An eye-opening eBook I just finished is How a Book Is Born by Keith Gessen with an introduction by Graydon Carter. It first appeared in shorter form in Vanity Fair magazine and shows how the novel The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach came to be written, agented, sold, published, and turned into a huge hit for Little, Brown.
Harbach barely scraped by financially for ten years as he worked on his novel, writing and rewriting. When he finally stopped tinkering with it, his manuscript was over 600 pages. Although baseball is where the action takes place in the book, he didn’t see it as a baseball novel. It’s a novel of ideas.
In Gessen’s book, publishing and self-publishing are examined through the filter of Harbach’s success. If you’re debating whether to go one way or another, you’ll have much to chew on here. It makes clear that indie authors cannot do what big publishers do. However, as Gessen shows with Amazon, there doesn’t have to be a big publisher and distributor standing between the author and reader. The specifics in this fast-read make readers look at the options in publishing in a new way.
Harbach was able to interest many agents, but all declined taking him on. Because Harbach and his former roommate Gessen (the author of the piece) worked in the fringe of publishing, they then approached editors directly. One editor suggested self-publishing, saying, “A lot of writers are doing that now. It’s a good way to build a brand.”
Harbach sent his book to three more agents who said no before he sent it to 27-year-old agent Chris Parris-Lamb, who was so excited by it, Parris-Lamb thought surely another more seasoned agent would get it first. Parris-Lamb shows what a good agent does and how.
Gessen gives a great overview of the last few decades of the publishing industry, showing the rise of Barnes and Noble, which, with over 700 superstores, sold more books than ever and could dictate terms to publishers. Then along came Amazon, which changed things again.
Not mentioned here is how Steven Jobs forced Amazon’s hand on how eBooks are sold, creating what’s now known as the “agency model,” and how Amazon fought back with 70% royalties to authors and the new KDP Select program where authors give Amazon exclusivity for 90 days.
The book does go into eBooks’ effect on publishing, however. Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin predicts, “Half the publishers now standing will no longer exist five years from now,” and he says that most libraries will be gone, too. Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice-president of Kindle content, adds, “The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers. Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting to those two groups.”
I found it amazing to read that many of Harbach’s writer friends from college, including Gessen, received advances of $150,000 and more as if publishers couldn’t throw out money fast enough. Harbach’s manuscript became caught up in an auction among publishers. The first bid started at $100,000 (this is a first novel, remember, where $5,000 advances are the norm these days) and ended with two bids above $650,000.
I won’t agree that the big publishers will die like dinosaurs. The clever among them are already figuring out how to use the same tools independent authors use, such as Twitter, Facebook, and advertising on certain sites. If you go on Goodreads or LibraryThing, you’ll see the big publishers giving out many copies of soon-to-be published books. Big companies have a way of usurping things from the little people. They can also afford advertising in places no indie can go.
While there are many people saying that indie publishing is it, what “indie” often does not have is the collaboration that goes on to make something a hit. When a big publisher works, it is unstoppable, and many writers would not mind having an agent as clear and sure as Chris Parris-Lamb.
Interesting, too, is the very form of this book, 62-pages and $1.99 on Kindle. It’s the kind of volume that big publishers couldn’t publish as a printed book—too short and not the kind to be a super-hit. EBooks, though, can be short or long, and if a mere five thousand people buy it in a couple of weeks, that’s okay, too, as not a lot of marketing or designing is involved.
We’re living in interesting times.
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