Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

You Say You Want A Revolution …

The publishing industry is in a state of chassis, if I can misquote Sean O’Casey, the Amazon-Macmillan slugfest being the latest example of how the writer and the reader, inarguably the most important elements of the publishing food-chain, are being ill-served by the intermediaries. Writers want to write, readers want to read … it should be easy, right? Nope. Readers are still getting their fill, given that (according to Henry Porter, below) “during the worst recession for 80 years, book sales went down last year by just 1.2% in value and only 0.5% in volume.” On the other hand, writers are having advances slashed and contracts torn up, this when they can get published at all.
  A good friend of mine, and a damn fine writer, who shall remain nameless lest the publisher that keeps him on the breadline gets a whiff of sulphur, has advocated on more than one occasion recently that like-minded writers should get together and set up a co-op, akin to the United Artists studio of early Hollywood lore. In theory, it can be done: e-publishing and print-on-demand are just two elements of contemporary technology that allow writers to circumvent the publishing circus and go straight to readers. Okay, it won’t be happening today or tomorrow, but there’s a momentum building that suggests it’s becoming a distinct possibility in the near future. Hell, a media-savvy band of writers that rides the environmentally-friendly ticket (e-pub and POD = more Rain Forest) could discover that Green = the green.
  First problem: self-publishing is vanity publishing, right? Leaving aside the fact, as @stevemosby pointed out on Twitter last week, that all publishing is vanity publishing, the idea that it’s bad to have the courage of your convictions appears to be limited to the publishing industry. Quoth Simon Crump on the Guardian Book Blog:
“But surely that’s a business model, a standard template for ambition? The conviction that what you’ve got is good enough to release into the wild and stands a reasonable chance of selling is at the heart of launching any new product.”
  Pausing only to declare an interest, in that I co-published THE BIG O with Hag’s Head, and self-pubbed CRIME ALWAYS PAYS to Kindle, and that I’m thinking of self-publishing in the near future, we’ll move on swiftly to the aforementioned Henry Porter, also on the Guardian Book Blog:
“What worries me is the loss of income for writers in what is a pretty healthy market, the loss of good editors from publishing houses and the disdain for writers by retailers – people who depend on them. If they are not careful the core talent of the book trade may well combine in new types of ventures – collectives and transparent relationships where writers and editors go into business together on a 50:50 basis and are enabled by web platforms, ebooks and print on demand… disintermediation of a more radical sort.”
  Heady stuff, folks, in theory at least. But I’m genuinely curious: as a reader (and all writers are readers first and foremost, or the good ones are anyway), what’s your take on the self-published book? Does it come freighted with overweening ambition and reeking of talentless desperation? Or is there the possibility that a self-published novel might simply be one that doesn’t fit the industry’s current requirements? Is there, for that matter, the possibility that there’s a small but perfectly formed audience out there hungry for novels and authors that don’t fit the industry’s current requirements?
  I’m not a fool, and these days I certainly can’t afford to be parted from my money by investing in self-published novels and author co-ops and similar fripperies. And yet there’s a part of me that keeps nagging on about how now is the time to get in on the ground floor with self-pub POD, before the big companies wise up and move in with faux-indie offshoots and sponsored writing collectives and the like. Or is it already too late?


Steven T. said...

Well, you have a lot of questions to tackle:

Sticking to fiction, I'd say the few self-pubbed novels I've read all desperately needed editors. Not just grammatical problems, but story structuring, etc.

There is the possibility of a a great novel being self-pubbed, certainly, but it's a longer shot than if it comes from an established publisher.

There is always the chance of finding another niche market, one not served well by the current crop of publishers.

The problem with an author's collective is that I don't see how it would avoid becoming just another publisher. I think publishers (large and small) earn their keep through quality control - they wade through the slush pile so readers don't have to. True, nowadays, any truly motivated slush pile author can POD or e-pub their book, but I don't see how that's a business plan. Ultimately, "the conviction that what you've got is good enough..." is NOT "a business model," thought it may be "a standard template for ambition."

Every successful business has quality control. When quality control fails or disappears (see "Toyota") the business soon does the same.

I would be likely to buy your self-pubbed novel because you're a known quantity - "known quality" might be a better term. The best writers, I think, police their own quality. Many other self-pubbed authors, however, seem never to have noticed the eraser on the other end of the pencil.

