The Slow Motion Death of Traditional Publishing

The banner ad for A Tale of the Grenada Raiders that my Ranger brother John Czarnecki made for me. For sale on Amazon, iBooks, and now, on GooglePlay. You can also read this book on GoogleBooks. I am working on an AudioBook version. 

"Technology makes publishing houses redundant. Publishers are now under siege, and Amazon is poaching their income streams."

As I wrote my first book, a war memoir, it dawned on me that a default format for war memoirs emerged over time. I read a million of them, just like you. 

I could have written this book following that template, I could have written my memoir just like everybody else's war memoir, but honestly: Grenada was 34 years ago, it was a minor intervention in the greater scheme of geopolitics, and nobody cares what happened there anymore except for the protagonists. 

So I could not write a conventional war memoir. It would be boring, lost in a sea of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq memoirs, and nobody would read it. 

So I wrote this one my way, and as I wrote it, I wondered if anybody would get it, or if readers would even notice that I wrote this memoir differently. 

I am surprised to see that almost every reviewing reader on the Amazon page did indeed get it. Some more than others, but not one reviewer, not one reader, complained that I broke rules writing this book. 

A few of the reviewers really got it. They picked up on what I tried to do. We all read war memoirs. This one is different. 

As I write this article, the book is now up to 54 reviews on Amazon, all 5-stars. Some of those reviews were written by folks who should be writing their own books. Some of the reviewers are famous within the special ops community. Most of them are veterans. 

Bridget approves of my book, in both softcover and Kindle versions. Bridget's human, my bro Brian, is a civilian test reader. He gave me priceless feedback on early drafts. 

A few civilians also read the book, I am always astonished when civilians read what I write, but their feedback can be eye opening. 

One reviewer whom I do not know personally, Ms. Jeanette Beardsley, wrote this review
It has taken some time to fully digest. It is a book like no other on your shelf. The physical size, the text sizing, the layout, the photography alone make it a surrealistic pleasure to hold, a work of art. Unique in writing style, impossible to compare to another author, I can only place him in the haze between Stephen Crane and Michael Herr. It's essence can only be felt in its printed form, and is difficult to describe intellectually. Only a Ranger could produce a work where Beauty, Suffering, and Menace converge like this.
I can never explain how gratifying a review like that is. You never know what is going to happen when you publish a book. You dread the inevitable criticism, the nitpicking, the comparisons, and most of all, the unsolicited "advice" from more experienced writers and those who style themselves as "editors." 

One editor told me, "everybody needs an editor," apparently oblivious that this opinion puts food on his dinner table. He desperately wants that opinion to be true. 

It is not universally true, not all writers in fact do need an editor, but he can never admit that, as admitting that some writers need only light editing would undermine his relevance. Everybody likes to be indispensable, and everybody wants to put food on the table. 

Then that editor made observations about my book that confirmed that he scanned the text, at best, and its deeper layers of meaning went straight over his head. This is an editor who pays his rent by massaging memoirs into that same old tired default format that I repudiated. 

Not surprising, his critiques were diametric to my intentions, and I realized that publishing this book through traditional channels would expose me to vampires like him. 

So that is one benefit of self-publishing. There is no need to tussle with editors and proofreaders, justifying your approach, your organization, your word choices, or your writing style. 

While many writers can benefit from a fresh set of eyes on their manuscript, those alternate eyes were never mandatory, and readers more than ever are now the ultimate arbiters of your success as a writer--or your failure. 

I gave this book almost a year in the hands of an agent. I am sure that he never looked at it. But while it was in his hands, I was honor-bound not to send it to any other agents.

Who made up that lousy convention? It only benefits agents, and it puts writers at a disadvantage.  

Finally, I decided to just publish this book on my own. I feel zero regrets about that. Yes, a traditional publishing house might advance me a chunk of money, but the book's sales are surprisingly good, and my royalties are honestly earned. I am not getting rich, but I am earning a reasonable cut of each copy purchased.

