Don’t blame publishers: you’re a commodity

Don’t blame publishers: you’re a commodity


I suspect this is the last time I’ll write on this topic until I am in the process of making the decision about getting an agent or self-publishing. Likely, much will have changed at that point, even if it’s just a year from now. I am writing this as someone who has published short-stories, but never had an agent, never dealt with a traditional publisher and hasn’t self-published. Much of the “data” I’m going to provide is speculation or hear-say. Take it for what it is.


The inciting incident

In a response to Roz Morris’s blogpost, Why do authors get treated so badly, David wrote

But why does the industry expect authors to believe that it is normal for authors (specifically, alone of industry participants) to resign themselves to having a second job? That belief underscores with dollar signs (if that’s not a mixed typographical metaphor) the attitude that Roz and Geller are both talking about: the notion that what authors do is expendable and low-value, and what publishers and editors do is not.

The starving artist

I think this is emblematic of much of the anger the self-publishing community expresses towards the traditional publishing model, and the Big Six in particular. It’s an understandable, sympathetic position. Its rare to find an artist who doesn’t want to make their living practicing their art.

Herman Melville sold 3,750 copies of
Moby Dick in his lifetime

At the same time, that anger forgets the expression “starving artist” has been around long before digital publishing disrupted traditional publishing. I’m unaware of any era in history where the majority of artists made a living from their art. Success in the arts has always required a combination of luck, talent and self-promotion. Even since patronage gave way to free markets, artists have been teased by glimpses of a career (record deals, book deals, landing a part) that is a mirage.

It’s easy to forget that even some of our most cherished artists made little money off of their art. Vincent VanGaugh was a pauper; Herman Melville sold 3,750 copies of Moby Dick in his lifetime. The vast majority of the great early recording artists ended their careers broke, even when they had been successful while performing. Writing, like painting, has almost no barriers to entry. You need a pen, paper and the time to do it. Painting requires a considerable up-front investment in paints (my brother is a painter and the price of paints and brushes is intimidating), yet not so much that every indie coffee shop you enter is 90% likely to have some paintings by a local artist on the wall. For every person making a living in non-commercial art[1], thousands pursue it as a hobby with little chance of ever becoming professionals.

The professors

That so many award-winning authors of NY Times best selling books are at university should tell us something

Let’s contemplate the realm of literary fiction (lit fic) for a moment. Lit fic writers, the ones who manage to keep books in print and have multiple titles on the shelves are quite often employed by universities. Now, surely some of them would remain professors regardless of their publishing success. But many of them would love to spend their energies on their art. The fact that so many award-winning authors of NY Times best selling books are at university should tell us something about the economics of mid-list publishing before and after the advent of eBooks.

The long tail

Amazon sells hundreds of thousands of titles. While I don’t believe they release numbers in any way that would help tell us what the median author makes, my suspicion is that it is very low. There is a very long tail of people who publish work that lacks proper editing, structure and character development. It’s work released by people for the joy of publishing or who read how self-publishing puts every writer on equal footing and think they can become rich with little work.

Well above the the long tail are the people who would be mid-list writers in traditional publishing. If they worked hard and kept placing short fiction in magazines and publishing their modestly selling novels, they could make a living writing novels. I suspect there was a high burn-out rate. A figure I’ve heard frequently (though never seen sourced) is the average (mean, I assume) fiction writer makes $5,000 per year. My suspicion is that figure is decades out of date and predates the collapse in book prices brought about by digital publishing and Amazon’s aggressive pricing model.

Your guarantee

You don’t know that Smashwords will still be around nor do you know that Amazon won’t change its policy to limit cheap books and demand higher fees.

Digital publishing advocates like to say that eBooks will never leave the shelf. That’s almost certainly false. Digital formats have very short half-lives, especially when they are proprietary or, even worse, DRMed. “But Word still opens Word 1.0 files!” True, but those were never DRMed, Word became the dominant word processing program and Microsoft has always valued backwards compatibility far beyond any other major industry player. A better example is opening a WordPerfect for DOS file. Try finding an Iomega Zip reader or something to read your files on 3.5″ floppies (or 5.25″ floppies). MP3s and ePubs may be around for a very long time, but your .mobi files have an expiration date and it’s probably measured in years, not decades.

Why does that matter? The mid-list authors, just like the mid-list bands, were able to have creative careers because of back-list sales. You have no guarantee that your BookBaby books won’t be as obsolete as your MySpace page five years from now. You don’t know that Smashwords will still be around nor do you know that Amazon won’t change its policy to limit cheap books and demand higher fees.

The chaos ahead

If you spend two hours a day writing and six to ten promoting and designing, are you a writer or a publisher?

