Compare and contrast

Passive Voice has two links up today that were pretty interesting to read in juxtaposition.

The first was titled, "Hugh Howey Doesn't Need a Publisher, Thank You Very Much" (a title that made Howey feel compelled to point out that he does have a publisher for his print editions abroad, a fact that is mentioned in the body of the article). It is very upbeat, noting the Howey has gone from an unknown wanna-be to someone who has sold 300,000 copies of Wool alone, despite the fact that he did very little promotion for the book.

The funny thing was, Howey didn't need a publisher. He was doing just fine on his own. "You do so well self-published, it's hard for publishers to compete with what you can do on your own," he says. "I make 70 percent royalty rates on sales here in the U.S., and if I went with a publisher, that would be cut to almost one-sixth. And so, you know, we sat down with them, and they had some nice offers, but I'm handing them a bestseller with a film contract attached and all of these other things attached and what they're offering is just not as good as what I'm doing currently. I showed them what I'm earning now, and they kind of said, I don't know if we can compete with that."[...]

If Howey had his way, all authors would go the self-publishing route. "My opinion these days is that everyone is better off to start out with self publishing," he says. "It's no longer the career-killer it used to be. ... All publishing success is like winning the lottery, whether you do it along the traditional path or the self-publishing path. You have to get lucky several times over either way. Neither one is a way to make it rich."

He adds, "My realization has been that whatever kind of book you have ... you'll earn more and be in a better position if you own the rights. This is true for a book that will hardly sell, for a blockbuster, and for everything in between."

The second article is titled "Book Publishing Crisis: Capitalism Kills Culture." As you might guess, it's more of a downer.

If you work in, say, journalism, or the music business, you’ve seen this kind of thing before: the erosion and then collapse of an industry, often after mergers and acquisitions announced with buzzwords – “synergy”! – or reassurances that new ownership means that nothing significant will change because, after all, we really value the kind of work you people do. Will publishing continue to slide, gradually, or will it fall apart, like newspapers – which have lost approximately a third of their staffs since the recession and seen advertising revenue sink to 1953 levels — and record labels – where annual sales of the top-10 albums have gone from over 60 million to about 20 million in roughly a decade. Members of the creative class have been here, and it hasn’t worked out real well for them. [Actually, David Byrne says it works out fine and gives the numbers to prove it, but what does he know?]

“It’s really painful,” says Ira Silverberg, a veteran editor (Grove/Atlantic, Serpent’s Tail) and agent (Sterling Lord Literistic) now serving as director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. ”I’m sure I’ll have tons of former colleagues looking for work, and they won’t find it. Regardless of what [executives] say, it’s going to be a smaller business.”

Obviously, the article views the world through the lens of traditional publishing lens, quoting a former agent and editor, not some scruffy writer. In fact, a major focus of the articles is, how will the changes in publishing affect editors?

But what about the scruffy writers? Oh, pity them, for they shall live without advances!

And while self-publishing has brought some good work out along with a lot of bad, there is little to no money at the front end. (We tend to hear about the rare exception of runaway success, not the hundreds of thousands of self-published books per year that go nowhere or lose their authors money.) For the independently wealthy, those who married well, or businessmen writing valiantly on the secrets of their success, these are real options. As with much of the Internet-driven transformation of the creative class, authors hoping to make a middle-class living with a modest advance will increasingly be out of luck.

This is one of those things where everything said is true, but basically irrelevant. There is no money at the front end in self-publishing--in fact, there are up-front costs. Life is indeed easier for self-published writers (and traditionally-published writers, and all sorts of other people) who already have money. If you want to live from advance to advance, you'll be SOL because there won't be any advances.

What's not mentioned? Oh, what was it Howey said?

I make 70 percent royalty rates on sales here in the U.S., and if I went with a publisher, that would be cut to almost one-sixth.

Ah, yes....

The article's "solution" to all this is--a huge new government program! A ministry of culture, which will obviously provide corporate welfare to traditional publishers and ensure that nothing ever changes again! Because that's totally going to fly in this specific country at this specific time with this specific deficit, just like the Department of Justice was totally willing to exempt the very special industry of publishing from antitrust law. That is one clear-eyed appraisal of the landscape right there!

Anyway, I think when you read the news from one part of an industry, and it's all happiness and we're-in-the-money, and then you read something from another part, and it's all gloom-and-doom and we're-going-down-without-a-huge-bailout, you do need to ask yourself, where am I in all this? If you're a writer, are you set up so that you can get the hell out of the collapsing side of things? If you're an editor or a cover artist or someone else who provides services to writers, are you reaching out to indie writers and learning about their needs, or are you locking yourself in with a single client who may soon vanish?