We Don’t Know Jack

Traditional publishing (aka Big Publishing, Legacy Publishing, etc) is in decline, probably on its way out entirely, or at the very least, doomed to become a niche market like vinly records.   You only have to look at the success of independent e-publishers like Amanda Hocking to see that. They’re dinosaurs and their business model is bad for writers. The only sane thing to do is e-publish.


Amanda Hocking, the darling of the self-publishing world, has been shopping a four-book series to major publishers, attracting bids of well over $1 million for world English rights, two publishing executives said.

People who think they’re going to duplicate the sucess of outliers like Hocking and J.A. Konrath are fooling themselves.  Traditional/Big/Legacy publishing may have its problems, but it can still do things that self-publishing can’t. The only sane thing to do is try to find a traditional publisher and let  them handle the whole package, including e-books.


 In a recent interview, novelist Barry Eisler said he turned down a $500,000 book deal and decided to self-publish his work.

The revelation came in a 13,000-word interview with novelist Joe Konrath. Eisler last published with Ballantine Books, but his self-publishing experiment began with “The Lost Coast,” a $2.99 short story. Konrath quipped: ‘Barry Eisler Walks Away From $500,000 Deal to Self-Pub’ is going to be one for the Twitter Hall of Fame.”

So who’s crazy? The young woman who’s had enormous success with electronic self-publishing who’s now seeking to publish with a “Big 6” house, or the NYT bestseller who’s decided to forsake the comfortable traditional route and light out for the digital frontier on his own?

Damned if I know. Right now there are an awful lot of self-proclaimed “experts” telling us with complete confidence how the publishing business is going to go and where we’ll be in the next ten years. But, you know, “experts” in publishing  have been confidently predicting what the public wants for decades. Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM got turned down by a publisher because “it is impossible to sell talking-animal stories in America.” Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was told his first book was  “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” And so on.

Meanwhile, remember John Twelve Hawks? He was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. THE TRAVELER was supposed to be the next DA VINCI CODE. Heard much about him lately? Me neither.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote here about a panel of industry experts who’d frustrated a conference audience because, in the words of a commenter who was there, “there wasn’t an ounce of new think going on.” In that piece, I  quoted one of my favorite thinkers on New Media, Dr. Clay Shirky of NYU:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing.

Two years down the road, and while there are any number of opinions delivered with complete assurance, I can’t say that we’re any closer to really knowing any of the answers. We don’t know for sure what big changes are going to stall, or which small changes are going to spread. People are going every which way, and no one knows if Eisler or Hocking has made the smarter decision…or if, indeed, one can be said to be smarter than the other.

There is this to consider, though: in the end, decisions about what’s going to sell are always made by the buyers, the readers, not by the so-called experts. Decisions on what works are made from the ground up,  not the top down, no matter how we may convince ourselves otherwise. 

So, ‘Rati: seeing as how we’re all experts, and all fools, tell us: who’s crazier, Eisler or Hocking? Are they both crazy like foxes? Look into your crystal spheres, cast the bones,  and tell us: what’s the future hold? Not what you want it to be…what’s it going to be?

Lay some prophecy on me, brothers and sisters.

35 thoughts on “We Don’t Know Jack

  1. Chuck

    By the year 2012, all books will cost $0.14 to purchase.

    Kindles will be given free at your local grocery stores. Dogs will have them.

    A cabal of neo-anarchist self-publishers will give Stephen King $14 billion to self-publish his book, HELGA'S WISH. He will turn them down and choose instead to publish the novel for five-hundred bucks with Wal-Mart Publishing, Inc.

    Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler will battle in the city square with halberds. Laser halberds. Each a champion for their respective camps.

    Print books will be made extinct. The last print book to reach shelves will be a self-help book about an eating disorder nobody has. They will make it into a movie.

    E-books will gain sentience and join together in a hive-mind of e-book bots. Like SkyNet, but way more literate.

    And stuff.

    — Chuck

  2. Fran Friel

    I think Chuck is onto something…and stuff. But what about Snooki? (Did I spell that right? I shall ask my ebook bot.)

    Clueless But Hopeful,

  3. KarinNH

    No prophecies from me! When I think about the publishing world today, I am reminded of the saying "May you live in interesting times." The book world is in interesting times for sure.

    But it seems like both Hocking and Eisler are able to do what they are because they already have an audience. One that they are predicting will move with them no matter what method of publishing they choose.

  4. Jack W Perry

    Excellent thought-provoking post. I believe the lines between 'traditional' and 'self' publishing are blurring. Maybe authors jump from one to the other? I understand why Eisler left SMP. His sales via a traditional publisher were declining and with that his marketing support etc. It probably was the smart move and to take control over his work.

