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Have the Major Publishers Decided They Can’t Match the Success of an Indie Blockbuster?

That’s the story that’s going around, anyway.

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

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Daniel Vian November 9, 2014 um 7:19 pm

Publishers want blockbusters but they do not know what will be a blockbuster–if they did know they would farm out storylines to book producers. So acquiring books is always a gamble for the publisher and they survive only by having a strong backlist and cashing out editors who for one reason or another fail to acquire books that make serious money. Big publishing has evolved to be the twin of big movie-making–neither book publishers nor movie producers know for certain what is going to be a hit. It’s more difficult for movie producers since they need to get investors to bankroll production costs of movies that may lose money. The cultural consequence is the same–mass market dreck produced in a crapshoot to make a bundle of money. The idea that traditional publishing sustains quality culture is crazy–if that ever happens it’s an accident or some pet project of some untouchable editor or publisher. The old Grove Press, for example, promoted quality culture and Barney Rosset went broke doing it. Traditional publishers are corporate conglomerates and they will not go broke because for them money comes first and not quality culture.

William Ockham November 9, 2014 um 7:33 pm

St. Martin’s claims their data shows that the ebook sales have already tapped out the market.

That is certainly a lie. That is, the statement is false and St. Martin’s knows it is false. The market that St. Martin’s reaches has relatively little overlap with the market that creates indie bestsellers. They know this. I would translate this as an acknowledgement that indie authors are a relatively expensive source of material for publishers.

fjtorres November 9, 2014 um 8:12 pm

They could be floating that as an alternative to admitting they cannot offer terms (advance, royalty, clauses) successful indies won’t laugh off. Their finances haven’t been all that hot for the past decade or so and thst is despite their predatory contracts. So, faced with a choice between better terms and passing on proven good titles they have to pass.

Mirtika November 10, 2014 um 4:38 pm

I have read blogs by indie authors who said they turned down trad deals precisely because it was laughable for them to sign for six figures when they could make seven as indies. I know one gal personally who was able to negotiate a quite nice deal with a Big 5 based on her indie figures. But when it came to her newest series, she’s going indie again.

I think that anyone who is selling, even at a modest rate, can do the math. SHOULD do that math. If the trad advance + % don’t add up to what you predict you can make over 5 + years, it may not be advantageous at all, especially if you don’t get your IP rights back withink 5 or 7 years.

Giving up lifetime IP rights to a work is a bid deal nowadays. Indies WANT to have backlist. Backlist can add up over the years. Trad pubs want big bucks right off. Indies know that modest income over years adds up and keeps adding up.

Daniel Vian November 9, 2014 um 8:56 pm

To continue: Given their inability to predict what will make serious money, tradpubs need to protect what they have that is already making money–their current bestsellers and their profitable backlist titles. Such protection means they will fight any incursion into their profits by ebooks. They will fight ebooks until they are convinced they can make more money selling ebooks than print books and they are not yet convinced of that. All this tradpub talk about adding quality and protecting culture is nonsense. A pot of lies. The name of the game is money and not culture. If you imagine what publishing will be like in a hundred years it seems certain digital books will be what most people read because of ease of production (not ease of creation) and ease of delivery. But tradpubs do not care about a hundred years from now, they care about the next few years, and they will hold onto their current business model until they get pressure from investors and owners to change it. All their arguments are counterfeit. The rank and file in tradpublishing are holding on because they don’t know what else to do except protect their current assets.

Daniel Vian November 9, 2014 um 9:22 pm

And one further note: Like many other circumstances, you can gauge the degree of panic in traditional publishing by how much the people who work in it talk and write about ebooks. if they felt confident about their current business model and future, they would simply ignore ebooks and continue doing what they have been doing in the past. In fact some them have tried to do just that–and have made fools of themselves.

EbooksWillRuleOneDay November 10, 2014 um 4:40 pm

Yes, if ebooks are no big deal, I guess they should be heavily doing "print only" deals and happily returning IP rights for the ebooks to midlist authors they’ve turned away. Why not? Ebooks are flat, yes? They should just focus on print and give back those ebook rights.

Terry Odell November 10, 2014 um 11:21 am

And what about Barbara Freethy’s deal with Ingram to get print versions of her titles into bookstores?

Will Entrekin November 10, 2014 um 11:24 am

"I would have thought that a publisher could boost sales through a judicious application of marketing and promotion."

This assumes corporate publishers know anything about marketing and promotion. They probably know about both in the context of the late-twentieth century model as it relates to book distribution, but that’s very different from knowing much about either. It’s the same with business. To anyone who knows anything about business, the corporate publishing business model, from advances to returns to royalties, makes no sense.

I think you’re correct about the wording. I don’t think indie successes have tapped out a market; I think it’s mostly that corporate publishing adds very little in the way of value to books that have already become successful. Did Random House really boost sales of 50 Shades much, or did it just hitch along for the ride. I’d say the latter.

Mackay Bell November 10, 2014 um 2:16 pm

It doesn’t seem like much of a loss to the indy community if traditional publishers want to avoid successful self-published writers. Quite a few indy writers wouldn’t take the kind of deals offered anyway.

But, if the statement holds true, and the example is followed by other traditional publishers, they a creating a huge opportunity for a new publishing startup.

It wouldn’t take much capital to create a start up that focuses primarily on buying some rights from already established indy writers with digital best sellers. The right kind of company would have a lot to offer self-publishers (print distribution, additional marketing, foreign, tv and movie deals).

Self-publishers do get overtaxed trying to do it all. But once a book is already a hit, their are plenty of ways both the start up and the writer could profit by working together. If traditional publishers want to leave that money on the table, someone else is going to be smart enough to pick it up.

Greg Strandberg November 10, 2014 um 3:18 pm

It’s real hard competing against those with little if any overhead.

Joe Hunt November 10, 2014 um 3:40 pm

Great article. Also…–if they were smart: should want to capitalize on the Sequel(s).

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