In November of last year, I came across a blog entry on the Huffington Post that filled me with a familiar weariness. In it, best-selling author Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Assholes Finish First) details the process by which he was able to circumvent the Big 6 publishers for his third book, thereby tripling his percentage of the profits. Max proved that, at least for established, successful, and financially independent authors, it was possible to effectively commandeer many of the responsibilities usually handled by a publisher and turn that assumption of burden into increased profit share. With the exception of distribution, Max was able to more-than-adequately duplicate all the efforts he was ostensibly paying a publisher for.
As someone who believes ardently in the utility (if not exactly the vitality) of publishing for both authors and readers, it is draining to read article after article about the perceived uselessness of my business, particularly when the argument is depressingly persuasive. About the publishing business, Max says: “It’s terribly exploitative of authors (paying them a very small royalty on sales), yet it doesn’t even do a good job maximizing overall revenue from book sales.” He goes on to walk through the ways in which his own marketing strategies (special offers, immediate digital release on multiple platforms, etc.) were more effective than those that his “risk-averse” publishers had ever tried. His conclusion was that successful authors should cut distribution deals with big publishers and handle the rest themselves. And reap the spoils.
What rankled me about this post, aside from the implicit suggestion that I am stupid for working in publishing, was that it outlines a strategy that would cripple the already-shaky financial foundation of major publishing. The biggest authors, the ones that can afford to forego an advance, hire freelancers, and actively market their work, are the rising tide that lifts all boats in publishing. The massive sales of these authors allow publishers to produce the vast majority of all books, the ones that don’t sell as well but that nonetheless enrich our reading culture. We need the Stephen Kings and the Tucker Max-es.
It probably suggests something lacking in my self-esteem that I immediately jumped to the doom-and-gloom conclusion that (I thought) the post was arriving at. It might also suggest that I need to bone up on my critical reading skills, because not-so-subtly couched within Max’s debasement of Big 6 publishing was a stirring defense of publishing itself.
What Max was saying (explicitly; see the post’s section titled: “I’m not an author anymore. Now, I’m a publisher.”), was that he could pay to duplicate and improve upon the services for which he only received a pittance from his Big 6 publisher. He was saying that, so long as he could strike a deal for distribution (the one remaining aspect of a Big 6 contract that he could not personally handle), he could be his own publishing company. Not a self-published author (Max himself makes this distinction), but a real publishing company.
The good news of this fact is that Max’s method provides a blueprint for publishing’s future that could genuinely and equitably benefit all involved. Most authors can’t afford to be their own publishing company in the way that Tucker Max suggests, but increasingly, there is limited utility to a writer in going through “traditional” publishing channels. Big 6 publishing still has a stranglehold on the industry, but it is a monolithic and in many ways archaic mode of business that has been slow to adapt to change in an already-low-margin undertaking. Big 6 publishing wields a large stick, but it lacks the fine motor skills to innovate on the fly.
That’s the purview of smaller, more-dexterous publishers, and proof that such institutions are the way forward. An indie publisher (like Ooligan Press!) can help less-than-famous authors in specific ways that larger publishers can’t, for all the reasons Max details: creative, specific marketing strategies, distinct design and production, a defined niche that leads to brand loyalty among readers, the ability to scrap ideas that don’t work and formulate new ones quickly. Small publishers can also be more flexible in their contracts, allowing for varying degrees of collaboration that can both yield a more equitable split of profits between publisher and writer and help to offset some of the initial financial burden on the press. Small presses can (and do) strike the same distribution deals that the post discusses while still providing lesser-known authors with the protection of a publisher (which shields them from the “self-publishing ghetto” that Tucker Max is so keen to avoid).
Tucker Max’s post was not an assault on the notion of publishing; it was a plea for the creativity, innovation, and equity that ought to already be the hallmarks of our business, a business that, at it’s core, is fundamentally about the spread of ideas. It took a while (I’ve got a bit of the “kicked-dog” syndrome when it comes to publishing), but Max’s ideas finally inspired me and reinvigorated my belief in publishing. It’s a smaller game these days, but it’s one that’s never been more exciting to play.