Monday, March 21, 2011 was a big day for publishing. On one hand, we have author Barry Eisler announcing he turned down a two book, $500,000 deal. On the other hand, we learned that super-hot indie author Amanda Hocking is shopping a new series, with a price tag climbing above $1 million for worldwide English language rights.
Needless to say, the ensuing discussion has been awesomely full of punditry and speculation. Thus, me! If I do not offer my two cents, then I will surely be kicked out of future publishing cocktail parties. After all, I must have thoughts on this madness.
So where to begin? I am presuming Eisler made a calculated decision, one that factored in the very real loss of worldwide print sales (wherein I completely agree with Mike Shatzkin on this point). Oh sure, there are ways to compensate, but this is not a trivial business choice.
On the other hand, Hocking is likely looking at those same worldwide print sales and realizing there’s money in them there books. The two authors are looking at the same worldwide market and taking different approaches. One is a seasoned author, the other is just now realizing her potential.
So who is making the right decision?
Yeah, that’s a helpful answer. Bear with me.
Eisler has an established fan base, and he can tap into a growing network of indie authors who are, for lack of a better concept, forming their indie marketing circle. This is not a new concept. It’s the way indie romance authors — those digital-first (or digital-only) authors — have built careers for the past decade. History has shown this works for some authors.
I think of it as a numbers and talent game. Only a few authors truly rise above the pack. It’s like real publishing, only with more control. However. Any author who goes indie has to become an end-to-end business. Writing, editing, production, distribution, marketing. Oh sure, some of these can be outsourced, but the author must be on top of all these function. Cannot let any one of them slip.
Just as few employees in corporate jobs have the ability to be management and worker bee, few authors have the skills to be everything and more. The authors who seem to do best have what can only be called an entrepreneurial spirit. My belief is that writing is a creative process; being an author is a job.
And it’s not an easy job. This is why I believe Eisler calculated more than a few odds. One does not walk away from a purported $500,000 easily. As many smart people have noted, you don’t go into publishing to get rich.
What Barry Eisler has going for him is control (not to be underestimated), speed to market, the ability to experiment, and instantaneous worldwide digital distribution. This comes into play in our next section.
Now back to that other hand.
Hocking has, and I think you’ll know what I mean, tapped into the Twilight zeitgeist. Something I’d note no major publisher (or minor) has managed to do. I have not read her work, but know more than a few people who have. Clearly she can tell a story that engages readers (not an easy skill!), but there is a consensus that she needs more editorial oversight. I believe in editors in a big way, and know that good editors make a story so much better.
Hocking has also, conservatively and based on news reports, netted well over a million dollars (before taxes, those pesky things!). That is serious money in publishing. I know people who’d sell their souls for that kind of publishing money.
It’s also hard money for publishers to meet. This is an author who is accustomed to making seventy cents on every dollar. Used to getting paid monthly. Used to freedom.
Yes, she’s only reaching a fraction of her audience. Print remains the dominant worldwide format, and, while digital is growing like crazy (a key component of Eisler’s calculations), ignoring any part of the publishing marketplace is something one must do with extreme intelligence and caution.
Can print publishers offer her at least as much as she’s making as an indie author? It’s easy to throw money at the problem. But is it as easy to throw money at the success?
I said I think both Eisler and Hocking are making the right choices, but, if you were to corner me in a bar and ask me which author is following the right path right now, I’d say Eisler.
He’s taking a riskier path, for sure, and there is no guarantee. His history suggests he has some talent when comes to calculated risks. And while he’s burned some publishing bridges, he also has a track record in the industry.
Hocking, however, is more of a publishing dark horse. She’s done the indie thing amazingly well. I cannot over-emphasize how critical this is, and how well she’s done it. But there is a gap between indie publishing (especially self-publishing, without a lot of professional editorial input) and corporate publishing.
The biggest challenge, and the reason I’m putting my money (virtual because the husband hates it when I bet cat food dollars) on Eisler is that the publisher who signs Amanda Hocking today will likely not have a book on the shelf before 2012, more likely 2013. Note my nouns.
The Hocking zeitgeist is right now. Her audience is right now. Her moment is right now. Can this buzz be sustained a year or more? Can her audience be engaged for that long? Yes, if she’s continually giving them the books they want…at the price point they want.
Will the Amanda Hocking audience pay $9.99 for her books? This is not an idle question.
Can publishing capitalize on an Amanda Hocking? This is a serious question.
Note: Sarah Weinman, wisely, questions my belief that Amanda Hocking will lose momentum. I did consider Sarah’s arguments while writing this, but felt then (and sorta feel now) that two things will slow this phenomenon down. The first is the competing works clause in an author agreement. The publisher Hocking presumably will eventually sign with (how’s that for confidence?) will surely balk at any works they deem “competition” for their own release. How Hocking works around that and pleases her audience becomes a challenge.
The second hesitation I have is that publishing a book is a lot of work, and even the most seasoned writer finds challenges in undergoing the full editorial process on one book while creating new works. Once Hocking is assimilated into the traditional publishing machine, there will be a constant flow of work for the series she’s creating for that publisher, and I worry it will come at the expense of her indie work.