Those of you who've been around publishing for any stretch of time are familiar with the whining about traditional distribution. The same thing happens every six months, right after royalties come out. "OMG, returns! Hate! Hiss!" And yes, returns suck. You'll never hear me say otherwise.
But the thing about that system, the one that let a retailer return books to the distributor and publisher for full credit, is that it allowed widespread distribution of lesser-known authors. Retailers could take a chance on stocking a book that they might not otherwise stock. Small presses couldn't have flourished without this guarantee. The midlist existed in large part because of the safety net provided by returns.
Yes, it was an antiquated system, conceived in the depression era as a way to prevent the collapse of the book trade. Yes, it ate into profits and turned publishing accounting into a funhouse illusion where 80% of books fail to break even. Yes, returns could kill an author's earnings and career. No doubt about any of that.
But it also allowed retailers to have diverse stock in their stores. It allowed publishers to go to contract with new authors with no following or platforms. It allowed new authors to break in and have a shot at readership. And it allowed avid readers to have a steady stream of reading material, and casual readers instant access to the book of their whim.
Which is just to say, that system wasn't going to budge until we found a way to preserve those advantages in a new system. And that's exactly what direct publishing (that is, publishing done directly by the author through the retailer, whether POD or digital) does -- it still allows for wide proliferation of high-risk books, while minimizing the risk to retailers. Now the risk is borne by the authors instead of by the publishers, but the author also reaps much higher benefits -- as much as 70% of the cover price on digital downloads, and a variable amount on POD texts.
And this is why direct publishing will ultimately overtake other distribution models. Now, there is still some advantage to authors to being traditionally published, though those advantages are smaller than they were and continue to shrink. Let's break this down by function, and you'll see what I mean.
This is the function authors probably think of first when they think of working with a publishing house. Which editor will acquire their work, and what kind of editing will she provide? Used to be that an author was pretty much guaranteed good attention from her editor. But then, as a result of the corporatization of publishing, editors began taking on extra tasks, and editing time became compromised. Editors might still have strong editing skills (though there are notorious exceptions), but that doesn't mean that they'll have the time to dedicate those skills to your book.
By contrast, with direct publishing, the author hires an editor and the editor is accountable to the author rather than to the house. The editor isn't saddled with endless meetings or interdepartmental supervision, so she provides editing, and only editing, rather than project management. Trust me -- former acquisitions editor, currently working freelance, so I have worked both sides of this process -- I have more time per project for editing now as a freelancer than I did when I was in-house. (Though I do frequently fall into the role of providing project management advice and other career guidance to my self-publishing clients -- but that's just because I can't help myself.)
In traditional publishing, these roles are sometimes lumped together in one department and sometimes handled separately. Sales is responsible for placing titles with retailers. PR and marketing handle ad buys, interviews, giveaways, and the like. The simple truth is that in most traditional houses, power is firmly seated with the sales team. They tell the editors what to acquire, and the editors have to win approval from sales for their buys. Ever hear an editor at a conference say, "In order to buy a book, I have to show X, Y, and Z to my sales team"? Now you know why. Ever hear publishing insiders talk about whether their house is or is not sales-driven or sales-led? Now you know why. The sales team talks to the retailers. The retailers say that customers are asking for this or that, and that some other thing isn't selling well. The sales team takes this information back to one of the endless staff meetings, and they use it to make acquisition decisions.
Think about it. This means that the current market is driving what will be on the shelves in a year. This means excellent books that don't fit the current market needs might get overlooked, because excellence is not the only criteria for acquisition. Editorial judgment and taste can be trumped by market concerns which will be outdated before the book goes to press. Direct publishing circumvents this issue in two ways -- first, it gets the product to market faster, so that lag between retailer desire and product placement shrinks. Second, it puts the sales decisions in the hands of the end customer -- or, I should say, it's more effective at letting the reader make the decision.
And you know how authors are complaining about how much PR they have to do on their own these days? That's the other side of the PR/marketing/sales department. Used to be that you could count on an in-house publicist to make at least some effort to promote a book. Every title got at least minimal attention, with bigger titles getting more attention. But little by little, these tasks are being pushed onto the authors. Some have to write their own jacket copy. Some have to design and buy their own bookmarks, postcards, and other promotional material. Some have to arrange their own interviews with the press. Some have to coordinate and pay for their own book tours. Book signings, ad buys, promotional packets for booksellers, gifts for warehouse distributors -- all these things used to be routine parts of the book business, and they're falling to the wayside because houses don't do them and authors can't afford to pick up all the slack. (Not at 8% royalties, anyway. At 70%, with steady sales, things become more possible.)
This is one place where traditional publishing still has a big advantage over direct publishing. The houses have established methods for moving titles into audio, translation, large print, film, and so on. And there just aren't equivalent channels available in direct publishing. But I think that will change over time. Not soon, but eventually.
We'll call this one a draw. Accounting is going to be a headache no matter who assumes most of the responsibility for it. With traditional print distribution, the distributor handled a lot of the accounting function, and there were good records kept for each title. (Note: good records. Not perfectly problem-free records.) Now record-keeping is a little shakier in some ways and a little more streamlined in others. This is probably going to continue to evolve as direct publishing grows. But for now, from the author's perspective, it's probably much the same no matter who provides the sales records.
Art and Design
With this aspect -- cover art and book design -- the advantage can go either way. Traditional print processes give a lot more leeway in book design than do POD or digital books. However, there are workarounds on the direct publishing side, for those who have the time, money, and technical skills to make it happen. So a direct-published book can be as good or better than a traditionally published book, but in most cases, a sharp eye will spot deficiencies in the POD product. And a digital book provides very limited design options. The bottom line is that direct-published authors tend to put a little money into cover, little or none into design, and that usually seems to work out okay. But a book produced in the traditional way is probably going to look and feel like a better book in some ways.
So that's how I see this shaking out right now. This is hugely different from any post I would have written as recently as two years ago, when direct publishing was similar to a vanity process. But now, with changes in distribution and retailing, the game is changing, and I expect that any post I write two years from now will also be very, very different from this current post.