AnswerGirl said...

Steven beat me to it: the problem with the author co-op model is that it omits the editor. Even experienced authors need editors. Once the co-op hires an editor, it's another small publishing house. Which is fine, and maybe that's the answer, but most of the authors I know would admit they aren't businesspeople.

Keith Rawson said...

Co-op publishing is coming and it will be a force to reckon with. Don't get me wrong, it's not going to usurp the New York houses entirely and it's not going to do it anytime soon, but you can see the tide turning and it's only a matter of time before an "indie" publisher/co-op becomes a major player in publishing

TheQ47 said...

The first thing that jumped out at me upon reading your post, Declan, was exactly that of the 3 previous commenters, namely, editing.

I've read some books which have come from publishers which still needed editing, as well as a number of self-published novels, so the thought of an author self-publishing without an external editing process (current company excepted!) would not necessarily make for good reading.
(BTW, if you've got 4 comments on this post, does this mean you now need to refer to your "4 regular readers"?)

Stuart Neville said...

Self-publishing, at least in the sense that we know it today, will always be tainted by the perceived lack of quality control. Some might argue that the cream will naturally rise to the top, but I think the opposite is true - the cream gets swamped by the rest od the half-arsed stuff out there.

But the co-op idea is more interesting. It would essentially be a publisher in the traditional sense, with its own slush pile and everything, but one would think it would be more agile, and better able to take chances on novels that wouldn't get past the sales and marketing people at the majors.

But you also point out the flip side to that idea. There was an interesting documentary on the BBC last week about the history of the Internet, and how it was established without rules quite deliberately by a bunch of hippies who wanted a place free of government and corporate interference. But the doc went on to show how, despite all those good intentions, it still wound up being controlled by a handful of massive (albeit very new) companies. They concluded that the internet wound up mirroring the real world, and that it is the natural order of things (rather like the universe itself) for small entities to eventually be swallowed up by the larger bodies around which they orbit.

I think it's a safe bet that some form of co-op will come along in the not too distant future, and an even safer bet that as soon as it's a success, it'll get bought up by one of the big boys.

Declan Burke said...

Lots to think about there, folks, and many thanks for your input.

As for the question of editors, or editorial / quality control - I'd imagine that would be a function of the group of writers as a whole, that (say) two other writers would act as co-editors on a third writer's novel. That's one possibility ...

Anyway, lots to think on.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...


The problem is not limited to 'genre' fiction only but has bleed over into 'literary' fiction too:

- Sean

Dana King said...

I agree with the key points above, namely about needing editors and the crap burying the good stuff. It might also be tough to get a working author to serve as an editor, as it would take away from his writing time, and could lead to conflicts.

What I think is most important about this post is that it's one of a growing number of suggestions for how publishing can be revamped. The business model is broken: how it ever came to be this way is a good question. Still, comments to blogs and communities from editors and publishers admit it's broken on one hand, then argue it has to be this way on the other. They're too busy trying to find ways to salvage what's here now to see they need to get ahead of the next wave before it drowns them.

Michael Malone said...

Some excellent points here, Dec. Can't come soon enough, say I. Necessity is the mother of invention...perhaps that should read frustration is the mother etc...I've already worked on a co-operative basis for my poetry collections, but to do the same exercise with a novel demands MORE of everything. In the meantime I'm praying that a traditional pub gets off the fence.

Kevin C said...

Brilliant post! Declan, you pushed a terribly interesting idea into the light.

As with everyone else I agree, quality is key. Top notch editing of anything coming from a publishing co-op is essential. However, editors are not the lost daughters and sons of God. They, as I have seen in my own creative circles, can be other writers.

If the publishing co-op model acts as a true co-op (like locally sourced food or other goods) the whole would support the individual. Your core writers would serve as 'creative consiglieres' or editors to each other. But the originating group, or 'plank owners' in naval terms, need to be committed to the task of supporting each other. Weak or uncommitted writers, thinking in terms of protecting their golden nugget novels and sharing nothing, will only kill such co-ops.

The same co-op of established authors could expand very quickly to welcome unknown writers.

