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Some thoughts

Here’s the thing. For years I wanted to write. In fact, for years I DID write, but I didn’t share.

Why?

I wasn’t prepared to risk a career and family to pursue my dream. I enjoyed my work, and it was better paid than most writing gigs. To compete with the salary meant three to five guaranteed book contracts per year, all generating the royalties anticipated by the advance.

And I knew that new writers had somewhere between little hope and no hope of selling much beyond the advance.

So I thought about self-publishing. For about two seconds.

Let’s face it, self-publishing was stigmatized, and even today self-publishing online is seen as a poor relation to “a proper book”. Yes, there are Internet phenomenon out there, and there are business models that work, but to be honest the industry itself is pretty broken.

In a world where governments can rewrite the copyright laws in favour of the publishers, where Internet content hosts try to own body and soul, where the digital rights pond is full of muddy shark-filled waters, and in a world where the money you earn from writing is less than you can get reselling something you bought from a car-boot sale on eBay, is it any wonder that I kept my socks on?

That’s not to say I wasn’t passionate. I was, and am. But I was also watching, and waiting. Now, with much of my career and family commitments behind me, I finally find that that the stars might be right to engage once more with what I love most.

But not as a writer.

I’ve edited and published in the past, and it gives me a real sense of satisfaction to make something happen. So when everyone else runs away from publishing, I quite like to think I’d give it a go.

I see a rosy future for the publishing industry, but only if it reassesses the value of what it has to offer. In other businesses the cost of products go up and down according to the cost of the raw materials. Besides paper and ink, the raw materials have been the suppliers.

On the one hand, the agents, editors, designers, proofreaders, marketeers et al provide a very clearly defined set of services whose prices are based on professional development. They work in other industries, and the rates they charge are easily valued and defined.

On the other hand, the writers and artists have no benchmark other than how much their personal services are wanted. Is it right that a celebrity with no experience and no literary skills should be paid more than a skilled, honed career author? No. In fact, the wise career author would do well to become a ghost writer to get a decent-sized slice of the celebrity pie.

The truth’s that, like farmers, the writers and artists are squeezed dry. And worse, there are SO MANY wannabe writers and artists that their customers, you and I, struggle to spot the good from the bad.

So if I’m going to publish, how will it work? How can I value writers and artists when there are other publishers out there who pay (or, more accurately, don’t pay) only a token amount?

At least vanity publishing in its original form is on its last legs. Then again, publishing feels like that too. Over 60% of US books sold are apparently ebooks, yet (as of today) I’ve not heard of a mainstream publisher whose ebook sales  exceed 40% of the total. To me that tells me that self-published ebooks are competing strongly, despite a continuing lack of quality control in the ebook marketplace.

We need quality in the book market, but we don’t need to prop up an industry bloated by unrealistic costs.

In my view, every job but the writing or the artwork should be a fixed cost. Everything over and above the fixed cost should go to the writer and the artist, with the latter getting a percentage of the former’s pay.

That’s not to devalue the artist, but his or her work is usually derived from the writing and can be re-sold. Or it can be replaced. For a first edition, where the cover art may sell more books than the author’s name, the artist’s percentage is higher. For subsequent editions it depends on whether the artist is being sought just to repackage a work by a popular named writer, or to help revamp something that the publisher thinks should have, but didn’t, sell.

So, my business model. What is it? Well, I’m not giving everything away, but I will share some of it. I’ll also happily field comments and questions (especially when the seasoned industry pro points to the naked Emperor in the corner).

First: ebook sales lead and a limited hardcover follows when a trigger is achieved.

Printed books will always be in demand by some people, but more as an expensive luxury for the collector than as the throwaway paperback of today. Hence limited edition hardcovers.

Second: Writers and artists should start earning straight away, but quality should be reflected by sales.

A nominal fee along with a contract is essential, but royalties should come after fixed costs have been met by sales. This means no advances, but it also means the author is not held to ransom by the publishers decision about print runs.

Third, costs – both to the publisher AND the consumer – should be real, and minimal.

This means that the price of ebooks should be determined by the value of the writer and artist, and not by unnecessary overheads. It also means that printed editions should be demand-led to minimize wastage.

It also means that nobody should have to pay for an ebook and a printed book separately. Purchasers of ebooks should get costs deducted from a print copy, while purchasers of printed copies should get a complementary ebook.

Crowdfunding should therefore be sought to secure advanced orders on printed books. This ensures that costs are met before the first book is despatched, which in turn means that profits are guaranteed and there wil be few, or no, remainders.

Fourth, progression: a small publisher shouldn’t tie a writer or artist down and stop them from doing better.

Small presses don’t pay much, so they should be a first step on the latter for new writers, or they should be niche publishers for those writers with a relatively small audience.

In my view this means the independent publisher should operate as both an agent and as a packager. He should focus on undoing new talent, nurturing them, and helping them to move on to better things.

Controversially, this also means that the agent’s take and the publisher’s take are one and the same, and that the independent publisher stands to make money by reselling unpublished works to mainstream publishers.

Reselling doesn’t mean selling on a writer or artist’s contract, but rather to sell on a proposed publication, lock stock and barrel, recouping development costs plus taking commission for the transaction. Hence packaging as well as publishing.

For this reason many of our books will be announced well in advance of publication, and if a mainstream publisher comes along and likes what he sees, we should be happy to negotiate as long as our writers and artists get paid and we get credit for our contribution.

Posted by Adrian Middleton in Beyond The Fringe on Sunday, July 8th 2012 at 6:43 PM
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