Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge
By my count, half of the top 10 bestselling science fiction authors on Amazon right now are self-published or published with Amazon. Leading the pack is A.G. Riddle, who has been killing it the past few months with two novels that hang around in the top 50 overall on the paid Kindle store. B.V. Larson has been among the top sellers for two years. What’s important to note about these rankings is that it reflects overall sales across all titles in that particular genre. Since Amazon is the #1 bookstore in the land, it’s a great way to do some guestimating. Without transparent data, it’s all we can really do.
What really strikes me about the top 10 is the absence of any new traditionally published science fiction author. I’ve read some great books this past year by Ted Kosmatka, Max Barry, and the like. I also adore some recent debut authors (past few years) like Ernest Cline, who wrote Ready Player One. But what I’m seeing above is extremely established authors with massive backlists (Card, Atwood, Weber) and indies.
This means something, I’m just not sure what. I think it means that a sustained and profitable career as a science fiction author is more likely, these days, to have its origin in self-publishing. I don’t think traditional publishers can foster the sort of release schedule an author needs to really break out in a big way in the popular genres. It should be noted that an author can rank on this list with a single bestselling title, as with Rysa Walker, who has a title in the top 25. So a massive new release could crack this list. Right now, we aren’t seeing that from the big houses.
Part of the problem is that the major publishers ignore the genres that sell the best. This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction. Just the sort of thing acquiring editors are looking for and hoping people will read more of, but not what customers were asking me for.
I don’t think it should come as a shock that indies are killing it in these underserved genres. The supply simply can’t keep up with reader demand. And this list hints at something else: It might be that publishers need to re-think how best to launch a new writing career. One book a year probably won’t cut it, maybe never will again. Look at what Random House did with E.L. James last year: All three books came out and buttressed each other. If they would have spread those out, the novelty may have worn off before readers got to books 2 and 3.
It also helped THE HUNGER GAMES that book 3 was right around the corner when the first two hit critical mass. And in the UK last year, Random House launched all three of my Silo Saga books in a 12-month period, and they did gangbusters, selling more print copies there than Simon & Schuster was able to sell here in the States, party because of marketing efforts but also because of the amplification of new and speedy releases.
I recently posted an audacious claim that major publishers are bound to emulate indies, which would be quite the reversal. I want to now explore how publishers could actually do this, how they could learn from self-published authors. Because I want publishers to do well. I want them to help new authors break out. I want them to keep bookstores open and readers happy. So what I’m going to do, in a very rambling fashion, is pretend that someone just put me in charge of a major publishing house. Let’s say HarperCollins (just to pick one at random). Here’s how I would blow the doors off my competitors and become the #1 publisher in the land (overtaking indies, which I estimate now rank #1 in total sales).
Each of the following would be fairly simple to implement. Each one highlights an advantage self-published authors currently own. This is me giving up state’s secrets. I’m able to do this, because nobody really listens to me (thank goodness!)
1. The first thing I would do would be the most important, and that would be to form a community among my stable of HarperCollins authors. I haven’t seen this discussed anywhere else (makes me wonder if it’s a daft idea), but I think the #1 advantage self-published authors have right now is a sense of community. We hang out in the same forums (usually KBoard’s Writers’ Cafe); we chat with each other on FB and in private groups and through email lists; we congregate at conventions and conferences; and we share with one another. We share sales data. We share promotional tools and ideas. We let one another know what works and what doesn’t. If there’s a glitch with a distributor, we point it out. If there’s a way to increase visibility, we tell everyone. If we stumble upon a secret, we broadcast it.
The amplification of all of our efforts cannot be fully appreciated, I don’t think. And no publicity team at any major publisher can hope to compete. They can’t. I was sending emails to one of my publishers to explain what was basic knowledge to me (because of KBoards) but esoteric to them, as it turned out. This was one of the largest publishers in the world. It took six emails, and I still don’t think the publicity team understands what I was getting at. They don’t understand today. Every one of their authors would benefit greatly from this knowledge, which I assumed any publisher would know about. So my highest priority would be to create the same sort of sharing and caring among my authors that self-published authors enjoy. A private forum for HarperCollins authors. Email blasts that went out weekly, detailing the things they can do to drive sales. Book exchanges within genres. Meet-ups in major cities. I would help these authors form an identity as a HarperCollins author. I would encourage the bestselling authors to serve as mentors. I would leverage the drive and enthusiasm of debut authors to keep the community humming. No one would feel ignored, because they would have each other to converse with. All the emails we at HarperCollins currently get with basic questions? Now, they are being answered across the group.
