The Third Way – Barry Eisler Signs Trade Deal With Amazon

In a move announced yesterday at BookExpo America, Barry Eisler has signed a trade deal with Amazon’s newest imprint Thomas & Mercer.

Full details of the deal have yet to emerge, but Eisler stated that the advance was “comparable” to the trade deal he walked away from. He also stated that print royalty terms will be similar, but that he will receive “close to” 70% e-book royalties and retain creative control.

He also stated that the contract was the most “author friendly” he had ever seen and that he signed straight away.

In March, Eisler shocked the publishing world by turning down a half-million dollar advance with Minotaur (St. Martin’s Press), instead announcing that he was going to self-publish his future work.

He self-published two short stories, The Lost Coast, and more recently, Paris Is A Bitch, the first of which was said to have earned him over $30,000. He also become vociferous in his support for self-publishing, having two noted online conversations with Joe Konrath where they laid out where they saw the industry was headed.

Soon after Eisler’s announcement, self-publishing star Amanda Hocking signed a $2m deal with St. Martin’s Press, trumping Amazon, who had also made a bid.

A lot of commentary at the time was focused on who had made the right move, but I felt that they had both made the right move for them. Eisler’s audience in print was long-established, and he felt that he could make a lot more money by striking out on his own, given that he could earn a four times higher royalty rate by self-publishing.

Hocking accepted that she would probably make less overall through a trade deal, but that it would have other benefits in terms of editing and promotion – a burden she was tired of shouldering. She also knew that her print sales were minimal and a trade deal would give her the opportunity to expand her audience into those that hadn’t made the switch to e-books yet.

Cleverly, she retained some ability to self-publish other work outside the deal, allowing her to satisfy her existing audience that might be annoyed at both the higher prices of trade published work, and the restricted output.

Like with both these March news stories, the Eisler announcement has been met with some hysterical commentary. Some are labelling him a turncoat or a hypocrite, but this is a really blinkered way of looking at things.

Eisler has made the best deal for himself, as every writer should. And as I have consistently said on this blog, I think that in the short-term at least, the smartest writers will be those who combine both trade publishing and self-publishing. If e-books are at 30% of the market, there is still 70% in print (and much more globally).

While print is in terminal decline, it will take quite some time to become insignificant. Eisler has signed a deal with a publisher on the up, mostly retaining his juicy e-book royalty rates, and will now have a print distribution reach far in excess of what he could have achieved by self-publishing.

In addition, as one of Amazon’s front-list, they will be pushing him at every opportunity. Their new imprint’s fortunes, to an extent, are tied to him. They need to make him a success for their imprint to be taken seriously, so they will be pouring a lot of marketing energy into promoting his books.

If he exceeds expectations, they will not only make a ton of money, but they can then use him as their poster boy to snare even bigger fish.

Eisler is very smart. He knows that he will get a huge marketing push for free, and they will cover the costs of producing the books. This deal puts him ahead of what he could have achieved on his own, and way ahead of the Minotaur deal he walked away from in March.

In short, it’s a clever move by Amazon and a clever move by Eisler.

But it’s not all upside, some questions remain. While Amazon has an arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to produce hardback editions, they are still searching for a paperback partner.

Some houses are wary. First off, Amazon is a competitor, and trade houses are cautious of giving them even more control over the whole publishing value chain. Second, some have expressed fears that Barnes & Noble (the largest US bookstore chain and the second largest digital retailer), won’t stock Amazon’s books.

Is this likely?

First off, while Eisler is an international bestseller, he is not quite a household name. Boycotting his books wouldn’t make a huge dent in Barnes & Noble’s balance sheet, but could knock a good portion off Eisler’s sales (both print and digital).

But is this a sustainable strategy? Could they keep it up as Amazon add more and more writers to their roster? I doubt it.

It will probably all come down to money. The discount Amazon will offer Barnes & Noble to stock the books will decide the matter. If they can come to an arrangement that suits both parties, a deal will be done.

It will also be interesting to see the reaction of independent booksellers, given that some have said that they won’t stock Joe Konrath’s latest book, as it is coming from the same Amazon imprint – Thomas & Mercer.

I would guess that all this doesn’t matter too much to Eisler. He stands to make at least the same from e-books that he would have on his own (but probably a lot more considering the extra promotional push he will get), and a lot more from print, even if every indie bookseller and Barnes & Noble refuse to stock his book.

