I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with institutions. On one hand, they can be a collective force for a greater good, a group of people working towards something bigger and better than the individuals within. But they can also do evil. They can also be a force that stifles creativity and innovation if favor of toeing the line, to maintain the status quo, or worse, dismantle it.
As with anything, institutions have positives and negatives to operating in them. Even when the net result is either positive or negative, there are always pros and cons. I know that I am essentially repeating this message, but it is important to always remember. And like knowing this, it is handy to know that choosing to operate outside of an institution does often limit an individual in ways, even if it frees them in others.
For me, traditional publishing is an institution. It’s a collection of people, companies even, that operate to control what is seen in the world as printed works. In a great sense, this operates as a form of quality control, vetting would be writers before they go on the market. It gives writers who they believe are worthy additional resources as well as an opportunity to expand their market.
For a long time, the institution of publishing made sense. Ebooks weren’t commercially viable until the 2000’s for one, so a book meant a physical material, bound and printed pages with words. Printing presses were expensive to maintain, and to mitigate the expense it was always best to print books in bulk. Publishers could then work to lower prices further by grouping writers together to guarantee greater volumes for the presses to manage. It then made sense then to bring more and more writers to the publishing house. Add to this then the large marketing and sales that were built to support it and for a long time, there was no viable alternative.
Because of this, it made no sense for a writer to strike out on their own. Self-publishing presses existed (known for some time as vanity presses), but it meant that writers would have to shell out a great deal of money themselves along with having to finance all the support that went along with it. A writer could write on their own; they could share printed manuscripts at will. There was nothing that stopped a writer from doing that. If they wanted to see their books sold anywhere however, it meant going through a publisher.
Given the immense amount of investment going into books, publishers were encouraged to ensure that the quality of writing was reputable. Contracts were also signed to encourage writers to remain and produce material for the publisher, rather than seeing success with a book and then marketing themselves out for the highest bidder. (There’s enough literature on the internet to be found on the quality of these contracts. I am not going to discuss them here.)
Four things then happened, all close to the same time, in the early 2000’s that changed the game (in no particular order):
First, the internet. ‘Nuff said here. This came more into vogue in the mid 90’s, but it really took off in the 2000’s eventually becoming what it is today. It made possible a load of things that weren’t possible before, and it made it fairly cheap to do said things.
Second, ebooks became commercially viable. Ereaders started to appear and the idea of purchasing a book as a file became possible to the average consumer. Ereaders were pricey at first, but like iphones, ipads, etc, the cost eventually dropped. And with ebooks, it meant that there was no need for a printing press.
Third, print-on-demand became possible. The technology to print a single book at a cost-effective rate came about meaning that large orders of books didn’t have to be made to keep costs down. Granted, it is more cost-effective to print in bulk, but this made it reasonable to print a book at a time if that was what was desired.
Fourth, Amazon. There’s also huge volumes of articles devoted to examining Amazon’s impact to the market place, but besides that, its addition of Kindle Direct Publishing and creating a platform that enabled anyone to publish a book at minimal cost and then it gave said writers a platform to sell on changed the publishing landscape.
The institution is in trouble.
Suddenly, the market became flooded with every writer and idiot that believed themselves a bestselling author akin to [insert famous author here]. Some were people trying to make a quick buck by gaming the algorithms. Some were people who believed themselves great writers but were more like the sad contestants on American Idol whom nobody ever told they couldn’t sing. A few people became miraculous examples of great writers undiscovered by the system that had been in place. The rest of us were writers of adequate talent or skill that could forge at least some modicum of an audience, either earning a suitable income from writing or at least scratching that itch. Then there were the mid-list writers who found an outlet to run their own business to earn more financial success in self-publishing than in the traditional presses.
The problem for the institution wasn’t the first two examples in the flood, it was the latter three. In particular, when there came a number of writers who were not only popular, but fantastic, and were not curated by the institution, it called the institution’s competence and necessity into question. Furthering that dilemma, when mid-listers started leaving in favor of making a better living on their own, it took away a lot of the margin that the industry enjoyed.
Whether the institution that is traditional publishing is now an institution with a net positive impact or whether its influence has gone negative has been one that has been on my mind since discovering independent publishing (aka the process formerly known as self-publishing). Are writers better off going into independent publishing or should they continue to throw themselves at the gates of traditional publishing houses? Even more important: which is better for readers? It depends.
As I listen to interviews with some of my own favorite authors, I hear a lot of positive stories as to the individuals working in the industry helping those writers to books that they feel better about. I also have heard a lot of nightmares. But then the same can be said for independent writers. As independent writers have to either contract out services or do it alone, they can run into similar highs and lows. Then there is the question of pay…
Where and how writers make their money varies widely. This counts on both sides. As far as earnings by individual book, the independent writer typically will get the higher margin. As stated above, this is often why many mid-listers left traditional publishing. The thing is, they had already built an audience and a network. It made sense for them. An independent writer can undercut the prices of traditional publishing firms while maintaining a wider profit margin. Where a writer for a traditional pub might get between 10% to 25% royalties – all dependent on their contract – a independent writer could see between 35% to 70% royalties on their ebooks. Print books for independent writers are tougher to tabulate as there are other factors that go into pricing, including the printing costs. All of this then has to be weighed against services such as editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing, or if the writer has an agent, etc. An independent writer can go it all alone, burdening themselves with a mix of time and begging friends to help, but either way, that means there is a cost.
Then there are the licensing fees. This is where independent writers can really take off as they own the rights for their works 100%. What rights a traditionally published writer has, say it with me: “depends on their contract”. (Writer Kristine Rauch had a long series of essays devoted to this, which I recommend going to later.) Movie or TV rights are the ones most often bantered about in the media, but as Kristine Rauch points out, if there is a object that can have an image of a character or a saying or whatever from your book, then it is something that can be licensed.
Earnings aren’t everything though.
When thinking about traditionally published authors vs independent authors, the best way that I found to differentiate the two is this: traditionally published authors are like contractors; independent authors are like entrepreneurs. Picking one or the other is no guarantee of success, rather it is in how one approaches either of the two as to whether they will find success or not. And luck, but that is difficult to isolate and explain, so we’ll ignore it here.
But is the institution of publishing a net positive or negative on the whole of the industry?
Any institution will, like people, err towards policies or practices that are more self-serving than not. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, although it can mean both consumer and author are negatively impacted by the decisions made. It is why there are whole arguments on contracts with writers and the brief era of sensitivity readers came about. The institution is trying to guard its assets when it saw that there is a scrappy upstart (or a whole host of them) entering the arena.
I don’t fault them for creating questionable contracts with writers, although deep down any business that doesn’t deal in truth is in trouble. Authors need to be able to pay attention and protect themselves equally too. There is some shared blame there. Some. And for the sensitivity readers, the goal of making sure the institution is doing their best to be as inclusive as possible is noble, regardless of whether it is good for the art or not. The institution is a business first after all.
Rather than deciding on whether traditional publishers are good or bad though, or if they should continue or not, why not think of the events of the last two decades as a movement towards a new era of publishing, where there wasn’t just one game in town, or even two. There are any number of possible avenues that the industry as a whole can go, where both the institutions and the individuals can prosper. It is this dynamic relationship that would push each entity to be better, as in the true spirit of competition.
I don’t want to see an end to the institution that is traditional publishing. There is certainly a place for them, as there is a place for those of us who continue to subvert the institution.