Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?

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3 Responses to “Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?”

  1. Jack William Bell says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a long time. One outgrowth of the ‘long tail’ entering publishing I expect to see is the collapse of traditional publishing/agenting, eventually replaced by a kind of ‘talent scout’ system as described in the following scenario:

    A new writer publishes some short fiction on their blog, along with some excerpts from a novel in progress. A talent scout comes across this work and realizes the writer has raw talent. The scout contacts the writer and gets them to sign a novel-development contract, after which he connects the writer to an angel investor.

    The investor (who may herself be an editor) arranges for the new writer to get some quality editorial help. When the novel manuscript is in good shape the investor arranges for the novel to get properly registered and for a designer to turn it into something more ‘book-like’, with proper layout for both e-readers and POD. If the investor thinks the novel is good enough she may also pay for an offset print run and distribution. Either way the book goes onto the market.

    The investor may also spend some money on marketing, but most likely will simply advise the author on marketing strategies (so the author must shoulder much of this burden – no different than today). As the book sells the money will be split up as follows:

    * First profits pay off the investor’s costs, plus interest.

    * After the costs are met, the author will get a contracted percentage, most likely far more than fifty percent, the rest going to the investor.

    * The author will pay a percentage to the talent scout, who will also get an up-front payment from the investor.

    For future novels, the author will be free to talk with other investors, but may choose to work with a single one. In this situation, the talent scouts are similar to agents and the investors are similar to publishers; but we aren’t talking large business here and nearly everyone (including editors and designers) are working on a freelance basis.

  2. Chad says:

    I already think the gatekeepters (publishing houses) do a terrible job of putting the best talent out there. I struggle to find decent authors. One of the reasons I only shop at Amazon (I get more choices than a book store).

    I do think an editor and copywriter are nice, though we do try to make everything too perfect. I don’t think promotional money matters much. I don’t think I have ever bought a novel because of an ad. The only promotional bonus the publishing houses trully give to unknown author is a place on Barnes & Nobles’ or Border’s shelves, and that is slowly becoming worthless as more and more people have Kindles and iPads.

    So, basically, I think this is a great move for authors in the long haul.

  3. Patrick H says:

    I think the business of promotion is much more difficult than these models account for. Publishers don’t just get a poster made up for the tube, they’re lunching literary editors, getting books on Newsnight review, three-for-two deals in bookshops, front-page placement on amazon and play.com (I’m guessing), Book at bedtime and awards long lists and all the stuff to get books attention. New authors in particular need this to get their work noticed – this is far and away more important to success (which is to say booksales) than good copy editing, IMO. I don’t think it’s controversial to observe that quality of editing appears to have no correlation to sales, after all!

    The relationship could be turned around, though, and self-published writers will hire PR and marketing companies to promote their work in the same way that many send their work to paid script doctors. Why wait for an “angel investor” when you could make that investment yourself?