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

You’ve heard a lot about Hugh Howey lately, haven’t you? Do you know why? I’ll give it to you in one passage from him:

I stand for the ability of those who choose to write for a living to have the best opportunities possible. It’s a narrow focus, but it’s one I’m passionate about. I’ve been passionate about this for longer than I’ve been writing. It goes back to my book review and bookstore employee days. As a reader who loved stories, I cared for those who created them. Now that I’m on the other side and have become friends with storytellers, this cause is strengthened. And the more I learn about the abuses authors suffer, the more I want to speak out.

What we haven’t had before now is a bestselling spokesperson for the entrepreneurial dynamic in publishing who combined a high level of self-publishing success with an articulate grasp of challenges in the industry! the industry!  …plus the artistic respect of a big swath of publishing community members who have read his work…plus the willingness to spend a lot of time and energy analyzing and addressing what he sees as publishing’s major issues…all without anger as a prime motivator or vehicle.

Howey is as serious as a silo after a nuclear attack, but that’s not a chip on his shoulder. That’s the burden of respect he wants to help establish for writers of every stripe, from hobbyists to poets laureate.

The passage I’ve quoted above is from Howey’s essay Bread and Roses, in which he takes on the leadership of the Authors Guild, offering his suggestions for a seven-point platform for the organization. By the end of that piece, he’s writing:

Imagine what would happen if authors stood together and the Big 5 publishers were unable to sign new contracts for three months. Small presses — where authors are given fairer contracts but more limited distribution — would get a much-deserved boost. Independent authors would get a much-deserved boost. Readers would finally have a chance to catch up on their TBR piles. And the short term loss from debuting and renewing authors would be offset by long term and permanent gains across the profession. It would be an amazing stance for writers to take in order to stop the current squeeze on e-book royalties. Where again, let me repeat, publishers are making record profits on the backs of artists, and no one is doing a thing about it.

That article is one of several (including Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge; My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job; Lil’ Kris in da House and Turning Chaff Into Wheat) that, taken together, could be considered a growing, collective position paper for entrepreneurial authors.

When I called Howey’s “Bread and Roses” article to the attention of a private email group of industry players—the article’s title comes from a 1912 labor action led by women—the piece was met by handsome praise for Howey’s fiction and several dismissive comments about his industry-political views. No “commercial sense,” was one response, although no one referred to Howey’s specific writings about the Authors Guild.

Howey’s proposed platform points for the Guild include:

  • No more digital rights until ebook royalties are 50 percent of net
  • No more “Most Favored Nation” clauses
  • No more DRM for Guild members
  • Fair pricing for ebooks
  • No more non-compete clauses
  • Stop fighting “free”
  • The Authors Guild should embrace Amazon as a friend to writers and readers

Among the responses exchanged by these industry listserv members (by policy, I won’t attach names to comments), one of the most pointed was an assertion that independent authors have captured only “a minuscule percentage” of overall book sales.

Howey calls the Authors Guild (under outgoing chief Scott Turow) an organization “fighting for publishers and for bookstores — the very parties who stand between writers and readers.”

No reactions I saw refuted either that or any other point Howey landed about the Guild. Instead, criticism (most of it constructive but firm) focused on a perceived naïveté on Howey’s part and on an idea of self-publishing’s impact being very limited.

Mike Shatzkin
Mike Shatzkin

To see this kind of criticism for yourself, check the comments section after reading the same incisive essay from Shatzkin that Jones mentioned, on The Future of Bookstores. Here’s a link to the start of a comment exchange between Shatzkin and Howey.

A few phrases here—I urge you to read it all for yourself:

Howey: As for whether indies represent a sizeable piece of the publishing pie, I think that looks at things a bit backwards. What if a large chunk of that pie no longer needs to be spent at all?…What matters is not the percentage of gross sales that goes to indies vs. traditional publishers but the percentage of revenue that goes to authors.

Shatzkin: Hugh, your post is so thoroughly from an indie author’s POV that it is really not relevant to anybody else and, frankly, not to all indie authors either. Dollars are relevant to every retailer. Retailers are the path to the audience for everybody, not just big publishers…It is doubtful to me that indies have 25% of all ebook unit sales everywhere, but, even if they did, they’d have a much smaller fraction of the ecommerce.

Howey: Yikes. I didn’t think my reply was aggressive or if you read it that way. Certainly wasn’t meant that way. Just pointing out my perspective, which is certainly biased. I’m the first to admit that.

