The Critical Aspects of Digital Publishing

Kath here. New York Times bestselling author Barry Eisler made headlines when he turned his back on a six figure deal to self-publish his highly anticipated thriller THE DETACHMENT as an Amazon Kindle exclusive.

Barry, a former CIA covert operative, had been appearing on the bestselling lists for years with his nailbiting thrillers. His handshake deal with St. Martin’s was one any author would be thanking their lucky stars to entertain. So when news about Barry’s move to Amazon hit the intertubes, people raised a brow — and authors watched closely. Was he insane for walking away from that kind of money and the in-house support offered by traditional publishers? Or was he prescient? Now it seems that Barry’s decision is a harbinger of things to come for authors looking for their footing in the new digital age, and that traditional publishers (or what he calls “legacy publishing“) are finding it difficult to react to shifting consumer patterns — to the detriment of their authors.

We asked Barry to share his insights with the WU community, and happily for us, he agreed.

Please enjoy our guest post with Barry Eisler.

There are really just a few critical aspects of the revolution in publishing. If you understand these aspects, you’ll have a proper framework. If you have a proper framework, you can make good decisions.

First: Digital is increasingly becoming the dominant means by which books are distributed. Digital will never replace paper entirely, but it will displace paper, relegating paper to a subsidiary right. For anyone who doubts this, I recommend my blog post Paper Earthworks and Digital Tides, and Be the Monkey: A Conversation About the New World of Publishing, a free downloadable book I wrote with novelist J.A. Konrath.

Second: Unlike in paper, where an author needs a distribution partner to cost-effectively reach a mass market of readers, in digital a lone author has exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, billion-dollar multinational conglomerate.

This bears repeating because it’s so revolutionary it can be hard to get one’s head around. In digital distribution, legacy publishers offer zero value. An author can distribute one-hundred-percent as effectively alone as she can with a legacy publisher. In other words, in digital distribution, an author has no use for New York. For more, see this guest post I did at J.A. Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (a blog you should absolutely be reading regularly).

Note that I’m only talking about distribution and I’m only talking about digital. I didn’t say that New York publishers have no value to offer in paper, in, editing, or in other areas. To me this is obvious, but I’ve learned to include this sort of disclaimer to make it marginally more difficult for dodgers, denialists, and dudgeon demons to avoid actual thought in favor of straw man arguments and other mischaracterizations of what I’ve actually said.

Third, and flowing from the first two: in a digital world, the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. This is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by email. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused (book buyers) and exceptionally broad (tens or even hundreds of millions of customers). Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits. One recent example is the L.A. Times. Think of entities that fit the bill, and you’ll be able to predict tomorrow’s publishers.

Interestingly, there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.

All right, now you know the three critical aspects of the revolution in publishing. But how do you decide between a legacy publisher, self-publishing, and the new kind of marketing-centric publishing pioneered by Amazon but soon to be emulated by numerous new players?

Well, you’ll need to ask yourself the kinds of questions I enumerate in the this guest post linked above. But ask them within this context:

As: (i) book distribution becomes increasingly digital; (ii) distribution is therefore increasingly eliminated as a service a publisher can offer; (iii) marketing-centric publishers therefore increasingly become the partners who can offer value to authors; and (iv) legacy publishers offer authors 17.5% of the retail price of a digital book, self-publishing offers authors 70%, and Amazon and other marketing-centric publishers offer authors 35% and above, what are the increasingly attractive options for authors? What are the increasingly attractive options for you?

At some point, New York will have to break down and boost the digital royalties it pays authors.  Doing so will decrease the cost to an author of going the legacy route, but it won’t increase the value, because New York has no meaningful marketing ability.

In my mind, of the various value-adds New York has traditionally offered, whether in theory or in fact, the bulk of them involve paper distribution.  So a bet on New York today is a bet on paper tomorrow.  I wouldn’t take that bet (in fact, I didn’t take it), but different people will have different objectives, different predictions, and different assigned weights for various risks.  No matter the differences, I hope this article and the ones linked above will help other authors make better-informed choices.

