Oh how things have changed, and how far the pendulum has swung! Just a few years ago, the traditional book publishing model was a cartel that controlled the entire literary world—and it was their heyday. They were the powerful and highly privileged gatemen who controlled the number and flow of books that were published: They determined who wrote books and who did not. The literary communication system was their world: The writing business was theirs—they controlled it. As a result, many great writers were turned away because their books were not deemed good enough to be published. Hard-working writers, submitting an endless stream of query letters, endured bruising rejections: They faced rejection after rejection; and, in some instances, this went on for years!
Many people, bent on becoming writers, refused to give up the fight—and it was a titanic fight. Writers, knowing in their hearts that they were born to write and had the skills, just did not give up that easily; accordingly, the rejection letters continued to wash along the shores of their lives. Every writer’s dream was to get that coveted book deal and to sign that dream-of-a-lifetime contract with a traditional publisher, the gateman of book publishing.
The Naughty Gatemen who kept all the money in their pockets
These were the circumstances that writers encountered prior to the onrush of the digital age of book publishing: The seemingly interminable stream of rejection letters from traditional publishers depressed many talented writers; they were denied the opportunity to shine and bloom where they were planted in life. The big traditional publishing companies owned a sprawling global cartel that called the shots in the literary world during this period: It was a golden age for traditional publishers and writers—it was definitely their heyday.
As if it were not difficult enough to be told no, get back; you are not good enough: You just don’t measure up—like black people are told in this country—many writers did try to buck the system by publishing their own books. And it was there where they bumped their heads even more; they were too unprepared and inexperienced to take on the snappy literary boys of the day, and publishing, for many of these early self-publishers, was a miserable failure. They lacked the business savvy and experience needed to carry them to the victory line; for this reason, success at writing was the exclusive business of the fortunate few allowed in by the gatemen of traditional publishing.
Who were these publishing oligarchs, anyway? Well, they were a shrewd and clever machine of businesspeople who knew exactly what they were doing: They owned a global publishing cartel—and they knew it. So how were they, and how did they conduct business? Well, they handled every aspect of the business themselves and protected their interests with their lives. There was no outsourcing of tasks, and they saw to it that they provided the highest quality of literary works. They watched the gate, night and day, with a hawk’s eye and saw to it that no uninvited guests scaled that lofty iron gate that separated them from the rest of the vultures, swirling around their property.
This dashing string of publishers, editors, literary agents, book distributors, and bookstore managers took care of business like no one else could—I mean, they were in the zone and were as sharp as a sword. These were the good old days of traditional publishing, and that publishing cartel reigned supreme in the world. It determined who wrote books and what got published—and to a large degree, it was a time of censorship: Books were censored by virtue of the iron-clad suppression of literary expression and dissemination of personal, unwanted, and unpopular ideas and information in society. You read what these slick, lupine, and breezy boys wanted you to read—and nothing else.
And they all watched over each other’s back: This was a cartel of raffish, spruce and trig salesmen—they were some very sagacious salespeople who knew what they were doing. Literary agents were paid huge sums of money by zealous, would-be writers whom they disappointed again and again and again: each disappointing query letter’s response was met with poignant distress and disgust, and this process rolled on through the years.
These vulpine literary agents deluded budding writers, giving them the spurious impression that they could get them published and—don’t get me wrong—they did have their way with their traditional publishing bosses; but once the publishing board or body of decision makers decided that a book was not good enough to be published and would not sell, it didn’t really matter how much money that that misled writer paid his agent to help him get published—and it did not matter at all what the agent wanted. And even when the writer’s work was deemed good enough and was accepted, it was still very much a touch-and-go situation; being invited to pass through that iron gate did not mean that you were automatically successful as a writer.
The Traditional Bookstore Manager
As it turns out, the heyday of traditional book publishers was equally enjoyed by bookstore managers. As lupine and voracious as a fox, the traditional bookstore manager pulled no punches in making her position clear and up front: She made it abundantly clear to publishers where she stood, as far as books and their profitability were concerned. The bookstore manager’s stance was as crisp and limpid as possible; she made it clear that the entire transactional negotiation was entirely business-driven and that she was solely in business to make money—not friends. That being the case, she was in no mood to keep shelving books that did not sell; accordingly, early in traditional publishing’s golden age, bookstore managers leveled with publishers: They made it clear that they would not continue to shelve books that did not sell, and in that regard, all unsold books were returned to the publisher after being shelved in her store for three months or so. Three months was that magic number; and after that, everything remaining had to go. In other words, that budding writer’s books only had three months to demonstrate profitability to the bookstore manager and the publisher.
Thus, it really did not matter how much money the writer had paid his literary agent to help get him published: If his books did not sell, they were all returned to the publisher. And what did the publisher do? Well, it was a funny and dicey deal that was struck between publishers and writers; it went like this: The writer presented a supposedly great book to his literary agent, the publisher’s salesman; he was the go-between the writer and publisher. If the agent liked the book and thought highly of it, he would move forward with the deal: He would then present the book to his boss and do his best to sell the writer’s book to him, the publisher. If the publisher also liked the book, he would agree to meeting the writer in order for them to sign a contract; provisionally welcoming him into the palace with the hope that his book would sell well—and sometimes, it did; and sometimes, it didn’t.
