Contrary to Popular Belief, I Don’t Hate Traditional Publishing

In the past few days, I believe I’ve given some people the impression that I hate traditional publishing.1 I don’t. I don’t think publishing houses are evil. I don’t believe authors who choose to go with the traditional model are doing anything stupid or wrong. I don’t want print publishing to die. None of those things are remotely true.

What I do believe is that authors need to understand the different publishing options and the risks and benefits of each model for their particular situation. There are risks and benefits to every choice. Did I completely understand those choices when I decided to sell a book to a traditional publisher? No, I didn’t. I was new, I was green, and the publishing world looked very different then than it does now. Self-publishing was virtually non-existent in 2008 when I signed my contract and barely getting off the ground in 2009 when it was published. We didn’t worry about reversion clauses because there was nothing you could do with your reverted rights anyway. And most of all, it was still very much a print world, although the ground was certainly beginning to shift and rumble in noticeable ways by then.

The advent of both self-publishing and an ever-increasing array of digital-first publishers has changed the landscape in fundamental ways. Especially in romance, where digital adoption rates are higher than in any other genre. Print distribution is traditional publishing’s strength, but with shelf space shrinking and digital on the rise, it’s just a fact that not every book is going to be served by print distribution. Knowing which category your book falls in is an important part of making the right decision.

So is thinking about things like pricing (are readers in your genre price-sensitive, especially in digital? how does your publisher price its books?), cover art (do you like the covers of other books in your genre from this publisher?), option and non-compete clauses (can you write for other publishers? can you publish books yourself if you want to?), and reversion clauses (are you ever going to get the rights to this book back if you sell it?). Even if you don’t like the answer to some of those questions, it still might be in your best interest to go the traditional route, but if you don’t even know to ask the questions, you may find yourself regretting your choices a few months or years down the line.

I want the wide array of publishing options authors have today to survive and thrive. There are some things I think traditional publishers could do to better serve authors and their books. More timely sales reporting, fairer reversion clauses, more limited non-compete and option clauses, and higher digital royalty rates would be high on my list of improvements. But saying that isn’t saying traditional publishers are evil and shouldn’t exist.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to succumb to an “us vs them” mentality. There’s room for all the players. But just as it’s perfectly reasonable to point out the potential pitfalls of self-publishing (cost and level of difficulty being the two primary ones), it’s reasonable to point out the potential pitfalls of signing a contract with a traditional publisher or a digital-first publisher. That’s not “hating on” anyone. It’s just good common sense.

1For purposes of this post, “traditional publishing” means a publishing arrangement in which the publisher releases the book in both print and trade format and provides distribution of print copies to retail outlets. “Digital-first publishing” means any publishing arrangement in which the publisher releases the book first (and possibly only) in digital format. Most of the companies we associated with “traditional publishing” have “digital-first publishing” arms (for example, Random House’s Loveswept line, Avon’s Impulse line, or Penguin’s Intermix line).

Why Backlist is a Gold Mine

I have been debating for the better part of the day whether I should type up this post or not. If it gets me into even more trouble than I already am, I’m blaming Cecilia Grant, Kinsey Holley, and Olivia Waite.

I’m not going to bother you with the background here. There’s a lot of it. Most of which it will irritate me to reiterate, so I’m not going to do it. What I am going to tell you is this: I sold a three-novella anthology (historical, erotic romance) to Kensington in 2008. It came out in trade paperback June of 2009. In words of one syllable, sales sucked. I was a debut author in a niche line (Aphrodisia) with a very small advance ($2,500) whose book had the bad fortune to come out at the absolute height of the recession. Under the circumstances, it’s a small miracle that the book had somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 print orders and sold enough copies (mostly in digital, even back then) to earn out within the first 18 months or so. The book is still available for sale in both print and digital online and sold enough copies between June of 2012 and 2013 to earn me $893 in royalties in 2013.

So, if I’m only getting $893 a year from that book, why am I saying reverted backlist is a goldmine? Because I think I could easily treble and possibly quadruple the amount I earn on an annual basis from digital sales if I owned the rights. Admittedly, the fact that this book is an anthology rather than a single title novel gives me more options than I’d have if it were a single title novel, but much of what I’m saying would work just as well for an author with three single titles in a series.

So, here’s what I’d do:

1) I’d break the anthology into its constituent novellas and sell them each separate in digital, probably for a price point of $2.99. The entire anthology now sells from between $8 and $11, depending on the retailer.

“But wait, Jackie,” I know someone is saying, “if you charge $2.99 per novella, you’re actually charging almost $9 for the whole book. That’s not much less than the publisher?”

