Stuart Jaffe on “Lines in the Sand”

Author Stuart Jaffe, late of the multi-author writing blog “Magical Words” and now solo blogger straddling the self-publishing and traditional publishing worlds has an interesting blog post up.

As part of my apparently ongoing committment to bringing you the latest news and views that I read or find that touch on these subjects, here’s a link to Stuart’s post: “Lines in the Sand”, in which Stuart stakes the following position: Traditional Publishing is here to stay.  So is the new paradigm of self-publishing.  Other than that… figuring out what the future looks like is essentially a fool’s errand.

I really get behind this sentiment, especially his opener.

There are just so many variables — almost all of which comprise some human element — that to attempt a serious prognostication is to make gods laugh and mathematicians weep.

The world of publishing is changing, that’s for sure.  But whither the change leadeth, no man knoweth.

Er.  Pardon the faux King James English.

But seriously… I appreciate Stuart’s appeal to tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric about THE END OF PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT!

I don’t think I’ve been guilty, these past few weeks, of being rhetorically aggressive – except perhaps as concern Amazon in the specific.  I have concerns, it is true, about the new paradigm – but I tried to be careful to point out that I found the new options to be a mostly positive development, despite those significant concerns.

I can even imagine myself, at some future point, deciding that my current goal of attempting to publish through the traditional model is not achievable, and instead switch to a self-publishing model, if the conditions were right.  I don’t know what those conditions would be, yet.  But it’s an option and route I reserve for the future.

Anyway, Stuart’s take – as an author who has published some traditionally before, and now is self-publishing – was refreshing.


13 thoughts on “Stuart Jaffe on “Lines in the Sand”

  1. Great linked post. (Lovedeth the faux King James English, tooeth.)
    Preaching to myself, here, as much as anyone: I think remembering that e-publishing is adding new roads, not taking out all the old ones with a jackhammer, will do much toward reducing the negative attitudes on both sides of the line (that, as Jaffe pointed out, didn’t really need to be drawn in the first place).

    • Over time, I think those “negative attitudes” will be smoothed out, as the new realities set in. But for now, many self-pub authors don’t see it as “adding new roads, not taking out all the old ones”. They see it as a one-for-one replacement, and the more they hammer on that theme, the more the traditional publishers are going to believe that everyone who self-publishes is singing from the same songbook. And I think that’s not the optimal development for the industry.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to predict the future, especially when authors do it. After all, authors make things up and speculate different realities for a living. It’s only natural that they would feel compelled to try and predict the future of the industry they are involved in. The people engaging in prediction just need to keep their facts straight, think logically and stay aware of their own limitations.

    I think the problem with the serious doom and gloomers is that they tend to think that ebooks are taking all the sales away from traditionally published paper books, which isn’t even remotely true. They see the percentage of ebook sales in the market rising and they think that means paper books are going down. But what they completely overlook most of the time is that while the percentages are changing, so are the overall amount of books being sold. And the overall amount of books being sold is just going to frelling explode as ereaders become more popular and give people unprecedented access to books. There will always be a market for paper books, or at least until we’re living in a completely futuristic society where no one uses paper anything anymore. And traditional publishers aren’t really losing anything. Authors may have amazing freedom to access all kinds of readers all over the world with a few clicks, but that means traditional publishers do as well. Why does everyone forget that the publishers benefit from ebooks just as much as self publishing authors do, if not more so?

    Anyway, I’d be interested in what you think of Dean Wesley Smith’s predictions post made today:

    • The problem isn’t in prognosticating, per se. As you say, for many writers that just part of what they do – so it’s a natural extension The problem is that a number of self-proclaimed publishing industry prognosticators are using their soapboxes to peddle an agenda: namely, some of them are getting a lot of publicity (and contingent increases in sales) by beating the drumbeat of the Death-of-Traditional-Publishing. These people aren’t really prognosticating: they’re making a name for themselves by being controversial and provocative. But they say they’re predicting the future… so if you take them at their word… Well. Who knows. Maybe some of them really believe in the kool-aid they’re selling. Still, being controversial and provocative may be great for their own sales, individually, but it doesn’t really help the market evolve in a way that benefits all readers and writers equally. On an individual basis, maybe it doesn’t make economic sense for them to be less provocative. So… that’s where posts like Stuart’s come in: the more the anti-provocation message gets heard, the better I think that will be for the market as a whole.

      As for the decrease in paper sales vs. increase in digital: I don’t know if there’s data out there to say one way or the other, definitely, yet. It might be. But I suspect that yes, in fact, e-book sales are cannibalizing some paper sales: that is there are some paper books that are not sold in part because of the availability of e-books. Even if the availability of e-books leads to an overall increase in total book sales, I can’t see how that doesn’t impact paper book sales over time, negatively. What that shift for the industry means, in the long run, I’m not really sure. The big thing I’m really not sure of, yet, is whether the e-book revolution really is leading to an overall increase in sales. I haven’t seen any hard sales numbers that back that claim up. I can believe it, in theory, but I don’t know of any direct concrete evidence.

