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Book publishers see their role as gatekeepers shrink

Writers are bypassing the traditional route to bookstore shelves and self-publishing their works online. By selling directly to readers, authors get a larger slice of the sale price.

December 26, 2010|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Science fiction writers Greg Bear, left, and Neal Stephenson created a subscription-based historical novel about Genghis Khans conquests.
Science fiction writers Greg Bear, left, and Neal Stephenson created a… (Kevin P. Casey, For The Times )

Joe Konrath can't wait for his books to go out of print.

When that happens, the 40-year-old crime novelist plans to reclaim the copyrights from his publisher, Hyperion Books, and self-publish them on, Apple Inc.'s iBooks and other online outlets. That way he'll be able to collect 70% of the sale price, compared with the 6% to 18% he receives from Hyperion.

As for future novels, Konrath plans to self-publish all of them in digital form without having to leave his house in Schaumburg, Ill.

"I doubt I'll ever have another traditional print deal," said the author of "Whiskey Sour," "Bloody Mary" and other titles. "I can earn more money on my own."

For more than a century, writers have made the fabled pilgrimage to New York, offering their stories to publishing houses and dreaming of bound editions on bookstore shelves. Publishers had the power of the purse and the press. They doled out advances to writers they deemed worthy and paid the cost of printing, binding and delivering books to bookstores. In the world of print, few authors could afford to self-publish.

The Internet has changed all that, allowing writers to sell their works directly to readers, bypassing agents and publishers who once were the gatekeepers.

It's difficult to gauge just how many authors are dumping their publishing houses to self-publish online, though for now, the overall share remains small. But hardly a month goes by without a well-known writer taking the leap or declaring an intention to do so.

In addition to Konrath, bestselling author Seth Godin, science fiction writer Greg Bear and action novelist David Morrell recently have used Internet tools to put their works online themselves. Earlier this year, suspense master Stephen King, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and Stephen Covey, the author of bestselling self-help books, self-published some of their works exclusively on Amazon's Kindle bookstore.

Godin, the author of a dozen books on marketing, including "Purple Cow" and "The Dip," cut ties to Penguin Group Inc. in August. This month, he announced plans to self-publish a series of "idea manifestos" on

Godin, 50, said he realized that he no longer needed a publisher to distribute his work or to find an audience: He had cultivated a following of millions through his blog and speaking tours.

"If an author has the choice of two distribution models, one that costs nothing and has no gatekeeper and the other has lots of gatekeepers and costs a lot of money, a lot of people will go with the free one," he said.

Amazon's Digital Text Platform lets authors sell their works through its Kindle bookstore. Those who set their prices between $2.99 and $9.99 per copy receive 70% of the sale price, minus a few pennies per book to cover the cost of distributing files over a cellular network.

Sony Corp.'s online ReaderStore also lets authors sell their works directly to buyers, giving writers 70% to 85% of the sale price. In October, Barnes & Noble Inc. launched its PubIt! self-publishing platform, promising royalty rates of 40% to 65%.

The upshot is that writers can find virtual shelf space in the world's largest bookstores without the help of conventional publishers. And the number of forums for online bookselling continues to grow.

This fall, Amazon and Google Inc. unveiled online tools that can turn any website into a bookstore.

Google launched an online bookstore with millions of titles and said it would let independent booksellers sell those works on their own sites. Amazon said it would allow any website to sell Kindle books and would pay a referral fee for every sale.

"Publishers used to be the gatekeepers," said Mike Shatzkin, a New York publishing consultant and editor of the Shatzkin Files (, a blog about the book industry. "Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it's no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go."

For now, those benefits include editing, cover design, marketing support, accounting and advances on royalties. In exchange, publishers control the copyrights to works and take a larger slice of the sale price.

Authors typically get 10% to 25% of the proceeds of digital sales if they go through a publisher, compared with 40% to 70% if they self-publish.

For Konrath, the math made his choice easy. He said he earned $1.17 in royalties for each digital copy of "Whiskey Sour" sold by Hyperion. That's roughly 25% of the sale price of $4.69.

When he self-publishes on Amazon, Konrath prices his books at $2.99 and earns $2.04 a copy, or just under 70%.

"If a traditional publisher offered me a quarter of a million dollars for a novel, I'd consider it," he said. "But anything less than that, I'm sure I can do better on my own."

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