A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Five


The more I write on this series the more “boring” it seems to become. Why? Because I’m not revealing anything particularly new or uncovering the secret to getting published. However, the goal has been to talk about things that the traditional can do quite well. And this series ultimately is a journey through the innards of the publishing business.

Today we discuss infrastructure. I’m talking about the yawn-worthy topics of accounting, licensing, legal protection, and metadata.

A publisher must account for all revenue with the IRS and pay both corporate and state taxes. If you self-publish you have to handle this all on your own, and technically, if you travel to another state and sell your books in that state you should be paying the sales taxes in that state. The large publisher handles all of this for you and navigates the tax issues across state boundaries.

But beyond the simple tracking of money, another accounting function is price verification, sales validation, and sales report standardization. (An argument could be made that some of this is really more the responsibility of the sales department.) The publisher must make sure that every one of their titles is priced correctly at all their retail outlets, both brick-and-mortar and web stores. Then they have to have a way to validate that sales have actually been made and revenue has been received. And last they must have systems in place that standardize the information flow so that reports and audits can be handled without confusion or misunderstanding. If you are publishing on your own it can be a bit tough to get customer service at XYZ big chain to take your call and fix the info about your book, or to even get paid. I know of a situation where an independent author was doing rather well with their book until a major chain decided to “slow pay” and the author did not have the money to support the continued printing and distribution of their project. Without clout they were unable to fight successfully. (Sounds like an argument for ebooks, but that is another subject entirely!)

Anything related to foreign rights licensing can be incredibly complex. For example, if a book is licensed in English and is sold in Canada, but the license does not include Australia or South Africa, there has to be someone watching to make sure the territory boundaries are honored. We have a missionary friend in France who is frustrated by the inability to purchase certain English titles in France on his Kindle because the publisher only has North American English rights…and the European English rights have not yet been secured. I suspect we often forget that publishing is a global concern. Recently we received a royalty report at our agency for a client’s book that had been translated and sold in Korea. That Korean edition has sold nearly as many copies as the U.S. edition, and in less time. Amazing.

Some authors are very concerned with piracy and copyright violations. Sometimes this is very appropriate. I did have one person state that piracy is not the problem for most authors, instead the problem is obscurity. And yet you don’t want your book stolen and sold somewhere else. An author friend of mine discovered her entire Bible Study (published by a major publisher) online…verbatim…with another person’s name on it as author.  Would you want that to happen with your book?

I attended a presentation last year on “Digital Initiatives” made by very smart people from Hachette. They discussed their use of “Attributor Monitors” to scour the Internet for illegal versions of their book titles. I was shocked to hear that they discover and send out 1,500 take-down notices to illegal sites, every month (saying, in essence, take the illegal book down from your site, or else). Fifteen hundred! They get better than 99% compliance with the request, worldwide. (It is understandable that they would have that level of trouble since Hachette publishes the Twilight franchise.) I suspect that when a company like Hachette contacts the illegal site with their powerful legal team, the offending site owner is willing to comply. But if you tried to do it on your own, you would be ignored.

They also work very hard to protect their digital properties from theft by using a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM). And since there are multiple platforms for ebooks this can be somewhat complex. (Mobi for the Kindle; e-pub for the Nook and iBookstore; and PDF are just a few examples.) One recent complaint from a Kindle user showed how this worked. The Kindle user was highlighting and clipping numerous quotes from their ebook, but was informed that they had exceeded the limit for clipping. This was a DRM limit set by the publisher to prevent a reader from copying and pasting the entire book and possibly distributing the contents via the Internet. Of course someone could just re-type the entire book and have the same result, but the publisher was at least attempting to make it harder to “steal.” Obviously, in this particular case, the publisher had set the clipping threshold too low and offended a user.

Another legal protection issue is the fact that we have a litigious society. Lawsuits can be very expensive and lengthy to process. A famous example is the $136 million dollar defamation lawsuit brought against Harvest House and one of their books. The suit took six years to be resolved, with Harvest House and the authors being exonerated. (Read the complete report here.) I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to have a strong legal team on my side than to have to go it alone.

Last in today’s line-up is Metadata management. This is the information filled out by the publisher for each book they publish. When you search for a book on Amazon.com there is a list of titles that pop up by other writers that would appeal to the viewer of this specific book. How does Amazon.com know this? It is an algorithm based on the information found beyond just the title author and price info and is found in the metadata. The Book Industry Study Group has provided a Metadata Best Practices guide in which they identify thirty-one key pieces of data that are necessary for every book.

Hanna Johnson, in her article “How to Sell More Books with Metadata” wrote, “It’s not just about ISBN numbers and titles anymore. Enhanced metadata can increase discoverability of books and provide marketing information to the entire publishing supply chain.” (If you want a simplified breakdown on this issue, read Carla King’s excellent article “A Self-Publisher’s Guide to Metadata for Books.”) But now Enhanced metadata is becoming more critical. That made me laugh the first time I heard that statement because most folks don’t even know “metadata” much less an “enhanced” version of it!