      Next I’ll take on Dean Smith’s predictions in the post you linked: For the most part I actually agree with most of his predictions. I’ll take them one-by-one, since he conveniently numbered them.

      1) Pretty much right-on, although it doesn’t account for the difficult financial effects of the current print distribution system. As print sales are cannibalized, in the short term, that hurts publishers more when the sales switch to e-books. The pain will be lessened, and even reversed, only if they are able to successfully switch certain aspects of their business model.

      2) Here’s the rub: in a short throwaway Smith mentions the returns system. As an MBA, this is one aspect of the publishing industry that makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s a terrible business practice – from the publisher’s perspective. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing like it in any other product distribution system. For their long-term survival, it has to change. Unfortunately, changing that practice will hurt booksellers (I mean… I’m sure Wal-Mart, for instance, would love to be able to return unsold household products, electronics, and produce for a full refund… but they can’t, because that’s not how distribution for those sorts of things works). I’m not sure what the effects of the change will be, but if it happens it will almost certainly shake up the industry in very big ways… especially on the distribution end. As long as this practice is in place, however, it will mean that print sales cannibalization by e-books will continue to hurt publishers. And this pain is going to trickle down to writers: as more books are returned unsold because readers bought e-books instead, this is going to impact whether authors sell-out, and may hurt their advances and put continued downward pressure on author advances. The existing downward pressure is one of the current industry and market trends that is driving new authors away from traditional publishing and into digital self-publishing. (Others include relatively draconian e-book royalty rates and alleged totalitarian-level rights grabs.) Smith gives the shift away from returns a single sentence… but it’s a deeply entrenched part of the business. Whether or not it makes sense… it means that it will be extremely difficult to change it. I don’t think it will happen overnight – it will be something that will probably either take years of transition, or a bold and brazen stand-off the likes of which we saw during the Amazon-fail vs. Macmillan incident earlier this year.

      3) I don’t know enough about the labor costs of publishers to comment on the first half of this one. The higher profitability of e-books, however, is little in doubt. Actually, in business terms, they are higher margin products, meaning that the revenues minus the variable costs to produce are much higher. Publishers still have to cover their fixed costs (which may or may not include the aforementioned labor costs, but almost certainly do include editing, etc. and office real estate and so on). I also can’t really comment on the idea that publishers will be shifting some of their paper production to POD.

      4) As per the blog post earlier this week about the artificial boundaries on international e-book sales… well… those facts on the ground ought to inform this one. That said: Engish is pretty commonly spoken across the world. I have to wonder what effect an influx of English-language e-books into foreign markets where English is a common secondary language will have on other-language publishers, and especially on foreign-rights and translation markets for writers. Why, for instance, buy a translation of a popular book into, say, French if you speak fluent English and can download the English-language e-book months or years in advance? All of which reminds me: Dean Wesley Smith’s predictions don’t seem especially concerned about the effect on the international market.

      5) I’ve seen the same statistics that Smith cites here. Independents are on the rise. This is an interesting development, and it’s an encouraging one. We’ll see if it continues, but one can hope. I’m not sure on what he bases his belief that the system by which Independents will sell e-books will not be Google’s system. At present, I’m not aware of any immediate alternatives for Independents to access an e-book revenue stream. Not saying Google’s system is great or will be the one (I’ve never directly encountered it, I’m only aware it exists)… but Google has deep pockets, so unless an alternative that’s truly amazing comes along, it’s going to be difficult to muscle Google out of that space.

      6) The first part, probably yeah. Mass market paperbacks… probably doomed. (Paper will surive because people want high-quality physical products: that means hardcover and trade paperback, not the pulp of mass market paperbacks.) As for his prediction on agents: Dean Wesley Smith has a known hate-on for Agents, so I give his thoughts on the future of agenting little truck.

      • Yes, the returns system is terrible for everyone except bookstores, but until now publishers have been pretty much stuck with it. This seems to me one reason why publishers will benefit from e-books. It’s forcing a lot of changes to “the way things are done” and they might be able to get rid of some of the worst of their practices in the upheaval.

        I’m going to pick on your last sentence, of course, because I still have such a hard time understanding why you dislike Dean Wesley Smith. 😛

        A “known hate-on for Agents”? I don’t see it. He and his wife are VERY outspoken about the ways that agents and publishers are seeking to take advantage of writers and trying to educate them. That seems to me like only a good thing. Remember that they have been in this business a long time and they know many, many writers and have been made privy to much that goes on behind the scenes in publishing. Dean wife often talks about the contracts from agents and publishers they’ve seen, for instance, with the most horrible terms and clauses designed to screw over writers. So yes, they are against those practices. And yes, they are cautioning everyone to be wary during these times of drastic change because no one knows how the agenting business is going to shake out. Dean mentioned that there are several lawsuits in progress against agents right now. His advice, for the record, is not “agents are evil, never deal with them”. It’s “just wait a couple of years before you seek out an agent, wait and see how things shake out because if the agency business gets in big trouble, you don’t want to be caught up in it.”

        To my mind, his advice has never been anything other than well informed, balanced and sensible.

