Do Authors Need Publishers?

Do authors need publishers?I’m feeling a little sorry for Steven Zacharias. He’s the CEO of Kensington Publishing, a family-owned publishing company in New York, and this week he wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post about how authors still need publishers. You know, because they offer us so many benefits, like great editorial support and help with publicity.

Yeah, I laughed when I read that, too.

Then I asked him to clarify the following statement: “From what I’ve read, some e-books are quite good but, for every one of these are many more that aren’t.” I wasn’t sure from that whether he had read many indie titles, or whether he was just going by hearsay. Turns out it’s the latter. Mr. Zacharias told me, “I’ve only read a handful of indie published books because it’s natural for a reader to go to the bestsellers where publishers have spent a lot of money marketing that author or book.” Hmm, well, I’m a reader, and I don’t read many bestsellers at all. It’s been years since I’ve found much of anything on the bestseller lists that interested me. Okay, I take that back. I really liked Hugh Howey’s Wool. Oh, that’s right – Howey self-published the series first, didn’t he?

Mr. Zacharias also makes the point that indie success stories are few and far between, and that most indies don’t ever strike it rich. True enough. But neither do most trad-pubbed authors. And it used to be that midlist authors could make a decent living from their books because their publishers paid them a reasonable advance, and then got them visibility by dropping some cash on marketing for their books. Those days, I hear, are pretty much over.

Mr. Zacharias also mentioned in his reply to me that his publishing house, as well as several others, have their own ebook-only imprints. However, these types of imprints typically don’t pay an advance, and while their royalty rates might be a titch better than the average trad-pubbed author gets, it’s still nowhere near the 70 percent, or even 35 percent, that an indie title can earn its author.

But then he turned around and, in a reply to another commenter, pushed the importance of physical books. He said retailers still sell more dead-tree books than e-books, the growth in e-book sales slowed last year, and the only way an indie can get a dead-tree book into stores is by knocking on doors and convincing store owners to stock them. Again, he’s right. And it’s especially difficult to get a big-box bookstore to stock indie books. But those big-box bookstores are having troubles of their own. And smaller, independent bookstores – whose owners might be more amenable to doing business in a new way – seem to be making a comeback.

As I thought about Mr. Zacharias’s points, one thing nagged at me: Why did he feel the need to write a Huffington Post article to try to convince us that working with a publisher is better than going indie? Then I realized the answer was obvious: if every author turned to self-publishing, he would have no products to sell. He needs us worse than we need him.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

39 thoughts on “Do Authors Need Publishers?”

  1. Bravo, Lynne. I, too, replied to his post (as did many other indies). However,when you act like a pompous arse and state that Amazon should segregate Indies from trad-published authors, you should expect some backlash.

    1. I howled with laughter at that line, too. Gee, I wonder why publishers are trying to differentiate themselves from us? Maybe because a segregated marketplace is the only way to tell any difference? Thanks, Nickie. 🙂

  2. I say bravo, too. Did he mention what his company did to promote books, especially by unknown authors? Did he also say how long the books were available if they didn’t sell a lot in a short time? That would be some additional questions I would ask.

  3. I had the same issue with his article. I wondered how he could give his opinion when he hadn’t read many self-published titles. Just more irrelevance to heap onto the ever-growing pile.
    Good article, Lynne, thanks for pulling his mask off.

    1. Thanks, Martin. Yes, that, and his insistence that nobody could make a living by selling books for 99 cents or free. Clearly he hadn’t talked to you. 😉 And it’s also obvious that he doesn’t understand the economics of indie publishing. Sure, he can’t make a profit from 99-cent titles, with his publishing-company infrastructure to support. But that doesn’t mean nobody can.

  4. Great post, Lynne! I had a very similar reaction, feeling that this article was written more out of desperation than supplying information. And I’ve got an upcoming post about another aspect of it.

