The Next Indie Revolution?

In life, certain things have a way of happening just at the right time. This week’s book publishing news was no exception. I have two quotes below from two senior principles from very diverse areas of the book publishing world, who in their own right believe they are making a difference. Here are the quotes. Follow the theme.

Quote One:

“We regard ourselves as independent in the sense of independence of third-party corporate ownership and feel at home with the other members.”

Quote Two:

“Now, through indie book publishing companies like AuthorHouse and iUniverse, authors can let the readers decide if their book is any good or not.”

The first quote is from Nigel Newton, CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing, talking about their newly acquired membership of the Independent Publishers Guild in England. Newton worked for a number of publishers during his career, and went on to start Bloomsbury Publishing in 1986. The company went on to great successes and was floated on the stock market in 1996. They have over 12,000 titles listed on Amazon, including J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.

The second quote is by Keith Ogorek, Vice President of Marketing at Author Solutions, an author solution service company for self-publishing authors. They own AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Wordclay and Xlibris. They have 50,000 titles listed on Amazon and over the past twelve years have published 100,000 titles and 70,000 independent authors.

I would like to look at Keith’s article, ‘The Next Indie Revolution’ (PDF), in a little more detail and discuss the observations and points he makes.

I have worked in music management and promotion during the 1990’s and I have touched upon my frustrations as to the way self-publishing seems to still have a stigma, while the self- production model which bands and artists have pursued in music has long been accepted. Keith Ogorek in his ‘Indie Revolution’ article makes some distinct similarities between what has already happened in the music industry and the changes happening now in the publishing world. I have no actual problem with Keith’s general comparisons in his article, but rather some of the conclusions and assertions he reaches.

Let me continue to quote from his article.

“That success led to other mainstream indie hits, including 1997’s ‘Chasing Amy’ and 1999’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’, and the independent film became as much a part of our entertainment culture as Warner Brothers or MGM.”

The assertion begins throughout this article of how author solution companies are following in the footsteps of the great independent film industry. What Keith does not point out is that the above films would never have been made without the considerable backing of private investors outside of the major studios which amounted to very considerable financial backing. He does not point out that his own ‘indie’ author solution companies offer services which are paid entirely by their authors, that is, author, singular, not authors. What he also does not point out is that any independent film would never have seen the light of day without guaranteed international distribution deals in place. Xlibris, iUniverse and AuthorHouse, effectively, if they were ‘indie’ film makers, would make the film available on a reel of film but have few deals in place that had someone sell and distribute that reel of film to every cinema house worldwide, big as well as small. It’s a late Saturday night movie without the beer and popcorn. It’s Warner Brothers without the ‘Warner’.

“The music industry has followed a similar path. Bands once dependent on major labels to produce their work now employ new technology to make their own music, and ultilize the Web and social media sites to promote and develop a following.”

New technology in publishing through Print-On-Demand has made publishing more affordable and accessible for the average author, but authors always had the option of self-publishing, albeit previously having to use many unscrupulous vanity publishers. The technology has created more self-published authors because the reduced investment has introduced a larger pool of authors who otherwise would have considered publishing a book as something entirely and financially out of their reach.  The bands most successful with the ‘indie’ music approach, as Keith describes it, are from the traditional field of music; artists like Radiohead, Wilco and Barenaked Ladies. When James Patterson, J. K. Rowling and Jodi Picoult start getting into ‘indie,’ I’ll give you a call Keith, and we can ‘network.’

Just for the record, Keith, as well, ‘indie’ in music actually refers to a music genre, rather than anything to do with some kind of ‘business model’. It came about during the 1980’s, about when Nigel Newton was ‘getting down’ and setting up Bloomsbury, and it refers to music labels like Rough Trade, Factory Records, 4AD; music labels held with a great deal of respect who were investing their own money in artists and bands to produce a genre of music entirely different than what was being produced by mainstream record companies.

“The time for indie book publishing is now.”

Really, Keith? Well, let’s get on the dance floor, eh? There is nothing ‘cool’, ‘indie’, ‘hip’ about selling book publishing dreams or presenting a ‘business model of independent publishing’ to a naive author as some kind of bona fide publishing plan for their book.