    On the other hand, Amanda Hocking has never been published by a traditional house so it makes sense for her to try the experience. She is an author who's sales are increasing and will get a lot of Marketing support from her publisher. So, it is probably a smart move for her too.

    Plus, no matter how independent, $1,000,000 is hard to say no to.

  5. Karen in Ohio

    Three weeks ago I bought a color Nook. I'm obsessed with the thing, but am still also reading "real" books.

    A couple of observations:

    – On the plane, electronic devices are not allowed until several minutes into a flight. This was a problem on my recent return flight, when I had already read the magazine cover to cover.

    – A lot of ebooks are still priced way too high, and I refuse to pay $14 for one. Sorry, it's just crazy to price an electronic document the way you would a trade paperback.

    – The "sharing" feature is an okay selling point, but it requires one to know of others who have the same device.

    – The color version of the Nook is awesome, from a reading standpoint, even in bright sunlight. I was in Arizona, and reading outside was easy to do, and when my roommate wanted to turn out the lights to sleep I could still read for a few more minutes without disturbing her.

    – Since virtually every book now being published is available in electronic format, publishers are cutting their own throats by lambasting said format. Instead, they should be embracing it.

    – Barnes & Noble brilliantly made instant downloads available in-store. And one-hour reading of any book in the store that comes in electronic format. Walking through the store I spotted a new title from a long-loved author, and I could read a sample in the store, to make sure I did not already have that title. Love this.

    – EBooks will only help. It's futile to resist.

  6. Karen in Ohio

    PS One of the ebooks I purchased first was a collection of short stories by JA Konrath. I'd been reading his blog, and seeing his name everywhere, but had never read any of his fiction. At $2.99 it was a great way to see if I want to invest in the rest of his work.

    I do.

  7. TerriMolina

    I think Amanda Hocking feels that in order to be thought of as a "real author" she'll need a traditional publisher and a real live book in her hand. Electronic authors tend to get that same polite smile/pat on the head/"that's nice dear" attitude that romance writers get….in other words not as much respect.

    IMO, Barry's decision to step away from traditional publishing into self-publishing is shooting the newbie writer in the foot. He has a following. He doesn't need to hustle and schmooze or sleep with the right people to get his books into reader's hands (not that I'd do that…hah). Barry says he wants to take control of his career, that it's not about the money…but again….what newly published author really wants to handle all the ins and outs that come with publishing and marketing and PR and blah blah blah??? And again….with no books to sign, does that mean Barry will stop his tours? Personally I like to go look at him….I mean….meet him in person <g>….as well as many of the authors I read.

    Personally, I'll never stop buying books and I doubt I'll ever own an e-reader of any sort. Print books will never become obsolete….they might slow down in sales (like vinyl records) but like vinyl records, they'll become 'retro' and everyone under 25 is going to start collecting them, while I'll have my own museum. haha

  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    Here's a list of people epublishing who are making tons of money at it, along with there monthly sales so far.

    Blake Crouch – 2500+
    Nathan Lowell – 2500+
    Beth Orsoff – 2500+
    Sandra Edwards – 2500+
    Vianka Van Bokkem – 2500+
    Maria Hooley – 2500+
    C.S. Marks – 2500+
    Lee Goldberg – 2500+
    Lexi Revellian – 4000+
    Zoe Winters – 4000+
    Aaron Patterson – 4000+
    Bella Andre – 5000+
    Imogen Rose – 5000+
    Ellen Fisher – 5000+
    Tina Folsom – 5000+
    Terri Reid – 5000+
    David Dalglish – 5000+
    Scott Nicholson – 10,000+
    J.A. Konrath 10,000+
    Victorine Lieske – 10,000+
    L.J. Sellers – 10,000+
    Michael R. Sullivan – 10,000+
    H.P. Mallory – 20,000+
    Selena Kitt – 20,000+
    Stephen Leather – 40,000+
    Amanda Hocking – 100,000+

    I've heard of maybe five of these people. Most of them have never had a traditional pub deal. Yet people are buying their books. In some cases enough books for them to quit their day jobs and make a decent living. And I have to think that's because THEY'RE WRITING GOOD BOOKS. Or, at the very least, ENTERTAINING BOOKS.

    I think this is the future. THAT said, I also think it's wise to keep a foot in both camps. I have traditional pub deals and am glad I do. That won't keep me from experimenting in ebooks, however.

    The bottom line, as William Goldman said, Nobody knows anything.

