Don’t think of publishers as gatekeepers

by Rich on March 19, 2011

Lately, I’ve immersed myself in the buzz around independent publishing, ebooks and the desire for some authors to shift away from big publishing. On the indie side, authors are breaking free from “the man”, going their own way, and some are doing very well. On the traditional publishing side, authors, agents and editors point out that with indie publishing, there’s no garbage filter, that publishers don’t just find authors and stories, they improve them, and that a huge amount of work goes into making a manuscript something worth printing (or downloading).

Both sides are right, as far as they take the discussion, but they’re both failing to put the difference between indie and self publishing in the right context. There’s a lot of talk of gatekeepers, quality control, marketing and distribution, dead trees and large vs. small royalties. All are fair points.

Nobody talks about risk management.

That’s the characteristic which unites all of the issues and differences. I’ll admit to being a bit biased here, since I do risk management for a living, but I think it gives me a different perspective than most people coming to the issue from the (aspiring) author’s side of the discussion.

Risk management, at its most basic, is finding the right balance between potential loss and potential reward. The most important thing to remember is that when evaluating risk, there’s no universal right answer to what an acceptable risk is. Potential returns or losses are often imprecise (what’s the personal value of being a published author? A best selling author?). In cases where they are precise – such as money gained or lost – the importance of that result varies depending on your goals. Seeing your name on a book may be more important that the possibility of losing money in the process. The perspective and priorities of each person or group making a decision influences risk evaluations.

Traditional publishers take an author’s manuscript and lead the author thorough revision cycles, multiple editing phases, produce cover art, market, distribute, and so on. All of those steps are time consuming and expensive. They don’t spend that time and money for fun – they spend it to make the book more likely to sell. Please note I didn’t say to make the book better or more successful. Those may be true, but they’re not important here. Publishing, especially traditional publishing, is a business and the goal is to earn money. Adding expensive effort to a book means they have to sell more to recover that investment. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t believe the return was worth the investment, i.e. the risk of net loss was lower with the investment than without it.

From an author’s perspective, the situation is different. Authors have a host of motivations which may include return on investment, but include many intangibles, too. I’m going to over-simplify and put them into three categories:

I Want To Make Money With My Books: Authors going the traditional publishing route are highly insulated from financial risk. They need to do the work of writing, and there are certainly no financial guarantees in that work. But the work of writing happens in all scenarios, so it doesn’t change the risk assessment.

Authors bear no direct cost from the traditional publishing process (“Money flows from publishers to authors, never the other way”, is the standard shorthand to identify publishing scams). So, traditional publishers reduce an author’s financial risk.

I Want To See My Name In Print: Here, the revenue goals of traditional publishers increase the risk of an author failing to meet this goal. The world has a lot more manuscripts than it has good manuscripts, and a publisher is much less likely to be financially successful with a bad one. This goal is most of what gives rise to authors’ perception of publishers as gatekeepers. With respect to this goal, that perspective is well founded.

I Want Lots Of People To Read My Books: Quality control/ improvement efforts from traditional publishers and marketing and distribution capabilities insulate authors from financial and outright failure risks here. When all independent publishing was through a vanity press, authors would be left with no money and a garage full of thousands of books they had no practical way to sell.

Leaving aside the question of the final product’s quality for now, the risk difference in indie publishing is clear.

An author’s risk of failing in the “see my name in print” goal moves to zero.

The likelihood of and author losing money was already zero in traditional publishing. It can be low for indies as well, but the likelihood of actually making money is probably lower as well. There are no advances paid in indie publishing and the great majority of indie published books sell many fewer copies than the great majority of traditionally published books.

I freely admit that this is a very contentious area, though. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristin Kathryn Rusch are must-reads on this topic. They do the actual math. They don’t go so far (correctly) as to tell you that indie publishing will be successful, but they do show you exactly what you have to do to make the finances work. They also highlight financial opportunities that simply don’t exist in traditional publishing for all but the most successful authors. I also suggest following Joanna Penn, who pulls together the best indie publishing articles on a daily basis.

The risk of failure at “having lots of people read my book” is higher in indie publishing. Exceptions like Amanda Hocking are both wonderful and important, but even she acknowledges that she’s a very unusual case. Traditionally published books sell more copies than indie published books. Individual titles may differ, but on the whole, this is true.

Evaluating this risk is more complicated, though, as it’s weighed against the “see my name in print” goal. Most authors want both, but you can’t be widely read until you’re published. In the traditional world, most authors won’t be published. The importance of these two goals varies among all authors, but I think it’s safe to say that being published is a prerequisite to being widely read. So, I’ll give the risk reduction edge to traditional publishing. By the time you’re published, you’re more likely to be widely read with a traditional publisher than as an indie.

Following the traditional publishing route, then, increases an author’s risk of failing to get published at all, but reduces financial risk and risk of not being read.

Expense and being widely read are clearly connected, as product quality can be improved through editing, art work, etc. Sales are improved through marketing. So the more important it is to an author to be widely read, the more a traditional publisher insulates the author from financial loss, as an indie author has to pay for those services.

Most often the traditional vs. indie discussion is in terms of quality, income, freedom. Those are the right issues. Without putting it in terms of risk management and the differences between an author’s risks and a traditional publisher’s, it’s much harder to see where the benefits and pitfalls of the different approaches lie.

It’s also harder to understand the fundamental implication of indie books: The author is the publisher, so the author has all of the risks. That’s not necessarily bad, but you ignore it at your peril.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll dig deeper into publisher vs. author goals, talk about how technology is changing roles, and what that does to the risk analysis.



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