What a Difference a Year Makes

Nowhere, I submit, is the upheaval in the publishing world more apparent than at writing conventions. At last year’s World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, I attended a panel during which an agent (or maybe she was an editor) made some disparaging remarks about self-publishing, and a few audience members stood up and respectfully explained to her why she was wrong.

Fast-forward to 2012. This year’s World Fantasy Convention, in Toronto last weekend, featured a whole panel discussion about e-publishing.

One end of the dais seemed to be spewing dinosaur breath. The former editor-in-chief of Del Ray (Random House’s speculative fiction imprint), Betsy Mitchell, complained that her business is drying up; she said indie novelists aren’t willing to pay $3,500 for the kind of top-notch professional editing job she can offer. (I wondered whether it had ever occurred to her that the vast majority of indies simply can’t afford her.) Next to her sat Robert Runté, an acquisitions editor for a small Canadian press, who called the indie trend of using beta readers “editing by crowdsourcing.” He also said he used to write reviews of speculative fiction novels for money – but “that job is gone.” Who’s taking up the reviewing slack? Bloggers, said Emily Craven (although apparently she doesn’t review books on her own blog).

The panel agreed that 99-cent e-books devalue the author’s hard work, although there was some support for a 99-cent price point for the first novel in a series. Craven suggested a reasonable price for an e-book would be half the price of a paperback edition. Leslie said most e-books published directly through Kobo’s Writing Life list for $2.99 to $5.99, while Smashwords authors tend to undervalue their work; prices for Smashwords titles sold at the Kobo Store average from 99 cents to $1.99.

Ah, Smashwords. Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld.com said, “Friends don’t let friends use Smashwords.” He went on to explain that the site’s automated Meatgrinder conversion software “doesn’t always work as well as it should.”

The panelists also warned indies away from making their own cover art. One suggested using a site such as bibliocrunch.com, where you can list your project and your budget, and artists (and editors, too) can then bid for your business. Still, they advised, it’s best to ask for samples and references before hiring an artist or editor for your book.

In terms of the market for science fiction and fantasy, the panelists said Amazon accounts for somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of sales, with the rest more or less evenly split among the other sellers. Leslie also said only about twenty percent of self-published authors make money from their books. But then, that’s not all that different from the way traditional publishing works.

I could have wished for more on the nuts-and-bolts of indie publishing. Heck, I would have liked to see more indie authors and book bloggers on the panel. Ah, well. Maybe next year.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “What a Difference a Year Makes”

  1. Like anything new, change is a scary idea. Of course, those who were from the tradional worlds will object. Betsy needs to reanalyze her fee and services if she wishes to survive. Nobody like dropping down their fee, but if it is a choice between beans or steaks, I think that answeres for itself.

    I attended the FenCon convention about a month ago in Dallas. Let me tell ya what, many of the editors and panelists were up in arms about the new wave. They didn’t go over price as much as quality. One gal (don’t remember her name) was against Indie’s all together and suggest they jump ship now and save themselves. Well now, that was a helpful hint.

    It will be interesting to see how the moods have moved in the next year or two.

    1. Yup, Jeff, it will indeed be an interesting next couple of years. The panelists touched on the quality issue, too, before Mitchell went off on her rant — and I agree with you, just because she thinks she’s worth $3500/book doesn’t mean she’s going to get it in this new climate, and she needs to be realistic about that. Runte said he thinks the quality issue will sort itself out in time. I hope he’s right.

  2. You got me thinking Lynne, I wonder what it was like when the first printing press went into action? I can hear the naysayers then just as I hear them now. A favorite saying of mine is,”Nothing good or bad lasts forever.” The traditional publishing world is getting a bit of the bad. I wonder what the real bottom line is for them?

    1. Aron, back in Gutenberg’s time, I suspect there was a lot of whining about loss of craftsmanship and snotty comments about how peasants don’t *need* books. 😉

  3. Thanks for passing along your findings, Lynne.
    It’s interesting when I pull myself away from my computer and talk to other writers how little some of them know about what’s really happening with self-publishing. I’m immersed (online) with other forward thinking authors and I tend to forget that not everybody realizes what’s really happening HERE. And, then there’s the denial factor from the trad pub industry too.
    There has been a shift in the past year and it makes you wonder what the next twelve months are going to bring. It’s great to have a ringside seat for it. Good article, thank you.

  4. Just by chance I visited David Gaughran’s blog recently and was blown away by this post. http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/self-publishers-arent-killing-the-industry-theyre-saving-it/
    It looks at the historical pricing of books and concludes that every time the cost of books drops to a certain sweet spot, the market expands. As the price goes up, the market contracts. Indies have simply brought the cost of books back to that sweet spot. The article is well worth reading.

  5. What an excellent article, Lynne, and how predictable is the traditionalists’ response to the eRevolution? I read that post, acflory, on David Gaughran’s blog; nice article, and it seems that more and more people are saying it like it is.

  6. That stuff is funny (in a sad sort of way) People pay to go to a conference, and attend a panel, and what they here is, ME,ME,ME,ME! from the people who are supposed to be informing them.
    I have sat on two SP panels at conferences. In both cases everybody on the dias had self-published multi times and people came out of it bubbling with helpful ideas.

    1. Clearly I should start going to your conferences, Lin. 😀

      WFC has traditionally been a conference for publishing industry insiders. That they had a self-pub panel *at all* this year speaks volumes, to me, about how much the business has changed — and continues to change.

  7. Interesting post, Lynne. A friend of mine went to a local writer conference recently and found the panels were still trad-pub oriented. Not much mention of ebooks except by one speaker, a well-known NYC agent who actually commented on the fact that his job was becoming obsolete. The newbies (and not-so-newbies) my writer friend spoke with were still certain that a request for a partial meant imminent publication and fame.

    So many writers are still of the trad-publishing mind-set. Like Martin pointed out, indies tend to forget that, being so immersed in the industry.

    1. Exactly, DV. The guy from Kobo also said that every author in their top 10 list gets approached these days by an agent.

      It’s like it has never crossed their minds that some writers would rather stay indie.

  8. Informative post, Lynne, thank you. Betsy Mitchell was one of the editors who turned my book down a few years ago. I am distraught to hear that her business is drying up. Absolutely beside myself with worry.

    1. Yes, WHERE would writers be without agents to block the door to publishers and take their pay from our earnings in perpetuity?
      Next thing the you know the publishers will have to start paying people to do their talent search and screening for them.
      Maybe they will hire failed agents.
      Or maybe even THEY have more sense than that.

    2. See, Chris, this is what I always say: There’s never any need to seek revenge, because the Universe always takes care of it for you — and a lot of times, you even get to watch. 😉

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