Numbers Crunching

Posted: September 21, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , ,

There was a blog post over at Kung Fu Monkey about self-publishing that’s gotten me thinking about some stuff, and so I’m going to consider it “out loud” as it were, here, in front of all of you, so that my mistakes can be subject to your scrutiny and you can feel better about yourselves for my failures.

An idea I’ve been kicking around for a while is the idea that publishers — the big guys like Tor and Random House and whoever are eventually going to be replaced by smaller, more agile groups.   The scene is going to start looking more and more like the music industry, with a book “producer”, who handles the marketing and editing for a few different books and then uses a major POD service to create the merchandise.

Here’s what I mean.  If I sell my regular novel through Amazon’s createspace, I make between 4 and 6 dollars a copy.  Let’s average that to 5 (for the argument, just I don’t have to run two sets of numbers).

How many books can a single editor handle in a year?  I don’t know.  I’m figuring five books, because that sounds reasonable?

Let’s say I was…I don’t know.  Warren Ellis.  Any time Warren Ellis tells someone about something, he crashes their website, because eighty gazillion people immediately go there.  Not eighty gazillion.  Figure ten thousand?  That may be high, but let’s use it as a working figure.

In my opinion, the next step for Warren Ellis is, rather than casually endorse things he happens to find out about, to actually produce books that he sells.  He, of course, doesn’t have to do anything except attach his name to it; actually, he takes, uh, say, $2.50 on each sale, leaving $2.50 per book for the author (actually, I think this is higher than regular royalties?  Good.).  He gives one dollar to an editor that he hires to go through the books.  He gives one dollar to the editor’s assistant, whose job is to read through the submissions, and maybe also to help with a big marketing campaign (though, again, the point of Warren Ellis is that he doesn’t really need a big marketing campaign).

Assuming that he gets his requisite ten thousand people, that means 50 grand for editor and editor’s assistant, 25 grand for Warren Ellis.  Per year.  Is this a reasonable salary?  I don’t know–though, as POD services multiply, the royalty schedule will improve (Amazon, for example, does NOT need to take a $10 share on my expanded distribution channel copies; they only do that because right now they can get away with it).  Anyway, maybe the deal is that 50k a year, plus ten cents in perpetuity on all titles that you’ve worked on, so your salary keeps going up as you work on more books.

Now, you’d want to have the money up front to pay these guys, because what if it didn’t work out?  Ellis probably doesn’t have the capital for that.  You know who does, though?  Stephen King.  Dan Brown.  James Patterson.  Danielle Steel.  Nora Roberts.

Any one of these people could just create an imprint — in a way similar to the way in which a rapper becomes a wealth megastar and then decides to create their own record label.

This is a serious point because, I mean, when was the last time you bought a book because you cared who the *publisher* was?  Do you go through the bookstore, or through the Amazon Interweb Emporium or whatever, and take a look at something and say, “Hey, ACE books!  Those guys always publish things that relate to my interests!” and then buy it?

I don’t, anyway; I evaluate new books according to the following criteria, in order:  1)  Explanation on the back of the book.  2)  Recommendation from person that I’ve heard of and like.  3)  Cool cover.  “Publisher” isn’t even anywhere on there.

It is a logical next step, then, to supplant, “Recommendation from person that I like” with “Endorsed imprint.”

The tools to actually produce the books are now readily available, and the process is now trivially simple.  Imprints as publishers are less important than imprints as the focal point the semantic network that actually moves the books.

  1. Hell, if you really wanted to test the waters and if you have nothing else to lose, publish ePub or PDF for five bucks a book. Sell online, no DRM. You won’t get 10k people to buy it, but you might turn a trick and show that it is possible. I don’t know about y’all, but while I’ll pay anything from 8-20 bucks for a book in print, I have paid 8 bucks for half a series of eBooks without anything fo recommendation except some random person’s blog post and realizing the writer worked on GhostWriter, yes, the kid’s show. So five bucks for an unknown writer sold online via the blogosphere.

    I’m sure someone’s tried it. Let me know who and I’ll go support them.

  2. Oh. You’re doing it. Right. PDFs…hmm, I’ll check it out. My iPad likes ePubs best, and the supposed program that converts them doesn’t do it all that well.

  3. aspiringexpatriate says:

    Right. So because the iPad is the anti-computer, I will have to wait to download it at home and import it into iBooks. Well, back to Barnaby Rudge.

  4. braak says:

    Yeah, I’m going to expand the format of the electronic versions for both The Tranlsated Man and for the upcoming Mr. Stitch and Burn Down Bloody Twilight when they drop on October 1st.

  5. braak says:

    And, actually, I get pretty good numbers on the kindle book–not a lot, but a couple every month, that I’m sure are from people just looking for “cheap books for the kindle” on Amazon.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    You know what’s weird? My work’s internet filter blocks Rogers’ blog. That’s messed up.

  7. Lolly says:

    Well, there is one instance where I buy books specifically because of the publisher and that’s Everyman. But I do it because I am a book fetishist and Everyman-published books are just so lovely to hold. Still, this exception actually just confirms your rule.

    I do have a question though: musicians who start their own labels tend to release records from artists with musical sensibilities similar to their own. I imagine a similar thing would happen if the Stephen Kings and Nicholas Sparks’s (shudder) got into the publishing game. So where does that leave literary fiction?

  8. braak says:

    It’s a good question. I imagine that the first thing that would happen is we’d recognize that “literary fiction” is actually a collection of smaller sub-groups; sort of the way that King and Sparks would splinter off of “mainstream fiction.” If you think about it, there’s no real reason to assume that Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks belong in the same category in the first place; sure, there’s probably overlap in their readers (because they’ve each got a billion readers, or whatever), but there’s little reason to assume that someone looking for a Stephen King book would take a Nicholas Sparks book as a substitute.

    This would result in two things: 1 is publishers with a smaller catalog, and therefore a more specifically-defined identity. We don’t look at a publisher like Random House as a criterion when we choose books now, but that’s because of how enormous the variety of books they publish is. If King and Sparks splintered off, and took a bunch of like-minded satellite authors with them, it’d be a lot easier to clearly define what it meant to be a Random House book–and then the publisher would start standing in for the author.

    The other thing is that it would make artist-circles, or guilds, or something like that a much more viable idea. Instead of a superstar label, for instance, maybe Jonathon Franzen and Dave Eggars and Michael Chabon all get together, pool their resources, and publish their own books, occasionally taking on or promoting a new work.

  9. Lolly says:

    Ah, ok that makes sense. I certainly wouldn’t think of lumping King and Sparks into the same pile just because they are mainstream, but I was thinking in terms of authors who have a kajillion dollars to spend on publishing. But the guild idea would work. In fact, there is already something sort-of-similar happening with McSweeney’s.

  10. braak says:

    Well, right, but there’s no reason that King and Sparks couldn’t have the same publisher–indicating that the point of a publisher is not brand identity, but bulk manufacturing and marketing.

  11. […] as people need to figure out what the hell they want to read.  It’s what led me to my “Publishers as Indie Music Labels” […]

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