I do not have to share those royalties with an agent (15%), nor do my royalties filter down to me courtesy of the bookkeeping of a publisher with every incentive to cheat me. 

It is highly unlikely that a traditional publisher would ever agree to publish this book in large 8.5x11-inch format, and I am sure that they would reject the number of photos that made it into the final draft. At 377 pages, this book weighs 2.4 lbs. You can smack somebody upside the head with it. And Pepsi approves of this book. So I got that going for me. 

If you consider the expenses that a traditional publisher will recoup before it ever pays a writer another cent in royalties, you realize that this is a big deal. Amazon can seem a bit greedy, but their bookkeeping is impeccable, and their royalty structure is straightforward. All rights remain with me. There are no catches.  

The GoogleBooks and GooglePlay Conundrum

Technology worked a revolution in publishing, you see. Anybody can publish on Amazon and iBooks. GooglePlay and GoogleBooks are harder, as Google is technically not accepting new publishers, except that they are. 

Here is the work-around, when you tire of seeing that "no new publishers accepted at this time" dialogue box. Go to this page and submit the form. 

I spent a couple of days working through Google's system, and this was bizarrely complicated by Google's insistence on serving me pages in Thai. Their server senses my IP address, and assumes that because I am in Bangkok I must surely want all pages in Thai. 

I do not read and write Thai. Google never envisioned an American expat living in the Kingdom. I cleared browser caches and reset preferences, and still, their pages came down in Thai. 

This drove me nuts. The solution was crazy: download Google's Chrome browser, and enable the option that automatically translates pages from Thai to English. 

Keep GoogleTranslate open, as some pop-up boxes will not auto translate, and you will need to copy and paste their contents into GoogleTranslate to understand what they say. 

This process will take some time, as you will need to enter bank accounts and tax ID information, but you can upload a .pdf of your manuscript and struggle through their procedures while Google's servers grind away on your uploaded files. 

I finally got my book posted on GoogleBooks and on GooglePlay. I am looking for an alternative print-on-demand publisher to compete with Amazon, but I am not finding any option that appeals to me. The softcover from Amazon costs $64.99. This reflects the size of the book, the format, and the large number of photos. My friend Mike Yon uses an Indian firm.  I may end up going that route as well.

Another option that I may consider is releasing an edition with no photos. I could then go down to a smaller 6x9 format, and theoretically sell it for $7.99. A 6x9 book will fit into a cargo pocket, so Rangers could then read it while they fly to their next war zone. 

My Ranger brother Murph purchased three copies. My other Ranger brother Scott, who is depicted in the book, bought five. But Rangers are not the only readers and purchasers. 

The consequence of the revolution in publishing is direct access for writers to a Darwinian marketplace. Good writers sell books and their ideas propagate through the zeitgeist. Smart writers care more about getting read than about getting paid. Though lesser writers fade in relevance, they still get to say, "I published a book." 

Since anyone, literally anybody, can publish a book, some books will sell a grand total of one copy, or ten. Some will sell more. I am closing in on 400 copies sold. And climbing. I am not boasting. I am marveling. And I am profoundly grateful. 

But Amazon, principally Amazon, made Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Crown--all of the big houses--redundant. The primary marketplace for books, Amazon, is now also a publisher. 

This revolution in publishing marginalizes the big houses, and it erodes their dominance of the industry. Traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers in an ecosystem that writers must placate in order to sell books. 

This means that all the encumbrances of a publishing house, all the bureaucratic layers, the finance departments, the marketing departments, the pre-readers, the proofreaders, the editors, the illustrators, the fact checkers, and the lawyers, are all erased from the equation. 

Many writers, no question, do need an editor. Unfortunately editors are not created equally. One editor that published an excerpt of my book a couple of years ago in The Daily Beast was truly gifted. 

That editor, Jake Siegel, quit his job at the Beast and he decided that he was a writer, period, and that he would never edit anyone else's work ever again.

