Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hon no sekai no kakumei oh suru tame ni

I've been writing on and off for years. For most of that time, I never thought much about publishing. I wrote mostly because I have a deep urge to tell stories. All sorts of different types. I love developing characters, pondering their psychology, generating plots, et cetera. Sometimes I like to weave in complex themes and sometimes not.

Until recently, it didn't really matter. I participated in things like National Novel Writing Month, but those were nothing more than an exercise in fun. A couple of years ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to get serious about my writing. Some of this related to me having very few creative outlets left. I started writing a lot more than I had been. 

They say you need to write a million words before you produce something publishable. Well, I may not have published yet, but I've produced my million words.

When you plan to do anything, you should know what you are doing. To that end, I began studying the business side of publishing--everything from querying to how film rights worked. Yes, in the end I'm just someone who wants to tell stories, but what good is a story without an audience?

A funny thing happened in the last two years. The e-book market has exploded. I blew it off at first. 

"Who cares?" I asked. The agent and editor blogs I was reading didn't seem to think it meant much.

The numbers starting growing exponentially.

"Well, it's easy to grow when you're starting at the bottom," I said. 

Yet, things kept growing. Even now, I'm dubious they'll continue growing as fast as they are but they could easily reach 25% within a year or two (if not more). It may grow or maybe it will stall out there. Despite what many people may think, CDs are still the predominant music format compromising 60-70% of music sales. So, let's assume (even though we have no reason to necessarily equate the two) that ebook sales hit at least around a third of total book sales. That's a good chunk. All the arguments about ebooks not "being there yet" or not satisfying some aesthetic urge are kind of pointless if a third of the sales are ebooks.

In 2010, 10% of total book sales were e-books. In the first few months of 2011, 20%. Now some of that may be the post-Christmas effect. I'll grant that. So, let's cut the increase in half. Say, it was 15%. Keep in mind here, it's not a matter of adding customers, it's a market of readjusting the existing market share. We could easily end up at 15-20% of total books sales (if not more) by the end of 2011.

So, why am I harping on all of this so much?

In April, author and small-press veteran Kristine Kathyn Rusch wrote a rather lengthy blog post where she offered evidence that the Big 6 publishers are significantly underreporting e-book royalties. While I encourage you to read the post (which discusses royalties in general), one thing I'll point out here is that she did not attribute this to active conspiracy. Instead, she suggested instead it may stem from archaic accounting procedures.

Now, many people have been critical of Ms. Rusch for her often rather strident indictments of the Big 6. I found her post rather frightening, but I kind of filed it away.

At the end of May, veteran agent Kristin Nelson (who is the agent representing several delightful authors I've discovered in recent years) had a post that ended with the following chilling statements:

"In four short days, I can already tell you two important things about this digital revolution.

1. Pricing is everything. Pricing a title appropriately will move a great number of books in a short period of time.

2. Publishers are under-reporting electronic book sales in any given period on the royalty statements we are seeing.

That's a fact."

Chaos! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Last week, agent blogger Nathaniel Bransford gave an interview at Writer Unboxed where he talked about the industry and his reasons for leaving agenting. Though he was most insistent that his agenting career was fine, and he was just more interested in being more involved in social media, one section really caught my eye:

But I won’t try and say that the flux in the publishing business played no role either. In my Year in Books post at the end of 2010 I talked about the “Big Squeeze,” and how hard it is for a book to sell to a traditional publisher and how difficult it is for young agents to start their career.

Let's sum this up. We have e-books growth exploding, we have the Big 6 underreporting royalties, likely due to archaic business practices, and we have agents having a hard time even selling books to the Big 6, anyway.

This does not sound like a sustainable system to me. It also sounds like a system in the middle of tremendous transformation.

Now, I've cited these three people, but I see these sentiments all over. I follow a -lot- of writing and publishing relating blogs and forums. People can stick their fingers in the ears and pretend it's 1999 (Hat tip to Ms. Rusch) all they want, but the old order is being swept away. Electrons are flowing over our paper and changing everything.

