Publish First so You Don’t Perish

Wandering through an airport bookstore last week, I was struck by how many of the new bestsellers on the shelves were originally self-published by their authors as e-books (including Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series which has just been published by Simon and Schuster).  We all know the publishing industry has been under a lot of pressure, like the movie and music industries before it, partly as a result of digital technologies that make publication and dissemination so much cheaper and easier than it was before.  But it’s really interesting to me that as publishing houses consolidate and take on less authors, they are also moving into a trend of watching the self-published successes and scooping them up.  Obviously, there’s a heck of a lot of self-published books that are never picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s interesting to see how the publishing industry is responding to the digital self-publishing phenomenon in the approach of watching what’s successful in the self-publishing game and then taking it on for publication.  It’s a clever idea because they already know the book is popular before they publish it.  But I wonder how much money they make from this approach given that many of the people who wanted to read the book will have already read it by the time it’s published by a traditional publisher.  I also wonder – and I haven’t checked this at all – whether the publishing houses add anything to the book in terms of editorial work or if it’s exactly the same book as the original self-published version.  If they don’t do a lot of editing, it’s really a pretty cheap endeavor for them as compared with working on a new book from scratch.

4 thoughts on “Publish First so You Don’t Perish

  1. Great questions, Jacqui — and in some ways, isn’t this just a mirroring of what we’re seeing happening in fan fiction, UGC sites, YouTube? Producers/Publishers never knew how predict hits (that’s why sequels are endenmic, even when they’re proven to be less likely to garner viewers — at least they will be unlikely to fail). Now that we can rely on many authors to self-publish things for free (or nearly so), the intermediaries can cut down on risk by spotting what’s already got a following and co-opting authors. I guess the only difference between this and your historic talent scouts is that these authors are already reaching a pretty sizable audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if that became a sort of pre-condtition to signing. I.e. — authors have to bring an existing “book of business” to publishers and distributors.

  2. Interesting, Jacqui. My initial thought was that the readership of self-published material is a narrow slice of the potential total. Success within that narrow slice might nevertheless be attractive to publishers who have some evidence in hand that the work in question demands attention from at least one market segment. I would be surprised if there wasn’t some clean-up involved on the part of the publisher, but no more than the clean-up typically involved with any published work.

  3. Interestingly, many literary agents still advise new authors against self-publishing, saying that the publishers will take unsuccessful self-published efforts as a sign the author is no good. I’ve never heard actual publishers say this, only agents. I suspect it’s the agents trying to protect their own turf. If the author self-publishes successfully and is picked up directly by a traditional publisher, there’s less work for the agents. Even if the successful e-published author uses an agent to sign with a traditional publisher after the publisher has approached the author directly, presumably the agent can’t secure as high a commission as (s)he would have if (s)he had placed the book with a publisher in the first place.

  4. I think that’s very true, Jake. There’s a huge amount of self-published work out there and only a very small slice is picked up by traditional publishers. And I know from talking to self-published authors how hard most of them work to get the attention of a potential readership, not to mention of a “real” publisher.

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