If Publishing Is Dead, What Happens to Non-Fiction?

UPDATE: See my long, and related, comment at this post. (As in: It’s in the COMMENTS, not the blog entry itself.)

I rarely write about the publishing side of my life; frankly, it’s not that interesting and it’s more insider baseball than anything else and how boring is that for those who aren’t on the inside? (Bohhhh-rriiiiing.)

So indulge me. Just this once. (I’m a historian and a writer and am living through a once-in-a-millennium paradigm shift. What’s not to love??)

For those of you who don’t work in “publishing,” a bit of background: The industry consists of publishing houses, both big and small; literary agents; and writers (aka the Big Mob At the Bottom of the Totem Pole).

Gleason's printing operation, in: Gleason's Pi...

Gleason’s printing operation, in: Gleason’s Pictorial 1852 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently (like, oh, coupla years ago), writers wrote, then tried to find an agent who then sold the writer’s work to a publishing house. The agent takes a percentage of the author’s royalties, and everyone involved hoped for the best (meaning: hoped readers would want to buy the book the writer had written. Most of the time, they did not.)

“Self-publishing” — when a writer acted as her own publishing house — was looked on as the resort of hacks, the untalented, the losers.

No more. Now anyone can write a manuscript, create a digital version of it, upload it to Amazon or wherever, and wait for readers and their wallets to come running.

For authors, the advantages are obvious: There’s no time lag between finishing a manuscript and “publishing” it. (In contrast, assuming all goes well, my meat book will come out in about ten or eleven months.) There’s no agent to take a chunk of the profits. The writer becomes a one-woman publishing industry.

For many writers, this has become the road to riches. Authors who never earned anything on books published the old-fashioned way swear that, thanks to self-publishing, they’re raking in the dough.

The self-publishing king- and queenpins are relentless in their mockery of those of us who cling to agents and publishing houses. According to them, we traditionalists are losers of the first order. We’re world-class fools for letting agents take our money, and dumbasses for letting editors and publishing companies call the shots on our behalf.

The self-pubbers canNOT wait for the day when the entire traditional publishing complex falls into a huge hole in the ground. The self-pubbers have the funeral all planned. (If the self-pubbers spent as much time writing as they do gloating over the slow death of publishing, they could easily crank out another book or two each year.)

Okay. Fine.


Cuneiform-Rabat-Tepe2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I’ve noticed: The new self-publishing king/queenpins are almost entirely novelists, meaning they write fiction rather than non-fiction. (*1)

They crank out a novel or two (or three) a YEAR. I’m sure that many of them have to do research for their books, but for MOST fiction writers (not all of them), that research is minimal and is the kind of thing that can be taken care of with good googling or a trip or two to the public library.

As a result, they don’t understand that for people like me, the “traditional” publishing industry is my only lifeline, my only means of support.

Consider: I started working on the meat book in early 2007. I finished it in early 2012. You do the math.

I spent five years researching and writing the beer book, and of that, a great deal of money and time was spent on traveling to specialized libraries. The Key West book took me two years to research and write.

How did I pay for that? By entering into a partnership with a traditional publishing house that provided financial support.

It works like this: My agent sells my book IDEA to a publishing house. The house pays an “advance”: a sum of money upfront that I can live on while I research and write the book. It’s not much money — in fact it’s an embarrassing amount of money and I also am fortunate enough to receive financial support from my spouse.

Without that assistance, I couldn’t do what I do. Period. Again, it’s not much money, and it’s the ONLY money I earn from my books. (If I were lucky enough to write a bang ‘em up bestseller, I’d earn more than the advance, but I’m not that lucky. Er, um, not that talented a writer.)

The self-publishers, in my opinion, have a distorted view of “books” and of “publishing.” In their minds, every writer is cranking out novels that don’t require much time to research and write, and the lag time between creation and payoff is short.

So I ask them: What happens when the agents, editors, and publishing houses go away? Who will write non-fiction then?

Library book shelves

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yes, sigh, all this ruminating led to that single simple question. I TOLD you I was long-winded.

UPDATE/OTHER LINKS: For more on non-fiction in this brave new world of books, see this post by Sarah Weinman, a long-time industry insider, and this article in the Wall Street Journal. (The latter link may evaporate.) And another update: This take from a writer who’s been on both sides.

*1: I say “almost entirely” because among the self-pubbers are a small but vocal group of non-fiction writers who, having earned beaucoup bucks from their work, are now Famous and Rich and can afford to dump their publishers and agents and publish their own work.

42 thoughts on “If Publishing Is Dead, What Happens to Non-Fiction?

  1. Speaking of long-winded..here we go:

    Is it reasonable for any writer of any genre to expect to make a living solely from sales of their books?

    I don’t think it is, or ever was.

