This really is the death knell for publishers

My apologies. This is a blog from an astonishingly angry author.


Today the Bookseller announced that Amazon is having a great new sales campaign. In an October Kindle promotion, they will be aiming to sell vast numbers of books.

This is brilliant news, isn’t it?

Amazon will do what they do best, push huge numbers of books at a massive discount. Book sales will shoot up.

Not mine. Because I don’t have many as ebooks yet. And do you know what? I am exceedingly glad.

Yes. I am glad to miss out on the opportunity of selling books.

Read this article: – yes, the clue’s in the title.

I have banged on a little in the past about the asinine pricing which publishers are agreeing to. When shops in the High Street were allowed books at a massive 30-40% discount, authors were allowed a 7.5% royalty. In effect this was a commission on each sale. The amount everyone felt the author should get was no a massive sum. I mean, on a paperback it equated to about 52 pence. Wow. For most authors, who sold about 15,000 books, that meant a moderate income. It also meant few authors could work full time.

A Ruin. Like Publishing's Future

The end of price-fixing meant that those little bookshops could not compete so easily. Whereas in the past supermarkets and retailers like Amazon were not allowed to buy at larger discounts than corner shops, now they could.

Beforehand we had a thriving book industry which allowed corner shops to make as much profit from a James Patterson or JK Rowling as the supermarket. And those little shops invested in the books they were interested in. So they would buy books on Medieval warfare, the building of Roman walls, or underwater basket-weaving – whatever it was that interested the shop owner. And as a result publishing flourished because small shops could buy the books that interested them.

As a result of the end of the Net Book Agreement that fixed prices, bigger stores like Waterstone’s, Borders and others demanded bigger discounts. Publishers like Headline were delighted to offer discounts to push ever larger print runs. They could make money from economies of scale. That is why almost all the local shops have disappeared. They cannot compete in a market so heavily rigged against them.

Sadly, also many superb writers didn’t sell in the vast numbers. Publishers ran to the easiest sales. Those authors who were lower mid-listers, usually because incompetent publishers decided not to invest in any marketing, were dropped. I know one publisher who bought up crime lists of more than thirty authors, only to discard more than half in the space of two years. Ever larger publishers bought up the smaller, specialist ones, and then disposed of all the authors they didn’t think would become multi-national best-sellers.

So now we have a small number of massive publishers.

But with the bigger discounts, the authors learned that when publishers felt squeezed, they would share the pain. So it is that authors no longer have their incomes fixed on a book’s price, but on net receipts to the publisher.

That means that when a book is sold, if the publisher discounted it by 40% to sell to the retailer, the author’s income fell by 40% as well. The writer is now held hostage to the whim of the publisher’s discount structure – or the current negotiation.

Take the example above – a paperback which was sold at £7, meant the author received some 50 pence. Now consider this wonderful Amazon demand. Under this promotion, the author will be paid 5 pence.

Five pence for a book that may have taken the author two years of sweat and effort. Two years of hardship. Probably in many case, several years of hardship.

I can remember starting writing in 1994 and getting my first publishing deal. With that, I was delighted to be paid £10,000. Except that was to be repaid by the royalties. At the time, that three book deal was not stunning. Terry Pratchett was offered £50,000 for each of his first three books, I believe, but I was glad to be able to call myself a writer. At least at 50 pence per book sold, I could hope to repay the money.


How the hell do publishers, or Amazon, expect authors to be able to write when there is no realistic income at the end of their endeavours?

The problem of finance for books has been caused by a ludicrously short-sighted ambition to chase ever higher sales at the expense of ever reducing margins. And now, one retailer with an effective monopoly seems to believe it can squeeze all publishers to destroy authors’ incomes.

And not only authors. The sheer brilliance of this is, it kills off all areas of the business. Not only publishing, but agents will disappear. Because out of that generous five pence royalty, authors have to lose 15% to their agents.

Is this new discount permanent? No. It’s a one-off for the month. But this is the second one-off this year already. So now, one sixth of all sales are discounted at this level. Next year, Amazon will no doubt have a need to push another few deals. And they will do it because it will sell books. So the majority of buyers will get used to waiting for these deals, and yes, the massive discounted promotion will become the norm.