I wrote a blog post at the beginning of the month stating that the rise of self-publishing was good for all writers, even those who had no interest in self-publishing. Some arch-defenders of trade publishing thought that this was nonsense.

However, here we have a trade published writer who was unhappy with the deal he was being offered. He walked away and self-published some short stories, made a lot of money, and was planning to do the same for his next novel.

Instead, he got offered a much juicier trade deal.

Anyone who is in trade publishing will be watching closely. Authors will be taking Amazon seriously, and agents will have increased leverage when it comes to negotiating e-book royalty rates.

Publishers will know there is a new, serious competitor, who is offering significantly higher royalty rates. They will have to raise their game to keep their stars.

As with the two major developments in March, I see this as a vindication of self-publishing, but also a confirmation that the smartest writers will leave all doors open.

It’s a great time to be a writer, and it’s getting better every day.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

33 Replies to “The Third Way – Barry Eisler Signs Trade Deal With Amazon”

  1. “really blinkered way of looking at things.” I think this is my new favorite phrase! 😉

    Otherwise, I always agree when you say, a writer has to do what is best for him/her, so I’ll just keep on silently nodding along…

    1. Some of the reaction has been really silly. Some stupid self-publishers feel “betrayed”. Oh, come on. Really? Even if you look at things from that extremely narrow viewpoint, this is a shot against the Big 6 as big as his move into self-publishing, if not bigger.

      But I don’t look at things that way. I see a writer getting a great deal. Good for him.

      1. There is a lot of weird infighting among authors sometimes — traditionally published and self-published — which I think is odd because everyone who has ever tried his or her hand at the writing game should realize it’s really, really hard for most authors to even find a readership… I always think, “good job!” when I hear an author is finding readers AND making some money from doing something that will never be more than a hobby for a lot of people…

        1. I agree. There is one writing forum I frequent that is pretty hostile to self-publishers. Most of the members either have trade deals (usually with small or independent presses), or are pursuing them. They seem to set themselves in opposition to self-publishers, but I don’t understand that logic. Writers should be on the same side, whatever path they choose.

          The constant warning is that you will never make money from self-publishing, and that it’s a mug’s game for all but the lucky few at the top, who would have made a success of trade publishing, had they kept at it.

          I completely disagree. There are lots of people earning nice money outside the top table of Konrath, Locke, Lieske, Dalglish, Leather, Sullivan, and so on. And there are new ones every month.

          Most will fail, just like most people fail to get an agent, and out of those who do, only some get a trade deal. And out of those, only a small portion earn a living wage from their writing.

          More ways for writers to earn money should be celebrated.

  2. Another great blog, David – as was the last one.

    Like you say, Eisler did what was right for him. I read the various blogs you’ve reffed, and things do seem to have got very tribal, very quickly. Somebody on Konrath’s blog postulated that Amazon were trying to establish a monopoly and would then slash royalties, but I think the ground rules are changing too fast for this to happen – ultimately, what’s to stop you by-passing Amazon and selling from your own website? Or selling via a gift-card in a conventional book-store?

    Crucially, e-publishing gives writers a choice – they can either publish in a conventional hardcopy format, or virtually. And this in turn gives them leverage. A year ago most writers would have been so grateful to get a publishing contract they would probably have settled for less-than-satisfactory contract – as long as the publisher got their work out there. Now you can publish a book in an e-book format and – if and when you have exhausted that market – sign up with a publisher to issue the book in hard copy on terms that you’re completely happy with. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

    1. I’m surprised how few authors sell through their own site. I don’t do it yet myself, because the transaction fees don’t make it as viable on 99 cent works, but I will probably do it for higher-priced work. Why not?

      And writers have always settled for crappy contracts (with agents and publishers) because it was all they were offered. Now there is always one other offer on the table, for all writers: self-publishing.

      Re. Amazon slashing royalties: it’s possible, but I just don’t see it. First off, they are losing market share both in the US and abroad to Apple, Kobo, B&N and others, and will continue to do so. Unless that trend reverses dramatically, they aren’t in a position to change royalties. Second, I would be shocked if that happens before the e-book and e-reader market peaks (and we are a long way off that). While Amazon is losing market share, the pie is growing so dramatically, it doesn’t matter so much. Their primary interest will be in continuing to grow the pie, which means cheap e-books, cheap e-readers, and good royalty rates for authors. It’s in their interest to tempt authors away from trade deals into self-publishing, so I can’t see them reducing the money on offer.

