New York Times-bestselling author Barry Eisler recently turned down a $500,000 advance from “Big 6″ traditional (or “legacy”) publisher St. Martin’s Press for a two-book deal. Now, it’s one thing for indie authors to turn their noses up at large publishers, and it’s even another thing for best-selling indie authors to spurn mid-list book deals (J. A. Konrath comes to mind), but we’re talking about turning down half a million dollars. This is pretty big news.
If I were a legacy publisher, I imagine this would feel like hearing the lookout yell, “Iceberg, dead ahead!” Or possibly like one of the more degenerate Roman emperors realizing the Visigoths had breached the city gates for the first time in 800 years. Maybe they feel like the railroad companies when the Interstate Highway System was announced, or like buggy-whip makers watching the first car drive down the road. Or maybe the more apt analogy is Marie “Let Them Eat Cake” Antoinette wondering what all those peasants with pitchforks were doing outside. I could do this all day.
Anyway, it’s a pretty monumental event. And I don’t think Eisler is insane, or just wants to stick it to “the man.” In fact, by all accounts, “the man” has been generally good to him and he has lots of nice things to say about publishers (albeit with plenty of complaints as well). For him, it was mostly a financial decision: he thinks he will earn more than $500,000 self-publishing these two books. He might even be right; he’s already made $1,600 in a few weeks (and is on pace to make $30,000 this year) on a short story he self-published and released electronically. He clearly has fans, and he’s listened to Konrath’s advice to price his works attractively (under $5). He believes that, in the long term, he can’t see giving up e-book rights to a legacy print publisher forever (which, even if they earn out that hefty advance, would only net him 14.9% on additional e-book sales); he believes the print distribution advantages that publisher would give him will be short-lived and outweighed by the greater e-book royalties (70%) and control (especially over pricing) that he’ll have by going it on his own. Several times, he mentioned that he just didn’t feel right signing away e-book rights to a company that he believes is trying to delay the ascendence of e-books as long as possible, by fighting instead of embracing them.
And I can certainly understand many of those same feelings and concerns … but it is half a million dollars. Of course, I don’t know Mr. Eisler or his financial situation, and I don’t know exactly how well his books sell (obviously pretty well). And I’d imagine, whatever offer the publisher gave, the rights are worth more than that, especially when maximized effectively with proper pricing and customer-friendly policies. But, it’s another salvo in the “It’s easy to get rich e-publishing” meme gaining traction online, which I think is dangerously seductive to aspiring authors the same way the lottery is seductive to people who can’t afford buying tickets and the NBA is seductive to kids who should probably spend more time studying trigonometry instead of the triangle offense.
In any event, this move is a pretty big deal, and has to be a big blow to the legacy publishing industry. I’ve said for a while that best-selling authors will start migrating away from traditional publishers and going it alone (what can a big publisher offer Stephen King at this point that he can’t do on his own?), and Eisler appears to be the first big domino to fall. Sometimes these types of paradigm shifts happen “gradually, then suddenly,” so we’ll see if Eisler is merely an aberration or the start of a trend. Either way, legacy publishers can’t be happy with this news.
For the record, no, I’ve never been offered a $500,000 advance, and yes, I would take it in a hot second. Then I’d live off that money and write a whole bunch more books that I’d probably self-publish.