where music leaves us

In addition to wondering about the future of the printed book, there’s at least one more pressing question that those interested in the book-world have been and should be asking: what about the future of print publishing?

While there are some similarities here with the music business, they’re not nearly as close as they were in my previous post on the subject. The main reason is that making good music is still rarely a one-man-show. Even for a guy like me who’s been around and mastered [pun intended] almost all facets of the industry, music-making–from initial creative inertia to final product–involves and even requires many talented people to pull off well. Sure, there’s the occasional one-hit-wonder, or guy-with-a-laptop-who-only-uses-samples-to-create-a-project; but to make a meaningful collection of songs up to industry standards, it takes a team.

It also takes a lot of equipment.

Acoustically perfect rooms are still needed, as well as gold-sputtered large-diaphragm microphones, expensive hard disk space, CPU processing, quality monitors, mixing surfaces, mastering programs, not to mention hiring all the musical talent, engineers, producers, and mixing ears. Then you front the money for design, duplication, and distribution. And unlike book signings, which yes, often do include performances of a sort, music must be performed. And that’s a whole other industry.

I think it’s for this reason alone that we haven’t seen the complete demise of record companies. Because someone still needs to coordinate the talent and front the monies and manage the time lines.

True, musical artists can do much on their own. But those that do are still the exception, and usually have a big wallet or are using inventive methods of grass-roots investment to finance projects (like Eric Peter’s last project which proudly displays “The Hopper Tribe” in his liner notes). Larger record companies also have a lot of pull with what gets played and how many shelves a project sees space on. But even that is beginning to change.

I don’t know anyone that buys music based on “record company,” but on what they like. And in our information-accessible generation, connecting the artist with their listeners–both existing and potential–doesn’t really need the record company. They need an internet connection and a list of tour dates.

the lone art

So how, exactly, are music publishing and book publishing different?

Well, writing novels is incredibly simple: an author sits down…and writes.

Granted, most writers I know are a bit strange.

Some, downright weird.

But then again, you’d have to be.

To spend hundreds and hundreds of hours sitting in front of a computer screen staring at lines of information is pretty tedious. More like a computer programmer. And no matter how cool the Matrix made looking at code seem, computer programmers are even weirder than authors.

In a nut shell, it’s this simplicity that makes the publisher obsolete. Technology just helped push the inevitable along.

but the publisher does so much!

So if a record company does all of the stuff I listed above, a publishing company surely does just as much to merit an equal place of prestige.


I said, right?

What hundreds and now thousands of writers are realizing is no, they don’t.

As I said, writing books is much simpler than making music.

Yes, there are editors. But a good writer truly only needs one good one; often a skilled writer can edit their own work successfully. A handful of “Proofies”–as I call them–help, but they’re usually willing to proof the book for free seeing as how they had the intangible privileged of reading it before anyone else.

Editors often get in the way, too. Traditional publishers always have a way of using their editors to make you fashion the art they think will sell, not what you think is right. Sure, there’s something to be said for market awareness; but critical thinking and a serious eye can tell you just as much as any market analyst would, and having an editor that “gets” you and your art is almost priceless.

Interior design? Exterior design? Why, but of course! After all, no matter how often the quote is used, we actually do judge books by the their covers. And how they’re laid out. But those services, along with editorial services, are quite easy to secure, especially when producing for the growing e-market.

That leaves distribution. Distribution of thick, heavy paper books that are constantly vying for shelf space–the majority of which you’ll never ever see as an author–and cost anywhere from $12-$15 for a consumer to buy.

Which you, the author, gets all of.

Umm. Actually, no. You get about 8% of it. And 14.5% if it’s a digital sale.

So where, exactly, is that other 92% going?

That, my friends, is the million-dollar question, and what authors like me are trying to figure out. And the only logical answer is into a bloated publishing system with high production overhead, over-staffing, heavy distribution costs…

…and does very little marketing for the author.

I can almost justify the first few items, but that last one is the clincher. Where the benefits of big-publisher name recognition, shelf-placement pull, and high-profile advertising prowess should really kick in is in the marketing. The crazy part is I did more self-promotion for the largest Christian publisher (Thomas Nelson) than I did for one of the smallest (Tsaba House). And none of it changed my personal bottom line…except in countless man hours, personal travel expenses, and creative ideas.

The result?

More fans, but less money for my baby’s mouths.

ok, but they’ll still be the filter

Ah yes. Traditional publishing’s last resort.

Now that anyone can publish themselves, who will help you know what’s good and what’s not? Surely the publisher will.

