Last week, two potentially watershed events occurred right before our eyes — one best-selling author refused an advance of $500,000 in order to self-publish his next two novels, while a self-published author who has made more than $2 million so far decided to accept her first traditional publishing contract.
It’s tempting to view these events as potentially canceling one another out, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, they both show how many book authors are now fully in charge of their fates.
Barry Eisler, the author of two best-selling series of thrillers, declined a traditional publishing deal with a hefty advance after his 12-year-old daughter brought him to his senses:
My wife and daughter and I were sitting around the dinner table, talking about what kind of contract I would do next, and with what publisher. And my then eleven-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you just self-publish?”
Eisler had also been talking with J.A. Konrath, an author who at first dabbled in self-publishing, slammed it for a period when he was being published traditionally, then returned when the traditional publisher became fickle. In an excellent interview Konrath had with Eisler, Eisler boils down the times in a compelling way:
There’s a saying about the railroads: they thought they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business. So when the interstate highway system was built and trucking became an alternative, they were hit hard. Likewise, publishers have naturally conflated the specifics of their business model with the generalities of the industry they’re in. As you say, they’re not in the business of delivering books by paper–they’re in the business of delivering books. And if someone can do the latter faster and cheaper than they can, they’re in trouble. . . . They recognize they’re becoming non-essential, and are trying to keep themselves essential–but are going about it in the wrong way. . . . they’re drawing the wrong conclusions. The wrong conclusion is: I’m in the paper business, paper keeps me essential, therefore I must do all I can to retard the transition from paper to digital. The right conclusion would be: digital offers huge cost, time-to-market, and other advantages over paper. How can I leverage those advantages to make my business even stronger?
Every publisher of books and journals should cut that paragraph out and post it in a highly visible location.
At the same time, Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing phenomenon who recently came to wide attention after reporters learned she’d managed to earn millions of dollars selling her novels mostly as e-books, accepted a traditional publishing contract with St. Martin’s Press. Yet her reasons for doing so have nothing to do with self-validation or marketing help or vanity. Instead, it has to do with getting better editing help and helping readers find her books in stores. Most significantly, Hocking writes so quickly that the books she’s committing to St. Martin’s are basically written, and she’ll still be able to self-publish other novels she’s working on.
As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?” . . . the direction of change makes this decision likely to make more sense to more authors each successive week than it did the week before.
Authors in some fields of our scholarly realm now have similar choices — pay to publish more quickly and, in some cases, just as prestigiously, or pay nothing, wait longer, and gain what may be only marginally more prestige.
Perhaps what summarizes the changes best is a quote from David Carnoy, an author who has experience both self-publishing and publishing traditionally:
I suspect that the most successful and truly talented indie writers will end up with some form of traditional publishing deal at some point in their careers. It’s one thing if you’ve already been published and are moving to self-publishing for all the pros mentioned. But ultimately, it’s good to be able to say you were “really” published–and experience it, for better or worse.
For better or worse. Ultimately, that’s the question an author can consider now, and with many options in between those two extremes.