The technology and quality of self-published/POD books gets better with each passing year. Yes, if you go with off the shelf templates the material churned out looks flimsy, even if you had a national poet laureate editing the guts. But those are weak points that will also have to change. And yes there is the wildcard of marketing and promotions to deal with.

Yet the publishing co-op is brilliant.

Heck I bet if you go back to the Rochdale Cooperative Pioneer Rules there might be some simple words of wisdom to apply to a publishing co-op.

I really like the idea of the publishing co-op for the same reasons why I like co-op grocers and farmers markets. I buy directly from the producer, I get a product I know I will enjoy because I know and trust the producer. And when I do plunk down my hard earned cash, I know the money will go straight to the producer's pocket, no middle man or distributor.

So it would stand to reason that readers would act the same way.

Eoin Purcell said...

The thing to remember is that there is self-publishing and Self-Publishing.

One model you do everything yourself or actively look for outsourced resources to enable you to do everything (editor, designer, printing & distribution). This gives control and creative vision potential that the other model limits to a certain extent. It also allows the author to spend on Editorial which I believe will be spent wisely.

The second model is one where you simply pay a company to do the publishing for you (often, but not always these companies to not edit the text but they do design, print and "distribute"). While these companies can work for people who are savvy and already have a properly edited text, they tend to over promise on their ability to actually sell your books (how many for instance in Ireland have a sales rep on the road? or meeting Easons even once a year?).

All of that said, Self-Publishing has huge potential for authors. Ebooks change the costs structure allowing authors to avoid expensive print runs and enabling them to spend more on editing.

POD enables the same thing too. Ordering limited numbers of copies means lower capital investment in print enable greater spend on marketing and sales, the area that authors rarely see but which ends up cost the most for publishers (if they bother).

All of which is designed to say that if you have a good strategy and a good talent you'll have a better chance at success.

Lastly some serious publishers are moving into this space. Harlequin and Thomas Nelson have new imprints that tackle the market directly!


Mariel Deegan, Dublin said...

I agree with Eoin in his comments on sales and marketing. Certainly editorial quality is an issue (and believe me, while some authors may be able to structurally edit another's work, many can't copy edit to save their lives). However authors (and most of the commentators here) appear to have forgotten that sales and marketing are a vital part of the publisher's role. Self-published books often have the most god-awful cover designs (and yes covers are important for e-books too), and authors individually or an authors' co-operative lack both the expertise and the clout to get books subbed in to the trade in any quantities that'd be worth your while, and/or, especially in the case of e-books, with enough visibility in the marketplace, be that physical or virtual, to make any impact. It's all very well to have control of the editorial vision, but if you're relying on customers to come directly to you on your website, and don't get your books distributed through regular wholesale and retail channels, you might find yourself a bit isolated and with no critical mass in terms of sales to offset your costs, much less turn a profit. And if you do hire professional editorial, production, sales and marketing staff to produce good quality products that are widely available and marketed, then you'll just be another publisher.

Declan Burke said...

Eoin, Mariel - many thanks for the incisive thoughts.

Mariel, I take on board all you're saying, but believe you me, given my experience, being published by an established publisher is no guarantee of anything, least of all joined-up thinking on sales, marketing, distribution and all that goes with it. I'm sure most writers will have their own war stories.

And while I accept that most everything you say is sad-but-true, that's no reason to meekly accept that such is set in stone. Right now the industry is eating itself, and some damn fine writers are being spat out in the process. Should we simply accept that, or should we try to find ways around that?

I'll give you the example of the food industry. Yes, the likes of McDonalds et al are international behemoths. But there's a thriving and successful market in micro-production too, of local produce being locally consumed. Maybe we need to think of writers' co-ops producing organic books - more expensive, perhaps, than mass-produced books, and less easy to get to international markets, but tastier, and better for you ...

It's just a thought.

Cheers, Dec

Mike Dennis said...

Timely post, Declan! I've blogged about the future of publishing over on my website a couple of times.

I'm of the belief that the publishing business as we know it is a latter-day plantation system that has outlived its usefulness.

Now, I will admit that publishers are certainly aware of the looming changes in our business, and many are frantically trying to develop a new business model. But it looks to me as if they can't quite let go of the old ways. And the results of this reluctance will be devastating to them.