“For most, this system [traditional publishing] resulted in stacks of rejection letters and never reaching their goal of becoming a published author.”

The ‘goal’ of most serious authors is to hone their craft and become successful, respected, well read, and not just to ‘publish.’ Nowadays, anyone for nothing (Lulu) or a small fee can be ‘published.’ The real work for an author only just begins when a book sees the light of day.

“…less than one in twenty manuscripts actually gets published, which is why this system [traditional publishing] is so frustrating for writers seeking to become authors.”

One in twenty? Try one in a thousand and you will be closer to the truth.

“And what about discovering new talent? How does that happen?”

Eh…same way it always did, Keith. By perseverance, hard work; not by ease of publication. That can never be the answer, and least of all by any author solution service that cannot provide physical shelf space as well as on line availability.

“Let the reader decide.”

Sure, but they have to know a book exists first. Getting it on to a wholesaler or retailers database is fine for the booksellers, but they are not the readers. So we are back to the core of what separates many author solution companies from traditional publishers. Traditional publishers have distributors, that is, dedicated companies with trained and skilled sales representatives who know how to sell books direct to retailers.

“Over the last decade, as new technologies have emerged, the obstacles that once loomed in front of perspective authors have all but vanished.”

How have they vanished, Keith? Print-On-Demand is a print technology; it does not put books on store shelves or scream at the top of its voice or give reviews or critiques of books. Having an on line presence for a book may open the viable network, but ultimately someone has still got to do something.

“Supported self-publishing is not the same as vanity publishing.”

Please, not another label Keith for self-publishing. We already have POD Publishing, Self-Publishing, Vanity Publishing, Subsidy Publishing, and Partnership Publishing, now, it is Supported Self-Publishing; I’m worn out with all these tag lines! Hang on; I thought we were doing ‘indie’ publishing…

“Authors have two options when choosing indie book publishing.”

Keith goes on to explain that these are a vanity publisher or an author solution service like AuthorHouse or iUniverse.

In my experience, no author goes out to choose a vanity publisher.  Actually, there are three options. The author can approach a mid-range publisher like Bloomsbury, a smaller independent publisher (pursuing a traditional contract), or they can self-publish. And in self-publishing, they can undertake everything themselves, or choose to go with an author solutions company (which they need to ensure is not a vanity publisher); be it AuthorHouse, Lulu, Mill City, Infinity, or whoever.

“True, an author has to make an investment in getting his or her book to the market, but for many, the cost is around a thousand dollars. However, with that investment, authors are assured their book will be in the market, and if the book is any good, they will start to recoup their losses pretty quickly.”

The reality is for many author solution companies; all the author is getting is a book set-up with a printer and on line availability. OK Keith, let’s see how much marketing you get with a thousand dollars with AuthorHouse, iUniverse  and Xlibris for your next book. Looking at the author royalties from these companies, even at $2 per book, the author would have to sell 500 copies to break even. The vast majority of self-publishing titles through these publishers rarely make above a hundred copies sold.

“The reality is today, even if your name is Clancy or Rowling, you will do your own marketing.”

Yes, the authors will be part of the marketing strategy and presence, but they are not marketing their books alone. There are considerable budgets made available for authors like Mr Clancy and Ms Rowling. Not traditional publisher is going to take on an author’s book, whether they are new or previously published, spend several thousand on editing, proofing, design, layout without investing a similar amount of money in marketing that book.

“Readers and book buyers get a vote now equal to the acquisitions editors of major publishing houses.”

Yes, but most readers would like to know that the book they have purchased has passed before the editor eyes as well as his big red pen.

To be fair, there is a lot that Kevin Ogorek has got right in this article about the changes in publishing. Author Solutions need to address those changes. Instead of thinking about their next author solution acquisition, they need to focus on what separates them from the traditional model of publishing and not what separates them from it. If Author Solutions want to show that they understand the changes in the publishing industry, then they should try acquiring some bookstore real estate, or perhaps buying some Espresso Book Machines and leasing them out to bookstores. Now there is an idea, Keith.

