I recently attended a talk by literary agent April Eberhardt. Her talk, The New Era of Publishing: How to Choose the Best Option for You,” outlined the rapidly changing publishing landscape.
Her thesis is that “the power is shifting to the author.” As an example, she noted that the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Bertelsmann, and Simon & Schuster) were responsible for 80 percent of all titles in the US three years ago. Now they’re responsible for 60 percent.
She quoted a few stats about the explosive growth in e-readers … but all you have to do is read the news to see abundant evidence of that for yourself.
Eberhardt had a few other principles:
- There is no one “right” way to publish.
- Authors and readers no longer need publishers to find each other
- There are a variety of business models developing now, including ebook self-publishing services like Smashwords, and smaller self-publishers like Publication Studio in Portland. Eberhardt noted the beginnings of “agent presses,” a hybrid business model where publication costs and profits are shared.
- The route to publication changes – that is, it could go from traditional publishers to e-publishing. For example, Joe Konrath left his publisher to sell his self-published e-books online.
After outlining the principles, Eberhardt outlined pros and cons of the three most common paths to publication:
- Publishers do much of the footwork, including publicity
- The status of being a published author
- The odds. Competition for agents is fierce. As former literary agent Nathan Bransford commented, “Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest.”
- The ratio of agents to editors is also bad
- Advances are shrinking
- It can take up to two years from signing with an agent until publication
- Authors still do marketing and promotion themselves
- You may or may not make a profit, since 99% of books never earn out their advance. And in that case, you lose your opportunity to publish your next book
- May pay, limited marketing
- Submitting is a lot of work, including research and following publishing guidelines
- They may not respond (or if they do, it may take ages)
- Competition is tough
- Up to two years between acquisition and publication
- You will have to self-promote
- You probably won’t make a profit
- You control the rights
- It’s relatively easy
- It costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to self-publish well (that estimated cost includes hiring an editor, getting your book laid out/formatted, cover design, and marketing/promotion)
- You make money as soon as you recoup costs
- The web is a good marketing tool:
- It’s good if a book targets a niche
- You can experiment with various marketing approaches
- You can choose title, cover art, story – you can even publish two different versions for different markets (I would have liked to see an example here, but didn’t get a chance to ask that question)
- Self-publishing still carries a stigma
- As Eberhardt says, “self-published books have to be better than traditional books.”
- It’s still a lot of work to find readers and make sales.
During the Q&A at the end, it was interesting to see how many people were focused on the traditional route to publishing (and the status boost). Also interesting was a comment she made about agents, which is that they sell to the big six – there’s not enough money in selling to the smaller presses to make it worth their time.
What I would love to see (and haven’t yet) is a gauge on how real the “stigma” is. Because two examples leap to mind where an ebook, a print-on-demand book or a self-published book could have further advantages.
- A book with niche appeal. In grad school I wrote a golf novel. While there are a lot of golfers out there, it’s clearly a book that’s going to appeal to golfers, but not to many non-golfers. Yet a publisher needs to gamble that they can recoup costs on a book, so if its subject matter has limited appeal (instead of broad-swath, Dan Brown appeal), you can see why a publisher would avoid the risk.
- A book that’s time sensitive. Think about the “life cycle” of the book. Say it takes a six months to write and another six months to edit, and then you sign with an agent within six months of submitting it. Say the agent sells it in three months (all this is relatively fast, by the way). Then the book will go into production for at least a year. That’s three years. If your subject matter is at all dependent on current events, that’s a long time.
What do you think?