Thursday, March 15, 2007

Are Some E-Pubishers Author Mills? (or: Chicken Writer Strikes Again)

Okay guys, here is one of my rambling opinion pieces. I don't promise to be right--I may have a thought one week and completely change my mind the next. But the point of this organisation is to put out some information, thoughts and discussion topics from the point of view of a writer in this genre, particularly an e-published one. So here we go. If I have it all wrong, let me know:

"Author Mill" is a phrase attributed to Victoria Strauss from Writer Beware. And it has been a phrase much on my mind recently.

An author mill has three key qualities:

1) An author mill "...publishes a very large number of authors in the expectation of selling a hundred books or so from each (as opposed to publishing a limited number of authors in hopes of selling thousands of books from each, as commercial publishers do)."

Now, this is frequently the case with epublishers which may release as many as half a dozen books per week, and typical sales will be 300 copies or fewer.

However, 2) :...they do rely on their authors as their major source of income (through books purchased by the author for re-sale, or sold to "pocket" markets the author him/herself is responsible for identifying)"

This is clearly not typically the case with epublishers. Most ebook author receive ample free copies for promotional activities and it would be almost unheard of for them to sell their book directly.

Finally 3) "...mills tend to share a business model with vanity publishers: no editorial screening of submissions, no meaningful pre-publication editing, no meaningful post-publication marketing or distribution."

I would argue that this is variable. Certainly the better epublishers are highly selective, rigorous in their editing and have effective marketing and distribution strategies. Their limited market is more a factor of format and genre than quality.

So I must conclude that a epublishers are not literally authors mills, however some tremble on the brink of this status. I would still argue that many epublishers compensate for the lower sales per book by increasing output in ways that benefit the publisher disproportionately over the writer. The publisher benefits from every book released and the author only from their own, this many high output strategies can be detrimental to less prolific authors. Even in cases where points 2) and 3) clearly do not apply I would suggest that this practise might be seen as less than ideal and perhaps could be referred to as "author farming" when there is not also investment in individual authors and books.

Consider this analogy. When a farm keeps laying hens, if they put more hens in a cage, each hen has a poorer quality of life and produces fewer eggs--however the cage produces more eggs. Likewise of the hens are pressed to produce more eggs they become ill with broken bones and poor health--but the farmer finds it cheaper to push the hen and them buy another--hens are plentiful and cheap. Thus, crowding and high production benefits the farmer but not the hen. Eggs from happy hens taste better, but the cost more, and in the open market place the battery cage is still king.

Publishing is a business no matter how you cut it. And when an epublisher sells well, however they do it, the author benefits. But as authors we still need to think very carefully about where we built our nests--rather than assuming that publisher always knows best. There are always three levels of marketing, book, author and publisher--and if you produce .01% of the publishers annual output where do you think you should be placing most of your effort?

So what is my point? It is that authors should look for epublishers who invest in authors and specific books as well as at their level of their own brand and total output. Do not always assume that high output always equates to success as epublishers with fewer releases may be better equipped to target and market those books to increase their profitability for the author.

In short, with epublishers as with small presses it can actually be an excellent sign when epublishers such as Samhain and Mojocastle (see a relevant discussion here) close their submissions in order to focus on the authors and books they have already acquired. Epublishers such as Cobblestone who actually encourage their authors to mention 'out of house' new releases demonstrate an understanding that to thrive we need to invest in our author brand as well as supporting them as our publisher. Epublishers such as Loose Id provide me with an editor who gets in touch with me with suggestions and support--rather than just waiting for the next egg to roll into her inbox.

Perhaps it is inevitable that niche authors such as those who write ebooks will be "farmed"--but some farms are better than others. Let the layer beware.


Imp said...

Much food for thought. Thanks.

Rhonda Helms said...

Wow, this was a great post...thanks for the good thinking material!!

Jennifer Shirk said...

VERY interesting...

Good stuff.

Talia said...

I have seen "author mills" in non-fiction. I'm not a big reader of ebooks so I haven't struck the phenomenom there.

Thanks for the interesting post!

Allie Boniface said...

Great post - thanks! Excellent news about Samhain becoming RWA-recognized, too...

Sela Carsen said...

I've been mulling this same idea recently and have come to the conclusion that 1) I've been very lucky and 2) I need to concentrate my submissions to e-pubs who work hard with their authors instead of just churning them out.

Good stuff, Emily.

Amanda Young said...

Interesting thoughts, Em. I hadn't quite looked at it that way, but you have a good point. I think that's why it's so important authors select the right epublisher these days.

Joyce Ellen Armond said...

It's a shame that romance doesn't have the thriving short story small press market that sf/f/h does. The industry would benefit, I think, from a published venue where we focused on form, craft and character, and not on saleability, market and money.

Diana Castilleja said...

This is a very thought provoking post, and definitely something worth considering when looking to branch out, or if researching a fist publisher.

Dayna_Hart said...

"It is that authors should look for epublishers who invest in authors and specific books..."


It's a relationship. There are good ones and bad ones, and what's good for one person may not be good for another. However, finding the right fit is priceless.

M Barnette said...

This is a great article and really made me think about the whole 'author farming' concept.

As an author with Mojocastle Press I can tell you they are very interested in branding not only themselves but their authors.

And as the prior post says, 'Finding the right fit IS priceless.'