  • Mick, I think this is unnecessarily cynical about the prospects for self-publishing. Obviously, he has a profit motive to talk up the potential for subsidy publishing, but at core he’s right. The comparison isn’t self-publishing vs. putting out a record through a label like 4AD – the comparison is bands that have gotten successful without an indie label, via Myspace, online promotion, and playing shows. It’s much easier to put out a record through a label like Sub Pop or Matador, just as it’s easier to put out a book through Soft Skull or Akashic, but those aren’t the only avenues.

    Trouble is writers can’t sell out a rock club the way an unsigned band can. And as I wrote earlier here, it takes all of two minutes to listen to a song, as opposed to investing real time in reading a book. So all told, it’s much harder to become a grass roots success as a writer than it is as a band. But the potential is now there for self-publishing to at least lose the stigma that it’s had and be considered a legitimate form of independent publishing, rather than pathetic fall-back plan, or populated by only sub-par writing. So really, it’s an exciting time to be part of this “movement,” so I don’t think he’s totally off base, even if what he’s writing amounts to a long commercial for his services.

  • Henry,

    I did think after consider after writing this article that I might have been unduely hard or cynical. I did say that Keith got a lot right in this article about where self publishing is and the many positive things that have happened for authors.

    My greatest criticsm is not so much what he says, though I don’t entirely agree with all of it, but rather the medium and channel he choose to do it. As the leading author solutions company, there is a responsibility to be at the forefront of the change Keith speaks about. To do that, you have to be the one to offer self publishing authors the best deal, the best terms and conditions, and the best avenue to self publication. I don’t happen to believe Author Solutions do that.


  • scottnicholson

    You don’t need to pay anyone anything. Upload your ebook to Amazon and Smashwords.

    Scott Nicholson

  • Wow.

    Generally, Mick, while some comparisons to other arts industries are not exactly apt, you are right on the money. Most publishing “facilitators” are after a cynical buck any way they can mint it. And the bulk of authors who get sucked in–good writers of good books included–simply do not comprehend the economics of publishing. There is absolutely no correlation between writing ability and business acumen, if that’s the only variable at work here.

    If people invested in the stock market the way they published their own books . . . oh, they do. No research, you say? Asking a friend where his money is invested is not the same as research? Being lulled by the Xlibris prospectus is not the same as research? Following what you are told is common wisdom is not the same as research? Then where is that dang holy grail?

    Until you really know the industry and understand exactly what motivates its response to technological change (which is random!), you cannot, except by luck, effectively and reliably harness the change to your own benefit. I believe this central truth motivates Mick’s understanding of the problem, harsh and cynical though it might seem to the flailing followers of Xlibris-like schemes.

  • Thanks, Eric.

    I have always been an advocate of an author pursuing the so-called ‘traditional route’ first. That way, they begin to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the publishing business as it stands. Without that experience, they can’t hope to apply what they learn and make self-publishing work as it truly should.

    What we are seeing is the divergence of two publishing models.

    Self-publishers can make a success of their books – real entrepreneurs, but at some point, their self-publishing model doesn’t have the legs nor speed of internal investment to create enough turnaround to cope and compete at the sharp end of the trade. What happens? Slowly, but surely, rights get sold off in various territories until finally it shifts ‘on mass’ to the mainstream machine. William P. Young’s, The Shack, is a perfect example of a self-published book currently in transition to being entirely published mainstream over the next year or so. It is one of the fundamental reasons why the likes of King, Patterson, Rowling and Picoult don’t move to self-publishing–though many top authors are looking at taking control of their ebook catalogue. But this is only because they have been working under publishing contracts for years which did not fully take account of, and appreciate, the impact and growth of ebooks.

  • The matter of no ebook clauses in old contracts is exactly how I came to being able to publish as many of my own titles as I have in ebook formats. And I am publishing ebook editions of out-of-print titles for friends in the trade under the same happy circumstance. On the other hand, I am trapped in erights clauses on all the books I did with traditional publishers since around 2006. (All but one are pictorials that cannot be published as ebooks. Yet. But I went in with my eyes open and received, in aggregate, quite a bunch of cash.)

    I have often wondered why Clancy, King, Rowley and others like them don’t simply buy or create their own publishing ventures on a scale worthy of their income from writing.

    But all this is beside the point for most SPR folks. The only real solution is education and the formation of a panel of reliable freelancers to allow them to truly self-publish rather than get screwed in subsidy publishing scams.