Any publisher that is still thinking this is already dead, they just don’t know it yet. It’s the same mistake “big government” makes. You’re not smart enough to manage your life, so we’ll do it for you, just give us all your money for the greater good.

In the not too distant future, the reader becomes the filter.

If social media has taught us anything, it’s that if one person likes something, they’ll tell all their friends. And if it’s a truly worthy concept, nothing can stop its success. Which means that if success is that apprehendable by the content creator, they have even more incentive to create their best work for their public. Which means you get better books for less money: the author knows their success rises and falls on whether or not you like it, not whether a publisher says it’s good or not, and can drop their prices for you (because the author is still making more on a less expensive self-published book than they are on a far more expensive traditionally published book).

guilds: the future publishers

I believe that in place of publishers will come alliances. Guilds, if you will. Gatherings of like-minded creators and inventors who’s allegiances are bound by willfully aligning themselves with one another. Sharing resources, combining platforms, and blending fans.

The truth is, more came out of the two Fantasy Fiction Tours that Wayne Thomas Batson and I dreamed up in 2007 and 2008 than almost any other book-related venture we’ve done. Pam Schwagerl, CEO of Tsaba House Inc. was also indispensable in her assistance (proof that sometimes smaller is better). The 9 authors that partook in that have benefited to this very day. And it wasn’t publishers doing the heavy lifting: it was the fans of a single author taking a risk on the work of another by mere association.

I believe that the new face of publishing will be self-published authors who combine efforts and resources, link arms through shared branding and emblems, co-occupy websites, and venture out on tour together. Not because they have strong backing, but because their audience is strong enough to trust them and those they create alongside of. ch:

What authors have you learned about and fallen in love with because of their affiliation with a pre-existing reading allegiance you had?

Are you more likely to buy a book because of the publisher or because of a recommendation?


andrew · 22 Apr ’11 at 10:56 pm

This is very good information for me. Will definitely bring this up with my friend I’m writing a book with. πŸ™‚

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 6:49 am

    No problem, Andrew. Write a good book first, then study the best means of self-publishing. Happy writing!

Michelle · 23 Apr ’11 at 12:33 am

I agree with about 50% of what you’re seeing and saying. The publishing giants are switching to e-pub format and prices will eventually come down. Moody, Nelson, Tyndale, those names have been around for decades and people will buy from them first, before they’ll by from an independent. Even if they’re only risking .99 cents. Napster and Itunes were suppose to be the death nell of the music CD recording industry, but that hasn’t happened yet. Why? The giants adapted πŸ˜‰ Giants want their money, and the customer trusts the brand name.

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 6:48 am

    Michelle: yes, the music companies adapted. It took a while, but they did.

    (As a side note, they still haven’t completely, and are losing money; more growth does need to occur. This is one of the reasons we’re starting a church-based record company at New Life rather than a bank-based one; treats artists as ministry investments rather than just a production loan).

    The problem with publishers adapting is they have much farther to go. My point as mentioned above, is that it’s so much cheaper to produce a novel than it is a music album: the publisher is going to have to sweeten the deal exponentially more. More take home for the author, and better marketing services. So far, no one is, and in my estimation, no one can. Companies like Amazon are doing way better at this than any publisher I know.

    Give me your thoughts on this; love your feedback and conversation.

Grace Bridges · 23 Apr ’11 at 1:00 am

I’m very excited about developments like this and I think you’re onto something with the guild idea. It’s interesting you should use that word – for almost five years now the Lost Genre Guild has been a nest of support for like-minded Christian authors of SF/fantasy/horror. It would be great if readers actually caught onto using this association to find more of what they like! As a small publisher I’ve tried to encourage it, but it’s tough generating enthusiasm among both authors and readers. It is my hope that we get to that point someday soon!

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 6:56 am

    Grace: Honored to see you here! You’ve certainty done some incredible work along these lines, and I hadn’t thought about the LGG in that respect! Very interesting.

    I agree that it takes a huge amount of inertia to get either party rolling; but I think the product will eventually speak for itself. For instance, Wayne and I never pushed The Underground on our Berinfell site. But one year later it has over 9,000 members, members brought in because of both of our series. Our association, in a loose sense, was a guild. Whatever we bring into that “circle” next our readers will trust.

    Which brings up another good point: guarding the guild.

    Because of that trust, I think the overseers must be careful not to introduce a work or a new author without consideration of how it will affect the reputation. As I write this, it really seems that you’d be building a brand, just as you’ve done with the LGG.

    As such, care to chime in on it’s effectiveness or where you see it moving?