Also no matter what the differences, think about the last word in the paragraph above.  Choices.  For the first time, we authors have them.  If you hope to make a living from writing, is there anything to object to about that?

The digital version of THE DETACHMENT is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. It’s also available in print in bookstores everywhere. Thanks Barry!



  1. says

    Wow! Thank you, Barry, for the information in your post. To deny the merits of digital publishing is to ignore the present as well as the future. It’s already happening and because of people like you and Mr. Konrath, avenues are lighting up for the rest of us writers who are trying to make a decision about which path to take.
    Thanks so much.
    Patti Yager Delagrange

  2. says

    Thank you for this. I have appreciated reading yours and Mr. Konrath’s various posts. The absolute most critical word is “choice”. Yeah, we all wanna make money, but there is no dollar value that can be assigned to authors having more choices.

    And each author has to find what works for them. As time passes, I hope people will be zeroed in less on arguing and print vs. digital and more zeroed in on utiliizing every viable option available to them.

  3. says

    Great post as usual, Barry. I appreciate how you break things down: digital as a media vs. a type of publisher; marketing and distribution and editing etc. as services.
    Also differentiating Amazon as a publisher vs Amazon as a retailer, vs. Amazon as a self-publishing facilitator. So many others muddle the picture and make claims that come off either ridiculous or reactionary or both.

    One remaining uncertainty for me is the extent to which online retailers will offer targeted marketing akin to the “legacy” co-op advertising system with its front tables and end caps. To me this seems likely. (Why wouldn’t online retailers charge for this service if they can, offering to make certain books more visible to consumers than others? Why wouldn’t publishers, who don’t have a direct route to the consumer pay for such an advantage?) And if the cost of such programs is out of reach for most individual self-published authors, then I can see the big six retaining more of their current dominance even in the digital format.

    But that only marginally adjusts my best guess of what the future will look like. And like you, I am excited about Amazon Publishing’s ability to get books in front of the right (and lots of) readers. :)

  4. says

    “In digital a lone author has exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, billion-dollar multinational conglomerate.”

    But if we remove Amazon and B&N’s self-publishing option from the equation, is that still true?

    B&N only sells to Americans and non-Americans can only upload to B&N through third parties like Smashwords.

    Amazon is off limits to half the world. 200 million English-speakers in West Africa, for example, cannot download ebooks from Amazon. here Amazon does allow downloads they enforce a $2 surcharge in all but a few countries when readers buy ebooks. A 99c ebook in India will set you back $2.99. A 99c ebook in Italy costs over $3 after local tax! And incidentally none of this surcharge goes anywhere near the author.

    Most ebook retailers – for example Waterstone’s in the UK, which is the second biggest UK ebook outlet – do not let indies upload. Most overseas ebook retailers do no let indies upload.

    To suggest it’s a level playing field for indie authors is to ignore the facts, even within the US, let alone in that big wide world beyond.

  5. says

    Thanks, Mark, for that comment. Which is why I’ve gone with you for my no-US digital publishing :)

    That said, however, kudos to Barry for laying it all out because what he says does ring true for me, as a US author for whom indie publishing has been a fantastic option. Konrath’s blog (and some of Barry and Joe’s hilarious joint posts) was what got me on the indie route in the first place.

    I think the key takeaway for authors is that whatever choice they make, they go into it with their eyes open.

  6. John Askins says

    Good column and comments, but no one mentioned editing, which is another value traditional publishers offer, and one that will be needed no matter what the delivery system. Maybe this means freelance editors will get more business, and more editors now employed by NY publishers will become freelance, but someone will have to do it and someone will have to pay for it.

  7. says

    Another excellent and very helpful article, Barry. Thank you for sharing your experience and information so generously!

    Happy Thanksgiving + 1,
    Fran Friel

  8. says

    Great post. People like me are grateful for successful people like you sharing your views because it gives us support for what we are trying to do; in my case this is to become a full time writer.