Ideas such as yours are being born all over the place. And guess what? Many of them are working. Smashwords has proven that. You've got the self-published mingling with the hit books over there. Sure, there's a lot of crap to be found, but the marketplace will take care of it. Meanwhile, some authors are making money off it. It's a great concept.

Other such ideas will no doubt spring up (perhaps a co-op born in Ireland?) that will eat away at the publishing plantation. And the result will be MORE published authors, MORE books (be they eBooks or POD), and MORE readers.

John McFetridge said...

We love indie bands and indie movies. Some guy maks a movie financed with his credit cards and he's a hero.

As for editors I'm not sure as much editorial input happens as people seem to think. Maybe it's just me (and maybe it's why I don't sell very many copies) but so far two American publishers have bought and published my books 'as is' from my small press Canadian publisher who had a little input but not much.

My guess is that publishing companies are like newspapers and in order to increase or maintain profits they're cutting staff which works in the short-term but will hurt in the long. The image we have of an editor and a writer working together for many drafts of a novel is likely going to be the exception soon if it isn't already.

Also, one of the main things my publisher has done to promote my books is to get blurbs from established authors (and thank you Declan and Ken Bruen).

What this tells me is that peer review or a recommendation from another author helps, if not to sell a book, at least to place it within its niche in the marketplace.

So, if say a few of the same authors who blurb crime fiction books were to get together and form a co-op it would seem that the name of the co-op woud become a brand and take the place of those blurbs. They might also offer as much editorial input as many writers are getting these days and I know in my case the copy editing is sent out to a freelancer for an embarrassingly small fee.

So, lots to think about.

Steve Weddle said...

The Co-Op idea is interesting. Look at the folks at the KillZone blog. They've recently put together a collection of shorts, I believe. I hear the DoSomeDamage crew is doing that, as well.

Beat To A Pulp is one of many excellent sites that does an anthology of shorts.

Imagine if CrimeFactory decided to solicit its contributors for novels. This is a sort of "built in" co-op idea.

Many magazines -- wonkish ones, in particular -- have been publishing books by its contributors for years.

So a group of like-minded writers -- let's say a dozen -- bands together through a blog and a Facebook Fan page and so forth -- and decides to print a novel each month via PDF and POD, rotating through each member. You'd have that editorial board right there. Eleven other folks reading and editing your stuff. And each writer brings his/her own fans to the collective.

These are interesting times.

The Co-Op idea isn't for everyone, of course. Many of the aspects of traditional publishing are still appealing. But it's an interesting idea to consider.

Richard Herley said...

Hullo Declan - I got here via, who have given you a nice post, in case you don't know.

My situation is this. I started publishing in 1978, was well received, won an award, and then the fourth novel was sold to Hollywood and made into an execrable film. The film was released in 1994 and by then I was very fed up with the film company and my publishers. I left them soon afterwards, but I am born to write so couldn't help composing yet another novel, quite a good one, by my own lights (finished in 2000). But the caravan had moved on, the consolidations had continued, and my agent couldn't sell it. I wrote another, better, one after that, but still no dice.

By 2008 I had got all the rights back and decided to post everything online. My first "pay if you like it" approach has just bombed out (people by and large won't pay, though plenty download), and now I am moving over to Smashwords.

Anyway, to address your post. What is needed is a dedicated reviews site.

I posted the following reply on this thread at MobileRead:

The main services a publisher provides are final selection and then editing. The selection is done in the first instance by literary agents; most publishers now will not accept a submission except from an agent.

This selection has good and bad points. It weeds out material which is unpublishable, but it also militates against work which is arbitrarily deemed uncommercial. On the one hand, the reader is spared a lot of slush. On the other, the reader misses out on all kinds of new, original and possibly wonderful books. For example, most of Kafka's output remained unpublished at his death, and we all know stories of eminent modern authors who suffered years of rejection.

Editing is vital. Writers vary greatly in their need for it. Some need major restructuring of their work or have at best an imperfect grasp of grammar and usage, while others need only a light touch. Editing is a skilled and expensive process and I would suggest that sometimes the editor can be almost as important as the author.

Publishers are also responsible for promotion, but increasingly this is targeted at the books of authors who are already successful, with little or nothing left in the budget for newbies or mid-listers. My experience, when I was published in paper, was that the size of the promotion budget was directly related to the size of the advance. The very best form of promotion is actually free: it is word-of-mouth.