      Grace Bridges · 25 Apr ’11 at 10:09 am

      Wow, you’ve heard of me? lol. Maybe my branding works a little better than I thought.

      Right now the LGG has no real brand, aside from the symbol appearing on a few approved books. Not many authors are interested in seeking this approval. Membership itself is open to anyone who is interested. Actually, are YOU a member? πŸ˜› (A guild moderator’s work is never done!)

      Our networking is mainly among authors, and that is our chief weakness. Ideally we should have a LGG readers’ group, but many of our great authors have barely any readers to share, others have no idea how to share their readers, and still others might not want to share readers at all.

      So what we really need next is a strategy to start doing that, or at least suggest it and show the potential benefits, get the authors keen. I am keen – but it’s no good if I’m the only one.

      That said, I don’t want to be negative. There has to be a way to make it happen – we have an awesome, diverse, talented bunch of people who all produce varyingly similar fiction that is likely to appeal to the same audience, more or less. Therein resides a massive latent potency.

        Christopher Hopper · 4 May ’11 at 2:51 pm

        I think starting small and allowing only a select group of driven, highly grass-roots promotional authors into such a band is key. Their level of excellence must be similar, too. For instance, I can’t stand when I see a crappy cover or a poorly laid out design on a website. While someone may argue it’s trivial, I argue that it’s ALL about excellence. And people will remember an experience (true branding) based on that. So getting an audience to go through the same positive experience is key. Legislating that must start small and build. “Guarding” it like it’s sacred. Letting it grow. And ensuring one good experience after another.

Billy Jepma · 23 Apr ’11 at 8:51 am

You are very good at these posts Christopher. And they never get boring. And I agree with what you’re saying. If/when I totally finish a book so its perfect, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Finding a publisher sounds like the best way to go. But, I know a lot of people. I have family spread throughout in Canada who would spread the word, and of course I have you. If you liked my book, that great for me. And earns me more money. But also, business makes me head hurt if I think on it too long. Still only 14, πŸ™‚ LOL!

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 12:48 pm

    You rock man! Yes, yes, yes, finish that book. Shoot, finish ALL of your bookS!

    But I disagree with you: finding a publisher is NOT the way to go. To prove my point, here’s a lady that sounds almost just like me. Granted, she’s not exactly attending church every Sunday so be forewarned of her language. But he just walked away from a publisher that saw sales of her first book hit 500,000 copies, and when they made her change genres and styles, the next book (not in a series) sold 10,000. She’s leaving St. Martin (HUGE!) and going all self-published.


    By the way, from now on, I’m going all self-published, for what it’s worth to you.

      Billy Jepma · 23 Apr ’11 at 6:42 pm

      Okay, will have to read it. Thanks. And really? All self-published? Nice, odd, since when we had our class you told me self-publishing was good, but not great. It doesn’t mean you’ll only be releasing on e-books does it? Because I will pass on news of your books EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!! πŸ™‚ Can’t wait to read what comes out of the Master Genius CH next!!!

        Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 8:02 pm

        And that’s just the thing! A year ago (and more safely 2-5 years ago), telling someone to self-publish was akin to telling them they weren’t good enough to land a “real” deal with a “real” publisher. And now I’m telling EVERYONE to self-publish! That’s HOW FAST things are changing. It’s really staggering.

          Billy Jepma · 24 Apr ’11 at 8:38 am

          Okay, self-publishing it is. πŸ™‚ Let’s just see how long it takes for me to make something publishable. LOL

Amanda · 23 Apr ’11 at 10:25 am

Are you going to do any more of the Fantasy Fiction tours? Preferably in the New England area. πŸ™‚

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Amanda! No plans right now. I think we’re all busy trying to learn how to self-publish! πŸ™‚

Nathan R. · 23 Apr ’11 at 10:39 am

I haven’t written a book (yet), nor will I ever record an album, but a lot of what you say resonates with me. I believe we live in the social era and relationships will prove to be stronger than brands. The brand has to be You and you must not sell yourself short nor allow others who don’t know the brand try to sell it.

Also, look how technology has surpassed anyone’s expectations. What I can hold in my hand and that can go anywhere has the capacity of entire bookstores. Today it is possible for someone to rise from obscurity to fame in a matter of minutes, ie. Roberta Black. Can that be true for an author? I believe so. The right message, at the right time, to the right audience, it can happen.

    Christopher Hopper · 23 Apr ’11 at 12:51 pm

    “The brand has to be You and you must not sell yourself short nor allow others who don’t know the brand try to sell it.”

    What a HUGE point. Likewise your point about how quickly praise for a product can go viral. It truly is anyone’s game!

