Publishing Then and Now: A Cautionary Tale

thCAPDOEDDOnce upon a time Arthur Author sat down and wrote a story. When it was done, he gave it to a few friends to read. “This is wonderful,” they said. “You should have it printed so more people can read it.”

Arthur decided they might be right. He gathered up his manuscript pages and a little extra money and went to a printer. A few days later, his story was a book he could hold in his hands. Arthur gave copies to people as gifts, and they told all their friends. First thing he knew people were begging for the books. Arthur turned his pockets inside out, saying he was sorry but he had no money to print more. “We’ll pay for them,” they insisted. So back to the printer Arthur went.

Well, the next copies sold, too. Arthur was so thrilled that he wrote another book and had more copies printed than for the first one. Since he needed to earn back the money he’d paid out, he began going to literary events where he could read from his books and offer them for sale afterward. He sold most of what he’d printed, though he barely made enough money to keep himself in quill pens and foolscap.

Then one day a man named Peter Publisher came to visit Arthur.

“I’ve read your books and they’re great!” Peter said. “They are so good I’d like to help you sell them.”

“Really?” Arthur asked, amazed.

“Yes, indeed!” Peter answered. “What I’d like to do is put up the money to have your next book printed. Then I’ll carry copies around to every book shop in the country and ask the owners to put them on their shelves. I’ll talk up the story, print broadsides about it, and even have a man walk around wearing a board that touts its brilliance. What do you say?”

Arthur was cautious by nature. “It sounds good, but what would you expect in return?”

“The pleasure of helping you,” Peter said, “and 90% percent of what the book makes. Oh, yes, and an option to print and sell anything you write in the future.”

“Ninety percent!” Arthur exclaimed. “Isn’t that a lot when I’ll be creating the story and doing all the work of making it readable?”

“Okay, okay, I’ll edit the manuscript for you.” Peter gave him a big smile. “Just think—you won’t be out the upfront cost of printing!”

“Well—” Arthur said thoughtfully.

“I’ve got this great idea for selling more books, too! I’ll get every book shop to stock your work by telling them they can return the copies that don’t sell. I’ll put so many more books out there we’ll both come out ahead. Meanwhile, you’ll have all your time free for writing.” Peter leaned closer. “And to sweeten the deal, I’ll pay you an advance against whatever the books make so you won’t have to worry about money to live on while you work.”

“An advance?”

gold_theme_money_dollars_clip_art_7759“Money before you put a single word on paper! Won’t that be worthwhile?”

Arthur scratched his head. “But what about those returned books?”

“I’ll have to subtract the cost of those from sales, of course, including from your 10%. But don’t worry. If your books are good enough, that won’t be a problem.”

Now all this sounded pretty nice to Arthur since he knew he could write better if he didn’t have to worry about how he was going to eat. He could also write more books in the long run if he didn’t spend time trying to sell them. More than that, he was a recluse at heart and really didn’t like getting up in front of people and talking about himself or his work. He disliked going over and over his manuscripts looking for errors, too, since he knew he often read sentences the way he meant to write them, instead of the way he actually set them down.

Arthur shook hands with Peter and signed the contract put in front of him.

The deal worked out fine. In fact, it worked so well Peter set up an office and signed more and more writers. Pretty soon, he had to hire editors to read and correct all the manuscripts that came in, art and PR staff to design book covers and write broadsides about the books, and sales people to carry them around to all the book shops. He had so many writers wanting him to publish their work that he could pick and choose, accepting only the best.

But first thing Peter knew, other people began calling themselves publishers and signing up writers. A lot more books were being printed and carried around to all the book shops so it became harder to sell the books he printed. Sometimes Peter actually lost money. Meanwhile, he had to pay all those people he’d hired.

To make ends meet, he began to print books on cheaper paper. He cut down their size and sold them for higher prices while paying lower royalties to his newer authors. He got rid of his experienced editors who made higher salaries, and hired young things fresh out of college because they worked cheaper. He cut back on the money he put out for broadsides and other promotion material. After a while, he spent most of his promotion budget on the few books he expected to sell best. And when the other books didn’t make money, he told the writers it was their fault and they’d have to accept less next time or find themselves another publisher.

