In Defense of Tradition

The other day, I read a blog post by author Joe Konrath that took a very effective and satirical approach to explaining what's wrong with the traditional publishing industry and why he jumped ship and is now doing better than ever selling e-books directly to readers. As I read it, I started feeling the familiar tingle in the base of my spine that I get when someone has hooked me in for the sale, where all they have to do afterward is hand me a piece of paper that says "I AM MARRIED TO THIS IDEA" and have me sign on the dotted line while tears of validated joy stream down my face. "He gets it! He really get it! Oh Joe, I'll follow you anywhere!"

Then I stepped back for a minute, wiped the tears from my face, and really started to think about Konrath's argument. He believes there is nothing a fastidious and resourceful writer can't commission for his or herself (editing, cover art, marketing) in order to bring the product directly to the reader without the annoying and greedy middle-men swooping in to take the lion's share of the money.  And while his blog does an excellent job of pointing out the publishing industry's many follies and excesses, and why the Big 6 is crumbling faster than a chalk house in an earthquake, it doesn't completely sell me on the idea of stowing away on the S.S. Screw You, Publishing Industry, and here's why. 

First, the industry has been resistant to change, but change is happening. While they still by and large have no clue how to market or price e-books, at some point, consumer demand will drive the prices down. They just will. It's economic law, and there is no reason why the publishing industry can or will get away with avoiding it. The music industry finally surrendered and so shall the book peddlers. The prices of e-readers themselves are falling dramatically. By Christmas, you will be able to purchase a Kindle for a hundred bucks. By Christmas 2011, it'll likely be $50. Content prices will eventually fall with it, and everybody but the acquisitions editor with the two assistants and the five-grand espresso machine and the regular lunches at the Four Seasons (all of which are mentioned in Konrath's blog; you really should read it, because it's good) will be happy. When a huge industry, embedded with centuries of tradition, is in the midst of such a huge transition, it takes time for things to adjust, and I'm confident they will.

Second, I believe Konrath over-simplifies the prices of outsourcing services like editing and artwork for self-published books. I'm a freelance editor, and I work on the cheap, and even I would charge far more than $500 to do a full content and copy edit of a novel. Maybe Joe can get better prices because he's a published author and there are people willing to do him favors. But I charge $.035 per word for a comprehensive edit (which is what MOST novels going directly from writer to print will need), and for an 80,000 word book (average length), that's $2800. And like I said, I work CHEAP. Shop around and see what I mean. If all you're going to do is request a line edit, it'll be cheaper, but your book will suck for it. Believe me. Which brings me to my next point: 

If you believe that all your work needs is a simple line edit and proof before going to market for mass consumption, this probably explains why you were rejected by the industry and are considering the indie market in the first place, and why I'm hesitant to jump into it. The quality of self-published books is more often than not terrible, and this is why said books carry a stigma, and why self-published authors have very little credibility. I could fart on a napkin and publish it. If I was a singer, I could record myself screaming Soundgarden covers into a can of beans, burn it onto a CD, and try to sell it on the street. This doesn't make me a successful recording artist. People who work in the arts aren't exempt from needing to have their skills validated by "experts," at least if they want to make a professional, mainstream career out of said art. As in any industry, there are standards. Doctors must still attend medical school. Having an encyclopedic knowledge of WebMD is not enough to open a family practice. I could watch every season of Law & Order and come away no more qualified to be an attorney than I am now. I'd still need to go to law school and prove my worth. Writers are lucky in that they don't necessarily need a college degree to get somewhere, and there are a million ways to climb the mountain, but they must still pass muster with people who know their stuff before being accepted as credible by the general public. To assume you DON'T need to do this, that all you need to do is slap words on a page and find a way to get it in front of thousands of people because you're sure they'll find it every bit as awesome as you do, is arrogant. It takes more than writing the story to make a good book happen. Every awesome book you've ever read has been a TEAM effort. 

It isn't just that major publishers take most of your money in exchange for making you feel special. It's that they can usually tell what's good from what ain't, or at least what'll sell from what won't, and they have people who will work their asses off to polish all of your turds before sending them into the world. And they'll give it a lot more attention than I, the lone freelancer, feasibly can. For the record, I have encountered very few "serious" writers who are willing to pony up even my reasonable fees for a good edit, which tells you the regard in which these writers hold editing in general. They were too sensitive to rejection to tough it out in the marketplace, and they're no better at facing criticism from freelance editors either. Also, good artwork is not cheap. Unless you know someone who can do it for you at a steep discount, expect to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for stellar illustration work. Oh, and then there's formatting...often included with editing services, but not always. I format for submission, but not for print. Typesetting is a separate specialty altogether.

