Book agent Kristen Nelson reported in her November newsletter that St Martin's, a Macmillan imprint, is no longer interested in negotiating deals for already successful indie titles:
For example, an attending agent highlighted that a St. Martin’s editor was willing to go on record to explain exactly why her house will no longer buy indie authors who have self-published ebooks that have gone on to be wildly successful. St. Martin’s claims their data shows that the ebook sales have already tapped out the market.
This wasn't a surprise to me; it’s not the first time I've heard it. I've also heard that even if a publisher buys a successful indie title intending to publish a trade paperback edition, and even if they’re willing to pay bookstore co-op, booksellers are reluctant to grant that title the physical retail space. They are simply turning down the co-op offer.
This news first broke on Kboards, where Hugh Howey commented that publishers told him something similar in 2012 when he and his agent were shopping around Wool. Howey had self-published and sold 50,000 copies, and two different publishers told him that "everyone who would ever read WOOL has already read it".
So are the publishers right?
Yes, but only in that the publishers in question have admitted that they cannot outperform a successful indie.
As a market prediction, they are almost certainly wrong, and in the case of Wool they were ridiculously wrong. Since being picked up by S&S, the Wool series has sold over two million additional copies.
While I doubt most indie titles would have that level of success if they were picked up by a major publisher, I would have thought that a publisher could boost sales through a judicious application of marketing and promotion.
And I'm not the only one. In 2012 Passive Guy commented on Amanda Hocking's sales after signing with St Martin's:
The publisher’s view of a finite audience is part of the outmoded scarcity model Kris Rusch has written about. One reason why some successful indie authors may not sell nearly as well with a traditional publisher is that traditional publishers are too rigid and don’t know how to sell to new online buyers.
PG thinks St. Martins has screwed up sales by charging too much for Amanda’s audience – $8.99 for the ebook. If SMP had let Amazon set the price instead of insisting on agency pricing, it would have made a lot more money.
Hocking was one of the first best-selling indie authors to sign with a major publisher, and she wrote in April 2012 that she had sold around a million copies of her Trylle series before unpublishing it when she signed with Macmillan. In comparison, she also reported that by the end of April 2012 the first book in the series was already in its fifth printing (damned good for a book published in January 2012) and that the other books were selling well.
Hocking hasn't discussed her sales since then, but she did go on to sell another series to St Martin's last summer.
And now St. Martin's doesn't think they can outsell a successful indie title? I wonder what they're not telling us?
I doubt we'll ever learn the real casus belli for their decision, but as Hugh Howey explained:
... just because publishers are saying something -- and acting on those beliefs -- doesn't make them right. It's just another excuse for their caution. Of course they've been burned by a few acquisitions. The majority of their books don't sell well. And it'll always be for some reason (vampires are so done; no one reads urban fantasy anymore; books this long don't sell) when the truth is that the market is variable, no one knows why some things take off and others don't, and publishers succeed by throwing spaghetti at the wall, seeing what sticks, and reading way too much into what doesn't.
image by Secret Pilgrim