by Alan Beatts
Terry Goodkind announced last month that his next novel would be self-published as an ebook. I was surprised to hear this since, with the exception of one novel, all of his books have been published by Tor Books. Since 1994 his relationship with Tor has steadily built his popularity to its current height where his books consistently appear in the top 10 spots on the New York Times bestseller list. Curious, I did some looking around to try to find why he is moving to self-publishing.
I couldn't find out much. There wasn't anything I could find on his website explaining the reasons and his agent didn't give Publishers Weekly any, either. Likewise Goodkind's comments at PW didn't shed any light (despite one commentator asking pretty much directly). However, on June 30th, he posted an extensive piece on his blog which, though still not giving a clear, concise answer, does state that he chose to self-publish because, "We did it this way because we could, because the story needed to be told, and this was the best way to tell it." That might mean that he had trouble with his editor at Tor and decided to publish the book "the way it was meant to be" without editorial oversight, but the statement is ambiguous. Maybe it means, for reasons I cannot guess, that the story was better served in ebook format. Or maybe he did it just because he could?
Since I was still curious, I looked at the time-line of his recent work and some other details. It's an interesting picture.
The final book of his fantasy series, Confessor, was published by Tor in 2007. In 2008 he signed a contract to publish three "mainstream" novels with a different publisher, Penguin Books. One was published in 2009, The Law of Nines, and was not successful compared to his other books (it hit the NYT bestseller list at #10, whereas Confessor hit at #2, and Phantom hit #1). The significant numbers of hardcover copies that were remaindered also suggests it was not a success (when there are stacks of a hardcover for sale at Barnes & Noble for $2.99, it is not a good sign).
The following year he signed a three book contract with Tor. His next novel, The Omen Machine, was published by Tor in 2011. No other books have appeared from Penguin to date.
The current ebook was apparently scheduled to be published by Tor but was withdrawn quite recently. However, despite the current ebook, Goodkind has said he will still be publishing with Tor and that there will be another book soon. Given that, according to his own blog, the ebook was finished a few weeks ago, I wonder what the quality of the novel delivered to Tor will be. Unless it's already written and delivered (in which case I'd expect it would be announced already), he's going to have to haul ass to get something to them soon enough for it to come out anytime near his promised "sometime later this year, possibly early next."
To my eye the picture overall looks like Goodkind left Tor for more money (probably) and a bigger audience (by writing a main-stream thriller). He failed to get anything like the sales that his new publisher was looking for and either they kicked him to the curb or he broke the contract. The he went back to his old publisher, who took him on. But then, not happy with them for some reason, he has now decided to self-publish.
Bear in mind that Tor, the publisher he's treated this way, is the company that gave him his start. Granted, publishing is complicated, being an author is hard, and that combination makes for some difficult decisions. But still, perhaps Mr. Goodkind is not the most loyal fellow on the planet.
What is interesting to me is the possible long-term effect of authors going the self-publishing route after building a reputation with a traditional publisher. Goodkind isn't the only 'big name" author who has chosen to dump his or her publisher in favor of self-publishing. When that happens it's a bitter pill for publishers who have taken a risk publishing an author in the first place and then spent a fair amount of time and money promoting the author; which made the author popular enough to profitably self-publish. Of course I'm not suggesting that authors should be permanently tied to their publishers. There are many solid reasons that authors should go looking for a different publisher -- a bad relationship with their editor, publishers failing to live up to their obligations, an unwillingness to support a direction that the author wants to take with their work, and so on.
But I think that working with a company for as long as it's convenient and profitable, then leaving them when it looks like you'll make more money elsewhere is a bit questionable. Writing isn't like working a "normal" job. A publisher and an author work together to sell as many books as possible. Granted, the power imbalance between the two parties often makes it a strained partnership (usually the publisher has much more power than the author, though this shifts based on how much income the author brings in) but it is still more of a partnership than an employee / employer relationship. If an employee gets a better offer, I don't think that there is usually anything wrong with them changing jobs. But when a partner in a business leaves to make more money elsewhere and reduces the remaining partner's business in the process . . . I think that the partner left behind is justified in feeling ill-used.
However, given the power imbalance I mentioned, publishers are far from helpless in this situation. There is no reason that a publishing contract can't include a prohibition against the author self-publishing anything without the publisher's permission. And for first time authors (who have almost no power compared to their publishers), clauses like that may become a standard part of many contracts. Of course, such authors could just decline and self-publish. But self-publishing adds a couple of jobs for the author and many authors just want to be a writer, not a publicist, copy editor, and book designer. Plus, for an author getting started, there is a significant benefit associated with having their publisher's representatives talking to booksellers all over the country along with all the other publicity that even the least important title receives.
Authors like Terry Goodkind or J.K. Rowling won't be affected by this but the next generation of authors will be. On balance, some protection against self-publishing for the publisher don't seem totally unreasonable. If an author is lucky, a publisher will invest a lot of time and money to make the author's books (and, by extension, the author) successful and well known. One way to think of publishers is as investors. Each author represents an investment in time and money. In many cases, this investment doesn't pay off and the publisher loses money. But, publishers are able to stay in business because some authors become very profitable and offset the losses on other authors.
I suppose that someone could argue that publishers make an unfair amount of profit from people like Terry Goodkind since, when an author sells huge numbers of books, publishers make a great deal of money (much, much more than the author does). However, the extension of that argument seems to me to be that investors in companies like Microsoft or Apple are making an unfair profit when their shares go from $40 each to $350 each. Our society has generally been in agreement for centuries that when someone is willing to risk their money on something that may or may not be successful, they're entitled to all the profit that comes from that risk and that they're allowed to protect that profit within the law. Should publishers be held to any other standard?