“publishers will have to survive on so-called mid-list books”

Norman Spinrad has some very interesting speculation about the future of publishing. “Interesting” because he actually seems to be reasoning fairly closely about it, and about different authors’ niches in what’s to come, and deriving conclusions at variance to what I tend to hear. I think this is the nut:

Let’s say you’re a major best-selling author on the Steven King or Danielle Steele level. You’ve just finished a new novel without a contract because you’re rich enough not be need an advance to finance the writing of it, but you’re greedy enough to want to make as much off it as you can. Who isn’t?

Let’s say that it’s far enough in the near future so that ebooks are roughly half the book market. Let’s say that a hardcover would go for $30 and an ebook for $10. Let’s say you took a big advance from a publisher at the cost of agreeing to that 25% of ebook sales. To make the calculation simple, let’s say the novel sells a million hardcovers and a million downloads. At 15% of $30, you make $4.5 million on the hardcover. At 25%$ of $10, you make $2.5 million off the ebooks. Total take $7 million.

But what if you sidestep the traditional publishing industry and self-publish for $10 an ebook at 70%? That’s $7 million on a million ebook sales alone. And you still own the paper publishing rights. Can you not then make a deal for those volume rights alone with a publisher for a lower advance or even no advance and still come out way ahead?

The top ten or twenty best-selling authors won’t need publishers. They can hire a computer geek to do the setting up for a grand or two and another grand or two for the online “cover art” and that’s it. They’re already brand names, and in the ebook age, national net pr would be relatively cheap and easy to buy from hired guns.

Advances? Who needs your stinkin’ advances, Random House and Simon & Schuster?

The answer, of course, is most everyone else…

This is backwards from the way most people I’ve encountered are thinking about it — the CW in my field of view, for the little it’s worth, is that the big authors will stick with the publishers because it works for them, and the little people will write on spec, self-publish, and occasionally make it big. Spinrad’s analysis is nice because he’s considered the economic incentives of the giant authors, which (by his numbers) are considerable, and assumed that the little people want to be working writers, not flailing amateurs. (He’s also articulated a role for e-publishing in the context of the sub-mid-list, books that earn reliably but slowly; read the essay for that.)

It’ll be interesting to see how the incentives play out with the best-sellers. I’ve definitely heard big-name authors gush with gratitude about their publishers, so Spinrad’s take on the economic incentives may be eccentric; on the flip side, I haven’t actually seen a big-name author seriously try to monetize a soup-to-nuts self-published ebook. If Neil Gaiman or Stephenie Meyer or someone does this and makes out like a bandit, that could have serious ripple effects. But publishers might adapt rather than turning to the midlist. Spinrad seems quite confident that publishers have nothing to offer a best-selling author. He may be right; the author’s reputation is presumably his or her biggest asset, and no publisher owns it. Yet, anyway. Publishing companies might respond by tightening the terms of deals for promising lower-tier authors, the ones who have an incentive not to self-publish on his model. I’m not sure how tight, and how far into the future, those deals could extend and still be legal. But it seems like the sketch of an alternative approach.

More later, maybe.

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