  9. Cathy

    My crystal ball hasn’t had enough caffeine yet this morning, but maybe the question should be, what’s going to happen with mysteries? When you buy a traditionally published mystery in an e-format, does it feel like, We’re covering all our bases by offering it? Especially with the price point?

    Romance (and, hint, it ain’t ‘cause of the covers, those are some voracious readers and they like to carry around a dozen books at any given time), paranormal, urban fantasy, YA – they’re already there. Most of the e-presses and small presses appear to be heavily oriented to those genres.

    Will mystery readers – and writers – cross the aisle? I think there will be more material available through those outlets (small presses/self publishing) as writers watch their friends – pubbed and previously unpubbed – build a following of whatever size, while they beat their heads against the tougher and tougher barriers to NY publishers.

    The other thing to consider is – brace yourself – I’m pretty sure none of you are under thirty. My kids are in their twenties. They have e-readers. All of their friends have e-readers. They gave me one for my birthday. Karen covered my feelings about the color Nook very well. Only thing I can add is I moved all the e-books off my computer (that whole buy-your-friends-books thing) where they were never going to be read. I’m part way through one and it’s lovely.

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    Also, Jack Perry mentioned that Eisler left SMP partly because of declining sales. I don't know what Eisler's sales are, but I doubt SMP would offer him a half a mil advance if his sales were declining too much.

    I think he explains exactly why he walked away in the interview. Is he crazy? Who knows. I know I wouldn't have walked away from that kind of pay-off. But I'm not Barry. Maybe he's convinced he can do better self-publishing. And maybe he's right.

  11. Karen in Ohio

    For what it's worth, Kathy, I'm 59, and none of my three daughters have e-readers. My oldest got an iPad for Christmas, but doesn't read on it, and my youngest has a netbook, and also does not read on hers.

    I bought a netbook with the intention of reading e-books on it, along with the other uses, but I found it too unwieldy. The Nook is great because I can also use the Web on it, if there is a usable Wi-Fi connection nearby. And I have also moved all my e-books onto my Nook.

  12. Grace

    I'm not sure where I stand on e-books vs. traditional publishing but as one who is currently going through the submission phase to agents, I can understand how writers become frustrated and go for self-publishing. What confusing times we live in.

  13. Louise Ure

    While I'm going to follow the Konrath/Hocking/Eisler story with interest, I know in my heart of hearts that I'm too lazy to do all the work that self-publishing requires.

  14. JD Rhoades

    "Maybe authors jump from one to the other? "

    Jack, I think that's where we're headed. And hopefully, the pressure of competition will finally move traditional publishing away from some outdated practices. I haven't seen much of it yet, but I still have hope.

    "- A lot of ebooks are still priced way too high, and I refuse to pay $14 for one. Sorry, it's just crazy to price an electronic document the way you would a trade paperback."

    I agree, and the unspoken justification is to keep e-books from "cannibalizing' print sales. But it doesn't work. That's already happening. My e-books of course, are quite reasonably priced :-).

  15. JD Rhoades

    " He doesn't need to hustle and schmooze or sleep with the right people to get his books into reader's hands (not that I'd do that…hah). "

    Well, I would. Who do I need to sleep with?

  16. JD Rhoades

    "Also, Jack Perry mentioned that Eisler left SMP partly because of declining sales. I don't know what Eisler's sales are, but I doubt SMP would offer him a half a mil advance if his sales were declining too much."

    I'd heard through another blog that it wasn't the money so much but, and I quote: "commercial publishers are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with (and downright inept) on many contracting terms other than the financial ones. All I had to do was see who — both as "what imprint" and "which conglomerate" — made that rejected offer to know what some of those difficulties are." http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/2011/03/b322x.html

    Not sure EXACTLY what that means, but I have some idea.

  17. Alafair Burke

    JD et al., More power to you on this subject, but I am boycotting the topic, so have to confess I did not read past the first couple of sentences. That may make me craziest of all, but I don't think anyone can anticipate what is going to happen or how writers will be affected. I write because I love it, and because in some ways I'm compelled to. If I wanted to think about money and business models and "pushing units," I'd go into an industry where there's much more money to be made than publishing.

  18. Mark Terry

    I've talked about this on my own blog and elsewhere ad nauseum, so I won't follow up here except to say "I dunno." I would like to throw a line out regarding Barry and his supposed "declining sales," which I've seen cited in many places but never specifically linked to anything.

    IF it's true (and I have no idea of knowing if it is), I would point out that Barry's last two novels were standalones and not part of his very popular John Rain series. The new books are, as far as I've been able to tell, new John Rain books. So although I think it's possible that Barry's sales for those 2 books were less than his John Rain novels, if he's returning to John Rain, sales would be likely to increase.

