So all this talk about self-publishing has gotten me curious about alternate publishing models. As I see it, the main thing that traditional publishing still offers that self-publishing and vanity publishing lack is quality control. A book from a traditional publishing house will have been professionally edited for both content (plot, character, etc.) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, etc.) It’ll have a professional cover and professional typesetting. The book that emerges from a traditional publisher may not be earth-shaking literature, but at least it will look good and be free of the grossest errors.

Self-published books, on the other hand, are stereotypically full of bad prose and grammatical errors stuffed inside a hideous cover made in MS Paint. Not all self-pubs fit this description, of course, but enough of them do to give the entire model a bad name.

So I says to myself: couldn’t you do both? And I dreamed up a kind of writer’s collective that would try to get the best of both worlds:

  1. Writers pay the collective for most of the cost of producing their book up front.
  2. The writers’ collective ensures that certain standards of quality are met. It requires that all books are professionally edited and fitted with a professional cover design.
  3. The collective acts as the nominal publisher for the book, but under terms that give most of the rights to the author.
  4. The collective takes a small portion of the receipts and uses it to pay for things like distribution and publicity for the entire company, things that cost more money than any one author is likely to be able to afford individually.

I brainstormed/daydreamed a few different ways of paying for this, including a “reverse advance” (the writer pays 100% of costs up front, and gets 100% of receipts until they recoup their costs, after which it’s 85/15) or a milder split costs model (writer pays 50% up front and splits receipts 50/50 until costs are recouped, etc.) There are a variety of possible problems with this, but really, it seems like it should work, right?

And lo and behold Google tells me that it’s been done, and with a certain level of success. The Writer’s Collective linked here has a higher price point than I was imagining—they say that an author could expect to pay $18,000 over the course of the year their book is in production, which is, um, steep—but the basic model is the same. And they do say that they began with a low-cost model similar to what I was imagining, but had to scale up to the higher-cost, high-return model that they use now. Perhaps I’ll contact then to discover the particular reasons for that. Nonetheless, a glance at their books on offer suggests that they’re hitting a much higher level of quality than most e-book publishers, and way higher than most self-pubbed books.

I have no intention to act on any of this in the near future, as I have neither the money nor the time to pursue it right now. But it’s a strange new world in publishing, and who knows what will happen in another 5 years?

This was originally posted as part of a discussion of e-books and the publishing industry over at The OWW-SFF Writing Group. I’m cross-posting it here, since parts of it may be of general interest.

Let me outline a possible future for the publishing industry. This is based on what we already see in the music industry, plus a little bit of optimistic speculation. My basic conclusion is that the coming changes in the publishing industry are likely to be good for unpublished and newly-published authors, but it may be bad for some other segments of the industry.

First, what do we have right now? If you’ve written a book, there are three possible outcomes:

1) You don’t sell it. Nobody reads it except for your mom, and you get zero dollars.

2) You sell it to a small press, which puts it out as POD, e-book, or (maybe) paperback. You get somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.

3) You sell it to a major publisher, who puts it out as a mass-market paperback or a hardcover. You get somewhere between a few thousand and a billion dollars.

An important feature of the current market is that there’s a steep cut-off between the small presses and e-publishers, which pay very little, and the big publishers, which pay 2-3 times what you’re likely to make at a small press even at the lower end of the payscale. Plus, at the big publishers you get an advance, which often aren’t paid at all by small presses.

Now, let’s think about the future. E-readers become common and affordable, and the price of e-books drops below $5. People who are avid readers move mostly to e-books for price and convenience, and because the price has dropped they buy more of those than they would have bought paper books. Sales of physical books drop as readers move to digital formats. Casual readers, the sort who buy books for the beach or the airplane, mostly stick with physical books, since it’s not worth their time to get an e-reader that they rarely use.

The result? The market for e-books expands, while the market for physical books drops. Paper books become restricted to best-sellers and specialty items, like signed limited editions. Some of the big publishers go out of business or merge, while the number of e-publishers goes up to take advantage of the bigger market. Some midlisters are pushed out to the e-publishing market. As e-publishing loses its stigma, the accepted career path becomes to move up through the small presses building an audience, and to make the jump to paper after years of publishing, if ever. The big publishers have already delegated the slush to the agents; agents start delegating the slush to the small-press editors, and work by poaching the top 1% of small-press writers and selling them up to the big leagues.

Now, why would you like this as a writer?

1) You get something rather than nothing. The e-publishing houses have more niches, more opportunities, and more ability to take risks, so your chances of getting published are better. You’ll get hardly any money at first—but right now the most common outcome is getting no money at all.

2) Your back-catalog always works for you. As mentioned by others, you can’t sell used e-books—but when a new e-book costs the same as a used paperback, why not buy it new? And you get the royalties from those sales, forever.

3) You have a clear ladder towards fame and fortune. It used to be that writers were expected to make their name in short stories, then sell a novel on the basis of that reputation. With the collapse of the short fiction markets, that’s much less the case these days, so writers have to sell their novels to a public that’s never heard of them, via publishers that are understandably hesitant about taking these risks. The e-publishing model gives you years to build an audience in lower-risk venues before trying to move up.

It may be that it’s harder to actually make a living as a writer in this world—but how many of us are making money, anyway? I, for one, would be happy to release my books as e-books and sell a few hundred copies for the present time. It’d be a lot more than I’m making from my writing now.