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Dorchester Publishing recently announced they were dropping their mass market line and moving to an e-book/print-on-demand model.  Dorchester’s president John Prebich describes his company as pioneers, boldly leading us into the electronic frontier.  This has led to a new round of “print is dying,” and e-books are the way of the future.  There’s an almost religious fervor to it.

J. A. Konrath suggests the end is nigh for commercial publishers, and self-publishing is the way to go.  His anonymous sources claim sell-through on printed books is as bad as 20%.  He describes a (hypothetical) commercially published author who gets a $50K advance and 30% sell-through, selling a mere 9000 print copies in the first year–

But wait, let’s back up and take another look at Dorchester, who’s been in trouble for a while.  “Dorchester had serious cash-flow problems throughout 2009.”  (Thanks to Nick Mamatas for that link.)  The move to e-books/PoD isn’t as much a dramatic step into the future as it is a desperate attempt by one publisher to stay in business.

As for Konrath, he’s done an excellent job positioning himself as a champion of self-publishing.  I have no doubt he talked to somebody, somewhere, who reported sell-through could be as bad as 20%.  But “as bad as” generally means the low edge of the bell curve.  Not the normal or the average, but the worst-case scenario.

To offer an alternate data point, my books have a sell-through around 80%.  I’m not aware of anyone whose sell-through is down at 20-30%.  I’m sure it happens, but to base an argument on those numbers is, in a word, silly.  As for the rest of the example, well, I sell more than 9000 print copies in a year, and my advances are far lower than $50K.

I’m not saying Konrath’s example couldn’t happen.  It’s possible.  It’s possible to be struck by lightning seven times, too.  But it ain’t the norm.

Wait, you say.  80% sell-through still means 20% returns, right?  Doesn’t it make more sense to go electronic/PoD, where there are no returns and you can get 100% sell-through?

That depends.  80% of what?  100% of what?  Konrath proposes that his hypothetical author will sell 5000 e-books in that first year.  I’m curious where that number comes from, particularly given a New York Times report in which “publishers point out that e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent.”  If I had to choose, I’d take 80% of a 20K print run over 100% of the <1000 copies my books have sold electronically.

Konrath also argues that:

“The main reason we need publishers is for distribution. We can’t get into Wal-Mart or Borders on own own. They can. So we accept 8% royalties in order to sell a lot of books. But if publishers are no longer printing books, there is ZERO reason to sign with them, because they no longer have that advantage.”

Distribution is part of what my publisher does for me … but it’s not the only thing.  They pay professionals to create my cover art, and to edit, typeset, and proofread my book.  They do the work of converting my books into electronic formats.  They pay for advertising and promotion.  Basically, they do a ton of work to sell my books, which allows me to worry about writing them.

Publishing is changing.  My guess is that we’ll eventually hit a new equilibrium point between print and e-books, and I do think e-books will be a larger percentage of book sales than they are today.

I’m not bashing self-publishing, either.  For some people, it’s the right choice.  Konrath certainly makes it work.  My friend John Fitch V sold more than 100 books last month, which is damn good for the self-published route.

Both e-books and self-publishing have their strengths and advantages.  And I could be wrong — it’s possible print and/or commercial publishing are on the way out.  But I’ve been hearing about the imminent death of print and commercial publishing for more than a decade, and it’s getting a little old.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 116 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 9th, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)
"the <1000 copies my books have sold electronically"

Hey, does that mean I own a collectors' edition? ;-)
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
Bring it to a convention, and I'll e-autograph it for you! Imagine how valuable that sucker will be in 50 years :-)
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)
20% sell-through on a $50K advance means someone in marketing/editorial took a $500,000 gamble with the company's revenue stream and lost, big! (Assuming a $50K advance means a hardcover release and marketing promo, and assuming a royalty rate of 10%, that's roughly 0.5M in turnover. Right? Maybe a bit less once we take into account needing to sell less to break even than to earn out, but it's still not looking good.)