    I have one no-yet-successful digital self published book and have learnt so much over the last year. In 2012 I have four books I intend to self publish and I am optimistic about my chances of success because I believe in making my own luck. I have been writing for 20 years and I always thought that no matter how hard I worked or how good I was, any success was mostly in the hands of publishers and agents. But I am not a B-list celebrity or a hunk/bimbo who might look good on TV so I have always wondered how much real effort might be put in for me.

    Digital publishing has put it all into my own hands. If I am successful I will have done it myself and if I am not, then it is my problem. I love the freedom we writers now have. I love the choices it has given us. I love the new writing world.

    So thanks to you Barry and your friends like JA for shining the torch, because the traditional publishing world are certainly not trying to help us small people. It is sad that one day the big 6 might wake up/grow up and realise that they need writers but it will probably be too late for them because we no longer need them.

  9. Anna says

    Thank for giving all these tips and critics. In order to be good writers we must have a real and harsh evaluation:)

  10. says

    Tremendous information from Barry. I would also recommend Be the Monkey (link in the article) for his conversation with Joe Konrath. Insightful and open discussion about the pros and cons of legacy publishing versus indie/self/Amazon publishing.

  11. says

    Thanks for all the thoughts, everyone.

    Maureen, I agree publishers will buy online coop, as they do in the brick and mortar world. But I’m sure online retailers will offer such programs to indie authors, too, and if they’re cost-effective, I imagine indie authors will find a way to put together the money to pay for them. This might be better news for banks, which charge 5% interest, than it is for legacy publishers, which take 52.5% of revenues. We’ll see.

    Mark, you asked, If we remove Amazon and B&N’s self-publishing option from the equation, would a lone digital author still have exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, billion-dollar multinational conglomerate?

    Obviously not, but I’m not sure why that’s relevant. If you removed gas stations from the equation, would I still be able to drive from San Francisco to San Diego? I wouldn’t. But again, what does that prove? Sorry I’m not understanding.

    John, you said, “but no one mentioned editing.” I did: “Note that I’m only talking about distribution and I’m only talking about digital. I didn’t say that New York publishers have no value to offer in paper, in editing, or in other areas. To me this is obvious, but I’ve learned to include this sort of disclaimer to make it marginally more difficult for dodgers, denialists, and dudgeon demons to avoid actual thought in favor of straw man arguments and other mischaracterizations of what I’ve actually said.”

    Thanks again, everyone, and ME, thanks for recommending Be The Monkey. There’s a lot more in there… and it’s free! :)

  12. says

    Barry, I think what Mark is saying is that Amazon and BN were the conduits through which we could reach our markets on a level playing field with NY. Take those away and NY again has the advantage, though not an insurmountable one.

    Then it would become a race to find direct markets, which for most writers would be one at a time, on social media. Then you have to send them somewhere (your website) to buy an ebook, and then you either have a nice, costly digital storefront or you email the file personally.

    I am curious whether any writer below Pottermore level can make a personal storefront work as a main income source. It would take a large existing audience, compelling interactive content so the store (website) itself is an attraction, or such a dynamic marketing ability that you’d probably end up in other fields that were far more lucrative.

    As it is, Amazon is well worth the cut!

  13. says

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you! I used to think of selling on Amazon as a way to get noticed by NY, but after spending a few months as an indie author, the traditional holy grail has lost quite a bit of luster.

    Especially now that many consumers who used to buy their paperback books at Target, Costco, etc. are slowly starting to drift toward the instant gratification of ereaders.

    And remember – great editors can be hired on a freelance basis. The idea of an author investing in his/her work in exchange for better royalties and control over the process seems like one I’d bet on.

  14. says

    Scott said:

    “I think what Mark is saying is that Amazon and BN were the conduits through which we could reach our markets on a level playing field with NY. Take those away and NY again has the advantage, though not an insurmountable one.”

    Thanks, Scott, I get that — but still don’t understand the purpose of the hypothetical. Why not go further: take away ereaders. Or take away digital distribution entirely. Then we’d be back in a purely paper world and New York would have all the power again. I just don’t understand what this thought experiment is intended to prove, that’s all.

