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This publishing world is full of bullets and as I gain more knowledge of the world I see more of them, some dodged by sheer luck, some by good advice, and some by research.

That research is something I’m knee deep in. I’m taking a new course about approaching writing as a business, about things a million miles from your muse, like percentages and contracts and sales bases.

One thing that this week’s research threw up was just how much debut authors are struggling in the market – especially debut authors under the traditional publishing houses. Their share of the debut authors’ market has dropped from 22% to 9% over 2014-16 (

Just stop for one minute and think about that. You go to the trouble of finding an agent, of getting a big publisher, and then you find out that you’re getting such a low share of the market (and, let’s be honest, debut author income is small anyway…)

Many moons ago (it feels that way, anyhow) I got a response from a big 5 house who considered Inish Carraig, had gone back and forth with it, and regretfully passed. This publisher was my dream, the lottery win I was shooting for and, all through the time of publishing Inish Carraig, I’ve had a little voice at the back of my head wondering, ‘what if….?’

Now, it occurs to me that I might have been asking the wrong question. Instead, I wonder – what if I dodged another bullet, one I would never have known could have been a bullet? What if, in being offered a dream contract, I might have set my career back? (Because when you are with a trad publisher and you lose ground on book one, it is incredibly hard to gain that ground back.)

So, why is this happening? The answer lies in a quick Amazon search of the price of ebooks. Trad publishers charge an awful lot more – and for established authors that’s okay. They have a fan base, some of whom are waiting for the next book (although as a casual follower of a writer a high price still puts me off buying.)

But what about the writer who doesn’t have a fan base? What would you gamble on a new writer? I have to be honest, once it goes over a fiver, I’m wondering if I’ll really love the book enough. (But I could be stingy – or I could buy enough books that a few quid saved here and there adds up). The drop in figures seems to indicate that, for many of us, faced with an eight pound debut or a three pound one (which is a pretty common sort of indie-price-tag) we’re going for the cheaper ones.

What happens, then, to that trad debut? Make no mistake, publishing is a business. If you fail to meet your sales expectation, you can be – and some are – dropped. No matter that it’s not your fault, that you didn’t set the price. No matter that the publisher has made you uncompetitive.

Now, it could be argued what a writer loses in online sales, they’ll make up in print. That doesn’t seem to be panning out, either. Bookstores stock a narrower range of titles and carry less stock on the shopfloor. If I went into Belfast, right now, I think I’d be lucky to be able to fill half a carrier bag with the total number of Pat Rothfuss books on the shelves. As a debut author, unless you are being marketed to hell, you’ll be lucky to get a big display in bookstores – or across the sort of range of bookstores that you need to mitigate low online sales.

This is all open to dispute, of course. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on why there has been such a change in percentages. I’d love to believe I’m wrong, that a debut author can still nail the dream: get an agent, get a Big 5 publisher, and become a household name. But I’m struggling.

The more I see, and the more I research the market, the more I’m becoming convinced that I dodged a bullet. That, instead of breaking me as a writer, going with a Big 5 publisher might have hurt my writing career in the worst possible way – at the beginning, when I had the most ground to make up.


I think you're absolutely right.

I keep an eye on Data Guy's numbers, over at Some of his useful numbers are:
1. Tradpub prices ebooks higher than indies do.
2. Tradpub prices debut authors higher than established authors.
3. Adult fiction sales in the US (the biggest book market) are now approximately 70% ebooks. The percentage is much higher for some genres - around 90% (from memory) for romance, for example. Scifi/fantasy is not far behind. (Note: this figure is calculated using a combination of Amazon data AND the Nielsen data that tradpub uses.)
4. Indies are making inroads into most genres of fiction, generally proportionate to the percentage sales in ebooks.

There was also a little survey on Goodreads a while ago, asking readers how they picked their books: title, cover, publisher, whatever. Publisher was the least popular option. Unscientific, but it didn't surprise me. Despite what tradpub like to think, readers are not picking books based on who publishes them.

All this means that if you're a debut author, then you're going to be at the back of the queue for someone who's looking for a new read: behind the indies (cheap) and the established authors (reliable) (and definitely behind the established indies!). Why on earth would anyone risk £9.99 on a new author they've never heard of when they can buy two or three indie novels for that price, or go for an established trad author where you've got a better idea of what you're getting?

And it's only going to get worse for tradpub authors, as more authors go indie to take advantage of the flexibility, control, and ability to set sensible prices and still make money.

So yeah. I reckon you dodged a bullet.
A.C.Flory said…
Great article, JoZeb. The Data Earnings info. has provided real data to show how the industry is behaving and where it's heading. I'd also recommend reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Business Musings:
She talks about contracts and agents and the dangers therein. If you had signed with a big 5 publisher, you would have lost the rights to your book for the length of your life plus 70 years. That alone would be enough to stop me from ever seeking a trad. contract.
I think Hugh Howey was very smart in using his ebook leverage to demand a print-only, hybrid contract.
At this point in the game, I think we all need to keep as many options open as possible because in 10 years time there may not be any big 5 publishers around to worry about.
Stuart Neville said…
Sorry, long reply, so split into two - Part One:

Hi JoZeb,

My wife saw a tweet linking to this piece and forwarded it to me. If you don't mind, I'd like to provide an alternate view on this. I've made my living being traditionally published since 2010, a year after my debut came out. Obviously my view is coloured by the fact I've been very lucky in many respects, and that traditional publishing has been good to me. So far, at least.