The purpose of this post isn’t to defend the Big Six or even the many indie niche presses who have valiantly given us diverse voices that large houses couldn’t. The great digital disruption has been cruel to the traditional business models for art. Every major industry has fumbled: first the record industry (which still doesn’t get it), then the publishers and film studies (who also don’t get it). But to blame them for not adapting to a rapid change is unjust. Our economy is in upheaval with many traditionally solid careers being rendered obsolete by advances in technology and communications. To expect a company that has spent decades carefully perfecting their business models to dump those practices and invent new modes of business is to ignore both human nature and the rapidity of the changes facing everyone involved in the monetized creative industry.

Could the publishing industry handled the transition from print to digital better? I don’t know, and suspect that very few people do. I don’t believe an author-friendly model for digital publishing exists yet. While we can put our work out there, set our own prices (to an extent: Amazon and others don’t distribute eBooks without terms) and control who are content is presented, every freedom we gain comes as the need for new expertise. If you spend two hours a day writing and six to ten promoting, designing, and everything else, are you a writer or a publisher? This certainly is not a model for people who are uncomfortable with self-promotion or lack a broad range of extra-authorial skills. Yes, you can hire book designers, editors, and formatters. You can even hire people to auto-tweet and do all sorts of SEO and other marketing things for you. But to use those tools successfully, you need enough knowledge about what the market is to assess if the people offering you these services are somebody exploiting the gold rush with $6 eggs or true professionals who know the industry and the market.

The paid talent

When self-published writers pay illustrators from DeviantArt $250 for an artwork, they’re demonstrating that they think visual arts are a commodity.

So why is “what authors do is expendable and low-value, and what publishers and editors do is not”? The long tail. Artists like to think of themselves as unique talents. I certainly do. My book is unique and a great value to its future audience. That’s a statement of fact. I’m sure of that. But if my book isn’t published, readers won’t know it wasn’t. They will have other titles to read. Rare is the book that remains as well-read decades after its publication as its initial run. Rare is the book that sells to more than a few thousand copies.

Artists are, with the exception of a tiny group of exceptionally talented, lucky and hardworking people, a commodity. When self-published writers buy images from iStock for $5 or pay illustrators from DeviantArt $250 for artwork, they’re demonstrating that they think visual arts are a commodity. There are plenty of people who do it for the cheap, so why pay more? Yet we forget that we are in exactly the same position. If you can convince enough people that your work is sufficiently different and superior, you can command more money. But if you can’t, you’re just like every aspiring actor forced to do commercials for products they don’t very much care for while waiting on tables to pay the rent.

Editors, designers and the stable of other salary-drawing people working in publishing (whether at the Big Six, indie houses or digital distributors) are there because they are in a better position to demand livable salaries. I’m not arguing that’s good or bad, but it is. In one of my favorite William Gibson stories, the protagonist’s father had been a recording master engineer. He had to ensure the extremely expensive engraving tool that cut the tracks into metal masters didn’t get damaged and that the master had a proper dynamic balance. It was a rare skill and he was compensated reasonably well for it. Individuals with specialized niche knowledge or long experience in an industry get paid more than commodity talent.

There are many more people who want to be writers than want to take a mid-level job in the business side of publishing. Writers tend think of the people we interface with: agents, editors and designers; but publishing employs a much broader range of people, from press specialists, to accountants, to business strategists. The people who have the most impact on the success of your novel are people you’ll never meet—the marketing department, the people who set policies about contracts and the grand strategists like Geoff Bezos.

Pick your poison

In Amazon’s world, your novel is a loyalty builder. They have zero investment in it. Your success or failure is less important than a title appearing in their store. Amazon has not disguised their principle interest in selling Kindle’s at a loss—Kindle owners don’t just buy their ebooks from Amazon, but all sorts of other things. If Amazon can get you to do the majority of your online purchasing through them, the cost of storing hundreds of thousands of .mobi files that rarely get downloaded doesn’t matter.

In the world of publishing, as an unestablished author, you’re a risky investment in a business made of risky investments. They can’t predict what will be a breakout novel, so they have to publish a bunch of novels that won’t sell. The music industry has the same problem, as does Hollywood (although Hollywood has honed their blockbuster model so effectively that they rarely take any real risk, and can let indie filmmakers take those chances for them).

Take whatever route works best for you, but don’t expect to be treated as more than a commodity until you’ve proven that you can move lots of books. It’s not a world I want, but it’s the world I—and you—live in.


1 By commercial (as opposed to non-commercial), I don’t mean niche; I mean work paid for directly by corporations as part of advertising, branding, etc. So a commercial artist isn’t somebody who sells popular paintings, but a graphic artist who does fee-for-service art. For writers, commercial work is rarely fiction. It includes copywriting, technical writing, etc.

6 Thoughts on “Don’t blame publishers: you’re a commodity

  1. Pingback: Writing on the Ether | Jane Friedman

  2. I think this post is one of the most objective analysis of the publishing industry I have seen Having published one book the traditional way, I am currently exploring the non-traditional way (indie pubs). As you said, it is a “pick your poison” world out there. But…if you can’t get a publisher/agent to look at your book, the indie argument is pretty compelling. And BTW, you have to do one heck of a lot of promoting with wither route.

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