  15. says

    Thanks for the post Barry, and the points you laid out. I published my novel last spring to understand what the fuss was all about. I have my novel in book form and as a ebook on Kindle and soon B & N. The book sells out regularly at my indie book store and is in several public libraries. I think this way works best for this particular novel. I pitching for the legacy publisher for another. These are changing times in publishing. I want to be a part of it. (and I had a editor)

    By the way, the ebook at Amazon is in UK, France,Germany and soon Spain. In English, of course, but with troops overseas, they can buy in the currency of the their host country.

  16. says

    Great thoughts, as always, Barry! I was intrigued by Mark and Scott’s comments. To me, the implications of that thought experiment means that it’s more important than ever to build your own e-mail list for connecting to your fan base. Not because the sky is falling and Amazon is going to do an about-face and screw us all over tomorrow, but simply because it’s good business practice. As you said, direct to consumer marketing is super important these days, and combined with online distribution, it puts a lot of power in writers’ hands. We may not be JK Rowling, but perhaps we can start building our own modest reader communities.

  17. says

    Thanks, Livia. Completely agree on the importance of building your own email list! And of your own online store, too. I think author website stores are going to become significant revenue generators.

  18. says

    Wonderful post full of so much information. I was amazed at all the flack I received when I sold to an ebook publisher in 2006. One author stated that “an author should be able to make a living by selling books, and I wouldn’t be able to do that”. I asked her (a traditionally published author), “Do you?” The answer was no.

    The technology road in book publishing is quickly shifting to ereaders. I realized this years ago and jumped on that “ebook train”. Why some still keep their heads in the sand and refuse to adjust to ebooks is amazing. It’s progress for the future, and things will move forward, not backward. There will always be room for print books, but the ratio of ebook to print books will change in the coming years.

    I’ve been happy with epublishing; have already self-pubbed print versions of an ebook the publisher wasn’t going to put in print. I’m looking into self-pubbing an ebook next.

    Social networking is a major key to promotion. Relying on a publisher to promote your book is no longer the only way to sell books. Building your “name”, selling and promoting “online” are the ways to be successful. I’m low on the “writing industry food chain”, but haven’t missed a month without a paycheck (sometimes two or three) from my ebook publishers/sales since 2007.

  19. says

    The downside of all this is marketting. Authors who self publish (I just put out my first ebook so I know) soon discover that it’s really hard to get your work visable without paying big $ for it. It’s fine for those who come to it already with a readership, or who have big backlists (so their advertising money is spread over their list) but for new authors even those with great books (there are a lot of them out there) it’s no eldorado and there’s a lot of hype that makes it seem that way.

    A publisher friend of mine assures me that trad publishers still get greater visibility for their books in ebook stores (unless it hits the Amazon top 100) and you only have to look at what pops up when you go anywhere and you can see the truth in that.

    The question is, how do you get noticed enough to get your book into the top 100? I’ve reviewed some stunning indie books and months after coming out despite the author getting constant 4 and 5 star reviews, simply not enough people know they exist.

    I notice the proliferation of advertising for indies (some seem downright dodgy to me, eg pay $25 to give away free books???) What we need is info on sure fire marketting and info on marketting scams – what does work, what is a rip off? What doesn’t cost heaps of $$$

    I suspect that editors and advertisers will be the big winners, because they get their money even if the author doesn’t sell one book.

  20. says

    Great post, Barry, but I must say I support Tahlia’s word of warning! What you say applies perfectly to someone with your profile – a successful author with an established fan base – and I’m not surprised Amazon took you on board as an author when they struck out in their new role as publisher. And I’m completely convinced that Amazon is going to become the Next Big Publisher!

    This said, the advice doesn’t really help newbies and could even cause pain. Sure, in the Digital Age, marketing is in the author’s hands and for the first time you can connect directwith your readers. But what if you don’t have readers? What if your email list consists of your personal friends and few others?

    I know what you’re going to say. Start a blog, get an FB page, twitter like mad, get a following and it will all work out in the end!