      And I love that gift card idea, btw.

  3. I think for readers this game could get pretty complicated. If stores become publishers and sole distributors of author’s work then readers will have to in essence travel from publishing house to publishing house in order to find out which books are out there. I’m not sure in the end this is good business for anyone. I’m a little nervous how this will eventually narrow the market for indies if each platform begins demanding exclusivity.

    1. I don’t know, I see it as more choice for the writer. We can sell direct to readers, through all the e-tailers, through stores. We can pursue publishing deals with trade houses, or not, or go for a combined approach.

      It’s more complicated, sure, but there are more options than ever.

      You are right though, there will be disruption while all these changes filter through, but that can create opportunities too, and not always just for the big players. Nobody can move as fast as an indie author.

  4. Also, if someone or someones within amazon are doing all the work of creating an ebook (covers, editing, promotion, etc.) that is overhead. How reliable will those amazon ranking numbers be when people within amazon are using those numbers to justify their paycheck? All of Eislers and Konrath’s books don’t go to the top right away every writer knows it is a bit of luck involved — unless you are the machine providing that luck of course.


    1. I should say I’m neither here nor there with Barry Eisler’s decision — I truly hope it works out for him I like his work and he like everyone is making the best deal for himself and no one really knows where this will all go in the end. I’m just not that comfortable with Amazon being as invested in certain books over other books — that’s all.

      Perhaps it is not that big a deal in the end.

      1. I don’t think it’s a big deal vis a vis Eisler so much. But I think it’s a real big deal in terms of Amazon moving into trade publishing. This, along with the hiring of Larry Kirshbaum signals to a lot of people in New York that Amazon mean business, and they are going to make a play for the big names.

        Re Amazon being invested in certain books, all publishers are invested more in some titles over others. All retailers are invested in some titles over others. Go into any bookshop, the bookseller will have titles that he makes more money on, and will push those. Publishers used to own bookstores too. They still sold other books.

        Eisler seems like a nice guy. I haven’t read any of his stuff, but lots of people like it. I wish him success.

    2. I don’t think Amazon do, or will, game the system.

      I used to work for Google’s advertising division – AdWords. Google ran its own ads all the time, but they never gamed the system to make their ads come first. They knew that doing so would undermine the public’s confidence in the system, i.e. that it was equitable and results appeared at the top because they were the most useful ads related to that keyword (they had the the highest click-through rates).

      The reason Google’s ads came top (most of the time), because the people writing the ads (us), understood how the system worked and because those ads were what people were looking for anyway (you would be surprised how many people google “Google”.

      Same with Amazon. I imagine that they don’t want to game the system and make Konrath’s and Eisler’s books come top for every search. That would undermine the “purity” of the system, would become pretty obvious to anyone, and would affect overall user confidence in the equity of their system. However, they will understand the importance of things like selecting the appropriate categorisation and tagging (which a lot of major publishers still don’t have a clue about).

      They will also have access to reams of data about what kind of product descriptions, covers, titles etc. perform best, and tweak their ads accordingly.

      There will be no need for the algorithm to “choose” the book, it will appear top (for appropriate searches) because it will be the best ad/listing.

      And anyway, Amazon make almost as much from selling a competing book, so they have no real interest in gaming the system – it’s just not worth it.

      1. Good food for thought.
        You’ve given me lots of good things to think about as always.
        I think you are probably right, but my inner skeptic says she’ll have to see how all this plays out.

  5. I agree with almost everything you said here. Authors do have to figure out what will benefit them, individually. Right now, it all comes to do what works best. Hocking made the choice that worked best for her. Eisler did, too. They were both smart.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks Ali.

      I’m all in favour of more options for writers. The rise in self-publishing increases those options. Amazon (and Barnes & Noble) moving into book publishing increases those options. The more options a writer has the better chance he has to sell books, make money, and get readers.

      It’s all good.

  6. Seems like there’s a game-changing development almost every week now in publishing. Hard to tell how it’s going to shake out.

    Though I will say I am getting sooo tired of the us vs them blogging going on between self-pub and traditional. It seem most people these days (you thankfully excluded, Dave) are incapable of just putting out information and maybe contributing a well thought out conclusion or two. It’s all frothing at the mouth or obviously skewed cautionary tales *thinly* disguised as ‘balanced discussion’. Some agents can’t seem to get through a week without an anti-self-publishing post. And I won’t go into the more…theatrical…anti-traditional blogs. Whatever people choose to do, self-publishing, traditional publishing, or some combination thereof, I really wish they’d just go DO IT.