This happens from time to time. It's a career-killer if it's a new author, and it's bloody bad news even for an established pro with a track record. (I've heard of it being made to happen deliberately due to office politics where a publishing exec was looking for a pretext to fire a senior editor -- very rare, though.)

The ebook thing is, right now, a career-killer of a different colour. I have it on good authority (my editor's) that one of my recent novels sold, hmm, let's say 4.5 Units in hardcover, 9.5 Units in trade paperback, and 0.2 Units in ebook. When ebook sales begin to approach hardcover sales, switching might not be entirely suicidal -- but for now, it's lunacy.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. I've heard of publishers betting big on titles they think are going to take off, and sometimes they fail big-time, too. Does it completely kill the career, or does it just mean a pseudonym for the author from that day forward?

Your numbers look fairly similar to mine in terms of the percentage that sell electronically.

I wonder if part of what happens is that this conversation tends to happen among those who are already online and more on the electronic cutting edge, meaning there's a perception that e-books and such are more popular than the numbers support...
(no subject) - autopope - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dichroic - Aug. 9th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - oldcharliebrown - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - autopope - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
Great post. I agree with you - I've been seeing a lot of creative use of statistics to make ebooks newsworthy and to make self-publishing look a lot better than it really is.

I've even been seeing this on LinkedIn, where unscrupulous vanity presses try to get users through "statistics" that don't really seem all that solid to me.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
::Shudder:: Some of the things vanity presses do to distort the success stories and the numbers should be criminal.
(no subject) - cepetit.myopenid.com - Aug. 9th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 9th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cepetit.myopenid.com - Aug. 9th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
Let's add in the death of the newspaper. They're changing, but the news ain't never goin' away, much to the disappoint of some. Mediums change, but stories, news, music, entertainment - these are things that will always exist in human society.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
Newspapers have been interesting to watch. They definitely seem to be hurting, and they've struggled with the emergence of the web, but I agree the news isn't just going to vanish. And blogs are nice, but there's a lot to be said for higher standards of research and reporting. (Not that all news outlets reach such standards, but at least in theory...)
(no subject) - misha_mcg - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 9th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
Hi Jim,

Wow, I just started reading Konrath's blog a few days ago. I read the post to which you refer here.

He does have some interesting insights and suggestions, but I'm so glad you posted a counter-point. So many people claim they KNOW exactly what's going to happen in the future of publishing, and my feeling is ... how can anyone truly know? I think at best we can make some good guesses.

My last mm paperback release had an 80% sell through too.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
I find myself rolling my eyes at anyone who claims to *know* what's coming. If someone wants to present some evidence and build a case for what they think is going to happen, that's awesome. But the claims that "THIS IS WHAT SHALL COME TO PASS" just irritate me.

Konrath does have a lot of interesting ideas, and he's certainly made this work for himself. On the other hand, I think a lot of his success comes from his ability to use self-publishing as his platform. I realized that I hear his name all the time, not for his writing, but for the way he puts himself forward as a champion of self-publishing ... which then helps him to sell more books.

I'm not bashing him for this. I think it's brilliant. But it's also not something that will work for most people.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
This is a bit off-topic, sorry...
I'd be happy to boost your sales by a couple if I could find an Australian bookseller that stocked all your books! Last time I looked, I found...I think your final Goblin book, and your second Princess one? But I haven't read any of them, and I really want to start at the beginning. I'd really like to own paper copies of all of your books, because I like supporting authors I think are generally cool people (and hey, the covers are cool and would look good on my bookshelf :D), but that's proving hard - well nigh impossible, actually - to do.

I know you can't exactly wave a magic wand and have your books appear on Australian shelves - but just so you know, if there was a way of doing just that, you'd have at least two more dedicated readers in my partner and me.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry...
Which part of Australia are you in? Someone mentioned an Australian store that stocked my stuff a while back, but I'd have to dig for it, and Australia's a big country...
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry... - beth_bernobich - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry... - jimhines - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry... - bewarethespork - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry... - jimhines - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: This is a bit off-topic, sorry... - bewarethespork - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
I'm very wary of Konrath's arguments. He got his start in print, had a decent following, and then moved into areas where he does some self publication.

