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Rowling is the Indiest of All

By Scott Nicholson

One of the great aspects of the current indie revolution is the creativity of different delivery and sales models as well as the explosion of content.

I saw a traditionally published and successful friend of mine lamenting on Facebook about revisions “suggested” by his editor. And it got me to thinking. There aren’t that many professional editors in New York. And if each of those few is guiding each of her lists, making suggestions and shaping the story, then it’s no surprise that a bit of homogenization would occur on the shelves.

We all pretty much accept that there’s a standard in New York that makes many books fairly interchangeable. This is especially true when a certain fad or genre gets hot, such as post-apocalyptic zombie tales or vampire romance. Most writers have no idea why their book was accepted while others of equal quality were rejected, and readers are just now catching on that they have been deprived of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of quality books.

This is clear from the bestseller lists at various media outlets, including the indie bestseller list here at Indie Reader. Many have heard that John Locke became the first indie author to sell a million ebooks on Kindle. Another writer friend of mine pointed out that John Locke would have made more money selling a million copies with a traditional publisher.

But it’s almost certain he wouldn't have sold a million if they were $9.99 or $14.99 in ebook, or $25 in hardcover. I think pretty much everyone grasps this concept. If he'd signed with a traditional publisher, he'd probably have gotten a $10,000 advance, only been able to put out one book a year (instead of 10 or so in five months) and he'd be working on his other side careers in the meantime.

In fact, it’s likely he’d still be engaged in the life-stealing “query-go-round” that keeps so many authors in a holding pattern. Even if he’d had his first book accepted, the book probably wouldn’t have been released until 2012. As of today, he probably wouldn't even have received his "advance,” even if the book had been accepted, and royalties would be a theoretical possibility in perhaps 2014.

But that's moot because his books would have been overpriced and he'd likely have been just another midlist writer—odds are very slim that some agent would have been astute enough to say, "Hey, I bet this guy can sell a million copies" and then actually have an editor and sales staff agree. As a NY author, John Locke may never have gotten a third book out. Even if he’d had great word-of-mouth success, the slow grind of reprinting would have meant the rush would evaporate before the second wave of product hit. But Locke knew the deal because he’d already been a successful entrepreneur in other fields—he didn't waste one second pecking out a query letter.

In other words, the odds of his getting a $400,000 advance, his approximate income from selling a million 99-cent books, were virtually zero. And this...this is why the entire traditional system is severely broken. The perception of a couple of industry professionals carries far more weight than the perception of one million readers. And that's morally wrong as well as just plain bad business.

Amazon and BN.com have shown they can sell a lot of books without a traditional publisher attached, and they are already signing exclusive deals with name writers. But what happens when you can bypass even those megalithic giants?

J.K. Rowling is apparently making her new Pottermore website the only place you can buy the Harry Potter ebooks. Not only has Rowling gone indie, but she’s soon to be one of the most independent authors on the planet. Outside of Stephen King’s aborted direct-sales experiment with “The Plant” in the late 1990s, never has such a high-profile skirting of corporations occurred.

Now Rowling’s coy insistence that she’d never release the Potter books because she was a fan of “real books” shows its true face. It doesn’t seem to be about money alone, though she stands to add dramatically to her millions. It appears to be about control, creativity, and innovation, and for that, I applaud her, especially as the site appears aimed at adding value to the reader experience.

Seth Godin, another self-starter Name Brand, allied with Amazon for his own imprint, dodging his former publishers and their cut and control. But Rowling’s move most clearly poses a threat to the traditional publishing industry. I can envision the James Patterson Inc. board gathering around the table to hatch the Patterson Inc. site, and Stephenie Meyer building the exclusive Twilight World to release new books directly to readers.

Publishers quickly lost access to the writers who either had failing careers or didn’t want to run through the agent gauntlet and be beaten by clubs while their abusers counted coup with all the glib cracks about query-letter faux pas. They didn’t much care, because there are hundreds of thousands of such writers and they are easily replaced.

But now they may lose their brand names, the money in the bank, the franchise properties: Clive Cussler, John Sandford, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts, authors whose names are their own individual industries.

John Locke probably wouldn’t have sold a million books without Amazon. J.K. Rowling probably wouldn’t have sold a million books without a traditional publisher.

But I’ll bet you a million dollars that Rowling will become the first author to sell a million books without either of them.

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Scott Nicholson is author of The Indie Journey, as well as the Kindle bestsellers Liquid Fear, The Red Church, and Disintegration. He also sells ebooks at his site, but he admits he’s “no J.K. Rowling.” But why not look at www.hauntedcomputer.com anyway and follow hauntedcomputer on Facebook and Twitter.

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