    1. Yeah, I’m pretty tired of it too.

      I got challenged on one site about how “three months experience” didn’t qualify me to give advice to anyone. This ignored my background in marketing, my background with digital media with Google, my copywriting experience, the five years of full-time creative writing I have been doing since 2006, the short stories I have had published in magazines, online, and in anthologies. It also ignored the publishing company I have set up, the two titles I have published, and the three more that are written and will be released this summer, as well as the other projects that are at various stages. It also ignored the five years of research I have been doing on every aspect of the publishing industry and all the knowledge I have learned from my friends and acquaintances who work in all aspects of publishing.

      It also ignored the fact that I am not presenting myself as an authority to anyone, in fact all my posts in my self-publishing guide are prefaced with “you’ll be learning this as I do, because I have never done this before either”. I couldn’t be clearer than that.

      I’ve also sold a lot of books in three weeks, and I think my products speak to the level of professionalism and to my ability to publish well. Sure, I have made a couple of mistakes, and I share those on the blog too. I’m hoping people can learn from my experiences – good and bad (but mostly good so far).

      There is a lot of hostility towards self-publishers, and it’s unwarranted. We are not the cause of the decline of indie bookstores, or the death of print books, or anything else. We are just a bunch of writers who want to make enough money to write some more.

      The loudest voices, of course, are those with the most to lose. Next are those that have spent years chasing something which may not turn out to be the prize they hoped. I can understand that, it’s human. But it’s tiring talking in the same circles, all the time.

      Readers will have too much choice? A reader is in the same position with 100,000 books on sale as they are with 100 million. They could never read or flick through them all. It makes no difference. But this is a big discussion. It’s such a time-sink, all this stuff.

      So it goes!

  7. I too have watched a proverbial tennis match in commentary/blogging about self publishing. I can’t understand the hostility unless those authors are bound by contract for exclusive rights to their work for a certain period of time. Maybe then…I could see their point or perspective rather.

    My first foray into writing/publishing is as a self published author of Better Than 8 Fantasy. It doesn’t mean that I don’t plan on making appeals to traditional publishing because I do. I hope to bring an audience with me and gain new readers. That works for me as the writer. I hope to be able to have my work accessible as much as it can be and that includes my books being on bookstore shelves. That works for me and my readers. I think self publishing gives you options these days and I like having options.

    1. Well said, Erin.

      I have a foot in both camps as well (as many writers do). I have been published in magazines, and a small press just released an anthology with one of my stories. I have a novel with three agents at the moment, and I have been contacted by another agent about a separate project related to one of my self-published titles.

      I haven’t closed any doors. In fact, self-publishing has opened some.

      I think writers will do very well with a mix of self-published and trade published work, and there are many writers doing so already. They are neither exclusive paths, nor permanent.

  8. I enjoyed your take on this David.

    I like what’s happening in publishing, because it’s giving control back to the writers. It’s creating many different options for writers, forcing publishers and agents to treat writers with more respect–something that’s been sadly lacking.

    I spent a long time trying to get published by New York–I’ve had two agents, and I’ve spoken to a lot of editors and successful writers. The publishing industry has been in trouble for a long time, afraid to take any chances. A few years back many senior editors were fired, and even bestselling authors have become orphans. This shake-up is healthy.

    1. Thank you Suzanne,

      It’s certainly healthy for writers, that’s for sure. I don’t understand why some writers feel threatened by having more options. I know some are invested in the current system, but having more options can only help them in contract negotiations – as Barry Eisler has proved.

      You are doing very well, and are just another example of someone who was turned down by New York and has gone on to be a success. While people like Hocking and Konrath get all the headlines, it was only when I discovered the large amount of people with respectable sales figures – enough to live off or be a nice supplementary income – that convinced me to take the leap.


  9. All this talk about authors and writers and self-publishing has made me seriously think about self-publishing as well, when before I thought it was just something people who couldn’t make it through the red tape did. (Please don’t hit me.)

    Because honestly, when you think about it, you’ve done a lot of work. You wrote a book. You edited it. You’ve told everyone about it. You promote it. You blog on it. You Tweet it. You now have to query it. Synopsis it. Write another book about it just to get someone who is so inundated with other requests to give it /half a second/ of time to look at it.