The question becomes: what happens when it finally all comes tumbling down?

I haven't a clue. We have agents now becoming publishers. Some have already received criticism for perceived poor quality efforts.

Author David Gaughran had a fascinating post the other day that points out the increasing trend of agents, including those closed to submission, of signing successful self-published authors.

This is all terrifying yet exciting. A tradition-bound, slow-to-adapt industry is being ripped to pieces and forced to change. Is this creative destruction or something far more sinister?

I've been following all of this unfold with great attention. For me, I just want to get my stories out to people, and yes, I want to make a little money. Currently, I have two jobs. I have two jobs because I need the money to support my family. I love telling my little stories, but I'm not in a position where I can simply just quit my jobs to concentrate on writing. My children enjoy eating. I enjoy electricity. Occasionally, I also enjoy water. 

It'd be nice, for instance, if I could replace at least of some my modest part-time freelance job with a modest amount of writing income. After all these years of improving my craft, this year I've started toying with queries and the like. Life overwhelmed me though and I'd only sent out a relatively modest amount.

Now, I find myself watching this huge revolution unfold and wondering what to do? Seriously pursue an agent? That takes a huge amount of time, they can't always sell a book and besides poor royalties, there will be the de facto "underreporting" tax on your royalties. Given the molasses-like speed at which the Big 6 have reacted throughout the decades, I'm dubious they'll get the royalty situation in-hand soon.

Should I start trying to submit to small presses? Submit to an e-press? Self-publish (oh, how what was once verboten is now permissible)?

I honestly don't know. People say, "Shut up and write" and I've been doing that. I'm at the point  where I'm a bit dubious of spending a huge amount of time focusing on getting an agent until the fundamental structure of the publishing industry has settled a bit. So, perhaps a two-armed approach. Though the bulk of my million words over the last ten years aren't fit for the consumption of the gentle reader, I have been slowly revising and editing (with the help of many wonderful critique partners) a couple of novels that I actually feel someone might pay a modest sum to read. One, I think, I shall perhaps try and submit to a smaller publisher. The other I could use as part of a self-publishing experiment.

Decisions, decisions.


Marion Sipe said...

This is a great post J.A.! Seriously great. It's such a confusing time right now, with everything changing, but it's also somehow wonderful to be here while its happening. Exciting.

I'm looking forward to self-pubbing in July, and I can't wait to start the ride. Although, frankly, I'm also terrified.

I do think it's smart for authors to get a foot in both markets (traditional and self-pubbed), though. And if you've got two books, I think it would be very interesting to see how the different roads unwind.

Good luck!

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks, Marion.

Congrats on your upcoming release.

Tiphanie Thomas said...

Love the post, Jeremy! You've captured what a mess the publishing world is! And hope you luck on making your decision on what to do with your writing. Congrats on a million!

Inkblot said...

Awesome post. You've pretty neatly captured where I am with writing as well. So much change, so many decisions to make, and it's hard to know which way to go. I, like you, will I think end up exploring a variety of options. At least that IS the advantage of the current times - we do have a variety of options available to us, and they are no longer mutually exclusive.

Best of luck!!

mooderino said...

Yep, it's a quandry. I certainly have no faith in the big 6, I think they have no idea what they're doing and will make every attempt to mess things up for everyone they can. I don't know how things will turn out, but viva la revolution!


CherylAnne Ham said...

I know I, for one, have been watching and waiting to see how things progress. Great post.

I had also read that post by Kristin Nelson regarding the e-book royalties. Crazy stuff! I'll have to check out the other post you mention.

LisaAnn said...

Wow. What an amazing post. I had no idea all this was going on, and I'm so appreciative you've taken the time to share this. Thank you so much! :)

J.A. Beard said...

I'm glad it was useful. :)

Cinders said...

Excellent post. I went through the same thing before I self published.