The Publishing World Turned Upside Down

A lot of the comments (and some of my posts) relating to the changes in publishing here have been a sort of astonished shock at how slow publishers are at “getting” it. I don’t know if it was here in comments that someone mentioned the tactics designed to “herd the consumer back into hard covers,” starting with delay in publishing ebook, moving on to some really badly formated ebooks, passing through the fact that they’re priced at hard cover price.  These moves actually only seem to hurt both hardcover and ebook sales.

The image in my mind is of Lord Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington, and the song, weaving through the air “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Yes I know, there’s a good chance that never happened. But these folklore moments persist because they capture something profound and revelatory. And at the time, if not now, it would be understood that to Cornwallis this was far more than a simple military defeat. It was the upending of what he had always known about the world and his place in it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Men are social creatures, but the specific kind of social creatures we are is hierarchical creatures.

Those people who posit – or have faith in! – an equalitarian human past, before civilization corrupted us have never read about the social organization of chimps or baboons; or they’ve been mainlining Jean Jacques Rosseau without knowing it; or they cling atavistically to the idea of Eden even though most of them are not religious.

Humans, like all apes were designed to live in a band where social organization had very fine grades. As such, we have finely tuned hierarchicy-sensing devices and certain set ways of responding to certain types of social organization.

What started the idea for this post going was the Passive Voice’s article entitled Your Agent Is Not Your Mommy. He’s talking about how many authors post about “my agent right or wrong.” (He’d probably be really shocked about how some authors talk about their publisher/editor.)

His reaction is this:

To PG, these kinds of reactions seem weird and a little icky, but mostly adolescent, maybe even babyish.

They’re sound like a shy sophomore who has a giant crush on the high school quarterback and slips anonymous love notes into his locker. Bobby can do no wrong because he’s just so cute and wonderful and she knows he likes her because he said hi one time in the hall between classes.

Or (rolling away from sexism), they’re like Napoleon Dynamite after someone agreed to go to the dance with him.

This is a business relationship, not a girls and boys club. The class of trust that speaks to PG in quotes like these is a mommy trust or a clingy best friend trust, a deeply codependent and needy trust. If the agent terminates representation, it will feel like a breakup instead of like switching to a new doctor.

Here I must make a full confession. I never felt this way about Lucienne, because she was my fourth agent. Until we’d worked together for about five years I didn’t believe it was even semi-permanent as an arrangement. And besides, until we worked together about two years I didn’t unbend even to the level that most people do in business relationships (you know, the occasional joke, etc.)

BUT when I sold my first book, and learned the editor has heart trouble, I remember feeling incredibly afraid she would die. Because – see – after thirteen years trying to break in, I had this foot in the door, and if it accidentally closed, I might never be published again.

Was I icky to my editor? I was never particularly demonstrative one way or another in public with any of them, but I know I spent many years in a state of cold fury at one of my editors without daring to be anything other than very cordial in person. (This, btw, is not good for the soul.)

I think I was icky to my agent before Lucienne, agent #3 – perhaps not in public, but in my head. Look, she never sold anything for me. Regardless of the fact I sent her little – she should have asked for proposals, when I was in a strange mood where I thought I should write a book out – what I sent her rarely made it out of her office and what did got rejected so fast it probably caught fire on re-entry. It doesn’t in any way justify the fact that I had a near breakdown when she dropped me. But again, I thought I would be locked out of publishing forever.

And it wasn’t only authors who were icky. The editor who gave me ulcers referred to agent #3 – a very junior, starting out agent – as “the incomparable X.”

I’d been listening to a Heinlein short story when walking before I read that Passive Voice post. And the story I’d been listening to (talking about slavery) said something like “when an economic system is like this, then slavery is inevitable.”

Perhaps that was why I cast about for political/economic equivalents to all the fawning you used to see towards agents and editors. And found them. The one that came immediately to mind was North Korea, where Dear Leader is always referred to as Dear Leader, even though his people are starving, and is acclaimed as a poet, a fashion icon, a dietician, a…. You get my point.

I’m not suggesting any editors or agents are the equivalent of Kim Jon Il, of course, (Oh, please, when is the last time your agent or editor could slam you in jail! I’m not that stupid.)

What I’m suggesting is that publishing as it existed had certain similarities to a totalitarian regime. We knew, or learned very quickly, that if you made the wrong move, you could be shut out of publishing forever no matter how talented. More importantly, we knew that how well we did in the marketplace had less to do with what we put between the covers of the book than how the book was packaged, marketed and pushed, all things over which the writer had no control whatsoever and all things over which their editor (and after the change in model to have the agent be the only way to access the editor, the agent – which makes me wonder for those who are older in the field than I am, if the way agents were treated changed) had power. It became a matter of “upset the agent and your book might never sell to an editorial house or might sell for a low advance and as ‘disposable’ which is, of course, how the editor will regard it too.” Or “upset the editor, and your book will print a thousand copies and be instantly remaindered.” Even worse “Don’t make yourself special to the agent/editor and your book will languish uncared for.”

