Mike Spinak »

Masthead header

Dreaming of Middlemen

Long-Eared Owl Stare ©Mike Spinak

Long-Eared Owl Stare ©Mike Spinak

Imagine you start a small business. You make something, intent to sell it to earn a living. How many layers of superfluous impediments would you like to put between you and your customers? How lengthy of a delay would you like to add to bringing your offering to market? How much would you like to reduce your profits?

If you’re wondering why anyone would want to do any of that, I often wonder the same thing when I come across unknown authors doing all of these. By which I mean: looking for publishers and agents.

Writers who seek publishers are, in essence, running small businesses. They make written content of various types, and then try to sell it.

The ostensible model of the publisher-author relationship is that of venture capitalist-entrepreneur. The author has a creation to sell; the publisher has the money and means to bring it to market.

In exchange for putting up the money and bearing the financial risk, the publisher demands a cut of the profits. How large of a cut varies, depending upon which publisher, whether it’s a printed book or ebook, and so on – but it’s typically the lion’s share. Correspondingly, the author’s share is attenuated. Usually, an author ends up with somewhere between 2% and 17.5% of the cover price for a paper book, and perhaps a little more with a digital book.

Meanwhile, publishers also demand certain other terms and conditions, such as creative control. They get to choose the title, book cover – everything. If they decide to cut it down 100 pages and slap on a happy ending, that’s their prerogative. They can do whatever they want with a book, and stories abound of authors dismayed by how publishers exercised this control.

This relationship between publisher and author is predicated upon the author’s need for what the publisher provides. The publisher provides the capital, which covers such things as editing and cover art, and most of all goes into printing thousands of copies. The publisher then provides the distribution system to get the book placed in bookstores and other appropriate venues.

Or so the theory goes.

Authors no longer need large sums to pay for big print runs for their books. Nowadays, it’s possible to get books affordably printed on demand, one at a time, as books are ordered. Furthermore, it’s now possible for authors to sell electronic books, which have practically no material costs at all.

As for distribution, authors can now directly put their books on Amazon’s online bookstore, and also Apple’s, Google’s, Sony’s – all of the biggest online book retailers. While distribution in brick and mortar bookstores would also be great, authors have quite decent access to book distribution on their own.

Authors still need developmental editors, proofreaders, cover artists, and the like, but authors can easily hire them freelance, rather than relying on publishers to provide them. Depending upon the book, the hired hands will likely cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. That’s not trivial, but it’s a lot less than the share authors would otherwise give up to publishers. It’s also a low enough cost that most truly determined authors can find ways to bring publishing within reach on their own. Especially now that crowdsourced funding has become a realistic option.

When you remove the writer’s need for venture capital, what value proposition does that leave publishers to offer writers for negotiation? Marketing budget, savvy, reach, and connections, plus a distribution network with brick-and-mortar bookstores. Whatever the publisher can bring to the table to spur book sales. Publishers purportedly still have an advantage in this area. Most writers have no idea how to market a book, and even if they did, they’d rather devote their time to writing more.

However, the sands have shifted in the last several years. People have stopped reading newspapers, and most magazines have gone out of business. The yellow pages have been displaced by the world wide web. Record stores have disappeared and been replaced by online retailers such as the iTunes store. Major television networks have lost most viewers to other alternatives, like small cable channels, Netflix, video games, and the internet. The large bookstore chains, such as Borders and B. Dalton, have gone out of business. Amazon has become the dominant book retailer. In this environment, the publishing industry’s tried and true marketing strategies from the past no longer produce the results they used to. Publishers don’t actually have much effective marketing savvy and connections, anymore.

Nor are they likely to earmark marketing dollars for unknown authors. Instead, they shift the onus of marketing and selling books onto the authors. They want authors to build their marketing platforms and their readership before seeking publication. Then the publishers want to pick the authors who already demonstrate they have the ability to sell the book, and who come with a fully developed book promotion plan ready to implement.

In addition to everything above, many publishers are transitioning toward digital-only publishing runs for many of their books. This means both that they are not venturing the capital to print these books, and they’re also not distributing the books to bookstores.

The main purpose of a publisher in the publisher-author relationship – venture capital – is being obviated. The secondary purposes of a publisher in the publisher-author relationship – marketing and distribution – are also being obviated. From a practical standpoint, publishers don’t actually offer most lower-and middle-tier authors anything compelling, anymore. Just a willingness to take most of the money, while stripping creative control and greatly slowing the process of bringing books to market.

This is doubly true for agents. Not only do you not need a vestigial publisher in order to bring your book to market, but even if you insist on one, you still don’t need an agent to get one. Agents have no better ability to get publishers to publish your work than you do on your own. And as for negotiating contracts, you’re better off hiring a lawyer for a one-time fee to negotiate your publishing contract than getting an agent to do so for a 15% cut of all future profits. You’ll get more competent representation for a better price, while avoiding conflicting interests.

