With a debate brewing about how much indie authors can, and do, earn from their writing--much of it sparked by a blog post from author Hugh Howey--PW asked Mark Coker, founder of indie publishing platform Smashwords, to offer his two cents. Here is Coker's take:
The rift between authors and publishers grew more pronounced last week with the release and ensuing controversy surrounding Hugh Howey’s Authorearnings Web site. Critics have accused Howey and his anonymous Data Magician of perpetuating horrible crimes against statistics. Supporters--most of them indie authors and indie author sympathizers – hailed Howey’s conclusions as further evidence that authors no longer need publishers.
The critics of Howey’s data and methodology are missing the point. The thrust of Howey’s conclusions is that indie authors are taking e-book market share from traditional publishers. Whether the indie percentage today is 10% or 50% of the overall e-book market or a particular genre doesn’t matter. It’s not worth arguing. What matters is the directional trend, and the strong social, cultural and economic forces that will propel the trend forward in a direction unfavorable to publishers.
The indie author insurrection has become a revolution that will strip publishers of power they once took for granted.
By every measure of great historical or contemporary revolutions, the indie author revolution is real and gaining strength every day. At the heart of every revolution is growing disparity between haves and have-nots, abuse of power, and the innate human desire for greater self-determination, freedom, fairness and respect.
Authors are losing faith in Big Publishing. Authors are angry. The moderates of the Martin Luther vein are calling for reform. The extremists of the Richard Dawkins variety are calling for the abolition of Big Publishing as we know it.
I’m in the moderate camp. I think the business of Big Publishing is broken, but the people of Big Publishing are not. Although it would be beneficial to my business for big publishers to collapse, it’s not the outcome I desire. I think the world is better served with more publishing options. I want to see more publishers, more self-published authors, more books, more retailers, and more book-loving people earning a living contributing their talent to books and book culture.
For decades, aspiring authors were taught to bow before the altar of Big Publishing. Writers were taught that publishers alone possessed the wisdom to determine if a writer deserved passage through the pearly gates of author heaven. Writers were taught that publishers had an inalienable right to this power, and that this power was for the common good of readers. They were taught rejection made them stronger. They were taught that without a publisher’s blessing, they were a failed writer.
And it was true. Without a publisher, the writer was doomed to failure, because without a publisher the writer couldn’t reach readers. Six years ago publishers controlled the three essential legs of the professional publishing stool: the printing press, the access to retail distribution, and the knowledge of professional publishing best practices. It was a print-centric world where e-books were but an inconsequential glimmer in the eyes of a few delusional hippies, me included. A writer could self-publish in print, but without retail distribution these writers were destined to fill their garages with unsold printed books, all the while lining the pockets of vanity presses who exploited their dreams of authorship.
There was a tremendous stigma associated with self-publishing. Nowhere was the stigma stronger than in the minds of the true believer writers who denigrated their fellow writers whenever they strayed from the traditional publishing path. True professional writers aspired to traditional publication, or so the cult believed. Those that succumbed to the carnal desires of self-publishing were branded vanity authors.
As more and more indies achieve commercial success on their own terms, the stigma of self-publishing is evaporating. Indie authors have become the cool kids club. It’s a movement where its members self-identify as indie. It’s a worldwide cultural movement among writers. Indies are regularly hitting all of the most prestigious retailers and news media bestseller lists. Many indies have turned their backs on traditional publishers.
Indie authors realize there’s little a publisher can do for them that they can’t already do for themselves. They can assemble their own team of professionals to handle editing, cover design and marketing.
Indie authors enjoy faster time to market, democratized distribution to every major retailer, total creative freedom, total control over production, pricing and promotion, 4-5 times greater royalty percentages, and the ability to use low and ultra-low prices to build readership and revenues faster than traditionally published authors.
Traditionally published authors are watching their rebel brethren with an envious eye.
One of my favorite moments since launching Smashwords in 2008 was a conversation I had with Donald Maass two years ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I told Donald I thought he was underestimating the impact self-publishing would have on the publishing industry, and he responded, “and I think you’re delusional.”
Today, the myth of traditional publishing is unraveling. The stigma of traditional publishing is on the rise.
The author community is growing increasingly disenchanted by Big Publishing’s hard line on 25% net e-book royalties, high e-book prices, slow payouts, and insistence on DRM copy protection. The recent news of major publishers touting record e-book-powered earnings only adds insult to authors’ perceived injury.
Authors are also disappointed by Big Publishing’s misguided foray into vanity publishing with Pearson/Penguin’s 2012 acquisition of Author Solutions, a company known for selling over-priced publishing packages to unsuspecting writers. Multiple publishers have formed sock puppet imprints powered by ASI: Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Penguin Random House’s Partridge Publishing in India, HarperCollins’ Westbow, Hay House’s Balboa Press, Writer’s Digests’ Abbott Press, and Harlequin’s Dellarte Press. These deals with the devil confirmed the worst fears held by indie authors who already questioned if publishers viewed writers as partners or as chattel.
To date, publishers haven’t felt the pain of author defections. With print still accounting for around 70% of the trade book market, and indie authors accounting for some minority percentage of the remaining 30% slice of the e-book pie, it’s easy for publishers to justify their intransigence. But as print is replaced by e-books, and as more indies share their numbers, more of publishing’s best authors will find the allure of indie authorship irresistible.
Do publishers have a way out of this mess? Yes. In publishers’ favor, not all writers want to become self-published authors. Many writers want partners. The solution is for publishers to realize that they are service providers to authors. Publishers should reimagine their service offerings, and offer writers a spectrum of zero-cost options ranging from free self-service e-book publishing and distribution to full-serve traditional publishing support. The money should always flow from publisher to author, and not from author to publisher. What authors give up in services they should gain in royalty rates and flexibility.
Mark Coker is founder of Smashwords, the e-book distribution platform.