Hi there, publisher!
I’m an author. Maybe you know me? I’m the Internet’s “Chuck Wendig.” AKA, “That Guy Who Curses A Lot In Interesting Ways.” I write stories. I have a beard composed of thousands of self-aware cilia that whisper those stories in my ear, stories I then transcribe for the world to read.
You’re a publisher. Or a person who works in publishing. Or a robot in the humanless future scouring ancient blog posts to try to discover exactly how people went extinct (spoiler alert: iOS9 became self-aware and killed us all).
I like you.
I think you do the Story Lord’s work in bringing books to to the world. People can bag on you all they like, but I say, without you and the authors you publish, my life would be a hollow, smelly carapace — like a turtle’s shell if you first scraped out all the vital turtley bits.
And that word, “vital,” applies to you. You are vital. A vital part of the ecosystem. A critical and competitive keystone of the entire book-reading, book-loving, book-smelling, book-humping culture. I love books. You publish books. So let’s be best pals, yeah? *cuts palm with a Swiss Army Knife, offers to shake your hand* LET US SEAL THIS FRIENDSHIP IN BLOOD.
Still, as much as I like you, I think it’s time we had a conversation. I’ve noticed some things you do that, frankly, I think you could be doing better. Admittedly, I’m just an outsider — a rogue ronin author stalking the dustblown wastes, writing my stories during the day underneath collapsed highway overpasses — for at night I must flee the Yowling Hell-Warblers and their motorcycle riding Coyote Men. I’m an outsider who, I admit, is probably ignorant to The Way Things Really Are Inside The Publishing Machine.
Just the same, I’m going to opine loudly.
Because that’s how I do.
Let’s talk about you, you silly scamps, you.
DRM Is For Assbadgers
I get it. You like DRM. You think it’s valuable in staving off waves of book-thieving pirates.
And, hey, DRM by itself is not toxic. DRM is like GMOs or lasers or hybridized bat-shark-wolf monsters: fine on its own until someone comes along and implements it poorly.
And, for the most part, DRM is implemented poorly.
DRM is dumb. DRM does not work. DRM is the Empire is tightening its fist, which only forces more star systems to slip through its fingers. You know how our war on terrorism basically begets more terrorism? Like, someone blows up our shit, then we blow up some Yemeni daycare thinking that an Al Qaeda higher-up is hiding there, and then all the people affected by the blown-up daycare suddenly think, “The US kills kids so now we’re gonna be fight the US with tooth and nail?” Meaning, our war on terror just creates more terrorists?
Similar situation with DRM (with way fewer dead people, to be clear). You don’t want books to be pirated; you implement DRM. DRM mostly just pisses off regular users who suddenly have reduced access to the thing they thought they owned. They decide to become pirates, instead, because it’s easier and it gives them the access to the content in the way that they want it.
DRM creates — and then challenges — pirates.
It punishes regular readers.
I Will Buy The Physical Book And You Will Give Me The E-Book
No, really, I’m not kidding. You tell me, “You buy a hardcopy, we’ll give you an e-copy,” then I’ll take that deal every time. Practically and financially, this makes sense: I’m buying the story from you in one container (the hardcopy) already. You might as well give me the story in its more ephemeral, digital non-container (aka an e-book), too. It’s a great value. And it encourages that physical distribution chain we all love so much. I said a while back, “If you don’t do this, Amazon will,” and drum roll please, they have, with Kindle Matchbook. (And one of my publishers, Angry Robot, will now do this in the US with Clonefiles.)
Don’t worry, there’s still room for you at the party. Ever hear of a bookstore called “Barnes & Noble?” Could be a shot in the arm of their book business (and their Nook business). Plus, I keep hearing about these little magic pockets of book-love called “independent bookstores”…
Partner With Independent Bookstores
Indie stores are awesome. (I mean, in theory. Some suck ass, just as some fraction of everything and everyone sucks ass.) Indie bookstores want to sell books and spread the book-love around. And you, as publishers, are purveyors of those very books. Partner with them.
I don’t just mean, “Let them sell your books.” I mean, “Let them sell special editions that only they can sell.” I mean, “Let them sell e-books in new and interesting ways, such as on USB keys or by (as above) selling them with the physical editions.” Give them access. Opportunity. Unique entries in the canon and culture of sweet delectable bookishness.
