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[GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott Says Our Digital Future is Already A Few Months Behind Us, So What Is It, Exactly, and What Should We Do About It? (Part 1)

J.M. McDermott‘s first novel was plucked from a slush pile and went on to be #6 on’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, shortlisted for a Crawford Prize, and on Locus Magazine‘s Recommended Reading List for Debuts. His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other places. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine. By night, he wanders a maze of bookshelves and empty coffee cups, and by day he wanders the streets of Atlanta, where he lives and works. He tries to write in between.

Welcome to the Future, Which Will Be Evenly Distributing Itself Sooner Than We Think, But Not That Soon…

The digital age is already here. It is not evenly distributed, but it is already distributing itself nicely, and seems to be moving more towards that direction than away from it. Raise your hand if you own an eBook reader. Raise your hand if you read off of it more than off printed words on a page. Not everyone has raised their hands, but the day is coming sooner than we think, but not that soon, when the number of people who read text as ink printed on paper will easily be outmatched by the number of people who carry their entire library in their pocket to be downloaded from the server somewhere where they store all their books. It will be just like how some people listen to vinyl records as opposed to MP3 players, but even they will probably have a well-stocked iPod strapped to their arm when they go for a jog or hop about town in the automobile that comes with an iPod port, and couldn’t play a CD without skipping much less anything as warm and lush as a good vinyl record. Books may be the superior way to read, with the tactile, soulful qualities that have made them such beautiful companions for so many centuries, but they are still going to be replaced by text on screens. It has already happened. Sorry.

I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground, gathering data, and gathering links. I don’t think for a minute I’m an expert on any of this stuff, and I welcome anyone who can raise their voice to correct me where I’m incorrect or misguided. Part of putting this post up in the world is my desire to learn more about what’s happening. Here’s what I’ve come up with, so far.

The Already Right Now of Publishing

A very well-respected editor attending a sci-fi convention where I was also in attendance recently explained that the midlist was, basically, narrowing towards a high sales level that had not been necessary prior. You see, when Borders collapsed, taking with it in the neighborhood of 400 bookstores, he could no longer easily place 10000 printed copies out in the world of some new book, and that’s the magic number where the bulk costs of paper and ink made publishing profitable. He has to know he can move that many units of the paper product into fewer stores to make money on the book. Ergo, the midlist has already moved towards more and more commercial products. Maybe a rise of indie bookstores into the abandoned spaces will bring the number of bookstores up; maybe rival Books-A-Million will be able to grow into the sucking vacuum of Borders. At the moment, though, and for the next few years, that’s not happening, and the digital shift has already jumped into the sucking void. Nothing against the Vampire Empire (steampunk+vampires!) series, which I have not read and have heard both good and not good things about from different places, but it’s basically the future of the new midlist: [I]popular meme plus popular meme = profit![/I]

You see, the other thing that struck me when this editor was presenting his line of upcoming books was how everything was “this slash that slash that” and nothing was simply a book, alone in the world, interesting because it is interesting and not because it is like something the world already loves plus something else the world already loves. This sort of thing is not just happening there, but quite a few other houses as I peer over their catalogs. Where did the indescribable books go? You know, like “Among Others” by Jo Walton, that is not really slash anything, or “City of Saints and Madmen” that defies any reasonable attempt at definition, or “Vellum” by Hal Duncan that is indescribable on a good day. Also, completely incredible. All three are wonderful, wonderful books that exist in a space where the influences are muted by the power of the creator such that the influences might as well not be a factor in describing the books.

In this climate there will very much still be publishers, who are very capable of adding value to a book because they have the staff to put together a highly-polished product and the ability to gather respectable reviews, library sales and placement in the bookstores that do, actually, still exist, (like record stores still exist).

However, these publishers will probably be less interested in some kinds of books. You know the type, too: books that cannot reasonably be expected to move 10000 units onto shelves and sell through as if Borders was still alive and kicking. The midlist isn’t really the midlist anymore, as we knew it just a few months ago. Now it’s shifted towards an “upper midlist” where things at the very top of the old midlist are now the center of the midlist. Publishing houses seem to be trending towards safety, chicklit, steampunk, vampire, etc. “The outlook: smaller print runs trickling down to even more selective acquisitions trickling down to lower advances.” (Source: Richard Curtis)

In this climate, we’re already seeing authors do projects by themselves, in tandem with their work with publishers. Some of them are putting up their backlist titles to which they own the rights. Some of them are doing new projects of all sorts of lengths to try to explore this new niche and locate a successful business model for their work. Some of them have started publishing houses of their own, specializing in boutique projects that are only viable as eBooks – okay, there’s only one of these and it’s name is CheekyFrawg.

Also, we’re hearing lots of grumblings from Kristen Kathryn Rusch, Victoria Strauss, and quite a few others about contract terms, and shifts in the dark water among the traditional middlemen (agents, retailers) seeking to force new positions for their line of business to profit in this sudden upheaval.

Where I’m standing, and what I’m hearing everywhere I go, is that the times have already changed. They’ve been changed for a while, probably since about a year ago, and even publishers are rushing to catch up.