    And then, if you’re lucky to have caught them on a good day, you’ll have to keep promoting it, blogging it, Tweeting it, driving around the world and sing about it, all while holding down a job. @_@

    What…are we…paying…the other guy for?

    Maybe I have a jilted view, but if I have to do all of the work, I want to be comfortable, I want to have control, and I want to get a bigger cut of the tiny percentage I’m going to make. If I have to work a day job anyway…

    1. Hi Sierra,

      No hitting allowed here! People are self-publishing for all sorts of reasons. Some couldn’t crack New York, others have walked away from it (for whatever reason). One writer I know was offered a reasonable deal, but felt she could make more on her own. Others have trade deals and are self-publishing their backlist. Others again, like John Locke, never even sent one query to an agent, they just wanted to self-publish.

      Most writers have to do a hell of a lot of promotional work because their publisher only has a limited budget, and almost all of that is focussed on booksellers. The author is expected to do virtually all of the promotion to readers.

      Many authors are realising that if they have to do all that work anyway, and they can outsource the others stuff like editing and design (for a one-off fee), that they might be better off self-publishing anyway, and keeping four times the royalty rate for sales.

      They reckon they will sell less print copies, but that they will make up for it in increased e-sales at lower prices, and higher royalties.

      Each writer should decide for themselves, as each writer has different goals and priorities and circumstances. But more options is good for all writers.

      1. I figure I’ll just make millions of dollars on account of how awesome I am.*

        (*The author of this comment knows it has no basis in reality and understands it is, like her work, purely speculative fiction.)

  10. Nice post David….I’m very surprised with the number of people that are suspicious about Barry’s motivations. Many have accused him as having no intention to self publish in the first place. I think it spun out as follows.

    – St. Martin’s offers a contract – same old legacy terms and clauses – it looks like more hassle then it’s worth
    – He decides to self-publish – full freedom, better money, no master to worry about
    – Thomas and Mercer comes knocking, they offer a better looking contract, an advance, more “partnership” he agrees

    Seems to make perfect sense to me. In my blog on why EVERY author benefits from self-publishing (even if they don’t do it themselves) I mentioned that the big-six will start to adjust their contracts to attract/maintain top talent. I think T&M are doing just that. Even though they are “small and new” they have a huge backing, and a CEO that publishing trusts and has experience. I think once the T&M contract starts getting around then there will be more author friendly contracts springing up eveywhere.

    Bottom line…all avenues have advantages and disadvantages. Times are changig at the speed of light…authors need to keep up with what is going on and adjust as new climates dictate.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

    1. Hi Robin,

      I think you are right, that’s how I think it played out too. I remember the conversations with Konrath at the time and especially the interview with the Daily Beast, where you could definitely sense that he didn’t know how it was all going to pan out. He had run the sums, sure, but he admitted that there was a number of assumptions in his thinking that could prove to be flawed. He didn’t sound like a man pulling a giant bait-and-switch.

      I think all this questioning of his motivations misses two key points.

      1) Self-publishing and trade publishing are not two mutually exclusive paths. Many writers self-publish some titles and have trade deals for others. This is normal, and it will become more common in the future. I think the smartest writers, in the short term at least, will have a “mixed portfolio”. Barry Eisler has self-published 4 titles since his announcement in March (two short stories, the dialogue with Konrath, and a political essay). He has said he will continue to self-publish.

      2) The goalposts have shifted dramatically since March. Amazon have raised their publishing game in a serious way. Hiring Larry Kirshbaum was huge, and I would guess there was a lot of talk at BEA over that. Offering anything close to self-publishing levels of e-royalty rates is huge and almost four times what the Big 6 writer gets. Allowing release first of the e-book is huge. Allowing full creative control is huge. This is a new kind of publishing deal from a new kind of publishing company. I wouldn’t question any writer who considered signing with them no matter what comments they had made in the past, simply because the rules have now changed.

      Barry Eisler said the contract was the clearest, most author-friendly one he had ever seen – with none of the guff, small print, or hidden tricks that are common in publishing contracts. When you consider that the rest of trade publishing seems to be going in the opposite direction, inserting all sorts of new nonsense in contracts which basically amount to a rights grab, I think a lot of writers will be quite jealous of the Amazon terms, and start demanding the same for themselves.

      Joe Konrath described it as “self-publishing but with a team behind you”. I think that would be attractive to a lot of people.


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