    When you look at a statistic just for nonfiction titles cited by the President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers such as – the average U.S. nonfiction book sells less than 250 copies/year and less than 3000 copies in its lifetime – how is it reasonable to expect that most of ones income would come from their latest book?

    Even if an average author has had more than one book published how many of those other books are still in print a few years after first publication and not just available as used books (from which authors receive no income)?

    I think too many folks get a distorted perception of what it’s like to be an “artist” by the extremely small percentage of folks who do “make it big” in their chosen artistic endeavors.

    Writers are no different than musicians, actors, dancers, or athletes who daily strive to make a living from those pursuits but find that unless they get lucky enough to catch that big break they must support themselves by other means.

    Every nonfiction author that I’ve had occasion to meet and chat with has earned their living primarily by either teaching or consulting or some form of manual labor. Or they have some other benefactor, or patron, or get grants, or some combination of all of the above.

    Is the publishing world in flux?

    Sure. Just like many other businesses.

    People (aka potential readers) have an increasing menu of entertainment options in front of them and, for more and more people, a shrinking slice of their disposable income pie is available to spend on entertainment.

    In 2010, U.S. publishers issued a bit over 300,000 new titles. Include the 2.7 million “non-traditional” titles (self-published books, reprints of public domain books and print on demand titles) and the number of choices is simply overwhelming.

    Most published titles will never even be afforded the opportunity to sit on a shelf in a “traditional” bookstore.

    How realistic is it for an average author to expect that their book will even get the attention of much of the shrinking pool of book buyers and/or readers?

    Not very.

    It’s a tough endeavor yet writers still write.

    The publishing industry also suffers from some of the same problems as the movie and pharmaceutical industries – too much reliance and spending too much money on blockbuster products. Which means that the slices of the pie available to pay or promote other authors are that much smaller.

    So, given the slim odds and paltry promotion and payments from traditional publishers why wouldn’t more authors take the self-publishing route?

    It has never been easier for artists to promote themselves and create their brand and interact with the people who buy and/or read their books. If one has to do all the marketing stuff traditional publishers used to do why keep them in the loop?

    Crowdfunding is also a growing opportunity for artists to secure funding from their fans or potential fans. For instance I’ve contributed funding to more than a dozen artistic and technical projects thru Kickstarter. Alas, no nonfiction projects have sparked my interest – yet.

    I have a friend that is a triathlon fanatic. He lives and breathes the training and competitions. Nobody pays him to do it. In fact he spends about $25,000/year for training/equipment/travel to compete in events around the world.

    He does it because he loves it. The artists I know do what they do because they love it. Sure most of them (but not all!) would like to “make it big” but every single one will continue their creative endeavors regardless. And none of them make a living solely from their art.

    Will nonfiction writing disappear if traditional publishers are unavailable to provide advances? Of course not. Some nonfiction books may just take longer since the author is self funding its development. Some may never make it past the idea stage because some authors won’t be willing to risk the time and effort without the ‘validation” that they get from a traditional publisher.

    It seems to me that self publishing is a strategy that looks at the long game where you may have to front the money to work on your book yourself but in the long run you’re more likely to actually make more than what you may have received as an advance from a traditional publisher.

    One best selling author has stated that he only gets royalties from one of his books and that is because it has been selling steadily for more than 20 years. He owes money on every other book he has written. He goes on to state that publishers keep paying him to write because for every couple of bucks he earned on a hardback the publisher earned eight bucks which allowed them to easily reap the advance payment and then some.

    Traditional publishers have good reason to be worried and as more and more readers turn to ebooks more authors will be likely to reconsider the traditional publishing route.

    Maybe nonfiction buyers/readers will lose out if traditional publishers fade away. I personally would hate to see that happen. I’m a nonfiction buyer and reader. I buy at least a couple hundred new books each year and of those maybe three or four will be fiction.

    My guess is though that since most of anything, be it movies, books, songs, tv shows, etc., is crap that having fewer choices might turn out to be an advantage because the cream will have a better chance to rise to the top, be discovered and actually find an audience. Or…maybe the opposite will prove true.

    I guess we’ll find out sooner or later.

  2. There is an erroneous underlying assumption in this post that non-fiction publishing = on paper. “Publishing” isn’t dead, far from it, in the sense of publishing as publicly communicating information. More things are being published by more people than ever before. The delivery medium is changing, strike that, has changed. Why can’t non-fiction be delivered via eBooks, the web, etc.? Is non-fiction automatically less scholarly, less valuable, less credible, not as well researched, or in some way not as good, just because it might be delivered electronically? I see you took all of your photos for this post from Wikipedia… Is that not non-fiction, published in a “non-traditional” medium? 🙂

    (PS – Hello Maureen, long time no “see,” and congrats for finishing your meat book! I also really like your new website. It looks great.)

