By Hannah Rounds
I was browsing my local bookstore’s science fiction/fantasy section some months ago and picked up a book called Abomination by Gary Whitta. The cover is appealingly dark and rich, adorned with an image of a big black beetle. The story itself is graphic and violent and desperate and triumphant. I rather liked it. Upon finishing the book, I did something I never do- I checked to see who published it. As I generally don’t pay attention to publishers, I’m not sure what possessed me this time, but I saw the Inkshares logo and the inscription which briefly describes how this book came to be. I was intrigued.
Inkshares uses a traditional publishing model built on a foundation of contemporary crowdfunding. This provides authors with an interesting option somewhere between self-publishing and trying to get a deal with a big traditional publishing houses. Here’s how it works:
- Writers garner interest for books that can still be in the “wouldn’t that be an awesome idea for a book” stage.
- Readers follow the idea and can give feedback once the author has written and posted the first chapter or two.
- When the author is ready (manuscript completed or not), Inkshares will sell pre-orders of the book. If the book sells at least 750 pre-orders, Inkshares publishes the book. They’ll edit, produce, distribute, and market the book. Readers are only charged for their pre-order if the project reaches funding.
- Authors receive 35% of net receipts.
- Inkshares will work with authors to sell properties (movie/TV/audiobook rights). They’ll represent the author, who has final say in accepting or rejecting a deal.
Inkshares also provides a thing they call the Quill collection. If a book reaches 250 pre-orders, the author can choose to publish a smaller run with some light editing. This looks to me like a great idea for specialized books and authors who really want to get something out, even if they know the audience will be small.
Inkshares was founded in April 2013 by Adam Gomolin, Thad Woodman, and Larry Levitsky. That November they brought on Jeremy Thomas as CTO. Adam wrote a blog post explaining that his biggest issues with the state of publishing were threefold.
- Some great books will never be published. Traditional publishers receive tons of manuscripts and can only take on the books which they believe have a good chance of selling well, but their instincts and risk calculations can be off the mark. Case in point: About a dozen publishers turned down Harry Potter. (I could write another blog post on the enriching benefits of reading the series but that will have to wait.)
- Books are expensive. Because those publishers inevitably will publish books which don’t sell well, they have to jack up the prices of all their books to cover their losses on the poor performers.
- Authors receive just a tiny portion of proceeds from their book sales. For a first-time fiction author, royalties on a paperback are likely to be 7 or 8% of the retail price.
Adam wanted to revise the industry.
Josh Anthony makes an interesting analogy in Bookstore 2.0: An Essay on the Continually Changing Bookstore Market. The music industry experienced (and is still reconciling) significant upheaval when listeners and artists wanted to cut out the middle man. Record labels had been taking advantage of artists for years, making deals that benefit the label and leave artists with very little financial gain or legal rights to their own creations. Earning about 8% of each book sale and handing over their words to a large corporation, I’m sure many authors who’ve gone the traditional route have felt similarly slighted. The internet is full of gripes from writers who feel their publishers, who own exclusive rights to the work, didn’t spend enough time or effort marketing and selling their book.
Then the digital age brought the rise of the e-book. Self-publishing is now easier than ever when it comes to e-books, and it’s getting easier for print books as well. Drawbacks to self-publishing include up-front out-of-pocket costs for the author (for a decent quality print book) and having to do all of the work. It grants the author full control of the book and all decisions regarding it, but the author has to edit, print, market, and distribute the thing, or else pay someone to do it.
Why Inkshares is cool
Inkshares created a model that eliminates some of the risk of the traditional system and still provides the benefits of working with a bigger company that will take care of publishing. Seeing that at least 750 people have already bought the book, they are not risking as much by printing their minimum 1000 copies. Reader interest is proven. They also probably don’t have the Next Big Thing sitting discarded in their recycling bin, because those 750+ people who can’t wait for Book X were also given an opportunity to read Book Y, and they passed on it because yes, it really does suck. Inkshares can get professional reviews and guest appearances and all kinds of publicity that mainstream media just won’t grant to self-published authors. They distribute with Ingram, so Inkshares books are sold by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and 842 independent bookstores. The company can pay more for editing and design than perhaps a fledgling author could. Inkshares can provide a great launching pad for potential financial and career success.
Why Inkshares isn’t cool
On the flipside, Inkshares doesn’t pay royalties on the first 750 book sales. The proceeds from those sales fund the editing, production, and marketing of the book. The Inkshares website does not offer enough clarification, though, on exactly where that money goes. In theory, a book could be funded for $5,992.50 if every backer has selected the $7.99 e-book option, and Inkshares would still print 1,000 copies. A book could also be funded for $9,742.50 if every backer wants the paperback. That’s a $3,750 difference in… what, effort? Currently, Inkshares authors receive 35% of net receipts. After production and marketing costs, why wouldn’t authors receive 50%, if a stated purpose of Inkshares was to change industry standards to better reward authors?