  19. Rob Gregory Browne

    Whether true or not in Barry's case, the mention of "declining sales" reminds me of when a political appointee leaves the White House only to "tattle" on his former bosses and discover that he's suddenly the target of a smear campaign. Eisler's defection can't be seen as anything good in the legacy publishing world, so I wouldn't be surprised if the naysayers go after him, just as they did Konrath.

    All that said, I'm still a bit on the fence about all of this, although I am in the process of posting my first short story to Kindle as a promotional tool. Be interesting to see what happens.

  20. Erin

    I do not really like e readers. To me there is nothing better than going to an actual bookstore. I like having a book in my hand reading the back to see if it sounds interesting. I am doing my best to keep booksores in business!!!

    I just bought Brett's 1st book can't wait to read it!

  21. Barbie

    I am a 22 year old kid from Brazil. I know as much about publishing as my 16 year old brother knows about girls' feelings.

    Having said that, I embrace technology. I read about 5-8 times more books since I've had my Kindle than I did before. Practicality is everything. I had an argument with a professor in class today about it. I don't hold on to tradition. The "feel of a book in my hands" and the "pleasure of turning the pages" or the "smell of a book" means nothing to me. The story written in it, whatever format it may come, it's what truly matters to me. I was born almost into an e-generation. Since I was a child, technology has been a part of my life. It progresses daily, it makes the world smaller. Most kids my age feel the same way. They embrace it. Breathe it. Love it. We're the readers of the future. In 10, 15, 20 years, we'll be the target audience for most genres, and we'll embrace all sorts of technology, because it's been part of us from the start. Which is why I believe e-books have a future. Maybe for the big reader public today, it's still hard to get used to all the technological formats of reading when they've started out otherwise, but, for us, it'll be natural, as it's been with everything.

    Wow, that came out… interesting. 🙂

  22. KDJames

    Ebooks cater to our impatience and laziness. Or is that just me? Based on my personal experience over the past year, I think more people will be reading (or at least buying) more ebooks, especially backlist titles. If they're priced right. Which, so far, mostly means ebooks priced by someone other than the Big 6.

    Also, laser dueling in the city square. Absolutely.

  23. Reine

    I suspect that many people who see the future coming and choose to jump on will be lost before the future arrives. The future will arrive nevertheless.

    Books are just books, nothing without the thoughts, the stories, the ideas. We read thoughts. We crave stories. We have ideas. Books are dust.

  24. michael

    Why must we always insist on either or? Has the iTune ended the CD? Has TV ended the movie theater? How many still have a cell phone and a land phone?

    As mass market paperbacks proved in the 1920s (or so), readers can support more than one format.

    Instead we see the sky is falling and our choice threatened. As long as people buy print books, they will continue. As long as people buy e-books, they will continue.

    The reader will always need writers to write them a story. What will change is the business. The book business has survived many changes, those that adapt will survive the changes. The smart writer will write the best books and publish them in all formats from audio to e-book, from mass market paper to hardcover. The most important change affecting the writer will be marketing. How can you get your book to the readers. Writers with print copies out-of-print or gathering dust in a warehouse will turn to the e-reader. Writers will success with e-readers will turn to print to reach the print readers.

    The answer is not either e-book or print, it is both.

  25. JD Rhoades

    "The answer is not either e-book or print, it is both."

    I hope so. I'm somewhat at a loss to understand the position of the people I've come to think of as the e-book triumphalists, who not only predict the marginalization or outright demise of print, but seem to celebrate it. To me, more formats=more outlets=more opportunities.

  26. Reine

    JD, I've spent many hours in libraries – working, reading, writing. I waited 7 years for a private study carrel in the stacks of Widener. It was so amazing. Just being there. When I started there my school didn't have computers in the library. We had a card catalog. My second year saw TWO computers for student use in the lounge of Andover-Harvard Library. My third year, the divinity students who were interested enough – and attended an informational meeting – took a vote: Would you be willing to pay an extra $100 per year for Internet access at the school? My fourth year we were able to search data bases in our rooms. My fifth year, we had high speed access to all the major data bases that Harvard had access to. My sixth year we were expected to use computers for our assignments, and I required it of my advisees. My seventh year, new students didn't believe me when I told them that in 1992, only 8 students attended a meeting to learn how Internet access could improve their research.

  27. Karen in Ohio

    I had a similar experience. In 1994 I was giving a class on using computers in a sewing business. Of the 25 people in the class, only two had a computer. Two years later I was teaching the class again, and of 85 people in the room, only ONE did NOT have a computer. It thoroughly shocked me.

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