This is true, but readers are more willing to part with $2.99 to see if they like the first book than to pay the entire $9 only to discover they hate all of them. This makes me completely confident that, at a $2.99 price point, I could sell more copies of the three separate parts than currently sell of the bundle. But, with that in mind…

2) I’d bundle and sell the whole anthology for $5.99. So it would basically be a buy two, get one free scenario. Of course, I’d also have a print version of the anthology and on Amazon, I’d use Matchbook to make the digital anthology a mere $0.99 with the purchase of the print.

3) I have a lead-in short story to the anthology that’s currently 99 cents. I’d make it permafree to promote the companion novellas. Foregoing the 35-40 cents I earn on each sale of the book is no issue when I know I’ll make about $2 a pop for each copy of the succeeding novellas I sell. I already know that lead-in short is selling copies of the anthology. I think I could sell a lot more if instead of having to spring for the whole anthology, readers only had to spring for the next novella. And then the next. And the next.

4) I’d explore having the novellas translated into other languages, especially German, where there’s a strong market for romance. Kensington never sold any of my subsidiary language rights, which given the book’s lousy US sales is no surprise, but I’m confident I could move enough copies to make it worth the translation costs.

5) Speaking of foreign languages makes me think of foreign territories. Despite the fact that my publisher has world English rights, I’ve heard from a number of readers that this anthology isn’t available for sale in their territories. That’s a crying shame. I’d publish it in English in all available territories.

6) Audio. I could do it for one novella at a time. Would that sell a lot of copies? Probably not, but if there’s no audio at all, there’s no revenue at all from the audio rights. (No, I haven’t done audio for any of my other novellas, mostly because I’d like to have all the books in those series completed in print before springing to audio. This anthology and the short story that precedes it represent my only truly “completed” series.)

And that’s just for starters.

Because I’m a self-publisher, I can be nimble. I can see what’s working and what’s not as I work through my steps, and adjust what I’m doing if it’s not working.

But large publishing houses can’t do the things I’m describing here. Or, put another way, the ROI on doing them for an author whose option wasn’t picked up because her sales were lousy doesn’t justify making the effort. They’re busy putting out NEW books. 450 a year. My book, published four years ago, is a distant memory. Once the print copies are out of stores, it’s just “backlist,” which isn’t worth much unless the author happens to be a top seller (in which case, they’d exploit every right they had). Sure, they’re happy to get the $2,700 or so in annual revenue from its sales that still come in, but they don’t have an incentive to truly exploit the rights they have. But *I* do.

This is just one of the reasons that self-publishing outperforms traditional print publishing in the digital arena. Oh sure, not always. Some publishers do a lot promotions with their big name authors, dropping prices on the first book or books in a series before the next one comes out. It’s a strategy many self-publishers have utilized to great effect. It’s just that we self-publishers get to treat all our books as lead titles, not just a few. Backlist sells front list. Front list sells backlist. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.

I can see that one of the things traditional publishers have a hard time believing is that self-publishers are able to sustain fairly consistent sales of their backlist titles over time. And that’s because, for the most part, traditional publishers don’t do much to sustain the sales of digital books after print sales have run their course. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that, after 4-6 months (the average shelf life of a mass market paperback), everyone who wants to read the book will have bought it. It’s not a foregone conclusion that a book which sold relatively poorly in print will also sell poorly in digital.

So, yeah, I’m waiting with bated breath for June 2016, when I can request reversion. It can’t come too soon!

The Whim Factor

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about print books, book sales, and bestseller lists. My thoughts have been spurred by several blog posts/discussions, primarily these:

One of the claims Mr. Zacharius has been making in his comments both on Passive Voice and on Joe Konrath’s blog is that 70% of the book market is still in print. I’d guess that this isn’t true in all segments of the market (for example, in genre romance, the split is clearly closer to 50/50 or maybe even 40/60 print to digital), but for the sake of this post, I’m going to agree with that figure because I think it’s really important to explaining why no self-published books (that weren’t picked up by major publishing houses for print distribution) made that list. And also why fewer and fewer authors should probably CARE about getting print distribution.

So, here’s the thing about hitting a list like USA Today’s Top 100 for an entire calendar year–basically, to get onto this list, your book has to be bought not just by people who buy several books a month, but by a sizable percentage of people who only buy a couple of books a year. These are people who buy books on a whim. They aren’t out looking to buy a book. They’re shopping in Target or Walmart or their grocery store and they happen to see, on an end cap somewhere, a book that they remember having heard something about. Either they’ve heard of the author/series before (for example, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books) or they have seen/heard about movies based on the book/series (Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books) or there has been a lot of media hype surrounding them (“OMG, Robert Galbraith is really JK Rowling” or “*titter* 50 Shades of Gray, lots of sex, mommy porn *titter*”). These are the kinds of books that get the huge sales numbers in the adult trade print market.