    But I still see pitfalls for newbies (I blogged about them extensively in a recent post)

    1. paying for a freelance editor as a newbie is not necessarily going to turn out as well as you might hope – simply because freelance editors do not belong to an organizational framework like a publishing house and therefore if they botch the job for you, the problem is just yours (if they work for a publisher and botch the job, then they put their own career in peril).

    2. Ditto for book covers.

    3. Most direct marketing does NOT work: you can’t tweet “buy my book” – unless you’re an established author saying this is my latest, like Paolo Coehlo did (he’s got 2 million Twitter followers – so yes, in his case, a direct marketing pitch will work!)

    The solution? For newbies, not an easy one. That’s why trad publishers still have a lot to offer, especially in the marketing area …they get your books out to the right newspapers, they get your book up for literary prizes…indeed, any newbie signing a contract tese days should take a very close look at the type of marketing the trad publisher is committed to undertake…

    The day the Pulitzer is given to an Indie will be the day I will rejoice!!!

    • says

      Barry, John Askins, Dee de Tarsio, Mari Passananti, and Tahlia Newland are all bringing up the essential issue of editing, and I want to thank them for reminding writers that books are edited—professional writing in general is edited. It’s part of the craft. And when writers turn to self-publishing for the sake of its financial returns, they pay for the editing. It’s part of the business.

      Which is a wonderful thing! As Donald Maass has pointed out, these days writers suddenly have access to great editing and its attendant mentoring without having to go through publishers. And now that publishers have jettisoned so many of their editors, those editing professionals can still create jobs for themselves. A win for both writers and editors!

      But I also want to thank you, Claude, for mentioning the catch to that—there are unskilled folks out there selling themselves now as indie editors. This is so important for writers to understand. Not everyone who claims to be a professional editor is.

      Do your research before you hire an editor. Learn what a real editor does. Take the time to follow your favorite editors’ blogs, read their books, look up their credentials. Know whom you’re hiring.

      As a writer, it’s your right. And as a self-publisher, it’s your responsibility.

  21. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    There is so much information in this article, that I’m printing it, and posting it on my bulletin board as a reference. Thanks.

  22. says

    Thanks again for all the thoughts, everyone. Tahlia and Claude, I would respectfully say that your points on marketing are valid with regard to the theory of legacy publishing, but not, for the most part, to the reality. For example, Tahlia said:

    “I know what you’re going to say. Start a blog, get an FB page, twitter like mad, get a following and it will all work out in the end!”

    Well, I wouldn’t have said that last part — I would have said marketing will make success *more likely* in the end, which is an important distinction. Other than that, the advice above would certainly be sound. But here’s the thing: would that advice be new? Or is it in fact the very advice legacy publishers themselves have been giving to authors for more or less the last decade?

    That is: in the last decade, has anyone ever heard a legacy publisher tell an author, “Don’t worry about blogging, social media, or other self-promotion — we’re going to cover all that…”?

    No. In legacy publishing, self-promotion is every bit the requirement (if you want to make success more likely) that it is in self-publishing.

    Many people have a tendency to compare the reality of self-publishing to the ideal of legacy publishing — an apples-to-oranges approach that leads to inaccurate conclusions. What we need to do is compare reality to reality. With regard to marketing, a reality-to-reality approach means that if you want to make success more likely, you’re going to have to do a substantial amount of marketing on your own whether you’re legacy published or self-published. Anyone who thinks her legacy publisher will do the marketing for her (or do any meaningful marketing at all) is relying on the theory of legacy publishing and ignoring the reality, which matches the theory maybe one time in a thousand.

    I discuss all these topics — the importance of editing and how best to get it; legacy marketing vs indie marketing; how an author can decide what’s best for him or her — in greater detail in a talk I gave at Grub Street Writers earlier this month. Video here for anyone who’s curious.



  1. […] And he’s handled the e-book and Amazon print versions of Die By Wire — my first foray into the realm of independent publishing. (The best round-up of the reasons fore this can be found in this piece by my friend and colleague (and bestselling writer) Barry Eisler.) […]