The contract that they signed was supposedly executed in good faith, and it signed over the writer’s rights to that book to that publisher. In turn, the publishers payed the writer up front; even though not a single copy of that book had been sold as yet; notwithstanding, the publisher knows the business very well and has a good idea of how much money he can make from the sale of that title. Although publishers know the business relatively well and have as good an eye for profitability as you can ever imagine; all too often, they are dead wrong on many books that go on to sell in the millions! The matter of book publishing is, by no means, a perfect science; and even these savvy, natty publishers get it wrong from time to time. There were many books on which they passed that went on to sell in the millions; and I am sure that they were very sad that they did not publish those books.
In this regard, the same system that gave them stark control over the publishing business at the time also cost them hundreds of millions of dollars—and they knew it. What they did not specifically want were those returns on their door steps because it cost them having to deal with the embarrassment of returned books. Thus, the game of publishing is like sports; it can swing in any direction, and one never knows which direction it would take. For whatever it was worth, traditional publishers did take chances on books; and in most cases, they were right and made millions. They had to sign that iconic contract with writers; and I would imagine, many signed it with their eyes closed.
At face value, the contract signing looked like a splendid deal for the writer because he got paid up front; the contract was signed with all the marbles in the writer’s court. However, looks can be deceiving; if that writer’s book did not sell, he might be required to repay the publisher the entire advance or money that he received up front when he signed the contract with the publisher. Now, it was not always this threatening and treacherous: It did not always have such ominous twists and turns to it. Nonetheless, writers were advised by their consultants to avail themselves of legal counsel; accordingly, many writers did arm themselves with pricey attorneys to take care of business for them if things got muddy—and they often did.
However, most of these traditional publishers had been in the business for some time—it was their game, and they knew it like the front and back of their hands. Additionally, aside from having as good an eye for great books as you’ve ever seen; publishers peppered books in which they heavily invested with massive and sophisticated marketing dollars. They threw an appreciable amount of cash into in the ring, marketing these books. This was especially true of the better-known, and world-class, writers; and more often than not, these books sold in the millions of dollars!
As far as I have been made to understand, publishers had to first make their advance back before things began to be parceled out; and in most cases, writers only wound up with ten to fifteen percent of what the book actually earned the publisher. Thus, writers; like Steven King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, Jeff Kinney, and many others; have already earned their worth in the sun: They are household names in the literary world, and publishers have no scruples dashing huge amounts of money into marketing their books; for they have been tried and tested, and are winners in the dicey game of publishing books.
Self-Publishers’ Early Failures
Many would-be writers did not just take traditional publishers’ rejection on the chin: They rebelled, but most of them were not businessmen; they were writers—and they just wanted their work to be published. As a result, they oversimplified the publishing process’ complexity and ignored the business component of it. They were outsiders; looking into a very complex, time-consuming, difficult, and expensive middle-class activity.
It must be made abundantly clear that profitable book publishing is a middle-class activity—heyday or not heyday; and even though it doesn’t seem that way today, it is still that way. Accordingly, many of these early self-publishers overlooked a huge amount of complexity that was inherent in publishing books during this pre-computer age. Book publishing was—and still is—largely a middle-class profession that could only have been executed efficaciously by people with a solid cash base and experiential understanding of the business; and even today, it is largely still that way if you are going to put out quality literary stuff that serious people want to read.
During the golden age of traditional publishing, before the information revolution’s onrush; the principal obstacles that early self-publishers encountered was the printing of, and storage for, their books. They got tangled up in the details having to do with publishing: While these writers had access to cheaper offset printing, in order to avail themselves to that; they had to print a larger volume than they could manage and sell at the time; hence, many of these early self-publishers wound up with garages filled with books that no one bought. It wasn’t that their books were inferior, shoddy products per se—in many cases, that was not true: Some of these early self-publishers eventually caught on with the onrush of the digital revolution.
Although these early self-publishers’ products were relatively good, they did not fully understand the complexity and costliness of publishing books. They also ignored the critical marketing component that helps you, as a writer, to get your name out there. Even today, many self-publishers take the stance that they are writers and not marketers: Their job is merely to put their books out there—and I’ll assume that Google’s job is to send their unmarketed books to the bottom of the pile—and sooner or later, they will sell. Unfortunately, that is not the way business works in the real world; marketing is the other side of business; it is the front or back of the same hand of business. Thus, to put products out there without marketing is like attempting to run a marathon with a broken ankle—it does not work. There are those who strongly believe that self-publishers should never market their books; they should just keep right on writing more books. While I agree with this position, somewhat, I would not trust it from here to there. Yes, smart writers continue writing books; and it may take some time before you eventually catch on as a writer. But make no mistake about it: You need to keep writing books that address needs in people’s lives and to market the ones that you have already published.