  3. PPS – Your blog is perhaps the best example of high-quality non-fiction publishing in a non-traditional format. The Pink Slime series comes to mind, as well as many of your beer industry-related posts. Getting readers to pay attention to your message and getting paid for your writing is always a challenge, no matter what the publishing medium. And it’s getting harder and harder all the time because there is just so much information out there and so much competition. The changes in the publishing paradigm remind me of when the airline and the telecom industries deregulated. Right now, publishing is going through the same kind of upheaval. (Not saying it’s better… just saying this is how it is.)

  4. Hey! No, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Am in NYC and spending all my time with my grandson and kids — but for a change I’ve got a free hour so: to your omments.

    First, as always. THANKS for taking time to comment. HeavyG, yours was a wake-up call. Yes, I KNOW I have to start thinking more creatively abuot how to fund my work because there’s simply no guarantee that I’ll have the good fortune to publish another book in the “traditional” way — translation: that a publisher will be willing to front me the money to support my work. Scary but true.

    I have spent a LOT of time thinking about the whole self-publishing thing. Mostly what I think about is how. much. more. work it entails for a writer. Have you heard of Amanda Hocking? She wrote a couple of novels and sold zillions and then, tired of dealing with all the extraneous stuff (eg, promotion, editing, etc.) signed a contract with a traditional publisher. There’s so much more to “publishing” than just writing and researching the book.

    Anyway: I suppose in the end, the upheaval in publishing will mean survival of the fittest becomes the norm: Those who can figure out how to come up with dough to keep themselves going will publish, but a great deal of non-fiction will simpy never be published. But, heh, you’re right about one thing: It’s not clear to me whether what rises to the top will be the cream or the crap.

    But to clarify one point, and address the one Janine raised (HELLO, JANINE!!): By “publishing” I was referring to any medium, paper or e-book. Although definitely my preference at this point is for both. The publisher of my beer book has STILL not put it out as an e-book and that’s very frustrating to me. The meat book will certainly appear in both forms from the get-go.

    I did just spend a couple of hours with my editor, and of course we talked about the upheaval. For a publisher, the BIG question for which no one has an answer is: what happens when a) there aren’t any bookstores; and b) when ebooks outnumber paper ones. Because the cost of a paper book is MUCH higher when only a few copies are printed. So it’s all well and good to say let’s make every book an e-book, but the fact is that not everyone has or wants an e-reader.Some people want paper, so how will the market satisfy them? (Print on demand??)

    And the future of B&N as a bricks/mortar entity is very much up in teh air at the moment. And if B&N as a 3-D place goes the way of Borders, THEN we’ll really and truly see upheaval in the business of making books.

    Unrelated, but worth mentioning, is that publishers feel very frustrated at the moment because the public believes, wrongly, that there are no “costs” involved in making e-books. There are. There’s the cost of digitization, of archiving, of paying for server services, etc. The cost of paper, of printing and warehousing are the very least of the costs of making a book. It’s all the costs that the reader can’t see or feel that are the biggest.

  5. My iPad screen just decided that I could go no further with that comment. Anyway: yes, these are definitely interesting times for being a writer. On the one hand, it’s never been such a delight: there’s an incredible abundance of riches for writers, not least of which what I’m doing right now: commenting on comments from readers.

    On the other hand, the “who knows what’s going to happen?” factor has never played a more powerful role. Mostly I’m just trying to focus on my work, of which I have plenty to do, and learn as much as I can about how to survive in this new world.

  6. Janine: also, yes, about these photos. As you know, mostly I stick to text. But this wordpress setup comes with a “here are some images” grab, so I’ve been playing around w/adding images. But the system is unintentionally hilarious: It picks up on words in the blog entry and then hunts for images that “match” — so when I wrote about Pink Slime, it gave me images of pink wolf slime, whatever that is. And for this post, it gave me a half dozen images of The Who in concert. Huh? I could NOT figure out what The Who had to do with this. It also gave me images of “publishers” from the 17th and 18th centuries.

    But yes, they’re public domain images from (mostly) WIkipedia, which is a classic example of the “new” publishing. Although again: no one earns any money from making Wikipedia.

    I think all of this is one reason I’ve been thinking so much lately about “the economy.” Not in the sense that the “economy” is good or bad, but how the fact of the digital era may or may not be changing the way the economy works. It seems to me that ALL of us need to be a lot more creative about how we “earn a living,” but of course the web creates extraordinary opportunities for doing so. Think Etsy, for example, or the whole app economy. Strange time, folks, strange times.

    Hell, for that matter, this website: It’s not clear to me how the folks at WordPress can keep going. Yes, they do sell some products, but most of what they do is provide a “free” platform for blogging. I paid to upgrade my service, not necessarily because I needed the upgrade, but just so I could pay. I also bought this site template (and then, I’m proud to say, figured out how to make some small alternations so it was exactly the way I wanted it). I believe in passing the money around. S. Brand did NOT say that “information” — or blog services of website templates — want to be free. He said information wants to be free, and information does NOT want to be free.

