'Ebooks are stupid' - why I decided to self-publish

Back in late February, Arnaud Nourry, the CEO of Hachette Livre said 'ebooks are stupid’. And that the industry had ‘one or two successes among a hundred failures’. 

At the time I had just started shopping around the manuscript of my latest novel, Official Secrets. To little success. Agents bit but were never fed, it seemed. It had commercial appeal apparently, just not enough. One particular agent suggested ‘the classic thriller, as you know, is a dying breed.’ He went on to suggest I try to write something more in the ‘zeitgeist’. Another agent rejected it on the grounds that he would have liked ‘less action’. I’ve never been so happy to read a rejection in my life! Rejected with a compliment.

The reason the first agent wrote ‘as you know’ was because my cover letter detailed my experience in the book industry. I was confused by his sentiment.

Firstly, I’ve been in the book trade for nearly 14 years. I have never heard of a genre called ‘classic thriller’.

Secondly, it was news to me that any kind of thriller was ‘dying’. It’s actually one of the genres I’d say that was positively thriving. Especially my particular shade of thriller: political/espionage. And just a few weeks after his email, BBC posted this reporting that sales of thrillers were 19% for the last year.

So what was he talking about?

I’d been dabbling in research in self-publishing for a while, after reading about Adam Croft and Mark Dawson’s staggering successes (they are not alone). Both have sold over 1 million books yet I had never heard of them until randomly happening across their stories online. After browsing the Kindle store what I found wasn’t a ‘dying breed’. I found a genre that was thriving with fresh new talent. Yes, with some ropey-looking efforts, but I could find you just as many traditional publishing examples these days too. (look no further than Birlinn’s shocking travesty of a design of Muriel Spark’s hardback reissues) I was also deeply impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit. I'd been reading guys like Gary Vaynerchuk for a while, and been compelled by their ideas on communicating your story to strangers to make casual readers into fans. But without a book deal, what was I supposed to do? That was when it hit me.

I knew it was the time to go it alone.

What the agent was talking about was simple: there’s no reason for him to care about a solid midlist author who’s going to sell a consistent 5000 copies a year. What an agent wants are those six-figure advances. Why? Because once that contract is signed the agent gets their bank: third on signing, third on delivery, and third on publication. What of afterwards? Once, you know, the book is on sale? Well, no one really cares much about the book after that. The publisher's attention is now diverted elsewhere at the next thing they paid a fortune for, and they have a responsibility to the huge number of other authors they publish. What I've seen evolve in the publishing industry in the last decade - and Salman Rushdie said this a long time ago - there are simply too many books published nowadays. 

LIVING THE DREAM? DREAM AGAIN...

Recently I was flicking through a copy of the Bookseller magazine. It had a two-page spread on a debut author who had just signed a book contract for nearly £400,000 and film rights on top of that. By any definition it was a staggering deal, and the writer had been pursued by all Big Six publishers at auction.

Then I noticed the Bookseller was seven months old.

Yet, I had never heard of the book.

I researched sales (I have access to industry data). It wasn’t pretty. For the author. Or anyone else concerned.

I should say at this point, I won’t name the book for a few reasons. Firstly, because I’ve never been deemed talented enough to be bestowed a six-figure advance, so who the hell am I to judge. Also, it’s just impolite, and there’s no way to name it without it seeming like I’m poking fun. The author’s done just fine, and won’t need to work for a while. But they certainly won’t be able to retire.

I also can’t speak too solidly for digital sales (Amazon doesn’t release such data). But judging by the number of Amazon and Kobo reviews, there are very reliable calculations that give a ballpark figure, and they don’t amount to anything like publisher expectation for the advance.

As for the film deal, well, with book sales being what they are, although there’s a director attached, if the second book in the trilogy fails as badly this summer as its predecessor, I’m pretty sure the studio will be putting the film into turnaround pretty soon. Why? The book’s just proven there’s no audience for the character and the story. That’s the only reason studios buy rights to books in advance of publication in the first place. They trust the publisher’s made the right call. But when the book fails, try approving a film budget from a Hollywood studio head. People lose their jobs banking on film projects like that.