Peter Publisher then discovered that some new writers were promoting their books on their own, talking them up at book clubs and conferences, making their own broadsides and other selling tools. “I think I’ll tell all my writers they need to do that,” he said to himself. “Just imagine the money I’ll save!”

This worked out so well that he scheduled even less promotion for his writers. Sometimes all he did was send out a few copies to reviewers and print a paragraph in a catalog for his sales people to show book shop owners.  And he kept raising book prices.

About this time, a genius invented a Magic Box. This Magic Box allowed books to be written faster while automatically correcting spelling and grammatical errors. It was a miracle.thCAQSMA9N

Arthur Author bought a Magic Box at once. He wrote more books in even less time than before and sent Peter cleaner manuscripts. The editors at Peter Publisher’s company praised him since they didn’t have to do much at all to get his books ready to print.

Arthur also discovered the Big Wide Wonderland where he could talk to people who had bought his books and also to other writers. He found out a lot of errors were showing up in his books because the editors trusted him and his Magic Box so much they hardly looked at his manuscripts. He found out, too, that he could click a button and tell readers and book shop owners everywhere when he had a new book coming out. More than that, he learned savvy writers were selling directly to readers in the BWW without using a publisher at all.

Now Peter Publisher bought a Magic Box as well. Since the box corrected errors, Peter needed even fewer editors than before. It kept up with inventory so well he could print books only when he needed them, so didn’t have to keep stock in a warehouse or pay people to load and unload them. Best of all, Peter could sell books in the BWW with no printing costs while paying his authors the same low percentage as always.

Before long, Peter saw that he could set up a company for electronic posting of the manuscripts from all the writers that he turned down, and charge huge fees for “publishing” them. Since a lot of people didn’t know he was supposed to pay them but yearned to be able to say they were an author, this would be a great source of income.

Meanwhile, Arthur Author’s sales were declining. Watching this, knowing nothing was being done to promote his books, he shook his head. When a new book contract came up, he went to Peter’s office.

“It seems to me that our deal isn’t working too well anymore,” he said with great seriousness. “I’m editing my own manuscripts again—not to mention correcting errors made by your young editors. I’m using my writing time to promote the books, too. It seems I’m doing everything I used to do when I started except take my manuscripts to the printer, yet you want to cut my advances with every contract.”

“Now, Arthur, you’re not supposed to worry your head about all that.” Peter gave him a benign smile. “Besides, you know the numbers dictate the contract terms.”

“But you control the numbers since you control the promotion and incentives that make book shop owners place orders.  And I never get to see these numbers until long after a contract is offered.”

“I told you I’d have someone send them to you, didn’t I?”

“Oh, yes. You say that every time, but it never happens.” Arthur sighed. “Look, Peter, I like working with you. But since I’m doing more of the work than in the past and your costs are lower, I feel I should be getting a larger percentage of what my books are making, especially from those sold in the BWW. ”

Peter laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Times are changing,” Arthur pointed out. “Writers that sell only in the BWW can earn 70% of the selling price of their books if they don’t mind doing self-editing and self-promoting—which it seems I’m close to doing already. You’ll have to admit there’s a lot of difference between 10% and 70%.” He folded his arms and waited.

“But that’s not the way we’ve always done things. More than that, if I pay you more, all the other writers will want more.”

“Maybe they should have it. They produce what you’re selling, after all. Without them, you wouldn’t have a business.”

“But—”

“I’ll tell you something else, Peter. I could sell my books in the BWW for 99c and make as much as I get when you sell them for seven or eight dollars. I might even do better since more readers could afford to buy them at that price.”

“What are you trying to do, put me out of business?” Peter yelled, pulling at his hair. “I made you what you are today. Where’s your gratitude?”

“I appreciate all you’ve done, I really do. But from where I sit, it appears writers like me made you. Where is your sense of fair play?”

Peter gave Arthur a tremendous frown. “There are plenty more scribblers out there who would love to be in your shoes.”

“That may be, but keep hanging onto the old ways and it won’t be true forever.”

“We’ll see,” Peter Publisher declared as he stood up from the negotiating table.

“Indeed, we will,” Arthur Author said, and pulled his Magic Box from his pocket.

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Jennifer

About Jennifer

Jennifer is the NYT and USA Today best-selling author of more than 65 books in 23 languages with some 35 million copies sold worldwide. She is also president of Steel Magnolia Press LLC.

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