It's like using Doctorow as your example of "giving everything away for free is the best strategy". Sure, if you're walking in the door with an audience built up of years of hard work, pounding the digital pavement, as he did, you can make that work.

Special cases make poor examples when trying to have these discussions. Because what often gets missed, especially by younger folks starting out in their career, is just how much hard work so many folks have had to put in before they got to the place where they currently are in publishing, and for them to be able to make these less traditional strategies work.
Aug. 9th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
Heh. I'm gonna cheat and just copy my response to Barb up above :-)

Konrath does have a lot of interesting ideas, and he's certainly made this work for himself. On the other hand, I think a lot of his success comes from his ability to use self-publishing as his platform. I realized that I hear his name all the time, not for his writing, but for the way he puts himself forward as a champion of self-publishing ... which then helps him to sell more books.

I'm not bashing him for this. I think it's brilliant. But it's also not something that will work for most people.
(no subject) - temporus - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 9th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 9th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
I don't know ... I hear there are people doing pretty well with pro-queer fairy tale retellings ;-)

I was told humor wouldn't sell either, particularly sword and sorcery type humor. I'm not going to say what you should or shouldn't write, but I'd be careful about trying too hard to write what will sell vs. writing what you love.
(no subject) - kylecassidy - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
Part of the problem with the argument about advances is that different genres have different practices regarding advances. There's no accepted name for it, but books targeted for the front of the book store or Oprah Winfrey's show will generate much larger advances.

Even in science fiction, Jim Baen spent a whole heck of a lot of money on Newt Gingrich's alt-history book. Rumor has it Jim damn near went bankrupt over it.

Looking at advances without understanding the target market and genre conventions is a fool's game.
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
One of the things that Konrath overlooks is that a lot of writers (including him, though he vigorously denies it) are in need of editors. Another thing that publisher's pay for.
If you compare a Konrath book from when he was working with a publisher to his first self-published e-book, you'll see the latter was desperately in need of an editor.
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
Definitely. My editor has consistently caught problems with my books and helped me to make them stronger, and I don't want to imagine how many typos would have slipped through without those extra sets of eyes going through the book line by line...
(no subject) - stargatedragon - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
Let's bring a little reality into this discussion...

First, 80% sell-through is AWESOME. You should be very proud, your editor should be very proud, and that is surely a significant part of why they so readily sign additional books from you.

90% sell-through is pretty much the top end. Even for big bestsellers with very predictable markets and preorders, there's going to be certain chunk of books that just don't sell for whatever reason and come wandering back (or, in the case of mass market, are stripped). There are damaged copies, copies unscrupulous people read and return, and the well known "I couldn't find it because there was only one copy left" phenomenon.

The reality is that booksellers (both brick-and-mortar and online) know that they can return the books with impunity, so even for really popular books they might over-order, since they don't want to be caught without. Do you want to be the guy in charge of the store that didn't get enough of the last Harry Potter book and caused potential customers to go down the street to your competitor?

20% sell-through is bad, yes, but sometimes it's deliberate.

Let me 'splain. Historically it has been very difficult to get paperback originals reviewed. (This is changing, but the majority of major review journals and sites are still for hardcovers.) So one of the ways publishers generate reviews for a book is to print a short run of hardcovers--maybe 2000 or 2500 copies--and send most of them out for review.

They're not expecting to sell many of them. They're expecting to generate reviews from which they can pluck quotes to put on the paperback cover. Or they're using the hardcover to show those venues that they're serious about this author, so when the next book comes out in hardcover at the same time as the first one gets a paperback life, the venues will be more likely to give it a boost.

