I don’t plan to write a lot about publishing issues here at WHM. There are plenty of other great places where you can dive into that morass. This is where I can play the wannabe author, the fanboy, the literary critic, the comedian. However, I do work in higher ed marketing and communications. Which means I do have some expertise in some of the key issues authors are facing right now. So while I don’t plan on banging this drum too often, I may have something to say on the matter from time-to-time. This is one of those times.
I think we’re all tired of the “NY” publishers vs. the self/indie publishers debates. I think the bloom is also off the rose of the major ebook platforms (Amazon KDP, in particular). I’d like to take a step back and look at what the core needs are for authors right now and who the candidates are to fill those needs. I make no claims to what the right answer is. But I also don’t think that the answer of “well, it all depends on what you want” is all that useful either. It’s too often framed as “do you want to do all the work yourself and hold on to the rights to your creative work?” or “do you want your agent and publisher to do all the work and give up some (many) of the rights to your creative work?” Or in other words, the choice is framed as more freedom + more work (which means more direct profit) vs. less freedom + less work (which means more time devoted to writing).
That’s not what the calculation should be. The calculation should be: how can I as a writer of fiction maximize…
a) the quality of the packaging of my creative work [product/branding] and my creative persona [branding]
b) the awareness of my creative work as well as my brand as an author as well as the feelings about both my creative work and authorial persona [marketing/public relations]
c) the sales of my creative work [sales]
d) the profit I derive from the sales of my creative work [ROI]?
e) the time I spend on writing while still finding time to manage the business side of things as well as my brand building
On an abstract level, I like the notion of self-publishing because I like the idea of authors being able to hang on to as many of their rights as possible. Authors should control what happens to their works: they created them, after all. The practical considerations, however, appear daunting.
So the next question for fiction authors as I see it is: who can provide the best mix of services that lead to a quality product, high awareness, good branding/awareness, excellent sales and fantastic ROI (measured both in terms of profit and time freed up for writing) for the least onerous trading of rights?
These are just capsule analyses. There’s a lot more that could be said about each candidate. And there’s serious diversity among the actual entities in each candidate category. But for the sake of this discussion here’s what we have:
Publishers: love them; hate them. The question is can they get back to providing value on the development side and pivot to provide more value on the marketing/sales side, especially when it comes to ebooks.
Distributors/Booksellers: Amazon, Apple, B&N, etc. The problem is that if any one gets too much power than they may start demanding even more rights. They’re already making it more difficult than it should be to promote across sales platforms and control pricing. They also care less about the development side, leaving that to those who are willing to do it themselves. To Amazon, or yes, even Apple, as long as it’s at a basic level, quality doesn’t matter so long as there’s a big enough audience to lead to sales.
Literary Agencies: Are only in the game because publishers have outsourced so much of the talent development to them. Some are making tentative steps to dealing with the other side of things (covers, layout, marketing and sales), but I’m dubious about their ability to handle the nitty gritty of distribution, pricing, and marketing (except for public relations, where they could do just fine).
Marketing Agencies: A total dark horse candidate here. But since success in the new era of publishing may rely heavily on SEO/SEM, pricing strategies, negotiating with distributors and social media, some agencies, especially those who have pivoted away from advertising towards web marketing, could possibly have a leg up on all of the above when it comes to the execution of certain strategies.
Authors Themselves: it’s certainly possible for authors to gain the skills necessary to engage in the various activities required to bring a creative work to market and sell it (and subcontract some of those activities out). It requires a wide-ranging skillset and the ability to move between roles as required.
Note that any of the above (except possibly for distributors) could come in the form of paying independent contractors, co-0ps, bartering of services, etc.
The reality is that we’ll probably see a mix of all of the above, at least for the near future.
The Required Elements
1. A novel that appeals to a large enough audience that provides a good chance of sales that leads to a decent ROI. Yes, that’s a lot of business speak. But when it comes right down to it: books are units. The problem here, though, is that creative units are different than industrial units: quality and creativity count. That usually means that the novel needs to pass through the hands of someone who can provide good feedback on developmental edits. It also needs to be thoroughly proofread.