Shatzkin: I didn’t think your reply was aggressive, Hugh. I just thought it was wrong. And I think you’re a helluva good writer and have achieved independent success that any author would be foolish not to take on board. But let’s just say that my respect for your expertise does not extend to your ideas about how publishers ought to operate. 

You know where I’ve heard Shatzkin’s comments before? From myself! From myself and from other news people when “citizen journalists” became a rude, unwanted, upstart presence in “our” network news.

We said just these things. Citizen journalists were a minuscule part of the overall picture in media coverage, we said. Citizen journalists, with their silly cell-phone videos, couldn’t hold a camera to our superb camera crews, we said. Citizen journalists, many of them fine folks, of course, knew nothing about how genuine journalism worked, we said.

What we couldn’t see as we said these things was that the digital disruption of journalism would neutralize most of our traditional models and modalities. The news audience would not rush to “genuine journalism’s” aid. And the ways and means of our industry would be profoundly shifted toward open access and non-expert participation.

See, we were wrong: every cell phone really was our competition. But we couldn’t see that, not then, not for anything, not even when we tried. And the upheaval in news continues, of course, as the frequent coverage of Mathew Ingram at GigaOm and the team at the Poynter Institute and others reveal.

The upheaval in publishing is newer, and Shatzkin is an able representative of an industry-based observer who must try to get a more advanced overview than many of his peers. Please take it from me: that is not easy. I feel that I sit by this man every time I read his latest post.

Howey, by comparison, lives ahead of the change, by dint of very hard work and plenty of good luck (he’ll tell you that). He’s a provocateur of the best kind – motivated by his own success to enable his colleagues; to search out the opportunities ahead; and to define for us the perspective of an unprecedented workforce of independent creativity: the new author.

One of these commentators is industry-facing, the other is author-facing. 

And that lit fuse? Just went sizzling right between them…sssvvtt! Keep your eye on it. And keep reading.

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Combat in the Community

Howey’s not alone, of course.

  • Barry Eisler has been tirelessly outspoken on these issues, most recently in a much-debated exchange with Trident Media’s Robert Gottlieb, as I mentioned last week in “Our ‘Bifurcating Future.'”
  • Joe Konrath has spoken for years to these issues, of course, though much more frequently in tones of anger that may have made it hard for many to get the benefit of his observations. This can be the case for David Gaughran, as well.
  • Porter Anderson,, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook
    CJ Lyons

    CJ Lyons from time to time will enter the debate on how entrepreneurial authors see themselves in the business, as she did recently in this comment.

  • I heard Sylvia Day say at IDPF’s BEA conference last year that a publisher had to convince her it could do something that she couldn’t before she’d consider a deal. (And St. Martin’s Press, indeed, has signed her to two books for an eight-digit figure. Here’s Digital Book World’s carriage of the news release.)
  • Self-Publsihing With Integrity by Dan HollowayThe UK’s Dan Holloway has become an increasingly important voice in the field, with Self-Publishing With Integrity…which we trust he has self-published with integrity.

There are plenty more.

And at the risk of sounding like “Porter Provocateur,” myself, here (my role at Writer Unboxed), I want to propose to you that one of the key voices to listen to—with your children’s ears covered—is Chuck Wendig.

You want to get rid of the stigma [of self-publishing] once and for all? Clear the room of any bad smell? Good. Then it’s time to take a long look at the culture surrounding self-publishing. We’ve moved past the time where we need to champion the cause, okay? We’ve seen enough success in that space and have plenty of positive examples it’s time to stop acting as cheerleaders. And it’s time to start acting as critics.

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

For some time now, Wendig has, in various posts and tweets, been trying to get folks to distinguish between the actuality of self-publishing and the culture of it. No easy task. So charged are some of these issues that you could really substitute the word “culture” with “emotions.” The emotions of self-publishing? Well, I’ll throw Wendig back under the bus and let him tell you in a few lines from his important post, Self-Publishing Is Not the Minor Leagues:

The attitude that pervades self-publishing is that it’s a good place to test your craft, to hone your work. We are reminded constantly that the cream floats to the top, that all the crappy self-publishing efforts have no effect on anything or anybody ever despite evidence to the contrary. The culture forgives and sometimes congratulates even the most meager of efforts because of how courageous someone is to take the plunge to publish their own work. The culture says, “Just click publish!” The culture criticizes the faults of traditional-publishing, but excuses (or celebrates) its own. And yet, sometime in the same breath, self-publishing gets painted as a path to traditional publishing, not as a path separate and scenic all its own. The culture is full of contradictions.