Thus, if one is to cut the publishers out of the loop, one must (a) select and (b) edit.

Both of these would be taken care of by a central site where self-published ebooks were reviewed. The site could be funded by advertising and by charging authors a small fee for each listing, or each click-through, or something of the sort. Professional reviewers should be engaged; their reviews should be rated and commented on by readers. In addition, readers should submit reviews, and these too should be rated and commented on, which would effectively stop authors spamming their own work.

The database of titles should be searchable by all sorts of criteria, such as genre, rating, price, and the Amazon-style "if you liked that then try these". See also a piece I posted at TeleRead in October 2008.

Good books would rise to the top by a process of natural selection. I say "good", which is not necessarily the same as "commercial". If a book were badly edited it would score badly in the reviews, putting selection pressure on the author to get his act together in that respect.

I hope this expands the debate a little.

You Big Weirdo said...

I'm go self-pub my novels that are now out of print. I'll develop my own little vids marketing them. The reason my novels are so good is partly the work of an editor, but as important, or even more so are copy-editors and proofreaders. With a good copy-editor and proof reader you can create excellent work.

So, ihmo, any author coop would need strong independent copy-editors and proofreaders, as much as editors.

Tim Maly said...

I don't buy that self-publishing will always be tainted by a perceived lack of quality control. Why do I think this?

Because self-recording is a virtue, not a weakness in the music world (though there are plenty of terrible indie bands). Because independent film is a badge of honor for certain directors and even big name actors. Because indie games are where the "pure" artists go while big budget studios are for blockbusters and pablum. In just about every other medium, self-publication is a badge of honor for many.

Blogs have tipped well past the early stigma of "what, you mean anyone can just put anything on the Internet?" and many are powerful forces in their subject matter, outstripping their edited and published peers.

It's coming fast. As publishing houses cut back on marketing, editing and other support services, while simultaneously cutting back on advances, it makes less and less sense to go with one. We're getting to the point where it's a real balancing act for writers. They may sell more books through a publishing house but see less overall income.

Sorry, drifted away from the question.

As a reader, the answer is yes: the stigma will fade, indeed it's already fading. I own several books written and produced without ever coming near a publisher. I know several people making a living at it (they do comics instead of novels, but it's not unrelated).

If you want an idea for how big this market could go and how irrelevant quality concerns are, poke your head into fandom sometime. Short stories and serial novels with audiences in the thousands and nary a copy-editor in sight. There are (massive) copyright issues, and many authors use "beta-testers" to catch the worst problems, but it's all community driven and plenty of people are choosing to read these remixes of popular worlds and characters rather than a "real" published book.

It's not a question if "will it?" it's a question of "how soon?" and "what will remain after it's done?"

me said...

there is at least one successful instance (known to me) of writers creating a brand-new house with stated mission of "giving authors bigger influence over the publishing, and better economic terms" - the Piratförlaget AB of Sweden.

It was started in 1999 by two then-and-still best-selling authors, Jan Guillou and Liza Marklund, together with their former publisher Ann-Marie Skarp (I presume she was hijacked by the duo, haha). Guillou and Marklund rode to fame and glory on spy- and historical thrillers; and übermensch-reporter chicklit respectively. Her latest undertaking is an epistolary thriller co-written with the US author James Patterson, "Postcard Killers," to be published in the USA and Europe concurrently.

After 10+ years in operation their stable of authors, mainly Swedish and Scandinavian, runs to a respectable 25+ popular writers, a mix of A-, B-, and C-list celebrities and current in-vogue one-hit-wonder trendies [they missed the trashy, female pixie Harry Potter for the thirtysomething-set, Stieg Larssons ouvre]. Despite "pirate" in the name, they are nothing of the kind, but a very traditional, rich publishing house that also happens to be very proactive in prosecuting alleged audiobook piracy on the Internet - with mixed results so far. Their website is, alas, all in Swedish, no English content far as I could see.

The Piratförlaget example tells us something: that, if any author co-op is to succeed, it has to aim to become a bona-fide big/ traditional/ capitalistic publishing house, in effect to start playing by pub-market rules.

As primarily an author, do you think you'd personally be up to it?
(submitted by ianf, damn the Blogger ID)