I worked with Random House, through the Hasbro-owned Discoveries imprint, in 2008, and in 2008 this big New York-Distributed Publishing House was offered the eBook rights by me and by my agent, for nothing at all, because we thought eBooks might be really important. They turned the eBook rights down, under the stated belief that eBooks were nothing and no one had any plans to use them nor would they be worth anything in the future. I sold the eBook rights soon after to up-and-comer Apex Books who were quick to make use of them successfully, and the eBook has continued to sell at a steady pace for years, now. In just three years time, the book world catapulted into a new climate where no one is denying that eBooks have become a force on the market, and no one really knows how big they’re going to be, but we all know they’re going to be just huge, probably the future, but we don’t know exactly when the full transition into digital will occur for most publishing houses, so everyone is doing everything they can even if it might be somewhat unethical to secure eBook rights.

The future is digital. The future is the internet and cloud network library access and storage. More than just the future, right now it is already happening, and it is the now, the right now, the immediate moment and the only segment of the book publishing that is actually growing. The question, at this point, isn’t whether to go digital or not. The question is whether to do it alone, or with a publishing house.

Do you do it yourself, then, by publishing yourself or do you continue to pursue a publisher?

Well, if the publisher or agent tries to be unethical, don’t do anything with them. But, not everyone is trying to be unethical. Some people are trying to be very ethical, and do good for their clients and partners. So, should you do it yourself, or should you work with one of these ethical agents and publishers?

Personally, I think the solution is to do both.

Publishers Rock.

Wow, it’s great to have a team of smart, hard-working people dedicated to helping you sell more books, with great design, and pre-existing relationships with major, influential reviewers and library buyers and retail buyers and all that good stuff. For now, and probably forever, publishers are definitely awesome, because libraries and bookstores and major reviewers still rely on publishers for their preferred content. Agents that can get you into that network? Also awesome. Savvy publishers are already moving towards valuable eBooks by doing things like looking at them, and trying to make them attractive to consumers, and trying to find ways to add value to them.

Agents and publishers are only awesome in the future if they can add value to the book without turning into something like what happened to music labels in the nineties, that burned through band after band leaving destitute musicians in their wake while the labels and managers raked in millions off the creative energies of wave after wave of ruined band. (Record labels, many of them, became very evil growing up out of just sort of evil when the digital age changed their business models. They still sue their own fans aggressively because sharing music you love is somehow detrimental to art… A tangent and a long conversation in itself.)

In the future, books will move towards software artifacts that can include value adds like media content and swirling, nifty layouts and designs that will take advantage of the new tools available to storytellers in a digital format. In this way, publishers can be a great team of designers and developers that can add value to the book artifact. They can use their size and clout to negotiate strong royalties for authors in the various software hubs that exist to sell and license books, earning back their portion of the sale in this way (if they are smart). They can continue to thrive, and probably will continue to thrive for a long time.

But, established authors will probably bounce between publishers on a project-by-project basis, looking to maximize their potential distribution, audience, quality, and profit with an eye for a longer-term career than could be achieved as a business partner with an agent and a “home” publisher and nothing else.

Imagine Tor without Orson Scott Card and Robert Jordan… Just not the same thing, is it? In the future, I can’t imagine any author sticking with one publisher for long when their work no longer relies on the established distribution network and established marketing network. Ultimately, there comes a point where Stephen King can self-publish anything successfully, where J.K. Rowling can dump her publishers, and transcend the need for them. Why would a successful author who can easily afford to outsource their design, editorial, and developmental needs for a flat fee want to work with someone who takes a cut forever, or even an extended period of time? Publishing houses will create the monster authors that will, ultimately, outgrow them and move on to do other things. Like Prince. Like Madonna. Like any other musician that transcended the needs of a music company to fill in their staffing and distribution. Like Gillian Welch, who never bothered with the music #1 hit machine, much, anyway.

Authors, moving forward, will probably pick and choose when to work with publishers and when to do it themselves, because all of the things a publisher does can be hired out at a flat fee independently. Ultimately, an author will reach a point in their career where they break off from publishers, if they are successful, and just do their own thing their own way.

The only major downside with this decision is that the book will probably not end up readily available to libraries, and the author will have to do some serious legwork, or hire some serious legwork, to get their books into physical bookstores. Still, these things can be hired by successful authors. Libraries aren’t static, and are mostly going to move digital, anyway. (It’s where media is moving. Why wouldn’t media distributors follow media and their customers into the digital realm?)

In this way, authors will become something similar to film producers and directors, who drum up studio or indie support for different projects based on the particular quirks of the desired project, and whether a major studio distributor would want it or not, or could help the project along or not. Success happens outside the studio system all the time in music and film. Why not in books? Certainly, reports indicate authors are already doing it with more success as self-publishers than ever before. That success still happens inside the system only seems to indicate to me the larger point: do both. Succeed in the system, and succeed out of it. Be a savvy businessman of your own work, and engage the market where it wants to be engaged. A twelve book series of southern vampire gothic would be perfect for a publisher. A twenty-something story collection re-imagining the women and monsters of Greek mythology into surrealist, fabulist nightmares a la David Lynch or Kafka may not be the sort of thing publishers are clamoring to champion, in the current market.

