To E or Not to E: An Update

As most of you know, I’m a crime fiction author, both traditionally  and e-published. About eighteen months ago Joe Konrath asked me to blog about the benefits of traditional publishing. I did. Then, as I started e-publishing more myself, that post developed into a presentation comparing the Pros and Cons of traditional vs. e-publishing. I’ve given that talk about a dozen times, and I created a handy-dandy chart on the left, which I hope you can read. (Just click on it to enlarge)

But the book business has been changing, sometimes profoundly, every few months, and now, almost two years later, some issues (not all, but some) have either changed or vanished. At the same time, new ones have emerged.

I was curious – have those changes tipped the scales in one direction or the other? Are there new markers and/or warning signs that fiction writers should know going forward? So I decided revisit the issues.

Be forewarned… this is a long post, so you might want to grab some coffee or something stronger before you read it.

Also, before I start, I want to thank Kris Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Lee Allred who’ve graciously allowed me to “borrow” some of their information. Lee even compiled a chart that’s similar to mine. I’ll annotate their info as we go. Btw, I am a regular reader of their blogs and you should be too. Click on their names to get to them.

Traditional Publishing Pros

I’ll start with a couple of the Pros of traditional publishing as I saw them eighteen months ago.

Support and Reviews

What I said then: If a publisher gets behind a title, you can’t beat their marketing support and promotion. They saturate the      media with information and hype in a way most individual authors can’t.  Even if you’re not one of the “chosen,” publishers send out ARCs for review – which I believe is still the best ways to start generating “buzz.” As much as I appreciate Amazon reviews, a review from the New York Times,  or NPR can make a huge difference in sales… and it’s just plain hard to beat a starred review in PW Booklist or Kirkus.

What I say now: The above is still true, but with qualifications. Only a few bestseller authors are chosen for the royal treatment —  often those who don’t need the support. Their books are everywhere. For the rest of us,  it’s become even tougher.  The number of books being published is down. The number of ARCs being distributed is down, and the number of traditional review sources, ie newspapers and magazines, is too.  Bottom line, it’s harder than ever to make a splash with your book in traditional forums.

At the same time, though, the volume of online review sources has exploded. And the number of reviewers who review self-published and/or indie authors is climbing.  In addition, there are a host of websites that will feature your traditionally published novel. So it’s not as if promotion and support isn’t there–  it’s just moved online. Which is both a pro and a con. Depending on how comfortable you are with social media.

Moving on to Distribution:

What I said then: Traditional publishers’ distribution networks are broad, deep, and in some cases, even creative. As much as we focus online for our book info, when you see a  book in the bookstore, at the airport, in Costco, on a bus, or the grocery store, it makes an impression. The more impressions, the more apt a consumer is to buy. Publishers make those impressions possible in ways that a computer screen can’t.

What I say now: That’s still true. For big publishers. But Borders is no more, Barnes and Noble is cutting back, and more authors are going with mid-sized or smaller publishers whose reach is not as broad as the Big Six. Except online, where everyone is still on a level playing field, more or less. Still, distribution online just isn’t the same as seeing your book in the airport when you’re between flights. It just isn’t.

Eighteen months ago, I also talked about the advantages of in-house editing, the role of booksellers who could hand-sell your books, and the fact that book awards are generally limited to traditionally published books. Not much has changed there, either, except that independent bookstores are closing by the handful, which makes me want to cry. And also makes hand-selling less common.

Traditional Publishing Cons

Let’s go to the Cons of traditional publishing (Told you this would be long…)

They’re listed on my chart, and frankly, there’s nothing terribly new here. You already know about the stingy e-book royalty rates given to authors by traditional publishing (average 25% among the Big 6 ). Recently, there’s been noise about raising them, which is good. Much of that noise is, coming, interestingly, from agents. (More about them later).

You probably also know you wait much longer for your book to come out (at least a year), and you only get royalty statements twice a year, although Simon & Schuster announced they will make sales info available to their authors online. It’s a great idea. Let’s see if other publishers follow suit.

Yes, you get money up front, but advances for most authors are much smaller these days ($10,000 is the new $50,000). Print runs are down too.

And the shelf life for a new book in print is, as Sara Paretsky has said, is somewhere “between the milk and the yogurt.” You have about 6 weeks to make a splash. And then people move on to next best story.

On the “Con” side,  though, new issues have emerged that traditionally published authors should know about. Much of this is what I’ve learned from Kris and Dean.

Contracts: Hinky things are going on with contracts these days. Limitations on what you can write and publish… what constitutes a reversion of rights…  and what happens when your backlist is orphaned or goes out of print. When you’re finished here, go read about some of them.  It’s troubling, to say the least. Kris and Dean recommend you hire a lawyer go over your contract… Don’t leave it in your agent’s hands. I agree.

Bankruptcy: Are publishers going under? Dorchester did. Will others follow suit?  Clearly, none of us know, and we certainly can’t control the process, but it’s something to think about.

