Revisiting the publisher

Nothing new today, just a different way of saying the same thing.

I’ve been pondering Kevin’s long response to mine about scams and publishers. While we’re basically in agreement there are small differences, and I think some are critical.

Let’s begin by walking just a touch of background. The history of publishers is that they sat athwart a chokepoint in the stream from writer to reader. There were limited numbers of presses. Oh, sure, you could get small presses and run them yourself, but these almost always became talented hobbiest processes instead of competitive businesses. Owning and operating a press, even a more modern press, cost thousands of dollars just for machine and supplies. Add the need to warehouse material till the retailer called for it and, well, it was an unavoidable bottleneck.

A lot of the practices of the publishers are vices made of virtues. With limited presses, time, and channels they could not produce everything. They had to pick and choose. Notionally it was based on what they thought the majority of readers wanted, but in practicality it was what they thought would sell the best. (They aren’t necessarily the same thing, of course.) And as a result the ‘small performers’ didn’t get printed, not as a rule. Smaller presses could produce smaller total quantities, and as a result would take on several smaller-audience materials for their own safety.

I need to expand that as it’s relevant later. Let’s say, for giggles, that your small press can only produce 250,000 books per year. You can print one blockbuster of 250,000 copies, or you can print five 50K smaller runs. If you take the blockbuster you have to hope it isn’t a dud — if it is, you go bankrupt. If you take the five smaller jobs and you price appropriately you can win of one’s a dud, three are mid-listers, and one turns out to be a gem. It’s the case of an old cliche; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Since they had control of this anyway, and were carrying the cost of warehousing all the printed material till it was time to distribute, publishers picked up all the other supportive and supplemental jobs.

Now a major advantage of a consolidated point is that this consolidated point can get some huge breaks on secondary costs. Let me take the big one: marketing.

Let’s say you decide to make a flyer for 200 or so retail bookstores in the US at roughly $2 per flyer. You also decide you’re going to stake a table at 20 regional genre-related conferences at a nominal $400 each (fees and travel expenses). You need $8,400.

If you the author do that for one book, that’s a crapload of money. If you’re doing it for five books it’s “only” 1,680 per book — still a crapload, but you should be making enough to justify it.

If you’re a publisher carrying 200 titles, it is (or should be) a pittance. Wahoo, $42 per title. In fact if you’re carrying 200 books you the publisher should be getting flyers out to almost all of the ~1200 independent bookstores in the US, increasing the per-book marketing expense by $10 for $52 per title.

And that, by the way, shows us a major advantage of the publisher; a reason to consider using one. Marketing increases sales. Well, it should, and it usually does provided the marketing doesn’t get off the track looking for rewards instead of results. The absolute minimum increase should be 25%, and frankly good marketing should more than double the number of sales (though you can never prove it in any clear fashion).

Using Deal Wesley Smith’s minimum of 25 sales per month for ~$3 per sale ($75 gross), would you spend $10,400 to increase your title sales by 25%? Nope, and neither would I. Would you spend it Would you pay someone $60 (of which they’ll spend $52 and pocket $8) to increase your title sales by 25%? Well, DWS’s minimums mean you’re spending $60 to get 6 and a fraction additional sales per month or an average $18.75 per month. Four and a piece months to pay off with the gain, and another two years (or more) of the increased income? Yes, I think it might be worthwhile.

As I’ve said several times before, the publisher’s biggest strength going forward is his ability to increase the writer’s total sales. And because the publisher has their name attached it’s a coop sale; a bulk sale, for which you (should) pay a small portion. Let’s take that previous example. Would you be willing to pay 10% of the total for a 25% increase in sales?

Run the math. You’re getting $75 per month. You use Publisher and the sales increase to $93.75, of which you pay the publisher $9.37 and you get $84.38. In other words, even after paying the laborer for his craft you make a profit of over 12%. Notice that the publisher has to go six months to pay for the marketing, eating the risk and loss. It’s not all easy street over there. On the other hand, by not demanding it up front he’s getting a reward if your book sells at this rate for as little as two years; even more if the book goes five to ten years.

I am going to remind you that if you’re in the self/indi/micro business, you need to think long-term. The Large publishers have to think short-term because they can’t afford to keep their warehouses full of old(er) stuff.

I keep coming back to marketing as the new publisher’s advantage because of what I wrote above. I can think of little else where economies of scale come into play. Yes, they’ll pay less per hour or page than you the author for using their in-house editor. On the other hand they have to cover shop cost for the same — a problem micros are liable to face if they don’t have enough work to keep everyone busy all the time. They’ll either out-contract or in-house a graphic artist, but the cost isn’t going to be much different than yours. (On the other hand, them having one will probably do better than your picking from stock images and paying $150 for licensing — even if that’s what the in-house graphic artist does. A difference of skills and practice comes into play.)

I keep coming back to a single point in regard to future publishers. They no longer control the bottleneck. Their picking and choosing is no longer the only way. Publishers no longer pick up authors. Instead, authors hire their publishers.

This doesn’t mean publishers are going to be cheap. I do think author share is going to increase from the largest publishers, and I’d be unsurprised to see the good micros end up taking 50% or possibly even more of the gross. But because of the circumstances they’re going to have to show why they’re taking that much, and the bottom line had better be:

Because even with their cut you the writer get more total money.

In the end, I think that’s the clue to defining whether it’s a publishing scam. If due to what they do your bottom line increases, it’s not a scam. You might be giving them too much for what they do but it’s not a scam.

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