So… is it any surprise that editors and agents alike got the “dear leader” and the “brilliant aesthetician” “masterful business person” treatment? Hell, most writers I know didn’t say anything else, even to themselves in the quiet of their own heads because they didn’t want to admit to any discrepancy.

This is called Preference Falsification and it explains why once a revolution tips over into “likely to succeed” things change so fast and people will seem to become turncoats wholesale. Because most of them had been lying in public and private and often in their own heads about what they would prefer.

I’d say the epublishing revolution has JUST entered that phase. Even a year ago, I sat on a panel next to a writer heartily defending his poor publisher, who couldn’t survive on $5 an ebook, because it cost far more than that to produce and who would be, against their will, forced to fire him if his hardcover sales didn’t pick up, even though he was selling a lot of ebooks. He was begging people not to buy ebooks. He was full of empathy and defenses of his publisher, and at the time, since I already knew a) how much it costs to produce an ebook b) that more than likely his publisher was making a lot of money off his e-sales, this nauseated me a little and like the Passive Guy I thought “is this Stockholm syndrome? Why?”

Well, because we’re hierarchical by nature and when the hierarchy is not based in meritocracy but on fawning and submission to the leader, regardless of what the leader does, this system results.

So why would the publishing hierarchy react rationally to what’s happening? For years they’ve been making huge errors and were still called brilliant and wonderful. For years, they cut themselves off from the feedback of the market but had authors (and at conventions “fans” who were wanna be authors) tell them how exquisitely correct they were in holding back or pushing the books they did. And now suddenly people are telling them they were wrong? They made mistakes? Suddenly, the levers of power and money they used don’t work? HOW can that be possible?

They’re frozen in error, behind the wheel which just came off in their hands, with the brake pedal and gas dead and the gear shift not responding. Of course they are reacting badly and making bad decisions. People in shock often do.

Meanwhile writers are jumping out the windows (and some from the trunk) to save themselves and not a few are finding more efficient conveyance.

Just like the sick fawning should have told us there was something wrong with the system, the bizarre, lurching decisions of the hierarchy of publishing should tell us they’re in shock and not reacting rationally.

“If ponies rode men and grass ate the cows” “If writers fired their editors and published themselves”

Just What Tune was in the Air when
The World Turned Upside Down?


7 thoughts on “The Publishing World Turned Upside Down

  1. One of the problems with the “you too can publish” situation is that, as a reader, you too can read slush. How does one sort out the simply literate (never mind “quality”) from the vast majority of stuff that crosses a typical first reader’s desk. (I worked as one for a while and let me tell you….)?

    With epublishing still in its relative infancy the problem is perhaps small now but it will grow as more people “discover” it. How do we prevent the Kindle store (for instance) looking like my first reader inbox? How does the average reader sort out what they want to read from the deluge of slush.

    It may be different for authors who already have published works in the double digits, who are “known” names with an established readership, but for a beginner who only has the words on the page/screen to differentiate him or her from the flood of others who have different arrangements of words on their pages/screens–some barely literate (if that), some entertaining reads, and a precious few that are “wow”?

    No answers here, just questions.

    1. Oh, and I’ve found myself envying unknowns. Because right now… well… we don’t know what we know. How much of my public is my public, and how much is Baen? How many people will hold it against me that I’m traditionally published? How do I get them to take my non-traditional books seriously and not think these are the ones I couldn’t sell? Etc.

      The only thing I can advise is to do what I’m doing. I’m starting by pretending I have NO public. And then starting trying to get my name out there as “writes good stuff to read.” It’s word of mouth. It takes time. But I do think my stories are good enough to find a public. If they aren’t, then I’ll do something else. Crochet curtains or something.

      1. Sarah, when I go looking for a book, oh, let’s say I’m looking for a good Heroic Fantasy (I like heroic fantasy but good stuff–meaning stuff I enjoy about people I’d like if I met them in real life where the challenges are enough to keep me rapt but not so great as to set off my rather idiosyncratic “squick” factors and so on–can be hard to find). There might be a half dozen or so on the shelves that I’m not already familiar with and pulling that out of a shelf full of science fiction and fantasy is enough of a challenge. But how many manuscripts get submitted for every one that turns up on those shelves? If a significant percentage of those go the self-publishing route then my problem in _finding_ that “good Heroic Fantasy” for this week has become a hundred times harder. Yes, the publishers “miss” good work in their selection process and let some utter dreck through but I can assure you that the ratio of “good” to “dreck” that makes the publishing cut is at least two orders of magnitude better than the ratio coming in via the slushpile.