2. Related to the above, I would henceforth require that my publicity department spend at least an hour a day on the popular self-published forums, interacting with authors, reading posts, and learning from the people who in just a few short years have overtaken us (Harper Collins) on the bestseller charts. Both of these points (and several to come) rely on a loosening of ego. They require that publishers see authors as valued assets and publishing experts in their own right. Crowdsourcing is the key. Treating each member of that crowd as a replaceable widget or a dunce incapable of understanding what it takes to forge a bestselling book is not the answer. It’s the opposite of the answer. Glance up again at the top selling authors in science fiction if you need reminders.
3. Every format, as soon as it’s available. Here’s another reason that WOOL was one of the only fiction debuts to hit the Sunday Times list in the UK last year: The e-book was out first. That’s the new rule at HarperCollins. As soon as that puppy is ready, it goes live. Readers are the ones who build buzz, on their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. On their review blogs and on Goodreads. Forget Publishers Weekly. Forget Kirkus. That’s trying to fashion bestsellers through bookstores. Bestsellers happen through readers. Through social media. So we are going to get them the ebook immediately, and price it low enough ($6.99 or less) that they’ll pick up a print copy if they love the work.
When the print version is ready, we’re going to release the hardback and the paperback at the same time. Heresy, I know, but that’s what my HarperCollins is now doing. Libraries and collectors will order the hardbacks. Everyone else will get the paperback. It never ceased to amaze me, working in a bookstore, to see all the promotional money spent while the least-desired format (the hardback) was released. And then a whimper when the paperback came out. It’s a lost opportunity as publishers clamor for the higher margins on the hardback and get lower sales as a result. GIVE READERS WHAT THEY WANT. That’s what my HarperCollins is doing.
4. Related to this, we are bringing back the mass market paperback. Readers love them. I have also discovered that readers love the paper-on-board hardbacks like Random House UK did with the Silo Saga. No dustjackets to get destroyed or misplaced. Just a beautiful hardback that is CHEAPER TO PRODUCE. A better product that readers prefer and costs less? That’s a no-brainer. Except that the people who work in publishing houses have a nostalgic and aesthetic affinity for the dustjacket. Not anymore. This is the New HarperCollins, and we’re gonna give readers what they want. Hardbacks for $15.00. Mass market paperbacks for $8. Special collector editions (really gorgeous books. Faux leather and stitched bindings. Ribbons. Embossing.) for $40. Print needs to appeal to the high end and the disposable end. Right now, they’re aiming for a target that nobody wants. The trade paperback becomes our lowest initiative.
5. Hardbacks come with free ebooks. The method we use to make this happen is simple: Readers download the new HarperCollins Kicks Ass app on their phone. They take a picture of the UPC code on the back of the book. They take a picture of their receipt. They enjoy the ebook downloaded to their phone or any device of their choosing.
How do we work this magic? At New HarperCollins, we have a super-secret computer dohicky algorithm . . . Nah, what we have is a mix of common sense and trust. If ten people wanted to sit around and take pics of the same UPC code and the same receipt, all ten of those people would get an ebook. We don’t worry about that (just like we no longer worry about ebooks being available at libraries). You see, at New HarperCollins, we understand that your time is more valuable than your money. Reading one of our books to completion is the best gift you can give us. Which is why none of our books employ DRM. It’s why we don’t combat piracy; we celebrate it. At the end of all of our ebooks, you’ll find a brief bio about the hardworking author who wrote the novel, written by the author herself. The bio will also thank the reader for their time, recommend a similar HarperCollins novel, list that author’s other works, and ask that the reader help spread the word or write a review.
No judging. No treating paying customers like criminals. No making demands that anybody pays for anything. A thank you and a call to action. Links for more great books. Here at New HarperCollins, we don’t worry about how people get our books, only that they read them. We’ve seen what indies have done with perma-free and giveaways. We see that the authors who shun DRM, who trust their readers, who embrace pirates, sit up there on the top 10 lists. Now we’re doing the same.
6. We are tearing up the favored nation clauses. This is one of the darkest secrets in the publishing industry. The reason major publishers can’t offer more than 25% of net on digital sales is because of clauses in contracts with bestselling authors. These clauses state that the moment another author gets more than 25%, they also get this higher percentage effective immediately. These asinine and selfish clauses — agreed to by shortsighted agents and authors — have hurt debut writers while helping absolutely no one. Publishers are hamstrung. They can’t compete with the 70% that Amazon and others pay. Which is why one of my highest priorities as the CEO of New HarperCollins will be to have some hotshot lawyer strike down every one of these clauses. I would sue myself, as CEO of HarperCollins, for gross incompetence. I’d take myself all the way to the Supreme Court if I had to. Or . . . I might simply go to these authors and their agents and explain how dumb we were (and how selfish!) to think this was a good idea. “No one is ever getting a higher royalty because of this,” I would say. “Agree to strike it, and then we’ll be able to negotiate freely with your next book. And we’ll be able to entice new authors over to HarperCollins.”
