Issues on the Ether: Profit-Sharing Authors

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

28 January 2014 iStock_000004471003Small photog YuLiang11 texted story image 2

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIs­sue Chat is Wednes­day at Noon ET
  2. The Ellar­dian Vision: Profit-Sharing Authors
  3. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 12 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. GMT
  4. Last Week’s Topic: What’s Hard About Self-Publishing?

Our Live #EtherIs­sue Chat is Wednes­day at Noon ET

A one-hour change this week from our norm — at noon ET on Wednesday, Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on our topic this week, using this column as our jumping-off point. that’s 5 p.m. GMT / 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT. As usual, we’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue

Feel free, as always, to leave comments for us at the column here, and consider joining us for a frank and collegial real-time exchange Wednesday. Watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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The Ellar­dian Vision: Profit-Sharing Authors

By Porter Anderson

If you remember what it was like back in the day – yes, John, back when my author picture was taken. We just have a bit more control now, and a bit more choice. So, ladies and gentlemen, I know normally someone would interject here and propose a toast to me. But let’s not be so silly. Let’s toast each other.

Ian K. Ellard

Ian K. Ellard

When London’s Ian K. Ellard won the first future-of-the-book-business essay competition run by The Bookseller, “The Toast” ran on The FutureBook site the day before the US Thanksgiving. On one side of the pond, we were all buckling our brains into cockle hats. On the other side, our publishing industry associates were trying to get last-minute business bits done with us before “we gather(ed) together to ask the Lord’s blessing.”

In short, “The Toast” got past some folks’ cin-cin.

And when our #EtherIssue live discussion last week on self-publishing challenges (summarized below) became such a boisterous, rich exchange of views, it occurred to me that we should return to Ellard’s piece for a singularly perceptive concept that might interest entrepreneurial authors.

My brand manager, Carabina Buckles. Carabina, you helped me find my message. You found the Me in me, and that’s the Me that goes into every banner ad. If that’s not worth a modest percentage of net receipts, I don’t know what is. Thank you.

What Ellard does in his wryly entertaining essay is imagine a moment in 2022 when he’s thanking the folks we sometimes call “author services” personnel—as his partners. Real partners. Monetized partners. Each with a cut of the action.

Ellard has an especially apt perch from which to swing this concept. He’s the communications manager at the UK’s Faber Academy at Bloomsbury House in London. This is probably the grandparent of publisher-based training programs. Its courses — all serious stuff (including an online edition of the flagship “Writing a Novel” course that lasts seven months) — are offered without any guarantee of interest by the independent mainstay Faber and Faber.

To be sure, in fact, that no conflict of interest occurred when the essay jury encountered Ellard’s essay (I’d met him, myself, at a Future-of-Foyles bookstore event), he submitted it anonymously.

I asked him to clarify the scenario his essay treats with full glasses and a toastmaster’s touch.

“The essay,” he said, “imagines a world where advances are rare, and the bulk of book publishing is done on a revenue-share basis. The way it works at the moment, an author starts with 100-percent stake in their book, and sells that stake, often 100 percent of it, to a publishing house for an advance. That used to be a good deal–publishers offered the only route to market, and were prepared to pay a wholesale price for the product. But now that barrier has come down, the author has more options for bringing their product to customers—they decide how to spend their 100 percent.”

Image - iStokcphoto: ZimmyTWS

Image – iStokcphoto: ZimmyTWS

Are you following the current dialog about what I and agent/consultant Jason Allen Ashlock have called an apparent “bifurcation” starting to sharpen in the industry?

I quoted Ashlock on it in Is the “Publishers’ Monopoly” Broken? — a follow to the Digital Book World Conference & Expo (#DBW14).

Think of this idea of an industry being halved by the digital dynamic, as Ashlock describes it:

The world outside establishment publishing…is exploding in ways the establishment cannot fully name or measure, and fragmenting in ways that resist any kind of mapping with the tools we’ve been using.

At the center of what Ashlock calls “trade publishing’s rapidly bifurcating future” may well be something that Ellard’s essay refers to as a time of “the Great Centrifuge.”