So, realistically (unless you know some really talented people who like you and can work pro bono or on the cheap), we're talking about a $3000-$5000 investment before your humble novel makes it to the Kindle/Apple store or POD purveyor looking like a truly polished piece of work you'd find on any Borders bookshelf. Add in the additional costs of marketing/advertising your book (you might, say, want to pay someone to design a website for you if you aren't savvy enough to do it yourself), driving around to various independent bookstores and attending events where you can peddle your wares--ALL of the things a traditional publisher will often do for you or help you do, and that price tag goes up. True, publishers aren't big marketers like they used to be, but having a legitimate publisher (even a small one) behind you gives you a hell of a bigger boost than you'd get going solo. For one, you'd be in major bookstores and be able to do signings and readings in said bookstores. For another, you'd have additional clout when you throw your weight around as a truly published (e.g. validated by the industry) author.

And assuming you don't have the built-in fan base that Konrath took with him when he left the mainstream publishing industry, it will take you years to recoup that cost before you start making anything resembling profit. 

This is why I hesitate to assume Joe Konrath's success is universal. It's easy for him to talk about the merits and virtues of steering his own smaller ship after having taken a ride on the big boat. I dare him to tell anyone with a straight face that his Kindle book sales would be what they are now if he hadn't built up the fan base and name recognition he got from being with a traditional publisher. One doesn't just hop on Twitter and magically get a few thousand followers or more. I've been on it, actively, for over two years and still haven't broken the 500 mark. One doesn't upload a book to the Kindle store and magically sell hundreds of copies. Most of us are trying to get what Konrath already got, even if we don't make as much money as we might if we later struck out on our own. And the same goes for other indie all-stars (Wil Wheaton, etc) who think it's easy to just do what they did. Most of us don't have the ability to leverage existing star power for a successful career selling our books direct to consumer. And you can say the same of Radiohead and Trent Reznor, who are pioneering their own direct-buy music careers after swinging in the major leagues for years. Do you think either of them would be doing nearly as well at that if they hadn't gotten a leg up from major record companies? 

While I salute the pioneers who are trying to build their own names after repeated shunnings from industry big-wigs, I can't cast my lot with them just yet. While I might see merit in experimenting with self-publishing, I operate under no illusion that it'll make me money and put me on the fast track to stealing Stephen King's career, and I would caution most writers against thinking otherwise. If you want a career in this business (and it IS a business and it pays to know it well), you gotta bust your ass and take a lot of lumps along the way. You take those beatings so you can eventually operate independently. You spend a lot of time on your knees before you learn to run. 


  1. Outstanding post! I'm going to pimp the hell out of it.

  2. Maybe you can explain something that's not making any sense to me. Along with all the talk about ebook pricing, and what you get for your money when a publishing house handles your ebook, there's the issue of advances.

    For some reason, they're still willing to pay an advance on a "real" book, but not for an ebook. The only explanation I've heard is that "it's always been that way". But as an author, my investment (of time) is the same regardless of ebook vs. print publishing.

    So why don't the publishers offer advances on ebooks?

  3. Everything you've said here mirrors my thoughts on Konrath's advice. We regular, unpublished writers just don't have the resources it takes, such as his massive network, which he built on his blog while he was a traditionally published author. Did his book sales go up and is he now making a successful transition to self-publishing due to his excellent marketing instinct? Yeah. Do I have the same instinct? Not even a little. It wouldn't work for me. The end.

    Excellent post.

  4. Drew -- Good point on e-book advances. It's a topic I'm not terribly familiar with, but I can say this. Ebooks haven't been a viable industry until VERY recently--like within the last year or two--so this could change. An advance and its amount depends really on how much a publisher anticipates a title will make. One e-books start outselling print, I think the financial structure will change. But this is only my theory.

    Sherri -- Exactomundo. I'd love to take Konrath's approach once I've built a name for myself in the regular industry. That being said, I do intend to release Scarlet Letters as an e-book at some point, as I'm not confident of it's ability to nab a publisher. I might try the small press route first, though.