Does this mean I hate all ebooks?

No. But what this does mean is that it is very hard to see how on earth I can ever consider selling books through a middle-man like a publisher on the internet. And I am not alone. Authors are independent businessmen. If we cannot earn anything, we have to look to newer business models. And just now, the only workable model is that of working direct to internet.

If anyone can tell me how the hell it’s possible for authors to carry on working with publishers for a matter of pennies, please tell me. I would love to think that there could be a future.

But just now, I can see no possible way of the current publishing business model succeeding. Because publishers have very successfully cut off the incomes of their suppliers.

And without authors, folks, there will not be publishers.

25 Responses to “This really is the death knell for publishers”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Heh! Welcome to the topsy turvy world the rest of us have to contend with. Makes you wonder why we bother doesn’t it Michael. Still, if one more person reads his/her free copy of your work I suppose in a totally weird way, it may be to our advantage for any future novellas or novels we slave over – maybe.


    • Thanks, Jack – and yes, if it was a genuine one-off. But Amazon doesn’t deal that way. They always demand ever higher discounts. Authors will survive. We can go straight to web with our books. They won’t be as good, because of poor copyediting, editing and proofing, but we’ll survive. But why are the publishers bowing under?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At the risk of being ex-communicated, er, why don’t you just self-publish your books as ebooks on Amazon at, say $2.99. You keep 70%. That’s $2, less tax.

    It’s what anyone can do now, except the indentured servants of the publishing industry.

    Things are bleak indeed for publishers, buy not at all for open-minded writers and readers.


    • As you can see at the bottom of my rant, I’ll be doing just that. But you have to bear in mind there are consequences. First, without the publisher, I’ll have to spend less time writing. Why? Because I will be marketing and selling instead of writing. I always wrote two novels, one novella and a couple of shorts a year. With ebooks I’ll be lucky to write one novel. And yes, I am sure you’re right about anyone being able to do it. Which is why there are so many books available. But which are worth reading? In the past an author used to have a 1:10,000 chance of getting into print. Those who didn’t sometimes went the vanity route. Fine. Readers tended to go to the bookshop and buy from publishers, though. If I go straight to the web, how will people find my books? Because now, the 10,000 are publishing straight to the web the reader has to search through them all to find the one in the middle that they really wanted. Sorry, I think that the publishers have always provided a good, useful service by filtering out the dross. Losing them will impact all writing.


  3. One of the reasons why I, as a reader, refuse to have an E reader. Although the idea of buying the latest Novel at a dirt cheap price looks great, The price means that someone will loose out, and you can bet your arse it won’t be Amazon or the publisher.
    My first attempt at a Novel was rejected by agents a year ago universally. I took that as a sign it was crap, and have moved on, without feeling the need to sell it on line – My reasoning being that if the professionals tossed it back, then it must be crap, and re reading it a year later, yup, it’s crude, amateurish and lacking badly. It might have sold in kindle, priced right, But it would have ensured that I got no repeat sales on anything else I put out.
    Sadly, Publishers will flock to this format because their overheads will be a lot less, downloading costs less in time, money and manpower than publishing paper books.


    • Publishers will disappear, though. Until there are some new on-line publishers who do the marketing, editing, copyeds and proofing, internet sales will not grab the interest of readers. Some few will achieve massive sales. Many will find that they sink without trace. Argh!


  4. So agree about writing time! Some of us have other jobs as well. And writers are not intrinsically business people. Self-publishing is OK for those who are, not so good for those who aren’t but who may be better writers. As you say – publishers, fight the ‘zon!!


  5. Philip says:

    I’m supposed to be in hibernation, but I must come out for a few minutes to comment on your post, Michael. I should say that for a man so angry you put the case with the greatest clarity, and I think you are right on every point at issue. Of course, you are not alone, but, in any case, read this so you may know what good company you are in:

    “Angered by what he felt was the unequal distribution of profits going to the bookseller instead of the author, Carroll proposed in 1875 to fix the price of his books and limit or disallow bookseller discounts on them.”

