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Eternity is a Loooong Time

Jun 9, 2011   [permalink]

We were chatting in another forum about publishing, and whether authors should publish themselves or have a traditional publisher do it in the traditional way.

Publishers are in a bit of a pickle right now. There are some things they can bring to the table, but their old business model relied on a monopoly-like power (namely, that they had a cost-effective means to print and distribute paper books to thousands of bookstores, where they could sell for a low price and still make a profit for the publisher). As ebooks have become the #1 selling format for books, with no signs of stopping on their way to essentially replacing paper (except as a small niche market), the whole publishing equation changes. With ebooks publishers don't have that monopolistic advantage, so the question becomes, for ebooks, what good is a publisher? What benefit do they offer in exchange for the 75% of net that they take?

I think there are two potential answers.

1) They could offer the author marketing that the author couldn't afford themselves. (Though I can't say I've seen a lot of this actually happening, hence the "could".) In other words, they could be like venture capitalists, investing in your book and with those funds providing a lot of marketing and advertising. (The question then becomes, will they continue those efforts for the life of your book? Which is your lifetime + 70 years after.)

2) They do offer payment up front. But the advance they pay may be all you'll ever get from them. If they don't market the book it may not sell well, and considering that they're buying ebook rights for the rest of your life and beyond, if they don't keep it available, and keep marketing it, you might not get money in the future that you could if you publish it yourself. That can be true of print rights also. I'm working with one author right now whose book is technically in print, by the definition in the contract, but you can't actually buy it anywhere in the US. So if a publisher decides, say, it's too much effort to convert ebooks to the latest greatest format in the future, you might lose out on sales.

(Don't laugh — one of the most respected literary agents in the world died recently — he represented Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, etc. — and the executors of the estate decided they were not going to do any more work for authors, they were going to just sit back and collect 15% for doing nothing. So just remember that what holds true today may not in, like, a year or two.)

Think how much ebooks have changed in the last 2-3 years. Life+70 years is a looooong time. So the money the publisher pays up front for eternal rights better be really worth it.

It's getting easier to publish oneself (and for those not able or disinterested, there are places like my that can do the work). The economics of 25% pay vs. 100% pay, plus "forever", don't make it a clear choice to go with a traditional publisher. Though I don't count publishers out — I think we'll be seeing a lot of changes to new publishing contracts in the upcoming years. Whether to lock in forever their terms of today is the question.

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