The inmates are running the asylum

Kate Paulk

So I’m not Sarah, or Dave, and I don’t have oodles of experience with the industry. What I do have is an outsider’s view. My mainstream credits consist of a handful of short stories in anthologies and semi-regular contributions to the Valdemar anthologies. Big time, there.

Now, while I might get kind of ranty here, I’m not actually bitter. From what I’ve seen from Sarah, Dave and others who deal a lot with the US publishing industry (the UK one is a different beastie with its own issues), I’m actually bloody lucky I never got past the gatekeepers. They wouldn’t know what to do with me.

See, marketing decisions are based on “what book is your book like?” – much the same as movies are being made based on “what movie is your movie like?”. The effect is that the marketing folks wouldn’t know a clue if it bit them when it comes to anything that doesn’t fit any established pattern. You write a Hamilton pastiche, they know exactly where to slot you. You write something like…. oh, the Knights in Tarnished Armor, which isn’t just a bizarre take on the fairytale kingdom theme, it’s one that’s done as an epistolatory piece, at best you’re getting “I loved it but how would I sell it?” More likely the response is going to be more along the lines of “WTF?”

Something like Impaler would – at best – have been tagged onto the sparkly/angsty/non-vampiric vampire bandwagon (It’s about Dracula! Of course it’s a vampire book!). Instead, no-one it went to had the least idea what to do with it.

Part of what I see happening is that – as always happens in a bureaucracy of any size – the accountants and the marketers are running the show. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a commodity model, where one widget of brand X is the same as any other widget of brand X, and there’s a clear distinction in quality and expected use between the different widget types that brand X sells. That kind of model is what the accountancy types and the marketing types are trained in. Many of the poor things have no idea that there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t fit their nice little models.

You see, models make a good thumbnail view of how something works. Sometimes if they’re good enough they’ll let you predict a few things, within certain limits. A model that’s based on, say, car parts, is going to fail badly when it’s applied to books. Or music. Or art work.

Worse, bureaucracies ossify. The longer something’s been around, the more likely things are happening because they’ve always been done this way. Unless an organization constantly reinvents itself, it gets to the point where the only way it can do anything is through the time-worn channels of institutional inertia.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

The mainstream publishers in the US are part of large corporations, most of them have been around under one name or another for a long time, and their accountants and marketing people are mostly commodity-based modelers. Heck, it’s bloody difficult to find anyone who’ll look at a service-based industry and not see the people working there as the commodities (and interchangeable at that). Follow the dots along the path of least resistance and you’ve got the current system where they’re desperately trying to do what they’ve always done only harder and nastier (with precious few exceptions, the authors got screwed all the time. They just didn’t get screwed as badly or as often), and they can’t see why it’s not working because they don’t have the mental equipment to look outside the way it’s always been done. Those that do see the problems are mostly shutting up and holding on because a job is a job and food doesn’t pay for itself. In better times, they’d be jumping ship (not even crazy people jump from a ship into a lake of fire. Well… This crazy person excepted. I’d be figuring there’s water under that lake and if I can hold my breath long enough to get to shore I’m set. Metaphorically speaking, anyway).

And of course, the definition of crazy – one of them, anyway – is repeating the same actions while expecting different results (unless you test software, in which case different results from the same actions are very much on the cards).

So… what does this newbie author do? Well, I’m working with Naked Reader to publish as much of my stuff as they’ll take. They’re small, flexible, and they’re not into eternal slavery contract clauses. I fully expect the mainstream industry to collapse in a messy fashion somewhere in the next 2 years. I also expect that the publishers who emerge on top will be today’s small and indie publishers – so long as they can manage not to be swept away by the Spaceballs Super Sucker of Change (yeah, okay, they called it megamaid or something. It was still a super-sucker).