No traditional publishing house would ever permit me to include so many photos, like these from pages 183-4. Photos are expensive. They crank the price of a book up, even for print-on-demand operations. The Amazon list price for this book is $64.99. Amazon took a hit and sold it for $21.xx for three months. Then the price inexplicably rose back up to $64.99. Amazon made a business decision, acting with greater nimbleness and flexibility than a traditional house ever could. Then they reverted back to the list price. Amazon is a monopoly for print-on-demand. No competitors beat them on price, and Amazon produces a high quality printed product. 

Which brings me to my next observation about editors. With the exception of Jake Siegel, and theoretical others, too many editors are actually failed writers. It took me some time, as I am not that smart, but many of the criticisms that random editors sent to me unsolicited were in fact motivated by jealousy. 

"Everybody needs an editor?" Maybe so. But not an editor who is secretly covetous of the accomplishments of the writer. Sometimes such editors do not even realize that they are jealous. But it comes out in their comments. 

I can feel editors out there in internet land seething over these observations. I do not care. Editors in the current publishing milieu must be outstanding, because they are running out of safe places.

Technology makes publishing houses redundant. Publishers are now under siege, and Amazon is poaching their income streams. 

There may still be a place for some editors and fact checkers and legal reviewers in the ecosystem, but their relevance is diminishing, and it is no coincidence that editors are getting fired wholesale everywhere that we turn. Editors are increasingly an endangered species.

If a publishing house wishes to make me an offer, I will consider it. In the hands of the right publisher, this book could sell harder than I can accomplish on my own with the help of those of you reading these words. 

But money is not the sole purpose here. 

Omitting a publishing house enabled me to focus on those other important priorities. I did things with this book that most editors would not permit, and most houses would not accept, and I enjoy a direct relationship to my readers. 

Technology marches on. 

We all must adapt or fade into irrelevance. 

That includes writers, agents, editors, and publishers. Some of us are making a graceful transition. Some are burning in. 

Such a spectacle.

Ranger Jeff Mellinger was one of the earliest purchasers of this book, buying when its Amazon price was $64.99. Jeff really wanted this book. He sent me the first photos of the book in the wild, including this depiction of page 277. Jeff also wrote an epic lead review

I updated this dispatch on March 21, 2018, confirming that the lone softcover source for this book is Amazon, and the list price for that softcover is $64.99. I apologize for that price. It is an Amazon thing. Nobody competes with them, so they can charge whatever they want. Amazon could reset the price back down to $21.xx tomorrow, and I would have nothing to say about it. My royalties are not effected.

The various electronic editions are much more reasonable, at $14.99 for Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Google undersells both, offering a version for $9.99. I set the price at $14.99, the same as Apple and Amazon. Google ignored me and sells their version for $9.99. The only difference is this: The Apple iBooks version offers sharper photos. The Amazon Kindle edition is comparable to the iBooks version. The Google version offers photos that are slightly less sharp. The difference is not significant. 


Dan said...

It is an excellent book, written by an honorable man. I could not afford the book at $60+, but I would have paid that for it. You have a voice, and it needs to be heard. I look forward to your further books, on paper, of course. I'm going down with the ship.

Esteban Trujillo de Gutierrez said...

Thank you, Dan. I am glad that the book is still priced at $21.xx on Amazon. GooglePlay just posted an eBook version at $9.99! I am working to bring out a softcover edition from GooglePlay. No telling what the price will end up being.

Thank you very much for your kind comments!

Esteban Trujillo de Gutierrez said...

It turns out that GooglePlay does not compete with Amazon print-on-demand, so no softcover edition is available from Google. Amazon pretty much owns the print-on-demand marketplace. I have investigated multiple theoretical competitors: none undersell Amazon. I cannot publish this book for less using Ingram, or CreateSpace, or any other publisher.

My bro Mike Yon publishes physical books using an Indian publisher. I may have no option but to go that way as well.

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