Peace in Amber by Hugh HoweyWhat may seem to be one of those contradictions is that one respectful colleague and naysayer of Wendig? —is Howey:

I cheer for the path and the freedom for anyone to publish whatever they want. The works I recommend to others are the works I find sublime. Everything else goes unmentioned. You’ll never find me encouraging people to throw a rough draft up on Amazon. But you’ll never find me castigating those that do. Why do I care? Who are they harming? Is self-publishing really going to be defined by those who expend the least amount of energy? If so, are we going to define traditional publishing by Snooki and 50 Shades of Grey? There are too many great books out there that need reading. Worrying about the poorly written and poorly edited books seems like a waste of time.

That’s Howey in a KBoards response to a point Wendig is making. The debate includes many others and runs to some 14 pages of discussion.

The Cormorant by @ChuckWendigWendig, in a response to Howey:

See, but again, you’re conflating “writing” with “publishing.” I celebrate writers of all levels at their careers or non-careers. Publishing, though, I think you have to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about readers. And at that point, that means being your own critic, your own gatekeeper. Just my opinion, of course. I respect your point and I’m not out to inhibit anybody’s freedom here — just out to ask that they think about what they’re putting out in terms of the work.

This looks and feels like a big brawl to many. To me, it’s a far more sophisticated round of inquiry than we’ve seen in the past about the place, the purpose, and the posture of self-publishing in the industry today.

Sure, the emotional folks will always slam in with lots of exclamation points and coarse language. They’re not the people you’re there for. If you can keep your head cool and listen quietly, you’ll hear a lot of writers inside the entrepreneurial community sorting through important questions among vastly disparate points of view.

There’s a second post to check out from Wendig: Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers.

Here’s what he’s saying in that one to his fellow authors:

Asking readers to be your gatekeepers is putting a lot of responsibility on the people who are paying you. Stop saying you’re going to let the readers figure it out when it comes to sorting through what’s crap and what’s not. You need to figure that out. That’s on you.

And that fuse’s sparks are getting around.

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If You See Us Running…

One of the participants in the industry email group I’ve mentioned asked recently if there don’t seem to be more conference-type events for entrepreneurial authors.

The answer is yes, there are. For example:

  • London Author Fair, February 28, is new and is the first in an international series of such conclaves. #LAF14
  • London Book Fair’s entrepreneurial authors are expanding this year under the branding Author HQ, April 8-10. #LBF14
  • PubSmart in Charleston, April 16-18, is new. (Early bird pricing ends Saturday and PS14PA30 gives you a discount.) #PubSmartCon
  • Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace has some new emphasis this year on issues in the digital dynamic, May 2-4. #Muse14
  • BEA uPublishUThe uPublishU Conference, May 31 at BookExpo America (BEA), isn’t new this year, but its associated Author Hub on the floor of the trade show is debuting May 29-31. #BEA14
  • Programming for the UK’s Literary Conference, June 13-15, was just announced. #TLC14
  • Writer’s Digest Conference East (August 1-3, New York City) and West (August 15-17, Los Angeles), are in their planning stages. #WDCE14 and #WDCW14

There’s more, of course, and you’re always welcome to check my Publishing Conferences page to see details.

All these voices and the pattern of the debate get me back to Jones’ The World Is Not FlatThis market is not simple. As Smart tells us in her forthcoming essay, the old pipeline cannot hold.

Remember what Howey wrote:

Imagine what would happen if authors stood together and the Big 5 publishers were unable to sign new contracts for three months.

Could that happen? The industry email group members laughed it off. Howey wrote:

Hey, I’m not advocating for a strike. Don’t misunderstand me. I would never do that. But maybe an Authors Guild would want to look into it. If we had one.

So is that “phony war” over? Is this the real one? Is there a new urgency here? Is that the sound of a lit fuse? You tell me.

That’s why God (and Jane Friedman) gave us a comments section.

There’s an old joke connected to bomb squads. I first encountered it in relation to a US Marines unit, myself, but I’m sure it’s been deployed by just about every force and field out there. Works really well on a T-shirt:

If you see us running? Try to keep up.

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Main image – iStockphoto: GregAIT

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