Should traditional publishers feel threatened by the potential of self-publishing? Of course they should. As a hybrid author—an author who has both traditionally published and self-published—and a social scientist who studies the book industry, I am something of a two-for-one special at Digital Book World 2014. My remarks draw from both perspectives. Last week I indie published the first installment in my thriller The Kings of Brighton Beach, a series about the Russian mob in New York. As a non-brand name author, I represent the greatest threat to publishers from self-publishing, or I would if my books were in the same genre. My traditional publications are non-fiction. As a sociologist, I study the relationships between workers and organizations in changing industries and cut my teeth studying healthcare. In healthcare, the issues I’m going to discuss can literally be matters of life and death. Many of you probably feel that way about them in your own organizations (and the thriller writer in me had to throw in a dead body.)
This conference has focused on the changing technologies in publishing, and I am going to focus today on the human equation, specifically the relationship between authors and publishers. While many things have changed in publishing, one thing has not. At base, what publishers do is related to content provided for them by a contract workforce, namely authors. When we think about authors as a contignent labor pool, we open the possibility to consider the similarity between publishing and other industries and learn from them.
Self-publishing has broken publishers’ monopoly on the book industry. While publishers are used to asking what authors can do for them, they are suddenly being asked what they can do for authors.
Publishing, like other industries, has changed dramatically in the past decades–even before the rise of digital. It shifted from a reliance on intuition and experience to one on numbers, with a particular focus on the bottom line. While many people did and still do enter publishing because of their love of books, their organizations have adopted a decisional logic focused on profits and consumerism. This shift in focus has also meant a shift in power—away from editors and their close relationships with authors and in favor of the “suits” and “bean counters.” We all know the story of an editor falling in love with a great book, only to be told by the marketing department that it can’t sell. If authors didn’t like the decisions publishers were making, it was simply too bad. Publishers had a monopoly on publishing, and there is a vast oversupply of authors. If one didn’t work out, the publishers could easily choose another.
This shift in the way publishers make decisions has come during a time of a changing social contract between employers and workers—again across industries in the United States. The new social contract is characterized by high expectations and low commitment. Employers have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, and converted jobs from full-time to temporary employment. Despite this lowered commitment to workers, they expect their workforce to master new technologies and skills, often on workers’ own time and dime, and to be constantly available—witness how many of us are glued to our e-mails and smart phones. For their part, workers no longer have an expectation of having a career in a single company. Our careers are portable, and we expect to build them across organizations and jobs. The skills and expertise we develop are part of our own personal brand. (As an aside, one reason that self-published authors have the opportunity to produce high quality books that rival those from traditional publishers is because of the underemployed editors and designers willing to offer their excellent services.)
In this context, authors have had to show high sales potential to be picked up by publishers, and those who don’t produce the numbers have in the past been easily dropped by publishers.
Publishing is a segmented market, both in terms of authors and publishers. There is great diversity in what different groups do, in what they produce, and in what they earn. Publishers don’t need to worry about all of self-publishing. There are a lot of hacks and hobbyists out there, focused on writing their memoirs or the one book they have inside them. There are also determined entrepreneurs, who are finding ways to make money in self-publishing, and there are runaway bestsellers. The entrepreneurs and bestsellers, rather than being a threat, provide great opportunities to publishers. These authors have demonstrated their market potential without the publishers having to invest a penny, and under the right terms, they may be happy to partner with traditional publishers. Under the right terms.
In the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, 2% of authors, or almost 10% of indie authors, made the move from self-publishing into traditional publishing.
The biggest threat to publishers are the hybrid authors, who move from traditional publishing into self-publishing. While publishers work hard to keep their name-brand authors from defecting with sweet enough deals to keep them happy, midlisters in the past have been neglected. These are the people for whom self-publishing may be increasingly attractive. In the past, these authors might have been dropped by traditional publishers if they didn’t have enough sales, marking a precipitous end to their careers or their series. The publishers could then have turned around and offered the authors’ readers something else to read with a good chance of sales. Now, however, these authors can self-publish their work, and their readers can and do follow them and find the books they love. Readers’ relationships are with authors and their stories. No one really cares who the publisher is. The traditional authors who goes indie quickly becomes the publisher’s competition. In the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, 5% of authors fit this profile or more than a third of traditionally published authors. All indications are that this number is growing.
Self-publishing can look quite lucrative to an indie author. Many traditionally published authors don’t receive advances from their publishers, and the most common royalty rate is still around 25% for ebooks. Indie authors easily calculate that they could make more money going it alone, even if they cultivate fewer but loyal fans. In my example, an indie author with 642 fans can make the same money for the same work as a traditionally published author with 3,000 fans. While it might be difficult for a debut author to build even a small fan base, for a midlist author, the task is far easier.
It’s no surprise that authors are asking what traditional publishers offer. The results from the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, which Jeremy Greenfield and I compiled, suggested that the contributions by publishers were not as much as the author community would seem to expect. We found strong similarities between what publishers offered and what authors could achieve on their own. Authors were not very satisfied with either type of publishing. At the same time, there was strong interest among both traditionally published and self-published authors in traditionally publishing their next books, suggesting that there is still a lot of goodwill toward publishers and that publishers have the opportunity to keep their authors.
I encourage publishers to rethink not only book contracts but the social contract they have with their authors. While income is an important concern for authors (as for all workers), it is not only or even in some cases the primary concern, suggesting that publishers have numerous avenues open to them for improving authors’ experiences and satisfaction with traditional publishing.
Given the market-focus of decision-making and the low commitment on both sides, publishers are faced with a choice about how to manage their relationships with authors. On the one hand, they could treat authors as a disposable, replaceable labor force, needing to be carefully supervised, managed, and controlled. Pernicious contracts with non-compete clauses would be one example of this model. On the other hand, they could regard their authors as a pool of talent that they wish to keep and develop and as partners in exploring new opportunities that changing technology and publishing platforms offer. This latter approach is often called high commitment or high performance management. In other industries, this high-road approach has led to better outcomes for workers, organizations, clients, and overall performance.
I encourage publishers to consider this new model of relationships, characterized by partnership, empowerment, and collaboration as a way to retain their authors and also to share in the benefits that new forms of publishing offer. This new partnership needs to be genuine, not based in lip service, or it will backfire terribly. The approach is worth a try. If it can lead to better cars, more on-time airline departures and arrivals, and fewer deaths in hospitals, why can’t it also work in publishing?
As a start, publishers should ask themselves what their authors need and want; what they can offer their authors; and what mutual benefits are possible.