Accounting of e-book Royalties: Traditional publishers are still refining their systems to account for e-book sales, and there are anecdotal stories that authors are not getting all the royalties they are due. I really don’t think anyone is trying to cheat anyone, but the new accounting rules are still in their infancy. Which means – well – you need to pay very close attention to your royalty statement.

Agents: Yes, agents take 15% and most traditional authors understand that. Including me, btw. What I’m not so sure about is that some agents – whose revenues have been slashed by all the changes – are trying to recoup those revenues by e-publishing their clients’ backlists.  Should they be publishers as well as agents? How can they represent you with one hand, and publish you with the other? Isn’t that a conflict of interest? It’s a dilemma. The jury is still out. The Passive Voice has a series of post on agents. You need to read them.

Still with me? Yeah, I know. Maybe you should go have a drink, because we’re still not done.

E-Publishing Pros

As many of you already know, the biggest Pro of E-publishing is control. The writer has it, the publisher doesn’t. I list it as a Pro, but I know folks who think it’s a Con. Mostly these are writers who do not approach their career as a business… who don’t want to be bothered by all the “money” and “process” stuff. I am a Type-A, and I want to know as much as I can, so I see self-publishing as a tremendous opportunity. Some people, like David Wilk,  call it becoming the “Entrepreneurial Author.” I’m there.

As far as the other Pros, nothing has really changed in the past couple of years. You don’t need a middleman, and you don’t need an agent. And you don’t need a company (which are sprouting like mushrooms after a rain) that offers to put your books up for you… and takes a big chunk of the proceeds. You can choose the cover, the story, the editor (and yes, everyone needs an editor). You can convert it yourself or hire someone to do it without mortgaging your future. Accounting is almost instantaneous and is 24-7. And you have the potential to make a good bit of change. Maybe even a small fortune.

I also want to mention a “new” pro that’s emerged from digital technology. Suddenly it’s easier to produce subsidiary content for your work. I produced an audio of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE for much less than I thought it would cost. It will be out in time for the holidays, btw.  I am also pursuing foreign rights directly for some of my novels, and they might turn out to be translations that are e-books. In fact, there seems to be an emerging synchronicity in the digital world between e-books, audio, and other digital format. That’s good for all of us.

E-Publishing Cons

But let’s take a closer look at the Cons, because there are some.

 First, the money:

 I made great money at the beginning. I was a consistent Amazon best-seller for a couple of  books, which were priced at 99 cents. Then I got greedy and raised the prices to $2.99. My sales tanked, and I’m still trying to recover.

Bottom line: Just like in traditional publishing, there are ups and downs.  You’ll make money one week, you won’t the next. But, thankfully, e-books are forever. They will never go out of print. So there are always going to be new opportunities with new readers.

 There is an upfront financial outlay to do it “right”… ie professionally. Probably about $1500. Which includes editing, cover, conversion, uploading, and a couple of hundred dollars for promotion.

Quality:  Sorry folks, but the quality of e-books is all over the place. Gatekeepers have yet to emerge, but maybe there shouldn’t be. Some people say readers are the gatekeepers… I get that. But here’s the thing: Some  readers aren’t as discriminating as I am. They either can’t tell or they don’t care if a book isn’t up to my standards. They’re reading it for different reasons. So is that a pro or a con? I guess it depends where you stand. In many cases, indie authors outsell me 10 to 1, so who’s to say?

Marketing; There’s nothing really new here either. We all know we have to spend more time marketing online, in ways we never imagined. But even if you’re traditionally published, you know you have to do that. Hello, Social Media.

Amazon: However, there is a new “Con” in indie publishing that I want to discuss (and then I’ll let you go). And that “Con” is Amazon. Ironically, it’s also the biggest “Pro” of indie publishing.  Some days they’re my best friend. Some days they’re my worst enemy. Amazon can make me rich, Amazon can make me poor. And depending on the month, they have.

And I can’t even blame it on a group or an individual.  An author’s success on Amazon depends mostly on their algorithms, a secret formula that makes my books show up with other books as “If you have read X, you’ll like Y.”  Being on the right list at the same time can produce a book that virtually sells itself — for months. Just ask Simon Wood, CJ Lyons, and J. Carson Black. But the opposite is true as well. I know. I’ve been in both places. I hear that Amazon is changing their algorithms so there will be a faster turn-over of authors.  We shall see.

Still,  the fact remains that Amazon accounts for over 90% of my sales. They are essentially a monopoly. And they’re getting bigger. They are gobbling up mid-list authors whom they will publish and promote, and they’re increasing their co-op promotion – I talked about that earlier — it’s similar to what used to exist in bookstores. As Amazon gets bigger, individual authors matter less. That’s just the way it is. I don’t see much of a solution… yet.

So… wrapping it all up, here’s my updated Pros and Cons chart. Yeah, I know it’s smaller… I hope you can read it. What do you think? Btw, for those of you who’ve made it this far… I salute you. Have at it. What did I miss?

Oh… and stay tuned. Six months from now, things will likely be very different.

And just in case you’re wondering, I self-published two books this year as e-books. But my next book, a literary thriller set in Iran due out next April, will be traditionally published by one of the best of the new, niche publishers, Allium Press of Chicago.

And so it goes.