Agents and authors will readily agree. Not just because this is logical and humane, but because of the community I’ve created up with #1 on this list. Suddenly, every author and agent worth a damn wants to work with HarperCollins. Suddenly, we are acting as if we are competing with the other publishers rather than playing along with their wishes. We are the new T-Mobile, scaring the pants off AT&T. This is New HarperCollins.
7. Hey, non-compete clauses. You’re history. This one is simple. Like DRM, we wave goodbye the moment I take the job. We’ve learned from indies that more releases boost the sales of all books. So publish as much as you want, when you want, however you want. Got a short story in the same universe as a book we own? Please publish it. Thank you.
Publishers should be encouraging their authors to do this, not forcing them to sign clauses preventing it. Hell, they should be PAYING them to write more and publish more. At New HarperCollins, we are turning this trend right around. Yo, indies, wait up!
8. Same with release schedules. If we like a book, and we know it’s going to be a trilogy, we’re going to hold back until we have the second book in the can and the third book scheduled. This is serving readers, not working against them. Readers don’t want to wait so long that they forget what happened in the last book. Now, the trilogy is going to release with a month between books. Yeah, bookstores are going to hate this. It means a lot of ordering. It also means when readers show up and browse the shelves, all three books are there! No more seeing the third book come out and not being able to find the first book. Besides, at New HarperCollins we understand that the #1 source for your books is online. Release schedules won’t be dictated by bookstores and sales reps but by reader demands and buying habits. Speaking of sales reps…
9. They’re gone. Sorry. I know a lot of these people, and I love them. I also love the many other people who are losing their jobs at publishing houses. Like the editors. We’re going to save the editors (and hire more) and get rid of the sales reps. Yes, our books will have lower orders at bookstores. They’ll also have lower returns. I’ve been there, at the bookstore, going through a catalog with a sales rep. You want to know why sales reps sell more books? Because we like them. Which means buying more books that we know we won’t sell, books we know we’ll return for a full refund (minus shipping). We’re going to let our authors and our books stand on their own, fair and square. We’re going to concentrate on our readers, who are the best sales reps. And we’re going to concentrate on our online distributors. If bookstores want to blacklist us for being pro-reader and pro-online, we’ll use that PR boost to our advantage. And they’ll lose our sales.
10. Finite terms of license. This is a biggie. A MONSTER. We will no longer buy your book forever. We will instead license the rights to your work for a set period of time. Probably five years. That means, no matter how well your book is doing, you get the rights back in 5 years. All the rights. Even the cover art we created and the edits we performed. And we hope you’ll sign with us again (knowing you’ll get the rights back again). Granted, this will mean a lower advance (which more and more authors are begging for, believe it or not). You are a publishing partner. We want you to believe in this work and invest in the long-term health of this work. So see it as something you still own. See it as something you’ll have the rights to again. The extra push and energy this will create will offset the loss in sales we currently enjoy on backlist titles. It’ll also mean our choice of debut authors. Every other publisher gets our scraps. This is why New HarperCollins is now the #1 publisher in the land (if we manage to overtake the indies. It’ll be tough). Finite terms of license also means that we negotiate fair contracts based on sales history. If the book is no longer doing all that great, we offer a little. If it surprised us, you get the contract you deserve. No more treating everyone like crap in the hope of hitting the jackpot with one author, and treating them like even more crap. That way of doing business is over.
11. No more advertising. Our money is going into editors and into acquiring new authors, not into merchandising dollars at bookstores and not into ads that don’t sell books. No more mailing out scads of ARCs to reviewers. Readers are the only reviewers we care about. And instead of fighting Amazon, we sign up for every promotional idea they come up with. Matchbook? Absolutely. Lending Library? Yes, please. Kindle Daily Deals? Take our books, now. Related to this:
12. Goodbye, New York City. We’ll miss the expensive lunches on the business accounts, but we won’t miss the rent. We’re looking for a low-slung building in an industrial center near a nice airport. Houston would be a good choice. More of our employees will be working from home. Business will be conducted much as it already is: by email. We’ll see our friends at all the major conventions. The money we save will go into higher royalties, which means our authors want to stick with us. When we get up to 50% of net, which is doable, that self-publishing royalty is no longer causing the leak it once was. Once again, we have our pick of every single manuscript out there. The other publishers are feasting on our crumbs.
13. Monthly payments and speedy sales data. Authors enjoy money and they enjoy metrics, and right now they have to wait too long for both. At New HarperCollins, we pay royalties every 30 days. And whatever sales data we have, you have. Simple as that. If self-published authors can have this, then our authors should have this. No more waiting six months to pay people. That’s history. No more wondering how your book is doing; you have access to all the data we can cull. Share your results in the HarperCollins Author forums.
That would be my first month at the job. My second month, we would really get busy.