And that’s how in the space of eighteen months you go from mid-six-figure advance and film deal, the toast of the London Book Fair, to being out of work. And now no other publisher will touch you because you’re seen as tainted goods.

After a stellar PR campaign which included underground billboards, bus ads, the hardback barely sold 500 copies. The paperback fared only marginally better.

But if you’re thinking this was a random anomaly, you’re wrong. Failures like these are unbelievably common.

I could easily list another ten books from the last 18 months, all with similarly huge advances. I see massive articles about them in the Bookseller, then they appear in the shop a year later, and they do absolutely nothing at all.

Do all books that are given huge advances fail? Of course not. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, All the Light We Cannot See, We Are Not Ourselves...the list of successes is long. Some of these have sold million+ copies. It's like the music industry: 90% of failures are offset by the 10% of successes.

But I could just as easily list indie successes on a similar scale.

IS TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING REALLY MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN INDIE?

So to Mr Nourry’s belief of ebooks' relative failure being the norm. What he neglects to point out is: his entire industry is based on failure being the norm. His description of ebooks’ failure (‘one or two successes out of every hundred’) is exactly what his company experiences too. Their biggest successes just might be a little bit bigger than indie’s biggest successes (we’re talking literally 2-3 major outliers each year).

You would not believe how poorly established authors with award-winning books behind them – we’re talking Booker winners and previous bestsellers – sell. I mean 500 copies of a hardback for a book with almost blanket broadsheet review coverage, interviews on Channel Four News in prime time. I see the data and the needle barely trembles.

What Nourry conveniently skips over, is not how either traditional publishing or digital indie treats those at the top of the food chain – those million-sellers – but rather how it treats its midlist authors – those who tick over consistent, steady sales comfortably in the 1000s. Because if he were to switch his focus to that, he’d see that traditional publishing is massively failing midlist authors. Digital indie has become the place for writers to tick over steady, consistent sales to eager audiences. Why? Because at best, a new hardback or paperback has a shelf life of around 6-8 weeks. At least on prominent front-of-store areas. After that, it’s on its own. Relying on word of mouth. A steady drip of reviews (in the ever-vanishing arts sections of newspapers whose circulations are still dropping).

With digital indie, growing sales over a year is the norm rather than the exception.

This Author Earnings report couldn’t be clearer: if you want a regular income from your writing, with a possibility to quit your day job, the statistics are overwhelmingly on the side of going indie.

I’ve been there with traditional publishing.

What indies are getting right is that they’re finding their own audiences and growing them without any print coverage, or traditional publishing methods – which have been chicken before egg for decades now (what good is a signing if no one knows who you are? Almost all their methodology is based on what to do with an audience once you have it, rather than finding the audience to begin with).

Hachette are no strangers to ebook controversy, particularly when it comes to ebook pricing. Their months-long standoff with Amazon cost their authors still unknown amounts, while they (Hachette) quarrelled over the right to price their ebooks at prohibitively high prices (sometimes even pricing the ebook higher than a paperback. Make sense of that if you will). Or in many situations, not even bothering to publish an ebook at all.

What indies understand is that you have to offer value to a reader these days. And if you don’t have control of the price of your first book when your second one comes out, then you’ve already lost control of your entire domain.

HARSH REALITIES

Take a best case scenario: I could have signed with an agent, possibly taken an advance around mid-four figures. Watched a paperback come out (nine months to a year later), with a cover I didn’t think was right, tick over perhaps 1000 or so copies (optimistic), then watch sales dry up and wait another year before I could get my second book out. Meanwhile, the ebook is too expensive, so no one’s biting. Then when book two comes out I have no way of dropping the price on book one to entice new readers. I can’t run promotions. I can’t even be sure they won’t try a complete redesign to boost sales. Leaving me with an inconsistent identity. They’d also fill the opening pages of the ebook with unnecessary copyright waffle, and they certainly wouldn’t listen to my suggestion of putting in a free giveaway in exchange for joining my mailing list (because I want to be able to talk to my readers, and have them be able to talk to me). An agent would certainly go mad at their author offering up even a novella for free. The publisher too would just see lost revenue. And they certainly wouldn’t pay the same designer of your published work to design the free novella so your designs are consistent (they already might not be, remember). And now you’re nowhere.