    That’s Lewis Carroll, of course, and the words are from Morton Cohen’s fine biography. Though it was quite a few years more before Parliament passed a law fixing the price of books, Dodgson it was who set the ball rolling. Just looking at the Continent, in Western Europe I spy thirteen states with fixed book price agreements. It is not necessary to forbid discounts in toto, but they must be limited. In Britain, the law engendered by the Rev. Dodgson was in effect the best part of a century before repeal in 1995 in another puff of Thatcher/Friedman economics, for the dynamics thereof were so powerful that Mrs T was not necessary for their continuance, as Tony Blair would in time prove. And in those many years, things worked quite nicely for all concerned. By the time of repeal, of course, a great number of independent publishers had already been swallowed up by the media megacorporations and the consequence of that with regard to what was on offer to readers was already apparent. We are now in the age in which even the OUP announced it would no longer publish poetry. But until repeal, independent booksellers were still relatively many, and so too, of course, were authors. Surely it was inevitable, though, given the economic system bequeathed to us by Maggers and carefully watered and tended by Tony, that megacorporations following the example set by those that ate the independent publishers would come prowling along and eat up the booksellers.

    What you so clearly demonstrate, Michael, is that we have reached the next, and potentially final stage, in which the cat eats up the authors’ profits without realizing it’s munching on its own tail, a situation, mutatis mutandis, the Rev. Dodgson set out to remedy 136 years ago. He understood full well, though he had no need for money from his writing, that the fount of the book industry is the writer. The Thatcherites and Blairites, being middling sorts of people themselves, were always rather fond of the ‘middlemen’ (forgive the sexism there, please), the ones who produce nowt but are awfully good at moving things, particularly money, around for a percentage. And so the system is working well — the middle people in the industry are raking it in while those who write books and those who produce them see their profits diminish. The publishers, those megacorporations, need not worry — they have other interests and they will just stop publishing books that are not bestsellers in one beat of their chilly corporate hearts. But authors who are not on the bestseller lists, those who are doing well if they make enough for subsistence, cannot survive any more onslaughts of this sort. What is needed is a full-blooded lobby for a fixed book price agreement.


    • Many thanks for such a thoughtful response, Philip. I am thinking of changing my name by deedpoll to Dodgson. I heard recently that when he went into print, he allowed Macmillan to take a 75%/25% split. That is, Dodgson took three quarters and allowed the publisher one quarter. Where did it all go so very wrong?!


  6. Our Man in Abiko is right and I can see a fair rush for the door marked “exit” at the publishing houses. Those with long established backlists – like yours – will do a darn sight better in ebook world by doing it yourself rather than letting the publishers sell their (and your) soul for pennies. The publishers have been stoking the fires of the cookpot in which they sit for some years, chopping down the long-established trees of the book trade through secret promotions and massive discounts to Waterstones and Amazon. Now Amazon are just adding the salt and pepper to the pot and the publishers go, “oooh, oooh more please” and then they’re well and truly cooked to a turn. Book trade gone – I’m out in 2012 – and new authors left high and dry with nowhere to go. Cue: massive self-publishing explosion with every bit of turgid twoddle washing around in a literary Sargasso Sea.


  7. Lady Samantha says:

    This leaves me little hope and depresses me greatly. If I had a bazillion dollars I would start my own publishing house and anyone who wants an ebook published would have to kiss my rear end.


  8. Beth says:

    After a few on-line discussions with Leighton Gage about the problem of getting publicity from publishers if the author isn’t James Patterson, Stephen King, or Mary Higgins Clark, I began a blog that reviews books by my favorite writers.

    In the fourteen months since I first posted a review, there have been over 400 posts. Most are my reviews, others are from people who sent me their reviews to put on the blog, and there are newspaper articles and a variety of things I have come across that a mystery fiction related. My daughter gave me the outline for the blog, I, in a burst of heretofore unexpected creativity , named it and it was off and running. To the complete shock of everyone in my family (with the exception of another daughter who claims to have known it would be a success), it has to date been viewed over 39,000 times. Thanks to Sitemeter, I am really amazed by how often it is viewed by people across the globe

    There isn’t any way I can know how often views turned into book sales, the purpose of the whole thing, but I like to believe it has led to some purchases.

