Publishing's hidden virtues

My latest Publishers Weekly column is "Publishing's Virtue," a look at the relative moral uprightness of trade publishing, especially when compared to the record labels and movie studios, with their just reputation as rapacious crooks who rip off artists at every turn. if you're trying to convince Internet users to buy instead of pirate because they'll support the artists by doing so, it would be a good idea to mention the fact that your industry actually pays its creators, unlike the balance-sheet fiddlers in Big Music and Big Movies.

Yes, making the case against illegal downloading can be hard graft. So, without quality, price, convenience, or the threat of punishment, how can publishers convince people to do the right thing and buy? Basically, with an appeal to decency: you should buy our goods because it’s the right thing to do.

It sounds too simple, but it can be effective. No matter how many worthy people support their families with corporate paychecks, corporations in the age of Citizens United and Occupy Wall Street make poor poster children for a sympathy campaign—and audiences are especially suspect of corporations that operate in the arts. Record labels, movie studios, and, yes, publishers, too, are commonly viewed as rapacious scoundrels that prey on artists, exploit a stranglehold on distribution, and force content owners into abusive contractual relationships.

But trade publishing is different, especially when it comes to fiction. Unlike musicians, we novelists give limited licenses to our publishers, licenses that we can terminate if the publisher doesn’t actually get our creations into retail channels. If a song isn’t available for download, it’s often the case that some record company owns the rights and can’t be bothered to do anything with it. If you can’t get a book it’s usually because no one wants to publish it, not because some faceless corporate bean-counter has decided to sit on the rights.

And unlike musicians, authors are not commonly charged for production expenses. A recording contract typically requires musicians to sell enough to pay for all the production, publicity, and marketing before they see a penny in royalties. In publishing, the publisher pays these expenses out of its pocket, and the author isn’t expected to pay it back.

Finally, authors’ advances are (usually) only charged to their current books, or sometimes across a single deal. Unlike musicians, who are often required to pay back shortfalls from their last project before they can start earning on their latest one, authors’ balance sheets are zeroed out with each new book. If your last book tanks, your next book usually doesn’t have to pay back its advance. Publishing doesn’t do debt slavery.

Publishing's Virtue


  1. And despite it being technically possible, there is not a massive underground network of ebook-sharing.   I’m sure some of it occurs among the top twenty, the Stieg Larsson sort of stuff.   But in general we Kindle owners, et al., grumble about the overpriced ebooks and buy them anyway.   Book publishing does not lend itself to the blow-filled parties of the big music and movie industries, but ebook prices should come down to 50 percent or less of the paper versions to circumvent a pirate culture.   And end Eternal Copyright!

    1. Err.. Did you ever bother to check the dedicated sites. irc-channels, etc?  There *is* a massive underground network of ebook-sharing.

      I use them once in a while to check out books – which I then buy either on paper or digitally (when w/out DRM or easily removable DRM), if they capture my interest.They actually generated more sales, because I don’t buy books blind and wouldn’t have checked them out because of this. Many I couldn’t even have tried out at all because they aren’t sold outside the US, too.

    2. One market that I would expect to be significantly dented by piracy is academic publications.   Millions of college students each year are asked to shell out big bucks for stuff they don’t necessarily want – you can bet they are sitting around and cracking (or even just scanning) those expensive textbooks.

      While I agree that mainstream publishing seems “virtuous,” and running a positive campaign to get people to voluntarily pay for your wares is probably the best way to go, I think academic publishers will have a tougher time of making their case.   The way they constantly churn out new editions to disrupt the used book market is one way they are not virtuous at all.

      1. Considering the state of the academic publishing industry, I couldn’t agree more. Oddly enough, my favorite textbooks in University (quality books: accurate, informational, easy to read, easy to follow, and gave context and relevance extremely well) were all published by non-academic publishers – rather, they were intended for the general public to be read by those interested in the subject or who wanted to learn for work or for a hobby, and the difference in quality was amazing.

        And they were all under $60, while the “normal” textbooks were above a hundred and offered pretty much nothing the class didn’t.

        So yeah, ignoring whether or not they are virtuous to their authors (I’ve heard they aren’t, at least), they certainly dick around their customers, so I agree – not really virtuous at all.

        People simply don’t feel bad ‘stealing’ from thieves.

    3. Ever heard of I’m a subscriber and love to borrow and lend out my Kindle books. Perhaps not a massive ebook sharing, but this is a legitimate way authors can use to promote their books. Just as with my paper books I lend these to my friends as well and recommend books to them I’ve liked.

  2. Still doesn’t explain WHY you need a publisher in the first place. Yes there are differences from music, but publishers still rip authors off by paying them piddly royalites. 

    There is zero reason why any artist would need to sign up with a middleman to sell their product. Artists can do it on their own if they only chose to look at it like a business.  It’s not a good business decision to accept an 8% royalty when Amazon gives you up to 70%. 

    1. Books don’t edit, typeset, design, cover, and market themselves. And Amazon’s digital marketplace doesn’t do it either.  The vast majority of authors are also  unqualified to do these jobs. There will always exist the rare highly motivated individual capable of doing it all themselves, though even rarer is the author who can do all of these things well, but for the author who just wants to write? All of that is work that takes away from what they actually want to be doing. You say that they should look at it like a business, well a smart businessman knows when they need to hire someone else to do the work they can’t do themselves.