Libraries Are Our Friends And, Also, Vital
You know another way that a lot of people learn to love books? Libraries. I mean, how awesome is a library? It’s a BIG BUILDING. Filled to the fucking ceiling with BOOKS and people who will help you find MORE BOOKS. It’s a book playground! A wonderland of reading and learning and fantasy and drama and information! And it’s great for people who can’t afford books. (Like, say, a whola lotta folks in this occasionally wibbly-wobbly fucky-wucky economy of ours.)
Help libraries. Help them. They’re customers. But even beyond that, they’re the drug dealers of the book world. They’re the ones giving out free samples of your work (which, to be clear, they paid for) and fostering a love of stories and a culture of books. Libraries are Willy Wonka factories where they make new readers instead of weird-ass child-endangerment candy. (Seriously, the government needs to step in and shut Wonka down. Last I heard he was drowning kids in a corn syrup river or something. He’s like a fucking Batman villain, that guy.)
Don’t obstruct their e-book lending library. Don’t make the library’s job more difficult. Help them! Give them aid and succor in this horrible time when our government has a real boner for this “austerity” bullshit (austerity sounds nice until you realize it’s a lot what happened when the Titanic sank — the rich people get their boats, the poor people get eaten by ice sharks). Do you want libraries to be places where people just get to use the Internet for free? Do you want libraries to just go away? No! You don’t! Libraries rule! Librarians are the curators of our culture!
Change Starts From Within
SFF right now is going through a lot of growing pains in terms of straining its white dude diapers and trying to figure out how to accommodate, well, Those Who Aren’t Heteronormative White Dudes. This is a good thing. We’re starting to see that there exists a whole audience who maybe isn’t being talked to — this is good for society but also makes financial sense, too, because untapped audience is an audience who isn’t yet spending money with you.
A lot of this change happens inside publishing. It starts with hiring people at all strata within the industry from a variety of life experiences and social configurations.
Please do that! Thanks!
A Ten Dollar E-Book Is A Little Bit Of Bullshit
“BUT IT COSTS AS MUCH TO MAKE AN E-BOOK–” you start to say, and I cut you off with a frowny look and a cat’s hiss. Listen, I don’t care what your justifications are for selling an e-book at a price above ten dollars. You’re trying to slow the flight from the physical distribution model, maybe. Or maybe it’s just that you don’t know yet how exactly e-books fit into the staggered chain of release from hardback to paperback.
What I know is, a mass market paperback does not cost ten dollars.
Nor should an e-book. Ever.
I learned a very important lesson from author Maurice Broaddus at Worldcon this year, and it was this: if someone is saying or doing something you don’t like, threaten to pee on them. Threatening that seals the deal, gets the job done. So, publishers: if you keep offering $10+ e-books, I’m gonna pee on you. On your shoes. Your socks. On the legs of your khakis. God help you if you’re sitting down because then I can get better reach.
Cheaper e-books. Or I pee. On you. That’s the choice.
*drinks a big glass of water*
Authors Are Your Partners, Not Your Bangladeshi Climate Change Refugees
I’ve been happy with my publishers. I know a lot of authors who are happy with theirs, too, and who have signed smart contracts (usually through the intervention of their agents) and who are doing just fine. I also know authors who have seen (and sometimes signed) onerous contracts that are exploitative and nasty. Little clauses and line items that knock an author down at the knees. You try to grab rights that should never be yours, or offer up Byzantine rules so confusing and labyrinthine it’s like a math puzzle for MENSA meth addicts.
Here’s an actual line from an actual publisher contract:
“If you sell 4,312 copies, your percentage goes from 17.5% to 25%, unless it’s a Harvest Moon, in which case you are to be visited by three editors who will offer you three rare minerals and if you choose correctly than you will be allowed to pick your cover artist but the publisher will also claim eternal copyrights to your work in Bulgaria, and also if four trains leave Penn Station at 4:22PM, each carrying seven constipated random penguins –“
Okay, I might just be making that up.
So, let’s go back to the time where we all remember that publishers need authors to publish. Let’s also note that self-publishing has become a Very Real Thing and a Bonafide Actual Option, which means that even as the Big Six becomes the Big Five, you still have competition — competition in the form of authors who choose to become author-publishers, instead.