    This isn’t intended as BSP but as a suggestion that readers of mystery fiction post reviews wherever they can as often as they can. I have learned that reviews influence librarians in the choices they make to buy books and that is no small thing in a time of diminishing budgets. Reviews don’t have to be long. Please don’t be put off by memories of the painful process of school-days book reports. Post on Amazon, Goodreads, and Library Thing. All those sites make the process incredibly simple and painless. Authors can’t look forward to an increase in sales if no one knows they are out there.

    Take a look at Murder Is Everywhere, a wonderful blog done by Timothy Hallinan (Sunday), Leighton Gage (Monday), Cara Black (Tuesday), Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Wednesday), Michael Stanley (Thursday), Dan Waddell (Friday), and Jeffrey Siger (Saturday). They don’t write about their books but about the countries within which their books are set. The blog is unfailingly interesting.

    Beth Crowley


    • Thanks, Beth. The big problem now is that although we can get the sales, the amount we’re paid is so derisory, when discounted 80-90%, that it’s impossible for authors to budget and earn a living via publishers. We can, of course, sit back and watch publishers go to the wall, and hand amazon an easy monopoly, at which time all authors will be squeezed even further, no doubt. This really is crunch time, though.


  9. MG says:

    I completely agree with what everyone has said about the likes of Amazon and it is indeed a shame that so many independent bookshops have gone under and that so many authors are not able to live on royalties alone. Unfortunately as long as someone is offering such low prices and people are struggling with the recession then they will be unable to resist and will buy from the big discount stores since that is all they can afford.

    The only thing I do disagree with is the part about books not being accepted by publishers simply because they are not very good. Sadly I think that publishing is mostly about money/sales these days and I’m certain there are plenty of really fantastic books by decent authors that get rejected and never see the light of day. To say that those who online publish do so only because they are not good enough to publish for real is a little unfair, with all due respect.

    That said I can also see that there will be plenty of bad books which get published online because there is no editing/proof reading process. Then again, I’ve also in my time read plenty of bad books that *were* published in the usual manner so I suppose in some respects it is pot luck whichever way you look at it.

    I too would like to see a return to the old system that allowed for smaller bookshops and publishers to thrive. I’m just not sure it isn’t too late for that already, much to my dismay. I do however wish you luck with your own situation, and thank you for an insightful blog post on the matter.


    • I don’t disagree that many good books & writers fell through the net, but still, a published and edited book has a higher profile because it has gone through an editing process. It’s more likely to be professional than a straight to ebook story.


      • MG says:

        Absolutely, and I’m no fan of (vanity) e-publishing or even of electronic books themselves in all honesty. What I meant was that on a sidenote I find it sad that so many good books and authors get rejected by the big publishers these days because of monetary concerns rather than quality.

        Getting back to the original point, I personally prefer to read an actual book in my hand and with much loved older books you get a real sense of history about them as well. I simply cannot imagine in decades to come walking into a room full of Kindles and getting the same sense of awe that I did when I walked into the library of Trinity College, Dublin.


  10. Reading all that I keep hearing that Bob Dylan line “There must be someway out of here said the Joker to the Thief.” I’m damned if I can work out who the joker is.
    I imagine, back in the day when papyrus was competing with stone there were people saying “Give me stone any time, that paper stuff will never last; hell, you can wipe your arse with it, try doing that with a stone tablet.”
    We still have some of that publishing history in our language, terms like ‘Set in stone’, ‘scroll down’, etc.
    Creative, inventive people have always had a problem getting paid. The term ‘Starving Artist’ didn’t happen by accident. There have always been plenty of people who can’t create but are happy to make money from those who can.


  11. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Some thoughts about Amazon etal…


  12. Old Trooper says:

    I was surprised to see this today and find no comment from me after all this time. The problems were real then, when written, and are real now. The fostering of good authors is still not being done thanks to the greed of mass market vendors (who permit very stupid reviews on their websites, e.g. I don’t like the cover art so 1 star).


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