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The Author Uprising Against Big Publishing

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A revolution is brewing that will topple Big Publishing as we know it.

At the heart of every revolution is a loss of faith in the prevailing regime.

In Egypt's case, a number of catalysts precipitated the revolution; chief among them an oppressive political environment that offered little opportunity for democratic participation, freedom of speech and economic opportunity.

The catalysts for the Egyptian revolution are remarkably similar to what's driving the author uprising against Big Publishing. By "Big Publishing," I'm referring to the old system in which the publisher serves as the author's judge, jury, gatekeeper and executioner.

2011-03-04-Egyptian_Flag.pngFor authors, if Big Publishing approves of your book, they acquire it.

Post-acquisition, you can die happy knowing you're a published author with all the esteem, respect and future possibilities embodied in this blessing. At least, that's the myth you've been trained to believe.

Frederick Nietzsche wrote, "God is dead." I recall how my philosophy professor at U.C. Berkeley 25 years ago explained the quote beyond its immediate religious connotation. It was a metaphor for the power of faith. When we believe in something, our faith powers that in which we believe.

Faith is the single most important force-of-nature driving all human experience. If we lose faith in an institution, a regime or a belief system, the very survival of that institution is imperiled.

Authors are losing faith in the institution and religion of Big Publishing.

Has the Allure of Big Publishing become a Mirage?

It's tough to find a traditionally published author today who waxes eloquent about their post-publication experience. It's like the published author goes to heaven and reports back via John Edward (the guy who talks to dead people) that they discovered famine on the other side of the pearly gates.

More and more talented writers - including authors previously published by the Big 6 - are losing faith in the old system of publishing.

  • Advances are declining
  • Publishers reluctant to take chances on authors without established platforms
  • Most print books forced out of print before they've had a chance to reach readers
  • Authors expected to shoulder most post-publication marketing on their own dime
  • Lost and mismanaged rights
  • Brick and mortar retail distribution disappearing
  • Publishers value books through myopic prism of perceived commercial potential (publisher death panels)
  • Publishers acquire today what was hot yesterday so they can publish it 12-18 months from tomorrow
  • Publishers over-price and under-distribute author works
  • Publisher ebook royalties 17% list (25% net) vs 60-70% list (85-100% net) for self-publishing

Big Publishing, although it employs thousands of talented and well-intentioned professionals, is built upon a broken business model.

Ask Not What Your Publisher Can Do for You

Two questions and their answers are driving the author uprising against Big Publishing:

  1. What can a publisher do for me that I (the author) cannot do for myself?
  2. Might a big publisher actually harm my prospects as an author?

Ten years ago, the answers to these simple questions validated the need for Big Publishing. Why? In the old print world, Big Publishing controlled access to readers. They controlled the printing press and the access to retail distribution.

Yet these same questions asked today yield mixed results.

Self-published authors, a.k.a "indie authors," now have the power to produce, publish, price and promote books that are as good or better than those put out by Big Publishing. Indie ebook authors earn royalties of 60-70% of the list price. Traditionally published authors earn 5-17%.

Indie author sensation Amanda Hocking, in her recent interview with USA Today, was quoted as saying, "I can't really say that I would have been more successful if I'd gone with a traditional publisher."

No doubt, much of Hocking's success is because she's an indie author. She writes great books her readers love. She prices her series-starters at only $.99 and the rest at $2.99. Great books plus low prices plus enthusiastic fans plus an author directly engaged with her fans equals viral readership. Few big publishers are prepared to play by these new rules while paying authors 60-70% of list price.

Every week we hear of self-published authors - previously rejected by Big Publishing - finding success with self-published ebooks. Brian Pratt, profiled here at HuffPost in December, is one such author. Ruth Ann Nordin is another. Nordin's An Inconvenient Marriage is the #3 best-selling romance title today in the Apple iBookstore's romance category, and #57 among all paid titles at Apple. At Kobo, she's #9 today.

Two or three years from now when ebooks account for more than 50% of the book market, the same two dangerous questions above will yield a more unequivocal answer in favor of self-publishing.

The major ebook retailers - Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon - have embraced indie ebook authors and grant their works equal shelf presence alongside Big Publishing authors. Readers, not publishers, have become the curators.

Do authors still need publishers in this new world order? I think it all goes back to my first question. To survive and thrive, publishers big and small must do for authors what authors cannot or will not do for themselves.

The next chapter of this revolution may very well be written by progressive literary agents. Literary agents, responsible for protecting the best interests of their author clients, are encouraging the very best authors to consider the potential of self-publishing. 60-70% royalty, or 5-17%? The math is not difficult when ebooks rule the roost.

Welcome to the revolution.

Mark Coker has created a Slideshare presentation to accompany this post. Click here to access The Uprising in Book Publishing.