In Praise of Authors and Readers and No Gatekeepers: Some Counterpoints to a Piece in Publishers Weekly

Readers and Writers

Chris Pavone, an editor turned novelist whose entire career has played itself out in the traditional publishing world, has a few things to say about indie publishing in a piece over at Publishers Weekly. Spoiler: he’s agin it.

 In a market of unlimited book options, how does an audience make choices? At the moment, most of that burden is carried by the book business. The publicity and marketing campaigns and cover designs and flap copy—the things that publishers do—are not just methods of selling books; they’re also readers’ main tools for discovering books. The same is true of the curating and merchandising in stores, and book coverage in the media. Without reviews, staff recommendations, and endcap displays, unlimited choices aren’t narrowed down—they’re overwhelming.

You know what? There are already hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of books in what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano” of self publishing. And yet, my job as a reader has gotten no more difficult. I have no trouble at all finding the books I wish to read, and the task of sorting through the crap to find the gold is precisely the same as it has always been. There are a lot of self-published books I don’t want to read, but there are also a hell of a lot of traditionally published books I don’t want to read.

And “unlimited book options” is a bad thing? More choices for the reader, more books in the world, is a bad thing? Many more good writers able to get their books published, and to make money from them, is a bad thing? I don’t think so.

 Second, if all books become cheap or free to readers, then writers are unlikely to earn much (if anything). Who will want to write if writing doesn’t pay?

 Ooooh, scary. But you know what? Writing pays about 10% when traditionally published books sell for their standard prices. But it pays 70% when independently published books sell. That’s seven times the royalty. So a $10 book from one of the huge publishing corporations will pay a writer a buck per sale; an indie book only has to sell for $2 to beat that (a much more attractive price to a buyer), paying the writer $1.40. If the indie book sells for $3, it nets the writer more than a 10% royalty on a traditionally published book selling for $20. At $5, the writer is getting a royalty of $3.50, three and a half times what he’d get for a ten dollar book from the traditional gatekeepers.

Who will want to write if writing pays better?

Third, without the gatekeepers, those who do write will create books that are worse—and not just authors whose dormant genius must be drawn out by patient editors, but all authors. Every book that doesn’t first have to get past a gatekeeper or two, or 10, before being put in front of the public will be worse.

What balderdash. Every book? Really? Even those by writers who’ve already been published by the big corporations and know their way around a gerund and a character arc? Even those by writers who hire professional editors to help them polish their material exactly the same way editors at traditional houses do? Even those by writers willing to do the work because it’s work they care deeply about, and work that may finally earn them a reasonable living?

I get what he’s saying, though. He’s saying, “I work in traditional publishing. Traditional publishing pays my bills [though probably not all of them]. Therefore, traditional publishing must prevail, lest I have to fend for myself and become more responsible for the quality of my own books, which is really scary when you’re as entrenched and calcified and hidebound as I am.”

3 comments on “In Praise of Authors and Readers and No Gatekeepers: Some Counterpoints to a Piece in Publishers Weekly

  1. Traditional publishers are in it for the money. Most will publish anything if they can make a buck. They also know there are many good books written that will not sell enough to make a reasonable profit for their time and resources. That is where and indie comes in, many are content to know their efforts resulted in at least one person enjoying or benefiting from their writing.

    Does anyone remember the story of Lot asking God not to destroy the city and being told that if only one is found, he would not? Publishers are not gods with a spiritual interest in expending their time and resources as an indie author might be. One is enough in my opinion too. And sometimes, one tells another and that doubles, etc.

    Regards and good will publishing

  2. nydiacarioca says:

    I always get upset when they talk about self-publishing as if it is only a source of crappy books, and traditional publishing is only made of perfect ones (because 50 Shades of Grey is… great, right?). There will always be good and bad quality books in both the traditional and self-publishing markets. It’s up to us to dig and find what we consider good for our taste.

    I suspect you’re totally right: those who still insist self-publishing is a bad idea are usually the ones who depend on the traditional market and are not so sure they can get their books out to the world all by themselves if need be.

  3. Jnana Hodson says:

    We’ve long been caught in this bind of declining readership, which has meant a parallel decline in reading choices. Maybe the causal relationship is backwards, that the diet of available choices just hasn’t been exciting enough to hook future readers … haven’t spoken to their experiences or situations or imaginations or real tastes, in fact.
    Consider, for instance, that Ohio has a population of 11.5 million, considerably larger than New York City, yet where is the fiction that reflects it, unlike Manhattan and Brooklyn?
    As an indie ebook novelist, the big need — and big opportunity — I’m seeing is for voices (bloggers?) who can select, guide, and nurture the author-audience connection the way Oprah did with her selections.
    After years of literary drought shaped by “commercially viable” values, we may be in for a very exciting transformation, indeed.

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