I stopped paying attention to the Author Earnings reports when it was revealed that the numbers were based purely on guesswork. The other flaw in that data is that it's taking Amazon's ecosystem as being representative of the entire industry. Amazon may be a good barometer of the e-book market, but it gives very little useful information on the wider book market.

The only thing the Author Earnings data proves is that the Amazon ecosystem favours Amazon authors, whether they be self-published or published by one of Amazon's own imprints (for the sake of clarity, I'm going to refer to self-published books as being published by Amazon, as well as its own imprints). And this is the vital point that is often missed: Amazon exists in its own bubble, quite distinct from the rest of the publishing industry. It should be viewed as a separate, parallel market, and success in one seldom guarantees success in the other. For example, I was very fortunate last year to have a book included in the Richard & Judy promotion. That book sold very well across all the retail outlets, from supermarkets to high street shops. But the promotion had almost zero impact on Amazon sales.

People discuss tradpub's approach to e-book pricing as if tradpub is run by idiots. Believe me, they’re not stupid. They understand the two parallel markets very well, and they know that Amazon will always favour its own books over theirs because that is more profitable for Amazon. Remember, Amazon will always do whatever makes more money for Amazon. So even if tradpub did price new books at £2.99 or lower, they know Amazon will still push its own books ahead of them. Because Amazon has complete control over its own market, the decks will always be stacked against tradpub. So tradpub simply decided not to play that game. Why deep discount books if it won't increase profitability for either the publisher or the author? It makes more sense to price higher and take a greater profit on fewer sales. Of course, none of this even takes into account the costs the publisher needs to recoup. Before a single book is printed, there are many and various outlays involved. The argument made by many that the costs of ebooks are negligible doesn’t hold water.

The percentage figure you quote for debut authors doesn't really stack up for the wider market. It may be true of ebooks, and there are many reasons for it, but the retail book trade actually likes debuts. In fact, a debut can be much easier for sales teams to push to the big retailers because there is no track record of middling sales to fight against. And the buyers at the retail outlets like a debut because it might just be the next Girl on the Train. The people really feeling the pinch these days are mid-career midlist authors; I've spoken with a few over recent weeks who have either been dropped by their publishers or been offered advances so small it's not worth their time to bother writing a book. The silver lining to that cloud is they have the option of self-publishing and some name recognition as they enter the market.
Stuart Neville said…
Part Two:

I wouldn't argue for a second that self-publishing is not a valid and viable route; I know too many authors who have succeeded in that market to think otherwise. I would, however, argue against dismissing traditional publishing in the way people like Hugh Howey and JA Konrath have done. Yes, it is a much more difficult route, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing. The benefits are many, not least the friends I’ve made over the last few years. Any writer considering their options needs to consider what kind of writer they are, and what they hope to achieve, before choosing a path. For some authors, taking both routes might be the answer.

Lastly, I'd like to address this point from one of the comments above: "If you had signed with a big 5 publisher, you would have lost the rights to your book for the length of your life plus 70 years." I'm sorry, but that's completely wrong. Life-plus-seventy-years is the duration of copyright. That is entirely distinct from any rights your agent may license to a publisher (and you shouldn't even look at a contract without a good agent). There are many individual rights that can be separately sold, print and e-book being only two of them. Film, translation, audio, stage, broadcast and more rights will be negotiated by an agent, and all have their own terms - none of which are life-plus-seventy. A film option, for example, generally has a maximum duration of eighteen months, unless the option is executed and a film is made, and even then there is a finite time set on the rights - twenty years is common. Reversion of rights should be part of any publishing contract, and will usually allow an author to reclaim their rights once a book has been out of print for two years. I know several authors who have taken their rights back and either self-published their work or sold their back-catalogue to another publisher. Some publishers will be more accommodating than others, though, so it's not a given.

None of this is to argue that traditional publishing is a bed of roses; it certainly isn't, and I, like every author I know, have my own scars to prove it. But tradpub should not be painted as the enemy. It's unfortunate that authors like Howey and Konrath espoused a "Them and Us" view when self-publishing began to take hold a few years ago. Both markets have their pros and cons and every writer should be fully aware of what they are.

Anyway, apologies for such a lengthy response, and thank you if you’ve read this far. I wish you all the best with your writing career.


Joanne Zebedee said…
Thanks, A C Flory (and for the link!) and Stuart.

I'm not against trad publishing (and will be agent-seeking fairly soon) and started my career aiming for it. In fact, being on all
Sides of the fence, I think so many routes are available now there is simply no right answer as to what approach works best. And yes, reversion rights are embedded in all decent contracts (and nothing should be signed by without one)

I will admit the trad publishers pricing strategy on ebooks does befuddle me - and most readers. I'm sure there is a strategy but how that is bringing readers to new authors (or indeed mid list authors, who I agree are squeezed everywhere in the current models) escapes me. I also find bookshops are less inclined to take a risk these days and are driven by tighter stock systems which do put a barrier in
Place for new authors. Yes, they might back a debut that is highly promoted but most debuts aren't - I wonder is there a comparison anywhere of what they promoted10 years ago and what now? it would be interesting to see.

As it stands I think we'll see more people building their readership first - in all the variant ways, self pubbing, short stories, indie pubbing - before trad publishing becomes the option. So, essentially less debut trad authors - which suits the high entry price model better.

But what do I know? I could be wrong on everything!