Publishers Weekly, May 2010

Agents Weigh the Growth Of Alternate Publishing Options

Publishers Weekly, May 24, 2010

by Rachel Deahl

In a week that saw Barnes & Noble announce a new selfpublishing unit, one small deal that had the publishing industry paying attention was J.A. Konrath’s decision to do his next book, Shaken, with Amazon’s publishing arm, AmazonEncore. Reports quickly surfaced that Konrath would be making a roughly 70% return on the list price of his forthcoming e-book–$2.10 off a $2.99 Kindle edition. While a rep from Amazon confirmed that royalty does not apply to Konrath’s deal with AmazonEncore, the deal still had some in the industry saying the move signaled a “game changer” for corporate publishing. Since Konrath is presumably getting a high digital royalty rate on Shaken, many wondered whether the big six should be quaking in their proverbial New York City boots.

Konrath, a midlist crime novelist whose series featuring detective Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels has been published by Hyperion in paperback for years, is an active self-promoter who’s repeatedly spoken of the financial success he’s had self-publishing his backlist as Kindle editions.

One thing that made the Konrath deal, in some peoples’ eyes, less of a groundbreaking moment was that none of the major New York houses were interested in his new book. A look at Konrath’s sales numbers shows a steady decline in his print sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, the first book in the Jack Daniels series, Whiskey Sour (2005), sold 32,000 copies, while the latest, Cherry Bomb (2009), has sold 4,000 copies. So Konrath essentially took a book no one wanted and instead of fully self-publishing it, signed with Amazon-Encore, which will bring the book out in paperback a year after the Kindle release this summer and at the very least e-mail all those who downloaded his last book.

PW spoke to some agents about what they think the Konrath deal signals, if anything. One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he certainly wouldn’t call Konrath’s deal a game changer, but that it does say something interesting about the place of the midlist author in legacy publishing: “It’s not necessarily clear that big corporate publishing is well structured to help low midlist authors with rapidly reducing print runs in an environment in which overall print sales are falling week by week. I think what Joe [Konrath] did is valuable in that he saw there was an opportunity to create low-priced content and bypass the system.” While self-publishing has been around for years, this agent noted, “what’s new here is the means.”

Ira Silverberg, at Sterling Lord, was more blunt about how uneventful Konrath’s move was. “Certain authors will feel they’re doing well in schemes like this,” he said. “They flip off the publishers who rejected them, claim new technology will support their career, and they get attention they never had before. Let’s see if we remember who those authors are in a few years.”

Other agents see the Konrath deal as something that points to a new middle ground opening up in the business–a midway point between corporate publishing and self-publishing that was never available under the old model, where the demands of print distribution significantly limited an individual’s access to the marketplace.

Scott Waxman, of Waxman Literary, is one agent who’s recognized this changing dynamic and has created a company to fill the void. His new Diversion Books, which is a separate business from his literary agency, is similar to AmazonEncore, “somewhere in between the big houses and the lonely road of self-publishing.” The company, which currently has about 20 projects signed up, offers e-book publication and distribution as well as POD, with a focus on the e-book frontlist.

Waxman said Diversion Books will take on authors who cannot sell books in numbers that make financial sense for the major houses. “If you have an author with a platform who can sell books, we’re happy selling 5,000 to 10,000 copies,” he said. While Diversion isn’t paying advances, it’s not taking everyone who comes in with a manuscript. “This isn’t self-publishing,” he went on. “[With us] you get real publishing support. I know you don’t get that with self-publishing. This lives in between.”

Ted Weinstein, of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, said he’s now having a conversation with all of his clients about the smartest way to publish their books–and going with a big house isn’t a foregone conclusion. “Authors can now be more self-possessed,” he said. “[They can go with] a major house, an agency, or one of the turnkey services from a major retailer, whether it’s a Lulu, Blurb, Amazon, or now B&N.” While Weinstein doesn’t see corporate publishing going away, ever, he does think the business is at “an enormous transition point” and that the outsourcing major publishers have been doing for years–forcing agents to do more editing, going with outside PR, telling authors they need to take hold of their own marketing–will mean that more agencies, and others, will jump into the publishing fray.

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