Friday, February 4, 2011
Maybe the Mayans were right...but they were talking about the publishing industry
I have to be careful here. For all kinds of reasons. But here goes...
For the last six months I have been in negotiations for a book deal with the editor-in-chief of a publishing house. It doesn't matter who. It doesn't matter where. What matters is that, after much work by both of us, I had to abruptly cut off all further discussions about the project just as it appeared we were nearing a deal. Why? Because, last Friday, after a long and fruitful conversation on the phone about the new project, and his continued interest in the e-book rights to one of my previously published books, I sent the editor an e-mail in which I asked this question: "What is the split for e-books?"
His response: "The split for e-books is 75% company, 25% author."
Me: "Is this correct or do you have that backwards?"
Radio silence. I figure he thinks I'm kidding. I send up another flare:
Me: "I never heard back from you about this. I was serious in asking if this was a typo. Does the publisher actually take 75% of the e-book dough?"
Him: "Yes. The publisher takes 75%."
Me: "How do you justify that."
Him: "The number has been handed to me."
After about 20 seconds of hard thinking, I do what I usually do when faced with these situations. I set fire to the bridge ahead of me.
Me: "I'm just amazed at this. No amount of "platforming" can justify this rate. If this is the way publishers are going to try to hold onto the business, then I think they are doomed. If that's the rate they expect me to sign up for if I do a deal over there, I'm going to have to pass and save us the time working on the pages. If there is the chance of doing a book deal where I retain the e-book rights, I would be interested, but I think that's what they are really looking for anymore anyway. So guess this is it.
Good luck over there."
Rash? Yes. Stupid? Possibly.
I've spent the last week checking around with some of the agents, editors and writers I know and have found that this is, indeed, the standard rate that publishers are expecting on e-book sales. When I asked my agent how they can justify this, he told me that they would give me a large enough advance that it wouldn't matter for a long time. And yes, the advance we were discussing was very good money for someone who hasn't had a book published in five years and has had what could only be considered "minor" success in the writing field, if that. I was probably a fool to walk away from even the possibility of such a deal. But I had two good reasons for doing so.
My two children.
While this deal may have given my family a quick infusion of cash, the fact is that by the time I finished the book in question the cash would be gone. And by the time that book "earned out" at a rate of 3-1 in the publisher's favor in e-book sales, the publisher would have seen a small fortune without noticeable expense. And we would be saddled with a deal that would probably haunt my family long after I was dead and gone.
(I'm going to bypass all the variable calculations about hardcover sales, paperback sales, editing, marketing, artwork and distribution expenses for right now - let's, for the sake of this discussion, call those elements of the book deal a break-even situation for both sides, so we can just discuss e-books here as if we were starting at zero expense for all involved.)
What this "sizable advance" now looks like to me is a very expensive loan. I have been watching the e-book revolution carefully for the last two years and it is clear to me that by 2012 everything we have thought about traditional publishing will be history. The bookstores know this. The publishers know this. And some of the writers know this. But I have a feeling not everyone has gotten the memo yet.
I'll do some quick math here. Let's say Amazon sold the Kindle edition of a writer's book at $10 per copy. Amazon takes $3, leaving the publisher with $7. Their take would be $5.25, leaving the writer with $1.75. (In my case I then have to cut in my agent and attorneys for an additional 20%, so my take would be $1.40.) So the "publisher" makes $5.25 per copy and the writer makes between $1.40-$1.75 per copy. And this is all with very little tangible expenses, other than the accountants to keep the money all straight. I think the publisher will be doing pretty good while the writer is "earning out" that advance. Does this seem right to anyone out there? Other than publishers?
Another way to look at it would be this: Let's say the publisher picks up one of your old books and turns it into an e-book: text transfers, new editorial, a new cover, placement with the vendors, etc. Right now you yourself can do this for far less than $2,000, so we'll assume the publisher's cost will be that or less. By the time your book has earned you $10,000 in royalties, the publisher would have collected $30,000 for themselves. And what would their contributions have been? A "platform"? Publicity? We've all seen how well publishers promote "mid-list" books. What would make us think that things will change in this new e-world?
Obviously this model can't hold. There will be a revolt. The big time writers out there are already negotiating better terms, but I bet they are still getting the short end of the stick. In the meantime a lot of the little folks who just want to see print again are probably going to be seduced by new interest from publishers. I have a feeling there is going to be a tidal wave of cheap purchases by the publishers hoping to tie up as much material as possible at these usury rates. And then how much will your "platform" be worth? If you are just another name in a list of hundreds fighting for attention on a giant slate of titles you will have handed in your work cheap, with no way of getting it returned to you. Yes, that's right. E-books don't go out of print, so if you don't fight for time limits, your work will be lost to you. Permanently.
This is not for me. So I have no choice but to go full indie here. You heard me. I am walking away from a potential traditional publishing deal and joining the ranks of the self-published. I plan on putting my first two books and a short story collection up as e-books in the next month or so, possibly followed by a few works that I keep hidden in the bottom drawer of my desk to prevent them from harming the public at large. Hopefully this will help finance the completion of the big book that I started those six months ago.
This is a huge gamble for someone in my position. I am not prolific. My habit has been to publish two books every seven years or so. That time was approaching and I was hoping that I had found a new home with this editor and publishing house. But I can't sign away my financial legacy to my children in this fashion, however small it may be. I am far from a big name in the writing biz. Barely a blip on the radar. The fact that this editor had sought me out in the first place was extremely flattering to me. And now I am sure he will feel betrayed by this post, but this is not my intention. He's a good guy. Smart, talented, well read. This is not his fault. This is a global problem in publishing right now. It has nothing to do with individual publishers and is certainly no reflection on editors. (It's just going to make their jobs that much more difficult.)
This is a big topic and I have taken up a lot of your time here. I have so much more to say, about many different aspects of this post, but I think it should be broken up into digestible chunks, so I will continue posting about this over the next few weeks. I am going to have to use this blog (and anything else I can utilize) to reach out and build a community if I am to have any success at "self-publishing" so please sign up here if you can so I know who is reading these messages. Right now it's just me and a jury of 11.
I know an announcement like this by a minor figure in the business will not make much of a difference in the big scheme of things, but maybe my voice will be heard by a few others who are facing similar deals and they will ask themselves if it will really be worth it in the long run before they sign on the dotted line for the short score. This is how a revolution begins. Sometimes. One disgruntled citizen at a time.
As I said last week, for me, I have drawn the line.