You may say, “Well, I know writers who have spent thousands of dollars marketing their books; and they lost their spit: Many of them do not even have a pot to cook in today.” Well, you have to understand that writing is like farming: You have to plant your seeds into the ground and keep watering it with new titles and fresh marketing approaches—you have to keep doing this and get the middlemen out of your hair as much as you possibly can. You must remove the middle men who want an unfair slice of your royalty. You must keep your name before the eyes of readers with fresh marketing and new titles because the world is filled with weeds—the world is a giant farm of weeds. When you do not market your books, the weeds in the world grow up and drown out your presence; thus, making you irrelevant and invisible.
Therefore, if you are called to writing; you should not really call yourself a writer until you have written eight or more books and have been consistently marketing them: Some things just take longer to catch on; but if you hang in there, they eventually will. If you have a solid message that addresses society’s needs—and society today is jammed with troubles, and needs, and hang-ups of all kinds! Contemporary society, with all of its troubles, is a writer’s paradise. But the time timeframe, at issue here, is not today; it is the age of the pre-information revolution and zealous writers’ effort to buck the traditional publishing system.
Many of these early self-publishing writers ignored marketing’s efficacy in moving products and wound up with garages full of unsold books. And what happened to them? Obviously, they got discouraged and realized that their dream of becoming writers was merely an illusion; thus, many of them just bowed out gracefully, walking away from their dream. You know that these self-publishing writers did not sit well with the traditional publishing cartel—and they were glad to get rid of them—they were glad to see these ambitious writers walk away from their dream. Their departure from the literary scene was met with great joy; it was a happy riddance of a senseless nuisance; thus, keeping the traditional publishing cartel in full control of things.
The Publishing Cartel’s Attitude to one another
Obviously, with so little cash and experience at their disposal; the cards were pretty much stacked against these early self-publishers: During the heyday of traditional book publishing, self-publishers were not able to compete with the well-oiled traditional book publishers who knew the system like the front and back of their hands. This publishing cartel protected one another’s interests in order to keep things as they were—tight, safe, and free from the vultures flying around their property. In this regard, publishers saw to it that bookstores remained profitable in business and that they did very well. Publishers were fully cognizant that, in order for them to remain in business and make oodles of money; their distribution stations, the bookstores, had to get a good slice of the cake. Thus, they offered bookstore managers a fifty-five percent discount to carry their books. Well, again, at face value; it appears as if they were really doing the bookstores a favor; but, in reality, they weren’t.
You have to remember that these traditional publishers used offset printing, which offered them huge discounts if they ran off a certain volume of books. For example, If the publisher only decided to print one hundred copies of a two-hundred-and-fifty-page title; it might cost him significantly more than if he ran off ten thousand copies of that same title. How much more? For one hundred copies of that title, he may have to pay $9.00 per copy; however, if he ran off ten thousand copies, he may just have to pay $.50 per copy—and he has the cash on hand to enable him to do that sort of thing: Self-publishers lacked that fiscal flexibility. Thus, armed with a fair amount of cash; the traditional publisher, with buddies all over the place, could afford to do bulk printing. In this regard, he wound up only paying a fraction of the cost of the book.
By the time he got to selling that book to bookstores, he fake giving them a fifty-five percent discount of what he has priced the book; thus, if he paid $.5 per copy for the book and priced it at $22.00 per copy, he could easily afford to sell the book to the bookstore manager for $12.00 per copy. And, however you look at it; the publisher comes out on top, big time, because he has marked up the book twenty-four times its print cost. Accordingly, even if he has a few returns; he still comes out on top in flying colors. These advantages were not available to the newbie self-publisher who could not afford to print ten thousand copies of his title; and when you add marketing and distributorship costs to his tally of expenses, the early self-publisher was no contest to the traditional publishing cartel. Even if these self-publishers managed to hire a distributor to distribute their books to the thousands of bookstores in the United States; if their books were returned, that would have certainly sent them into bankruptcy court.
Pre-digital revolution self-publishers just did not have the business savvy and the correct mental spin on working with books in the business world—not to mention many of them had little or no experience at all. They were largely academic people who wanted to show off their academic knowledge, or people who simply saw writing as an artistic expression and wanted to impress the world with their artistic talent; neither of which helped to move books in the book-marketing world. However, all that was about to change—and to change forever! The seeds of change had been planted and had begun to spring up. Knowledge was rapidly expanding around the world, and many technologists and technocrats began to see the world differently; thus, upsetting and overturning the cart of traditional publishers. And believe me; when it rained, it poured—and all the rain came down at the same time! The computer age was wheeled into existence; and it utterly upended traditional publishing, thereby creating a more level playing field for all players in the game. In fact, it did not just create a level playing field for all writers; it did so for anyone; with anything, at all; to say, really.