  7. Just a few points:

    Self-publishing – of course “self publishing” doesn’t have to mean doing it all yourself. Just as most publishers don’t grow their own trees to make their own pulp/paper, make their own ink, etc. an author that self publishes can farm out those things that they can’t or don’t want to do. In essence, one can act as a general contractor overseeing the various subcontractors on the project yet also do some of those tasks they want to.

    Nobody doubts that traditional publishers perform a lot of various roles in getting a book onto a shelf from a raw manuscript. It’s just that so much of what they do can be done by those so inclined and is perhaps not as valuable as traditional publishers think they are.

    From what I have seen in recent years, traditional publishers seem to be skimping on hiring good editors and simple quality control.

    And, of course, self publishing is not defined as just publishing via the ebook route. People have been self publishing well before ebooks came around.

    Bookstores – many people have cherished memories of a favorite bookstore. Many, if not most others, never reall had a decent bookstore until the likes of Waldenbooks, Borders, and Barnes&Noble came along. The very same stores that many people blame for killing “traditional” bookstores.

    Along comes amazon.com and now it is being blamed for killing brick and mortar stores. Yet, more people are buying books than ever before.

    Personally, I can say that due to the selection and discoounts available via amazon that I have been buying far more books per year than I ever could afford to via a brick and mortar store.

    But, as they say, what goes around comes around – in many parts of the country there is a resurgence of independent bookstores. And many of those stores are making money at least partly by selling ebooks since they can get a cut of sales made via their affiliate links.

    You as an author can also get a cut of books sold via links on your website. Are you taking advantage of affiliate sales programs via the links on your site to the various bookstores you link to?

    As print on demand technology matures it’s not unrealistic to think that most paper books will only be printed as needed. Not every book is intended as a piece of physical art in and of itself so a fancy binding and paper aren’t really necessary.

    “Cost” of ebooks – I don’t think most people believe that there are no costs involved in making ebooks. Of course there are costs. However, due to the complete lack of a major part of traditional publishing – the “physical” copy – it is foolish for publishers to think that they can get away with trying to charge anything close to the same price as a paper copy.

    Too many publishers release ebook editions that are poorly formatted. Too many also do not properly take advantage of ebook capabilities in regards to linking to footnotes and bibliographic entries. Since so many publishers fail in that regard why should ebook buyers even think that an ebook edition has similar value?

    Also throw in the rights one surrenders when buying an ebook from most publishers due to DRM (digital rights management) and the buying public has another major reason to demand that ebooks be priced significantly cheaper than a hard copy. Actually, to me, DRM is the most significant issue in regards to ebooks and I could talk for days about the evils of DRM but I won’t 🙂

  8. Well, I would agree with you about bookstores: I get SO annoyed when I hear people whine about the Big Box stores killing indie bookstores. Where I live (Iowa), there were no bookstores until B&N and Borders came along. And I loathe indie bookstores. There seems to be some rule that everyone who owns or works in an indie bookstore has to be a grade A asshole.

    Anyway. Back to your original point: Are writers and other “artists” entitled to make a living? I dunno. I do think the world is a lesser place w/out the arts. But I also know that in the US, the arts are regarded as luxuries rather than necessities. (On this point, see this recent article from Salon:


    As for what “traditional” publishing brings to the table: In my case, it brings solid editorial talent. Two of my three published books were edited by a skilled editor (the Key West book had no editing), and the person who edited the beer book will also be editing the meat book. And believe me, the books are MUCH better because of that.

    And I think that’s true of many mainstream publishers: Editors still edit. (Thank god.) Could I hire an editor? Of course. Could I hire a proofreader, a jacket designer, a layout designer. Of course! But in effect, that’s what I’ve done by publishing the “old-fashioned” way.

    I’m rambling here (because am also doing huge piles of laundry and am not a good multi-tasker). DRM: oy. Everyone in publishing could talk for days about that. I think what the naysayers don’t get is that people in “conventional” DO think about this stuff, and DO worry about it and ARE aware that “things” are changing. They don’t have their heads in the sand.

    I gotta go fold some clothes.

  9. Maureen,
    Great post. I know a lot of the self-pubbers are using Kickstarter to fund their projects. Personally, I’m not opposed to paying for a book up front and receiving it upon completion and I know many others feel the same way. However, you run the risk of constantly asking your following for money, which puts a sour taste in many readers’ mouths.

    But I don’t think traditional publishing houses are going away. They’ll always be a part of the publishing eco-system. Even a successful self-published author like John Locke uses Simon and Schuster for distribution. Traditional publishers may serve a different purpose in the years to come, but I don’t think they’re going away.

