Indie Vs. Traditional Publishing & The Value of IPs

I’ve seen a great many blog posts lately that argue the merits of indie publishing vs. traditional publishing. Most of the time, these blogs mention the astounding sales numbers that folks like John Locke and Amanda Hocking have done for their indie ebooks. (For those who don’t know, John Locke recently became the first indie author to sell one million ebooks and he did so in five months. Amanda Hocking had a very successful indie career and recently signed a $2 million traditional deal with St. Martin’s Press) And each post usually has a long line of comments that debate the pros and cons of the various ways authors make money.

And yet, by and large, most fail to address the very simple root of what it is that earns a writer his or her money: the idea.

IP, or intellectual property, is by far the most valuable aspect of any book. It doesn’t really matter what form that IP takes; without the idea itself, it’s worthless. Now this may seem painfully obvious, yet judging by the content of comments and blog posts, very few people seem to realize how to maximize their return on it, or even how certain IPs are more valuable than others.

Speaking for myself, my Lawson Vampire universe is probably the most valuable IP I have in my stable right now. It’s an established series, with a dedicated fan base. My good friend Jaime Hassett and I are bringing it to TV through THE FIXER series and we have plans on expanding it across various entertainment platforms. The combined 6 novels, 3 novellas, and 6 short stories sell roughly 1,000 copies each week and have done so consistently since they went live in late-January of this year. As the audience grows and we explore various other platforms, the value of this IP will grow exponentially. That’s useful for a number of reasons, but the most important reason may be that it gives me an idea of how much its value is when it comes to licensing or selling certain rights. In other words, if a traditional (or legacy) publisher came along at this moment and offered me a contract for certain rights, it would need to be a very good one. I place tremendous value on the Lawson Vampire IP – especially since I know where the franchise is headed and what the potential earnings are.

But what about IPs that aren’t worth as much? Are there some that are, potentially, worth far less? I’ve seen arguments on both sides of the publishing fence about going only one way or the other. But I disagree with this approach. Is there a way to embrace both the indie route and the traditional/legacy route that works?

Let’s go back to Lawson for a moment. As of right now, you can probably still locate copies of THE KENSEI in bookstores. St. Martin’s Press brought the book out January 18th, 2011, so there’s a fair chance it’s still on the shelves in your local store. But otherwise, I currently have no real print presence aside from the Rogue Angel novels that I’ve written under the pseudonym Alex Archer. You won’t find books by “Jon F. Merz” in the store. And frankly, a lot of people still want their books the old fashioned way. So the question I need to ask myself is this: am I losing out on potential income by *not* having a print presence in stores? The answer is almost certainly yes.

Not only am I losing out on potential income from the sale of printed works of whatever IP I sell to a traditional publisher, but I’m also losing out on income that my printed book(s) might send to my ebook products. In other words, if a person buys one of my books in a store, then visits my website and sees that I have a whole lot of other books for sale as ebooks, they might be inclined to buy them. But without that initial trigger – the print book – sending more audience my way, I’m losing out.

So what to do? Do I compromise and settle for a crappy deal – one that pays me a junk royalty rate and a crummy advance? Or do I eschew traditional publishing altogether and keep my audience and earnings growing at a slower pace with ebooks?

Or is there a third alternative that allows me to keep my ebook “empire” intact, still pursue traditional deals, and reap the benefits of both? I think there is. But it requires you to be honest in your assessment of your various IPs. You need to think about how much they might potentially be worth and be prepared to discover they might not be worth all that much.

After all, it’s probably fair to assume that not every middle grade adventure series is going to turn out to be the next Harry Potter. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that it won’t be. Likewise for the next two thousand paranormal heroine series that get churned out. Not all are going to be popular. So, which among your IPs could you stand to have not become incredibly popular?

Note: I realize that asking you to imagine your work being unsuccessful may be asking a lot. None of us want to believe that our stuff isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread. But change your perspective and take your ego out of the equation for a moment – it might be quite valuable.

And once you know which IP that is, then perhaps it might be worth it to take a less-than-stellar deal in order to get a print presence in bookstores, one that would then drive more traffic to your other IPs, further enhancing your bottom line in a number of ways.

Now, I can already hear the outrage over this post: “You’re telling us to give our junk to publishers?” No, that’s not what I’m advocating. I’m simply saying that if you have an idea for a 3-book series that you know you only want to do 3 books of, then perhaps it’s worth selling that to a traditional publisher while you keep the gold mine stuff in your hip pocket. If your story arc only works as 3 books or 1 book or whatever, then there’s no way you’d blow that out to 27 books unless the series actually *did* turn out to be insanely popular. And if that did happen, you could then negotiate for better terms, refuse the deal outright and turn indie for the next books, or come up with some sort of happy medium.

The point here is that there doesn’t have to be an either/or route for writers any longer. Going back to my Lawson series for a moment, my 5th book in the series is what I’ve affectionately called my “loss leader.” In other words, I signed a fairly crummy deal to get a Lawson print presence back in stores. And I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the e-rights to the particular book might not be back in my hands for a very long time. But I was willing to settle for that deal because it meant I had a reestablished presence in bookstores (something I hadn’t had for my fiction since 2003) that I could then use to drive people to my ebooks. And the equation has worked incredibly well. As I detailed above, the combined works in the Lawson universe sell roughly 1,000 units each week. And that’s some pretty good money. But I doubt I would have had the opportunity to expose as many people to the ebooks if it hadn’t been for the print version being available. Now granted, there are a lot of other steps I took around the print release to further expand that notice (appearing on blogs, doing interviews, etc.) but the point is, I recognized the fact that I felt I needed a print presence – even temporarily.

Some may argue that there’s no way to tell what the long term earning potential of an IP would be given such unpredictable factors as public appeal, lightning in a bottle, that sort of thing. And I’d agree – to a point. I think authors know better than most what their ideas are worth and not all ideas are created equally. Likewise, not all IPs are going to earn you millions. If you’re savvy enough to study the business world and the technology that is coming, smart authors will understand how to position themselves to take fullest advantage of the future. And some may well find that selling a less-valuable IP to a traditional publisher not only works well for the publisher, but also for the author.

Thoughts? 🙂

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