  5. And Kensington is a friendly cottage compared to most of the industry… and less stupid.
    The very question, Do writers need publishers, has been pretty graphically answered over the last few years. (Actually many writers never did need publishers–I sold many tens of thousands of books by myself, and I could name a dozen others who’ve made a living at it.)
    The question is actually, Can publishing companies offere writers more than they can do for themselves. And that question is a very individual one.
    What I’m hearing here is grasping at straws.
    We’ve all heard the “more paper books sold” thing. But take out all the text books and coffee table books and law books and school yearbooks, and it narrows down considerably. Take out the grandfathered-in best-seller giants that indie writers aren’t really competing with, anyway, and it gets even cosier.
    Ebook growth is slowing? Oh, dear… you mean more people are buying them, just not as many as at first? The “decrease in the increase” thing is a noted lie-with-stats ploy.
    What gets me is ALL of these people, and half the social media nitwits spend all this time saying “Print is not dead. There will always be paper books.” What I haven’t seen, ever, is anybody who said “print is dead” and “paper books will cease to exist”.

    1. I agree with you, Lin. To cite another example in the same vein, I have lost count of the number of new technologies that were supposed to kill off radio. The radio business has changed a lot, and will continue to change, but it has not yet disappeared — nor will it. And neither will dead-tree books — but the marketplace will look very different once the shakeout is complete.

      And yes to your comments about Kensington. I took a look around their website while writing this post, and they look like they might be a decent company. I certainly wouldn’t tar them with the same brush as the Big Five in terms of business models.

      1. The radio analogy is a good one. No, radio didn’t die and go away… BUT, it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to make your fortune with pilot for a radio show.
        Another way it can go: people still hunt with bows and arrows, ride horses, train falcons… but none of them offer a lot to warfare, hunting, etc.

  6. Personally, I think some cash changed hands somewhere to get that article up on Huffington Post. Probably a charitable donation somewhere, but literary payola nonetheless. It didn’t really have any angle other than letting folks know of the existence of Kensington Publishing. And he could’ve done that without stirring up indie fervor.

    1. I don’t know about money changing hands, but I agree that the post was basically an ad for his company. And I wonder whether he expected the indie backlash he got.

      And btw, everybody, I shoiuld have mentioned in the post that it was Rich who ran across the article in the first place — I just piled on. So thank you, sir. And speaking of payola, your check is in the mail. 😉

  7. I’m not into battle tactics and strategy, but isn’t this called a ‘rearguard’ action…to cover a …-gasp- … retreat? Great article Lynne!

  8. Excerpt from Huffington Post article …
    ‘As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published.’

    I don’t like that sentence. Um, self-published books aren’t professionally edited? Or. Only professional editors.exist in traditional publishing houses?

  9. I fail to see how he’s going to attract writers to his company when he makes a blanket comment about how “bad” indie books are. Especially when you haven’t done any research.
    I also think it’s natural for a reader to go for something they like. Personally, the word “bestseller” does nothing for me.
    And if indie books truly are that bad, then they’re just going to get rejected by him. It only takes one person to read and reject your work after months in the slush pile.
    The last couple of people who I knew that got published by traditional paper publishers were told if they wanted a launch, then they had to organise it – and pay for it. They did only have to pay the “author price” for any copies that they wanted to sell/give away at said launch.

    Great article, Lynne.
    Just goes to show the real battles that we are up against in trying to get our work out there.

  10. Nice job critiquing the emperor’s wardrobe!

    It’s always a thrill to see ignorant assumptions challenged and refuted. The original article was quite an exercise for my eye-rolling muscles.

    Readers have always trusted personal recommendations more than polished marketing, and judgment-by-review is a defining trait of the indie publishing world. Yes, it’s hard to get noticed, but I don’t expect to ever be a best-seller. (Hope is a different animal entirely…)

    Even if my novel only finds a thousand readers before I die of old age, that will still be a million times more rewarding than letting a great story languish unseen by anyone at all. And a few hundred bucks in pocket is more than I would’ve earned otherwise. If the gatekeepers of trad-publishing refuse to pay attention to the changing world outside their walls, then they deserve to starve inside them.

  11. Oh, well done, Lynne, what an excellent serve. The old guard is certainly hurting, and I must admit to deriving just a little sadistic pleasure from their pain.

  12. Great piece, Lynne. Articles like that make me think they’re feeling the pain. Less and less writers need the old-style publishers. When the new-thinking will emerge, the new-publishers will attract writers from every corner of the planet.

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