Another subset of the big print bestselling market is Young Adult and Middle Grade–Divergent (YA) and the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid (MG) installment were 2 and 3 on the list respectively. This is no surprise as YA/MG readers skew even more toward print than adult readers, thanks in large part to the fact that buying digital books generally requires a credit card, and unless your parents trust you enough to link their credit card to your Kindle account–as I do my daughter–you’re not going to buying a lot of digital books if you’re <18yo. Those of us who are book junkies are puzzled by the sort of purchasing behavior I've described above. Whim buying of this variety hard to fathom. For us, books are like potato chips; how can anyone buy just one or even two or five in a year? We whim-buy, but we whim-buy in large quantities and entirely on purpose. And we (the book junkies) are the audience most likely to be buying our books not in print, but in digital because 1) yo, instant gratification and 2) dude, we have no shelf space left in our homes because before digital took off, we had to buy everything in print. But if you look at that top 6 of that USA Today Bestselling list, you can absolutely see the whim factor in action, as well as the YA/MG skew toward print. Here they are:

  1. Inferno by Dan Brown has multiple whim factors going for it. It’s related to The Da Vinci Code, which you’ve only never heard of if you live in a cave…under a rock…wearing a blindfold and earplugs. It’s also a series with a movie deal.
  2. Divergent by Victoria Roth is the first book in a dystopian YA trilogy that scored a movie deal this year. That means it’s not only hitting the more print-oriented YA readers but a lot of whim factor adult buyers as well.
  3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kenney is the latest installment in the long and successful middle grade series. Because in addition to units sold, USA Today is also measuring velocity, this book probably gets as high on the list as it does because parents with kids who are into the series literally POUNCE on the books they day they’re released. I have a kid who loves this series, and I can tell you I was a pouncer. If my 11yo hadn’t had this book the day it came out, there would have been hell to pay! Also, bonus points, this series has a movie deal.
  4. Save Haven by Nicholas Sparks wasn’t published in 2013, but the movie version of it came out in February. That film bounced its sales.
  5. Sycamore Row by John Grisham is a) by John Grisham, very much a known quantity in publishing, and b) a sequel to A Time to Kill which was made into a very successful movie. Not sure if the films rights to this were also announced as sold this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
  6. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of the few books on this list that I’d say would have been tough to predict before its publication. I haven’t read it, but it was highly acclaimed and had great sales even before the movie rights sold in 2013. But those great sales definitely fueled whim sales. People who don’t read much nonetheless heard about this book and were curious about it. And when they happened to see it on a store shelf, they bought it.

I could go further down the list and continue to identify the whim factors associated with the majority of them, but I don’t think that’s necessary to make my point. The point is that the 70% of book sales that are still in the print market are not evenly distributed among the books that are released in print. Only a HANDFUL of books published every year have the kind of “legs” that get them ordered in large enough quantities by enough retailers to result in the necessary shelf placement to wind up on one of these lists. If your goal as an author is to hit this list, then first and foremost, you’d better sell the film rights to your series to a major production studio. That, more than anything else, is a predictor of success, and the reason it’s a predictor is that when the movie rights sell, retailers think, “Oh, this book is in the news and will be popular; we should order a lot of copies!” So they order a lot of copies and put them right out under their customers’ noses and those customers buy them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But most print books have the opposite self-fulfilling prophecy, the one Courtney described in her post. Most print books are not ordered in large quantities by retailers. Many print books published each year are never ordered by the big retailers–the Walmarts, the Targets, the Costcos, etc.–at all, but those outlets are the holy grail for achieving “whim” sales. If your book is only ordered by bookstores, you’re in trouble, because you’re ALREADY only reaching the segment of the market that is actually out shopping for books. And guess what? THAT segment of the market is increasingly moving to digital for the reasons I described above, which means reaching those readers no longer depends as much on being in a physical bookstore. Are you missing some voracious readers by not being available on B&N’s shelves? Sure. But you’re missing fewer and fewer of them as time goes on.

So, the reason no self-published books made that list is actually the same reason most traditionally published books with print distribution didn’t–they aren’t available in the places that generate whim purchases by people who aren’t shopping for books. And for most authors, that should come as a big “so what”? Because the honest truth is that most of us earn our living from the voracious readers who increasingly buy in the digital space, and we should be maximizing our sales and earning’s potential where our customers are, not where they might–if we are very lucky and hit the lottery–be.