  10. So, admittedly, I came from a genre blog. I just thought I´d throw my 2 cents in. I don´t know a whole lot about nonfiction publishing, I´m more of a Fantasy / Scifi reader. What I do know is almost anyone who I feel is worth reading in this area do extensive amounts of research. (and I am immensely gratified to see that you acknowledged that) One of my biggest questions has been, since nonfiction has a harder deal than fiction, I´ve learned that much, at least, what happens to the fiction I love reading when they can´t do the research, because the books don´t exist?

    One interesting I´ve noted is that it´s never the people who have actually self-published that are the ones who speak the strongest about how self-publishing is the future, and the publishers are dying. (Anyone who says the publishers are dead are not the brightest, who are kidding themselves. Dead means no longer has an impact on the world, definitely not the case at the moment)

    @HeavyG, if you´re interested, I believe MacMillan is going DRM free, though it may just be the TOR branch. I think other publishers are going to follow. As far as I´ve read, only Amazon still likes DRM.

    • There are but a handful of large publishers that make their ebooks available sans DRM. O’Reilly is one of the most notable but their market is rather limited to techheads.

      Amazon doesn’t like DRM and would be glad to offer books without DRM but the publishers are the ones that control that. Amazon’s digital music is sold as MP3’s which do not have DRM. Amazon has gone to great lengths to try to make its Kindle titles readable on pretty much any platform/device (unlike Apple and Barnes and Noble).

      Sooner or later more and more people will come to realize what they are giving up when buying most ebooks and eventually the pressure directed toward publishers will be to either “set them free” or sell them at a price so low that the fact that a book is locked up by DRM may not matter.

  11. (sigh) So, I just checked my facts, it´s only TOR who is DRM free, not MacMillan, which pretty much means if you don´t like SciFi, you´re going to have to wait for a bit. And as far as I understand, it´s not retroactive.

    One correction I would like to make, I was not claiming that good fiction authors have to do the same amount of research as nonfiction authors. The rigorous standards of nonfiction authors does not exist in fiction. The irony of fiction is that the research put into the book will not necessariIy be in the book. I will admit to quite a bit of curiosity as to how nonfiction publishing works. The balance between being in the black and giving an advance for a book you know is going to take that long throws me off a bit, especially given very few nonfiction books are bestsellers. Unless you are a ridiculous bestseller, is it humanly possible to live on a serious nonfiction advance?

    • TOR is a johnnie-come-lately to DRM-free ebooks. Baen’s been doing that since at least 1999. And Baen (with complete cooperation from participating authors) does other “silly” things like… give away free copies of ebooks to any and all comers. (http://www.baen.com/library/ Check the “Prime Palaver” link for some of the reasons for the Baen Free Library and how that’s worked out for Baen and for its participating authors.)

      As for the potential “loss” of nonfiction works as a result of a shakeup of the traditional publishing industry, so? Marketplace. If a book never sells enough to earn out its advance, then *meh* maybe such hobby writing should simply be viewed as such.

      • Well, since the vast majority of books publishing by mainstream publishers don’t earn out their advances, then the only stuff that should be published is Nora Roberts, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.? Because everyone other than big mega-watt bestselling authors are hobby writers.

      • That sounded snarkier than I intended it to. I’m asking a legitimate question. In effect, you’re arguing that traditional publishing ought to die (and, yes, I know that’s what you’re arguing) and self-publishing should be the ONLY way anything gets published?

      • But of course it also means that genre writers, especially those that are research-heavy (eg, the “Human Wave,” SF&F) are also hobby writing and so no one in the genre should be complaining that “mainstream” publishers don’t pay any attention to them? Because why should mainstream do so, if it’s hobby writing?

  12. Dana and Mark, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Please come back! (Although I rarely write about writing/publishing…) (But Mark, I DO write about how historians work and think; those posts are under A Historian at Work and A Historian’s View.)

    To Mark’s comments about research: Yes, many fiction writer do extensive research. Most of my writer friends (and I don’t have a lot) write fiction, and they all have to do research. But yes: their research needs are quite different than those of people who write any kind of non-fiction. (Plus, as I always say: if they want a scene to include a pouring rain, by god, they can have pouring rain. I, on the other hand, am stuck with whatever the weather was actually doing during the moment I’m trying to describe… bummer!)

    Most writers don’t make a living at what they do. Literally: the stats for writers’ incomes is disturbing. The average is something like $9,000 a year or some godawful figure like that. Definitely I couldn’t do what I do w/out support from my publisher AND my husband’s willingness to support me. (The whole thing was his idea, so if I screw up, I just blame him…)

    As for the advances: The publishers DO make money on the books, but in general, writers only earn whatever advance the publisher pays. I don’t expect ever to earn more than my advances. Sadly….. And not for lack of trying. When my books come out, I bust my ass promoting them, but there’s only so much anyone can do. If people won’t buy books, they won’t buy books. Period. (And if I had a buck for every person who’s emailed me to tell me how much they loved my books and hey, they found a used copy for a dollar, well.. I’d be richer than I am now.)