      1. I never said they shouldn’t hire out, but that doesn’t have to be a publisher. There are plenty of independent editors, cover designers… the idea that only a publisher can do those things is a myth that industry has created to survive. The world is much different today. 

        What actual value does a publisher bring? Back in the day, quite a bit – it was the only way actually to get your stuff out, but today they add very little. They rely on old marketing methods, and are still focusing on paper when consumers want digital (I’m not saying paper is dead, that’s a whole different discussion). 

        The model is outdated.

        1.  One word:  access. Publishers have access to buyers and distributors for chains and indie stores, they have established promotional channels and outlets, they have packaging and design acumen.

          Writers can do all of this, too, of course. But expect to learn some new professions (some of which you may not be very good at) and spend a lot more time in production and marketing than in creating the manuscript itself. Some people are great at this and many aren’t. It’s not as if publishers are putting writers in indentured servitude; a lot of expertise and man-hours go into the production, distribution, and promotion of a book.

          In the end it’s a cost-benefit analysis. An escalating 8/12/15% royalty on 150,000 copies sold may be a better deal than the net total (not counting the hours put in) on 5,000 copies sold.

          I highly recommend Cory’s PW series on the creation of A Little Help from My Friends for an eye-opening blow-by-blow of a DIY publishing experience.

          1. Yeah, that’s what they tell you, but when was the last time you saw a newly signed author on the front table (actually the front table is disappearing) at B&N? 

            The only ones who get the “help” are the Stephen Kings and the Flavor of the month, ie Stephanie Myer/Amanda Hocking/ect. Those are the ones who get the marketing help and the big distro deals, not the little guy who just signed their first book. You know who does the marketing for those authors? The author does. 

            Why would anyone focus on a book store when sales are done online (physical books too, not just digital). 

            It’s not just price/royalty either, its about copyright. Authors don’t own them, the publisher does. So if they decide not to release it – what then? You start over (or hopefully you’ve kept your digital rights and can sell those (although publishers are not really signing authors unless they give that up too). 

            I don’t need to read a book for a DIY book publishing experience, I’m living it. I’m living it thru my books, my wife’s books and my clients’ books. 

            Publishers don’t understand how to connect with people, nor do they have the bandwidth to do so. We live in a different era where spamming people with “buy my book” doesn’t work, which sadly is the model most indie writers follow (’cause most want to be signed, so they do what the pubs do), and that’s why they fail.

            Amanda Hocking sold millions of books all being indie – doing everything. She opted for signing w/ a pub rather than outsource some of the work to contractors. I think she made a mistake and I lost respect for her when she did that. It’s her choice tho, and she really only got the opportunity because she had already proven herself. The pub didn’t buy her books, they bought her audience – that’s what they are looking for these days – authors who already have an audience, so again, who is actually doing the marketing, and what value does the pub bring?

    2. Publishers are valuable for the curatorial aspect (when you are on their imprint you are instantly associated with all of their other titles), marketing power, access to brick-and-mortar retail, and editorial assistance.  How valuable that is really depends on you and your product.

      I suspect the latter point (editorial) is really one that a lot of people sell short. Everyone’s work can benefit from a second set of eyes, and you really can’t get feedback like that from a professional with a monetary interest in your success.  

      I learned this by freelancing on an academic book that had a lot of technical problems that needed to be solved.  (A lot of transcription and translation issues.)  The author paid me about $3K  to work on it, but I saw the folks at the academic press doing as much for presumably no up-front fee.   The author simply could not have put out a competent product on her own, and I doubt she could have obtained or afforded more freelancers without giving away co-authorship.  The thing just would not have existed without the publisher.

      1. Why do we need them to curate? Why can’t people decide for themselves what they want? The music industry has done a horrible job curating, as has the movie industry and even the book industry. They are looking at profits, not stories. They want to be able to sell it, basing it on trends rather than something of substance, hence the abundance of Twilight-esque stories. 

        Again, I never said that certain services shouldn’t hire out, just that a publisher doesn’t add value.  Yes a publisher does all of those things, but at a very, very high cost (essentially a percentage of each book’s sale price FOR EVER, rather than a fixed fee). 

        Authors take shortcuts and don’t get their stuff proof read/edited. I didn’t, I haven’t had any complaints, but I did have several beta readers too. 

        I edit all of my wife’s works, but I’m not a professional, which is why on her second book we will hire that out (now that we have the money to do so). 

        There is no “publisher” for a computer startup, or any start up. You have to do it yourself, and hire out the things you need to – that’s why I say “treat it like a business”, which most artists don’t. 

  3. “Trade” Publishing?

    Who made this one up?

    Certainly was no such thing in the days when I worked in the publishing trade.

    1. From
      Maybe you’ve never wondered what people in the publishing industry call the books that you find in a bookstore or local library, but there is a term. They are called trade books and they are designed for the general consumer. Trade publishers sell their books through the channels that have been specifically established for books?bookstores, libraries, and wholesalers. Trade books are published for children, teenagers, and adults. They can be works of fiction or nonfiction, hardcover or paperback. Generally, trade publishing is the most high profile type of publishing as it is the most commercially focused.

      1. OK, well… I really did work in publishing, from 1974 to 1990 — but somehow, this one managed to pass me by.

        Thanks for explanation, and apologies to Cory.

        Oh well, wrong again!

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