A thread in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing forum goes on for 2 years about the pros and cons of Inkshares, and let me tell you- it starts out vehemently anti-Inkshares. A KDP forum member had received a “cold call” email from Inkshares, describing the publishing model and inviting the writer to check out the company. A few users decided it was a scam, at which point Inkshares co-founders responded to the discussion to allay some suspicion arising from misinformation. A user later refers to one particular point of conflict as #apostrophegate. (An unfortunately misplaced apostrophe renders Inkshares entirely disreputable in the eyes on many writers.) Multiple Inkshares-published authors join in later to defend the reputation of a company which, in their views, has not screwed them over. They reiterate that just like the other options in the industry, Inkshares isn’t for everyone. They don’t promise success or guarantee readership, they just provide an interesting alternative route to publishing.
In 2015, Jean-Francois Dubeau wrote a blog post about working with Inkshares while his book was in the production stage. To sum it up, publishing with Inkshares still takes some work. As he puts it, “They don’t treat this as a hobby and clearly don’t expect you to either. Perhaps I’m putting more pressure on myself than I should by having extra tasks but this is what I feel I should be doing. I guess someone could allow themselves to get ‘carried’ by Inkshares if they wanted.” An author is responsible for raising the initial funding- the 750 preorders it takes to get Inkshares to start work. After that, Inkshares will take over, but authors can have a say in the book cover, layout, and other aspects of the finished product (which certainly is not the case with most traditional publishers). Even at traditional publishing houses, an author may be expected at book signings and events, and to promote on social media. Jean-Francois was kind enough to answer some of my questions directly, now that his first book is a couple years past its publish date.
According to Jean-Francois, the initial goal for his first novel, The Life Engineered, was to “get on bookshelves” and “review above average,” both goals which he himself put in quotes. He wasn’t striving to get his first novel on best-seller lists- he wanted to build readership and credibility, preparing for a writing career which he knows will take time and work. He recognizes that while the book was not a great financial success, it was even more successful than anticipated in accomplishing his goals, and he’s proud of it as a debut novel. Right now it has an overall 4.5 star rating on Amazon, with 113 reviews. Jean-Francois’s second novel, A God in the Shed, is currently in production with Inkshares, with 896 followers and 848 copies sold. He says that for his next novel, he “would/will be preparing [his] next campaign a lot more carefully, if only to have a better chance at success and to lessen the stress.”
As it stands, Jean-Francois’s second novel already sounds successful. Skydance Productions acquired the rights to create a TV series for A God in the Shed, which will be produced by Akiva Goldsman, Greg Lessans, Brooklyn Weaver, and Inkshares. Inkshares had previously worked out a similar TV deal for their book The Astronaut Instruction Manual by Mike Mongo.
John Dennehy, on the other hand, had a very disappointing experience which he relates in his own blog post. His funding campaign happened to overlap a transition between CEOs. He describes a lack of transparency and communication regarding significant changes. Most surprisingly, the royalties for authors changed (not in favor of authors) and he happened to find out by accident weeks later. Why wouldn’t Inkshares send notice to all their authors? Were they hoping nobody would notice?
In a Reddit thread, a couple of Inkshares authors share stories of both failed and funded books. One user, nicholasofpain, had a campaign that did not end up getting funded, but he says that “the Inkshares team were supportive and standup folks the whole time though. It’s a great company. And if you can set up a good campaign, would definitely be worth your time.” User philamonk does some quick calculations, pointing out that perhaps the model is a raw deal for writers. Given a “$3 printing cost per book is for 750 copies $2250. Subtracting the printing cost from the $15000 they receive, it still leaves them a whopping $12750 for editing, design, marketing etc. It feels I would be losing a lot.”
Inkshares offers some data (with graphs!) about their published books. At time of writing, they’ve paid out $620,920 in royalties to authors. They’ve sold 181,171 copies across 155 funded titles- that’s an average of 1169 copies per book. They don’t break it down further into e-books vs paperbacks, but the royalties divided by the funded books gives us an average of $4,006. Because Inkshares holds contests and has relationships with some science fiction/fantasy websites, a lot of the books on Inkshares skew toward sci-fi/fantasy. In fact, JF Dubeau had won a contest with Sword and Laser, a sci-fi/fantasy podcast, to have his book taken on by Inkshares. Many readers find out about the company through those channels. Other popular categories include business/finance and startups, cooking, children’s, and non-fiction.
So… are authors finding success publishing with Inkshares?
Yes and no.
Yes: a handful of authors are getting significant press mentions publishing with Inkshares, and have sold thousands of copies. A couple have gotten TV deals. Many more have published hundreds of copies of books which may otherwise have not sold more than a couple dozen.
No: many authors have failed funding campaigns. Some will reach perhaps 800 sales and only receive royalties on 50 books, after working hard to market 800. The confusing and changing royalty plan has certainly turned some writers off even in the middle of a funding campaign.
No method of publishing is going to guarantee personal, professional, or financial success. Compared with other systems of publishing, Inkshares seems to provide a similar rate of success, just with different risks and benefits. It’s another route to take to get to the same end, which is always an unknown. Personally, I am happy to see more options come on the market and watch them evolve.