    Still and all: it’s fascinating to me to watch all this unfold. And anyone who think publishers are not aware of what’s happening have obviously never spoken to anyone who WORKS in publishing. They know. They worry. They’re trying to figure out how to manage and cope.

    This ain’t small potatoes: the age of digitization marks an extraordinary shift in the human experience. EVERYTHING we do is being affected. Everything. Right down to how are brains develop. So I’m sure not surprised that no one’s got a pat answer about How To Survive In The Brave New World.

    • “but in general, writers only earn whatever advance the publisher pays” – sorry Maureen… Perhaps the standards of statistical analysis in historical research are more gentle than in science. But you do know that the chances of this level of ‘accuracy’ (given the paucity of predictive information, and the skill to use it, in publishing) happening all by itself, are roughly equal to the chances of a flipped coin balancing on edge when it lands ;-)? And the probability of them paying more than they needed to is about the same as said coin turning into a purple rabbit? Look I’ve got ?17 novels published now, and I was once a research scientist. For me the average novel is an adequate Master’s thesis of work – about 5% of research makes it into the book. If you work it back to hours worked (I am obsessive about numbers) each takes me about 16 months of normal office hours. Yes, I do two a year, but I need very little sleep, and I need to do that to make a living… through publishers (and all bar 2 of my books have earned out.) Are your non-fiction books 1.66 PhDs research heavy? It is possible they are – thinking of Norwich’s Venice book – which must be 6 PhD at the least. But the truth is these were never commercial books. Never, even at 70% e-book royalty, will these books sell enough copies to pay a researcher. However a book on a popular subject – lets say ‘beer’ – well written, accessable, interesting, with a broad could easily (reasonably priced at say $5) sell 50K copies. And let’s say the researcher/writer is taking 70% of that. And what’s more the book stays on the shelf, and will continue to pay (at a slow taper) royalties for the next 20 years… Given the paucity of jobs and the lousy pay scales for researchers… I don’t think we won’t find people who can do this. In fact I’d guess we’re going to see an explosion of such books.

      • Sorry, but I’m not clear on what you’re talking about. Sorry! I’m not familiar with the concept of “1.66 PhDs research heavy” and “6 PhD heavy” as ways of calculation. (Must be a scientist thing, and I’m definitely not a scientist.) And yes, had I sold 50,000 copies of the beer book and kept 70%, I’d be doing JUST fine. Would that I had been so lucky. For that matter, would that it be an axiom that any “well writte, accessible, interesting” book could sell that many copies. Woo, baby!

  13. Oh: Meant to say something about Kickstarter (which Dana mentioned). I’m fascinated by the way our economy has changed in response to digital communication. It feels to me like we’re inventing a new kind of capitalism, of which Kickstarter is an example.

    Obviously that’s not “new.” For centuries, people supported the arts, for example, through patronage, and Kickstarter is simply a modern form of patronage. But the fact that it’s now available as a possibility for supporting so many different kinds of business ventures is amazing. (And writing, of course, is a business……… as is any other kind of “art.”)

  14. True. However, even though it is usually not too difficult to figure out how to do so, it is well beyond the set of skills/interest of many if not most people that buy a Nook or Kindle or Ipad. Most of those folks really don’t have computer skills or interest in doing much more on their pc than email and Facebook.

  15. Maureen

    You’ve just been linked over at Making Light, where a lot of science-fiction and genre readers hang out (and other interesting folks), so you may get more people over here with an interest in that kind of thing.

    I’m noticing that one thing that’s come up in several discussions of trad publishing vs epublishing (including here) is the idea of ‘publisher as venture-capitalist’. I’m wondering if you or anybody else have looked much at how this model of publishing has worked historically. (It strikes me a like an idea that goes back to the seventeenth-century). It also strikes me that another residual role that publishers may find themselves with – especially if DRM goes – is that of rights enforcer, because its easier for publishers top develop relationships with the sorts of lawyers that would be good for dealing with pirating.

  16. praisegod barebones. Now THAT is a handle!

    Way back in the day (eg, back in the 17th and 18th centuries) it was quite common for either the author or the printer (meaning the person who agreed to actually put the words on paper and make copies) would often seen “subscribers” for the work in advance — which, yes, could certainly be seen as a form of venture capitalism. The most desirable angel would be a “royal” someone or other — someone with clout. In the 19th century, it was very common for books to be serialized before being printed and sold in book form.