From his essay:

Then came the Great Centrifuge—the years where there was just one big seller, just one shop window. For a while, 10 books at a time got whirled into the stratosphere and left everything else behind. Too much risk meant a total drying up of investment. At the same time, we started to think of ourselves a bit differently. The Centrifuge stripped away the idea that a writer was just the inspiration for the Book As A Product. The Centrifuge replaced The Product with The Content, and put us back in charge. We had our 100% back, and we got to decide what to do with it.

With complete innocence, of course, I asked Ellard if the Great Centrifuge might bear some odd relationship to the name of a river in Brazil?

Unfortunately, he’s too smart for that: “On the riveriness or otherwise of the Centrifuge, I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Drat.

Nevertheless, he’s willing to talk about where in such a Centrifugal Era we may be.

“We will not truly enter the era of the Centrifuge,” he said, “until all the bricks and mortar stores are gone. Until there really is only one route to market again. If that happens, there will be bestsellers and no-sellers, daily wheat and eternal chaff, and nothing in between. In that situation, the only thing that matters is access to capital; can my investor (my publishing house or my rich aunt and uncle) afford the up-front costs associated with making me a bestseller?”

The only dogs eating dogs at that point will be big ones, he said. “What publishing houses remain will be supermassive, fighting over the big blockbusters. There will be no middling advances.

“And once that’s true,” Ellard said, “what does a non-blockbusting writer need a publishing house for? Editorial excellence? Cover design? A sales force? What’s the point?”

In his conceit, the digital spin cycle will have thrown off such large numbers of highly experienced specialists in every aspect of publishing that authors can then think of themselves as executive producers of their own work. And as a sidebar, I invite you to read Hugh Howey’s conceptualization of a near-parallel, the agent-as-producer and the author-as-maker of much more than books: Lil’ Kris in da House.

In our #EtherIssue discussion, the cost of hiring “author services,” of course, was a persistent issue. Some authors are more flush than others when it comes to buying the skills then need on their team.

Well, as Ellard imagines it, you can put your money back into your jeans. Authors will hire these specialists not for cash but for sharply negotiated percentages of sales as payment. Hollywood style.

“It will have some dastardly capitalist elements,” Ellard told me. “Better editors will command a higher cut; the best cover designer will have a waiting list. But it will also bring accountability to those processes, more transparency, more power to the writer.”

Yes. “More power to the writer,” he said.

I asked Ellard if he’d use the term “collaborators” for these partners or something else.

“‘Collaborators’ is about right for what I envisage, yes,” he said, “and that they should be crowd-reviewed is a no-brainer. We have it now for plasterers and electricians and all sorts of important skilled work, so why not for editors and cover designers and PRs? It’s just quantified brand-building, I guess.”

Ellard said he’s coming to this with nothing but admiration for those editors and cover designers and PRs: “The current system runs on the amazing work of excellent editors and cover designers and PRs. They are smart and hard-working and passionate. What I suggest in the essay is just another market for those excellent people to operate in.”

From his essay:

Then we got smarter. People like Bill came along, and John, and Sarah, and my darling Buckles, and they said, “Hey, you’re a writer, I’m an artist” or “Hey, you’re a writer, I can help you in this way or that way.”

And we said: “We can’t pay.” And they said: “That’s okay, give me 2%”; they said: “That’s okay, give me 10%.”

Faber AcademyHe comes to his essay’s concept in his work, he told me, as a natural consequence of his work with Faber. “I see a lot of writers every day, and I work in a department that was considered pretty radical itself when it launched in 2008, so I suppose I’m live to ideas that might be a bit disruptive, and serve the needs of debut writers.”

And, of course, there are elements of this idea well in place already.

ACX from AmazonFor example, audiobook narrators and authors at Amazon’s ACX platform can work without initial payments passing hands and, instead, share in royalties from sales.

“I’m sure people will read this and say, Well, yeah, duh, already doing it,” Ellard said. But his eye is on a far bigger scale.

