26: Literary Distribution Systems

26 February 2011

‘I’m not sure The Jolly Pilgrim should go to market via a traditional route – it’s a dusty industry caught between austerity, stumbling into the next Harry Potter and pants-down terror of the internet. In this epoch, quality can find its way to the surface under its own merits. In fact, f**k them. The Diary of Anne Frank was passed off as teenage gibberish by a New York publishing house. I just picked up the new Dizzee Rascal album – it’s on his own f*****g label.  Get the message?

‘Stop f*****g around.  These f***s will never understand the quality of the book without reading the TNT-soaked meat of the last four chapters. You’re banging your head against distracted morons who hold the reins to the fast-forward button. Young thrusters always meet a layer of progress-arresting crusties, so don’t ask these c***s, TELL THEM.’ – Mark Yzerman-Snare

From previous life experience, I’m acutely aware of how long it takes to grasp the structure and rhythms of a new bit of human culture. With that caveat in mind, here are some things I think I’ve learned about the book-publishing world:

  • On the back of a mainstream publishing deal, the writer makes an absolute maximum of 10 percent of the cover price. More commonly, if they get 8 percent, they’ve done extremely well. With a self-publishing arrangement (that is: the customer clicks ‘buy’ on Amazon, a room-sized laser printer spits a copy out and it’s posted to them) the royalties can hit 35 percent (a.k.a. the profit margin).
  • Recent advances in technology have rendered such self-publishing arrangements convenient, low-cost and giving rise to high-quality products.  However, they do not give rise to the specific nature of physical product required by yours truly.
  • No one going through a publishing house is getting proper sales data regarding where, and by whom, their books are being bought.  Generally they get a statement, every six months or year, with two numbers on it (books sold at full price and books sold at a discount).
  • Advances for planned books (i.e. we need you to write a book on widgets, here’s some cash), are vehicles for facilitation. Advances for books which are complete (i.e. here’s some cash for the book on widgets you’ve already written) are vehicles to de-risk the author (in case the widget book sells less than hoped). Furthermore, I would hazard a conjecture that advances also act as a tool for the suits to take control of the creatives at the ‘sign here’ stage.
  • In the UK, the key distribution channels for books are two wholesalers (called Bertrams and Gardners) and Amazon. There’s next to no price competition between them. As one who currently operates in a very crowded, super-competitive market, this seems weirdly regressive.
  • Going through a publishing house generally involves losing ultimate control over key creative decisions, such as the book’s cover, final manuscript and title.
  • No one markets a book but the author. As Isabel Losada says in the Writer’s and Artist’s Guide, publishing houses might release hundreds of titles a year and have one marketing bod. If you’re a first-time writer, you’ll be lucky if that bod makes a single phone call on your behalf.

If you’re Dan Brown or Iain Banks (that is: one of the most successful or accomplished writers of your generation) then the rules are probably different.  But that’s a different kettle of fish.

Overall, you can see Mark’s (colourfully made) point. For someone trying to get their book into people’s hands, the role of a publishing house is to act as the outsourcer for the physical production and editing.  One thing The Jolly Pilgrim does not need is editing.

Remember: the point is to understand the rules then play my cards right, not to fret over how the game works.

For me, a game-changing moment is being reached about now. Throughout this process, my strategy (given that life is so complicated) has been to do things properly, hold my nerve, keep the faith, and not worry about how long it all takes.

But a new consideration is kicking in.  A lot of people have been with me through this journey, some of them for five and a half years. After all the teasing and the hype, it’s my duty to deliver.

And I’m not the type of guy who lets his people down.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms.
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart

- Dylan Thomas

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7 Responses to “26: Literary Distribution Systems”

  1. Jim Says:

    Peter I’ve been telling you for over a year to self publish at Amazon, B/N, Apple ETC. For books under $9.99 USD the split at Amazon is 70/30 with the Author getting the 70%! Last year Amazon sold 1.5 Kindle copies for every 1 copy paper and glue shipped. You’re writing about a transforming world so join the digital revolution my brother!

  2. ash Says:


    Welcome to the revolution, my friend. When can I buy a copy?

  3. Aura Says:

    Good insights! Cheers!

  4. Rebecca Hallam Says:

    Thought that sounded like Mark’s work!! Go for it. I’ll buy one!! Good luck, have been awaiting the finished product with bated breath – will do my best to spread the word in Oz and get you a few more copies- our dollar is good now, you may make more out of us!!

  5. Caroline Blackham Says:

    “leap before you look” can’t remember who i’m quoting here – but wow. go for it pete – good luck :)

  6. Oxycontin-Ld50 Says:

    Great post

  7. Mark Snare Says:

    I’d like to inform that this winter, I bought a bobble hat to soften my image. The bobble fell off.

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