Periscope Depth

mean old levee, taught me to weep and moan

Went to a great talk by Barry Eisler on Thursday, hosted by Grub Street at the Park Plaza Hotel. Eisler’s a great speaker: not just fun and engaging, but also immensely intelligent on whatever subject comes up. He was a little ragged from having talked at two earlier events that day, but I would still rather listen to him than most other speakers.

Eisler talked about selling his first book, Rain Fall, and the journey he took to get there. “We tend to look at published authors as a breed apart,” he said, “as if they were born published.” He described the hard work, the repeated revisions and the rejections he went through (50 agents turned it down). But eventually it was sold, it succeeded and it blossomed into the seven-book John Rain series that’s popular today.

It’s the seventh book in that series, The Detachment, that made recent headlines. Eisler first shocked the publishing world by walking away from a $500,000 contract with St. Martin’s Press, electing to self-publish electronically because he figured (accurately) that he could make more money that way. This got Amazon’s attention. Amazon had recently set up its own publishing imprint, Thomas & Mercer, and pitched Eisler a “hybrid deal”: generous electronic royalties, control over editorial and design decisions, and the strength of Amazon’s marketing platform. He accepted. Both decisions drew fire: the former from legacy publishers and the writers attached to them, the latter from independent retailers and self-publishers.

Eisler spoke about the above process with gentle humor and clear reasoning. “You can’t criticize someone’s tactics without understanding their objectives,” he said. He explained that Amazon’s terms were still vastly superior to anything he could get with a legacy publisher*. That, plus the marketing weight that Amazon can throw behind a flagship author, gave him an expectation of selling more copies and making more money. And it’s paid off: his sales of The Detachment have not only “blown away” sales of his other work, they’ve also lifted his previous titles as well.

The paper edition of The Detachment just came out, but Eisler made clear that he thinks the future is in digital. “In a digital world, [legacy publishers and self-published authors] are on an absolutely level playing field with distribution,” he said. No longer is the self-published author driving from one small bookstore to another with a station wagon full of books. Of course, marketing is now an issue, but that’s a challenge for all first-time authors. And the way the digital field is growing, it seems to make sense to focus your efforts there. “I don’t care if I sell another paper book in my life,” Eisler said, and he wasn’t bluffing.

Eisler had one throwaway comment at the beginning of his discussion. “Craft used to get discussed a lot more,” he said, referring to the writer’s conventions he’s hit up over the last couple of years. Ever since the explosion of electronic publishing, however, all anyone wants to talk about is business. That’s entirely understandable. Two years ago, self-publishing was a joke in the industry (literally; I attended a conference where an agent laughed it off); today, electronic books outsell paper books and Amazon offers 4X royalties that a legacy publisher can for self-published authors of Kindle titles. An industry that’s centuries old is becoming unrecognizable and everyone wants to get a handle on it. Hopefully, though, things will settle down soon and writers can get back to worrying about the craft. (Although they shouldn’t stop worrying about craft until then)

* Though he wouldn’t exactly say what they were. Amazon asked him to keep the exact terms of his deal secret. Eisler said he thinks it would be better for the industry if he could talk about it, but he understands that Amazon doesn’t want every new writer it brings in coming to the negotiating table armed with that kind of knowledge.

That said, we know it’s better than the 17.5% of retail price that a traditional publisher will offer as a royalty on an ebook. And we can figure it’s not as good as the 70% he could get if he published it on Amazon on his own. So maybe 50%? 60%? He’s been circumspect about it whenever the subject comes up, and if there’s one guy you can trust to keep a secret, it’s a former employee of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.

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