As such, it is best to approach authors as if they are a partner in this endeavor (as they are) and to bring value to that relationship instead of acting as if they’re making iPhones for you in a Brooklyn sweatshop. What I’m trying to say is —
Publishers: I like you! Do you like me? Then let’s get book-married. Because that’s what this relationship is: sure, it has a business component, but given that we’re both at our core bibliogeeks of some stripe or another, it looks a helluva lot like a marriage. You’re not my boss. Nor am I yours. PUT A RING ON IT. *mashes cake into your mouth*
Authors Need Some Motherfucking Data, Stat
Let’s assume you agree that we’re your partners and not an expendable resource like so much authorial lumber. Let’s also assume that while you will handle the lion’s share of Big Marketing, you will, just the same, expect us writer-types to do some more interpersonal marketing and to go on book tours and such in order to connect with our once-and-future audience.
To do this? We need data.
Constant, accurate, capable data.
Where are we selling? How much? To whom? What bookstores dig us? What bookstores have never heard of us? Where will we have the most effect? How’s Twitter at selling books? Facebook? Google Hangouts? If I get naked on YouTube, will that sell books? How many of my readers are bespectacled bearded men like myself? Are any of them ultraterrestrials from the Hollow Earth, and how best can I serve our chitinous subterranean secret masters?
Two things to note, here:
First, if you keep data from us, it might seem as if you’re trying to hide something. Again, we want to feel like partners, not like employees. What you know, we should also know.
Second, if you don’t give us the data, then — repeat after me — Amazon will. (That should become your mantra in the coming years, by the way.) And so enters a fundamental question: do you want us to see Amazon as our first ally, and not our publisher? That’s what Amazon wants, I’m guessing. So: help us. Data helps us sell books. And that is part of the point, right?
Stop With The Sneaky Vanity Publishing Stuff, Because, Ew
Archway Publishing, from Simon & Schuster. Author Solutions from Pengdom Ranguinhaus. Amongst others. They all offer self-publishing opportunities to authors for frequently absurd prices. Mmmyeah. No. Here’s the problem:
First, that’s actually not self-publishing anymore. Really, like, not at all. It’s actually just regular publishing, except now you’re charging me for it instead of paying me for it, which is so fucked up I can’t even discuss it without my words devolving into a series of BUH DUH WUH stuttering.
Second, self-publishing doesn’t actually cost that much money.
Third, signing up with these services often wildly exploits the author.
It’s bad news. It’s ugly business. And it just gives ammunition to those who say that publishers are giant Sarlacc pits ingesting authors and digesting them over the lifetime of their contracts. I get it. You’re a business and you want to do businessy things. But this? This is not how you do it, at least not without dirtying your blouse in the process.
Self-Publishing Is Calling From Inside The House
Author-based publishing is here and it’s not going anywhere. Author-publishers are all up the attic, like squirrels. I think over time that traditional publishing and self-publishing will start to squish together in a big wadded up ball, like a bunch of socks in the dryer. And that’s a good thing. Hybrid authors will become more of an important presence — authors who recognize that both paths offer unique benefits and increase audience and competition.
But that doesn’t easily happen when you see things like the vanity publishing stuff, mentioned above. Or when you see how some publishers are reticent to offer print rights separate from digital rights (print rights and print distribution, be advised, is where author-publishers still can’t get a great foothold). I think you’ll find continued value in treating the new class of author-publishers not as competition or as a vein of ore to be exploited but, again, as partners. And that means crossing the bridge and offering them some of the things they’re maybe used to getting: input on cover design, higher percentage rates (which means reduced advances, most likely), a measure of unprecedented control.
Authors are no longer as hungry for that big break — because, with electronic distribution becoming so easy, so accessible, so free — they can do it for themselves. Doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a good idea to do so (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t). The mere fact that the option exists as opportunity is enough for you to sometimes change the dynamic, to present new ways of partnering with authors going forward.
Publishers are still a critical component to this entire thing. They offer whole buildings full of people who love books, love authors, and who know a whole lotta important things about this bath salts Thunderdome called “publishing.” Hell, most traditional publishers have forgotten more about this industry than most author-publishers have yet known. But that isn’t enough. Not anymore. Relationships must evolve. The business models must change. Authors are starting to drive the bus — sometimes, okay, yes, off the cliff, but that’s where you can help. But you can’t help if the relationship isn’t equitable. If it doesn’t make sense.
Let’s cast our eyes forward together.
Let’s be nimble.
LET US SEAL THIS FRIENDSHIP IN BLOOD.
I mean, uhh, let’s publish some books together!