So I decide to go indie. But now I have a problem: because my first two books are tied to the publisher. So unless I buy rights back I have no control over what happens to them. How can I promote a series when the first ebook is set at £7? How can I drive new readers to that series? How can I run Facebook ads, Amazon ads, Bookbub deals, or anything else without control of such fundamental aspects?

LACK OF STANDARDS IN TRADITIONAL

This is also glossing over another argument against traditional publishing: standards. In almost every Amazon review of Lee Child books, you’ll see one- or two-star review because of formatting or copyediting errors. It’s incredibly common. And that’s Lee Child. Probably the most valuable literary commodity alive. Just last night, reading David Baldacci's The Innocent, there was a glaring typo on page four. It's so early the publisher could have noticed it on Amazon's Look Inside function. Also, that book has been out for nearly five years now, and still no correction despite several mentions of it in Amazon reviews.

How do you think a traditional publisher is going to treat my ebook? With more care than Lee Child? I think not.

Within a day of reading a review like the Baldacci ones, an indie would have the book corrected and re-uploaded.

EARNINGS DON'T ADD UP

What about earnings? You’ve got the backing of a Big Six publisher. They must at least pay their authors better than Amazon or Kobo, you might reasonably ask. Well, they’ll give you around 75p for every £7.99 paperback, and barely 20% of the ebook price. Which ingeniously is giving you a bigger cut of the declining format, and less of the growing one.

In any other industry this would be called what it is: a massive mafia-like racket.

So if he believes ebooks are ‘stupid’, I’ll take the ‘stupid’ format over the criminally extortionate one.

Let’s also talk about creativity: because I see way more creativity from indies when it comes to ebooks than Big Six publishers. In the space that Big Six publishers put copyright and nothing else, I see indies put together character dossiers, cheatsheets, free online courses, mailing list sign ups, giveaways, competitions, character-naming contests, all navigable from within the first 2 pages of an ebook.

'A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER WILL MARKET YOU MORE PROFESSIONALLY AND REACH MORE READERS'

David Gaughran has documented brilliantly how even the most prime literary brands like Dan Brown lose potential thousands of readers even when his publisher tried to run a promotion. All through fundamental lack of understanding of the format in which they were working.

If Mr Nourry is dismissive of creativity within ebooks, then he must only be looking at his own products. It’s like Ford decrying a lack of technology in new car technology because they didn’t think to do what Tesla are doing. Also, you won’t find me decrying how useless and stupid and lacking in creativity mobile phone apps are simply because I don’t know how to make them properly.

Yes, I’ll take a ‘stupid’ format, where I have

  • total freedom to publish as and when I like
  • charge readers a fair price
  • offer them free stuff whenever I want
  • design my books however I like
  • and have more fun doing it.

Incidentally, my position isn’t that if you publish with a Big Six publisher, that you’re doomed to failure. Absolutely not. But unless you get very lucky, thanks to elements not in your control (they get your cover right, format it properly, market you correctly, price you fairly, carry out a smart business plan for your future books), then it’s as much of a gamble is digital indie is. All publishing is a gamble.

There is a genuine debate to be had about the best way for individuals to publish. Self-publishing (in print or digital) isn’t for everyone. It’s tough. In many ways harder than traditional publishing.

The question I think comes down to: would you rather work harder for greater rewards? Or work less hard (by definition, self-publishing requires a much wider skill set) and hope luck swings your way? That’s at least how traditional publishing felt for me.

This is how gatekeepers have always reacted when their monopolies are challenged: they don’t defend their own product, they attack everyone else’s. Even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Don’t let people like Arnaud Nourry convince you that his failures are also everyone else’s.