        Up until now, publishers have performed two services: making books accessible, and acting as a filter to at least weed out the worst of what gets submitted. With POD, self-publishing, and especially e-publishing the first function has become largely superfluous but that also means that their ability in the latter function (far from perfect even in the best of times, and some of their business models in that vein have been nuts from my perspective) is greatly reduced. That doesn’t reduce the need for that second function to be provided by _someone_, even if not by the publishers. Who that someone might be, I think, is still an open question.

        In your “embarrassment of riches” blog entry you said that as a reader you didn’t look at who published a book. Neither do I for the most part (I buy a lot of Baen books, but a large part of that is that they make it easy to buy lots of books, cheaply, that I could put on my old PDA or on my iPod Touch now–I like the idea of being able to carry a large chunk of my library anywhere I go). Still, the fact that the book was on the shelves meant that it had been professionally published and that the worst 90% had been screened out before it was published. (Another 9% or so was also screened out but that may or may not have been “worse” than what was actually published.)

        I do think somebody needs to perform that “screening function” (I believe the “term of art” is “Gatekeeper”). I, as a reader, need help to get through that thousand Eye of Argon’s to get to the one “The Oathbound”. Maybe reviewers can serve that function but at present I don’t see reviewers going through enough books to make a dent in that pile and I don’t see a business model to pay them to do it.

        I’m not disagreeing in the long run with self-publishing and e-publishing as being “the wave of the future” but I also foresee some pretty serious teething problems in the transition. You can pretend you don’t have a readership all you want but the simple fact that “Sarah Hoyt” as the byline is going to draw a lot more people than “David L. Burkhead” (Who?). To start “word of mouth” somebody has to read the book in order to tell someone else. And a book by Sarah Hoyt is going to have a lot more initial vectors to start that word of mouth than will David L. Burkhead (Who?). And since not everybody who reads the book will enjoy it, and since not everyone who reads the book and enjoys it will take the time to tell others, and since not everybody who is told how great it is will buy it themselves, the more initial vectors one has the better chance of a word of mouth that doesn’t fizzle into nothing for reasons that have nothing to do with how good the book itself is.

        Whew, this is getting long (getting?). Let me be clear about one thing. Although I used myself as an example above I’m not complaining “it’s not fair!” I’m an unrepentant capitalist. But the idea that good product will always find its market in a “free market” is a myth. Good product has better chances, all other things being equal (but when are all other things equal?), but there are no guarantees. I am simply pointing out that a business model that can be attractive for people who _do_ have a following, who have people who will at least give the work a look because of the author’s name on the cover, or who have the resources (which need not necessarily be financial) to provide the “push” that pubishers can do for favored authors, can be more . . . intimidating to folk who aren’t in that position. But then again if it were easy everybody could play. 😉

        But, like I said, no answers, just questions.

  2. My husband and I just got home from the book store and just had a version of this conversation — not the part about why bad decisions don’t get feed back but about ebooks and hardcovers and publishers mistakes. We stopped into B&N and I had my Nook so a browsed a bit and noticed (again) that someone thinks $12.99 is a reasonable price for an ebook. It’s not. And then on the way home I was talking about how the idea was to force hardcover sales because hardcover sales get books on lists. This was a problem before ebooks even existed. It might be my imagination but it seems to me that I remember when science fiction wasn’t published in hardcover except for rare exceptions. It was pulp fiction and it was published in pulp! And then it seemed like you’d wait for the next book from your favorite author and it would be a $24 or $27 hardcover you couldn’t afford. And maybe you bought it anyway, but maybe you gritted your teeth and just waited for the paperback for another six months. And the whole time you waited, you understood that the book was delivered, typeset and in the possession of the publisher who refused to sell it to you.

    I’m buying more books now than I have for a very long time. I even buy some paper. But what is very clear is that there are more books than I could ever possibly read that I’d like to read, particularly with back-lists available so easily. I can choose on the basis of the price between them, and I do.

    And when I see an ebook for $12.99 my gut reaction is an understanding that this book exists, is delivered and typeset, and the publisher does not want to sell it to me. And I still can not think of a bunch of electrons as a secure purchase. It’s ephemeral, a bit. Sure, Baen and B&N have my info on file and I can re-download anything I bought before, but how is Borders handling that?

  3. I’m giving away my novel for free on the net ( and trying to get the word out is the hardest bit. It’s been professionally edited and work-shopped and has had some respected people say good things about it.

    As far as I can tell it’s been downloaded about 50 times since May, which probably isn’t all that bad considering, but unless word of mouth kicks in it won’t mean much at all. Most people don’t review self published stuff so the quality doesn’t even factor into it in that instance.

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