      • My problem with Dean Wesley Smith and his perspective on agents is that I’ve never seen a truly balanced statement from him with regard to agents. His advice, since as far back as I can find on his blog, is that authors don’t need agents. This was his advice even before the current fracas where some agents are establishing digital publishing arms (or e-book related services). He’s never wavered from that advice – it’s not “wait for the lawsuits to settle”, it’s “do without an agent and learn to do it yourself”. And a lot of new, inexperienced authors who read his blog are going to feel like they know the industry, and they’re going to take his advice, and they may try to go without an agent. The problem is, the advice is disingenuous. It’s like suggsting that you don’t need a lawyer for your upcoming trial. Technically, yes, it’s true: we all know you have the right to represent yourself at trial. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. Are lawyers out to screw you? Absolutely. That’s what lawyers do. (Okay, not all of them. There are ethical lawyers. I even know some. Well… I don’t know any trial lawyers; the ones I know are in other areas of law.) But even if you acknowledge that the lawyer is out to screw you, you have to balance that against going into the complex and byzantine legal world alone… and on balance you’re waaaaay better off with a lawyer than without, unless you happen to already be a lawyer. It’s not quite as extreme with agents, but navigating the world of publishing and contract negotiations and so on isn’t something that just any joe blow newbie author is going to be able to understand on their own, right out the gate. They need experience. Is Dean going to be there with that newbie author, holding his or her hand, from the beginning helping them to learn and gain experience? No. And if he were, maybe he’d be entitled to some financial remuneration for his trouble.

        The thing is, when I think about the authors whose books I’m interested in or reading… they have agents. And they’re happy with their agents, and publicly praise their agents. That tells me a lot. And even as Dean concedes that successful authors like these will be “helped” by agents, he can’t resist making it backhanded. His full quote: “…I am waiting for the courts to come in and rule. If the courts shut down agent-as-publisher, then agents will be mostly gone in a few years. If not, who knows how many writers will be scammed while agents will actually help other writers in some fashion or another.” Before admitting that some agents are helpful (and presumably on the up-and-up) he digs at agents, generally, as “scammers”. That’s not a balanced view of agents.

        To be clear: I agree with much of Dean’s criticism of the way author and agent relationships are structured these days, and especially of the Agent-as-e-publisher or Agent-as-e-publishing-services-provider model. I think that’s at best unethical and at worst an act of willful and malicious breach of fiduciary responsibility on the part of those agents who are treading down this path. I personally think that the typical agent-author relationship is structured precisely backwards – when the agent pays the author, the author has made himself an employee of the agent when the relationship should work in the opposite direction. But as an individual with that opinion, I can’t change the system as-is. I think that structure is inviting abuse. But there are a large number of ethical and wholly scrupulous agents who operate based on that model (and as far as I can find none that operate on what I would consider a proper relationship model).

        So, on the whole, I don’t think Dean is really very balanced in his views of Agents.

        Also… I’m a bit uncertain about his llittle throwaway line about “waiting for the courts to come in and rule”. That line implies there are current, on-going lawsuits against agents. I can’t find examples of that. Either the implied lawsuits don’t actually exist yet… or they’re so low-profile as yet that they’re not making news. That he made this claim without bothering to link to anything or offer details (and I looked back through several posts and he’s made the same claim a few times without providing details) I find telling. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding… and this particular pudding has the look of being dishonest.

        So yes: Authors should be more knowledgable and more like business-people than they often are. I agree with Dean on that. But his rhetoric on the subject especially of Agents I don’t think is terribly helpful. He could preach the same message without the rhetoric and I’d likely take him a lot more seriously.

      • As a further example of what I’m talking about above, I’ll take your own statement: “He and his wife are VERY outspoken about the ways that agents and publishers are seeking to take advantage of writers and trying to educate them. That seems to me like only a good thing.” Implicit in that statement is the belief that agents are “seeking to take advantage of writers” in the general. Are there cases of this being true in the specific? I’m sure there are: heck, there are sites dedicated to exposing hacks and scams, like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. But you seem to feel comfortable using blanket, unqualified, non-specific statements that seem to apply generally to all agents, even the reputable ones. And I think the comfort level with that language comes in part from seeing the same sort of language used on Dean’s blog.

        He’s giving the impression that all agents are bad, and his weak attempts to insulate himself from that criticism on this subject (i.e. saying things like “I have nothing against writers using agents…”) do nothing to actually give the impression that he, in fact, has “nothing against… agents” because he surrounds those CYA statements with loads of advice and criticism of agents. It’s like “I have nothing against agents… but here are all the multifluous ways that agents are crooks and scammers” with never a mention of opposite side, what agents do that’s positive.

        Do you see what I’m saying here? That’s not a very balanced view. The criticism might be valid in a specific context, but he doesn’t provide context… only generalities.

  3. It is pretty much always true that people get a lot more attention when they write their predictions with absolute certitude, especially if the predictions are fairly one-sided and possibly apocalyptic. Predictions of “Its the end of the world as we know it!” will always get more eyeballs than “Now there are more different ways of publishing, which will co-exist, but it’s not possible to say exactly how.”

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