“What’s missing at the moment,” he said, “are a couple of things: One, necessity. There’s still a fairly robust system of Get-Agent-Get-Deal-Get-Small-Advance-Get-Sales that is pretty enticing. And, two, a platform. The truth is that there is one very rivery corporation”—see? I told you—”who would be in an ideal position to help writers cut other professionals in on their sales. ‘Would you like to add a cover designer to your royalty roster?’ But we’re not there yet, and not enough writers will be able to set up contracts and payment systems to manage it.”

Magnum PhotosIn the past, I’ve written about my own concept of writers teaming together in great Magnum Photo-like collectives to hire the publishing support people they needed—current-day publishing in reverse, basically, in which authors hire the people who put them into the market. Ellard’s construct is right in the neighborhood:

“Could very well be, yeah,” he said. “I’m sure a collective of industry professionals could sell their services in a bundle for a percentage of net receipts. I mean, then it’s just publishing really, with no advance and high royalty. Ultimately that might be where all this leads to, same old publishing with no advances and real high royalties.”

And where might he be on the other side of the Great Centrifuge, I asked?

“I write fiction, yes,” he confessed. “You’d think I’d know better. I’m currently seeking representation and it’s undoubtedly true that this essay comes out of my own apprehensions about what a future as a writer might look like. Do I have the vim for it?”

Well, what, I asked, might be the chance of Ellard, himself, forming the kind of consortium of book-production experts to operate on a share-for-services basis with authors?

“I’m a thinker-upper, Porter, not a doer. How dare you.”

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 12 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. GMT

And so, here we are: ready for our #EtherIssue for Wednesday’s Twitter discussion, and I’m hoping our thinker-upper, Ian Ellard, will join us.

We’d like you to consider this concept of publishing professionals surrounding and supporting authors with production services, not for payment but for negotiated and contracted percentages of sales; shares of the product.

Some questions to think about:

  • Would Ellard’s concept of publishing-services profit-sharing work for you as an author?
  • Shoe on the other foot, would this work for you as an author-services provider?
  • If you’re an author, how much of your total “100 percent” would you be willing to assign to your production partners? In other words, would you negotiate for a cover designer, developmental editor, copy editor, and formatter to collectively take some 50 percent of your sales? Or less? Or more?
  • What can you see as drawbacks in this way of working, from either side, author or service provider?
  • If you’re a writer, how much of your writing time might have to go into this formula? And would that be more time than you’d expect to spend if you were published by a traditional publisher? Or if you were a fairly standard self-publisher? In short—having found some members of our Twitter debate last week concerned with the competition for writing time of so many publishing duties, I’m wondering if a profit-sharing arrangement of this kind might ease that problem or make it worse?
  • Do you have examples of authors profit-sharing now?
  • And if this model were to become established, as Ellard’s essay imagines it, would it take us to 2020 to get there? (Are we in the Great Centrifuge now?)

These questions, and yours: let’s have them all on Wednesday at 12 p.m. Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: What’s Hard About Self-Publishing?

A leading guide-among-authors on all things self-publishing, London’s Joanna Penn, was surprised to see the focus of some of our debate last week:

Penn isn’t wrong on either count.

Opinions on the importance and availability of professional editing did seem to hold focus during our debate. And, as Penn pointed out, there certainly are other elements of self-publishing that are difficult.

She helped us lay the ground work, with author Dina Santorelli, who asked the question we hear so frequently these days:

We had begun with technologist Nick Ruffilo’s On Becoming a (Self) Publisher for Publishing Perspectives, which I covered in Issues on the Ether: Is Self-Publishing a Flying Leap?

And we quickly heard from James Scott Bell about the sort of issue we’ve all seen (yes, in traditionally published gaffes as well as the self-published kind).

And, of course, we had a lot of input on the questions of how to get truly effective reads. Author and editor Roz Morris was among the speakers to that issue:

Editors Carla Douglas and Carina MacLeod could relate, MacLeod exchanging notes with Morris.

And Penn was very clear on where attention is needed beyond those bothersome editing issues on which folks become so focused. She and Karen Inglis were bemoaning some of the limitations experienced by UK-based authors:

Dave Morris summed it up as well as anyone:

Which sets the stage for our Wednesday discussion on what might be possible in profit-sharing among publishing professionals, writers and otherwise.

Hope to see you then.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: YuLiang11

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.