For those who are invested in the mainstream publishing industry, it’s not really an insult to call them dinosaurs. It’s a fact of large, entrenched corporations. The bigger they are, the longer it takes for the signals of excrement contacting rotating blades to travel from the extremities to the alleged brain (okay, not many CEOs can be considered the “brain”, but they are the decision-making bit). By then, the whole thing has usually been diluted so much it’s gone from “Oh shit” to “There might be some slight inconvenience”, kind of like Chinese Whispers played with a requirement that the message get more polite with each repetition.

Me? If I sell well enough to attract the attention of the mainstream dinosaurs, I’m selling well enough I don’t need their services. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I have my middle finger ready just in case.


  1. I’m not sure I’d call the people currently in charge of publishing insane. Rigid, not well aquainted with this part of their empire, out of their depths and adjusting poorly to the new world of the internet, yeah.

    But I understand that in publishing as a whole, it’s textbooks that bring in the big bucks. And perhaps those sell more like widgets.

    The lowest level of management, the editors that actually choose which manuscripts to buy and decide on the size of print run and push . . . I expect they’re stuck between a rock and unemployment and their decisions are not the best for either the company or the writer. Nor, in mass, are they helping the industry. From the Mega corp through the writer, printer, distributor, book store, and reader _no one_ seems to be doing any better.

    I am tempted to use the term “stupid”, but perhaps “blind” would work better.

    1. Pam,

      What I’m seeing is an entire structure so dysfunctional that only insanity can properly convey how bad it is.

  2. Hmm. Actually, Kate I think the first 50% of the fiction business will go very fast (or has already gone). The next 50% – which includes fairly distinct niche (which yes they know how to market) work, won’t go nearly as fast. I’m willing to bet in certain area – romance for one – it’s not going to die, and in ten years time will be around. Whether large general publishers can survive (and change to cope) with the major bloodletting that has to happen (to lose their legacy costs) is a more difficult question. But, like many a business in transition, the old still commands most of their attention and makes most of their money. And because that has very different needs, they’re mismanaging getting into the new.

    If you sold enough books to garner their interest, I would not ignore them, but:1)Hire an IP lawyer (like passive guy) and 2)sell paper rights for whatever, but e-rights would have be over 50% of gross. Just my opinion.

    1. Um… Passive Guy was talking about an important “break point” we’re not taking into account. How MANY books do you have to print in paper to make money.

      If Barnes and Knobble goes the way of Borders (which is highly possible) all hell breaks loose.

      BTW romance is now growing ONLY in ebooks, and in particular weird niches the trads do not command. So… uh… um…

      I don’t know guys. I keep telling myself trad is still absolutely worth it, but I’m getting serious jeebies at the idea of sending anything I’m attached to to them. Dean Smith says we can’t tell who’ll survive (true) or which books will get tied up in lawsuits (true) for how long (very true) and I’m of a nervous disposition.

      1. So what can an author do?
        Take a real close look at the contracts. Both the old ones and the new. Then stay far far away from anything that will lock you down in case of a bankruptcy or worse: buy out. Non competes but also selling all rights to a particular idea seem to be biggest problems right at the moment.
        So yeah, an IP lawyer seems to be the thing to invest in these days.

      2. Sarah,

        Ebooks are the growing market. That may or may not be the case in a few years time – but what will be the case is that whoever and whatever survives best will be the most nimble of the various entities in the game. The established houses for the most part belong to a structure that is anything but nimble.

      3. Chasm,

        In the absence of an accurate crystal ball, probably the best thing an author can do is spread their bets wide – have some indy, some small press, and whatever legacy they have. Apart from that, the IP lawyer and virtual appendages crossed is probably the only choice.

      4. @Kate

        Yes, that stupid crystal ball is still in the dishwasher. 😉

        Hedging your bets by spreading your work more or less all over the place is an important part. Multiple, not connected houses, self publishing, definitely multiple genres – maybe even non fiction, a side job as speaker on events… Whatever works. =)

        The biggest threat to this I’ve seen so far are the overarching non compete clauses as shown by Passive Guy according to which the author can’t write, speak or thing *anything* without breaking the contract.
        You can get rid of such bad contracts but it will take time and money.

