F*ck All the Publishers?
“Y’all are losing money. Y’all are being robbed. Stop relinquishing your rights.”
These are the words of semi-retired rapper, Joe Budden. He’s talking about recording artists, but the bracing advice also applies to authors. In fact, it may be even more pressing for us. After all, it is orders of magnitude more expensive to create, distribute and promote a studio album than it is to do the same for a book. In addition, so much of the work of publishing has become commoditised that the value a publishing house adds continues to diminish (one could argue it’s fallen off a cliff) even as the demands in publishing contracts become increasingly draconian.
I stumbled across Joe’s words of wisdom when I discovered Everyday Struggle, the YouTube talk show he hosts. (Even if you’re not a hip hop head, you should check it out just for the entertainment value. It is wild! Episode 121 is a barn burner.) In between all the heated arguments about mumble rap, the (lack of) quality of artists’ new projects and industry gossip, Joe (an independent artist who loathes the major labels) drops gems about the business. In Episode 111, they discussed Chance the Rapper’s decision to loudly and very publicly shit on the major labels during his arena tour, and it got me thinking about publishing and wondering who’s going to be our Chance the Rapper. Which independent author is going to do the equivalent of winning three Grammys while yelling “fuck all the labels”? (The discussion starts just after the 10-minute mark in the video below.)
Unlike the Grammys, little mind needs to be paid to popularity and sales when major literary prizes are handed out. “Prestige” still matters so much in publishing that many writers feel they have to be “put on” if they want recognition from their peers. But even outside of the bubble of the New York City and London literati, those writing straight genre often seek out the comfort of a publishing house’s bosom instead of going directly to readers.
The stigma attached to self-publishing is lifting, though, and there’s room for a Chance the Rapper type author to break out and slap the publishing houses around. I genuinely believe that in the not-too-distant future, a major literary prize will go to an independent author just so the committee members can break their arms off patting themselves on the back for being “with it”. If an indie author manages to win the Man Booker Prize or a Pulitzer, access to that rarefied circle will no longer go through major publishing houses, and that’s really the only trump card they still hold. Once they lose the ability to be kingmakers, their stable of big names that earn well will continue to contract.
“There’s not enough popping artists to keep the lights on in the labels anyway.”
Like major record labels, publishing houses are betting virtually all their chips on a small handful of talent. Every now and then, a huge seller pops up, but it’s rare for that success to be repeated. Unicorns like J.K. Rowling and James Patterson, who have long, incredibly lucrative runs are just that — fantastic beasts. They are propping up the industry, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to replicate these kinds of successes. As these big winners become fewer and farther between, the search for that white whale will intensify and likely end in catastrophe. A major publishing house is going to pay out huge advances it can’t recoup just as there’s another downturn in the market, and a well-known name that has brought us some of our favourite books is going to die an ignominious death.
The ultimate irony is that it’s easier than ever to provide low-cost support to mid-listers and improve their sales. Instead of investing in these authors to pad their bottom lines, publishing houses have made the baffling decision to throw them to the wolves, and they have to do the bulk of their marketing and promotion themselves, and that’s if they even get kept on. Wouldn’t it be better for midlisters just to go independent, keep a much bigger cut of their royalties and avoid the risk of being dumped unceremoniously?
Soundcloud, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the tools newer recording artists are using to build their brands, and anyone can start an account. Independent authors can learn a lot from the moves some of these kids are making on these platforms, and the most important lesson is that the end-consumer is the gatekeeper now. Asking permission to publish from someone sitting in a Manhattan office building doesn’t make sense anymore. Not when technology that they aren’t nimble enough to adapt to keeps racing forward and disrupting their business model. Not with Amazon continuing to raid the village.
“Apple wants to get rid of all the labels, so they can take all the fucking money.”
Replace “Apple” with “Amazon”, and a clearer picture of the publishing industry emerges. Amazon got Kindle out early enough to beat the Napster of publishing to the punch. Scanning a book and posting it takes much more effort than ripping a CD, so book piracy didn’t take off as quickly as music piracy. If Napster-like sites had gained a strong foothold in the early 2000s the way they had in the recording industry, the publishing industry might have collapsed. Not to paint Amazon as a hero, but no one can deny that they did train readers to pay for digital copies of books. They also were the first to scale up the “streaming” model for books with Kindle Unlimited.
The exclusivity Kindle Unlimited demands is where things get tricky for independent authors. If you are joined at the hip to a company as powerful as Amazon, and you have no power to negotiate with them, are you truly independent? There are some top-selling indie authors who have made good deals with Amazon and are exclusive to them, but what happens if Amazon does manage to smash the publishing houses? Are authors just getting a discount while the marketplace is being cleared out? Does anyone really believe our interests actually align with Amazon’s? The streaming wars in the recording industry are good for artists because the companies need to fight to attract them, and getting an artist to be exclusive comes at a price. Actual sales of digital or physical copies are preferable to streams, but that ship keeps sailing farther and farther away from shore. As the Wattpad generation ages, subscription services might become the dominant preference for reading books as well.
Amazon has been close enough to first-to-market to take advantage of most of the innovations in publishing. There is one major area where they’ve failed to keep up, though, and it creates a seam through which a major competitor could emerge. There are only limited social media features in any of Amazon’s platforms. Why does that matter?
Last year, I wrote a piece about how a vertically integrated Wattpad-Kindle hybrid might serve the death blow to the major players in the industry. I also think that if it’s properly executed, it could weaken Amazon’s hold on power. Wattpad and similar sites’ recent moves into monetisation are going to break new ground. In addition, new brands across a wide range of industries are growing rapidly using solely social media to market themselves. This means independent authors have new and continuously evolving avenues to reach readers. Amazon is efficient, but it is stodgy and impersonal. If I could go to a virtual bookstore and hang out with my friends there, I just might buy something. That store doesn’t exist yet, but it’s coming.
The balance of power in traditional publishing has always been skewed heavily away from authors. There are virtually no barriers to entry anymore, though, and properly managed publishing no longer carries much risk. Traditional publishing still provides value, but, with each passing year, the argument that you’re overpaying for that value if you turn over your rights gains more credence. If you’re not one of the writers they’re giving their full-throated support to, it might be better just to say, “fuck ’em.”