April 16, 2013
New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves
When the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author David Mamet released his last book, “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture,” with the Sentinel publishing house in 2011, it sold well enough to make the New York Times best-seller list.
This year, when Mr. Mamet set out to publish his next one, a novella and two short stories about war, he decided to take a very different path: he will self-publish.
Mr. Mamet is taking advantage of a new service being offered by his literary agency, ICM Partners, as a way to assume more control over the way his book is promoted.
“Basically I am doing this because I am a curmudgeon,” Mr. Mamet said in a telephone interview, “and because publishing is like Hollywood – nobody ever does the marketing they promise.”
As digital disruption continues to reshape the publishing market, self-publishing – including distribution digitally or as print on demand – has become more and more popular, and more feasible, with an increasing array of options for anyone with an idea and a keyboard. Most of the attention so far has focused on unknown and unsigned authors who storm onto the best-seller lists through their own ingenuity.
The announcement by ICM and Mr. Mamet suggests that self-publishing will begin to widen its net and become attractive also to more established authors. For one thing, as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity.
Then there is the money. While self-published authors get no advance, they typically receive 70 percent of sales. A standard contract with a traditional house gives an author an advance, and only pays royalties – the standard is 25 percent of digital sales and 7 to 12 percent of the list price for bound books – after the advance is earned back in sales.
ICM, which will announce its new self-publishing service on Wednesday, is one of the biggest and most powerful agencies to offer the option. But others are doing the same as they seek to provide additional value to their writers while also extending their reach in the industry.
Since last fall, Trident Media Group, which represents 800 authors, has been offering its clients self-publishing possibilities through deals negotiated though online publishers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, in a system very similar to the one ICM is setting up. Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident, says that 200 authors have taken advantage of the service, though mostly for reissuing older titles, the backlist.
Another literary agency, InkWell Management, has helped the romance novelist Eloisa James reissue many of her backlist titles, as well as her newer books overseas, this way. She usually turns out her best sellers through HarperCollins, and in a telephone interview she said she would not leave Harper completely because she loves her editor. But she added that published authors talked about the “self-pubs” all the time and had learned a lot from those writers’ efforts.
“They treat it like a small business,” she said, “and they are geniuses at discoverability.”
Sloan Harris, co-director of ICM’s literary department, said his agency signed a deal with a company called Argo Navis Author Services, a self-publishing service created by the Perseus Book Group, because he decided it was time to give his clients more options than the standard big publishing houses.
For certain clients, Mr. Harris said, self-publishing “returns a degree of control to authors who have been frustrated about how their ideas for marketing and publicity fare at traditional publishers.” Both Mr. Harris and Mr. Mamet said that the big publishers focused mostly on blockbuster books and fell short on other titles – by publishing too few copies, for instance, or limiting advertising to only a short period after a book was released.
“Particularly for high-end literary fiction, their efforts too often have been very low-octane,” Mr. Harris said of the traditional publishers.
Although Mr. Mamet will be the best known of the agency’s clients to use the new service, he is not the only one: two older books by ICM clients that have gone to backlist, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” by Fred Waitzkin, and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” by Maryanne Vollers, will also be reissued this way.
And Mr. Harris said more would come. “We will pay ever more attention project by project, author by author, as to what our options are,” he said.
If an author self-publishes, what, then, is the role of a literary agency? Mr. Gottlieb of Trident said it made sense for his clients to self-publish through the agency, which charges a standard commission on sales, instead of going directly to Amazon themselves because the agency brought experience in marketing and jacket design. It also has relationships with the digital publishers that give their clients access to plum placement on sites that self-published authors can’t obtain on their own.
Self-publishing services also offer varying levels of editing services, though many writers hire their own editors if they self-publish.
Once a small backwater of vanity presses for authors who could not get contracts with mainstream houses, self-publishing now accounts for more than 235,000 books annually, according to Bowker, a book research firm. Big houses like Penguin and Harlequin have opened their own self-publishing divisions because they see it as a profit center of the future.
Although a vast majority of self-published books will never find much of an audience, a surprising number have become best sellers, especially in genres like romance and science fiction. Self-published titles made up roughly one-quarter of the top-selling books on Amazon last year, the company said.
Argo Navis’s standard deal, for example, allows for publication digitally and in paperback by demand, as well as distribution, in return for 30 percent of all sales. (It would not be unusual, however, for a big author using an agent to negotiate better terms.) The deal also comes with basic marketing, like listings in digital catalogs.
“Increasingly, agents and authors tell us they are looking for options, and this model offers them a lot more than one size fits all,” said David Steinberger, chief executive of Perseus Books. With this system, he added, “they make the decisions.”
Most top-flight authors have so far eschewed such deals because they are paid advances that are large enough to compensate for lower royalties. In addition, traditional publishers have experienced editors to whom writers become attached, sometimes for decades. And they still provide support services like marketing and publicity, even if these services are sometimes not to the authors’ liking.
For these reasons, said Peter Turner, a former publishing executive and founder and chief executive of the industry consulting company Ampersand Publishing & Marketing Solutions, he did not think a flood of big names would follow Mr. Mamet, at least not right away. “It puts so much more of the risk on the author and agent,” he said.
Still, with the publishing world transforming rapidly and with more books than ever being sold online, many writers have concluded that they must at least consider self-publishing.
For his part, Mr. Mamet cites horror stories that fellow authors have suffered at the hands of publishing houses. He says he has faith that his new book is good enough to sell big, even without a traditional publisher.
“I am going to promote the hell out of it,” he says gamely, “even though I’ll probably make my own mistakes.”