    In the first case, in effect both author and publisher were looking for cash up front. If they couldn’t find subscribers, the book typically didn’t get published. (English novels are full of cases where someone tries to publish some arcane work or other and can’t because he can’t find anyone interested in the product.) In the second case, the success of the serial — as judged by how many people clamored for the newspapers where it the work was being published — would be the major factor in whether the work would become a “book.” Some books, of course, did get published outright, but that was relatively unusual.

    Nowadays, publishers act far more as speculators than anything else: They agree to publish a book with NO idea of how well it will sell. Frankly, it amazes me that publishing had held on as long as it has because it’s a) an exercise in irrationality; and b) a total crap shoot!

    As for publishers enforcing rights: I kinda doubt that will happen because right now, all manner of books are being illegally downloaded and made freely available on the web and I’ve yet to hear of a publisher stepping in to do anything about it. The Authors Guild case against Google is another matter: should Google be allowed to “publish” every single book in the world? I dunno. Personally, I think the project should proceed, but that’s just me.

  17. Pingback: Looking At the Other Half | According To Hoyt

  18. Pingback: Links for 2012-05-14 : Uncertain Principles

  19. Pingback: Interesting Blog Post About Publishing — Cape Cod Writers Center

  20. “Well, I would agree with you about bookstores: I get SO annoyed when I hear people whine about the Big Box stores killing indie bookstores. Where I live (Iowa), there were no bookstores until B&N and Borders came along. And I loathe indie bookstores. There seems to be some rule that everyone who owns or works in an indie bookstore has to be a grade A asshole.”

    All I can say is…oh, thank Goodness I grew up in New England! Home of 10,000+ independent bookstores. And I find your comment about loathing indie bookstores so sad. Here, they are FULL of interesting, smart workers who love to converse with and help the customers. Come to the coast and check it out!

  21. Let me get this right. Other people who make a very poor income should have to put up with rapacious terms for their intellectual property so you can drink beer and go to Key West just to write about them.

    Let’s give you a couple of hints.

    (1) Nobody owes you a living. If what you want to do isn’t economically feasible, do something else. It’s how the rest of us have to live.

    (2) People can write about things they already know about. Someone from Key West can write about Key West. If it is then important to another researcher, the material is available. Which feeds back into number (1), that you are not owed a living.

  22. Snufbuf: ten thousand? The ABA only has 1600 members, so that’s pretty amazing!

    Doubting Rich: No clue what you’re talking about. None.

  23. Maureen: Several quick points. Publishers are not gambling. The -vast- majority of the books they pay advances on must show a profit, or they would go out of business.

    Your characterization of Amanda Hocking’s recent contract with a traditional publisher incorrectly states both motive and result. At some point, the traditional publishers offered sufficient money that she was prepared to give up her higher percentages of income. Time will tell if that was a good decision, or if she would have been better off hiring a PR firm and an accounting firm to manage her day-to-day activities for her. The idea that she is doing -better- with the traditional contract is of marginal certainty at best.

    Your statement that you have never earned more than your advance on any book is sad. However, since as-things-stand the beer book is out-of-print and is being sold as a discounted book so that even if a person buys new, you make nothing or near nothing from it. On the other hand, as a print-on-demand, or e-book, the work would continue to be available and you would get long-tail income “forever.”

    Tell me, if your publisher is doing so well for you, why does “In Beef We Trust” come up on Amazon with no cover, and not in stock despite being listed with a publication date of last September? Could it be that those much praised PR people and distribution people and sales people at your traditional publisher haven’t BOTHERED to update Amazon on the books status?

    The problem with funding the books you describe is not serial, it’s a starting-point problem. Funding the FIRST book is a a problem. After that, assuming you write a book which will sell, the last books sales funds the next.

    And, that also answers the how-to problem, since a successful author will build from small easier to research topics towards bigger, more all consuming ones.

    Finally, of course, for the ultimately obscure, bizarre subjects, there’s the answer there has always been: Academia, something you and Hodding Carter appear to have in common.

    Meanwhile, I’m going back to trying to find sources for the development of high curvature lens grinding methods in the 18th century that lead to the rise of the achromatic compound microscope for a science-fiction short story I’m working on. Wish me luck.

    • Thanks for this. Just one point: There is no book titled IN BEEF WE TRUST. My publisher didn’t put that cite at Amazon; Amazon did. Amazon scoops information re. books from various publishing sites (like PublishersMarketplace) and dumps it into its database. There is no book by that title; Amazon picked that up from a “books sold” notice at a publishing industry site.

  24. Maureen

    That is clear.

    You are writing in support of the traditional publishing industry against the tide of change because it benefits you in doing what you want to do. You can only do what you want to do because of that traditional model, and you seem to think that is the only way that what you do will ever get done by anyone and that what you do provides a valuable enough service that it should be protected.

