Self-Publishers and Traditional Houses: Grudging Acquaintances or Opponents?

Oct 10, 2013

Never mind who killed JFK and whether 9/11 was an inside job. Here’s a new conspiracy for you. At a recent writers’ workshop we attended, a participant told us that she suspected traditional publishers had funded this blog post besmirching renowned self-publishing authors for purchasing Amazon reviews of their books. Skeptical? Us too. 

The suggestion is easy to dismiss, but it does speak to a broader question: do traditional publishers feel threatened by self-publishers? In our experience, they don’t, or at least not in a direct way. Certainly we never sat around a publishing boardroom brainstorming how to slow the rise of self-publishing. In fact, these two previously parallel communities intersect more than ever, rendering them grudging acquaintances rather than furious opponents.

Many acquisition editors and literary agents now watch the Kindle bestseller rankings for self-published authors, hoping to woo the next Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking to their lists. We know several writers who defiantly chose to self-publish their work but remain open to the idea of publishing their next book with a traditional house. The prestige of being selected by a reputable imprint still tantalizes, as does the dream of seeing your books stacked up in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, something that is very difficult for self-publishers to achieve. Advances don’t hurt either, even the small ones.

And some wildly successful self-publishers just get tired of handling all of their own marketing and distribution, and want to focus on the creative work of writing again. Mary-Ann Kirby, author of I Am Hutterite, sold 75,000 copies of her memoir before signing with a traditional publisher.

The point is, we now see authors moving in and out of the self- and traditional-publishing worlds over the courses of their careers. Traditional publishers are beginning to recognize that fluidity. There’s a dawning recognition, too, that a writer can approach self-publishing professionally, that not all self-publishers are hobbyists writing for themselves and their families. It can be a serious track for serious writers.

But. One subject does cause gritted teeth: pricing. Pricing their ebooks very low (a Smashwords study found that $2.99 can be a sweet spot) or even free is a common strategy for self-publishers trying to build their audience.

The average ebook price now hovers around $7.50, according to both Digital Book World and Kobo. According to Laura Hazard Owen, Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn says, “Almost all the change that we see in overall global price point today is coming from self-publishing…it’s the primary pole that has been rooting price downward over time.” Kobo reports that 20% of the books it sells are by self-published authors.

Readers, of course, don’t distinguish between self-published titles and those published traditionally. If readers become accustomed to paying such low prices for ebooks, will that also devalue the print book, which still accounts for about 80% of most North American publishers’ revenues? And if book prices come down overall, how will publishers, with their already middling margins, continue to pay their editors, their authors’ advances, their building leases, and so on. They are right to be worried about this downward pricing trajectory.

So, if you want to see sparks fly, put a book publisher and a self-publisher in a room and ask them to discuss how to price a book. Just don’t tell them we gave you the suggestion.