    2. Dave,

      I don’t know what the end-point will look like. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to look like things are now – or like they have been. There will be publishing houses falling and dying. It’s quite possible that paperback will go the way of the cassette recording, and hardcover will be for prestige items only. Alternatively, there could be a revival from cheap, decent quality print-on-demand arrangements.

      I just don’t think that the leaders in a few years will be the same as the leaders now.

  3. One of the things that always seemed arse about about the way books are bought is the way the Marketing Dept seems to have just as much say, if not more, than the acquiring editor.

    In my universe you give marketing a product to sell, not ask them prior to development if it is a product they can sell. If they can’t sell your books they need to be shown the door and you get people who can do the job.

    1. Brendan,

      Amen to that. Marketing should not be dictating terms. Neither should the accountants. The marketers sell the product once it exists, and the accountants make sure that expenses are lower than income (oversimplified, but the guts of it).

      Of course, this presumes a nodding acquaintance with real life on the part of all concerned, and that, sadly, doesn’t appear to exist.

  4. In my experience people tend to see change negatively and always highlight what they see as the negative aspects. But I see a lot of positive aspects to the changes taking place as a result of the advent of ebooks for both writers and readers.

    As Dave says the market for traditionally published paper books isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Lots of people (perhaps the majority of readers for some genres) don’t want to bother with ebooks or ereaders. My wife and her friends for example are in the habit of picking up a discounted paperback or two that take their fancy on the shelf in the local supermarket while they are doing the weekly shopping. They share them then donate them to one of the local charity shops to sell secondhand. They aren’t going to change. So I think there is going to continue to be that demand for traditional publishing for many years yet. And that market will be there for writer who don’t want to change.

    By contrast I’m wholly converted to ebooks because they have brought me so many advantages as a reader. I now have access to so many more books and authors via the internet than I ever had before. Many are authors who might not have been published on paper. Many are authors I would never have heard of. And ebooks have helped to break the stranglehold the major publishers had on pricing, so I can afford to buy more books and equally important I can afford to take a chance on new authors and authors I’ve never heard of. If I was being asked to pay 7or 8 pounds for a paperback by an author like Amanda Green who I’d never hear of before I probably wouldn’t bother, but at $2.99 (£2 in real money) I took a chance. (And if you’re reading this Amanda I really enjoyed it and will be buying your next one).

    And the advent of ebooks has also opened up the possibilities for authors by overcoming the constraints imposed by the number of publishing slots the traditional publishers have available and the seemingly arbitrary way they decided what to publish and what to reject. Ebooks and digital publishing have opened up the possibility for many more writers to make their books available and to have a career as an author, and possibly make a living as a full time writer. Those are really positive things that I think more than outweigh the negative aspects of change.


    1. In my experience this is only half right. Some people (probably a majority) tend to see change in a negative light and downplay the benefits. Other people tend to see it in a positive light and downplay the drawbacks and problems.

      Truth, however, is usually somewhere in the middle.

      1. David,

        As my reply to Melvyn suggests, you missed what’s probably the biggest group of all – the people who are comfortable enough with the way things are that even if they like the look of the change they’re seeing don’t particularly want to do anything with it – yet.

      2. Kate,
        There is that but I wouldn’t say I “missed” it so much as didn’t emphasize that the two sets I did list are not between them exhaustive.

        I am, however, dubious about the “it’s good but not worth changing yet” crowd likely being the biggest. That just doesn’t match with my experience.

        Kind of reminds me of the quote from my sig file: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” Anatole France

    2. Melvyn,

      There’s a difference between being averse to change and inertia – I’d guess that most of what you’re seeing relates to inertia rather than change-averse. Also, the UK (I presume you’re UK-based, with the reference to pounds as real money) market doesn’t have the same dynamics as the US market. I don’t know enough about it to say more than that, so I’ll leave off with a simple, welcome to the Mad Geniuses.

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