Let me ask you a question (those of you who have read all 1,000 words of this post). Was any of this “news” to you? Have you considered some of these complexities before? Or, in your opinion, does it even matter?

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Curation

Part Three: Editorial

Part Four: Design

Part Five: Infrastructure


21 Responses to A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Five

  1. Avatar
    Sandra Ardoin May 10, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    All the “inside information” I’ve read in these posts has been interesting. I love knowing what happens behind the scenes.

    I’m no techie, but I can see where adding as many details as possible to the metadata can be an advantage in making sure your book winds up on several Amazon pages, bringing it more attention and potential sales.

    • Avatar
      Alex Bricker March 28, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

      Not much of this was new to me except the meta-data for search results! What you wrote solidified my desire to find a traditional publisher. I see a huge benefit in “we” versus “me.” This principle is found in Scripture as each one in the body of Christ does his or her part. The outcome of knowing this together can produce more fruit and make a lasting impact for the glory of God. It is often when we think we know it all that we don’t. That is why a humble approach and willingness to adapt is important. Thank you Steve for writing this educational reminder for authors.

  2. Avatar
    Richard Mabry May 10, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    Steve, Some of this I knew, some I’d learned the hard way, some was news to me. I appreciate your sharing all of it. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Lance Albury May 10, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    I’ve considered these complexities, and it’s why I prefer the traditional publishing model, especially when it comes to international rights. I confess I know nothing of metadata, and I’d rather keep it that way.

  4. Avatar
    Pam Hillman May 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Actually, the entire series has been interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Avatar
    Robert Treskillard May 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Thanks, Steve … lots of good information here!

  6. Avatar
    Judith Robl May 10, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    The meat of this post is why I will NEVER self-publish. It’s hard enough doing the writing and self-editing, without having all the legal, financial, and crazy-world hoops to jump through as well. I’m not as spry as I was at twelve.

  7. Avatar
    Brandy Heineman May 11, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Thank you for this information. The way I see it, I don’t fix my own car because I don’t know what’s under the hood. I listed my house through a real estate agent based on the huge number of potential circumstances in which I wouldn’t know how to handle. It would be a little different if I had a passion to learn to do those things myself, but knowing how much I don’t know makes a strong endorsement for letting the experts do what they love!

  8. Avatar
    Carrie Turansky May 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    This has been very interesting and helpful. It does make you appreciate all the work the publisher does. But I still wonder about Ebooks and how this is going to change in the next few months and years.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube May 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

      Ebooks are a completely different discussion. Self-publishing ebooks (as you have done) is fine under the right circumstances. (Hope you checked to make sure you didn’t step on the non-compete clause in your contract with your current publisher.) But the facts remain that most, not all, but most authors do not know quite what a publisher is doing behind the scenes.

      It is like we drink our diet soda but have no idea the logistics involved in getting it into our hands.

      Ebooks are here to stay. They are a new format for books to be sold. How they are marketed and sold is very different. And right now I can’t hand a copy of my favorite ebook to a stranger at the store and say, “Would you like to enjoy a great book? It’s yours.” (Which what I did with a client’s physical book just this morning.)

      It is a bit like when cassettes eclipsed albums and then CDs eclipsed cassettes. The new formats ran side by side for a long time until one predominated and the market adjusted.

      I also bought duplicates, in CD, of albums I owned in cassette or LP. The same happens with select ebooks.

      We’ll address some of this in future blogs. And at the ACFW conference in September, Rick Acker, Cara Putnam, and myself are going to teach on the topic in a seminar.

  9. Avatar
    Carrie Turansky May 14, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Hi Steve, I signed up for your workshop at ACFW. I’m very interested to learn more from you and Cara and Rick. Thanks for sharing more info.

  10. Avatar
    M.E. Anders May 15, 2011 at 5:29 am #

    Yes, this series post #5 was news to me. I am relatively unversed in the publishing process.

    No, I had never considered the Metadata complexities prior to reading this post.

    Learning more about the industry is empowering to me as a fledgling writer.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  11. Avatar
    Sally Apokedak May 17, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    All of this matters. Who has time to do all of this? I’m with Brandy. I pay mechanics and real estate agents. And I’ll be happy to share my money, should I ever manage to sell a book, with my agent and publisher.

  12. Avatar
    Lisa Grace May 17, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    Yes, I read all one thousand words and learned quite a bit. I thought I was hip learning search engine optimization, html and mobi, but now I have to explore metadata too? Thank you for sharing.

    I think most authors would prefer to work with an agent and a traditional publishing house. I know I would.

    I am working with the goal of getting traditional publishing contracts for my books. I’ve even hired an editor who is working on my third novel before I show it to agents.

  13. Avatar
    Rodney Harrier January 11, 2019 at 10:22 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I am as yet an unpublished author, but your arguments for traditional publishing are compelling.

  14. Avatar
    Ann Coker March 2, 2019 at 4:06 pm #

    I got to your 5-part blog via the CWI course “How to Get Published.” I appreciate all you set forth about traditional publishing. And yes, I did learn from the boring 5th part.


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