My old employer used 55% sell-through to generate budgets and P&L projections. That may be a bit of an underestimation (better to err on the side of caution), but a 65% sell-through was respectable and typical for paperback.

Sometimes publishers mistake what the readers want, yeah, and a 20% sell-through happens because the book simply fails to go anywhere. But making a book electronic only won't help it sell more, and it still will cost all the editing, file prep, and marketing the publisher invests.
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Reality? We don't need no stinkin' reality.

I hadn't heard of the short-run sell-through scenario you describe, but that makes sense.

From an authorial standpoint, I'd love to not have that reserve against returns, and to know exactly how many of my books sold without having to worry about whether a big chunk of those will be stripped and sent back. But I don't see it as a good argument for going to e-books.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 9th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I've said before that every writer should self-publish at least one process, just to get an idea exactly how much work goes into a book *after* it's written. I've done it once, and it was quite the eye-opener.

I definitely think things will change. Evolution will wipe out some publishers (Dorchester?) and allow others to thrive.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Aug. 9th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 9th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
I would take anything Joe Konrath says with a giant grain of salt.

He did not make a very good impression on me at RT last April.
Aug. 9th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
Hmm... do tell?

All I saw were the two pictures of him in the RT mag and he looked tired and ticked at the same time. I think he blogged that he was ignored by a few publishers and then adored by some authors.

(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 9th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this Jim. I'm tired of the "only this will work" attitude, and that the death of print and/or publishing is a black and white issue.

Just because something has worked for one person, it will not necessarily work for the next. Going the Konrath route could be fraught with as many difficulties and disappointments as the traditional route. Just difficulties of a different sort.
Aug. 9th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
I'm tempted to do a post just on Konrath, and the way he's used self-publishing as the platform to promote his self-published work. He's done an incredibly good job of it ... but every time I see his name, it's about Konrath the self-published author. I almost never see anything about him that's just about his books or writing.

It reminds me of the folks who first put their novels online. If you're one of the first people to do it, and you can leverage that move, you'll be great. But if you tried it now, you'd be one of thousands, and it's probably not going to do much for you...
(no subject) - stargatedragon - Aug. 9th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 9th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Sometimes self publishing is the answer but I think people are very easily mislead about when that is. If you've written a book of local bicycle tours within a mile of your house or a catalog of your art museum, Random House probably isn't going to be able to sell it better than you because you have access to (largely) your entire audience. If you're rock star with close ties to your fans or a blogger with 40,000 readers it can make sense to skip the middle man and sell 1,000 books with 4x the profit. But all too often people are lead to believe "oh, i'll just put my novel on lulu and it'll get discovered and sell lots of copies." It won't. If you've got a huge audience already self publishing gives you the opportunity to do projects that wouldn't get greenlighted by your traditional publisher but you also take the risks -- you're never going to make any money with the returns that POD publishers give you, which means you'll be front-ending the cost of 10,000 copies and then figuring how to get them from your garage into fans hands. I've done it, but it's a lot of work. I think most people that do it end up with furniture built out of unsold copies.

e-books on the other hand as the reading mechanisms get better, you may have more indie-success that way but having looked at slush, i'm hard pressed to think of a way to entice someone to go to a self-published-e-warehouse and read a whole book, let alone pay or one. most people's novel manuscripts are .... horrible.
Aug. 9th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
Agreed, and I think part of that confusion comes from so many articles touting self-publishing as The Answer to all your writing dreams, when in reality it's a hell of a lot of work. That specialized niche market can be a good place for self-publishing, especially when you have a platform from which to do your sales. (One of the things that impresses me about Konrath is how he's used self-publishing as that platform to push his own career.)

I do think e-books will continue to grow, though I don't have a clue where the balance point will be. But yeah ... one way or another, I think there's going to need to be some sort of gatekeeper to filter through the 90% of everything that's crap. I've heard people say the Internet can work as that filter, and that this is already happening in fanfic communities. Don't know if it will work on the larger scale, but it will be interesting to see where things go.
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Jim C. Hines


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