Between the Lines #24 min read
In early November, Macmillan US announced that it will be shutting down Pronoun, an ebook self-publishing platform that it had acquired in May 2016. On its face, the logic behind the move feels somewhat circular; a platform that gave its self-published authors 100 percent of the proceeds from their sales is now presumably shuttered because it didn’t generate enough revenue. Surely, this flaw was foreseeable. But this sort of basic confusion surrounding Pronoun’s life, acquisition, and death reveal two larger questions that the publishing industry has yet to fully answer for itself: what actually is publishing, and what is that service worth?
In an age before the proliferation of both social media and DIY self-publishing platforms, the dream of most authors (save for making millions of dollars) was to “hold their book in their hands.” Of course, in the twenty-first century, a book isn’t always considered tangible anymore.
In the past, traditional publishers offered the only mainstream avenue for the literal creation of the book and justified their existence to authors in this way. But now, self-publishing options allow authors to print their books without the need for stuffy gatekeepers or giving away 85 percent of sales—and so traditional publishing has had to present itself as something else, something more.
We’re platform builders, the new logic went. Sure, you can print your book, but can you sell it, have it reviewed, and have it marketed? This access largely remains the logic of the moment, and is a key reason why publishers feel justified in taking that big cut of the pay. Except now, in this age of Twitter followings, podcasts, and countless other ways that motivated prospective authors can reach readers without anyone’s help other than capable distribution services, even that argument for traditional publishing is no longer cut and dry.
This is how you end up with such drastically different royalty models in publishing; if any of us truly knew what the balance of added value in the author-publisher relationship was, would traditionally published authors make just 15 percent, while self- or partner-published authors make the full hundred of sales? You can see many self-publishers trying to find that middle ground.
In his 2016 appraisal of the future of Pronoun at Macmillan, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors pointed out that the self-publisher was planning on developing a system that would allow authors to give up “a share of royalties for enhanced services.” In other words: Macmillan planned to pivot Pronoun so their platform-author relationship could become more traditional the more an author was willing to pay. But in the same way a self-published author might want to trade a cut of their pie for those so-called enhanced services, a traditionally published author with an established platform could easily look at what those services actually are and determine if they’re giving away too big of a cut. Stephen King, for instance, would not be wrong to want a royalty rate higher than 50 percent. He does not require “services” to sell books anymore. But what about the self-made blogger with a readership she found and curated herself? What about the many popular Twitter users who now are getting book deals expressly because they already have an audience in tow?
Publishers could more effectively respond to this value equation if they better understood the behavior of self-published authors, their readers, and the platforms they use to bring their books into the world. In that light, Macmillan’s acquisition of Pronoun (previously Vook) was an investment well-placed. Unlike CreateSpace, BookBaby, or Draft2Digital, Pronoun combined a laughably simple dashboard with widespread ebook distribution and—this is the most important thing—analytics previously unavailable to any author ever. Pronoun helped authors with their keywords, BISAC codes, and pricing. Then, once their book came out, Pronoun helped them sell it better by suggesting tweaks as trends changed. Pronoun wasn’t a static distribution platform—it treated a book as a dynamic product, constantly shifting, and in most cases, sales improved because of it.
Beyond Macmillan’s plan to monetize Pronoun via special “traditional” services, it was their original goal to monetize those sales metrics, though we will never quite know how, given the service’s untimely end. It’s possible that these analytical systems live on in some form within the depths of the Flatiron for internal use, but that’s pure speculation. Nevertheless, these analytics are most likely why a house like Macmillan spent money funding Pronoun for a year, despite it not producing any profit. They wanted the data. They wanted to see how this changing market is working, and why.
So, there’s a lot of defining to do, on both ends. In the digital age, traditional houses need to once again show why publishing is more than just “making the book,” and why their capabilities are worth the lion’s share of the money in any given book sale. Meanwhile, self-publishers will continue to seek their own answers—they can’t take nothing, like Pronoun did, and last forever, but if they’re going to take some, how much should it be, and why? The mad rush for analytics beyond what BookScan provides should at minimum produce some interesting tweaks to conventional publishing wisdom. And as both ends react to each other, we may find that the divide between traditional and self-publishing is not as gaping as we once thought.