A bit of controversy came to the conference when Barry Eisler gave his lunchtime keynote Saturday afternoon. Eisler is a novelist whose first book came out in 2002; he’s author of the John Rain series. He’s been published with traditional houses but now self-publishes, or at least goes through Amazon . . . I wasn’t entirely clear on that.
Anyway, Eisler’s talk was on how publishing is changing and the big publishers need to change with it or else they will fail. You can imagine how the agents and editors in the audience reacted.
Eisler started with the basics, namely the history of publishing. Used to be there was only one way to reach readers, and that was through paper. Physical books. And it was possible to, you know, print and bind your own books even then, but then you needed distribution. And short of piling a cart with your books and peddling them on the street, what you really needed was a publisher. Because at the end of the day, according to Eisler, publishers are distribution partners. They have other value-added services like editing and marketing (and some of them hardly do either—many books published with major houses see next to no marketing on their behalf), but it was the distribution that counted. An author could hire an editor, a designer, a publicity person. All those could be outsourced. But way back when, distribution could not be.
Digital changed this.
Authors can now distribute their own product. Authors now have (per Eisler) 100% access to the same distribution channels as traditional—he calls them “legacy”—publishers. So, as Eisler put it, a traditional publisher offering an author distribution is like offering them . . . If not air, maybe bottled water. Sure, you can pay more for what you consider the “purer” stuff, but you can also get water from your tap or hose. It costs a lot less and you can use it a lot more ways.
At this point the grumbling in the audience was audible. Eisler insisted he doesn’t want legacy publishing to die. “When a friend is sick, you don’t hope they die. You want them to get well.” He went on to say he wants to be fair, to give authors all the information so they can make informed decisions about how to handle their books.
Publishing, Eisler said, is not a meritocracy. Hard work and talent does not translate to published books and bestsellers. Luck does play a role. Publishing is more like a lottery. Writing the manuscript is the equivalent of buying your ticket. And you can improve your chances of winning by writing a great book, and by networking and understanding the industry. But there’s still always that element of chance.
So what should an author think about when trying to decide whether to go traditional or self-publish? Well, there are financial considerations, of course. In self-publishing you won’t get any kind of advance. But you’ll make a lot more royalties, 70% of digital versus the 12–15% you might get from a traditional publishing contract.
And then you have to consider how important it is to you that the book exist in physical form. Because self-published hard copy books make almost no money. But then again, traditionally published hard copy books aren’t doing as well, either. In fact, Eisler said that in order to get well traditional publishers should not be as attached to paper. Save some trees as well as some money and then pay the authors more. (He recommended reading Clayton Christensen on this subject.)
Once the floor was opened for Q&A things got ugly and confusing. The first guy who stood up didn’t seem to have a question; he was forming some kind of rebuttal as if it were a debate. It was ridiculous. But when one person asked whether agents and publishers are at risk, Eisler cited BMW as an example. “A BMW is not a necessity. But they are still in business. People will buy BMWs or other luxury cars if they can afford them.” Which put an interesting sort of class spin on the whole thing. Is “legacy” publishing about class now? (And why can’t we “buy” agents, then? Eisler said, too, that the agents should be the ones selling themselves to authors . . . But that’s simple supply and demand, I think. There are more people who want agents than there are agents who want authors, and until that changes, agents won’t have to sell writers on their services.)
“People will pay for things if they believe they are getting good value for their money.” So . . . What are you getting if you publish with a traditional house? That’s one thing to consider.
Then another person asked that old question about lack of quality in self-published works. It boils down to the argument, “We need gatekeepers!” Eisler called it the “tsunami of crap” argument and pointed out that any time there is too much of a product or service, there is a need for people to winnow. But agents and legacy publishers aren’t the only ways to do it. “How do you find stuff on YouTube? On the Internet?” He’s got a point; there are no official gatekeepers for these things, but word of mouth and Google searches still help us find what we want and need. And while we might still be missing a few gems, you could just as easily walk into a bookstore and find something to read and miss as many other great books.
According to Eisler, technology has severely disrupted the publishing industry by creating choices that never existed before. What used to be a necessity is now merely desirable. Sure, most writers would like to be signed by an agent and published by a major house. This is a kind of validation, I think; it “proves” their writing is good, is worth something—the money and effort the agents and editors put in. But if these writers are thinking they’re going to get a lot of marketing attention from the publisher, that they’re going to sell so many more copies if they’re published traditionally, the truth is . . . It isn’t any more likely than if you self-publish. You can find your audience—your readers—either way.
Now, one can also argue this is all easy for Eisler to say. He found a big readership after being published in the traditional mode then went on to carry those readers with him when he moved to self-publishing. But who’s to say he wouldn’t have found those readers anyway? Even if he’d self-published from the start?
The debate is, of course, ongoing. Later, when I met Eisler at his book signing, people were remarking on how badly the agents and editors in the audience had responded, and Eisler said, “It’s like Gandhi: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.'” And while I’m not sure I’d say Eisler is, you know, Gandhi, he has a point. People get angry when they feel threatened. Is Eisler winning? I don’t know; I’m not convinced there is a “winner” in this. But where once there was only one way, one path, now there are many. Which is good for authors (so long as they don’t get confused by all these options). But maybe less good for others in the industry.