2. A book cover that not only is both pleasing to the author (this is important and one of the major reasons for authors to maintain control of their product) and effective in the marketplace and that works in all the various sizes and formats in which the book is going to be sold (cover design is more complicated in the era of ebooks).
3. The packaging of the novel in all the physical and electronic formats that it needs to be sold in to reach readers. And it needs to be formatted and packaged correctly for each of those formats. This may mean, going forward, additional packaging of the novel (other than trade paperback and ebook). This could be anything from a premium hardbound book package that includes extras (signed bookplates, posters, etc.) to an enhanced ebook experience (video, music, audio, extra illustrations, etc.).
4. The presence of the novel in all of the stores, physical and electronic, where it is most likely to reach potential readers. And priced correctly in each of those venues with the right meta-data, categorization/shelf space, etc. This would also include continual monitoring of sales to tweak metadata and pricing to try to optimize sales, and those efforts should be pegged to both analytics data based on trends, but also to take advantage of any bumps in interest/sales related to publicity.
5. An ongoing marketing campaign that may or may not include advertising (paid ads) but should definitely include an active ongoing social media conversation (with advice and analytics on which platforms are the best use of the author’s time); media pitching (reviews, Q&As, profiles, top ten lists, etc. — and to both traditional outlets and bloggers/social media stars); search engine optimization (SEO); giveaways/contests; appearances at bookstores, cons, etc.; and all of those need to be tied to actual data where possible and benchmarked with other authors where possible.
6. Active reaching out to sell/lease/cut a deal on foreign rights/translations, film rights, game rights, merchandise rights, etc. and then management of those deals so that there’s the best chance possible for a decent ROI (or at least an ROR — Return on Rights — if things don’t work out) as well as preservation of the author’s brand which means any further iterations of the book/story have to meet certain quality standards.
7. Further management of the author’s career/brand. That includes other works in the series (if applicable). Branching out into other series, genres, media, etc.
The Bottom Line
That’s a lot. And it requires someone or a team of people with creative, analytical, managerial and relationship skills. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges with the ability to do all of that (and obviously execution of the above can be grander or smaller/deeper or shallower depending on the author, the book and the ability to provide an initial investment). And this is why many authors prefer to have publishers. The problem is that neither publishers, nor agents, nor marketing/pr firms really have a grasp on it all (or at least very few do). And the bigger problem is that all of this can lead to significant costs, and some of the activity may not have much of an effect on sales. This is the argument the publishers make for taking a large cut of sales and/or not investing in marketing and/or not publishing certain works (or dropping midlist authors). Not everyone agrees that the value they add is worth the cost.
It’s going to continue to be tempting for authors to trade rights for services (which is essentially what they do now when they get literary agents who then sell to publishers). Many fiction writers just want to write. But I think more and more we’re going to see authors questioning what services they are getting for giving up all those rights. And what the ROI is for them in the long run.
I also think that more and more authors will choose to hold on to their rights and either DIY or contract out or collaborate with others to make the required elements happen.
So the biggest question I have is if the right agency (literary agency, marketing/pr agency, publisher that turns in to an agency) with the right fee structure and expertise can positions themselves to be able to provide some or all of these services. If so, I do think it would be worth looking at. Ideally, it would be one that doesn’t invest in huge overhead (authors don’t want to be paying for that). Ideally, it would also provide the level of reporting that publishers don’t often provide, but are more common in the world of sales and marketing (especially SEO/SEM services). Things change when you are the client rather than the raw material provider.
In the end, my answer is no different than anyone else who has weighed in on this topic: you have to choose what’s right for you. But I think you need to be clear about what you’re getting and make sure that all the elements I mention are covered and covered efficiently and professionally. And for that clarity I think it’s key to think about this issue as one of trading rights to creative work for services. What do you need and what is worth giving up (or paying for) for what you need?