Big publishers have always leveraged their financial upper hand to unequalize deals with authors in their own favor; now they’ve lost the upper hand, but continue to offer the same deals. Yet most unpublished writers still strive for book deals with vestigial publishers. When I ask them why, after years of no success with agents and publishers, they don’t just decide to independently publish their books themselves, they mostly give me answers like, “I’ve always dreamed of publishing my book traditionally,” or, “A deal with a publishing house would make me feel like I made it.”

This attitude is perhaps unique to the writing industry. To put this in perspective, imagine a farmer in a similar position. Let’s say the farmer has an option of selling fruits and vegetables from a stand, where her farm meets the road. If she did this, she’d sell the produce for retail, and keep most of the profits for herself. Let’s say the farmer may also be able to achieve an option to consign fruits and vegetables to Safeway to sell in their supermarkets. If she did this, she’d get a much lower wholesale price, but could perhaps sell a lot more.

Maybe the farmer will think the fruit stand makes more sense, or maybe she’ll think supermarket distribution makes more sense, or some combination of the two. Perhaps changing circumstances, such as the government turning the small country road next to her farm into a major interstate highway, will affect her choices. She can make whatever decision she wants.

In this scenario, the supermarket chains would basically be serving as middlemen between the farmer and the produce consumers. That’s not intrinsically good or bad. If they’re useful, then she should use them. If not, then she shouldn’t.

In such a case, we’d expect the farmer to choose the option which seems best for business. Or, to put it a different way, it would be surprising if the farmer sentimentally pined about supermarket distribution. It would be bizarre for her to let out a wistful sigh and say, “I’ve always dreamed of supermarket distribution,” or, “I’d know I’d made it as a farmer if my produce was in a big chain supermarket.” They’re just middlemen. Romanticizing middlemen into some sort of corporate versions of Prince Charming who will one day see that the glass slipper fits your foot, so he can turn you into a real princess, is nonsensical and counterproductive.

So why do writers fantasize about putting middlemen between themselves and their readers?

It’s largely for emotional reasons. Authors feel unsure whether their creations are any good. They can’t tell on their own, so they crave external validation. They latch onto the notion that landing an agent and / or book contract with a publisher will definitively confirm that they are good enough.

Publishers and agents are poor indicators of whether an author’s work is good enough, and are ultimately likely to be dissatisfying at fulfilling the need for validation. Putting aside that their record of picking winners is shaky at best, they’re not even picking based on quality. This should be obvious to anyone who looks at the choices they back most vigorously, such as celebrity gossip and ghostwritten politicians’ campaign tracts. They pick what they think will sell, which is not the same as what’s good. Moreover, they’re not even picking based on what will sell to readers, but instead upon what will sell to bookstore managers.

The best validation is from people buying books, posting reviews and ratings, sending letters and emails, meeting you at events and telling you what they think, etc. In other words, the best validation is that which comes directly from readers. They’re the only ones whose say in the matter really counts. And the best way to maximize feedback directly from readers is to eliminate the middlemen separating readers from you.

I meet writers too often who endlessly beat their heads against the wall, attempting to get publishers or literary agents to take notice of them. They delay their writing careers by years or sometimes even decades over this unnecessary task, whiling away their time researching speculative contacts and sending out submissions according to each one’s idiosyncratic guidelines. All while their confidence in their work slowly erodes away. They could be published right now. Their work could already be out there, getting read and loved. They could already be receiving feedback and improving, already be making money, already building their dreams. Instead, they’re letting their literary aspirations get trampled and unfulfilled.

Does all this mean you should never publish with a vestigial publisher? No. There are always exceptions. What it does mean is that you shouldn’t let unnecessary middlemen determine your outcome as a writer. If they can truly help you, then work with them. If they’re hindering you, then just go around them. You have options. Why would you let other people control your future as an author?

You can take your literary destiny into your own hands, now. Please do.



Further Reading:

The Assumption of Agents

Do You Have What Publishers Really Want?

Mass Paperback Publisher Goes All Digital 


Ten Truths About Book Publishing

  • Julie Kitzenberger - Mike, GREAT article! So well written: very clear and well worth my time to read in its entirety.
    So glad Bill Henderson brought this to my attention!
    Julie Kitzenberger http://www.CATsnaps.comReplyCancel

  • Pam Boling - Excellent post, Mike!! I know an author who wrote for a publisher (with agent and editor) for nearly three decades, at about 4% royalty, before realizing that she could earn far more by self-publishing. She has over 100 titles in nine languages. In the seven years since she “fired” her publisher and agent, she has earned about half as much as in the previous three decades!

    You are definitely on the right track!ReplyCancel

  • admin - Thank you, Julie.

    Thank you, Pam.ReplyCancel

  • Suzanne - This is very informative I will send it along to a writer friend. Thanks MikeReplyCancel

  • 7 Reasons Self-Published Books Might Appeal to Readers » Mike Spinak - […] other day I posted the article Dreaming of Middlemen, explaining why self-publishing might appeal to authors. Today’s post is a companion piece […]ReplyCancel

  • Self-Publishing’s Quality Problem » Mike Spinak - […] get past the gatekeepers because their books weren’t good enough. However, as I discussed in Dreaming of Middlemen, there are plenty of other good reasons to self-publish – such as keeping full creative control, […]ReplyCancel