Christian Fahey · 23 Apr ’11 at 9:31 pm

Books? If an author I read quotes other authors, I’m likely to buy the other authors. For the other question, I usually buy books based on the author him/herself. In other words, even with good publishing houses, the author has to bring smoke (like music, according to your dad, those songs from 60’s and 70’s recorded on 2 or 4 track were GREAT songs with GREAT performances). If the author hasn’t something to say and is not “bringing to the reader an experience superior to the one they are currently experiencing”(Sol Stein) no amount of stylistic grooviness, packaging and promotion can compensate for what isn’t there. There have been publishing houses that I know that one could count on for certain things. (Crossway published a spate of books in the 80’s and 90’s with heavy pro-life emphasis. Ignatius Press to this day, has great Catholic offerings.) Self-publishing does have a few caveats but these can be surmounted. It, like Indie music, is the wave of the future. Remember also C, that writers in the former Soviet Union HAD to self-publish (Samizdat = “self-publishing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chief among them before he was exiled) because the iron fist of the Communist rulership prevented the free expression of ideas deemed “counter-cultural”. (Yes, that will preach. LOL) If you have to be really direct, how many of the major Christian publishing houses will countenance an in-your-face offering (a la Matthew 23 or Rev 3:14-22)? Self publishing may well be a necessity for far more important reasons than monetary ones. Thought-provoking as usual C. πŸ™‚ He is risen.

Michelle · 23 Apr ’11 at 11:04 pm

I’ve looked at some of what the Millar Brothers have been posting too, and I would like further data if anyone has it available?

1) digital copies surpassed paper back sales for the first time in history this year.

Does anyone know if this is actual $ transaction numbers or “sales” as in downloads? 70% of my Nook books were free books. My card gets charged 0.00 and is technically a “sale” but they didn’t make any money and I didn’t spend any money.

2) Does anyone know if you can buy more than one copy of a digital book? Or how do to do so? (just curious, because if I can’t than neither can anyone else and that limits sales of one person purchasing multiple copies of anything)

3) Does anyone know how to “give” a specific digital book? I mean there are gift cards available specifically for down loading books but I’m thinking single titles.

As to the publishers going away, I just don’t see it happening. These are huge giants with survival instinct. And not all authors are not interested in going out on their own. The romance authors and mainstream contemporary authors seem content to stay with their publishing houses. Most of the mystery writers too.

Granted they sell way, WAY more than my beloved spec authors do, but I bet if they went to e-pub they’d still outsell speculative fiction. Tis the nature of the beast. Statistically speaking the people who buy the most books are females in the 35-60 range. They by romance, and they by contemporary fiction (Karen Kingsbury) so the industry courts, promotes and prints what they want. Supply and demand. Supply and demand.

Beth · 23 Apr ’11 at 11:36 pm

Great post. Looking forward to finishing my book, and knowing I don’t have to deal with a publishing company actually makes me more excited.
Thanks for posting this. πŸ™‚

Erica · 26 Apr ’11 at 2:47 pm

I have little interest in downloaded music. People abuse it, so that is a turn off

Nolan · 16 May ’11 at 9:17 pm

I predict book reviewers will also become a huge source for people wondering if an ebook is good or not. If a few great book reviewing websites rise up, they will, essentially, become an author’s marketing (that is, if the author can get them to review their book). It might come to the point where book reviewers actually start making a profit because people want their books reviewed. As a book reviewer myself, I am excited for the future of ebooks.

Great postβ€”I always find the “big secret” of publishing houses staggeringly deceptive. I definitely think ebooks are the way to go if an author plans to actually make a profit off of their hard work.

    Christopher Hopper · 16 May ’11 at 9:54 pm

    Well said, Nolan. I agree, especially on the profit end of things. When it comes down to it, yes, I love writing…but I love putting food in my babies’ mouths more.

David Bellin · 27 May ’11 at 2:02 pm

Good insights as always, Christopher. I’ve had three experiences with major publishers and will never go back. It’s a joy for me to remember the time in your dad’s studio and to follow your career since then. I’ve managed to hammer out a slender new novel at the age of 81 (what! He’s still breathing?) and want to send you a copy. Can you send me an address?

    Christopher Hopper · 22 Jun ’11 at 10:01 am

    I’m sorry I have not replied sooner! By away from my blog for an unusually long amount of time. WONDERFUL! I’m delighted to hear from you, too. I’ll be emailing you promptly.

christopher hopper » Spearhead Books · 13 Jul ’11 at 4:47 pm

[…] For those that follow my musings here, you are familiar with my perspectives on the future of books and publishing. […]

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