Sebastian Marshall, and Why Traditional Publishing is in Trouble

Dec 23, 2011 | The Publishing Industry

A quick recap, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet – Sebastian Marshall is a businessman. He does a lot of business-related things, one of which is writing about business. He wrote a book about his philosophy of doing business, and got a deal with Simon & Schuster for it. Then a number of things happened, not the least of which was a delay in S&S getting payment to him, and a rather high level of indifference on their part to his suggestions and input.

So he wrote a letter to the CEO of S&S, and put it up on his website here.

Then he filmed a video, which you can watch here.

Talking about Publication

The one thing that struck me about this is how people don’t seem to be talking about it. I follow a lot of industry blogs, and I don’t recall seeing much popping up in my RSS feed from agents or publishers about this. He lays a list of accusations at the feet of the industry; in fact, I’m going to list them here:

  • Your industry is fucking slow
  • Your industry disrespects authors
  • Your industry under-equips and disrespects editors
  • Your industry is lacking basic modern technology
  • Your industry uses draconian contracts with artists which destroy goodwill
  • Your industry is conservative about trying new things despite being in a deathspiral (this is the most confusing one to me)
  • Your industry doesn’t foster a good enough collaboration among basic functions like editing and marketing
  • Everyone knows this, and thinks it’s okay “because that’s how publishing is”…
  • …but it’s not okay, and we all know that deep down…
  • …so, do something about it before it’s too late.

If anything, I’d expect the industry to respond in some way. I’d expect people to comment, I guess. Mr. Marshall broke a publishing contract worth $65,000 as a result of all this, so do not tell me it isn’t newsworthy, but I’m just… not hearing much. It’s like no one wants to say anything, apart from a few individual blogs I’ve never heard of, and what much of the commentary is talking about is how rude he is.

But Here’s the Thing…

No one’s really said that he’s wrong.

Where’s the article challenging these accusations? Where are the editors coming out in defense of their industry? Am I just not following the right people? Let’s be honest here – if someone swears a lot or films themselves ranting with their shirt off, it doesn’t make them wrong. It just makes them, well, an extrovert who likes to use vulgar language. It isn’t and shouldn’t be a judgment on the validity of what they’re saying. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I can’t help nodding when he talks about what’s wrong with the world of publishing, because I’m not just an aspiring author. I’m a businesswoman too. I’d still write, even if I had no chance of making money from it, but let’s say for the sake of argument that I can and I will – the mainstream route is looking less and less appealing, and a lot of it has to do with what Sebastian Marshall is saying.

Publishing is Still a Business

And the point of a business is to make money, to earn a living, all that good stuff. The publishing industry makes its money by getting content from the brains of its authors, forging it into a sellable and marketable product, and distributing it throughout the land. The question, really, is whether publishing has a good reason to treat itself differently from any other business, and whether Marshall’s criticisms are justified.

The biggest complaint is entirely accurate. From signing a contract to actual publication takes on average two years, with not much of an advance to keep the author going in the meantime if you’re a new name. That’s an eternity on the timescale of the Internet, for example, and certainly an age in the world of normal business. It’s cripplingly slow. It’s also not doing the publishers any favors, and here’s why.

For fiction, the book is more or less ready to print if you’ve gotten to the point of signing a contract. Publishers don’t want to deal with the time and effort it takes to shine up something good and turn it into something great. In fact, we’re frequently told as aspiring authors that we need to bring our absolute best game to have a chance at all. So what exactly is stopping the publisher from making it available in ebook format as soon as the editors, cover artist and ebook-producers are done with it, and putting on a marketing blitz right then and there? Does a print run take two years to set up? If it does, why not use print on demand technology to speed it up?

All in all, I’d expect the process to take two months, not two years. The average advance would cover the costs, and I don’t know of a single author who wouldn’t drop their advance if it meant seeing their book out there and earning money two months after it was picked up by a publisher.

Between Authors and Publishers

I don’t know if authors are treated badly by the industry overall, but… I hear stories. I know the royalty rates. A traditional publisher will offer 10-15% on their net income from printed books. Think about that for a second. That’s 10-15% of the profit – as in, their costs to get the book out have been covered. The author gets very little. On ebooks, they offer 15-25% royalties… on a product for which there is essentially no cost to producing in bulk after the initial setup.

So yeah. Unless the advance is astronomical, like six figures or more, you give up too much of your potential income and don’t get enough in return. I know a lot of publishers are good to their authors – I follow their blogs, after all – but from a business point of view, the offer isn’t all that good. (And yeah, I could be mistaken about all this – I’m an outsider looking in, after all – but when established authors are turning down huge advances to go independent, and they’re arguably getting better deals than the newbies, you know something’s wrong there.)

On the Realities of the Internet

The problem is always the Internet. It’s still disrupting the movie and music industry. Apparently publishers are still trying to figure out how to deal with it, when their main business model is all about the dead tree version. So they’ve been trying to claw the ebook rights from longstanding authors, for example, and Amazon has them running scared. Again, it comes down to business. You either react to the changing market, or you deserve to close up shop and admit you can’t compete. So what can the publishing industry offer new authors, when said authors can build their own audience, market their own books effectively, make their own arrangements for covers and editing, and sell their own books? Any author who views it as a business can go it alone, no help needed from the legacy companies.

I think that’s why all this has happened. I think that’s why they’re still running scared, even if they’re not going to admit it. We’ve been told for years, from various different sources, that we writers must treat our work as a professional venture – so our work needs to be marketable, and we have to be business-minded, and we have to think about audience and genre placement and all that kind of thing. But the flip side of this is obvious. If we’re really going to look at this like businesspeople, it’s clear that the big publishing houses are not good partners to have.

Sebastian Marshall’s experience illustrates this perfectly.