    However that is not a valid argument as you have no natural right to demand that someone else accommodate you in doing what you wish, in the way that you wish. If you find yourself unable to do so without great sacrifice, or at all, then you simply find yourself in the position of many people worldwide. If the service you provide is so valuable then someone will provide it – maybe not in the same way as you do, maybe that person will have to have the resources or the obsession to support his or her own research, but it will be done. Knowing the course of obsession, I suspect your role will be fulfilled by someone even if the benefit to paying public does not justify the expense.

    The publishing houses are not only falling to the changes in the world, but they were a corrupt and distorted business long before ebooks were a reality. They have followed much the same path as the record companies (of whom I know rather more), caring nothing for customers or suppliers of their product yet reacting in fury when both abandon them.

    Given the business they are in, of course, it is a wonder that the executives of these companies did not anticipate this change. I read about it as a child, in Isaac Asimov’s short stories. This is but a symptom of the poverty of imagination of the traditional publishing industry that they had no plan to address this.

    I now read almost in paper books, despite the frustrations of an idiotic publishing industry willing to charge more for a copy of information which costs them nothing than for a physical product, wrapped and delivered to my home.

    Why would I when I can carry the nearly 400 books I have on my Kindle, most of them classics free to download or modern works costing far less than the offerings of the big publishers while paying the author far more? When I can have a Bible and books of Roman and Greek myths any time I wish to look up a cultural reference, at little or no cost? When I can download a sample chapter of any one of thousands of books?

    • Am amazed and humbled by your ability to divine someone’s motives, rationale, etc. even though you’ve never met them. Now THERE is something with marketable value!

      • Surely to impart your own thoughts, including but not limited to motive and rationale, is the intent of writing an opinion piece such as this. It is you who should take the credit, and I do not doubt the quality of your writing.

  25. Many thanks for all your comments. So much to think about.

    I do wish I possessed your ability to divine motive and thought process from someone you’ve never met and don’t know. That would come in so handy! (God knows, it’d make writing NF a lot easier…)

    And on that note, I’ll just repeat what I wrote in a follow-up blog entry:
    It’s worth noting the obvious (which is so obvious it’s being overlooked): The fact that I’ve not self-published does not mean that I’m OPPOSED to self-publishing. Not in the least. I’m all for it. I have reasons for not having done so myself, and every single day, I wrestle with those reasons, and ask myself if they’re enough to keep me tied to conventional publishing.

    • If you wish to divine the motive and thoughts of someone honest on a given subject you might try reading an 800-word essay by that person on that subject. I have found this always works if that person is able to write clearly.

      • ah, but it’s that last bit that’s the problem, eh? Those who do not write clearly are doomed to be misunderstood and/or unread.

  26. Pingback: I May Live To Regret This . . . « Maureen Ogle

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  28. I don’t quite understand how the economics works, especially without numbers, so I’ll do what I tend to do without numbers, I’ll make some up. (Enrico Fermi did this all the time, but he was a genius, so he would probably get the right answer.) If it takes you five years to write a book, what is your break even sales level? Is that five years full time? Let’s say you can live on the minimum wage, maybe $15,000 a year, so that’s $75,000 in living expenses. At $5 a book, that’s 15,000 copies. At some point in this you mentioned selling 18,000 copies of Ambitious Brew. So, my made up numbers might be in the right ballpark. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m only filling a vacuum.

    This still raises a lot of questions. For example, could you have gotten a better paying job, perhaps one at $20 an hour and made even more money for five years of labor?

    Another more relevant question is whether it still makes sense to fund books like this. I’m guessing – thank your Dr. Fermi – that your publisher earned $225,000 or so backing your book so that leaves $150,000 for other expenses and profit. I doubt they could make quite this much money selling your book for $10 per electronic copy, but they wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of the original print run. My guess is that they’d have to sell it for closer to $20, and that might be the deal breaker. By now I’m probably in some rugby field in Scotland and I’ve taken Dr. Fermi farther than I really should, so I’ll stop speculating. I’d love to see more numbers. Maybe the old model is broken, but there are an awful lot of models for selling books.

    • Gee I wish I’d sold 18,000 copies of Ambitious Brew. That would have been nice. Your second part is the more interesting: will publishers want to continue funding books like mine. Maybe not! In which case…. And I agree: if the old model is “broken,” there are others to explore.

      If I were a novelist, I’d definitely self-publish.But I’m not. So My question to myself is: given how long it takes to do the research I do (and please please please I beg of you don’t tell me I’m an elitist asshole with a sense of entitlement), am I ready to break away? I’ve been asking myself this question every. single. day for the past two years…but still don’t have an answer.

      Oh. Wait. Maybe I should write fiction instead. Because the kind I’d be interested in writing would require much in the way of research, so I could create a book MUCH faster than I do now.


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