I want all authors to stand up for each other, ask for better pay, fairer terms, saner contracts. This only works if writers of all stripes get together and do what the screenwriters were able to do when Hollywood digitized. That should be our model. — Hugh Howey, author, Wool, Shift, Dust, Sand, Peace in Amber
Are you a reader of books? Are you a writer of them?
Are you a publisher of books? Are you an agent, who finds good authors and sells their manuscripts to that publisher? Or are you an editor who takes that material at the publishing house and mines it for the author’s best intents? Maybe you’re the cover designer who creates a visual metaphor for the story.
Where do you stand? It will affect how the digital disruption sounds to you.
Because of all things, the digital dynamic in publishing means that for the first time in history we’re starting to hear the collective voice of our authors unfiltered by publishing houses.
One Divine Disruption
I stand for the ability of those who choose to write for a living to have the best opportunities possible. It’s a narrow focus, but it’s one I’m passionate about. I’ve been passionate about this for longer than I’ve been writing. It goes back to my book review and bookstore employee days. As a reader who loved stories, I cared for those who created them. Now that I’m on the other side and have become friends with storytellers, this cause is strengthened. And the more I learn about the abuses authors suffer, the more I want to speak out.
That’s more from author Hugh Howey, in an essay, Bread and Roses.
Depending on your position in our culture’s most extravagant treasure—our writings, our use of language, literature—those comments may sound inflammatory or nurturing; bold or cowardly; wise or naïve.
The contradictory nature of their reception darkly mirrors the whiplash confusions of the digital disruption in publishing today.
To a traditional publisher, digital can appear to be giving away the farm. It’s making it possible for authors to publish and sell all by themselves; to reach right out and contact readers; to build community around their work; and to keep most of the money their books bring in, instead of handing over the cash to the publishers.
As crazy as this sounds, many publishers don’t know their own books’ readers. Until very recently, the “customer” to a publisher was the buyer of books at a chain of bookstores, or the distributor who would broker those books to the shops.
And digital for authors? Self-publishing is hard work and comes without the distribution leverage and prestige of the big houses. Many authors would prefer having a traditional contract. But those who take their manuscripts into their own hands talk of the control they have over their output. And access: after they publish their own books and track their own sales and collect their own revenues, they then can basically pick up the phone of social media and call their own readers. Howey speaks of self-publishing writers being “maniacally focused” on readers. They are close to the customer in ways never imagined by old publishing regimes.
No wonder publishers feel suddenly sidelined and frequently blamed for what many self-publishing authors complain are standard industry practices: paying authors too little; providing them with next to no details about their sales; locking down their rights for punishingly long periods of time; treating authors, in some instances, as talented airheads.
Overexposure: In the Eye of Which Beholder?
Many in publishing today like to call the author Hugh Howey “overexposed.” And, as is usually the case when you hear this about a newsmaker, it means his messages are hitting home. For all the fine writers we have working today, we have not, until now, had one who had the time, the temperament, the visibility, and the stamina to articulate with real force the author’s experience of the digital dynamic. This is a firebrand, a smart one.
To his detractors’ frustration, Howey’s own case is as complex as the digital dynamic’s many effects on publishing itself.
For someone usually seen as a self-publishing icon, Howey has a lot of traditional contracts. More than 30. He just signed a big one for his new novel with the biggest of all publishers, Random House, its UK division, for publication of his novel Sand in both print and ebook editions. The message?—today’s author need not be one thing or another. You do what’s best for each book in each country and each readership.
Howey says that standard industry surveys are scaring off authors from considering self-publishing. And so he has mounted his own data-scraping analysis of online ebook sales and rankings—AuthorEarnings.com—in an effort to demonstrate that financial success may be as much in reach for self-publishers as it is for traditionally published authors. In the initial AuthorEarnings report, he writes:
Our fear is that authors are selling themselves short and making poor decisions based on poor data. That is the main purpose for fighting for earnings transparency: helping aspiring writers choose the path that’s best for them.
Actual sales data? Not available. The great retailers (not just Amazon) keep it private. That’s why the term data suffers a little overexposure of its own these days in publishing. They can’t stop talking about how badly they need it.
- The people of the publishing world actually do not know how many books there are on the market today.
- They do not know how many people are publishing their own books.
- They do not know how many sales are being made in the book market.
Anytime you hear “so-and-so million books were published last year,” you’re hearing a guess, an estimate. No one has those numbers.
This is an industry that has lost control of its own market. And it turns out, that was exactly the chance the authors needed to start talking.
Finding Their Voices
Far from being alone in all this, Howey is simply the most visibly consistent and eloquent of a widening class of entrepreneurial authors.
He’s joined, for example, by Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, Stephanie Bond, Candice Hern, Liliana Hart, and Jasinda Wilder next month at the London Book Fair. They’ll be sharing an “Indies Bestseller” booth at Earls Court.
Together, those seven entrepreneurial authors have sold more than 15 million ebooks.
Some representatives (not all) of the industry! the industry!—that part of the publishing world that still worries more about the business than the books—will continue to chant that self-publishing is an insignificant part of the marketplace. (Not that they have the actual data to be sure of that.)
Some of them (not all) will commend Howey on his fiction and condemn his efforts at nonfiction each time he tries to address a corporate world they claim he doesn’t understand.
More of them (not all) will listen a bit more carefully.
Because one of the most interesting effects of the rising voice of the author, amid the digital dynamic’s techno-twists and -turns, is that everyone, top to bottom, side to side, must reassess why he or she got into publishing and books in the first place.
When the digital dynamic rolled over the news industry—and flattened what once was the richness of American journalism into infotainment—each journalist had to ask him- or herself whether, if starting out all over again, the new media would be something they’d want to go into?
Now, it’s publishing’s turn. What once were “citizen journalists” in newsrooms are self-publishing authors in bookstores. Digital has unlocked the door and amateur authors, aspirational writers, are stampeding the marketplace. We’re awash in the early-stage celebration of your mother’s memoir and your dad’s lawnmower-repair book.
Each time a publishing worker gets quiet and thinks it through—is this what I want to be doing now?—the answer is going to arrive in a voice that sounds a lot like an author. The volume of the creative corps is rising, with typos, awful covers and occasional masterpieces as syncopation.
Just as we might hope it would, that authorial voice, as Howey is diligently, obsessively, painstakingly delivering it, arrives in tones of diplomacy and grace frequently missed by those who feel threatened. In More Pie, Please, he writes:
There’s no war here. There’s nothing to fight over…When we in the publishing business come at each other with trust, love, and respect, I believe we will find there’s plenty of pie to go around. Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high.
Those aren’t fighting words. They’re much more promising.
And the authors are waiting for us to answer them.