Distribution… There’s a dangerous word in the age of the internet and cloud computing.

Studios and networks hold the content that drive Netflix and Hulu and their like, and studios and networks have a stronger negotiating position than an indie creator without that network of support. Publishers have already proven their ability to mimic the sort of clout that pushes back against cloud-networked distribution systems. When MacMillan challenged Amazon, Amazon responded badly, and Amazon caved when MacMillan was able to push against them. The Romance Writers of America can’t do that. Neither can SFWA. No, it takes someone with deep pockets and a strong negotiating position to push back against Amazon.

Publishers, particularly large ones, are the best allies of authors, in a backwards way, even as many of them are behaving badly regarding their authors. These large publishers are the sharks that can keep the gorilla in shallower water. I hope that these sharks do not turn against the content creators, even though I know it has been happening for a while, now, and I’ve been lucky not to sign with any sharks (that I know of) for any length of time. Still, we need these sharks to hold back the gorillas. Publishers play an important role. They can collectively negotiate where few others can, because they represent so much potential banana to the big, ugly gorilla.

So the gorilla wants to be a shark? That’s cool, too, because the other sharks in the water will help keep the gorilla honest.

(Yes, I do think of all New York Publishing Houses as sharks. That’s because I know if I am not very, very careful when I am negotiating a contract with one, they will cheerfully try to get the best possible contract terms for themselves unless I and my representative push back against them. They’d eat my career in a heartbeat if they could, and take eBook rights forever and ever if we didn’t stop them! Publishing is a business, and when it comes time to talk contracts, even your best drinking buddy at a convention will try to do what’s best for their company, not what’s best for your career. It’s nothing personal, and it doesn’t mean the sharks don’t actually really like you, as a person. It’s just that they want to eat all your rights. Your rights are very tasty.)

So Publishers Are Vital. Everyone Gets That. What’s That You Said About Also Self-Publishing?

Let’s talk about small books. Books that cannot be reasonably expected to sell more than 10,000 copies. Books like a novelette called “Death Mask and Eulogy” at about 9000 words, that is probably a little long for most magazines and way short for most publishers. This book is not going to be a New York Times Bestseller. I know that. But, it is still an interesting book that I wrote and believe in, and I believe there are a few people who might like it. Maybe ten. Maybe a thousand. Some unknown number of people, who might be interested in this project.

Hey, you can make pretty okay money doing that as an eBook, right? Better than what you’d make with a small press, generally, after enough time has passed and the software artifact is still out there, for sale with me as the owner of all the rights to it. I am not tied to a contract. I could pull the book down right now, on a whim. I could leave it up for thirty years. I own the rights, and I can make all the decisions regarding this little project. In time, I even might make a few dollars at it beyond what I could make publishing it professionally. Certainly, I’ve already made about as much as I’d make publishing the thing semi-pro in just a couple months and a few Twitter and Facebook posts. I’ve got time.

For small projects, the kind that would make your reputable agent talk very slowly about what the market wants right now, I think eBook self-publishing is the way to go in the current climate. You control your rights. You can still move on to bigger publishers if they come knocking, your agent (or you and your lawyer or even just you, alone) can still sell subsidiary rights if anyone wants them, and, in the current market, your distribution into popular eBook markets isn’t difficult to achieve with some pretty-okay quality using software that is freely available like GIMP and OpenOffice.

I had such a good experience with the novelette that I’ve done it again. This new project that I’ve done is a little bigger, I suspect, than a simple Novelette, and I’m certainly charging more money for it. All research indicates, however, that the current market for books wants steampunk, and vampires, and quirky chicklit and YA. It definitely does not want to take a chance on something very strange and surreal. Fantasy writers doing surreal literary fiction is not exactly the established formula for corporate profits.

Still, I believe in the project. I put it out into the world. I hold my breath. I wonder if there aren’t people like me, who like the books I like enough to buy one like this. I wonder… And, it costs me almost nothing to wonder, because I’ve heard so many stories of publishers picking up previously self-published books verified by factual account that I don’t feel like I’m risking anything. The only thing I’m really risking is my reputation. Until someone actually does invent and implement whuffee on a grand scale, I cannot live on reputation. Ergo, I would prefer to model my business on something more closely resembling money combined with artistic integrity and doing projects that interest me.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, coming tomorrow!

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott Says Our Digital Future is Already A Few Months Behind Us, So What Is It, Exactly, and What Should We Do About It? (Part 1)

  1. So, not having read part two yet, it sounds like to me that authors are bumping up against the prospect of working for a lot of different publishers (including themselves) rather than a single one, over their authorial lifetime. Much as working for one company for traditionally employed people is no longer likely, its no longer likely or even practical for an author to just be a “<<publisher x>> author”. And that goes for authors of all levels.

  2. I think there is quite a bit more to take into consideration, but that is one thing that we will see. Of course, there is one publisher authors will always be working for: themselves.

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